Richard McCully

Thai teacher tourism

Is this a good thing or not?

Social media has helped to show us the large number of people who come to Thailand to “volunteer” their time as a teacher. I say volunteer but what I really mean is they pay for the privilege of going into a Thai school and helping the kids for a few days / weeks. Is this a good thing or not? 

Supply and demand

Many people come here for extended stays and the chance to do a few days volunteering with children or animals seems to be growing in popularity. 

The intensions of tourists coming to teach in Thailand are undoubtedly good. They obviously feel they can help as well as get new skills and experiences themselves. Sure, there are always bad eggs out there but the same can be said in the paid teacher sector too. Judging by the tweets and posts by those being accepted into volunteer teaching posts they are excited and can’t wait to meet their students. 

It’s no secret that many schools, especially rural schools, have problems finding teachers in Thailand. There is a huge demand for language skills and despite teaching agencies finding paid teachers there are obviously enough schools to allow for paid and volunteer teachers to work in Thai schools. If companies selling volunteer packages can help fill gaps and provide teachers to remote schools then that is a good thing. 

The companies

A quick Google of “volunteer teaching Thailand” returned 1.6 million hits. I had a look at four companies who appeared on the first page of the Google search and found they all operated in different ways. Some of them seem more interested in cash whereas others seem to offer sensible pricing and use the money for good. 

Most charge a weekly fee which covers transfers from Bangkok to the school and accommodation. There are usually activities arranged in the local area and perhaps a couple of special meals. It seems that a week will cost around $800. Sticking some tourists on a bus and putting them in a 500 baht per night guesthouse and they charge $800 a week! Fair play to them if they can persuade people to pay that much. What isn’t clear is whether or not the agency bills the school for providing teachers. 

One company I did see worked in a better way (in my opinion anyway). They don’t do tours or transfers but charge a flat rate of 4,000 baht which covers you for the duration of your time volunteering, whether that is one day or three months. It seems a lot more ethical and won’t break the bank. This company also states that they don’t charge the school for providing teachers. 

I’m sure the companies aren’t going to be fully upfront with their business model but I would love to see what the Thai MOE think of this practice. Hopefully there is clear regulation and rules that schools and companies must follow. 

Where is the money going?

My main gripe with the idea of teaching tourism is where the money goes. As I said in the section above some companies charge volunteers over $800 a week to teach at a Thai school. Whilst there are costs of running the scheme and for materials etc they must be making a good 50% profit at least on that.  I would also love to see how much is given to the school or invested into school projects. I also fear that some companies could be tempted to charge schools for finding them teachers. 

The other issue is that schools could use these schemes to get free teachers to the detriment of their pupils. If a school is not in a rural area then it is possible for them to find paid teachers. I feel schools using tourism teachers just to save money are a disgrace. It should be limited to schools who are unable to find foreigners after trying directly and via teaching agencies. 

Teaching quality 

You can argue about the quality of teachers but in the end the chance to use English in a classroom is invaluable for many. Without tourism teachers some schools wouldn’t be able to find foreigners. 

Also, some of the people who do come here have teaching experience. Some of the companies provide training or recommend online TEFL courses which is more than some paid English teachers have. 

Tourism teaching factories

Another concern I have is whether schools are turned into factories with a steady stream of volunteers which distracts students from school. Whilst paid teachers aren’t always 100% professional they are usually committed for a term at least and have lesson plans and a syllabus. If you have different volunteers every week then imagine the wasted time and repetition the students get. Hopefully there is a plan for tourism teachers to follow and they are observed during classes. 

Volunteering in Thailand

Volunteering is a good thing but the labour laws here mean that foreigners technically need a work permit to volunteer. These agencies obviously register as services which means the foreigners who use these companies don’t require a work permit. The argument from many expats in Thailand is that this process prevents them from volunteering at local schools. 

I think it is a valid point but the law is the law. What should happen is a charity should be set up in Thailand which charges a very low rate, maybe a few hundred baht a year and acts as a company and lets expats volunteer at local schools. If this membership fee was directly used for admin fees or school projects I’m sure most expats would be happy to pay to avoid the work permit issues.  

Here for the future

I can’t see this trend of tourism teachers coming to Thailand stopping anytime soon. I think there is obviously a steady supply of foreigners who are happy to pay for the experience and companies who can make good money from this business. 

