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Teaching English and Living in Thailand

Do Your Homework Before Choosing a Job

If you have ever thought about dropping life as you know it and hop-scotching around the globe with your university degree as your ticket to ride, Thailand has a lot of options for you to explore. However, teaching English in Thailand is not completely straightforward.

The demand for English teachers is strong all across Asia. Teaching in Thailand is often not as lucrative as in other countries in the region. But if you are looking for something a little “different,” Thailand is the place. You just have to be on your toes and ask the right questions when interviewing for teaching jobs and take nothing for granted.

The TEFL/CELTA Conundrum

As with many things in Thailand there is an official answer and an unofficial answer to the question “should you get a TEFL or a CELTA qualification?” It's not necessary to have a qualification to teach in Thailand but it's more and more desirable, as I'll explain.

Many backpackers work short stints as teachers. which floods the market with cheap labor. Most of these people have no teaching experience or qualifications other than being are native English speakers. Sometimes that is good enough to gain a toehold in this special place. Thailand is diverse, beautiful, colorful, offers great food, and is incredibly cheap. You may feel very worldly when you utter the words “I live in Bangkok.” So many of backpackers decide to stay on here, and eventually they get jobs. If you do have credentials, you have to look hard to find an employer who shows appreciation with respect and money. In short, because of the supply the average salary is low. If you have debts back home it might be difficult to juggle them on an average teacher salary.

To work in Thailand "officially" you should have a TEFL certificate in order to get your teachers license, which you need in order to qualify for a work permit. You will also get paid significantly more if you do possess a TEFL or CELTA certificate. If you want to spend some time here and earn a decent amount of money I would recommend you get a certificate. It will more than pay for itself. You can even take the course here in Thailand. If you decide to teach elsewhere, the certificate will earn you more money and help you develop your teaching skills.

The following are just some of the websites which advertise TEFL and CELTA certificate courses (you can see many more on this site's Teaching English in Thailand page):

I wouldn't recommend taking an online course. These are viewed as inferior, are not recognized by many schools, and unlikely to get you the coveted work permit.

VISA (Mis)Information

Do you really need a work visa to work in Thailand? The answer depends a lot on you. If you want to work legally and avoid the tedious and expensive border runs, then I would suggest doing things legally. It saves you a lot of hassle in the long term even though the visa process can be complicated. When looking for jobs in Thailand make sure that your school will handle this gruesome process for you. Many schools do offer some help or guidance, but believe me, that isn't enough. They must actually do it for you. Basically, they will ask you for loads of documents and they demand originals. You will need: original university transcripts; original university diploma/certificate; original TEFL/CELTA certificate; and lots of photos (do yourself a favor and ask for the exact sizes. I had to get my mine done five times because they were never the right size or I was wearing the wrong clothes)!

Photos for your work permit need to be from the waist up and you must be wearing business attire (yes, this means suit jackets for guys and girls). You will need assorted sizes for the different permits (teacher’s license and work permit). You will also need a health certificate from a Thai doctor (when I got mine, they checked my blood pressure and asked if I was healthy and then gave me the certificate; it cost me a buck).

If possible, ask your school for a checklist. Otherwise they will ask you for one thing at a time and it gets a bit frustrating and time-consuming. Also expect for your passport to be tied up most of the time this is being processed. Don’t be too scared if they don’t give it back right away. Unfortunately, this is normal. There is some useful information about the visa situation in Thailand on this website: www.ajarn.com. Other good websites about Thai visas are www.thaivisa.com and www.business-in-asia.com/th_workpermit.html.

Once you find a suitable job your employer will give you some paperwork and you will have to make a visa run to get a Non-immigrant B Visa. You need this type of visa in order to apply for a work permit. This is valid for three months. It seems like a long time but you will soon find out that the mass of tangled, sticky, red tape takes a while to unravel. The good thing is your school should handle it. I advise you to keep tabs of your visa expiration date and keep pestering them about the progress of your visa. Recently at my Bangkok school one of the teachers had their visa expire because... well because someone wasn't paying attention.

A good place to make a visa run is Penang. Cheap flights can be purchased online though the budget air carrier www.airasia.com. Don't take a bus or a train. Pay the extra money (it isn't much more expensive) and get there quickly without the hassle of going by land. Penang is a nice place to hang out for a couple of days while your visa is being processed. Kuala Lumpur will cost you at least 50 bucks to take the train from the airport into the city center. It isn’t really worth the extra cash or hassle. Make it easy on yourself: go to Penang.

Important Questions to Ask

If you are new to Thailand and new to teaching be careful. Things are not always straightforward here. Ask a lot of questions, and if things seem a bit suspicious or unclear than maybe it is best to look elsewhere. There are many jobs teaching English in Thailand. The average pay is around 30,000 baht or a bit above. That isn't enough. You pay a premium for most things in Thailand just because you are a farang (foreigner). If you were Thai that salary might seem like a bonanza. (Most Thais make about 6,000 baht a month; in Bangkok the average salary is about 15,000 baht a month. You can calculate what this would be in your own currenc.) This does create a little tension between you and your Thai co-workers, so tread very carefully and always be respectful. The Thai teachers at public and private schools are qualified teachers who make half of what you make. They work a lot harder and have many fewer benefits. They often don’t receive health insurance or bonuses and they generally work longer hours and have less vacation days.

Negotiate your salary and all benefits: everything is negotiable. Don't be shy or you will be scrounging for change a week before your next paycheck. Also, ask about bonuses and airfare reimbursement. Bonuses are not at all uncommon if you fulfill your 1-year contract and work full-time. Some international schools will either buy you a ticket home or pay you cash if you choose not to take the ticket. Again, make sure they handle your visa, work permit, and teacher's license. These things cost money and you do not want to pay for them yourself or have to deal with the government offices that issue them.

