Flip-flops, lesson plans and coconuts

05 Apr

Having survived ESL teaching in the sprawling metropolis of Beijing, I knew I'd be ready for anything and everything the ESL world can throw at me.

I was self-assured, confident in my teaching skills and had all those nifty tools in my "teachers toolkit." I was ready to set sail to the warm, crystal clear waters and beaches of Thailand.   Everything about it appealed to me - a slower pace of life (it’s just beaches and cocktails in coconuts with little umbrellas right?), a lighter workload and gorgeous surroundings.  OK, admittedly it was much less pay but hey – you can’t put a price on paradise – for everything else there’s MasterCard.     

The job advertised a "family" atmosphere, attractive (aka low) teaching hours, no work on Mondays (because…Mondays), and a wide range of ages to teach- which all sounds fantastic to someone who has just escaped the stressors of Beijing living.  With my sassy-knowledge of ESL, I knew the deal was a little too good to be true – I expected a challenge here and there.  I was right.  A little more right than I had anticipated.

Life's a beach!

My small city (what I would soon call "the best shitty little town I'd ever lived in") was quaint, traditional, and very different from anything I had experienced. An hour away from a massive jungle, an hour away from the beach, and an hour flight from Bangkok – it was the ideal location.  Everything I was looking for in life was just an hour away. I was in awe of how fortunate I was to be in such a great place!  Paradise was welcoming me with open arms.

Something you (have to) learn very quickly about local people is that Thai culture and history is close to their hearts.  This fact is especially true of the little town I found myself in.  It didn’t take long to realize that there are some very specific “Do’s and Don’ts of Thai Culture.” 

My little “best shitty town” had no tourists, 20 baht coconuts, (around 75 American cents) and an unreasonable amount of Thai chili peppers in all the dishes…all of them. The owners of the school were friendly and welcoming, but the expat group not so much – making friends was proving tricky, and the expat clique was proving tough to crack.   (Side-note: I have since discovered that not all places are like this- my current island is quite lovely and my fellow expats are much friendlier people.)

Have an Oprah Moment.

The education system in Thailand is very different to the western education system.  If you’ve taught in China before you’ll find that the pressures on Thai students are the same- high academic expectations, endless after-school lessons (maybe not as many or not as intense), weekend tutoring, piano, chess, art, sports, culture, etc. The list goes on and on.

One thing that anyone coming to Thailand should know is that your students WILL pass their grade.   Teachers are encouraged to grade on a curve or a sliding scale to make sure all their students pass. Your students must not fail - if they fail, you have failed as a teacher.  I don't like it, you don't like it, but it is what it is. 

It’s tempting to want to confront this kind of system – it’s BS, right?  How can a teacher be held accountable for a student who is underperforming when everyone else in the class is doing well? 

The thing is we have to remember that we are guests in the country – we aren’t here to change their system, no matter how strongly we feel about it.  Make too much noise; protest too loudly, you might find your trip being cut short – very short, very quickly. 

Think of it as having your own Oprah Moment – “You get an A.  You get an A.  EVERYONE GETS AN A!”

Bare feet and books.

Class sizes can vary between 16-50 students depending on what type of school you’re in and the age of your students - but one thing is for sure - you don’t wear shoes inside the classroom. At the doorway, to every classroom, you’ll find a mountain of shoes – and because the kids I was teaching wear uniforms – all the shoes looked precisely the same.  You’re going to want to leave a good few minutes for shoe sorting and squabbling at the end of your lesson.  Even though crossing your legs is disrespectful in Thai culture, and the foot is the most insulting part of the body to point with- they choose not to bring shoes indoors, claiming it is cleaner (now I clean my feet before bed every night).

If you teach anything above kindergarten, you may very well have a difficult time remembering your students’ names.   Each school has a specific uniform, and this uniform includes haircut.   Yes, a specific, approved-by-the-Thai-Education-Board-haircut.  So, all the boys look kind of similar, and all the girls too.  Add to that their given nicknames can be eerily similar - Bpoon, Boom, Poon, Pon – calling on a single student and not getting their name wrong because it’s almost the same as the name of another student wearing the same uniform with the same haircut is an achievement.

Thai students are lively, respectful, and not as shy or timid as the students in other parts of Asia like China or Japan.

The "fear of the foreigner" is not a thing here.  Young learners are always open and welcoming to their new "kruu." Sure, you might still get a strange glance here or there. An awkward (for everyone) stare. Yes, you will hear people saying “Farang” (foreigner) and pointing you out to their friends, but that’s the name of the ESL game- putting yourself out and immersing yourself in an exotic culture and people.

Excuse me whilst I slip into....your culture?

On the other hand, though, the Thai culture is not as welcoming or interested in Western lifestyle, culture or history. The locals want you to assimilate and do it without bumps and bruises-which is…challenging...but not impossible. Prepare yourself for some utterly indirect guidance, passive-aggressive reprimanding, and if there is a situation to be addressed, it will happen weeks and maybe even months after the issue occurs.

Working in Thailand, you need to be on your A-game 80% of the time, B-game 20% and if you happen to have a C-game day - prepare to pack your bags.  Living here has its challenges and preparedness is something that is expected of the “farang” 100% of the time, and more often than not, at the drop of a hat.  Look at it from the employers’ perspective - I'm sure they deal with a lot of chance-takers looking for a free holiday in Thailand with an income and all expenses paid.  It's reasonable to expect them to protect the integrity of their education system. 

Living and teaching in Thailand is a blessing - and one I will never take for granted.  The environment is breathtaking, the food is fantastic, the culture is rich and vibrant, the opportunities for adventure and memory making are endless, and the local people are warm and welcoming.  

Amanda Wright is a contributing writer at TattooedTEFLTeacher.com,  a survivor of hard-truths and a student of the world.

Amanda is teaching and living in Thailand.

* The email will not be published on the website.