Mark Newman

Random TEFL musings (part one)

Preparing yourself for teaching in Thailand

This article is NOT about actual teaching. It's more like an essay on preparing yourself for the role as a teacher in Thailand and some misconceptions that you can avoid to make your life easier, better and more rewarding.

Okay, so you've landed in Thailand, found somewhere to live and you start work as an English teacher in a couple of days. Congratulations - the easy part is over... but the real work is about to begin.

Are you going to be one of the new teachers who burn out and bale out, then go home within a few months because it's nothing like what you were expecting it to be?

The brochures mailed out from agencies and TEFL schools don't have too many photos taken from inside a typical Thai classroom. Those fellow ‘teachers' jumping for joy on the beautiful sandy beach are models hired to look happy! You sort of knew that but you fell for the dream anyway and decided to leave the comforts of home to ‘make a difference' to kids' lives in Thailand.

Well done, you!

Here's a roundup of musings that matter inside the classroom that you might want to think about before you start teaching in Thailand. And even after you have started, it's worth keeping this reminder handy to remind yourself as the school year wears on.

1 - It's Thailand and the job's a piece of cake, right?

If you are expecting that the work week is going to fly by and every weekend is going to be spent on a new beach supping cocktails and scoffing crab salad, then you have a rude awakening coming to you.

As a new teacher (or a teacher starting a new job) you'll be full of enthusiasm and ambitions of doing the best you can for the kids you teach.

The single biggest reason new teachers give up on their jobs is the way they deal with events that knock the wind out of their sails when they find out that many of the promises they were made before they started are now being broken.

These broken promises start to pile up early and often... the classes don't have an assistant as promised... nothing works... you are required to work more hours than agreed... the ‘well-behaved kids' you had read about, are being taught in another galaxy, far, far away!

So how are you going to react? Lay the blame on the people you work for/with? Simply quit? Take it personally and start hating your job?

This is Thailand and these things are likely to happen... if you are serious about staying here and working here then knowing that bad things happen to good people like you is the entire battle fought and won. If you're expecting the worst then it's no really big deal when it happens.

So, musing number one: Don't come to Thailand with the idea that nothing bad is going to happen. It will.

2 - You don't need to tell me - I KNOW!

First, even if you speak the English language well and you were born and raised in an English-speaking country, you probably don't know as much about the English language as you think you do.

Next, let's just throw everything ‘English' you have learned out the window. None of that theoretical claptrap is going to help you in Thailand. Whether you studied education at university or did a four week TEFL/scuba diving course, not much of this is going to help you in a real Thailand classroom.

When I was at university most of what I ‘learned' was trendy theory and the perverted politics of mental lecturers. There wasn't much I took from that education that steered me into any useful path that employers found particularly valuable. In Thailand at least the bit of cardboard at the end of it got me a job.

But that didn't stop me from thinking that I knew it all. I was cock-of-the-walk when I landed my first well-paid gigs in Thailand disproving all the other farangs I worked with who said that I would never get much more than they had managed to settle for.

I spent the next few years learning what I was teaching and that process is ongoing. Knowing your subject well, will make your life so much easier when you're trying to teach it.

So, musing number two: Do you know it all or at least enough to do a good job. Probably not. We NEVER do.

3 - Trying to be the perfect English teacher.

You have the training stored in your brain, your intentions are noble and you're gonna kick ass. They're gonna love you!

Step back for a moment and consider this... You do not have the energy it takes, nor the knowledge and character to be the perfect teacher. None of us do. There are no perfect teachers and if there were they would not be looking for a job in Thailand paying a few hundred bucks a month. These saintly people are teaching the good kids in that galaxy, far, far away!

Even if you work really hard, do extra stuff, pile up the hours and put your personal life on the backburner (I've done this) you won't be perfect. You'll have bad days and you'll make mistakes. We all go through rough patches and we all do stuff at work that we regret.

