Travelling, we reached the point where we had to stop to make some money. We tried our hardest in Australia but to no avail. After a lot of deliberation, we decided to enroll on a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course. We did our research and decided to go with a company called Xplore Asia.
After arranging everything via email and Skype, we set up camp in Chiang Mai for a month to do the course. Staying in a great little apartment just outside the old city, we travelled each day to the venue, which was on the opposite side of the city walls, in time for a full day of learning.
After a lot of hard work and stress, we passed our final exams and both qualified as English teachers! We also met some great people and now have a network of new friends to share our travelling and teaching experiences with.
Starting our Teaching Journey
Xplore Asia were (and still are) a great support, placing us with an agent and providing us with a teaching placement in Bangkok. We were excited but nervous at the same time as we embarked on a different type of adventure.
Having worked as a sports coach and a personal trainer back home, I was used to teaching and instructing, but not in this capacity. Despite having qualified, I was nervous about taking on the role.
Lynette was even more anxious, given that she’d never taught in her life. We knew, however, that we had to get on; we had come too far to turn back. Our placement was at a secondary school in a district of Bangkok called Huai Khwang. We were the only two foreign teachers in the whole school. Thankfully, most of the Thai teachers spoke reasonable English so we were able to get by.
Picking up Thai Phrases
That’s not to say that we didn’t quickly learn certain Thai phrases, having to repeat and hear them so often! As Thai is a tonal language, the following words have different tones. Look them up or feel free to ask me and I will happily elaborate. Such phrases that I’ll always remember are:
“Fang!” which means “Listen!”
“Poot” which means “Speak”
“Poot-sam” which means “Repeat”
But the one phrase that I heard time and time again from students (mainly the ones that hadn’t been paying attention) was “a-la-wa?” which literally means, “It is what?” or “What is it?” If I had a penny for every time I heard that, I’d be a rich man!
The School Structure in Thailand
The school structure in Thailand, after kindergarten, is divided into four key stages.
- The first three years in primary school, Prathom 1-3, are for age groups 7-9
- The second level, Prathom 4-6, is for age groups 10-12
- The third level, Matthayom 1-3, is for age groups 13-15
- The upper-secondary level consists of Matthayom 4–6 for age groups 16–18
In our school, each year group was split into different levels of ability, 1 being the “top” class right through to 8, who were the lowest. For example M1/1 means they are Matthayom 1 (13-15 years old) in the highest group. The students were in their particular set due to an overall test score.
Our Teaching Experience in Bangkok
We would be teaching Matthayom students 1-6; on the first day we were handed our schedules. It had been decided that Lynette would teach M1, 2 and 5 and I would teach M3, 4 and 6. I can only speak from my own experiences; walking into my first ever lesson of M3/1, I felt extremely nervous!
To my surprise, as I stood at the front of the class and was about to speak, one student turned to the rest and said, “Please stand up!” The whole class stood up, bowed and spoke in unison, “Good morning teacher.”
They then waited for me to respond and be told they could sit down. They then said, “Thank you teacher” as they took their seats. This happened again at the end of the lesson, the students saying, “Thank you teacher” as one unit. I quickly learnt that this was the norm in every single lesson and got used to it.
We were only teaching speaking and listening as the Thai English teachers took care of the rest. However, we learnt very quickly that when we asked students to copy from the board, they did so, verbatim. They even went so far as to copy the writing with the same spacing as that on the board. Clearly this was drilled into them from a young age.
As time went on, the teaching and planning became easier and we established more of a routine. Having to do lesson plans and print off flash cards (visuals for our key words) was time-consuming as we tried to come up with new ideas for each lesson. Planning and working together, we managed to muddle through.
Teaching Business English
As well as teaching during the daytime, I took on a second job at a language centre in Phetchaburi district, teaching one-on-one conversational and business English to Japanese businessmen three evenings a week. I didn’t mind the work at all. It was far easier than having to control a class of 30 children!
The only thing that did get to me was having to rush off straight after school at 4pm and not get home until around 8:30pm. Some days, I found myself walking there and back in horrendous monsoon rain! It wasn’t pleasant but the extra work was a good way to earn a little extra money.
The Reality of Teaching in Thailand
We were lucky that our apartment was only a 10-minute-walk from school, but we still had to get up at around 4am everyday so that Lynette could do her yoga practice. Having to clock in at 8am, we scraped in with minutes to spare most mornings! We weren’t allowed to clock out until 4pm so even if we had finished teaching for the day, we had to wait around. It meant we could get some planning done though.
In addition to the usual stresses and strains of teaching, the lack of organisation and continuity really began to get to us. We were only ever told about 60% of information. On one particular occasion, we turned up for work to find the outside assembly hall lined with chairs and separated into different areas. We were informed that it was a “celebration assembly”.
What followed was a four-hour extravaganza of speeches, awards and traditional dances, performed by the students. So our lessons that morning went out the window! Apparently, our situation wasn’t a rare case; most of the people we qualified with were having the same kind of experiences.
We also found that the school and classrooms themselves had very little in terms of materials and facilities. Most rooms still had black boards with chalk; we were lucky to have the use of a white board in a few classes but, other than that, there wasn’t much at our disposal.
The terms in Thai government schools are exceptionally long! There are two terms; the first lasting around 20 weeks and the second around 17 weeks, each with a mid-term and end-of-term test for students. We did speaking and listening tests for the mid-term with each individual student. We soon learned that this took far too long! So, having learned from our mistake, we did paper tests for the final exam.
Unfortunately, our time teaching in Bangkok came to an end after just one term. This was not our original intention but our negative experiences with “staff-room politics” and the lack of information that we received didn’t make our lives pleasant or easy. We decided that we couldn’t do another term, given that the situation had progressively gotten worse.
What I Gained from Teaching in Bangkok
Despite the negatives, we did meet some lovely people during our time at the school. Not only that but teaching such a valuable skill as the English language to young people had felt somewhat rewarding when, on the odd occasion, I saw the penny drop and the student understand.
We intend to turn teaching into a career that will enable us to live, work and travel in Asia. I will certainly use the experiences that I have gained in Bangkok to my advantage. After 20 weeks of teaching in a Thai government school, with everything else that went along with it, I feel overwhelmed by my first experience. It was nothing like I imagined it to be.
Despite the hard times, there were rewarding moments and I now identify myself as an English teacher. Now that the term has come to an end, we will be travelling for a while before we begin our next teaching chapter.
Top Tips for Teaching in Thailand:
- Be open to things changing daily, sometimes hourly
- Expect the unexpected!
- Have a plan. Have a back-up plan!
- Be prepared for large class sizes if teaching in a government school (up to 50 students is not uncommon)
- Show willingness and respect to all school staff but do not be offended if you are not shown the same in return
- Try to make friends with your colleagues – a small gift occasionally will go a long way!
- Be prepared to be thrown in at the deep end at a moment’s notice
- Be prepared for disobedience and disorder; show no fear and adopt a firm but fair approach
- Make sure that your paperwork, such as visa and work permit, is in order. Don’t ever think about teaching in Thailand on a tourist visa
- Enjoy the experience as much as possible! At best you’ll love it; at worst it’ll be a memorable experience that you’ll learn from!