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

Back With My Ex: Thailand

Since I got back together with my ex, Thailand, things have been going quite smoothly. We’re happy now. Well, I’m happy now. Mr. Land o’ Smiles is always happy. It’s like I could be anyone, and he wouldn’t even notice with all the bikini-clad tourists around here, but I guess I’ll just have to get used to that.

He does get jealous about one thing, though. He really doesn’t like the love letter he found from me to Hong Kong. In all the time we were together before, he complains, he never got a letter like that.

It wasn’t for lack of feeling, I tell him. I love you more, I say. But after a few months of flirting with China, only to have him throw up all over your face, anyone would fall madly in love with Hong Kong. And while Hong Kong will remain a very memorable one-night stand (uh hum, okay, we might have continued our affair for several nights, on more than one occasion…but who’s counting?), it was just a fling. Thailand and I go way back…to 2011. And our relationship was on an entirely different level.

Anyway, here’s my attempt to clear up any confusion about who holds my heart. Better late than never.

Dear Thailand,

I wasn’t fair to you before. I admitted my love for you, yes, but I didn’t shout it from the top of Mt. Kangchenjunga in India like I should have. The reason is because you were my first love, and I wasn’t yet sure what lay beyond your borders. Did I love you for the amazing country you are, or just because I didn’t know any better? Would I love another country just the same?

Now I know. There is no other country like you, Thailand. I’ve not yet seen them all, but I’ve seen enough to know my love for you will probably never be topped. And it’s not just for your flawless good looks and your splendid personality. It’s not only for your karmic beliefs, your aversion to fighting and your ability to accept all people with open arms (except those bikini-clad girls, but I’ll let it slide). It’s not even just because you give a damn good massage and you’re smokin’ hot. In fact, sometimes you’re so hot I can’t stand it!

Loong Dum Beach, Koh Samet Thailand
Loong Dum Beach, Koh Samet Thailand

I love you because of how you make me feel. When I’m with you I’m relaxed, confident and in control, yet I’m motivated, carefree and, in reality, have no control at all. I never know when or if my bus will actually arrive, whether or not I’ll have a job or where I’ll live when I do get one. When I’m with you, I’m completely okay with knowing nothing except that everything always works out how it should.

I love you because when I arrived at your airport for the second time, I felt like I had come home. When I took a taxi, you told me (via the driver) you thought I was beautiful. You said it four times – three in Thai and once in English – just to make sure I understood, which was probably necessary after four months in China and six weeks in India where the only comments I got on my appearance were various renditions of, “What happened to your face?”

Trust me. I fell in love with you all over again in that moment, and I knew that following my heart back to you was the best decision I could have made. You kept a piece of my heart when I left you last time, Thailand, and I’m pretty sure it will be yours forever.

With more love than Hong Kong,


Back With My Ex: Thailand
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

Goodbye, Acne. Goodbye, China.

I just gave up the only job I’m probably ever going to have that requires me to work less than 20 hours a week, only eight months a year, and pays me for two of the other four. But before you call me crazy, hear me out.

Some of you know from our Skype chats that a few weeks after arrival in China my face exploded in a shattered array of white and red zits much like the firework pattern I witnessed nightly from my apartment there (the students light them off whenever an upperclassmen starts dating a freshmen girl). At first I thought it was just the small breakout that occurs each time I travel to a new country, but before I knew it, the acne had manifested and refused to dissipate.

Not only is it the most hideous, disgusting, embarrassing, hibernation-worthy thing that’s ever happened to me (it definitely tops falling in the pool at that swanky L.A. party), but it was painful and itchy, too.

I tried to remedy it with internet research and frequent visits to Watsons, and each time I would try something new, it would appear to heal – but only temporarily. By the end of four months, I knew I needed to see a dermatologist, and that I wasn’t going to do it on the mainland after the stories I’d heard. One of my friends went to get his testicle tested and was told they needed to operate. Thankfully, he denied their urgent request and returned to the U.S. instead, where the doctors told him he surely would have died in the Chinese operating room had the doctors done what they suggested. (He blogs about this experience and many others here.)

