Volunteering Abroad Teaching English with Worldteach
Tales of Life in Northeast Thailand
Article and photos by Haley Boone
|Thai students in a classroom with author who volunteered to teach English with Worldteach.
Graduate school applications, printouts from different volunteer abroad websites, and my job renewal contract all sat on my desk, quietly begging for my attention. Was I ready to begin school again, so quickly after spending the previous 18 years of my life as a student? Was I ready to commit to another year of teaching my wonderful, yet difficult, third graders in Jackson, Mississippi? Growing up, I always dreamed of taking the time to go and explore the world. It seemed like the perfect time: I was single. I was so ready to go and be part of a grand adventure. I had the support of my family and friends. But was I ready to give up my salary? Could I sell my car, save up my last paychecks, and go off and work for nothing? Could I leave behind everyone that I loved for an entire year? I decided it was at least worth looking into, and I began my search to find a volunteer abroad program that supported something that I was passionate about, one that I could afford, and one that I would feel confident could support me overseas.
I am sure I looked at millions of websites. Did I want to go through a religious or secular organization? Did I want to work with children or adults? Did I want to teach or try something different? In the end, I realized that the things in life I’m very passionate about are education and poverty. Then I found WorldTeach. WorldTeach is an organization that is based at Harvard’s Center for Development and has been sending volunteers overseas to teach for over twenty years. I knew that any organization supported by Harvard was one that I could trust due to its stellar academic reputation, and to be honest, the experience with Worldteach would look great on my resume when I did decide to either go to graduate school or continue my career as a school teacher. When I found their website, I was instantly drawn to the Thailand program for many reasons. The program fee was incredibly low compared to most of the other volunteer programs I researched. I would be working with school-aged children in an underdeveloped area of Thailand. The program included full insurance, a round trip plane ticket, and a field director available in Thailand at all times. After a lot of thought and research, I finally sent in my application, had my phone interview, and was accepted into the inaugural Thailand Year program with WorldTeach (offered only during certain years).
Getting Ready to Go
Packing for a year abroad is quite a daunting task. From immunizations to visa applications, my “To Do” list seemed to grow larger and larger as my departure date loomed. WorldTeach requires that you bring many documents with you to the field for work permit purposes, and this proved to be one of the most time consuming tasks of my pre-departure weeks. Multiple copies of resumes, diplomas, passport pages, and passport photos are required. When you think about all of the different types of weather you’ll experience in a whole year abroad, your packing list grows considerably. I also made it a point to bring things with me that reminded me of home. If I have learned anything abroad, it is that no matter how great a place I am in, there is no place in the world that I’ll ever love more than home. On bad days, it’s so nice to have a little piece of that with me. After what seemed to be a thousand “To Do” lists, packing and repacking my two suitcases numerous times, and the many emotional goodbye meals with friends and family, I was ready to cross the Pacific and begin my life as a volunteer teacher in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand.
Hello, Culture Shock
One of the many great things about WorldTeach is that they require a 3-week orientation when you arrive in your country of service. This time was invaluable to me and so helpful in my transition to life abroad. We discussed teaching techniques, went on field trips to learn more about the area of Thailand where we would be living, and bonded as a team of foreigners who came together to travel, teach, and enjoy life in rural Thailand. Among the issues we discussed in depth were patterns in culture shock and how we could recognize them.
Inwardly, I was convinced that as much as I had traveled before, culture shock was unlikely to affect me. Life in Thailand was to be nothing short of the grand adventure I had dreamed of for so many months before leaving Mississippi. And ultimately, the festivals, delicious foods, and incredibly hospitable people that we meet everywhere we visit are proof enough to convince me that I had made the right decision in coming to Thailand.
Then, orientation ended. I was surprised when I arrived to discover that I was the only WorldTeach volunteer who would be living with a host family, and as I drove away from our Orientation site, alone, in the car of a friendly mother and daughter, I was terrified. I could not stop imaging the awkward dinner conversations that were sure to happen regularly. What if they didn’t speak any English? Was I supposed to stay in my room or sit in the living room? All of these thoughts and more consumed me during that car ride away from the comforts of my WorldTeach family.
