It was my first day of teaching and I was feeling a little nervous. I knew I shouldn’t be intimidated by a bunch of four-year-olds, but my experience with kids was limited, and as for my teaching experience ─ I didn’t actually have any. I took a deep breath and entered the classroom to find 15 tiny Thai kids beaming up at me, “good morning teacher”, they called. A microphone was thrust into my hands and it just seemed natural to sing. I felt pretty silly, but soon learnt that the sillier you are, the more the kids love it. We were soon prancing about doing the Hokey Pokey, and the kids were in hysterics, especially when we did the ‘shake it all about bits’. I was just happy that no one I knew was there to witness me making such a fool of myself.
Teaching English was one of those things that I had thought about but never seriously considered until a few months ago, when I found myself back on Ko Sahn Road, tired of traveling and low on funds but not quite ready to go home yet. I decided to respond to one of the many ads for English teachers. Bangkok is notorious for its cowboy operators and rogue dealers, so I was a little concerned that I might get whisked off and sold as a sex slave, but I chose a professional looking ad and arranged a meeting at a well-known guesthouse. I had no experience or qualifications but the next day I was enthusiastically embracing my new role as Teacher Alison, strutting around with a microphone, dramatically scrawling all over a blackboard and unleashing my inherently bossy (though previously dormant) nature on the children of Thailand. It seemed I had finally found my true calling.
Thailand is suffering from a chronic shortage of English teachers, due to an increase in demand for native speakers and a decrease in the number of visitors since the tsunami. It is about the only country in the world where you can teach English for a reasonable salary without qualifications. In many cases, agencies and schools require only that you are a native speaker, although generally having a degree in something will help. Teaching experience and a TEFL certificate will give you a wider choice of jobs and a higher salary.
I signed up with Arthur at The Foreign Teachers Council (FTC) he was friendly and helpful, providing me with training, books, a uniform and help with my work visa. Initially I worked as a relief teacher at various schools. One school was located in thick rainforest near the ancient ruins at Ayutthaya. It’s hard to imagine a more exotic location and the school was nestled inside a huge complex of ornate temples and built almost entirely on water. Classrooms rose up on stilts and were connected by a series of wooden bridges. Water lilies and elaborate sculptures filled the water. It was the first time a foreign teacher had come to the school and I was welcomed like a movie star.
The next day I was feeling decidedly less glamorous when I found myself at an inner city government school. Many of the teachers carried sticks. “It’s the only way to control the kids”, one of them told me. I was shocked until I took my first class of the day which consisted of 65 screaming, hyper-active 12-year-olds with no interest in learning. I am the most passive person I know and totally against corporal punishment, but after five classes ─ during which I nearly lost my voice from shouting over the mayhem ─ I wished I had a stick. I thought it was best that I didn’t go back.
It was strange to find myself back at school, but this time as a teacher and in a position of power. I had to laugh though, when I found I still had to sneak out for a cigarette. Teachers are well-respected role models here and hanging around outside the gates with a fag hanging from your mouth wouldn’t go down too well. If kids detect even the faintest whiff of cigarette smoke or last night beer on your breath, they will complain.
I was apprehensive when the agency organized a full-time job for me at an all-boys secondary school; I had horrible flashbacks of the disgusting 13 and 14-year-old boys I used to hang out with in Australia. Luckily my new school turned out to be one of Bangkok’s most prestigious and the kids were mostly respectful and well behaved; they certainly weren’t sneaking alcohol into the school or holding wild parties while their parents went away on the weekends. Of course there were some naughty little buggars, but also some total sweeties which make it all worthwhile. The kids’ nicknames were quite endearing; Donut; Ping; Pong; Goo; Earth; Hope; Sun; Golf and my favorite – Love. In lots of ways they were similar to the kids at home, they all love computer games, action movies, going to the beach and eating icecream, although when I asked them about girlfriends they all looked rather embarrassed.
Morning assemblies featured flag-raising, a parading band and the singing of the national and school anthems. A large and well-tended spirit house protected the school from evil spirits. Chatting with the kids and reading the written assignments I set them was fun, there were a lot of real characters, including a budding revolutionary which kind of surprised me. When I made the kids write a letter to someone, he wrote to Che Guavera to tell him how much he admired him. When asked where he wanted to go for his next vacation he replied, “To America, so I can start revolution against George Bush cos he very bad man and he want to use weapon of mass disease which he went to Iraq to steal from Sadam Hussein”.
I tried valiantly to get them interested in environmental issues, talking about pollution and the overuse of plastic but they all looked totally bored. One day I did a class about endangered animals and destruction of habitat, “Doesn’t anyone care,” I pleaded with my non-responsive class, “Yes teacher, you do” one of them replied.
Thai accents can be quite thick, and understanding what the kids were trying to say was challenging at times. When I asked them to tell me what things they liked I was totally confused by one boy’s reply, “tlaver”, I eventually figured out he meant travel. Another kid replied “t-shirt”, which I duly wrote on the board, “no t-shirt, T’SHIRR”, he yelled. I went into a lengthy explanation about t-hsirt having a ‘t’ on the end before finally realizing that he was actually paying me a compliment as he meant to say teacher.
If you are thinking of becoming a teacher here, being aware of cultural differences will make your job easier. There is no point getting stressed about anything, anger and frustration will be met with total disdain by the teachers and the students. Controlling a room full of noisy, hyperactive teenagers without yelling calls for some imagination. I usually found turning my back on them did the trick, failing that, switching off the air conditioning was a sure bet. Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country and the Thai people have a very relaxed approach to life which is reflected in the classroom. Kids fall asleep, mobiles ring and there is endless chatter. The schools themselves can seem horribly disorganized but things always seem to work out somehow. A couple of pointers; if you’re a woman, don’t tell the class you like fishing ─ it means masturbating, and if you’re a man the same goes for flying a kite. If your name is Jim, you should probably change it, as Jim in Thai is a very rude way of referring to a woman’s genitals.
Working here will give you an insight into Thai culture that you won’t find hanging out in the usual tourist traps. The beauty of Thailand is that the people are friendly and welcoming, the climate is tropical and the atmosphere exotic but you can usually still find western comforts and conveniences, particularly if you work in Bangkok.
Salary: In Bangkok you can expect a monthly salary of 27,000 -35,000 baht, which can be supplemented with weekend work. Generally you will earn less outside of Bangkok.
Living Costs: In Bangkok you can rent a studio from about 3000 baht per month. If you want something really nice, expect to spend at least 6000. Many schools in the provinces offer accommodation.
Visa: If you sign a contract with a school or agency they will help you organize a three month work visa which costs around 2000 baht.