Teaching English in Thailand

I have a newfound respect for primary school teachers worldwide. Before I returned to Thailand and begged my old agency for a short-term placement in the midst of summer break, I hoped it would be an elementary position Not necessarily because I was looking forward to teaching young, adorable children, but because I really wasn’t looking forward to going back to high school.

Due to a nonexistent schedule for the first two days of class, I was randomly assigned the lower grades of 1-3, and told “just do whatever you want” by my Filipino manager. I entered the room to smiling faces and was greeted with a standard, synchronized, “Good morning teacher!”

teaching in thailandThey were absolutely adorable. For the first five minutes. That’s all it took for any last-minute lesson plan to morph into Plan B: Babysitting.

I have no patience for this. I signed up to teach students, not daycare. It’s adorable when you hug me, but not when five of you cling on and tug my arm and slap the back of my neck, all wanting simultaneous attention. I didn’t sign up to be a mom.

I really am sorry if your head hurts, or your classmate scratched you with his ruler, or punched you in the face after you tried to choke him out, but I didn’t sign up to be a nurse, either.

teaching in thailandI understand this is a necessary part of teaching youngsters, but it eats away at my patience like the roof of my room, hidden inside the school’s library, which cracks under too much pressure, giving way to a flood of water. Okay, that’s an exaggeration; I haven’t cried. Yet.

But that’s what you folks back home willingly sign up for, albeit with much better behaved students, hopefully, and I commend you.

When my schedule was finally made, I was relieved at what felt like a blessing to be given the older children in grades 4-6. However, my little paper timeline had classes marked “computer” and “math,” as well as “English.” It surely couldn’t be mine, for I haven’t seen the inside of a math book since high school. (That class at fashion school certainly doesn’t count as I’m sure the teacher sought to erase all previous knowledge and start again, using graph paper and a ruler for simple math equations. The ruler was for drawing a square around the answers so he could easily see them. This was a man who prided himself on his fluency in four languages. Last time I checked, those who excel in the liberal arts do not necessarily do so in math. It was true for him.)

Thai students“Uh, let me see if I got this right. So I’m teaching math to the older students whose math I don’t even understand?”

“It’ll be fine. It’ll come back to you,” offered my English coworker. “But if you fancy the younger ones, we can switch.”

I thought back to Grade 2 racing around the small room with scissors in their hands and shook my head. “Nah, I’ll figure it out. Thanks!”

And she was right. Math is actually my favorite of the three subjects to teach now, and its a good refresher for me as well. Grades 5 and 6 are small, only six and nine students respectively – a nice change from my classes of 50+ in Suwannaphum last year. Their English is already much better than my high schoolers, and they’re quite good students who can have a laugh and get their work done at the same time. I’m rather enjoying my short time with them.

Grade 4 still gives me problems, particularly because they’re stuck between the “clingy” phase and the “I’m too cool for school” phase. When the latter half gives me grief, I just look at the innocent faces of the others and remind myself it’s only three more weeks.

teach in thailand

Three more weeks. Three more weeks. Three more weeks!

One month will pass before I even notice it, but I still won’t know how my counterparts back home do it for nine, year after year. You’re immortal souls.

God Buddha bless you.

Teach English in Thailand
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

Award: GoAbroad.com Blog of the Week

I’ve just returned from another blog-worthy weekend to the fantastic news that this here blog has been selected for another high honor – GoAbroad.com’s Blog of the Week!

I promise, the stuff you’re really interested in is coming soon. You can look forward to stories about the oh-so-common indecent exposure on China’s streets and sidewalks; photos and details from my beautiful trip to Zhaoqing, the Yangshuo of Guangdong Province; and more posts about teaching. I know you’re getting impatient, so feel free to click here and read my essay about teaching in Thailand over at Wandering Educators.

But seriously. If you’re interested in traveling with a purpose, GoAbroad.com is your one-stop shop. Whether you’re planning to volunteer, study, intern or work overseas , GoAbroad.com has the resources to help you. It even has a job resource page especially for Teach Abroad opportunities and TEFL certification programs.

Plus, the best part about GoAbroad.com, for me, is that it’s headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado, precisely where I’ll be this time next year. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to meet the guys and gals who make this site work – and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be hiring 😉

Check out their nice write-up about MissAdveture here.

GoAbroad - Welcome to the resource for meaningful travel!


