Lidya Belete

So, you want to teach English in Thailand?

First impressions of a novice


A couple of months into teaching at a school in Pattaya, I think I've learned a thing or two about living and teaching in Thailand. I know there are people who have been doing this for a lot longer than I, but what I've learned from talking to those who have been a teacher here for a long time is that they're slightly jaded by experience.

They're so used to the peculiarities of this life that they don't even see them as peculiarities anymore. In my humble opinion, while the sage advice of the old timer is necessary and important, so are the first impressions of a novice.
Here's what I've learned so far:

1. Yes, Thailand is the land of smiles. But it's best if you know that not every smile is a happy smile, and not every smile is given freely. Don't mistake someone's smile to mean that they like you.

Friendships take time

2. Most of the Thai teachers and administrators are used to westerners coming to Thailand to teach, and then leaving within a few weeks without notice. So, it can take them a long time for your colleagues to warm up to you. Being a new person in a new country, the last thing you want is for the locals at your workplace to be cold and inviting towards you, but that will happen. They want to see that you're going to stick around before they make an effort to get to know you.

3. The majority of the English teachers you're going to be working with aren't actual, trained teachers. They're given this job by virtue of being native speakers of the most desired language in the world, and having a four year degree in some field.

Don't wing it

4. That doesn't mean that you should take teaching less seriously. Take the time it takes to prepare real, meaningful lessons, and pay attention to your students. It will be easy for you to get a job. Trust me, just apply and you'll be hired before you know it. But that doesn't mean you should treat the job as easily as it came. Keep in mind that in most situations, the parents of your students are scraping together their hard-earned money to put their child in your classroom. Take that as seriously as it is, and give those kids your best efforts.

5. You will come into contact with a lot of western pensioners (often old white men) who have moved to Thailand for the other "perks" and are just teaching because 1) It's an easy job to get, and 2) It affords them a chance to stay in the country. Do your best not to adopt their viewpoint of Thailand and Thai people. That being said, please don't cheat yourself of meeting some cool people because you imagine that they're too old. Get to know these people, hear their stories, and learn from their experiences.

Misleading job descriptions

6. Most of the job postings will list that you'll be expected to work 24 hours a week. That's misleading, and should be labeled as "24 hours of teaching." You'll work a full 40 hours, or more. The time when you're not teaching is spent in lesson planning and the other endless work that involves teaching. My days starts at 7:50, and ends at 4PM. The first part of the morning is spent at the gate, greeting your students as they arrive for the day. Then it's off to the flag ceremony, which marks the official start of the school day.

From then, I teach nonstop until lunchtime, then get ready to say goodbye to my students as they leave, often making myself available for questions from parents. Once the majority of the kids have left by 2PM, I'm off to teach my extra class. This goes on until 4PM, when I can pack up my stuff and head back home. Because I don't have it in my budget to rent a motorbike or take a taxi, I'm either hitching a ride with a friend, on the bus, or walking in the blistering afternoon heat. This is a typical day in my life as an English teacher in Thailand.

7. Learn as many Thai phrases as possible. Yes, the schools will hire you not knowing a single word of Thai because you'll offer the students the most immersive English education if you can't speak any Thai, but it's just not realistic to think you can live in a country and not make any effort to learn its language. The people will appreciate you for trying, and will be more than happy to help you learn as much as possible. Some of my favorite moments have been spent relaxing on the beach exchanging Thai and English words with a local. Very little conversation is happening, but we're two humans trying to understand each other. I find that to be a beautiful thing.

8. No matter how open-minded you think you are, open your mind even more. Believe me, this country will demand it of you.

Don't be a snitch

9. Most of western culture promotes a type of comradery among workers, so "telling" on your colleagues is frowned upon at best. However, Thai teachers often report to the boss about someone else's bad behavior (or what they deem to be bad behavior), and it's seen as a good quality in a person. So, if you ever think about sneaking off for a break and imagine your Thai partner will keep your secret, you've got another thing coming. Just remember that they're not only there to help the children and to facilitate learning, they're also there to spy on you and report back whatever needs to be told.

