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.
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.
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.
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