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How to Teach English in a Thai High School

Teaching Students in Thailand
Teaching high school students in Thailand.

So you have made the leap — you bought the plane ticket, landed in Bangkok, registered for a TEFL course, and a month later you find yourself certified to teach English in Thailand. You weigh your options — do you want to work at a private language school in Bangkok, freelance as a private tutor, or apply for a job at one of the many public and private schools throughout the kingdom? After perusing the ever-useful ajarn.com job listings, you see that the latter employment is by far the most common in Thailand. And so you apply to a smattering of schools. They all get back to you. You interview with them either via Skype or in person, and eventually you sign a contract. You then move all of your things into your new apartment, get settled, and show up for the first day of school — only to realize that, despite that TEFL course, you are still pretty green. Maybe you have never been in a classroom without an aide, and this will be your first time doing it solo. Maybe you do not even speak any Thai, and the kids barely speak any English. How will you communicate?

This was my introduction to working in the Thai public school system — or rather, my non-introduction. I was handed a schedule on the first day and basically told, “All right! Go get ‘em!” Add to this the fact that my TEFL course was done online, with no practical experience, and that class sizes in Thailand average around 46 kids. Then add to this the fact that I was assigned to teach Mathayom 1, with 11 and 12-year-olds. Needless to say, figuring out how to survive in this setting was not the easy. Perhaps miraculously, though, I not only learned how to survive, but to thrive, and in just one year I went from wanting to quit my job to enjoying it so much that I have extended my contract through next year. In this article, I hope to share some practical information I have learned this year that may help ease the transition for future first-time teachers into the rewarding but often hectic world of the Thai public school system.

In the Thai Classroom

I have already said it--but I will say it again for emphasis--your typical Thai classroom size is huge. You will need to develop lesson plans that will work in this setting, that will engage a large number of students, and that will not be too much of a headache. A lifesaver for me when I first started was the blog post by Geoff Richards on ajarn.com: Games for Large Unruly Classes. Of the nine classes of Mathayom 1 I taught only two were “unruly.” These games work well for big groups. Team Hangman, Word Tennis, and Hot Seat (the first three games listed on this blog) have all become favorites of my students, and they can be adapted with new vocabulary and themes so that you can use them over and over again. Do not be worried about repetition as I was. Thai students enjoy activities they have done before, as it gives them a feeling of confidence in knowing how to do something. Subsequent games and activities tend to involve a greater number of students who may have been too timid or unclear about the activity the first time around. Dave’s ESL Café is another great resource for games and activities. In fact, two of my students’ favorite games tweaked to my own needs can also be found on that website: "Jeopardy" and the "Body Building Game."

Keep in mind that you can do a lot of things with Thai students--even older ones nearing graduation--that you probably could not do with students from Western countries. For instance, many of the students love singing songs, which I initially assumed would be something that would only engage young kids. But when Christmas rolled around, everyone clamored to sing “Jingle Bells,” and when I saw how much they loved that, I brought in a CD and taught them how to sing a modern pop version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” They loved that even more — so much that they wanted to sing it over and over again for a whole period, and I had many students ask me to put it onto their USB flash drives to sing along at home. This was a fun thing to do at Christmastime, but the experience also taught me that songs can be an engaging way to focus on proper pronunciation and to learn new vocabulary.

Another very successful activity is practicing and performing short plays. With younger students, it is necessary to have a play prepared for them, and then have them practice it in groups. But older students will enjoy writing their own plays.  When it comes time to perform the play, if the students have worked hard, memorized their lines, made props, and have done a good job, there is a profound feeling of accomplishment, not only with their proficiency in English, but with their own creative work. I find that this building of self-confidence is as necessary (if not more so) as teaching rote aspects of learning English.

To sum up: as a first-year teacher, you will be trying all kinds of different things in the classroom that you will find in books, pull off the internet, or come up with yourself. If you are like me, some of these activities will look great to you, and then they will bomb in the classroom. And then some of the activities that you are lukewarm or unsure about will turn out to be very effective. The lesson here is not to be afraid to keep trying new things, as you never can anticipate what is going to work well, at least at first. Also keep in mind that different activities work well with different groups. Feel free to experiment, and to deviate from your lesson plans if the class seems to be pushing in a different direction.

Lastly, perhaps what is even more important than whether or not a lesson goes well is whether or not you are enthusiastic at the front of the room. If you are animated, and show that you are happy to be there, the more enthusiastic the kids will be to learn with you. Being Thailand, smiles go a long way.

Your Thai Co-Workers

When it comes to Thai coworkers, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that as a foreign teacher, you are getting paid far more than most of them, and while the typical salary — around 30,000 baht per month as of this writing — might seem like nothing for a Westerner, it is enough to live very comfortably in Thailand. Most teachers at a Thai public school will not make such a salary until they have worked at the school for 20 years or more. While some staff may be resentful, in my experience, if you make an effort to be friendly (wai*) -- to all teachers and staff in the mornings, even if you do not know them personally, this will go a long way. (Perhaps you might offer a small gift of some fruit to the staff who help you with your visa and work permit, and to those who pay you your salary at the end of each month…)

The second thing to keep in mind is that the concept of keeping face plays a big role in Thai culture. When I first started working at my school, some of the teachers and staff would not wai me in the morning, nor would they say hello, even though I would always do both. My initial reaction to this was that they resented me for the salary disparity, and they were not afraid to show it. However, my Canadian co-worker, who had been teaching at the school for six years, corrected me on this. He said that for most Thais, it had more to do with a painful shyness (particularly if you are teaching in a more rural province outside of Bangkok as I am), and a worry they have that they will misspeak or incorrectly — even if it is just to say, “Good morning.” While it seems like a silly thing to worry about from the perspective of a Westerner, the potential of losing face is something many Thais will go far out of their way to avoid, even if means coming off as rude. In time, however, people will get used to you and realize you are there to help everyone with their English, and not to pick on anyone for their mistakes. Keep smiling and saying hello, in spite of the seeming rebuffs, and eventually most people will come around.

