Scott Hipsher

Cross-cultural education for teachers

Adding to opinion and speculation about the teaching industry

When writing about the ESL industry and Western English teachers in Thailand or other Asian countries, it should be kept in mind the industry is extremely fragmented, unregulated and there is a startling lack of reliable statistics or data about the industry and the teachers working in the industry.

One could think of this as a handicap in writing about the industry, but on the other hand it allows for a variety of opinions and speculation with little chance of the writer being "proven" wrong. In other words, one could say it gives the writer a license to make stuff up.

So one can think of this piece as adding to the opinion and speculation of the industry and teachers based on personal experience being in and around the industry for well over a decade, but not really having any solid statistical evidence as a basis for the speculation.

In doing research for some of my writings on expatriates, a common opinion was found about the importance of training in working across cultures in preparing workers to function well and adjust to working in a different cultural environment.

Yet few ESL teachers have any real cross-cultural training or preparation for working in a different cultural environment. A personal observation is it appears on average ESL teachers have more difficulties adapting to working across cultures than do expatriates in other industries who go through more preparation for working cross-culturally.

Therefore it is speculated that most ESL teachers would benefit from additional education on and exposure to some of the concepts and ideas used in cross-cultural training programs.

While experience is important and there is nothing that can replace experience in gaining cross-cultural work skills, so is education important, as our education often sets the frameworks in which we use to categorize our experiences in order to make sense of them and learn from them. As educators, it is assumed most of us appreciate the importance of education and the positive effect it has had on our own ability to use our experiences wisely and learn from them.

It is suggested many problems ESL teachers have in adjusting to their new environment could be lessened by understanding some of the underlying assumptions of the different cultures and the differences in these assumptions. For example, many Western teachers in Thailand have a problem with the "no-fail" policy in Thai schools and fight against it. Yet if one puts this policy in the cultural context of Thailand being, using Hofstede's framework, a more feminine culture, or if one prefers the GLOBE studies categories, a low performance oriented society that places more emphasis on family and harmony in society than Western societies which are high performance oriented cultures which place more emphasis on competitiveness, individualism and materialism, it starts to make sense.

Another example, it is not uncommon for Western English teachers to experience many problems with the Thai managers and administrators of the schools they work in. It is speculated a basic understanding of the difference in "power distance" in Thai society as opposed to Western societies, and using this understanding when approaching one's bosses could limit the severity of most the problems many teachers have in this area.

One of the keys to working across cultures is not only to understand the uniqueness of the "foreign" culture one is working in, but also the uniqueness of the culture one comes from. Western cultures, and particularly Anglo-American cultures, are much farther from the world's norm than is the culture of Thailand or other Asian countries in many areas that have been measured by researchers. It is not only "they" who act strangely and believe in ways influenced by culture, so do "we." Understanding the uniqueness of one's own cultural values can be a good starting point in developing an understanding of other worldviews.

Understanding and appreciating other cultural values does not require one to embrace the new culture and completely abandon the values one has grown up with. However successfully working in a country with a very different culture from one's own usually comes from suppressing the desire to attempt to change the values of the foreign culture to match the values of the culture found in one's homeland.

Experience and research seems to indicate the most successful expatriates are those who adapt their behavior to their new environment, take a non-judgmental attitude towards cultural difference yet at the same time hold on to the core values they have grown up with.

Therefore it is believed some cross-cultural education could benefit most ESL teachers. Of course being an individual who often teaches cross-cultural management, I might be biased in this opinion.

Education does not always have to be formal education. While it is doubtful most ESL teacher would feel it important enough to pay for a formal cross-cultural training session before (or after) starting an ESL career, there is plenty of good information on the internet or in books which might be helpful.

Most people read up on the country and culture they are going to, which is obviously a good idea, but also studying some of the frameworks, such as the dimensions of cultures from Hofstede or the more recent GLOBE studies might provide some mental frameworks teachers can use to help them initially in overcoming the culture shock nearly every ESL teacher goes through and also to frame later experiences in a less judgmental and more informed manner.

