I recently got an email from a young man who is teaching English in Korea and planning to move to Thailand to teach there. My name had been given to him as someone to ask for advice. For others who may be thinking about a similar route, here’s some thoughts based on my experience and observations from living and working in Thailand:
My BackgroundI am now a missionary but I previously taught at a Thai government college in a large city for 1.5 years, besides lots of informal English teaching. I have run seminars for Thai teachers of English and taught elementary school kids in Thai public schools as well.
With that said, here’s what you need to know about:
English Education in ThailandEnglish is taught in Thai public (and private) schools from about sixth grade through college but most Thai people get nearly nothing out of it. Their English ability is not much better than the Spanish ability of most U.S. high school graduates. They can say, “Hello, how are you?”, “I love you”, and that’s about it - unless you count a few curse words they have learned from movies.
Some Thai teachers of English are really dedicated and competent. Some aren’t. Most have never lived or studied in an English speaking country, so their actual English speaking ability is low. What they do know, they often lack confidence in using. So, they speak a lot of Thai in the classroom and mostly teach grammar and vocabulary memorization. The results are less than stellar, as you can imagine.
Private English academies pick up some of the slack but it is not enough. The most proficient speakers of English in Thailand are the highly educated, the highly dedicated, and prostitutes (from what I am told). The highly educated have the money to secure opportunities (including travel abroad) to learn English well. The highly dedicated improve their skills in spite of the system by finding opportunities to use their English with native speakers, and practice often. And prostitutes.... well, let’s just say they have lots of opportunities to practice English in their line of work.
Teaching Options for Foreign TeachersThere are way more opportunities for native English speakers (and all white people, for that matter) to teach English in Thailand than there are teachers to fill those slots. Most schools recognize the inadequacy of their own resources and are desperate for native speakers to teach conversational English to their students. The result is that desperation drives them to take whomever they can get. So, unqualified hippie backpackers and old white guys in search of a pretty young wife end up teaching English so they can stay in the country. As you can imagine, this is not an ideal job for them, nor an ideal educational experience for the students.
With that said, there are some brilliant opportunities for qualified native English speakers, sometimes at top schools and universities. For all sorts of jobs and openings, take a look at http://www.ajarn.com/ In Thai, the word “ajarn” means “teacher” or “professor.” This website is well known portal for foreigners looking for English teaching jobs and Thai schools looking for teachers. It is possible to secure a job even before you arrive in-country. This can be a big plus in terms of getting the paperwork for a work visa and work permit rolling.
Most of the English teaching jobs for foreigners in Thailand will be for teaching conversational English to low-level students who really can’t communicate in English at even a rudimentary level. For teachers who enjoy the challenge of teaching them, that’s awesome. But for many foreign teachers, this can be a frustrating experience - especially for those who have minimal knowledge of Thai language and culture. Bigger, better schools in larger cities have more opportunities for teaching upper level students.
Culture Shock & Adjustment
Bigger cities (like Bangkok & Chiang Mai) have more foreigners, and thus more opportunities for foreigners to get together with those who share their language and culture. Foreigners who go to the smaller towns without having much Thai language ability tend to get lonely, frustrated, and feel isolated from anyone who can understand the frustrations and challenges they are going through. Small town life in Thailand can be really enjoyable if you have some Thai language and the right mind set. If not, you may want to stick to the larger cities.
If there is any way for a foreigner to study Thai language for at least six months to a year prior to starting teaching, I would highly recommend it. Thai is not a language that you can just pick up along the way like French or Spanish. It requires concentrated study. If you can reach a basic conversational ability in Thai, you’ll likely have a much happier and satisfying experience living and working in Thailand.
Both of these books are easy to read and super helpful. Read them once before you go and then another time after you’ve been in Thailand for a while.
Culture Shock Thailand
by Robert Cooper
This is a really helpful, basic guide for foreigners coming to Thailand for the first time. Everyone who has lived in Thailand for a while knows this stuff already but for newcomers, it is a useful heads-up.
by Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy
For expats working in Thailand, this book includes lots of essential info on Thai patterns of leadership, decision making, and other cultural values that make for better working relationships.