How can I make it in the madness?
The harsh reality of teaching in Thailand
Thailand's public education system is in trouble.
We all know it. Thai teachers know it, foreign teachers know it, the schools know it and even The Prime Minister came out recently and gave it a big thumbs down.
Everybody knows it's horrible... and yet, after all this time, attention and cash devoted to it, there's no evidence that it's going to change into anything else. It's always been this way, too. It didn't get worse... it just didn't get better!
Yet there are tens of thousands of foreigners willing to put up with horrible pay to be in a hot classroom full of tired and reluctant kids who don't give a durian about learning English.
Most people who come to Thailand use their naturally learned skills as ‘native English speakers' to get work here so they can prolong their stay. It's a brilliant scam, because no matter how crap you are at English or teaching it, if you look the part you can easily get work here.
It helps if you are under forty years old, white and even more if you are female... but anyone can get in on this gravy train. You can vacation for life using only your charm and appearance as a resources for a moderate income and a laidback lifestyle.
And who can blame anyone for doing this? The wages may be pretty abysmal, but Thailand is so cheap to live in, it hardly matters. There are loads of beaches, bars and beautiful girls (for the guys). Most Thais are very welcoming to foreigners. And the education system itself doesn't seem to give a mangosteen about who you are, how you perform and what mischief in your past you're running away from!
Best of all, nobody can tell that you're crap at your job because nobody is qualified to assess the damage you're doing! But even if they suspect that you are rubbish, most employers are just happy to have anyone show up to their appalling schools and sit in front of the students for a few hours each week.
I can do this, I really can.
But what happens, when professional holiday-makers come over here and then try to act like real teachers?
I should know the answer - I'm one of them! I've managed to take myself too seriously as a ‘teacher' here for many years. No training and no qualifications to be in a classroom. Nothing!
That doesn't mean I don't try to do it properly. I do. And it's not that hard, either. You don't have to be a doctor to be a nurse, right? Or, more accurately, you don't have to be a mechanic to inflate the tyres on your car.
But for many that come here, changing from a visitor into an expat can spell the end of a love affair with Thailand as it turns out that teachers who try their best to teach English are up against many layers of opposition. Everything is seemingly stacked up against foreign ‘teachers', be they good or bad, professional or just enthusiastic.
It would take a much longer essay to explain all of these obstacles, how they impact education and what can be done to stop the rot. What's the point, though? We all have our own ideas about what the problems are and what can be done about them. What's really important is how you react and live with the uncontrollable monsters interfering with your dream life.
Maybe I'm not as tall as I think I am!
The first thing to understand and reconcile yourself with is the miniscule impact that you are having on your students. If you aren't even trying to do a good job at work, then - congratulations - you've already avoided all this particular frustration. You can skip the rest of this and get back to your holiday in the sun.
If you are trying to do the right thing by your classes then you're going to have to come to terms with some very hard facts.
Let's burst some balloons!
It's time to explode a few myths.
The first one being, that you are needed and you provide a valuable service. You aren't and you don't. Many people seriously have the impression that they are doing Thailand a favour by devoting their time to teaching English here. One young lady recently started a ‘GoFundMe' page insisting that she was needed in the classroom and that her courageous migration was in fact some kind of charity work!
Your fellow teachers, employers and the parents value you. This is unlikely... but it's possible, though not for the reasons that you think they might.
You're underpaid and you deserve more. Wrong again. Wages for NES (native English speakers) in the public education system have gotten lower over the past few years. And why not? It's crazy to pay a decent living wage when someone is prepared to show up to the same job for a lot less.
Thais have it all wrong when it comes to education. Partly right, but mostly wrong... and when you look at the alarming mental health issues facing first world countries right now, I tend to believe that Thailand has it about right.
If Thais don't improve their English skills nationally they'll suffer in the global marketplace. Wrong. There are much more important things in business than speaking English. Thailand has a cheap workforce and a good infrastructure. It welcomes foreign industry and investment. Compared to many Asian countries, it's pretty easy to set up shop and start to trade. Knowledge of English will always be an advantage but it's not critical.
You're a good teacher. Nope, sorry, you're not. Seriously, if you are then why are you even here? And how did you discover that you were a good teacher? Your boss likes you because you show up every day when you are supposed to. The parents like you because you tell them that their kids are awesome and clever and your students like you because you're fun in the classroom.
Oh, wait... actually, if the above describes you then it turns out that you ARE a good teacher. You're everything an employer could want. A reliable, friendly liar!
Know your limits... and know theirs, too!
So, what's next for you? How do you work within the system and avoid drinking yourself to death. Or worse, jumping off your apartment building? Can you even make the changes necessary to be happy wallowing in this mess?
First, let's stop with this ‘changing the world' nonsense. Anyone can do your job. Yes, and in fact there are thousands of people a whole lot further down the food chain than you that are doing it. Nobody is complaining about them either... except the ferocious online forums that surround this daft industry.
Next, determine what your employers want from you. They probably don't want to be bothered by your ground-breaking ideas on how to teach English. They don't want you in the office every time the printer is on the blink or the internet isn't working. And they definitely don't want to hear your opinions on anything.
