I wrote this article in 2014 for my previous blog, but all of this info still remains relevant.
How I Ended Up Teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand
For the story of how I ended up teaching English in Bangkok and the benefits of teaching abroad for an aspiring entrepreneur, read From a Business Degree to Teaching English in Bangkok. I hadn’t dealt with kids at all before coming to Thailand to teach English. In fact, my university once hosted an event for children. At first glance coming upon this event, I thought we were hosting a convention for little people because I had seen more little people than children at that point. Couple that with a finance major and associating predominately with older crowds and one can very quickly lose touch with his inner child. I certainly had.
While teaching abroad can help one reconnect with feelings of empathy and care, there are also road block to be aware of.
The Bright Side: The Benefits of Teaching English in Thailand
Here are the memories that made teaching worth it for me:
- 4-year-old Ping Pong rolling around confused every time the children were supposed to get in a line.
- The group of 5-year-olds who fought over who was going to hold my hand.
- A classroom of 7-year-olds singing Happy Birthday to me.
- The excitement of 11-year-olds over receiving a sticker at the end of the day.
- The kids who wanted to take selfies with me.
- Hearing “Teacher, Teacher!” anywhere from anyone on school grounds just because they were excited to be able to address us.
- The Thai teachers holding the classroom together when I would fall off my game.
- Swapping teacher notes with the other English teachers from all over the US and Europe.
- The list goes on of fond memories that can make us all feel warm and fuzzy inside.
How Teaching Abroad Can Transform You
Teaching abroad teaches you to be human
We may feel at times that our value is hinged upon our ability to do calculations and use impressive words. Kids aren’t impressed by numbers, though. They like you if you’re funny, nice, and if you share. These are truly good things that many adults don’t properly value.
As a teacher, it is critical to be empathetic
It’s annoying when someone botches a spreadsheet and you have to redo their work for them. It’s cute when Poon just can’t color in the lines and needs a little bit of help.
Patience: You must learn to breathe when teaching
Explanation. Blank stare. Different explanation. Blank stare. One more explanation. Blank stare. Inhale. Exhale. “Who wants to play a game?!” Problem solved. Teaching will teach patience. Enjoy.
While there are plenty of heart-warming memories and developments that evolve from teaching, there are also many obstacles prospective foreign teachers should be aware of.
The Dark Side: The Cons of Teaching English Abroad
While teachers are leaders of a classroom, they are still employees in an often ugly administration system. That means office politics, contracts, and dependence.
- Here are some of the experiences I had that prospective teachers, specifically in Bangkok and in language centers, should be aware of:
- To appropriately teach and lesson plan took 50 hours per week, more than the advertised 35-40.
- While I was making “significantly more than the average Thai citizen,” I also had to pay for my flight, visas, vaccines, and I was unexpectedly charged higher prices for many basic things, making the salary barely enough to get by.
- Contracts are trickier than in the West. It is easy to get overworked and underpaid while much of what a teacher should be earning is held up in never-ending “probationary period” retainers. I found probation rarely ends as easily or quickly as teachers first anticipate. It is easy to get exploited in these contracts and trying to exit the company or the country could leave one at risk of being deported.
- Working for a language center rather than a school meant that I had 25 different classes per week – about 500 kids per week. This made it difficult to build individual relationships or make significant improvements with students.
- Being part of a language center also makes one feel like more of a cog in a systematic teacher machine than an actual human.
- More gossip circulates in a Thai office than a teenage girl’s slumber party. Every mistake a foreign teacher makes is noticed and discussed.
- Thai culture is about saving face. This means parents and teachers don’t acknowledge that some students have special needs. It is difficult to not be able to cater to every student in a classroom and to know that some students will be left behind out of one’s control.
- While I had nice, friendly kids who wanted to learn, I also plenty of students that were committed to being distractions to the classroom. Learning to work with these students within the confines of an administrative system that likes to disregard problems can be one of the largest challenges.
- While teaching did in many ways reconnect me to my inner child through working with my students, it also forced me to grow up in many ways. I felt more exploited and vulnerable than I ever had before. I had to pick up a second job, at first to afford to save for a flight home and eventually to travel to the Northern Thai villages. The hours I had to work coupled with the mental drain of being continuously dragged through the insidious clauses of my contract left me with a feeling of lifelessness and eventually I became ill.
After becoming ill, I began to heal and ground myself with yoga and meditation, which was a brilliant silver lining to the difficulties I experienced. Read more about that in my Farewell to Bangkok.
Advice for Prospective English Teacher Abroad and in Bangkok, Thailand
To sum up, I leave any prospective teachers with this advice:
If you want to teach English abroad, come prepared – mentally and financially
As I mentioned, yoga and meditation got me through the rough patches. Be sure to have a steady mind before coming. The costs of getting to and settling into Bangkok pretty much cleared my bank account. At least have enough money for a plane ticket back home so you have the freedom to leave a bad contract.
Research your companies or schools when looking for English teaching jobs in Thailand
If you have a friend who has taught abroad, talk to them. If I would have searched Facebook to find somebody working for the company that hired me and asked them about their experience, they would have warned me against joining this company. When I was there, half of the employees were trying to figure their way out of the contract without being deported. The company I worked for was Fun Language Center and I would strongly recommend avoiding this company.
Teach English in schools rather than language centers
Language centers are like teacher machines but more popular in big cities and schools are often underfunded but friendlier. I’d personally recommend working for a school although it is usually easier to get a job in a language center.
Living and teaching English in Asian cities is difficult
Asian cities not like Western cities built around society and cultural centers. Many Asian cities are built for and around manufacturing, making them more polluted, overcrowded, and stressful. Even if you are a city person, be weary about planning a move to an Asian city.
Don’t be discouraged – there are many great English teaching jobs abroad
But be careful. Many people love their jobs teaching abroad. But it does take time and experience to find a good fit. Most people I talked to said that they felt taken advantage of and misled by their first teaching job, but loved their second job – usually at international schools. The reality is that a rough job market in the US has a lot of grads looking to teach abroad, giving employers more room to exploit foreign teachers