Award: GoAbroad.com Blog of the Week

Written by:Jessica J. Hill

I Miss My Ex, But Not All of It

After teaching in China, I’ve been forced to admit how much I didn’t enjoy teaching in Thailand. It’s like the opposite of the phrase, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

I relate my experience more to a bad relationship – one where you don’t realize it’s bad until you’ve moved on to realize what a good relationship actually is. Now that Thailand and I broke up, I have not forgotten all the things I love about it – it will always be my first love, an affair that taught me a lot about myself and my partner – but I have since discovered one thing I didn’t like: Teaching.

My freshmen university students here, in China, are absolutely fabulous. They actually want to be in class, for starters, not just because their teacher is white, but because they want to learn. They understand what I’m saying (it’s a dream come true!) and actively participate when asked. Even the not-so-enthusiastic classes will come to the front of the room and speak, even if reluctantly.

In Thailand, if a student was adamant about not speaking (which is the reason they were in my class), they would simply run out of the room shed. I do understand there are some vast differences between my high-school-aged students (eighth graders and sophomores) and my college freshmen when it comes to maturity and taking control of their own education, as is true in any country (in fact, I spent a lot of time defending my Thai students for these very reasons), but there are some other huge factors that play into it too.

Chinese students are told on the day they are born how important it is to be educated, and they spend their entire childhood studying and stressing about their college entrance exams. It’s a part of the culture to be studious, and more than half of my students named reading and studying as hobbies (as well as sleeping and eating, but that’s another story).

In rural Thailand, the emphasis on education is much lower. A priority list with education at the top exists for few, and not one of my students was ever caught reading a book. Students will skip class for reasons such as helping with the family farm or being too tired from a field trip (like I was after this one), and it’s perfectly acceptable in a country that allows students to drop out after freshman year of high school.

Many of my Thai eighth grade students will choose that option, and the few who do finish twelfth grade won’t further their studies at university. They have other priorities, like caring for the family and helping mom with the family’s street-food stand.

I realize it’s completely unfair to compare China to Thailand – they are very different countries in almost every respect of the word. However, just like a girl can’t help comparing one boyfriend to the last, it’s hard not to make these kinds of connections.

Living in China could (and will) never take away the unbeatable adventure I had in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, but I loved those countries for their people, their culture, their food, their sites, etc., not necessarily because I loved my job. I’m forced to see that now, as unfair to my ex (Thailand) as that is, but teaching is the only contrast I will allow myself to make.

I foresee my time in China being no less than wonderful, and though I know my job will be more fulfilling and beneficial to my future than any of my days in front of a white board in Thailand, I don’t believe the rest of my China experience will ever be able to top my village life in Thailand.

At Home on Campus: Peizheng, China

I weaved my way effortlessly through customs and found a nervous-looking young lady holding a piece of printer paper with my name on it. “You look not same,” she told me, pulling out the enlarged photo of me she had hidden behind my name. “You look um, fat here,” she said, pointing at the picture.

“I’m Jessica,” I said with a smile. “Nice to meet you.”

“But you no now,” she offered as a sort of backhanded compliment. I thanked her and laughed, knowing I hadn’t lost any weight since the photo (maybe the camera really does add ten pounds?) and thinking of my days in Thailand where I will always be fat, despite my 130-pound frame.

Welcome home, I whispered to myself and followed Maxine (her chosen English name) to a private car the school had provided us. I held nothing against her, she was very sweet and helpful and within hours of my arrival she had shown me my new apartment and a detailed tour of Peizheng (pronounced, I finally learned, pay-jung) College.

I live directly on campus, in a one-bedroom apartment complete with a balcony (where my own washing machine sits!!) and a view of the trees and water, as well as the neighbors’ drying laundry. I even have a small kitchen equipped with a tabletop stove so I can attempt to cook something better than the whole fish (head, skin and all) that was so kindly given to me as a welcome dinner.

The building on the right is my apartment.

Guangdong Peizheng College is beautiful. I like it just as much, if not more, than my recent visit to Colorado State University (where I hope to be this time next year). A little farther from the Baiyun International Airport than I expected (about an hour), the college is complete with everything needed to run a small, efficient town (grocery store, food stands and restaurants, cell phone company, computer store etc.) with a reservoir running through the lush hills surrounding it.

It’s quiet, despite the hoards of freshmen students that were racing around on my first day, signing up for classes and checking into their dorms (which sleep 4-6 in a room the size of a typical 2-person dorm in the U.S.). It’s a suburb of, and peaceful retreat from, the bustling metropolis that is Guangzhou (pronounced “gwong-jo”), China’s third largest city, teeming with over 12 million people.

The library is huge – and I’ve heard the English section is quite impressive. I already got a card, which serves also as my free entrance to the school’s Olympic sized swimming pool, should I ever run across a full body swimsuit to purchase.

