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.
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