Housing

This is where you pay much more than your Thai counterpart, up to double what a Thai would pay. Take your time and check different locations and prices before you decide on an apartment (see Cheap Digs in Bangkok by Chris Mitchell for details). You can stay in a cheap guesthouse while you are looking. Very few teaching jobs provide accommodation, and if they do it is very likely because they are located in the country. Check the rate for water and electricity. The Thais pay the utility company directly thus getting a much lower price then the farang. Many housing complexes from large to small will make you pay a premium for the same services. You can expect to pay between 4 and 5.5 baht per unit for electricity. Also water is usually a fixed rate of 300 to 500 baht, which is three to five times more expensive than paying the utility company directly. It seems like extortion, but it is a common practice here in Thailand and completely legal (I think). The point is this adds up. Our first electricity bill was nearly 5,000 baht So be careful.

English Teaching Jobs

  • Your best option is to teach at an international school.
    The benefits are greater income even as such schools are likely to be better organized and accustomed to working with foreigners. Typically, you will get longer paid holidays, since they observe Thai as well as Western holidays like Christmas, Easter, and New Years. These international schools often Christian schools — usually in name only since most Thais are Buddhist — but they generally offer higher educational standards than most Thai schools. They also have better facilities. Many Thai schools are not air conditioned and are not the most comfortable places to work. They just don't have the same financial resources that the international schools do. International schools don't have the same calendar year as the regular government schools. Their school year usually begins in August and runs until June. A TEFL or CELTA certificate would serve you well if you plan to work in an international school. The salary runs up to 80,000 baht per month, but top jobs often require a teaching certificate from your home country.
  • The second option is a bilingual or even a trilingual school.
    They too are fairly well-equipped but not quite as well as the international schools. They pay more than the public schools and tend to be better organized. The up side of that is less time working, but the downside is you have to pay for your own work permit (if you decide to get it), teacher's license, and visa. Usually, you will get about six weeks of paid holiday, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to ask for the school calendar before the school year starts. The pay for this type of job is usually between 36-45,000 baht a month plus paid holidays and a bonus after contract completion. The bonus varies by school but is typically close to one month's salary. Looking on job websites is a great way to search out jobs. It is a good idea to search for schools in the area where you are want to teach. Many of the more prestigious schools don’t bother to post on some of the job sites as they are deluged by underqualified applicants with badly-written CVs.
  • The third option is a government school.
    Some of the school’s pilot programs are extremely well-equipped; A/C, projectors, and sometimes even computers. However, most schools are stuffy, hot environments with few resources and sometimes no books or substandard books. The pay at a government school is 20,000 baht to 35,000 baht. The class size is also much larger than the other two types of schools. The average class size is 50 students during my time in Thailand. It's not the easiest environment to teach in. Also, there are usually no bonuses at contract completion. In my view, there is not much incentive to work in government schools but many people choose to do so nonetheless.
  • The last choice is to work for a private English Institute.
    These are plentiful and by far the least appetizing. The working hours are more often than not much longer and usually only provide for one day off per week. They often have very poor resources and tend to be ill-organized and tend not to offer work permits. Many people work illegally and are quite happy to do so. Whatever suits your fancy.

I recommend having a good look around before deciding on a job. A great portal for finding Thai jobs is www.ajarn.com. People are always coming and going and this site posts a list of jobs in Thailand updated daily as well. Jobs and discussions about particular employers and issues of concern for teachers can be found at Dave's ESL Cafe. Here you can also engage in discussions about the latest jobs and working conditions, which are always subject to change.

Thai Culture

In general, in my experience the Thai people are lovely. A big smile will get you a long way here. It is important to always keep your temper under control. A temper flare-up will get you absolutely nowhere and cost you the respect of the Thai people who witnessed it. Even if something is absolutely ridiculous and wouldn’t be tolerated back home, matters will turn out better if you just work through the problem and pretend to be amiable even if you want to start shouting profanities and banging your fist or your head against the wall.

This is a predominately Buddhist country and it is evident in the number of temples and spirit houses that you will see everywhere. Buddhism permeates all levels of Thai thinking from the concept of “mai pen rai” (which basically it means "don’t worry about it"), to deeply ingrained ideas regarding hierarchy and respect.

Respect is of paramount importance in Thai society. Learning Thai customs and picking up the language will earn you mountains of respect from your co-workers and peers and generally make your experience here a more enjoyable one. Be prepared for the Thai concept of time. Thai people don't seem to be in a hurry most of the time, and this is definitely something that you just have to get used to. The mad rush known by many expats back home slows down quite considerably here, and it is nice to take the time to enjoy life instead of rushing around from one commitment to the next without having a second to reflect.

This is still a developing country, so sometimes material life is not up to what some might see as Western standards. A vast majority of the people here are poor. But if you decide to live and work in Thailand it is very important to keep things in perspective and always be considerate to the customs and traditions of the Thai people.

While Thailand is a developing country, virtually every luxury you might want from home is available here. In general, you can buy almost anything your heart desires. It is an easy place to live (apart from sporadic recent political issues), and Thai people are genuinely helpful, kind, and generous. When I started my first job here on the first day of work a tiny little lady who only came up to my chin welcomed me and grabbed my hand to take me on a tour of the facilities. She didn’t let go of my hand until we were finished about 45 minutes later. Thais are generally very warm. Thailand is called the land of smiles for a good reason. If you want to live and teach here, you just have to do your homework and you will likely enjoy your stay—indeed, some foreigners never leave.

For more detailed information about Thai people and culture see this site's section on Living in Thailand.