I know my acne doesn’t pose a death threat, but I’ve also seen the inside of two hospitals that I don’t care to revisit, and been totally ripped off at a private clinic. Plus, all of these experiences were met with doctors who didn’t speak English well enough to satisfy my need to know what I’m putting in and on my body.

Then I thought, Maybe it will just go away when I leave China? It did improve rapidly in my first two weeks away, but then it got worse again. So I finally went to a skin doctor (India’s doctors are quite reputable and they speak English) with one of my Couchsurf hosts and have been following a strict regimen since. It improved, however painfully slow, and I’m confident it will fade in due time.

I’m not confident, however, that if I return to China I can handle another four months of the acne at it’s worst. In fact, I don’t think another four months of an awesome job (albeit in a country I don’t really enjoy living in) is worth the potential scars I could be left with on the one part of my body that’s impossible to hide. I’ve decided instead to follow my heart, not knowing exactly where it would lead me. When I really listened however, it screamed for Thailand.

When my plane landed in Bangkok, I felt like I had come home. And since I’ve arrived, things have fallen into place. I’m staying with a friend who, unbeknownst to me, lives one block from my agency’s office. My old boss is pulling magic cards out of an ordinary deck to find me a job at this point in the semester (the Thai school year will end around March 15), and has promised to even hire me as a substitute for next semester, should I still be here.

Until my position is confirmed (a two-month summer camp is probable), I’ll be bouncing around the country working with English Camps (Get paid to travel around Thailand? Yes, please!), the first of which is in Khao Yai National Park. Even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the teaching part of my stay before, I’m excited to give it another chance with a different school.

So far, my heart has yet to lead me astray. I think I’ll listen to it more often. China can keep it’s (up-and-over-the-top-of-the-charts) pollution, sulfuric water, oily foods and whatever other component is responsible for messing up my face. I’ll be just fine right here. And when I’m not anymore, I’ll leave.

Goodbye, Acne. Goodbye, China.
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.

Fighting Cocks: The Real Angry Birds

Out of town, past the only 7-11, when the smooth pavement turns to potholed patches of road and then to dirt, take a right. Drive through the ruts until you see a gate hidden behind several large shade trees, and park amongst the hundreds of cars and motorbikes belonging to those already in the know.

I knew cock fighting is a popular past time in Suwannaphum (if I’ve talked to you on Skype, you’ve undoubtedly heard the ones being trained behind the coffee shop I frequent), but I didn’t know every Saturday hundreds of men disappear to the outskirts of town to spend their day watching the spectacle.

It operates a lot like a Muay Thai fight, with fewer but longer rounds. The birds are divided into classes based on how well they’ve previously fought (unlike weight classes in boxing), and each duo fights for four, 30-minute rounds. When the best fighters finish Round 1, the second class birds begin their dual, and so on down the line until it’s time for Round 2.

The Suwannaphum venue is a large shed in the middle of a dirt field consisting of three rings, and spectators actively bounce between them.

Betting is rampant (despite the fact gambling is illegal in Thailand), which might explain the male-dominated crowd. The owner of the winning bird can earn upwards of 20,000 baht ($600; more than most Thais make in a month) at a weekly Saturday fight such as this. The stakes are even higher when the champions get together at larger venues – a man told me I could watch a fight worth 50,000 baht ($1,600) if I wanted to drive to Roi Et.

I imagine the fight will be quite similar to the one I viewed outside Suwannaphum, with a much rowdier more intoxicated crowd and more aggressive birds, all of which sounds like fun until you factor in how long it takes to actually determine a winner.

Contrary to popular belief, the winner isn’t decided by the only standing (or living) bird after a long and bloody battle (in fact the birds very rarely die, I’m told by the daughter of a popular trainer, and the owner of the coffee shop I mentioned).

There used to be more gore, but the rules have changed (they don’t listen to the law on gambling, but the people in Suwannaphum at least, appear to be abiding by these restrictions). Rather, the fight is over when either one bird is severely hurt or, more commonly, gives up and walks away.

