Phil Roeland

The academic debate

Does a degree make a good teacher?

There has always been heated debate about the question of whether having a degree makes someone a good teacher. 

Many unqualified teachers have vented their frustration using letters to the editors and various message boards, claiming that what makes a good teacher is not a degree, but qualities such as dedication, enthusiasm and a good understanding of the local culture, just to name a few. 

This controversy was of course sparked by a tightening of the rules by the Thai Ministry of Education (MoE) lately and the recent arrests of a couple of foreign teachers who used fake degrees to secure a teaching position. Just to make it absolutely clear, the teachers referred to in this article are foreign teachers of English, unless stated otherwise. The degree mentioned would be a B.A. or higher, as this is the MoE minimum requirement.

This article doesn’t aim to explain all there is to know about the existing MoE rules and regulations and the possible modifications that are either in the pipeline or have already been put in place. Let’s just say that in an ideal world the MoE would apparently like teachers to have a four-year degree in education or any other university degree plus a teaching certificate (TEFL, CELTA, TESOL etc.). 

In the real world however, there seem to be a lot of differing rules, not always consistently applied by the officials in charge. Sometimes one even wonders if the ministry officials know the rules themselves. Anyway, are these kinds of new rules too strict in a country where the average teacher makes roughly 1,000 US dollars? Is this why some resort to fake degrees and can this practice be condoned? Are devoted, long-term teachers without a degree being short-changed by this new course of policy-makers?

One could argue that a teacher with a degree is a good teacher. A teacher with a degree and a teaching certificate is better, and a teacher with a degree, a teaching certificate and experience is the best. Let’s just hire the latter ones then. If only it were that easy. There are many aspects apart from teaching qualifications that come into play when schools hire teachers; offered and expected salary and perks, location of the school, extracurricular duties, life expectancy of the teacher, looks and fashion awareness and so on. Often, schools just hire what they can get without being overly zealous when inspecting a prospective teacher’s qualifications. Technically, many schools are probably breaking the law, but what can they do if they want to hire a Western teacher and pay peanuts? Obviously, many schools aren’t too happy with the MoE’s new and stricter stance.

Now what if a teacher has a degree, but no teaching certificate? Would that be okay? Probably. What about having just a teaching certificate and no degree? Maybe. What about no qualifications at all but a lot of experience? Possibly. And finally, what about schools hiring people with no qualifications whatsoever and no experience, would that go well? There’s the odd chance that it might, but I doubt it.

On the other hand, teachers who do have the needed paperwork and even experience are not necessarily good teachers. Being a good teacher is more than just having the right qualifications. Being enthusiastic, flexible, patient, inspiring, interesting to listen to, emphatic and not resting on your laurels is just as important as that framed piece of paper that may hang on your wall. Teacher observation (both by head teacher and peer-to-peer observation followed by feedback) is a good way of improving one’s teaching and getting some fresh ideas. Of course observation only works if at least one of the parties is qualified. It’s not a good idea to have the blind lead the blind.

Of course this is Thailand, and for Thais, only one thing counts: having a degree. Thais themselves can hardly get any worthwhile job if they don’t have a university degree. By the way, I’m not talking about taking up a managerial position; even ordinary secretaries need a B.A.

If we believe the adage that a degree is all that matters to be good at what you do, surely the Thai teachers of English must be doing a hell of a job. They all have B.A. or M.A. for sure. So why aren’t Thai students better at English if they have such qualified local teachers? Let me shock outsiders by saying that the majority of Thai teachers can’t even count to ten in English. I’m not talking about the concept of basic arithmetic, but the pronunciation of these easy numbers in conversation. Ask any Thai – teacher or student – to count to ten and this is what you will most likely hear: one, two, tee, four, figh, sick, sewen, aye, nigh, ten.

Looking on the bright side, they don’t have any problems with one, two, four and ten. Bottom line is, if even teachers can’t get basic pronunciation right, there’s something really rotten in the state of Denmark. Everything being relative, the fluency and proficiency Manolo, jobless waiter from Columbia, Yuri, high-school drop-out from Eastern Europe and Eli, beach bum from the Middle East suddenly seem more than acceptable when offset against local teachers’ skills.

I don’t want to highlight local teachers’ poor skills any further and I would like to point out that a number of them are dedicated and try hard to improve themselves, but it’s apparently not enough. More training is definitely needed for them; if not by native speakers, then at least by speakers with a very good proficiency in English. Teachers are role models who are mimicked by students, so modelling correctly is extremely important.