In the end paid teachers in Thailand shouldn’t feel threatened by this industry and whilst it isn’t perfect it does seem to provide at least some benefits to rural schools. As I said the key is maintaining the quality and ensuring that companies and schools do not abuse tourism teachers to the detriment of pupils.

If you enjoyed this blog, check out my website - Life in a New Country 

Richard is co-author of a great new book on planning a life in Thailand. 

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Hello Richard
thanks for the well balanced article.

I do wish there was a central registry to regulate this sector.
Forget the money but ask questions like "Are you following the Thai Schools Curricula or do you make lessons up as you go along?"
"Do you keep a file on every school so that you know what each class has been taught during the current year?"
Surely it is the duty of the project to do the planning that is the basis of any teacher's work.
If they do this then their volunteers will be able to deliver on target lessons to the kids in the under funded rural schools. And they won't have every new pair of volunteers singing "Heads, shouders, knees and toes, knees and toes."
Let's get a bit of quality into these projects - then we can start carping about the prices.

By Ken, Phang Nga (15th December 2018)

Obviously, with the ascent of tourism to Thailand the world is currently keen on everything Thai - especially Thai Food. There is a wealth of focuses in Thailand teaching foreigners the complexities of planning Thai cuisine... and, exceptionally well known they are, as well!

By shubhamsahu001, Thailand (16th May 2018)

The whole concept of the teacher tourism industry is based on a belief that because a person comes from a wealthy economy he or she can “help” people from developing economies regardless of skills. Having the ability to speak your native language is unlikely to be the only skill needed to really “make a difference.”

My only personal experience with a person who paid to come and teach in Thailand was a guy who ended up at a mid-level university’s international program being used as a conversation partner for the students, who mostly came from middle class backgrounds and he was not allowed to actually “teach” due to accreditation reasons. He seemed pretty idealistic at first but I think he saw the folly of it all before his six months were up. Oh well, but he made a few trips to Pattaya and as he was a pretty average looking middle aged guy I suspect he didn’t feel all of his time in Thailand was wasted.

Overall, I don’t think these pay-to-teach teachers have much impact. But they don’t really hurt anyone either. The teachers get some liberal cred with their crowd back home for volunteering in a developing country, the school officials get a little face for having some international contacts and the students get a few hours of a foreigner babbling at them in a language they don’t understand.

I can’t really blame a company for profiting on the gullibility of these well-intended but pretty naïve individuals. (If we blamed every company for profiting over the gullibility of customers we could find a wide range of organizations and individuals to go after)

I don’t think these teachers have much effect on the market for qualified teachers in Thailand, but might make it slightly more difficult for unqualified teachers or non-native speakers to fit a job, but I would suspect the impact is minimal.

By Jack, A nice place (5th May 2018)

I'm all for voluntary teaching if it's done in the right way. If it's genuinely poor kids who are getting the chance to speak English, or whatever language, and are being given attention, I think it's great. If you're getting free teachers, you can't expect the best, but hopefully you can get people come in who try to make someone else's life a little better.

If it's a company looking to make money then no. Our police forces and fire brigades aren't businesses. And I believe our hospitals and schools shouldn't be either. These should be paid for by the tax payer. "But I don 't have kids! Why should I pay for their education?". When these kids are older, they'll be paying taxes, too. And some of that goes into medical care which you will most likely need at some point in your life. You can have your fancy private schools or hospitals, but everyone else who can't afford them should be given the same level of free healthcare or education.

Also, if it's just people wanting to come and take pics to put on FB etc, I'd also say no. "But isn't it better they come and help, and get their feed of attention than not come at all". Sure, there's an argument to be made there. But it still doesn't mean we shouldn't condemn this sort of narcissistic behaviour. Do it because it's a nice thing to do. Don't look for a reward. The world becomes a better place when people are nice to each other for no other reason than 'it's nice to be nice'.

Last point - I see some members on here like to come and shit all over poster's blogs or reader's comments without actually explaining why. I welcome anyone to counter any of my points with a rational argument. I don't engage with pseudo-intellectuals who think they can just dismiss people's ideas because of their stated experience or qualifications. Explain yourselves or quit ruining threads.

By Simon, I'm Ron Burgundy? (3rd May 2018)

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