Neither of which happened at the show I saw, but in the two hours I stayed to photograph the event, the second round had yet to begin. I can only watch two angry birds wing slap each other for so long before I’ve seen it and I’m ready to go. Nevertheless, it’s quite an amazing sight to behold. 

Cock Fight Northeast Thailand Cock Fight Northeast ThailandCock Fight Northeast Thailand Cock Fight Northeast Thailand Cock Fight Northeast ThailandCock Fight Northeast Thailand Fighting Cocks Northeast Thailand

Fighting Cocks: The Real Angry Birds
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

How to Teach English Abroad: Decisions

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.

When I first decided to go down this road, I searched for hours trying to answer questions I hadn’t yet formed. Not knowing exactly what I was looking for, I would get lost in the possibilities. The Internet was an overwhelming source of information. If you’re headed down the same path, this post is for you.

This is my attempt to simplify the decision-making process. However, I’m biased. Thailand is the first and only country I’ve taught in, so most of the information will pertain to my experience here, but I believe it to be applicable at least in some respect to many other Asian countries. Without a doubt, wherever you end up, it will be an experience of a lifetime and one I would recommend to anyone.

Where do you want to teach?

Choosing a country will help narrow your search and allow you to learn about the culture while you do so. Asia is a landmine for teaching possibilities right now, so it’s a good place to start. It’s hard to find a paying job on other continents, such as Africa and South America (I looked into those originally), where it’s more common to pay for a volunteer program, but Asians, Thais especially, are hungry to learn English.

Thailand will become part of the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) in 2015, a community developed “to create a stable, prosperous and highly competitive ASEAN economic region, in which there is a free flow of goods, services, investment and capital, equitable economic development and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities by 2020,” according to the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau. Already, Thailand is preparing for this with a lofty goal to be an English-speaking country before their induction, knowing that it is necessary for global communication.

The effects of this goal are already noticeable in the schools, which means many more teachers will be needed in the near future.

But maybe deciding why you want to teach will help you decide where.

Why do you want to teach?

Do you want teaching experience, a lucrative way to travel, or are you just looking for a way to pay back your college debt? If the latter is true, look in to South Korea (the EPIK program) where you can earn as much as $2,000/month plus all expenses paid. Japan and China both pay decent salaries, and I’ve heard the same of Taiwan as well.

If you just want to make enough money to travel around your chosen country, Thailand is perfect. With AYC (more about my agency below), I make $1,000/month, and I’m managing to save about $300 of that without trying too hard. I live in the Northeast (Isaan) where things are cheaper than the more visited parts of the country, but not by a significant amount. My rent is $150/month, which is on the high end, and other bills (water, electricity, internet and cell phone) total about $15.

If teaching experience is what you really seek, then your decision becomes a bit harder. Most Asian countries are going to significantly differ from your home country on many levels, so it will be hard to compare. If you’re a qualified teacher, look into teaching for an international school. They usually operate similarly to what you’re used to. If you want structure, look into Japan or China. And if you want a real understanding of teaching in a developing country, in a run-down wooden shed, in front of a battered white board, come to Thailand.

As different as Thailand is from the U.S.A., I do feel like I’ve received an experience that will undoubtedly help me in my future classroom. Granted, the lesson planning will be more intensive, the material I teach more extensive, and my requirements more strict, but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to such a career.

Public or Private?

I have never taught in a private language school, but I made my decision based on the following beliefs: private schools are easier to get work, but they require you to work long hours, often seven days a week. They might also pay better than a public school, but you probably won’t have any free time to enjoy the extra money.

Doing an online search will often wield several results from such schools, often times because they are owned by westerners who actively seek other western teachers. If that’s the case, not dealing with a language barrier might be appealing to you. Other things to keep in mind: the students might be more inclined to learn – whether they are studying by choice or because their parents made them – which could make your job easier; You’ll most likely be dealing with a mixture of age groups, from preschoolers to middle-age; and many of the class times will be after school and work hours, which means nights and weekends that you have to give up.

