As I near the end of my one year teaching contract in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I have been reflecting on everything that I have learned and experienced. Teaching in Thailand has been one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my life. On that same token, parts of it have been challenging and difficult. In this post, I will try not to sugar coat any of the bad parts to offer a realistic view of what it has been like.
What I Needed To Teach In Thailand
- A Degree- I can’t speak for other areas of Thailand, but Chiang Mai is known for being a bit more selective about the teachers it employs. I don’t know anyone working without a college degree, and my school required one.
- Native Speaker- This was just the rule at my school. Many other schools employ other nationalities as long as their English level is high enough.
- A Background Check & Sealed Transcripts.
- TEFL Certification- This was not mandatory, but it certainly helped me learn the foundations of teaching and eased my nerves on the first day of class. Some schools also will not employ without some kind of TEFL or TESOL Certification.
Once I got my job in Thailand, I had to go on a visa run to Vientiane, Laos. Any good school will cover the costs of your visa run for you. After that was done, I had to get a work permit that is valid for one year. Once I had both of these documents, I had to report at the immigration office every 90 days.
What to Expect
I can’t even describe my nerves on my first day teaching Prathom 1 (first grade). I walked into the room and saw 45 little faces looking back at me. Turning around to the chalk board I half wanted to grab my things and walk out, but taking a huge breath I turned around and smiled. “Hello class! My name is Teacher Kaitlyn.” From there it has been a year of growth, change, and making a lot of mistakes (but learning from most of them!). Here are some the things I have found and experienced while working in Thailand.
I love my classes. I can’t say enough good things about them. Thai students are very respectful by nature and begin and end every class by standing up in unison and greeting or thanking you. Sometimes when I walk into a class I feel like a celebrity. Having a class stand and cheer when you walk in is probably one of the most heart-warming feelings you can imagine. Just thinking about never seeing these little guys again makes me tear up a little. Just yesterday they saw me walking and gave me a giant 20 kid hug. It brightened my entire week.
On that note…
In my opinion, most of the classes are far too large for the children to learn or the teacher to teach effectively. My smallest class is 30 students, which I am very lucky to have. They are essentially ‘my’ class that I see every day and work with. I have two of these types of classes, and I have seen really progress in their English. I see 3 other classes two times a week, and those classes are very large- at 45 students. These classes can be extremely frustrating. There is no air conditioning and during the hot months it is not uncommon to have kids pass out in class. These classes are supposed to be a joint effort between thai co-teacher and foreign teacher- but it has not worked out that way for me. I teach the class by myself with the exception of translated instructions on occasion.
There can be resentment and a feeling of separation between the thai teachers and the foreign teachers. I assume that this is because of the salary discrepancy (which is kind of understandable when you look at it from their perspective). This can be frustrating when there is no dialogue between the teachers as many important things don’t get relayed. Many times we have no idea that something needs to be done until the very last minute.
There is a no-fail policy. This essentially means that every child passes every course regardless of ability or effort. This means there can be very low-English level kids combined with high-English level kids in one classroom. I’m sure it’s the same for other subjects. Classes can be cancelled quite frequently. This can be a real treat, although it does make lesson planning a lot harder. Thai’s have a very mai pen rai attitude about class cancellations and you just have to go with the flow of things. There is an extremely laid back atmosphere in most Thai schools.
Most Thai schools are also very proud to have foreigners work there and are keen to show you off in any capacity. My friend had ‘gate duty’ where it was her job to stand outside and greet prospective parents. I also had parent observation day, where about 10 parents crowded into the back of my classroom and observed me while I taught. That was terrifying. The teaching hours at my school are fairly good. I teach 17 hours a week in addition to club and and after school class twice a week. However, there are also a lot more random things that are required for foreign teachers to do that don’t really pertain to teaching. My school runs an overnight camp where foreign teachers are required to camp and run activities for the students the following day. We also have to attend frequent Saturday events that usually involve a lot of sitting around listening to presentations in Thai.
The pay is fairly low but the cost of living is low as well. It is possible to get an apartment for around 150$ a month. You can also save a lot of money on food if you are willing to eat from Thai vendors. Surprisingly, groceries have been one of our biggest expenses here as I prefer to cook my own food at least 4 times a week.
There are a lot of holidays in Thailand. I would recommend finding a salaried position if possible as you will be losing a lot of income during certain months if you are working hourly. I can also say that you will truly never be bored if you decide to work in Thailand. Things that would be completely unacceptable at home are deemed perfectly appropriate. For example, my co-teacher duct taped a students mouth shut who was talking while I was talking. It certainly would not have been the way I would handle it, but it was effective. There are also many huge parades, events, and fairs in which almost no expense is spared.
Bluntness is extremely acceptable. If you are fat, you will be called fat. I don’t think it’s even really considered an insult. One of my kids ran up to me on my first week working and said “Teacher, Bonus is pig!” while pointing to a larger boy in the class. My response was to chastise her, but I turned to see my co-teacher laughing and saying said “Get it? He’s pig because he is fat!” while Bonus smiled good-naturedly. Mai pen rai.
I have made many, many mistakes. On my first day teaching, we were making name tags and my co teacher told me to give the children their English names. I went around assigning everyone to be ‘Sarah, Billy…ect’ until my co-teacher noticed and told me that they already had English names given to them by their parents. I looked around, completely mortified while my students gazed at me with confused expressions on their faces. Thai students English nicknames can also be quite cute. I have a ‘Cartoon, Tornado, Giant, and Hero.’ Luckily, most of the Thai people I have met have been extremely forgiving of cultural faux-pas that I am sure I have unknowingly made. Although there have been challenging parts of teaching in Thailand, it has also been one of the most amazing experiences. My kids possess an energy and a beautiful, positive outlook on the world that is truly infectious. Some aspects of working in Thailand have been difficult, but the bonds I have developed with my students has made it so worth it. Their little smiles will have a place in my heart for the rest of my life.