Joko MacKenna

Becoming a TEFL 'lifer'

Into my third year as a teacher in Myanmar

Two years ago, I posted my first blog here on, reflecting on the experiences I'd had after my first ten months being a teacher in Thailand.

It wasn't long after that that I relocated to Yangon, Myanmar. It wasn't so much that I didn't like Thailand, instead, the opportunity in the neighboring country was too good to pass up.

Now, not only have I been in this new country for nearly two years, I've also had two more years as an ESL teacher in SE Asia.

A lot of teachers come to the region just for the experience, after a year, maybe they've had enough and are ready to go home. Maybe they're not sure. Maybe this tale of what it's like after that first year will be of benefit to those on the fence about continuing here.

It's not that hard to spend a year doing anything; multiple years feels like a commitment.

On the profession of being an ESL teacher:

Before my initial job in Thailand, I took one of those 3-week, 120 hour TEFL-on-the-beach courses which also came with an agency commitment to get me a job. Sure, I learned a lot. I got a job afterwards that paid me 35K Baht a month; okay for a teacher in Bangkok with no experience at all.

I learned quite a bit in that course, as well as during my year teaching Matayom in Khlong Thoey.

When I came to Myanmar, I got exposed to colleagues who knew and did things that I didn't know how to do. The difference between them and I was that they'd all done their CELTA whereas I just had my TEFL.

When the opportunity arose for me to get that CELTA subsidized by my employer, I jumped at it. If I was going to be doing this long term, I wanted to learn as much as I could about how to do it well. The CELTA taught me that. If you want to continue past your first year, get your CELTA.

In these last two years, I've also grown into doing things like curriculum development, attending ESL symposiums and content creation. If you go forward in teaching past that first year, you might find yourself continuing to learn, becoming more involved in the profession and starting to become somewhat of an expert at what you do. That last thing feels kinda cool.

On adapting to a new language:

One of the regrets I had leaving Thailand after that first year was that I really hadn't learned much of the language. I knew maybe 50 words of Thai, which was far less than I expected of myself going into it.

I swore the same thing wouldn't happen in Myanmar. Sure enough, after my first year here, my ability to speak Myanmar was better than my Thai at the same point a year before, but still not where I'd hoped it would be.

I'd studied. Not enough studying, apparently, as I still didn't understand much, if any, of what the locals were saying to me on a daily basis.

After two years in the country, I'm not that much better, but at least my ear has changed. Now, I can at least hear the words. I can hear the structure of the sentences I'm hearing, even if I still don't understand 90% of the words.

Many people come to a country and expect to learn the language through osmosis, through constant exposure to it and necessity. It does happen, but it takes a lot longer than you might think.

On confidence and comfort:

I've lived in Indonesia, Thailand and now Myanmar, but never for more than a couple of years.

In each country, I've run into expats who've to varying degrees 'gone native'. They'd been in country for 20, 25 or 30 years. They had deep roots and understood the culture on a visceral level, nth degrees more than anyone could gain after just a year.

In years two and three, that deep understanding begins to take root. The knowledge and familiarity that comes natural to the 'lifer' has its roots in the 2nd and 3rd year.

That said, this familiarity gives you confidence which comes in handy in day to day life.

For example, most taxi drivers here in Yangon saw me initially as an easy mark for an inflated fare. But when I come at them in very fast Myanmar language using the vernacular of taxi speak, which I can use because I'm confident in my skills in that mode of speech, they quickly lose the goal of gouging.

When it comes to things like vacation plans, I've recently done stuff that I would have been too scared to do in the first year. Over the holidays, I drove 2000+ km on a little Chinese 125cc motorbike all over Myanmar. I never would have had the courage to do that in my first year.

You might enjoy watching the videos I made from the journey. Click my (non-monetized) YouTube link at the bottom of the page and look for the vids from December and January of 2015-16.

In conclusion, what happens in year two and three of an ESL journey is up to you, but it's probably going to include getting more serious about what you do.

Your acculturation to your new country will continue. Your ear will hear the native language better. Perhaps, though, the most important development will be that once you've been here multiple years, you may become a lifer and never go home again.

I also have a YouTube page with lots more stuff about the teaching lifestyle in Myanmar


Hi Joko, for most job listings, I see "native" as a key requirement. Am a JC teacher of Burmese origins but grew up here in Singapore. Any advise on the kind of prospects there are for Burmese like me who want to return to teach English in Burma?

By Thandar, Singapore (2nd April 2016)

Given a choice of being lonely or alone, I would choose the latter.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (29th January 2016)

My wife lives in Bangkok Thailand, and I am thinking about moving there . So would teaching be a good career change ? How do I get started ?

By John, USA Georgia (29th January 2016)

When are you gonna get married, or at least have a steady woman? I worry about you growing old all alone.

By Your Mom, Home (28th January 2016)

Is Myanmar my final destination? Who knows? I've got no plans to leave in the short term, I can say that much. In fact, I just heard from my employer that I'm being sent back to Naypyitaw, Myanmar's capital, next month to teach contract classes with some of the ministries up there. I should be there at least 6 months. I don't mind. Naypyitaw is nice. When compared to Yangon, the air is cleaner, the internet is much faster, the food is better, and best of all, there's no ban on motorcycles like there is here in Yangon. I'll have wheels again!

By Joko, Yangon (25th January 2016)

"acculturation " Bloody show off!

Always a joy to hear from Joko... even if it's only three times a year!

So, is Myanmar your final destination?

By Mark Newman, Thailand (25th January 2016)

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