What are some of the most common mistakes that new arrivals make when they come to teach in Thailand? Actually, not just the newbies - even those who have been here a while. Here's a list of at least 20. I'm sure you could add a lot more.
Organising a job before you arrive
You just knew I'd put this one at the top of the list didn't you? So many teachers are disappointed to find out that a job they were offered when they were sitting comfortably back in America (or wherever) has turned out to be nothing like the picture that was painted.
Perhaps the accommodation isn't what they expected. Maybe the school that was advertised as ‘on the outskirts of the city' is actually twenty kilometers away.
Nothing - and I mean absolutely nothing - beats looking for a job in Thailand when you are here on the ground and you can see things for yourself. OK, I know it's human nature to want the security of a guaranteed teaching position waiting for you when you land. But that doesn't automatically mean it's a good idea.
Why have you been hired?
No, seriously. Why has the school employed you? Your answer might be an incredulous 'well, to teach English of course' - but you might well be wrong.
Have you really been hired to make a difference to the education of your students or have you been hired simply to show up in class and fill a quota?
Are you there just to please the fee-paying parents and let them know that the school has a foreign teacher? (in other words you are there purely for show)
Are you being expected to re-write an entire syllabus because no one else has the ability to do it? Are you being expected to draw all the rabbits out of your own hat?
Don't always tell yourself that you've been hired to do a great job as a teacher because it's not always the case. Knowing the real reason could save you a lot of grief and maybe even your job or sanity!
Dating students who are still studying at the school
Adult students fall in love with adult teachers and vice versa. Let's not pretend it doesn't happen because it does. I'm happily married to one of my ex-students and so are countless other teachers.
If your student is no longer studying at the school, then you are free to do as you please but date a student who is still in your class and trouble is never going to be far away. There are numerous legendary stories of teachers (especially male teachers) dating and dumping students, only to find Hell hath no fury like a Thai female scorned.
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I've heard of teary-eyed students standing up in the middle of class, pointing a finger in the teacher's direction and telling the cheating love rat - as well as the rest of the class - what they've got planned. It often involves a pair of rusty garden shears. The stories might well be urban myth but please - don't take any chances.
I worked for a private language school years ago who put the following clause in teacher contracts (and I can remember it word for word) "If you find yourself falling in love with a student, please let us know, and we will do our best to find you alternative employment".
It was another way of saying "mess about with the students and your ass is grass"
Looking for the cheapest apartment possible
Two words - false economy. Sure, paying 3,000 baht a month for an apartment will leave you with plenty of disposable income but after you've endured a month of screaming babies, police raids, hoodlums fighting in the car-park and a whole list of social problems caused by low-income earners living five to a room, you'll be spending more and more time on outside entertainment to escape all the chaos. And that always costs money.
Take my advice - rent the best possible apartment you can afford. Take a look at the ajarn guide to renting an apartment for more info.
Adopting a casual attitude to interviews
It might be an interview for a teaching job and it might not be the greatest job in the world, but it's still an interview. It's still two professional people sitting down together and discussing matters in a professional environment.
No one's asking you to wear the navy three piece suit with the gold pocket watch but the employer does want you to walk in the door and be the answer to all their prayers.
Be on time. Have all your documentation in a nice folder. Dress smartly. At the end of the day, an interview is still an interview. Treat the meeting with respect - even if you have a dozen other offers in the pipeline.
Not learning how to apply for jobs by e-mail
So many job-hunters need serious guidance when it comes to applying for a job by e-mail. They will send 10MB of attachments that the employer didn't even ask for. The e-mail is often cc'd to twenty other employers. E-mails are often sent without cover letter so how do employers know which job you are applying for?
Never assume that you know everything when it comes to creating a good impression when you are applying for jobs by e-mail. Most jobseekers could do with a refresher course.
Need more info? Teacher recruiter Chris has put some great ideas and advice in this ajarn article.
Relying too much on e-mail communication for your job search
There probably isn't a business day that goes by when I don't have to contact a school or employer to tell them to empty or sort out their Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo accounts because their inbox quota has been exceeded - or tell them to check their spam folder to find some past communication.
I'm constantly amazed by the number of employers who never make regular checks of their spam folder.
In short, Thailand's employers have earned themselves a rather poor reputation when it comes to communicating with teachers by e-mail - and I would certainly agree with that.
