Mark Newman

How to be a successful teacher in Thailand

There is little correlation between a successful teacher and a good teacher

It's important to point out that here in Thailand there is precious little correlation between a 'successful' teacher and a 'good' teacher. Also, 'success' may not mean the same for you, as it does for me.

But for the sake of this little piece, we'll think of success as being in a pretty well paid job (or jobs), being appreciated for what you do and being able to afford the things that you desire.

A lot of 'Ifs!'

If we keep it simple we can better focus on how to get to this point or how to avoid NOT getting to this point!

If you are not thinking of settling in Thailand then skip the rest of this. It's not going to be of much interest to you.

If you are content where you're at right now, then ditto. Not much point in causing yourself the pain of reading through to the end.

If, however, you want a better standard of living and more job security, then read on. Some of the following ideas may inspire you, enlighten you or simply re-affirm what you know already.

Lots of people are taking a chance on working in Thailand each year. More and more people have decided to uproot and emigrate. And not just native English speakers. There's a chronic unemployment problem throughout Europe and elsewhere around the world. This reason alone is causing waves of young people to spread their wings.

But for most, they will consider this move to be temporary or as part of a chain of events which will take them to other places aside from Thailand and eventually home.

It's because of this that wages in Thailand for English teachers have remained stagnant for the last 20 years. And there aren't any signs that this will change over the next twenty years, either!

Despite what you might think about Thailand having prejudices, the teaching game is definitely an equal opportunity employer! Pretty much anyone with the air fare can pop over to paradise and get by, being an English teacher.

For some, the lifestyle goes on forever but for most, we eventually find a way back home to live 'normal' lives. For those that do stay, however, there are layers upon layers of lifestyle comforts available and unless you choose which layer of comforts you want, they will be chosen for you.

So, with that in mind, let's start with the job hunt.

How do you get the attention of the best employers?

There are loads of articles and opinions on how to get a job. This essay isn't about getting a job. That's the easy bit. This is more about you choosing that job, keeping that job, enjoying that job and having a sense of value within that job.

Success may not be all about money... although it should play a pretty big role in terms of your own self worth. Success isn't about hard work, either. It's about working smart... and here's where most people screw up!

Too many people come to Thailand, get 'qualified' and work their asses off in the classroom. They love their students and they bemoan the text books/materials/the system and devote a lot of their energy substituting for these deficiencies. Laudable? Well, yes, maybe. Sensible? Not even a little bit! They burn out quickly and go home or sink into an abyss of failure within the system.

And that's a shame, because I'm sure that almost every one of these people could be living here in reasonable comfort and be happy with their lot. I mean really happy. You know... that feeling you get when you wake up and WANT to go to work. Yes, it happens!

How do you get to this 'nirvana'? Two steps...

First, the only way to be successful is to fully understand what your employers want you to do.

Next... be self aware. This means understanding completely (and caring about) how everyone perceives you.

And that's it! The rest will come along regardless of how much effort you put into doing your job.

The interview

Finding out what your employer wants from you is the most important aspect of your job and it begins with the interview for it.

You should be pressing hard for answers to questions such as 'Why did the last teacher leave?" and "Who are the best teachers - and why is that?" and "What are you looking for when you hire someone?" Find out all you can about why the company or school is hiring. Find out what their intentions are for you.

Finding out why other teachers have been let go will give you a template on what to focus on should you decide to be their replacement. If you're lucky, your interviewer will be a bit of a gossip and won't mind sharing with you what they see as the worst traits of character of the Western help.

If he or she is dropping comments like "They always seem to want to get away early on Fridays and after lunch we don't even see them!" then make a mental note not to be seen doing the same thing.

You might hear "We've been having a bit of trouble getting some teachers to work in the morning!" or "One or two aren't handing in lesson plans." Make mental notes of everything you can. This fishing expedition can help you to decide whether or not you want that job, but more importantly, it will help to shape how you are going to behave if you do take it.