10. Lastly, remember that you are here to WORK, not to vacation. Don't treat your job like some summer vacation gig. This goes back to my earlier point about what most families are sacrificing to give their child an English education.

But it's also just good policy for your fellow teachers and for the school where you work. If you don't show up to school because you don't feel like it, someone else will have to cover for your class. Take it seriously, and show up every day. Even if you hate the administration of your school (and believe me, I know how that feels), remember that your students are counting on you. Don't let them down.

In the end, had I known then what I know now, I can't say that I'd have taken this job right away. I came to Thailand not to work this hard for such little in return, but to travel around the country and experience the culture. If that is why you're considering teaching here, please give yourself at least a month to travel BEFORE you take a job or start a TEFL course.

With the amount of work that the school will demand of you, there just isn't any time for traveling. I make the occasional weekend trip to Bangkok, but that's about it. I wish I had known what I know now, and put off my start until after I'd gotten around the country a little bit.

Other than that, Thailand is an amazing place full of some of the most interesting people I've ever met. I was the most clueless typical tourist when I first got here, and the kindness of the Thai people around me is what has gotten me through a lot. It's a rich experience, and I hope you make it here soon.

Want to read more of my stuff? Check out my personal blog site.




Comments

I got a message in my email that someone commented on this post. I'm really kind of shocked that they left this bigoted post up here. It doesn't say much for the integrity of the people who run ajarn.

By Robert Noftz, Chiang Mai (11th June 2015)

Jack that job in girl. Get a visiting professor post at a Thai
University.

6 lectures a week . 30 weeks a year. Except 2015 where summer holiday extends from February to August. (Yes 7 months paid holiday)

By Gee, Phuket (11th June 2015)

Neil, I understand the skepticism. I've lived in Thailand twice, for over a year each, and there is a lot of validity to her insights. So while she hadn't been living there long at time of writing, she should not be entirely discredited.

There is a lot about living in Thailand that forces one to learn and adapt quickly.

By Chris, AZ (12th January 2015)

A stated two months, TWO MONTHS! experience, and you are giving out advice? You have not even passed the first hurdle (the first semester break) and you think people might benefit from your 'experience'?

I would urge anyone to disregard the 'teachings' of one so inexperienced and learn from those who have at least succeeded to the point of being asked to stay longer.

By Neil, UK (11th January 2015)

What kind of views do those old white men have about Thais? You know, the views that should be avoided. Maybe an enlightened woman of color like yourself could help us. What kind of attitudes do those old white men have that we should avoid. I'm sure that you have learned a lot in these last few months. Maybe we could benefit from your extensive experience.

By Robert, Chiang Mai (29th November 2014)

Thanks for the blog. As someone said here, Pattaya is not exactly a good example of Thais or foreigners. I am 60 and have been teaching in a small town far north of Chiang Mai for three years and it the best thing I have ever done. I have seen the burned out teachers and I have seen the good teachers. Few come here with any real knowledge of what they are up against so it is difficult to judge those who just don't like it here.
I have no curriculum, my boss gives me zero direction leaving me with a clean pallet to do what I want. I have had my failures and successes and learned from each.
My students are a mix of rich, poor and in between. Some know how to work and others know how to play. When you are a teacher, no matter what is going on outside the classroom, you walk in and it is up to you how to work with whomever is sitting in front of you.
Don't worry about what others think. As Buddha teaches, we are all here alone so make the best of whatever you do.

By Roy, Thailand (26th November 2014)

No excuses for those old white men. How dare they let them any where near a classroom--their strange ways, and OMG their 'opinions.' Sorry, but I teach, and I'm one of them. The biggest complainers, and those with absolutely zero awareness of Thailand, other than (surprisingly) all things Farang are Newbie teachers. Ho Hum, agism exists, and even foreigners practice it. Yawn!

By Chris, Chiang Mai (26th November 2014)

There are many points to be contested in your post, as well as a few I would have to agree on.