I’ve already been invited to join the swim team for competition and the volleyball and tennis squads as well (Maxine invited me. Maybe I should take a hint?). The fancy red track and football (soccer, folks) field sits right at my doorstep, plus there are paved paths around the water, which provide for a scenic jog.

I will be teaching freshmen students, and therefore I don’t actually start until September 17th. I signed up for Chinese lessons twice a week (that should be interesting!) and I’ll be attending meetings and trainings for these first two weeks while the freshmen endure a mandatory military boot camp, which will give me some time to get acquainted with my co-workers and learn my way around the rather large campus before I have to find my way to class.

Freshmen during military training. It’s way too hot for those uniforms!

Overall, I feel pretty set up. I have a landline, a cell phone and an address (so you can post me things!), all of which was either already set up or ridiculously easy – not because the local business people speak English, because that’s certainly not the case, but because there are nearly 70 foreign teachers and some very helpful Chinese staff members, including Maxine, who know the ropes and are very willing to help out.

All of the students I’ve met so far are lovely, and I’m really excited to start teaching. It’s quite possible I’m going to love it here.

Decisions in Luang Prabang, Laos

It was in Luang Prabang that I had to decide how I would spend the following year of my life. Colorado State University was pressuring me with a looming deadline to choose a two-year commitment to graduate school, but as I sat on the banks of the Mekong sipping my morning coffee, pen in hand, hovering over the paper that would cement my decision, I watched orange-robed monks glide by, children play in the muddy water and several local men share a BeerLao for breakfast, and I couldn’t imagine my travels ever ending. The idea that life should be lived in the slow lane is something nearly every country besides the U.S. has figured out, and sitting among people enjoying the simplicities in life made me realize college could wait.

I signed the deferral letter and that afternoon I managed to convey to a local internet cafe owner that I needed to “send paper through air” to a place in the U.S.A. It essentially gave me another year to drag my feet on going back to school, but also a mandatory 12 months to magically become a Colorado resident while secretly living in China (okay, it’s not so secret, but shhh!).

I have no regrets, but I do often wonder if I would have made the same choice had I not been sitting in one of the most blissful cities I have visited. Luang Prabang literally means “Royal Buddha Image,” which explains the more than 30-plus local temples, and the reason I saw more monks than regular residents wandering the sidewalks.

Unfortunately, I had hit a point in my travels, nearly seven months in, where I didn’t care to ever step foot in another Buddhist temple. So I didn’t. But I did climb the 328 steps to the top of Mount Phousi where Wat Chomsi sits for the dusk-to-sunset viewing.

Luang Prabang is a mountainous city surround by two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. One thing I found particularly interesting was the outer roads that wrap around the water, where most of the fancy, French-inspired hotels can be found (Laos used to be occupied by the French), the roads are spotless and well kept.

But when I ventured into the middle of town, where shanty huts line the trash-covered streets, I saw where the locals live – literally in the midst of the tourist action, hidden by those fancy dwellings. It’s possible the excess of trash was due to a recent festival, but the contrast from one block to the next was astonishing.

That night, after I faxed my “one time only” deferral request, I ended my day the way those local men started – with a large BeerLao, the only local beer available, but one of my favorites in all of Southeast Asia – and smiled as I watched the river flow slowly by, fully aware I had made the right decision.

What decision would you have made?

How to Teach Abroad: What You’ll Need

Update: For a more concise, complete version of this article (with links to all the important stuff), please click here to view my five simple steps to finding a job in Asia over at Bootsnall.com.

Native English speakers are truly fortunate to have English as their first language. In a world moving toward a global economy, other countries know they need to speak the global language if they want to keep up. In Asia, educated people are desperate to learn English. And you can help them, while you help yourself earn money, see the world and create a lifetime of memories.

Most schools require only a bachelor degree (in any field), fluency in English (check!) and either a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate. These terms are often interchanged and most schools will accept either, even if the job posting only specifies one. Don’t worry, the hardest part of getting a certificate is deciphering which online providers are legitimate. Here are my recommendations:

ITTT (International TEFL and TESOL Training) is the school I used. It is straight forward and quick. They provide you with a tutor who will send your assignments (a PDF information sheet along with a set of related questions) and then correct your work and provide appropriate feedback on each. I earned a 120-hr certificate in much less (though the program gives you six months to complete it), and Asian schools recognize it.

American TESOL Institute – allows you to keep track of your progress online, and there is no deadline to finish the course. You simply log in to their database to receive your course material and submit your answers online.

CELTA – is offered by the University of Cambridge and is the most respected and universal online course around. It’s also the most expensive and rigorous.

