Teaching English in Thailand: A Survival Guide
After a full 7 months working in Bangkok, I’m still learning the ins and outs of Thai culture and teaching English. Every now and then I wish there had been someone around to tell me all the things I’ve learned through painful (and occasionally embarrassing) trial and error.
The main pointers I wish I’d been given – as an English teacher you’ll be an entertainer, a therapist, a babysitter, a mime and a diplomat. Be ready to take on several roles. As an expat, you’ll learn that we take many things for granted in the McCultured parts of the world like evenly spaced stairs, toilet paper in the bathroom, and the ability to wear red or yellow shirts without being attacked by an angry mob. Be as adaptable as possible and don’t let the little things get to you. As someone who moved here without much forethought, I can tell you that you’re going to need all the help you can get, but it’s a life changing experience and entirely worth it.
Things to know before you go
1 – Looking for work?
Your first assignment is to pick between private, international or government owned schools. You’ll want to weigh factors like certification requirements, pay rate, working hours, schedules, holidays and air conditioning.
Private schools are usually air conditioned, in major cities and have fewer students per class. Expect a salary in the 30s if you’re TESOL qualified and be ready to negotiate for more if you have a CELTA. Books and resources are often provided, but split schedules can be a problem.
If you’re interested in a school that provides training, look at ECC. They have a Train then Teach program that comes with guaranteed job placement. Keep in mind that you may be teaching both children and adults in private lessons and classes. Still, it’s an easy way to get started and one of the only schools that’ll guarantee a job before you hop on a plane.
The downside to any private institution – cancellations are common and many schools don’t charge students if they cancel a day in advance. That means the school can promise a schedule of 30 hours, but at the end of the week you’ll only have 24. A lot of teachers will schedule closer to 40 hours counting on cancellations, and they end up brain dead when everyone shows up.
Government schools are very similar, but chances are you’ll get weekends off. Traditionally you’ll be at the school from 8 or 9 till 3 or 4. Be careful though, you may be required to go to overnight camps and classes can get quite large. This wouldn’t be so terrible if air conditioning was always provided, but some schools just don’t have it. Resources vary, but no worries about cancellations or split schedules.
International and bilingual schools come highly recommended by every teacher I’ve met so far. Salaries can get up to 60,000 baht per month, and one of my colleagues gets paid 12 months salary for only working 9 months a year at an international school. If you hope to stay in Thailand long term, this is definitely the place to find work. Advanced degrees are sometimes required.
The downside to any international or bilingual schools – the market is competitive and face to face interviews are often required. This means you’ll have to save up enough to survive in Bangkok for a few months while you job hunt. The cost of living is cheap, but factor in travel expenses if you want to check out other locations. I’d highly recommend this route to anyone with certifications and teaching experience.
2 – Location is very important
Bangkok has protests. They’re as much a part of the city as the Grand Palace and Wat Po. If you’d rather avoid the risk or the hassle (try getting to work with hundreds of demonstrators blocking the street), Thailand has a wide variety of choices. Chiang Mai is a more secluded, teacher-friendly option with plenty of international schools to badger for work.
The suburbs of Bangkok rarely see any action during protests (my boss lived in Bangkae during the coup of 2006 and didn’t feel a thing). Ayutthaia comes highly recommended to hardcore devotees of Thai culture – you’ll definitely feel like you’re in a foreign land. For anyone wanting to pursue scuba diving certifications and other water sports during your stay in Thailand, head south.
3 – Register with your embassy
Often you won’t get a heads up about protests until the day of, but it’s better than nothing. Remember to be cautious if you live near a government building (I wouldn’t recommend this). If you aren’t in the center of Bangkok, there’s a good chance that you won’t know anything is happening until you turn on the news. A lot of people living in Bangkok regard the protests as an annoyance and mention them in passing like they’re talking about the weather. Remember to keep an eye on them, but it’s no reason to stay away from Bangkok.
1 – Don’t mix up Taksin and Thaksin. One was a king, the other has issues.
Back in the day when Thailand was known as Siam (pronounced SEE-am by Thais), there was king who did great things – probably why they call him King Taksin the Great. He ruled in the mid-1700s and there’s a decent chance you’ll hear about him if you ask for an example of bravery in a class. Sadly, a little less than 350 years after Taksin ruled, a man named Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister. His name is synonymous with corruption and abuse of power with many Thai people – probably why he was ousted in 2006.
Make sure you’re clear on which one you’re talking about before you start badmouthing either one (not that I’m encouraging badmouthing anyone which leads us to #2).