Don't limit your job hunt to e-mails only! Make phone calls and knock on doors because nothing will ever beat that direct approach.
Many a new teacher has become worn out by frustration when employers continually fail to respond to their e-mails. Don't be one of them!
Not checking out a school before starting work there
This one always baffles me. Come on - we've all had interviews in our own countries where the employer or interviewer has said "let me show you around the place".
It's all part of the interview procedure. You want to get a feel for the place you'll be spending a third of your life in and get an idea of the colleagues you'll be working with. You might even be lucky enough to chat to a few of them.
You want to garner first hand how the place is run and most importantly, whether you will be a good fit.
So why do we constantly hear about unhappy teachers who agree to start a job, sign a contract and then don't set eyes on the school until the agent takes them there on the first morning. That's just insane!
Not charging private students in advance
Many teachers who have decided to supplement their income by offering private lessons have learned the hard way. If you don't charge private students in advance, then your ‘business' is dead in the water.
If you think Thai students won't call you up ten minutes before the lesson is scheduled to start and give you some flimsy reason why they can't make it, then think again. It's happened to all of us.
Get students to pay for ten hours in advance. Tell them that any cancellations must be made the day before the lesson. Come up with whatever system suits you best - but be sure to come up with one.
If you fancy going down the freelance teaching route, then our freelance teaching article is well worth a look.
Thinking that you are going to change the world
I don't know why but from experience, this seems to affect female teachers more than males.
I've seen many a weary soul slam the teachers room door, bury their head in their hands after a lesson and ask why none of the students seem to be progressing.
You can lead a horse to water but it won't always drink. Some students want to learn and others don't.
Accept that you aren't going to change the world. As long as you do your best and you make the effort, then no one can ask any more of you.
Planning a whole lesson based around last night's homework assignment
You probably had an extra ten minutes in bed on the strength of it. Yesterday you assigned the class some homework and today's lesson will be spent checking it. What could be simpler?
Wrong. Half of the class hasn't done it and all you can see is a sign that says ‘this way to Shit Creek'.
In the wonderful world of lesson preparation, a good teacher always has a plan B.
Not laying down the law from day one
This is about giving students a set of rules on the first day of class.
Telling them when they can use mobile phones. Telling them what you expect from them in terms of assignments, etc, etc. And it doesn't end there.
It's also about letting the school staff know that you'll work hard for them but you are not willing to be owned by them. Sometimes you'll say ‘yes' and other times you'll say ‘no'. It's all about finding a happy medium.
You don't mind giving up the occasional Saturday to help run a school sports day but you do object to being given less than 24 hours notice. So best to say 'no can do' - because you've already made plans. Lay the law down from day one. By all means be reasonable - but that doesn't mean you have to live life as a ‘yes man'.
Not saving enough money for those first few months
New arrivals often ask the question ‘how much money do I need to bring?' and the straight answer is ‘as much as possible'.
It could be several weeks until you find your dream teaching job and in that time there are apartment deposits to pay and all sorts of everyday living costs to factor in. Oh, and don't forget it could be a month on the job before you receive your first pay packet.
Landing in a foreign country with 500 dollars in your pocket might well be considered ‘living life on the edge' but it's also reckless and stupid. Want to get an idea of what things are likely to cost? It's all in the ajarn cost of living section.
Not researching Thailand's visa regulations
If there is a country with a more complex set of visa rules and regulations than Thailand, then I'm yet to hear of it.
Don't be the teacher who gets caught out at the border because you didn't understand how a particular visa works. Don't be the teacher who relies on the Thai admin staff to tell you how many days you are allowed to stay in the country on such and such a visa.
It's your passport. It's your visa. They are your responsibility.
There's a wealth of info on the internet regarding Thai visas but it's always best to go and speak to an officer at immigration than rely on Facebook opinions.
Make sure you know how the system works (as best you can) and what the particular visa you hold entitles you to.
Believing a couple of negative reviews
One of the great disadvantages of the internet is that any Tom, Dick and Harry can sign up to a discussion forum or chat board and stick the virtual boot into any institution.
But always keep in mind that bad news travels faster than good. Just because a school has received a couple of bad reviews doesn't necessarily mean it's a terrible school to work for.
OK, sometimes there's no smoke without fire, and if a school gets blasted on several different forums, then you would be wise to approach with a degree of caution, however, there are a lot of disgruntled employees with an axe to grind.