Gaining some specific education, either through formal courses or informal self-study on how to work cross-culturally might help in some small way both new and more experienced ESL teachers be more successful in their work and have a more fulfilling experience while working in Thailand or other foreign country.

As far as education and knowledge goes, more is almost always better than less.

Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,

The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective,

Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries

as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics. One of his latest works can be found at this link.


I totally agree with Scott, your attitude, and the ability to be adaptable is the key to understanding the cultural differences. That said it does not mean we have to agree with everything in the school system. We cannot change the system we need to just go with the flow.And try not to make the mistake of many teachers that over estimate the students abilities.

By Peter, Bangkok (8th March 2012)

Poor miserable J in Bangkok. I wish these types would buy a one way ticket out of the country. Inflexible and intolerant, he seems to walk under his own dreary cloud. They are certainly fun to poke fun of, though. All this hubbub for a 30K baht a month career you treat like a job. How long have you been in LOS? Why haven't you acquiesced? You must be one stubborn nut.

By jimmy, saudi arabia (1st January 2012)

Last comment was directed at J, not myself :)

By Scott, China but soon back in BKK (9th December 2011)


I take it you have decided to reject my suggestions that instead of attempting to change Thailand, adust one's perceptions of the new environment :).

Fair enough, I hope your approach to working in Thailand works better for you in the future than apparently it has in the past.

Sounds like you have been having a hard time.

By Scott, China but will be back in BKK sson (9th December 2011)

Everyone gets cross-cultural training. because everyone has to do the Thai culture course. However, this seems to be primarily a money making exercise, and then an excuse to trumpet Thai culture as being superior, without ever criticizing any of the associated aspects. Hours and hours of ridiculous dancing and things that don't impact your job, a rubbish attempt to teach Thai language which violates all the standards of teaching a language that you learn on a TEFL course, and no real effort spent to address shortfalls in the Thai education system other than the idea it is a "different culture". Yes, we know that.

I do think it is quite objectionable to think if we don't agree with Thai culture in education, it must obviously be our fault. If someone tries to stop someone else from continually hitting their head against a wall, do you blame the first person for not trying to understand the second person's motivations?

I also find it objectionable to think that we didn't do any research prior to starting. I don't like the insinuation that people with a problem teaching because of culture just didn't prepare hard enough. How would you know?

Teaching some kids the present perfect should not be too hard. The only things which make this hard is 1) a culture that opposes deep thought, genuine respect, and anything which isn't "fun", and 2) administration which prefers face-saving, shallow respect, prioritizing cultural events and "fun" over education, and an adherence to educational principles in place in fully developed countries (whereas a place like Thailand should stop being so arrogant and stop putting the cart before the horse).

By J, BKK (9th December 2011)

Anonymous and Thinktank

Your negative attitudes towards working across cultures seem to be quite common amongst ESL teachers and this negativity and the wasted opportunities for positive experiences that result from this negativity motivated me to write this article.

Once strong opinions have been formed, education and exposure to new ideas may not be very effective in changing these opinions. So I won’t try to change your opinions about the culture you have worked in.

However I wonder if both of you had been exposed to some cross-cultural training and self-education prior to or during the time your opinions were being formed would you have had different tools and mental frameworks in which to evaluate your experiences and maybe would have had more positive and enjoyable times as ESL teachers.

I think it would have been possible or even likely.

Thinktank, best of luck in your new endeavors.

By Scott, China, but will soon be back in BKK (8th December 2011)

I agree wit you, Thinktank. It has something to do with their culture and their education system. The officials are just too lazy to think and to accept that there's no progress unless they will change the system. Some of the students are too lazy to do their tasks and some are not even respecting the teachers because they are aware now that a teacher cannot do anything against them since they are paying the teachers through the school (specially in private schools) and aside from that, some schools cannot kick them out since the school needs the money (business eh!). What a mess really in their system. There was one time I had an encounter with one thai resident near our place and I tried to explain the word (it was a surname actually in English but being spoken in Spanish language)...that thai person refused to follow my "correct reading" or right pronunciation of the word since he didnt know how to make it right and then he corrected me instead because he said I am staying in his country. What a sh****! really. I said to him that the reason I am here in your f***** country is to teach you what's right. Well, it didn't come out right. But what I am saying is, they would rather always follow what they think is right even it is actually wrong than following the right ones because it would make them confess that they were wrong in the first place. Take note: you can never tell them right on their very face that they are mistaken. Try telling them and then you'll become a big "jai lai" to them.

