Something I have really enjoyed about working in TEFL in Thailand is the chance to meet and work with colleagues from all over the world.
Before moving to Thailand I worked for a London based travel company where pretty much everyone was British. However, my London house share saw me live with people from Portugal, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, Finland, Estonia, France and Malaysia, which was a great experience.
The idea of moving to work in Thailand was formed through talking with these people who had left their home countries to live and work abroad.
Like many new TEFL teachers my first step was to get a teaching qualification. I opted to do my CELTA in Bangkok and out of the 12 trainees 6 nationalities were represented. My research into the TEFL industry had given me ideas that only teachers of certain nationalities are considered native speakers. However, our class had a 50/50 split between native and non-native speakers.
The first morning was spent getting to know each other and I enjoyed speaking with the trainees from Bulgaria, India and Thailand who all wanted to get qualified. All trainees gave good advice but it was from the non-native speakers that I got the greatest insight. They told us about problems language learners face. Their real examples and ideas helped in those first few months of teaching.
The Thai trainee was my greatest resource when it came to stepping into the classroom for the first time. She told me about the problems Thai students have with English and these insights turned out to be true.
When I observed her teach I could see she really understood the students and could anticipate how they would react and what problems they would have in every activity. Sure, you can learn about this through years of experience in Thailand but to have someone like her on my course really helped me to get through the teaching sessions in my CELTA.
The untrained American high school teachers
In a brief three-month period teaching in a Thai high school I worked with three American teachers and an Australian. None of them had had any TEFL training other than a one-day training course run by our agency. I felt it was difficult to use many of the techniques I had learned from my CELTA and could see these teachers were not planning classes and seemed confused when classes didn't go well.
There was one thing I really did learn from them and that was how to have fun in the classroom. None of them were staying in Thailand for a career. They were on gap years and just came to enjoy themselves. In all honesty I thought at the time that they were letting the students down but in the end when you have 50+ students in a class you cant expect they will learn much anyway.
I observed a couple of these teachers and the American women I worked with had a great rapport with the students. They were able to create a fun atmosphere and maybe they didn't have lesson aims or communicative activities but the kids did enjoy the classes. I changed the way I approached teaching large high school classes because of this and in the end felt I delivered more valuable lessons.
Although I did enjoy the job more after changing my teaching style I knew that I wanted to be more than a class clown and needed to change to teaching in a different environment. Those three months of partying after school and traveling on weekends were fun but I knew I couldn't sustain it if I wanted to be here long-term.
Working with Thai staff
Whatever type of school you work with in Thailand there will be Thai staff. There can be language and cultural issues for sure but there are staff who choose to work in these companies because they enjoy speaking English and want to work in an international environment.
I worked for three years in one of the most well-known language schools in Thailand. In our centre there were around 25 Thai staff and 10 foreigners. The Thai staff were all at least intermediate speakers and many were pretty much fluent. Between them they knew all the students and would give teachers feedback and advice about them. They would come in at the end of lessons and support you as a teacher when giving feedback and error correction to low level students.
If you can work with Thai colleagues like these then you will have a great experience. They are invaluable to help you with work but also many are keen to socialize after work and help you. I can honestly say that the Thai colleagues I had at that job were among the kindest, most helpful Thai people I have met.
One aspect I also learned from working with these Thai staff is that they would very rarely say no to their bosses. They would stay many hours after work unpaid whereas management accepted foreign staff would never do this. However, I would see that lot of the time rather than being grumpy about this they would find a way to make this extra work fun and things often turned into a mini party. It made me more positive to helping out and joining these activities just because the people seemed to have fun.
Getting your visa and work permit is always a big issue for foreign teachers. Thai HR staff tend to drive me a bit crazy. Either a lack of urgency or inability to communicate can cause issues. HR staff usually graduate from a business related degree and can have a limited knowledge of English. In the end they get the job done and I guess I can thank them for teaching me patience!
Many companies use a visa agent to get things done. My old school had a guy named Ton who looked after visas, work permits etc. Everyone in our company loved him. He was good at English and knew how teachers felt about the process at immigration. He would get us to the front of the queue and out of there within 30 minutes every year. Honestly, he made the process so easy and is the sort of guy you need to see if your company has. If you have a guy like him he is worth his weight in gold to help you and put your faith back in humanity after dealing with Chaenwattana immigration.
In my job in London at a travel agency I had some great bosses. I felt like a learned a lot and there were 2 official performance reviews during the year. I would also get a lot of informal feedback on a weekly basis. In Thailand I have had very mixed relationships with my managers.
The Thai management at the high school I worked at couldn't speak more than a few words of English. After an observation the feedback I received was "Very good, play more games." To be honest the management usually left us alone at the high school and communicated to us via our agency. Working at a Thai high school you shouldn't expect a great deal of feedback or development opportunities partly due to language hurdles but also that most management are happy to have teachers and don't want to alter the status quo.
In a previous language school job I had a Thai manager who was great. She could speak very good English and was more internationalized. This meant she could speak to teachers on a friendly basis, not just about work. She wasn't trained as a teacher but had a background in business. I really respected what she had to say. She was a big reason I stayed in that job for three years. I had a few problems at work and she was the first to stand up for me and try to solve them. In the end she left and a lot of people followed her shortly after.