Thai teachers of English may be good at the ancient grammar translation method and ramble on and on in Thai about how and when to use the past perfect, but it should be clear by now that those skills are virtually worthless in today’s world. Being able to communicate clearly and fluently in a globalised society is what students need, hence the current need for foreign conversation teachers.

It is crystal clear that the Land of Smiles desperately needs a master plan in order to better education, especially but not only in the field of English. Isolated measures that reek of witch hunts against sometimes well-intentioned farang teachers are probably not the best way to start. Although I wholeheartedly agree that there should be minimum standards in order to take up teaching in Thailand, I fear that flushing out the lesser teachers first without having any clear idea on how to replace them isn’t the best-advised policy.

Also, even though some existing teachers might not meet the new criteria, some of these individuals surely have proven to be loyal, reliable and quite good at what they do in the schools they work for. Many of them have a Thai spouse, a family and a home in Thailand. Although I am not in their situation, I wouldn’t want to snub them and leave them out in the cold. Surely there must be some alternative for them in order to get qualified without facing the punishment of job loss and deportation.

There is a lack of decent English teachers in Thailand. Raising standards for would-be teachers is very good idea and one I support completely. However, if nothing is done about the average class size in government schools and the salary remains low, I guess we’ll be back to square one in no time. What good is to attract an Oxbridge graduate and subsequently have them teach a class of 50 unruly students? Remember that class size is inversely proportional to the learning that goes in a classroom whereas salary is proportionate to the quality of teachers that apply for a position. If Thailand wants to continue paying teachers a lot less than the leading Asian countries, attracting more non-native, non-farang but proficient teachers might be a solution.

Some wannabes without degree graduate from the Khao San Road University in a matter of hours. Other online alternatives exist, such as the lifetime experience degrees offered by a wide variety of online universities and delivered in less than a week to all and sundry who are willing to sacrifice around five hundred greenbacks. Although some schools have been doing it, I don’t think condoning or even encouraging teachers to get fake degrees is the solution to the problem. Neither is raising admission standards to a ridiculous level compared to the modest salary most teachers are paid in Thailand. So what is the way out of this morass?

I don’t have a perfect, ready-made solution, simply because I think there isn’t one. In my opinion, some kind of qualification should be required for all teachers, because after all they work with young people and will always leave an imprint on them, for better or worse. Is asking for a university degree and a teaching certificate over the top? Not when it comes to international schools, but it might be for the lesser fortunate teachers who work in other private or government schools. Would a secondary school education in combination with a decent teaching certificate be enough for them? Maybe. Why not use international tests such as TOEFL or IELTS to determine the level of English proficiency for non-native speakers and the Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT) for everyone?

Cooperation of all schools, recruiters and middlemen is also vital. If they don’t follow the rules and make fresh-off-the-boat newbies believe that anyone can teach in Thailand, we’ll always be stuck in this dead-end street. Finally, it is important that schools recruit the best teacher for the job, not the best-looking teacher. Although teachers need to have a lot of qualities, I don’t think race, age or religion should be among them.


I enjoy and am very impressed with your debate on the present-Thai reality.
I'm forming a speech & debate club at my school and am looking for a coach right now. We want a native speaker so that they could train us properly. If you're interested in coaching and more information, please email me within this month.
warm regard,
Nattaya K

By Nattaya K, Bangkok (22nd June 2010)

I really like this article. I hope this is read by the people concerned especially those who are to hire teachers. This article becomes the wake up call for them.

If one has applied for a teaching job farangs or non-farangs, there is a need to ask for the valid documents. The original copies but not the machine copies must be presented.

Then, the checking of the validity of these documents must be done by checking/sending emails to the records section of the university whether their names were in the list of graduates. I think doing this simple procedure can help preventing these teachers having the fake degree/professions.

There is a need to define these terms: teaching, talking, earning and cheating. What must one teacher can do in the classroom if he/she has no background in teaching?

Teaching is never a joke. Teaching is not only talking. Well, if one aspires to become a teacher, it must be him/her to determine whether he/she can carry the job.

What a pity if students are under him/her and he/she has nothing to do to improve the learner's ability in the classroom!!! It is a waste of time and resources!!!!

Thank you so much for your article.....

By Dr. Lino L. Mondido, Bangkok, Thailand (4th March 2010)

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