Thailand – John
Teaching in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand
I came to Chiang Mai just after the millennium celebrations. Before I left, I was working in south London as a software developer and had had enough of the whole 9 to 5 job culture (it was more like 8 to 6 every day). Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city, in the north of the country, about a ten-hour bus ride from Bangkok. I had only planned to stay for a few months at the most and hadn’t considered teaching English. My sister was a teacher in England and from what she told me, it really didn’t seem like my kind of thing – lots of lesson planning, low pay and not much respect from the students. Four years and five months later, I’m still here and fully immersed in TEFL teaching.
The first class I observed was at the language school I’m still teaching at now. I’d gone in just to take a look around as I had decided to extend my stay and was unable to find any computer work. They really needed teachers then, which was good for me as I didn’t have a TEFL qualification or any teaching experience. The class itself was a typical one of the school, about 20 students, aged between 15 to 19 and mostly female. I was amazed at how attentive and engaged in all the activities the students were. This was due to a couple of key factors. Firstly, Thai students love to play games and have fun in class, which is a stark contrast to how they are taught in school – by listening and drilling whilst sat in the same seat all class. Any teacher who can bring some entertainment into the class will be well-liked. The second reason is that teachers have to grade the students at the end of each six-week term and a student can fail, which means they have to pay again to repeat the level. As most of the students are sent by their parents to study, they don’t want to let them or themselves down. This also means that teachers hardly ever experience any discipline problems in class and if they do, then a short talking to resolves the issue.
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One of the hardest things was remembering the students’ nicknames. They are usually one syllable long and initially very amusing for new teachers. For example, a class might have a Ping, a Pong, a Porn, a Ball, a Wow, a Wee, a Pee, a Pooh, a Boy (who’s a girl), an Apple, a Peach, a Nut, a Milk, a Beer, a Gay, a Thing, a Cat, a Bird, a Tom, a Tik and maybe an Organ. It takes a bit of getting used to and, as you can imagine, seating order can produce some interesting combinations.
During my first year in Thailand, I had to get my visa extended every month. This involved a four hour bus ride up to the Burmese border and although something of a drag, I used to make a weekend out of it by going with a couple of colleagues and stopping off for a night in Chiang Rai on the way up. This routine wasn’t a problem until immigration started clamping down on people who had a large collection of stamps in their passport. The language school offered a working visa to anyone who signed a twelve-month contract, so that’s what I did. All I needed was a copy of my degree certificate and the school took care of everything else – including the mountain of paperwork. Almost every school I know of offers the same to any teacher willing to sign up for a year.
One of the biggest attractions of the language school I teach at are the working hours. I teach from 5 to 8.30 in the evenings, Tuesday to Friday and 9 to 4 on Saturdays, which is more than enough money to have a very comfortable life style. Teachers can expect to earn around 25,000 Baht a month (about 360 GBP) teaching part-time. On top of that, there are numerous opportunities to teach private classes or find some extra hours at another school. With so much free time during the day, I eventually decided to do just that myself. I found a morning job teaching at a business college for students aged between 13 and 18. I got the job without even stepping foot in the building – the fact that I taught at the private language school was a good enough reference for them. It felt like just a money making establishment rather than a place of education. The fees were very low, but the class sizes were very big – over 50 students per class – and their level of interest in learning English was almost zero. Most students spent the class either on the phone, reading comic books, putting on make-up or doing work for other subjects. They weren’t loud or disruptive; they just had no motivation to study. I worked there for a year and taught about eight different classes of students, all of which had pretty much the same enthusiasm about learning English.
After leaving the business college, I took a term off from the language school and went to do a TEFL in Bangkok. It wasn’t a necessity, more of an investment for the future should I want to work anywhere else. I really enjoyed the four weeks on the course and it filled in a lot of gaps in my teaching and gave me a better understanding of what I should be trying to achieve and how to achieve it in each class.
Armed with my TEFL, I decided to try one of Chiang Mai’s universities. I was offered a job, and started teaching four mornings a week (along with the work I was doing at the language school). I’m still teaching there now and really enjoying it. The Thai staff in the English Department are great to work with. They are very keen to develop the various courses taught and are well aware of the need to move away from teacher-centered to student-oriented learning. The students themselves are great fun to teach and they really appreciate any fun activities that give them a break from their heavy workload.
My students often ask me why I live in Thailand, as do most of my friends back home whenever I talk to them. There are numerous reasons; most of which were things I wasn’t happy with when working and living in England. Here in Chiang Mai, I have a job that I really enjoy and find very rewarding. Unlike working in London, I never wake up dreading going to work (unless I’ve been up until 3am watching an English Premiership football match which, unlike in England, are shown live on TV here). What’s more, I have enough free time to be able to enjoy the money I earn and all the recreational pursuits that I followed back in England.
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