First of all whereby some teachers do leave without notice, you must do these teachers some justice by giving weighted and balanced reasons why.

Some are backpackers who just want money and girls and the life of a drifter, but some, like me, just get a little tired of being crapped upon from a great height and it is the school that forces teachers out.

Second is your romantic notion of poor parents scraping and saving for a child's education. This applies to some positions in some schools, the international schools for example are mostly loaded with brats spawned from rich families who tie in to my next point.

Before I make it however, if you want to get into education, lets start with Buddhism and the fact kids here are taught monsters and demons as fact, and taught that the Lord Buddha could walk when he was born.

So tread easy when you talk about kids receiving a 'real education' when this education involves them being indoctrinated into mythology, legend and superstition (Taught as fact)

Moving on to my third point, when you talk about what education is, I have worked in a school here, where I would be complained about for giving too much homework (50 word assignments for grade 4 [yes that's 50, not 150, FIFTY]) and when I didn't set any homework that wouldn't have been worth marking I was complained about because the kids didn't get any.

Most kids are sent to school to attend, in the end receiving a certificate calling them international graduates, a huge percentage of which don't give a crap about learning, and even those who do want to learn are drown out by the riff raff.

Of these kids who manage to retain something go home to families that neither nurture nor tolerate the practice and promotion of English in the home, and thus the only practice comes at school or online mediums (Gaming/ chat, YouTube)

We should as teachers make effort for the benefit of the kids learning, but Thai schools generally take a half baked wannabe Spartan approach to the 'we do not appreciate the farang way of doing things' and reject us trying to educate kids on certain matters. On top of this we must notice the factors that put two rocks onto the kids load, for every one we take off.

(If anyone doesn't understand that, I mean they make it harder for kids to learn as we try to make it easier.)

I find something sinister about your remarks regarding 'open mindedness' and accepting new ideas, followed by it is 'demanded' of you. There are a lot of things here that are demanded of me that I do not conform to, because they violate the very mutual respect that they beg of the outsider. But that's a tale for another time.

There's a lot I could say but I think your post should state the obvious here.

Thailand is a nice place to live if you want cheap and relaxed, but teaching employment here revolves around the business of monetary exchange with only the name of the school and a few books, and a few lost and out of place 'real' teachers as a sorry excuse for 'education'.

By Mr X, Bangkok, Thailand (25th November 2014)

You mad some good points but my only suggestion is try to experience teaching at a small town in Thailand in order to get the real Thai experience. As Pattaya generally speaking is not the real Thai experience but an adult Disneyland! As places like Pattaya are like another world compared to the many small towns of Thailand. Also in the smaller towns you will not find as many jaded fellow NES teachers or ones who are just there for the "perks".

By Thomas, Thailand (22nd November 2014)

Chris, thank you for reading and for your kind words! I agree, my Thailand experience has not been what I expected it to be, but it's been very educational.

By Lidiya, Pattaya (22nd November 2014)

Very new to the country, and already grinding on the smiling, coworkers, old white men and lack of money in being a TESLer. Yet Thailand is, "an amazing place." A little DID, much like Thailand itself. Perhaps unwittingly it ends up being a good read.

By Urbanman, Near an aircon (21st November 2014)

Well, the post started out well... the impressions of a newbie teacher can be a refreshing and a humorous distraction. That's what I was looking forward to reading.

But this essay quickly morphed into a set of high and mighty instructions which are rather condescending, insulting and naive.

For someone who has got a horrible job working 40 hours and doing endless duties that most of us wouldn't let a dog perform, she's got a bit of a cheek handing out generic advice about working in Thailand.

Still, it takes all sorts and I wish her the best of luck.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (21st November 2014)

Lidya, thank you for taking the time to write this. I spent a while in Thailand and came to the same realizations. It was not what I expected it to be, but turned out to be the best decision I've ever made with my life. I respect the way you approach your opportunity and situation, and every single thing you mention rings true. I hope many prospective teachers see this before taking that leap.

By Chris G., Arizona, USA (21st November 2014)

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