I work normal school hours at a government school, Monday through Friday, 8am to 4pm. My weekends are free, and I get to take advantage of all public holidays, unlike a private school that wants to make money. However, my students don’t have a choice to learn English, and many of them would choose not to if they did.

I chose a public school because I felt that I would get a much more authentic experience (which is what I was seeking), and so far, I’d say that’s exactly what I’ve received. If you’re looking for the same, choose public.

Should you sign with an agency?

When my search began, I wanted to avoid paying any fees beyond the expected, so I was hoping to contact a school directly, and to have a job set up before I left. I wanted to avoid private institutions, despite the abundance of postings, and find work directly with a government school. That’s easier said than done, and after being in Thailand, I know why. Many of the rural areas don’t have internet, let alone websites, and they aren’t actively recruiting teachers. Many of the directors and other decision makers in the schools don’t actually speak English, so communicating with them is difficult. Plus, the school has to earn enough money from the government to afford a foreign teacher before they can even begin looking.

So I found myself with an agency. I did my research, checked it out fully, and eventually signed up with ESLstarter. They promised to take care of everything from a weeklong orientation to organizing and paying for my work permit. After weeks of being overwhelmed with decisions (not a strong point of mine) and information, it was easy to let them take care of everything.

But when I arrived in Thailand, a company called AYC was waiting for me at the airport, not ESL Starter. I was confused, yes, but after nearly 24 hours in transit, I was just happy to have a ride.

Fifty soon-to-be teachers were also puzzled. It turns out we had signed with a recruitment agency that works for AYC, and they never told us. ESL Starter was full of empty promises and misinformation. They were eager to tell us what we wanted to hear: “Of course you’ll get two weeks for Christmas vacation…. Sure, we help you find living arrangements… Absolutely, we can place you on a beach in southern Thailand!”

And while all of those things were lies, I did in fact end up in Thailand, teaching at a public high school and enjoying my time here.

This post has been delayed because I wasn’t sure how I felt about recommending AYC to future teachers, and to be honest, I’m still on the fence. Everything I read before committing to ESL Starter said I should just come to Thailand and find a job after I arrived. That terrified me. I wasn’t brave enough, or rich enough, to walk into totally unfamiliar territory without speaking the language and find myself a job. However, after being here, I completely understand how it’s possible. Especially in Isaan, where not many travelers venture, the schools are overzealous to find native speakers willing to stay a while. They might even come to you!

But if you aren’t brave enough for that, take a look at AYC – directly. Don’t get suckered by the middleman like I did. I’ve mentioned before that AYC is a terrible company – that they would never be in business in the states – but they are the best in Thailand. They are the biggest, and the most known, for both good and bad reasons.

The big guy in the company is nearly impossible to understand, and he’s notorious for making empty promises, but he’s been good to me. He changed my placement that first awful day when I learned I was to be in Bangkok. He even personally apologized when his staff member sent me an extremely out-of-line email, to which I give him maybe more credit than is due considering his reputation.

On the bright side, I have a job. And I like my job. And because I have no problems, I rarely need to communicate with AYC, unless I need a work permit (which they pay for) or a visa stamp (dido). They provide insurance (which is automatically deducted from your wages, but it isn’t much) and they supposedly have your back should your school not want to rehire you (which can happen for any number of unexpected reasons, from being too fat or too ugly, to simply not making an effort to make friends with the locals).

Plus, AYC always pays on time. Going directly to a school can often make you 10-15,000 baht more than the 30,000 ($1,000) starting rate that AYC pays. But AYC is a security blanket, so to speak, because you never know what can happen.

So, I lay out this information in hopes of helping you make your own decision, though I can’t confidently say which is best. I’ve only done it one way. However, I can offer this: If I were to do it again (and I might, in another country), I think I now have enough courage to go on a whim and try my luck at securing a job without an agency. I feel more assertive in traveling alone, and more open to failed attempts. But if it were my first time all over again, I would sign directly with AYC.

I hope this helps at least a little. I realize this is only scratching the surface of the plethora of questions you’re sure to have, but stay tuned for more to come.
And if you have specific questions, just ask!