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?


I haven't looked at in many years. Today, I came in to peek at the sorry state of affairs of TEFLing in LOS. In 2005 when I started my teaching career in Bangkok, I was paid 45K a month at Mattayom Wat Thathong for 19 periods a week. No gate duty. No regular hours. I got the job by walking up to the entrance and telling a teacher at the front gate, 'I'm an English teacher. I want to teach here.' I was invited in to speak with the director and she hired me on the spot. She told me, 'Come in to teach your classes and leave when you finish.' With extra business English classes that paid 750-1000baht/hour, I cleared 60K and was enjoying the heck out of the nightlife scene which was amazing at the time. Exchange rate was about 40baht to one US dollar. I paid a small bribe of 2K baht and got my nonB stamp in less than 2 hours - no work permit, drawing blood or trips to the US Embassy/Thai police, etc. I am shocked that salaries have declined while established work hours and duties have increased. If you want to enjoy Thailand for 2-3 months, don't go there to work. Make money in your home country and enjoy Thailand as a tourist, not as a teacher-slave.

By Guy Madudely, USA (21st September 2022)

I currently work for a school that employs about 20 native-speaking teachers. I've been working for this school for nearly 15 years. I started at the school when teachers were directly employed by the school. In fact, for a few years, I was the only teacher to be employed directly by the school. All the old teachers left and the new ones were sent to us by an agency.

When teachers were employed by the school, they generally stayed longer and were a better bunch. They were paid more and got more holiday, etc. I definitely remember them being a happier bunch. When the agency took over, we would go through teachers like no one's business. They were paid anything between 30-41k. Teachers who were allowed to come and go got 30-33k a month, and teachers who had to be there all the time got about 37-41k. I was on about 48k at the time and got a lot more holiday and freedom.

This was a farang-run agency who I believe went under during the pandemic. I hope to god they didn't rebrand and that they're nowhere near schools anymore. What I remember of the 8 years working alongside these agency teachers is that most were miserable. The agency was always on top of them. Often berating them and trying to find ways to take money out of their salary. I could be wrong, and the teachers I spoke to could just be liars - but when enough people tell you the same horror stories, it's hard not to believe. Honestly, some of the stories I heard made me question my faith in humanity. How an agency with two farangs in charge could not only be so bad at their jobs, but treat their staff so abhorrently, really bothered me.

My school now employs directly again. I have a big hand in who we employ. Our starting salary is 50k and we get nice long holidays. Sure, we get the odd bad teacher now and again, but for the most part, 90% of the teachers who work or have worked with us are happy. I had to basically beg my school to take onboard my advice on who to employ. I told them to avoid hiring younger teachers. No offence to younger teachers, but they generally don't care as much and treat the job like it's working holiday. We usually look for teachers aged 30-60 who are settled here, with spouses, kids and a home. They always seem very grateful to have a stable income with very few hassles.

If you have any hand in employing teachers, and you're only interested in warm bodies in the classroom and paying the very least, you're going to attract the worst kind. Shame on you for doing that. But if you actually take the time to read cover letters, read CV's and try to get a feel for the person applying, your life will be so much easier. Sure, it's a hard slug at the beginning to find decent people, but once they're there, doing their job, being happy and and wanting to show their loyalty, you have such a great work environment. It's very much just common sense with a side of decency. For the most part we employ good teachers. I'm most definitely not a recruitment expert. I'm just not a scumbag who knows how to interact with my fellow human beings.

By Brian, Thailand (14th September 2022)

"Pretty sound advice from my perspective, but maybe a little too negative"

ANOTHER young child just died yesterday because they were left inside a mini-van. How about instead of moaning ad nauseum and erronioulsy conflating constuctive criticism with being negative, you pull your head out of your arse and stop enalbing poor work practices involving young, inncoent children. I think we're all tired of your speil, Jack.

By Jonn, Thailand (1st September 2022)

I just went for an interview at a well-known school in Bangkok. The salary is crap but it was promoted as being easy work. When I got there the job was mine. Guess they just wanted to make sure I was really the guy in the picture. They showed me around and at the end they asked if I could teach science as well. I told them I had no idea (I barely know how to teach English). They told me it was easy. I kinda just went along with it to humor them. They then said I'd have to supply stuff to do science experiments. Like buy stuff with my own money. The last science teacher was boring they said. They said they want the kids to learn through experinents. I didn't even bother to reply to their email asking me to confirm I'd take the position. Pretty pissed off they lied to me before the interview and tried to trick me into taking on more respsibility. And they can get bent if they think I'm using my own money to promte their school.

By Josh, Thailand (29th August 2022)

Mark, I think you might have been out of the game for too long.

As a previous poster mentioned, these crappy TEFL jobs were once good, like 20 years ago. Many schools are still paying 35-40k, which is the same salary a friend of mine was making in 1997. Things have very much changed now.

Loads of younger people are making money online. Teaching, trading, selling, etc. For the most part it isn't great money and offers no benefits. But guess what? It's the same as a basic TEFL job.

I know a younger guy who got a job for 60k a month. A terrible salary in this day and age. He did it for a bit then he took a job paying 38k. Why? Because the 60k included loads of work and expected free overtime. So he got a job paying less, but where he only had to teach lessons and nothing else. He was free to go home or work extra remotely. Now he makes closer to 80k and he doesn't have to deal with all the school's BS.

With inflation, the expenses of nightlife and travelling in Thailand, you simply can't do that on 40k a month. That was something you could only do 20 years ago. Most young people don't teach TEFL to start a career - they do it to fund their working holidays. Many of these crappy jobs are now taken by Russians and Eastern Europeans.

If you want to come and live and work in Thailand, do something online. Which is what most young people are doing. Let the TEFL industry for native-speakers die its death. It's been a long time coming. And it couldn't be more deserving. Sorry, but stay away from TEFL. It's a dying industry.

By Neil, Thailand (26th August 2022)

"These suggestions here would seem to apply in a general way to nearly all entry level professional jobs in any location"

It's a TEFL job paying on average 35-40k a month with 0 benefits. It's a part-time job working full-time hours. BOTH of you are way overthinking it.

To all the sane readers, if you're interested in coming here to work, do it a for a year (no more than two), do it to the best of your ability, but most importantly, ENJOY your time here. It's teaching TEFL - not a space shuttle launch, for Christ's sake.

By Mike, Bangkok (22nd August 2022)

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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