Not only that, your students are going to suck and their achievements may well fall below what you had envisaged. The effort you put into test preparation may not yield the results you were hoping for. That extra project you spent a bloody week of your own time on, may be a disaster!

Don't blame yourself and don't think that everything is hopeless after you screw things up.

So, musing number 3: Don't try too hard to be the perfect teacher. It's an unattainable goal.

4 - Class management? That's why I have this big stick!

Guess what one of the biggest reasons that teachers quit Thailand is? It's classroom management and control... or rather the lack of training and knowledge of this subject and the resulting frustration it causes.

If you can't learn ‘classroom management' effectively then you're facing a very bleak future in Thailand. With very young students it doesn't matter so much but with anyone over the age of, say, 10 years old, you had better have a good plan for this.

It's no good blaming bad management or ‘the system' or other teachers for this... because this one is all on YOU!

And don't think that being a good teacher is enough to get you through this. It's not enough to be an engaging and enthusiastic educator... It's not enough to have a good lesson plan ready and the entire knowledge of your subject stuffed up somewhere in your brain... oh, and it's not enough to wield a big stick either!

If you haven't done any homework on ‘Behaviour Management Strategies In The Classroom' then get on Google and YouTube and do it before you get in the classroom. This stuff matters from the very first day.

But even if you decide that you don't need to prepare yourself for a gaggle of effervescent teenage ladyboys that will take over your class, then at least bear these tips in mind...

Be caring but firm with your students.

Know what's going on in your classroom.

Be predictable and routine driven.

So, musing number 4: Take classroom management seriously. You should - it matters - it will save your sanity.

5 - Understanding why you are hired.

Always find out as much as you can about why you have been hired. This will save you a lot of grief and maybe even your job!

In the west, whatever we do for a living is graded and assessed. We are hired because of our enthusiasm for the job, our qualifications and potential ability.

Have you been hired to make a real difference to the education of your students?

Have you been hired to simply show up to a classroom and fill their ‘farang quota'?

Are you being expected to re-write the entire school syllabus?

Are you being expected to draw all the rabbits out of your own hat?

Find out why you have been hired and focus your energies on fulfilling those expectations. Don't allow yourself to get bogged down and depressed by things that only matter to you and not your employer.

Finally, musing number 5: Have you been hired as a teacher to do a great job as an educator? It may not always be the case.

As with most jobs, you can make teaching English in Thailand a whole lot less stressful. It's not air traffic control, right? Don't allow the job to consume you before you've given yourself a chance to make a cultural adjustment to your new home.

Hang in there, be tolerant and open minded. Roll with the unexpected sucker punches.

Or don't... maybe you were meant to be an English teacher, but just not here in Thailand, eh?

Something else to muse on!


You might also be interested in....

The ten teaching English in Thailand commandments - Tips and strategies to make your life easier

How can I make it in the madness? - The harsh reality of teaching in Thailand

Teacher mistakes - Avoid falling into any of these teacher traps

Mistakes that long term teachers make in Thailand - What do the old hands often do wrong?


Pretty sound advice from my perspective, but maybe a little too negative. These suggestions here would seem to apply in a general way to nearly all entry level professional jobs in any location.

Teaching English in a foreign country can be a great way to gain some international experience, have an extended vacation, be a stepping stone to another career or part of a fulfilling life long career, all depending on individual goals.

Taking this first step by taking an ESL job does not inevitably lead to disillusion, frustration and a sense of failure. But the ESL industry is what it is, those who try to change the industry or the cultures of the countries they are working while staying in the industry for long periods of time seem to be the ones who become the grumpy old men who are constantly seeking the rest of us out to try to convince us how terrible life, the school, and the country we are living in are.

Understanding the industry and knowing what you want out of the job are important.

I used teaching English as my first step to a mostly satisfying international career, I am happy I took the opportunity the ESL industry supplied me. Teaching English might not be all wine and roses but it can be a fantastic adventure if approached with a realistic and positive attitude.

By Jack, In front of my computer (8th June 2016)

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