Of course, you may be fed a line of BS... but when you are walking around the school and in and out of classrooms, you'll get a pretty good idea of what your real duties are going to be and where the priorities of the school lies.

If you want the job, then embrace those duties. Embrace THEIR priorities, NOT yours. If you get a bad feeling about the place then walk away and never look back. There are too many people working rubbish jobs simply because the school said 'Yes!' first, when they went job hunting.

Learn the priorities of your employer. Some employers just want someone reliable who will show up sober. Some employers want someone to re-invigorate their English department. Some places of business will value your input and others won't. Some places will be embracing of your suggestions and some will be resistant to any kind of change. Knowing these things is the key to your professional happiness and job satisfaction.

Look at yourself closely

Next point... Be self aware and change your behavior to fit in with the culture of your immediate surroundings. Too many teachers simply blunder through situations either ignorant of their affect on those around them or because they are arrogant (and wrong!) about their place in the grand scheme of things.

Have you ever heard anyone say this? "I'm me and I'll never change." or "Why should I change. I'm in the right." or "I'm too old to change my ways." It's all bullshit and very annoying to listen to. If you aren't prepared to make changes to yourself and your behavior then you'll not find success anywhere, doing anything in Thailand.

Last year, a farang English teacher got fired one morning for reaching over the shoulder of a Thai teacher to 'fingerprint' into work. The Thai teacher was dithering about, chatting to a friend and this was enough to frustrate the farang and he couldn't wait any longer. Now he's out of a job and he doesn't know why.

This was the last straw in an accumulation of ignorant behavior and social transgressions. "But I'm a great teacher!" he boasted. "My students love me!" he cried. "They can't fire me for that!" he raged! The funniest one was "They'll never get anyone as good as me."

Well, they did. And he was bumped because he wasn't aware of how he should have behaved to fit in with his surroundings... or maybe he was, but he thought he was above conforming to them! Either way, his case is by no means unusual. The best teachers aren't always the most successful ones and often it's because they simply can't (or don't want to) abide by common courtesies that seem silly to them.

Social errors of judgement may seem trivial to you but they shouldn't be dismissed as unimportant. One of the biggest (and most unknown) is looking annoyed or impatient. Yes, simply wearing the expression of being annoyed is a bloody stupid thing to do if you are trying to fit in to your surroundings. Do you ever see anyone else at work with those ridiculous, pained expressions? Of course not. This is Thailand. Learn to smile.

Every aspect of you is constantly being monitored, graded and judged. From your clothes and hair to your attitude and poise, you are always being evaluated. So, learn what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. Be aware of how you fit in and change things that make you stand out in a negative light.


Thai employers are resigned to hiring foreigners that don't match their requirements. They have to because, despite the large amount of people jostling for jobs here, the actual pool of acceptable talent in Thailand is very, very small and they just can't justify the expense of paying someone more than the going rate, regardless of how capable they are in the classroom.

The alternative to hiring qualified talent (and paying them what they're worth) is to go for second best, pay the going rate and hope, hope, hope that they show up sober, look clean and don't rock the boat. With some luck they'll get some teaching done as well!

Success in Thailand is an easy (but often lengthy) process of self discovery. But it starts with finding out what is expected of you from everyone you come into contact with and being able to adjust your behavior to provide those things.

Mark Newman



Great article.

By ML, Aus (12th October 2015)

Good Article.
We have a lot of problems like that with westerners

By M, sukhothai (8th May 2015)

This is Thailand. I worked at a school for a long time even became one of the managers (supervisors, head teachers, whatever) , but the day came. The school was spending more than it made-the efforts to raise the standards were costing money. So, the old had to go. We were pushed out, in some cases abused, physcaily threatened. Not always by Thais, sometimes westerners.
Now the school has a reputation- pay your money, your kid passes. It still advertises on ajarn and uses agents to fill stop gaps. The head of the foriegn teachers began as the head of English with only 6 months teaching experience and no related degree. His sidekick bought his education qualifications (did the course, but couldn't prove the qualifications he applied with) and with 6 months teaching experience, and despite recieving poor performance reports and recommendations for dismissal (late everyday, poor knowledge of subject taught, and well unsavoury allegations).
This is Thailand. You make a school money or make them look good that's all that counts.
P.S. - This was a private Christian school. You wouldn't know it by the lack of morals. Sad.

