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How to Teach English in Thailand to High School Students

Teaching English to students in Thailand.
Teaching English to 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 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 them via Skype or in person and eventually 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; this will be your first time doing it solo. Perhaps you do not speak Thai, and the kids barely speak English. How will you communicate?

This was my introduction to working in the Thai public school system — or my non-introduction. I was handed a schedule on the first day and 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 that I was assigned to teach Mathayom 1 with 11 and 12-year-olds. However, figuring out how to survive in this setting was not easy. Perhaps miraculously, though, I learned how to survive and 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 Thai public school system's rewarding but often hectic world.

In the Thai Classroom

I have already said it — but I will repeat it for emphasis — your typical Thai classroom size is enormous. You will need to develop lesson plans that will work in this setting, engage many students, and not be too much of a headache. A lifesaver for me when I first started was the blog post on 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 my students' favorites. They can be adapted with new vocabulary and themes so that you can use them repeatedly. Please do not be worried about repetition as I was. Thai students enjoy activities they have done before, as it gives them confidence in knowing how to do something. Subsequent games and activities tend to involve more students who may have been too timid or unclear about the activity the first time. Dave’s ESL Café is another great resource for games and activities. In fact, two of my students' favorite games tweaked to my needs can also be found on that website: "Jeopardy" and the "Body Building Game."

Remember that you can do many 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." Seeing how much they loved that, I brought a CD and taught them 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 repeatedly for a whole period. Many students asked me to put it onto their USB flash drives to sing along at home. This was a fun thing to do at Christmastime. Still, the experience also taught me that songs can be an engaging way to focus on proper pronunciation and learn new vocabulary.

Another very successful class 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 done an excellent job, there is a profound feeling of accomplishment, not only with their proficiency in English but with their own creative work. Building 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 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 you are lukewarm or unsure about will be very effective. The lesson here is to be bold and try new things, as you never can anticipate what will work well, at least at first. Also, keep in mind that different activities work well with different groups. Feel free to experiment and deviate from your lesson plans if the class pushes in another 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.

Keeping high school students engaged in Thailand.
Keeping your high school students engaged in Thailand.

Your Thai Coworkers

Regarding Thai coworkers, there are two things to keep in mind. First, as a foreign teacher, you are getting paid far more than most. While the typical salary — around 30,000 baht per month (US$900) as of this writing — might seem like nothing for a Westerner, it is enough to live comfortably in most areas of Thailand. Most teachers at a Thai public school will not make such a salary until they have worked there 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 started working at my school, some 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 was that they resented me for the salary disparity and were not afraid to show it. However, my Canadian coworker, who had been teaching at the school for six years, corrected me. He said that for most Thais, it had more to do with a painful shyness (mainly 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 to say, "Good morning." While it seems silly 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 it 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 despite their seeming brush-off; eventually, most people will come around.

Visas and Work Permits in Thailand

Getting your visa and work permit is the biggest hassle in starting work as a teacher in Thailand. Still, if you know the process, you will be much better off than I was. Typically, your school should handle everything for you. Nevertheless, often, the process could be faster. If you are working in one of the provinces where foreign teachers are not common, your school may not know what you need.

Your first step to working legally in Thailand is to get a Non-Immigrant B Visa, which you must apply for at any Thai embassy or consulate outside of Thailand. You should check the list of needed documents on the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs website and the embassy/consulate website where you will apply 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 besides your university transcripts, degrees, and certificates. Assuming you have everything, the visa application process takes a few days.

Once back in Thailand, you must apply for a working permit. Assume your school is responsible and savvy with its foreign teachers. In that case, you should not have to do anything other than hand over your passport, but it helps to understand 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 this, you can extend your visa for the remainder of your teaching contract, and your headaches will essentially be over (other than routine check-ins with Thai immigration every 90 days). Consider you wish to extend your contract for another year. In that case, 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 and quirks that are discussed in the Ajarn Q&A section of its excellent job site for teachers. Plenty of people teach in Thailand illegally on tourist visas, which is appealing because it is much easier than getting a proper Non-B visa and work permit. It is possible to apply for a 1-year, multiple-entry tourist visa at any consulate or embassy, allowing you to stay in Thailand for 90-day days before making border runs and being granted an additional 90 days. However, suppose you are caught working without the proper documentation. In that case, you will lose your job and could be in more serious trouble, so the risk is up to you.

Is Teaching in Thailand Worth It?

Most websites will tell you that if you want to save money or pay off student loans, you would be better off going somewhere like South Korea, where the pay is best. However, 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 every day, and a small stipend each month for my utility 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 be willing to rent it out at a reduced rate to a foreign teacher, and the school may be okay with footing the bill. Remember that everything about your contract in Thailand 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 — moving here, learning how to navigate Bangkok, trying to pick up the language — the most significant hurdles are always in the beginning. But things become easier as you start feeling more comfortable in the classroom and establishing a rapport with the students. While you may not be able to impact every student who walks into your room, many will 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 is a traditional Thai greeting of placing the palms together over one's heart and bowing one's head slightly.

More Resources on Thailand

Job Postings in Thailand

Ajarn — The best ESL job postings for Thailand, along with many other resources and articles.

More by Paul King
Jumping Off the Face of the Earth: Landing in Thailand
Experience Thailand by Learning Thai and Living in Bangkok
Indside the Monk's Cave in Thailand
Related Topics
Teaching English in Thailand: Articles and Jobs
Living in Thailand: Articles and Expatriate Resources

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