Make peace with yourself and your surroundings. The pavements are dangerous places to traverse but unless you intend on fixing them yourself then quit complaining about them. The paperwork required to legitimise your stay in Thailand is a nuisance. Hating it won't make it go away. There's no Marmite in Big C... learn to live with it!
Finally - everything that happens to you in Thailand isn't a personal attack. You don't have to feel threatened and angry when Thailand works it's magical charms against you.
Ch ch ch ch changes...
Well, I've painted a pretty disparaging and slightly depressing picture so far but if you are smart and willing to make adjustments to your expectations of living in Thailand, you can be a reasonably effective educator and still enjoy the easy going yet often shambolic life that the Kingdom has to offer.
But you will have to make changes to yourself if you want to stay here and stay sane. The honeymoon with Thailand is over too quickly for many people and when the reality of living with someone you don't get on with is an ongoing hangover, it's time to make a choice... You adapt to it or you leave it behind.
It's depressing just how many people have come here and either left with lots of resentment and bitterness - or worse, remained here polluting the place with those same feelings!
Don't be one of them.
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I don't mind the teachers who may not know what they are doing. What I do resent is the lazy sacks of sh*t who get employed on their white face and apparent good looks and then do nothing all day long and play on their phones. Then 5 minutes before the next lesson come to you to ask you help them with something - material - ideas etc... What ever happened to work ethic?
By Jonny Jon, Bangkok (28th May 2016)
"Thais have it all wrong when it comes to education. Partly right, but mostly wrong... and when you look at the alarming mental health issues facing first world countries right now, I tend to believe that Thailand has it about right."
In an otherwise good article, that assessment is about as lazy and simplistic as they come. I could go in a zillion directions with this, but let's just quickly point out:
1. Outward calm, smiles, and obedience do not at all equal inward peace, happiness, and contentment, and if you understand anything about Thai culture.
2. Preserving the appearance of harmony in public only pushes natural human aggressions and frustrations into the realm of passive aggression, which is far more insidious and unpredictable than naked aggression.
I wouldn't be holding Thailand up as a paragon of mental health if I were you. Very few countries probably are. And even so, it doesn't even remotely prove that they have it "right" when it comes to education, as you seem to imply. Enough with this condescending "ignorance is bliss" romanticization of all aspects of Thai culture; it's far too prevalent among many expats here.
By Vlad the Regaler, BKK (26th May 2016)
While some of the article is accurate, I would say it has a bitter twist to it. I taught in Thailand for 4 years before returning home.
I went over with no qualifications and secured a position in an English Programme. During my time I was learning as I taught and I put in a lot of hard work to pull it off.
I would say that I did improve my students English skills and abilities. I still stay in contact with them through social media and they always comment on how much they learnt from me.
I don't know how I pulled it off but I was successful during my time. I was required to attend seminars in BKK and even became friends with the Minister of Education (through my co-ordinator).
Yes, I blagged it but I did make a difference with the students and the Programme flourished for it.
By Phil, England (22nd May 2016)
What a brutal point of view and way to look at life.
By A, World (21st May 2016)
Mr. Newman seems to think we are all Jon Snow....
By Tyrion Lannister, Meereen (20th May 2016)
Some people are more compitent than others and can do the job very well! There are some good and a lot of bad, dont tar everyone with the same brush.
A most agreeable point though regarding foreginers in Thailand who take the negative aspects of Thai culture personally and would rather spend all there time coplaining rather than trying to adjust their attitude.
I have met some really bitter and twisted individuals in the last three years. its incredible how people allow themselves to be consumed by all the things they do not like about Thailand.
I think it would be a much better approach to look within, and ask who it really is that is that is making life so terrible. Of course some frustration needs to be vented every now and again but dont let it define you.
By dikicat, Korat (20th May 2016)
Yeah, don't take yourself and the job so seriously, got it, but Mark went over the top in trying to make this point.
By Jack, In front of my computer (20th May 2016)
I came here 12 years ago without any qualifications. after 2 years i went back to Australia and did my teaching degree. i have been teaching with that qualification for 7 years now.
I have to agree with most of this article. Unfortunately I have realised that most of what I learnt at university was being institutionalised in a buraucracy.
The important parts i did learn about was pshycology in the classroom (Sorry i have never been the best at spelling) and how the current assessment systems are setting such a low level for completion.
The article above seems to say that you cannot help or change much and that is correct from the management point of view but you can help those students that want to be helped. i do not mean the star pupil. Most of them are just showing off. it is normally the ones that are doing really badly or not quite at the top.
By finishing the texts books quickly as only a third of your students can learn with textbooks. Move onto more interesting stuff. i had a kid last year that could not read or write to save himself but put on some music and get him moving and suddenly he could read the lyrics while pulling off some interesting dance moves.
A little girl that had an attitude problem. hated the world but very clever. Given free reign to write a story that would be made into a play. She got up on stage in Bangkok for a roleplay competition with three other friends just so she could say " i was so scared I wet my pants" in front of 3000 people. They won that competiton. The judges were farlang and got the joke. She was a different kid after that. She started beating the smug no it all in all the class tests.