By John, Bangkok (4th May 2015)

The article is actually correct but unfortunately it sounds very much like a modern politician. No leadership skills and will bow to anyone and anything to achieve money and prestige. In reality the article is just cementing the problems that are faced in the Thai education system and why the PISA and IELTS tests continue to be a problem for Thailand.

The teacher that did lose their job has probably instilled some ideas in their students that they can be better and by doing things a little differently improvement can be achieved.

As was said in the article getting a job is easy. The author is definitely more interested in the continuation of hegemonic values and really only trying to climb the ladder to economic success based on an outdated system of capitalism.
The most successful schools in Thailand do not follow this method. The schools that the author would do well in are the ones that really look good but do not achieve a great standard of education.

There are some really good schools in Thailand and they are not the pretty ones. They are the ones that invest in teachers and allow those teachers to express themselves and have the ability to have students questioning within a country where the students are taught not to question but follow hegemony.

They are enough Thais, that have been educated overseas, who know that reinforcing outdated practices is not helping.

By T Mark, Chantaburi (1st May 2015)

Many I'm sure have read about the 4 stages of being an expat. If you have not, google and find for yourself. Note, some authors have 5 or 6 stages.

The 4th stage (the last stage) is called different names by different authors. Living ... Acclimation ... Acceptance ... Adaptation ... Mastery. Whatever the label, the final stage is the same. Its about the importance of fitting in, understanding how locals think, realizing you're a nothing-special part of the system, and losing the patronizing hail-me-cuz-I'm-from-the-first-world persona.

This article is really as much about the general notions of being an expat, as it is about specifically being a teacher.

By UrbanMan, near an aircon (29th April 2015)

I think Mark’s general advice is sound, and in all reality this basic advice works with all employment in all industries in all countries.

You are not being paid to do what you want, you are being paid to do what your employer wants.

If you want to teach your way, start your own school.

Good employees in any job are hard to find and if you satisfy your employer you will not have to worry about getting fired.

Being a “good” teacher is a subjective opinion, but the opinion of your employer matters far more than your own. Employers do not fire teacher they think are good, but boy have I heard endless stories what teachers who believed they were good teachers but still got fired.

But of course the Thai-bashers and others will not agree and will blame every problem they face as teachers on others and not accept any personal responsibility for their own careers.

By Jack, In front of my computer (29th April 2015)

I know exactly where Mark is coming from. He's saying that like it or not, to be successful, you have to be the kind of guy the school or company wants.

I remember working for a language school in the mid-90s. I was easily the most popular teacher there. I got more student requests than all the other teachers put together. I was the only teacher who knew how to teach TOEFL prep courses, academic writing, etc, etc.

But I let it go to my head and I became a chronic moaner. I would bitch about there not being enough paper in the photocopier or the maid not replenishing the powdered coffee. Trivial things - but there wasn't a day went by when I didn't have something to moan about and looking back, it must have exhausted the staff.

Then in came a new Thai director. He didn't care for big reputations or someone with student requests coming out the wazoo. Finally he snapped when he heard one bellyache too many from me and said "if you don't like it here, then leave"

I realised at that moment that no one is indispensable. and had to seriously change my attitude.

By Phil, Samut Prakarn (29th April 2015)

"the acceptable pool of talent is small" - very patronising to begin with. "Not about hard work" - of course good teaching will entail hard work.

What is "western help"?

Do you mean, be a yes man (or woman)? Actually, Im sure there are many ways of being successful.

In total - sooooo patronising!

By Clive, UK (28th April 2015)

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