By anonymous, bkk (7th December 2011)

"We started talking about why if you were from a great country like England, America etc would you want to “waste” your life in Thailand"

How long is it since you were back in England? I was there last month. 'Great' isn't really an adjective you can use for the UK anymore I'm afraid. It has its moments of course but generally a lot of people are far happier here.

Just because one person hasn't made a success of it doesn't mean that the country is suddenly a waste of everyone's time.

By philip, (7th December 2011)


You are right, as a teaching professional I am tired of being unappreciated, underpaid and being walked over all the time. My girlfriend and I was walking down our soi yesterday and we were just amazed at the amount of foreigners living in Thailand who will probably spend the rest of there lives here. We started talking about why if you were from a great country like England, America etc would you want to "waste" your life in Thailand being seen as an outsider and a farang (The word farang I find extremely racist bydaway)

They say Thailand is the land of smiles but that is rubbish. They only keep smilling as long as your pockets are full. They definitely do not have an embracing warm culture.

I am still young and came to Thailand to try and make a difference in peoples lifes but unfortunately I feel it was 2 years wasted. They are too stupid to realize when someone tries to help them.

By thinktank, Bangkok (6th December 2011)

Thinktank, you just sound extremely jaded. You've probably made the right decision to go home.

"What a messed up culture they have, bowing down when greeting, taking of your shoes......."

I think taking off shoes is perfectly understandable when you enter someone's house. I certainly wouldn't want someone coming through my house in their great big clodhoppers. And personally I like any greeting that doesn't involve shaking someone's clammy wet hand.

By philip, (6th December 2011)

The problem with Thai schools is very simple. It does not matter how good a teacher you are, the Thai students simply does not want to learn. I have given up trying to teach them anything as it is impossible. The idiom, you can lead a horse to the water but you cant make him drink sums up the situation perfectly. Also why would you want to study if you know you cant fail.

I don't think any amount of training will fix the above mentioned situation because the teacher can only do so much you need some cooperation from your fellow Thai teacher and students but they dont give a F***.

I honestly believe that Thai people got left behind somewhere in evolution seriously what a messed up culture they have, bowing down when greeting, taking of your shoes, saying ka or kup after every second word. Come on man this is the 21st century wake up.

In closing I would like to say foreign teacher try every day of the week to improve the next generation of Thais but they do not want to take advantage of this opportunity they have been given, therefor Thailand will always remain a screwed up 3rd world country with the big majority of its citizen living in poverty. Sure glad im going home in a couple of months.

By thinktank, Bangkok (6th December 2011)


You seem to be having trouble adjusting to your new cultural environment, you are not the first, in fact I suspect all expatriates and English teachers have and are still having similar problems in adjustment to a more or lesser extent. I know I have had and still have my moments of cultural friction.

But as per the advice from the article, some self-study on working across cultures to help you not only understand Thai culture, but also how you are a product of a specific culture and are not “normal”, might help you in your adjustment.

Cultures can not be objectively measured as good or bad; there are only personal perceptions of cultures. The idea that Thailand's culture is "bad" is a perception, not a fact.

You will not personally change Thai culture (which for those of us who have been around for many years realize has changed considerably) but you can help manage your perceptions of this new culture through increased education and knowledge.

Good luck, it is hoped you can have a productive and enjoyable career and life while working outside the comfort zone of your home culture.

A little reading and self-study about cross-cultural issues might help you achieve these goals.

By Scott, China but heading back to BKK soon (6th December 2011)

No, I'm not hired to change culture either. I just find the existing culture gets in the way of results. All the time.

Sorry, I had a bad day and maybe I am being more spiteful than usual. Actually though, yes, my students do owe me the respect of me being a) an adult and b) a teacher (arrogant? No, only what I keep hearing all the time is an aspect of Thai culture).

