Traveling Teachers: Teaching in Thailand

The traveling teachers series is all about people who travel and you guessed it teach! Each interview features a different teacher, traveling to a different place, and teaching a unique group of students. So often we hear of people teaching abroad, but what is it really like? How do you find the opportunities? There are many questions surrounding traveling and teaching. Through this series, I hope you are inspired by the good work going on around the world, learn, and start to think about ways you can travel and teach abroad yourself.

This week I am excited to bring you a story about a teacher in Thailand! I loved this interview because Tara has been living and teaching in Thailand for five years! Tara is the creator of www.nutritionabroad.com where she writes travel tips and guides as well as recipes from around the world. Originally from Upstate NY, she has been living in Thailand for the past 5 years and is now currently traveling the world! If you have more questions about working abroad in Thailand, make sure you check out her blog. Here is her story of teaching abroad.

What inspired you to teach abroad?

I had a few friends who had taught abroad before, both in Korea and Thailand. My boyfriend and I were looking to move abroad but we didn’t know where. When we heard how easy it was to live in Southeast Asia and work as a teacher, we realized we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. We already were in love with Thai food, so we figured that’s where we would go! We signed up with the American TESOL Institute for their month-long program on Phuket to gain the experience we would need with ESL students. Once we had decided to go abroad there was no going back!

How long did you teach and where?

First we taught English at government high school’s in Nakhon Sawan, Thailand for nearly 2 years. This was a great experience for us because we worked in typical Thai schools in a very traditional Thai city. There were no other foreigners really except the ones working in our schools, so we were able to fully integrate into Thai culture, learning the language and how to read, and we made fast friends because there were so few of us. We really had a connection, more so than if we were working in a larger city. However there are downsides to teaching in the government schools. I taught 18 classes per week and each class was different. The classes ranged from having 40-60 students per class, which was really a wake up call for me. I had to learn quickly how to control a class that size. The students didn’t care too much about learning English, so it was difficult at times. I had nearly 1,000 students per year. The plus side was you don’t have a lot of preparation to do in this situation. You need one lesson plan per week and you teach that to every class. When I left school I didn’t have to go home and grade, make new plans, etc. The time was mine when I left school.

Our next teaching job was completely different. We got hired at an International school outside of Bangkok. We taught there for 3 years and loved every minute of it, although it was a lot more work than the government school. I no longer taught English either, I was able to teach in my subject area which was Science. I taught Biology, Food Science, and Nutrition. Classes had only about 20 students, and the students were highly motivated individuals who genuinely cared about their education. That made teaching them more fun, and you are able to form stronger bonds with your students when you have only about 100 total instead of 1,000. The more difficult part is the planning. I had to build all 3 curriculums on my own, plan every lesson, and also grade. My first year I worked about 10 hour days, including Sundays, just preparing for class. It was a more rewarding experience however, and I would rather do that kind of work any day over the job I had at the government school. International schools also typically employ International teachers, so you meet a lot more people. You also get to participate in activities such as coaching sports or starting clubs.

Were any of your expenses covered with the teaching experience?

In the government schools you are pretty much on your own. They don’t pay for flights, moving expenses, and sometimes they don’t even pay your work permit or visa. However, in the International school system the benefits are much greater although they vary school to school. My school paid for my flights to Thailand and home to NY, moving expenses, work permits and visas, professional development trips, health insurance, etc. The salary is significantly lower in the government schools than the International schools as well.

How did you find the program or opportunity to teach abroad?

If you sign up with a company such as the American TESOL Institute they will actually place you in a school, but it’s almost always a government school. When people are first moving abroad they are usually nervous and think it might be difficult to find a job on their own. This is not the case. You can use websites such as www.seriousteachers.com or www.ajarn.com or www.daveseslcafe.com to find jobs. You can also look for International schools and contact them directly to see if they are hiring. If you are a qualified teacher already, than I suggest you sign up with Search Associates or ISS. These agencies do all the work for you and find you the job most suitable to your experience and education. You can also visit International Job Fairs do meet the schools face to face. The jobs fairs happen all over Southeast Asia. Bangkok’s job fairs are typically in January.  Government schools in Thailand start in May and run typically through February or March. Their holiday is during March and April. International schools follow an International schedule, meaning they start in August and finish in June. If you are looking to work in the International school system, please be aware that most schools will have completely finished hiring by January of the year prior.

Were you able to spend time traveling and exploring the country while teaching? Where were you able to go? What did you do?

Absolutely! The best part about working in the government school system is that typically you don’t have to spend time working on the weekends, giving you plenty of time to make weekend trips. However, they don’t usually pay you during the summer, and while you will have 1-2 months off, you will most likely have to budget your money. In the International school system you will have the same holidays as in the US, such as Christmas and Easter break, summer break, and various holidays throughout the year. You’re paid more money and all year-long which makes it a lot nicer when traveling! During our 5 years in Thailand we traveled extensively throughout the country, as well as Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, and Borneo. We saved up so much money from our last job that we were able to backpack around the world for 10 months (which we are currently doing!).

What were interactions with students like?

I always only worked with middle and high school kids. The kids are fantastic in Thailand. In the government schools they are awesome, but they don’t seem to care as much about learning English, which can make it a bit more difficult to teach them. They also don’t speak as great of English, some not at all which makes it even more difficult. However, they still love their foreign teacher and are always super friendly and respectful.

In the International schools is where you can really bond with your students. Nearly all of them are fluent in English, so you are able to have normal conversations with them and talk about important events going on in the world or in their lives.  They felt like an extension of my family, almost like they were my own kids. I truly fell in love with them. Teachers in Thailand are highly respected (unlike the USA!) and the students are always kind, respectful, focused, and caring.

 What was your favorite part of teaching abroad?

It’s difficult to have just one favorite part of teaching abroad. I loved my students, I loved learning a new culture, enjoying amazing food, and traveling to places I would never have traveled to without living there. Thailand is so cheap that you are able to live a much more relaxed life without the stress you have in the US. You aren’t living paycheck to paycheck. You can actually save money and do the things you want to do. Thailand felt like home to me, and will always hold a special place in my heart.

 What is one piece of advice you have for someone who wants to teach abroad?

First it’s important to know how qualified you are and what kind of job you can get. Don’t go to Thailand with a Master’ degree in teaching and get a job at a government school. Know that with that degree you can basically teach at any school you want.

Second it’s important to understand that you are moving to a completely new place with a different culture. Especially in Thailand, but other places as well, learn the customs of the country so you don’t offend the people. There are so many rituals and rules that you would never even think of, and most people don’t take the time to learn them. For example in Thailand you never point at something with your feet. You never pat a child on the head. You never talk bad about the royal family. You must dress appropriately at temples. You never raise your voice or scold someone and make them ‘lose face’. There are so many things to learn, so read before you go. I saw so many foreigners who didn’t seem to care too much about the Thai culture, and that isn’t going to get you very far, whether you’re working at a government or International school.

Lastly, travel as much as you can! Take the opportunity that you are so close to other countries! Don’t spend every weekend getting drunk in Bangkok, go explore the world there is so much to see!

You can follow Tara on her social media listed below. For more about Thailand and other awesome destinations, make sure you check out her blog!

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For more about the traveling teachers series, click here.