In a part time job I had in the past the Thai manager had lived in America for a year so was good at understanding cultural issues and the language. She was quite forthright and didn't hold back. A lot of my colleagues back then weren't used to having a strong Thai female boss. She sacked a long-time employee on the spot which kept everyone else in line! She was a good decision maker which is something I respect in a boss.
Overall there are some great Thai bosses who you can learn from but also those who are either terrible at their job or can't communicate in English. If you can find a job with an internationalized Thai boss or one who has lived overseas then you will get a lot of cultural insights and good feedback.
One of my previous bosses was half Thai, half American. The benefit was that he could speak both languages fluently and understood cultural issues from Thai and foreign staff. He gave good monthly training sessions discussing problems Thai students had and how we could resolve these. He understood that feedback was important and set up regular observations.
One thing I did see is that he would have issues with Thai staff more often than the previous manager who was Thai. Maybe that he enforced English as the only language in the workplace didn't help but he never quite won over the Thai staff.
In total I have had four western bosses during my time in Thailand. All of them have been British. I have also had team leaders, some of whom were American.
I was really excited to have a western boss but so far only two have been good.
The first boss had been in the job a long time and the problem was she had reached as high as she could in the company so didn't care much. Professional development was poor and observations didn't happen after my first six months at the company. You can see quite quickly here in Thailand who cares about their job. Managers should be someone you look up to but she was my anti-role model, I knew I should never get that complacent.
Another boss had been working in Thailand for over 25 years but had so much energy. I only worked for him for a month but he gave great ideas and feedback in that short time.
Just from these two examples you can see that bosses can either motivate and encourage you or cause you to become complacent. After three years in my old job I knew I had to move as the boss there was not challenging me, they lulled me into their feelings about not caring. I had lost a lot of passion for teaching and needed someone who could help me. Now I'm a lot happier and things are improving.
In general, I have found that the better quality schools do tend to have more accountability. They make managers do observations and give proper feedback.
Foreign teaching colleagues
In my three language school jobs I have worked with teachers from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Canada and Myanmar. They helped me to develop through the sharing of ideas and teaching methods they had honed from their time teaching.
Working with American teachers helped me to develop my vocabulary of American English and I'm sure I helped them in return with British English. Many countries have different words and idioms and I have been able to use these in classrooms. One teacher who had lived in New Zealand and Australia gave great insight into local slang and it was something the students loved learning about too.
I have also had the chance to work with Filipino teachers in a previous part time job. They have all been very jolly and it was a benefit to work with them just to steal some of their energy in the classroom! I have also found that most Filipino teachers I have worked with are very professional and well qualified. They helped me step-up my performance and commitment to teaching.
When it comes to teaching ability then I believe observations are key to keep you improving. The chance to observe teachers from different countries has allowed me to think of more creative lessons and to use techniques they were taught in their own country. I have also benefited from their feedback when observing me.
I am now in a job where there are monthly meetings where teachers present ideas and we invite specialists in to give presentations and training. The chance to listen to teachers from America, Australia and New Zealand this year has really helped me develop and find out about teaching resources which are popular in those countries.
It is also interesting just speaking to and knowing people from around the world. I honestly think it is very difficult to have a true Thai friend. Meeting other expats here with a western background is much easier.
I'm not the most social guy but I have enjoyed hanging out with foreign colleagues after work. American colleagues have shown me great burger bars, Thai colleagues know where the most beautiful temples and hidden restaurants are and Australians have come with me to watch cricket and rugby in Bangkok.
In London I could have met people from these countries but here it is so much easier to do so. I still enjoy going to the pub and watching football with English friends and colleagues but I like the variety I get here too.
If you arrive here on your own to work then your colleagues are likely to be the first people you get to know in Thailand. A lot of people are in the same boat and bonds can quickly form. It seems I celebrate a lot more festivals now with invites to join friends for events like Thanksgiving and Loy Krathong. This is not something directly linked to teaching but is an added bonus of moving abroad and getting to know people from other countries.
And a few problems
As I already mentioned there can be language related difficulties. With Thai staff this could be expected but I have had problems with other teachers too.
There are differences between British and American English which have left students confused when I have told them they are wrong on a point which an American has taught them. There are also times where students have been taught incorrect grammar or vocabulary by both native and non-native teachers.
My current staffroom is great, we have a mix of five nationalities and everyone gets on well. In the past I was in a job where all of a sudden I was the only non-American on the teaching staff. Whilst it didn't cause huge problems I did feel a little left out as they spoke about obscure American topics and politics.
I'm a chatty guy in the office and it left me not being able to join in the conversation, I really missed having another British person there to talk about common topics.
I love the international environment
Overall, I really enjoy having a true international environment at work. The chance to work and meet people from so many countries has improved me as a teacher and allowed me to learn a lot about other cultures.
There will always be cultural or language issues but the benefits far outweigh these when you get the right job. As I said previously your manager can make a big difference and a lot of schools have problems communicating with foreign staff which can create tension.
If you can find a school with good management and clear communication, then you are on to a winner.
If you enjoyed this blog, check out my website - Life in a New Country