Teaching in Thailand needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. If you can handle the hard work and bypass the bureaucracy, you’ll eventually fall in love with its people and culture.
After researching into visa requirements for working in The Kingdom, I was surprised when offered a job via an agency for only six months. Normally you stay for one school year before the schools even consider you. I was gob smacked when I arrived in October, before term started, to be greeted by two tiny nuns at the airport.
"Welcome to Thailand," they said as they bowed before me with a traditional wai, placing both hands together below their chin. The agency hadn’t mentioned anything about a religious school. After a night in a five-star hotel at their expense, I was picked up and taken to the school.
The school was enormous with 3,000 students and 300 teachers. The head sister gave me a full grilling. How long was I staying? Did I drink or smoke? Would I send money back to my family and how did I feel about Thai women? I answered appropriately as you would to any well respected member of society. I was accepted and promised an apartment next to the school.
I was told to get my hair cut to a reasonable length, head down to Malaysia for a temporary non-immigrant B visa.
I had been thrown in at the deep end, I had to prepare three months of lessons plans and visual aids in three days. The other farangs, foreign teachers, were busy scribbling away in the staff room. Within one hour, they were warning me of "The Sister", how she manipulated things and turned into a nasty dragon once you were settled.
The children were full of life, respectful, interested in learning. I was "Mr Barry". I taught a class of 23 nine- and ten-year olds. I was lucky to have the same class. It is unusual for teachers in government schools to have 40 and 50 students per class and 10 different classes each week.
Miss Nittaya, my assistant teacher, taught the students Thai and moral standards. I handled English, Math, Art, Science and Club, which involved cooking or dancing. There was also swimming on Fridays – an interesting change. Working alongside Thai and Filipino teachers was fascinating. They were polite, helpful and welcoming. I noticed a divide between them and the farangs, though.
Whilst the foreign teachers worked from 7:30 to 4:45, the Thai and Filipino educators taught from 7:00 to 5:30. They were paid a quarter of our healthy wage packet. This sometimes caused tension between the staff, naturally. I felt uncomfortable, working less, earning more (35,000 baht, £500 a month, more than enough to live. I even saved to finance a trip round Asia at the end of my contract).
Teaching was hard but rewarding. If I wasn’t teaching, dancing about or swimming round a pool with ten kids strapped to my back, I was preparing detailed lesson plans or visual aids. At the start when Miss Nittaya left the room, the students went wild, pretended they couldn’t hear me. Bribing seemed the only option to keep their interest. I used a lot of group activities, a "blob" reward system for hard work with prizes.
After a few months, I had more control and I made progress with their English. A favourite moment was when my parents came to visit and taught a lesson. They were greeted with cards and flowers, treated like royalty. Thai kids love to perform. We prepared several shows in English for the parents. The highlight was an International Peace Show which took two months to put together. I was responsible for Spain, half the battle was getting the boys and girls to hold hands for a Salsa dance. When they were on stage performing in front of two thousand parents, it was worth the agony.
Bangkok is not for everyone. With over 100,000 stray dogs running around, it’s smelly and dirty in places. Traffic is a nightmare. Nevertheless, I had a great time. I spent weekends exploring the wats, markets and museums. There is a huge international selection of restaurants, if you feel homesick, a number of places do a great roast. I like Thai food, rarely ate anything else, cheap too.
Nightlife is excellent. Kho San Road is a great hangout for travellers. The famous Pat pong area can be seedy with the strip bars and ping pong shows, but there are many good places to go out. Beaches, mountains and the countryside are ideal weekend trips. You’ll never get bored.
One conversation I remember distinctly. "I’m sorry, Mr. Barry, but we have to work through Christmas this year." This didn’t please me, but I didn’t have much choice. I cancelled my plans for a beach holiday with my uncle. Imagine my shock when I discovered the tsunami had struck, my uncle survived, however, his business was wiped out.
What impressed me most about Thailand was its people. The tsunami was devastating. Remarkable how the people held together and continued with their lives. There were numerous collections to help suffering families. "God wanted to save you," sister told me when I returned to work, maybe she was right. She volunteered on the beaches. When she returned, everyone respected her, including the farangs. I learnt how to appreciate life, to respect people more. I guess religion brushed off on me in the end.