2 – Watch what you say about politics. And don’t wear red or yellow.
In Thailand, there are red shirts and there are yellow shirts. Red shirts are pro-Thaksin (see #1 for details) and yellow shirts are not. Red shirts tend to come from low-income rural areas and yellow shirts tend to be middle class. Yellow shirts invaded the Bangkok’s international airport in 2008. Red shirts invaded an Asian summit and set buses on fire in 2009. Stay away from both if you see them marching down the street. Some of the protests are peaceful, some involve military and moltov cocktails.
Keep in mind that Chiang Mai tends to be red and Bangkok leans toward yellow.
3 – Seriously watch what you say about politics, especially the King.
Before a movie at the theater, you’ll be asked to stand for a tribute to the King. You should also stand when the national anthem is played at 8am and 6pm The absolute worst thing you can do in Thailand is insult the royal family. It’s called lese majeste, and it’s a crime punishable by 15 years in Thailand. I’ve heard that politicians accuse each other of it when they really want to get people riled up, but this is one you really want to stay away from. If you talk about the King during class, be respectful and encourage students to lead most of the discussion.
Stopping in Lumpini Park at 6pm is highly recommended. Even the runners and bikers pause to listen to the royal anthem.
4 – Nothing on the floor but your feet
In keeping with rule #3, you should never put money on the floor. Why? Each bill has a picture of the Thai king printed on it, and Thais believe that putting it on the floor is disrespectful. Same goes for books. And bags. I’d keep going, but just to be safe, keep everything off the floor. It’s just easier.
Also, never put your shoes in a cabinet above someone’s head or on a table. Shoes walk on the floor, so I guess it goes without saying. Try not to point your feet at people either – feet go in shoes that walk on the floor, so. . .
5 – Girls – don’t sit next to monks.
Monks are everywhere in Thailand, so don’t be surprised to see them in 7-Elevens, shopping centers, taking motorbike taxis, etc. There is even a temple that opens to the public once a year so that monks can give people tattoos and blessings. A few guidelines – always give your seat up on the skytrain or bus if a monk gets on. If you are female, don’t touch, talk or sit next to them (and don’t take offense if they give you a wide berth when walking down the sidewalk near you).
6 – Don’t call anyone a buffalo.
Calling someone a buffalo in Thai is the equivalent of idiot or dork in English. Act accordingly.
7 – Wear a raincoat from April 13th to the 15th.
Songkran is the Thai New Year celebration. They celebrate with water guns (tourists do, anyway). Be especially prepared if you’re in the center of Chiang Mai or near Kho San Road in Bangkok. Don’t be shocked if they put ice in the water – it’s tradition.
8 – More tips for girls only
Tampons can be expensive and difficult to come by if you’re outside of Bangkok, so stock up while you can. Don’t be too surprised when you can’t find lotion that doesn’t have whitening cream as well. Thai women think fair skin is beautiful, so if you really want to make them laugh at the store, ask for tanning lotion.
On a separate note, if you aren’t a size 0-1 in petites, get emotionally prepared before going clothes shopping. Shopkeepers are amazingly blunt and will quickly appraise your size as you browse. Don’t get offended if they say "No, too fat." when you ask about a blouse. They’re just trying to help. This one goes for men as well.
9 – Try at least one motorcycle taxi
Nothing says Bangkok like seeing four people packed onto a motorbike with a few bags of groceries hanging off each handlebar. And maybe a baby or a monkey riding up front (just kidding, monkeys usually only ride with two people). On occasion, motorbikes can be seen driving up on the sidewalk or the wrong way down a one way. These are wonderful fun, but you should know that the majority of Thai people are Buddhist. Meaning that when they pass a temple, they must wai it (see # 7 down below for complete details) – it requires them to let go of the handlebars for a second to put their hands together (like in prayer) and nod their head. Drivers have a great deal of experience doing this, so don’t worry too much when it happens. You may also see taxi, tuk tuk and bus drivers doing the same thing.
One other suggestion – you should prenegotiate fares with motorbike taxis and tuk tuks. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so, get a metered taxi.
Things I wish I’d known
1 – R’s and O’s are VERY similar to Thai students. It’s almost as difficult to master as L’s.
One of my students gets her l’s and r’s mixed up ever time, so teaching the verb "clap" took some serious patience. Remember that when telling students how to pronounce their l’s, it’s going to be a little awkward sticking your tongue out and forcing them to touch their upper teeth with their tongues. Keep in mind that Thai people find it rude to stick out their tongues (it’s never done while speaking Thai), so reassure them that it’s just necessary if they want to improve their accent. Another trick for teaching f’s and v’s is to have the students bite their bottom lips with v’s.