Sometimes the complaints are justified but very often they are the opinions of a person who wouldn't fit in anywhere.
Spending too much time in the company of teachers room moaners
Every teacher's room has one. Some staff rooms have several. They are the ‘resident moaner' and spend too much time in their company and their negativity is sure to rub off on you.
All Thai kids are stupid. Teaching is a job for losers. The academic director is useless. Why is my pay always late? - the list of gripes is never-ending. You're left wondering how the guy has managed to live here so long. Truth is he doesn't know the answer himself.
Distance yourself from these people and you'll enjoy your time in Thailand far more.
Not preparing lessons
Fail to prepare. Prepare to fail. Students can spot an unprepared teacher a mile off.
Don't be one those teachers who thinks it's clever to give lesson prep a wide berth and mistakenly believes they can wing it with free conversation (which rarely / never works anyway)
Doing ‘too much' research
Do I turn left or do I turn right after I go through Bangkok Airport customs? Which taxis do I need for the journey into the city - the yellow and green ones or the pink and blue ones? What happens if I take the wrong color and end up wandering around naked on a piece of wasteland in Nonthaburi?
Quit worrying and go with the flow. Thailand is a go-with-the-flow country. There's very little structure to anything. Accept the fact that you will make mistakes and that you will learn from the experiences. There's nothing at all wrong with a reasonable amount of research, but if you over-prepare, then you are putting too much pressure on yourself and setting yourself up for failures.
Thinking that the TEFL jobs advertised on the web are all that's available
I like to think that ajarn.com has the best selection of currently available TEFL positions in Thailand but it's by no means the be all and end all.
There's an old saying that the best jobs never get advertised and teaching jobs are no different.
Who knows what gems you might unearth by simply enquiring at the school admin office or making a speculative phone call? There's a school near my house that's had a ‘teachers wanted' sign hanging on the school gate for months. They've probably never heard of ajarn.com either.
Confusing a vacation with actually working here
You aren't the first person to fall in love with Thailand because you spent an amazing fortnight here - and you won't be the last.
Cocktails by the poolside, foot massages on the beach, your spending money burning hole in your back pocket and your every whim catered for. Is there a greater place on earth than Thailand in which to be pampered as a tourist?
But be warned - it's a world far removed from waiting for crowded buses in the rainy season, arguing with a landlord who won't return your rental deposit and an employer telling you he doesn't have enough money to cover this month's salaries.
When you start working here, that's when you'll discover what Thailand can be all about. Most long-term teachers will tell you that the pros far outweigh the cons. They are probably right - but recognize the fact there are plenty of downsides.
Allowing students access to your Facebook page
I know, I'll allow the students access to my Facebook page. What a great idea! What better way for them to practice their English writing and conversation skills and have fun at the same time.
Trust me - it will all end in tears. Your old pals Macca and Big Dave back in Liverpool probably had a great laugh at the photo of you and the lads mooning the photographer in the middle of a hill-tribe village. Not to mention the one of you passed out on the toilet floor at the end of last year's Christmas party. But are the students going to share your sense of humor?
Do everyone a favor and keep your private life private - and that includes Facebook.
Not learning the basic aspects of Thai culture
I watched a TV program recently featuring the world-famous TV chef Gordon Ramsey, who was travelling around SE Asia honing his culinary skills. When he got to Bangkok, he was invited to one of the most popular street-food stalls in the city so our Gordon jumps into a tuk-tuk, and what is the first thing he does? He rests his feet on the metal frame directly behind the driver's head. I could barely watch.
Familiarize yourself with at least the very basics of the Thai culture.
I've seen many a new teacher get into hot water for discussing sensitive issues in class or pushing those cultural boundaries too early in the relationship. Don't get paranoid about it - just be aware.
Panicking when a student asks what a separable phrasal verb is
Do you really need to know what a compound noun is? Do you need to know whether a certain verb is followed by the gerund or the infinitive form? The answer is ‘yes, because you are an English teacher'. English teachers know this stuff.
If you don't know your basic grammar structures now, grab a copy of the best grammar reference book you can find and read it cover to cover.
But be comforted by the fact that you will never know everything and one day, when you least expect it, the brightest student in the class will ask you a grammar question that no one could possibly answer. Now is not the time to panic. Tell the student that you are not sure of the answer but you will find out and get back to them (and make sure you do) Job done!