The fact is, it is very difficult to learn a language in the class time I teach. Thai culture (everything must be fun, don't be too serious, talk all the time etc) works against the learning of a language. No, you can't be serious all the time, but I haven't met a student yet who could speak very good English and who wasn't also a conscientious, hard-working, and, yes, serious student. All the ones who are really fun loving and don't like working hard tend to have wasted their time, as they leave having learned very little.

I would imagine this scenario can be seen in other subjects- the students who go against the grain of perceived cultural traits are the ones who get a lot out of the subject. Maybe I'm just not a very good teacher. However, I've noticed this with other students I have not taught- the best students are always the least "Thai", as per the fun-loving stereotype.

Also, the idea that most Thai people are really Buddhist is highly debatable. Obviously in terms of what they call themselves, they are Buddhist, but I hardly think it meets even my basic understanding of Buddhism. And the idea that Thais are not motivated in a large part by material wealth and possession (to an even greater extent than many western cultures) is debatable, too.

I also take exception to the idea that Asian culture focuses more on community and moderation than western cultures; I just don't see that in my area (and I live up country, not in a westernised city). Where is the evidence that there is more cohesion and middle way thinking in Nakhon Sawan, say, than New Mexico? From what I can see, gossip is the order of the day, and keeping up with the Joneses is deeply entrenched.

Finally, I would suggest that Thais seem to want to do business in the global community. If this is indeed the case, they have to knuckle down a bit. Is that an unreasonable expectation? The world doesn't have the same beliefs as Thailand, in the main, and therefore, if they want to be a part of it, as they say they do, they are the ones who must change. If I can offer any insight or perspective to my students to prepare them for this, I don't think this is a bad thing.

These are just my own beliefs, and if I come across as unreasonable, sorry. Maybe I'm too set in my ideas of trying hard. If this is the case, it's a big problem for me, because unfortunately my ties now prevent me from ever leaving...

By J, BKK (6th December 2011)

Interesting comments J. I have a few questions for you.

First, what is the problem with “letting them off easy”

Are “they” accountable to you? Do you think they (Thais) feel the need to seek your approval for their values and actions?

“Is this culture ready to be competitive in the global market?”

Do you think being competitive in a global market is the primary goal of the majority of citizens of a country with a culture that is at least partially based on Theravada Buddhist values which stresses the highest level of personal development is to give up all earthly and material desires?

Can or should we expect people from a different culture to have all of the same values we as westerners do? Are you sure your (and my) culturally influenced values of competitiveness and materialism are superior to the Thai values of social harmony and moderation? I haven’t abandoned my western values after many years working in Asia but I am also not convinced the world would automatically be a better place if everyone thought like I do.

You are hardly the first ESL teacher to express harsh criticism of Thai culture, but personal experience and most research on expatriates in other professionals seem to indicate by taking a less judgmental attitude to your new surroundings it would improve the probability of having more success and getting more out of your overseas experience, but of course you are free to ignore my advice :).

I don't remember ever being told in any job I held in Thailand (or any other country) my duties including judging or changing the cultural values.

By Scott, China but heading back to BKK soon (6th December 2011)

Okay, but I still think this thinking can be too easily subverted into being used as a way to make excuses for poor performance, from both students and administration, or for "letting them off easy". Maybe some cultures just aren't very suited for real education- in 5 years, there is very little I have seen in Thailand that has indicated that it is.

Is this culture ready to be competitive in the global market? This requires people who are well educated and resourceful, and I feel if Thailand wants to be anything like a leader in the future, it must change some aspects of the culture that interfere with educational progress. It doesn't have to of course, if it feels it is too much a sacrifice- but if it doesn't, it will always be a follower, or an easy mark for smarter, more results-oriented countries. I really think it is a case of "you can't have both".

As for the everyone must pass theory- I will never be able to accept that. I just don't think it's fair, and I know many students don't think it is either, as they work hard for their grade and don't enjoy seeing the class jerks getting a free ride. This community spirit cohesive group fluffy nonsense will, hopefully, die off with the next generation, to be replaced with a system which allows effort and attainment to be noted.

By J, BKK (6th December 2011)

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