2 – Keep a straight face when calling roll
Some nicknames are picked in hopes of bringing good fortune and wealth – Boss, Great and Best are a few examples. Other nicknames are picked because they sound nice like Earth and God. And finally, some names are simply picked because their parents didn’t know what it meant in English, so you’ll have students called Oil, Gun and Pimp. Porn and Pee are both shortened versions of common Thai names.
Try not to laugh too much.
3 – Don’t get frustrated
Thais begin learning English at a young age, usually with a foreign teacher. Often these teachers don’t use articles or tenses and sometimes they just get words wrong. After hearing it so many times, your students will undoubtedly pick it up, and the cycle continues. Some students refuse to change it because they want to speak English like their friends. They call it English with a Thai accent.
When this happens, gently remind them that the best way to learn it is by practicing it correctly. They can always go back to speaking their way once they’re out of class.
4 – Remember to speak slowly and clearly. If that doesn’t work. . .
Almost everyone in Bangkok speaks at least a little English. This comes in handy when you first arrive and start exploring. However, you’ll quickly find that many people won’t understand your accent even if they speak English fairly well. When this happens, try leaving out articles, tenses and prepositions (see #3 if you don’t get why this works). You’ll start doing it automatically after a few days (a really bad habit for an English teacher), but keep in mind that the best way to communicate is to start learning Thai as soon as possible.
5 – Learn Thai
Thai is a tonal language, so keep your ears sharp when studying it. Listen for both the sound of the word and the pitch. It’s possible for the same word to have several meanings based on the tone. iTunes has free podcasts for basic Thai expressions and its4thai.com is another good starting point. The Thai alphabet strongly resembles stick figures doing yoga (making it difficult to master), but it really helps your pronunciation if you learn the basic phonetics. Learningthai.com is easy to use for beginners.
Just a few pointers –
The Thai alphabet has more than 40 letters, and the writing system doesn’t require space between words. The end result is similar to reading amassofwordslikethis. Certain letters don’t have an English equivalent – one letter is a mix between G and K, another is between a P and B. This is the reason you get different transcriptions depending on who you ask. In addition, vowels are placed above, below, on top of, beside, and attached to their consonants. So they don’t really read left to right. Then read a little to the left then maybe one letter back then two letters forward then up one then back to the squiggly letter that’s an S at the beginning of a word and a T at the end.
Don’t get too discouraged, but you may want to consider starting sooner rather than later (preferably before you arrive).
6 – Remember your ka’s and krup’s
As you start deciphering Thai, you’ll find yourself hearing the words ka and krup all the time. These words are used to add politeness at the end of a sentence, and they can be used as "ok" or "yeah". Remember that ka is only used by females and krup is for males.
7 – Master the art of the wai
It’s a bit awkward the first time you go to shake someone’s hand as they wai you (bring their hands together – like in prayer – and nod their head slightly). Your students will do this every time they meet you, and adults usually do it for introductions. Traditionally you won’t wai a student back (or almost anyone younger than you), but return it with anyone else.
8 – Think outside the box. And try to get familiar with British, Kiwi and American slang.
It takes at least a few weeks before your students can say something like, "I have an insect, do you know?", and you’ll eventually start taking less and less time to realize that they were aiming for, "I have a bug. I’m sick." Sometimes they’ll ask for the definition of "sweet as" (Kiwi for "cool") or "dodgy" (British for "dangerous or shifty"). It builds some credibility if you can answer off the top of your head. If they come up with something you can’t find, there’s always Urbandictionary.com
9 – If you get a question you can’t answer. . .
When a student raises their hand and asks what exactly a negative adverbial is, it’s tough not to break into a cold sweat. One of my fellow teachers gave me an easy out in dealing with questions like these. First, don’t freak out. Chances are you won’t know this if you’re just starting out (advanced grammar wasn’t covered in my TESOL class, and I don’t think it ever is). You probably have a vague notion in your head, but you shouldn’t teach it without some preparation. Tell your student that you don’t want to wander from today’s lesson, and promise them you’ll allocate some time next class to cover the topic in depth.
10 – A few Thai expressions that every teacher should know
Mai kow jai – Don’t understand.
Mai dai – Can not.
Arai – What?
Araiwa – What the fuck?
Alai Go Die – Unsure or whatever.
Mai pen rai – No worries. Don’t worry about it.
Kwai – Buffalo.