I can go on with other examples.
Everyone wants attention. So many kids understand that the assessment is rigged and achieves nothing. Those that sit down, do the right thing and have wealthy parents will always win. We just have to look at the american presidential race to understand that.
Break out of this mono culture with are in. We have all started by coming to Thailand as now we do not have to work long hours to buy brand names we do not need. its really relaxing working in Thailand. But yes you can help. You are not trying to make these kids western kids. They want to find their own identity. Use you teaching to give them that chance. Stop using generic, put the answer in the box methods of teaching and rebuild the imagination we once had.
Have fun and create, create, create
By T mark, Chantaburi (19th May 2016)
Generally accurate; though ...
1.) English is more important here than you (under)stated.
- Foreign investment - investors don't usually speak fluent Thai
- Tourism is 12% of GDP - most tourists don't speak Thai
2.) Thai labour force is not exceedingly cheap; if it were, employers wouldn't hire Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian workers.
3.) We are required by law to become a qualified 'teacher' after 2 waivers (2-4 years).
The requirements for this are possession of a legitimate degree (from the west ideally), plus the acquisition of a post-grad certificate of sorts to obtain a permanent licence.
4.) Many jokers without (Western) degrees resort to enrolling in Thai universities in a bid to complete a shambolic degree course to help become qualified; these individuals are subsequent senior 'products' of Thai 'education' themselves. And yes, these would be shelf-stackers at home, under the most fortunate of circumstances.
By Rutiger, Bangkok (19th May 2016)
While your post may be true regarding Thai government schools, that's far from the only option for teaching in Thailand. If you really do care about education and want to make a difference, then well....become a qualified teacher! Nobody should expect to be hired as a doctor without going to medical school, likewise nobody should expect to obtain a serious teaching position without proper certification.
Then once you do get certified, you can work for an international school or bilingual school where you are taken seriously as a teacher, and your results do matter. The parents at these schools are paying ridiculous sums of money to ensure their kids become proficient in English, and they expect results. Your students will sit standardized exams (ex. IGCSE) and your HOD and school director will expect results. You will have reasonable class sizes, decent resources. Not only will you have the opportunity to shine as a teacher, you will be expected to do so. Sure, that means more work and more stress, but you will be making a difference (at least, for the kids who can afford your school's fees).
Thai government schools are a great place to be for "teachers" who aren't qualified and don't care. They just want to be in Thailand, live a stress-free life, and do a joke of a job for an okay wage. And that's great for some people - those who would otherwise be working at McDonald's or stacking shelves in a warehouse in a Western country can come to Thailand, play the role of a foreign "teacher" and live a much better lifestyle with few professional expectations.
But if find yourself stuck in one of those jobs (most likely due to lack of teacher qualifications) and actually care about teaching, then well... do something about it! Sure you could argue till blue on the face that teaching qualifications might not make you a better teacher, but if you were a parent paying $20,000 USD per year for your kids school, you'd expect certified teachers.
So ask yourself, what kind of teacher do I want to be? And then get the qualifications and the job that allows you to be that kind of teacher.
By Danny, BKK (19th May 2016)
Perhaps Mr. Newman should follow his own advice and stop the incessant finger-wagging and pontificating at those farangs he deems 'unenlightened'.
By Greg, Chonburi (19th May 2016)
While some may be offended, I've got to say you've given a fairly honest (albeit somewhat negative) account of what happens to teachers that "stay too long," and I've seen it happen too. I managed 3 years of it before realising TEFLing isn't exactly a career move (for me), but it can certainly be a great experience and rewarding to teachers (like me) that use the time to help propel them towards whatever it is that they're passionate about, and hopefully motivate at least a few students to do the same.
You're right: it can be easy to become negative about the whole mess that is the Thai education system, but if you get in your mind that you, the farang, are just a visitor to a culture and have little say in how that culture's education system is run, teaching in Thailand can be great fun. And if you truly care, you can always make at least some impact in the lives of your students.
By Sam, Chatuchak, Bangkok (19th May 2016)
Making it up as you go along with no formal qualification means you have to work at bad schools with no oversight or professional development.
By Nathan, Vietnam (19th May 2016)
What an excellent article ! Well written Mark.
By George, Bangkok (18th May 2016)
A bit cynical and a lot of sweeping generalizations. I'll try to avoid your posts in future.
By John Kedward, Chiang Mai (18th May 2016)
I've been doing it for 5 years and in the 5 years I've been doing it I haven't seen much of an improvement there are some students that want to learn but they are in the minority just get your head down and get on with it and look forward to the monthly insult salary
By Simon, ROI et (18th May 2016)
Yes you are right anyone can teach or if they have a little bit of sanity left but it is a waste of time generally the answer is don't think yourself as a teacher but think yourself as an entertainer because basically that is what you are you won't make a difference but you might think you're going to make a difference
By Simon, ROI et (18th May 2016)
Aren't you the guy who always posts really bitter stuff on other peoples' posts?
By Mike, BKK (18th May 2016)