Visas and Work Permits in Thailand

Getting your visa and work permit is by far the biggest hassle in starting work as a teacher in Thailand, but if you have some idea of what the process involves, you will be much better off than I was. Typically, your school should handle everything for you, but often the process is slow, and if you are working in one of the provinces where foreign teachers are not common, your school may not know what you need.

To work legally in Thailand, you first step is to get a Non-Immigrant B Visa, which you have to apply for at any Thai embassy or consulate outside of Thailand. I would advise that you check the list of needed documents both on the website of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the website of the embassy/consulate where you will apply (see the end of this article), since the lists are not always the same. Then refer these lists to your school staff, who should prepare all the needed documents for you, other than your own university transcripts, degrees, and certificates. Assuming you have everything, the actual visa application process takes two days minimum.

Once back in Thailand, you will need to apply for a working permit. If your school is responsible and savvy with its foreign teachers you should not have to do anything other than hand over your passport, but it helps to have an idea of how the process works. Upon entering Thailand with your Non-B visa, you will be granted an initial 90-day stay. This sounds like a long time, but things in Thailand move slowly, so it is good to pester your staff for your work permit well before these 90 days expire. Once you have got this, you can extend your visa for the remainder of your teaching contract and your headaches will largely be over (other than routine check-ins with Thai immigration every 90 days.) If you wish to extend your contract for another year, the process for extending visas and work permits is much easier than applying for them initially — for one thing, you do not have to leave the country.

And then there are the loopholes. Plenty of people teach in Thailand illegally on tourist visas, which is appealing because it is much easier than going through all the trouble of getting a proper Non-B visa and work permit. It is possible to simply apply for a 1-year, multiple-entry tourist visa at any consulate or embassy, which will allow you to stay in Thailand for 90-day periods before making border runs and being granted additional 90 days. If you are caught working without the proper documentation, however, you will lose your job and you could be in some more serious trouble as well, so the risk is up to you.

Is Teaching in Thailand Worth It?

Most websites will tell you that if you are looking to save money or pay off student loans, you would be better off going somewhere like South Korea, where the pay is best. However, in my experience, it is possible to save money in Thailand depending on where you decide to teach. The school where I work provides me with housing, a free lunch at school everyday, and a small stipend each month for my utilities bill, so my monthly expenses are incredibly low. If you choose to work in the provinces (doubtful you will get a deal like this in Bangkok), it is worth asking if the school can at least provide you with housing. Often a teacher at school may own a small apartment in town, and may be willing to rent it out at a reduced rate to a foreign teacher, and the school may not mind footing the bill. Remember that in Thailand everything about your contract is negotiable, regardless of what the job listing might say.

Lastly, there are the intangible benefits. I have found working as an ESL teacher in Thailand to be very rewarding. Like anything with Thailand — whether it is moving here, learning how to navigate Bangkok, trying to pick up the language — the biggest hurdles are always in the beginning. But things become easier as you start to feel more comfortable in the classroom and to establish a rapport with the students. While you may not be able to have an impact on every student who walks into your room, there will be many who really take to you, and you will see their English improve from month to month. This, ultimately, is why I am staying for another year.

*wai — a traditional Thai greeting of places the palms together over one’s heart and bowing one’s head slightly.

For More Information on Teaching in Thailand

Useful ESL Websites for Teaching Materials and Resources

www.eslcafe.com — Dave’s ESL Café has a multitude of great games, resources, and activities.

www.teachenglishinasia.net — Site with some good games, as well as an online forum and job listings in Thailand and throughout Asia.

teachingrecipes.com — Teaching Recipes is a blog built on submissions of games and teaching activities from ESL teachers around the world. The site is well-organized and each “recipe” is categorized according to age/ability level.

www.eslkidstuff.com — ESL Kidstuff has over 1,500 readymade, printable teaching resources, such as worksheets and flashcards.

www.eslpartyland.com — ESL Partyland is a site for both ESL students and teachers. The site has lessons, quizzes, and games for students, as well as lesson plans and printable activities and worksheets for teachers.

Useful Websites for Dealing with Your Visa and Work Permit in Thailand (refer your school to these sites if they seem unsure how to help you)

www.thaiembassy.org —Has links to every Thai embassy and consulate worldwide. Click on the one where you will go to apply for Non-Immigrant B Visa, and confirm what documents you will need.

www.mfa.go.th — List of needed documents for your Non-Immigrant B Visa according to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Compare this list with the list provided on the website of the embassy/consulate you plan on going to. If the lists differ, make sure you have all the documents on both lists, so as to avoid any potential problems.

Note: For many more articles, see our extensive section of participant reports on Teaching English in Thailand.

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