A quick Google search will result in various options for onsite courses. They’re expensive and aren’t any more respected than an online course. Their selling point (other than travel, of course) is hands-on experience, but you don’t really need that. Honest. Even the most prepared ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, as you’ll often be referred, is not prepared to step into a classroom full of eager, watchful eyes and immediately feel confident trying to break down the language barrier. I’m not trying to scare you – it’s fun! – just prevent you from paying thousands of dollars for a course that really won’t benefit you in the end.

You can ignore everything I just said if you’re qualified to teach in a western country. A master degree (or higher) and/or experience with teaching any subject/age/class size will almost always replace the need for a TEFL certificate.

I’m serious, folks. It’s that easy. What are you waiting for?

Next in this series: How to Find a Job.

Do you have any questions?

How to Teach Abroad: What You’ll Need
Written by:Jessica Hill

A Losing Game

It’s final exam time at Suwannaphum Wittayalai, which means the end of the year is nearly here and students who haven’t come to class all term have decided to show their faces. It also means the Thai teachers have begun work on their lesson plans for the current term (yep, a large book that tells the government what they will teach the students, or in this tardy case, what they supposedly already taught them), as well as writing student grades in the back of their beloved pink books.

As I finished computing my grades this week, three sophomore students came rushing in, followed by a teacher who handed them a pile of tests. I assumed there must be good reason for the girls to take their makeup exams in my (shared) office, but what I witnessed was a sorry excuse for anything aimed at determining a student’s knowledge.

I want my kids to fail – and you should want yours to also.”

The girls appeared to be contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But in their version, lifelines are unlimited.

They used Phone a Friend more than once – the voice on the other end promptly gave the requested answers, and they giddily jotted them down.

When the English exam reached the top of their pile, they chose to Ask the Audience. Rather, they handed me the paper and told me to do it. When I said no, they looked shocked. But the audience always produces results!

Their teacher returned from a break outside, and I thought for sure the students would stop begging. I was wrong. The girls told her what they wanted, and she handed the test to me and said, “you can, you can!” They thought she was the coolest instructor in the world.

“I will not do their test for them,” I said. “How will they learn?”

Which brings me to a blog article I recently found, titled, “I Want My Kids to Fail.” The author, a presumed member of the Rochester School District in Michigan, writes, “I want my kids to fail in the classroom. This is true education! I don’t want them to believe that success is easy, but when a child is bright enough to learn with minimal effort and is rewarded with A’s for that, they come to believe that hard work isn’t needed for success. I want them to struggle, to not always succeed on the first try – or the twentieth, to learn that asking for help is not a sign of weakness or lack of intelligence, and to see that success is often a long process…I want my kids to fail – and you should want yours to also.” Read the rest here.

Her words ring true. In Thailand, children learn early that they cannot fail, but they would be better off if they could.

Remember how I told you (in Paper Politics) if I didn’t give students a passing grade at the end of the year, I’d most likely be asked to change them? Well, curiosity struck, and I decided to test that theory.

I was too lenient with my midterm markings (because I did as I was told), so I decided for the second half to give my students a more honest representation. If they didn’t show up to class or chose not to do the day’s work, they received a zero and an absent mark. I let them know, to be fair, that this is what would happen. My threats worked on some, but others knew the truth.

When I totaled my grades (the over-generous first half numbers with the more accurate second half ones), I admit I adjusted the ones who were beyond failing and brought them up to the 50% mark (my own spin on the 50/50 lifeline). Therefore, everybody was passing, even if just barely.

But I still got those books handed back to me. Apparently, students can’t have a zero where there should be a score.

“If teachers cannot fail, why would their students be able to?”

I took the books to Mrs. Pussadee and played dumb. I knew they wanted me to change the grades, but Mrs. Supaporn, the teacher who asked me to redo them, wouldn’t tell me that. Instead, she told me she would have all the necessary students come talk to me.

Yeah, right.

Mrs. Pussadee is the only one honest brave enough to tell me the truth: “You can just change the numbers,” she said. “Give them five or ten points, whatever you want.”

Now I understand why nobody appears to care if a student gets help on a test, and why teachers wait for the end of the year to mark their grade books. As vital as they are, they don’t accurately portray anything.

The government mandates every child must pass in school. Therefore, it seems, cheating is encouraged for both students and teachers. They’re all just playing the game, and everyone is following her own rules.

I wish I could send that blog article to the Ministry of Education in Thailand, but it wouldn’t do any good. Directors and teachers cannot lose their jobs. Ever. Once a government employee, always a government employee.

If teachers cannot fail, why would their students be able to?