The next day was the first day of teaching at Annuban Nakhon Phanom School, an overwhelmingly large school of 1,400 students in grades K-6. Right away, I was pushed onto a stage at an assembly before the entire school and forced to introduce myself. Luckily, the students loved the sight of a new, young foreign teacher and welcomed me with their huge smiles. I was told all I was expected to do was observe on my first day of class, but as soon as I walked into each classroom I was handed the microphone as the Thai teacher mysteriously disappeared. It was the first of many days at Annuban, and I quickly came to realize what my field director meant when she explained culture shock as “extreme highs and extreme lows.” During the first couple of months in Thailand, there were many days where the thoughts such as “What have I done?” often crossed my mind. Some days a year seemed like an eternity, and on other really great days, a year seemed like such a short time to spend as a part of this incredibly welcoming culture. I think it takes a while for any new place to feel like home, but I have never been to a place where the local people would do anything and everything to make you as comfortable and happy as possible as I have experienced in Thailand.
Life as a Local
Nakhon Phanom is located on the Mekong River in the Northeast area of Thailand known as Isaan. I live in the capital of this province, also known as Nakhon Phanom. It’s a sleepy, quaint little town that I quickly grew to love. Now, when I think of Nakhom Phanom, I picture random karaoke parties and aerobics classes beside the river. I think of the night market with the friendliest and most delicious food stalls you can find on this side of the world. It’s a town that you can get anywhere you need to go on foot, but also a town where you will have a hard time walking anywhere without dozens of people offering you a ride on their motorbikes or in their cars. The town boasts excellent restaurants and also roads that seemingly have no traffic laws. Nakhon Phanom is, quite simply, the friendliest place that I have ever been.
Being placed with a host family is one of the best things that has happened to me in Nakhon Phanom. From helping me learn Thai, to hosting karaoke parties for my friends, to being taken on family vacations, I never expected to become a part of something so wonderful when I moved to Thailand. There is nothing that can replace the sense of belonging to something, and my host family reinforces that feeling on a daily basis. Khun Ya, my Thai grandmother, and I have breakfast together every morning and some of my fondest memories include the time we spend over eggs and rice and our routine of standing arm in arm each morning as the Thai national anthem plays. I would recommend anyone traveling overseas to consider staying with a host family at some point, if not the entire time. It gave me the opportunity to experience Thailand in a way that I’m sure few people ever have a chance to by allowing for total immersion.
Despite its large size, I quickly warmed up to the students and staff of Annuban Nakhon Phanom School. My experiences in teaching include a degree in Elementary Education and a year as a third grade teacher in Jackson, Mississippi. I loved teaching, but I had grown tired of the endless paperwork and the high stress level that had become a part of my life. I could write a book on the differences between American and Thai schools, but I think that it can be summed up well by saying that Thai schools are much, much more relaxed than American schools.
“You’re tired today? No problem… You no teach!”
“But… what about all of my students? What will they do if I leave?”
Questions like this perplex teachers at my school. Students are treated much more like adults than students in America. I will admit that at times that I am completely shocked by things I see at Annuban. Students sitting on the ledge of the third floor railing, tiny first graders climbing the humongous tree that sits in the middle of the playground, and students using sharp knives to cut fruit are all things that stopped me in my tracks when I first started teaching here. In my typical, arrogant American attitude, I was shocked that the teachers allowed such “chaos” to reign on a campus of students aged 4-12. There were numerous days when I was completely flabbergasted at the things I saw and would leave school so frustrated when things just did not go the way I thought they should. As time wore on, however, I realized that perhaps it is not such a bad way to run a school. My students are responsible. I have yet to see a major accident on the playground or on the school campus. My students are smart, respectful, and completely lovable. Aren’t those the values and behaviors that we want to teach children? I quickly came to realize that just because I was taught to do things one way, it does not necessarily mean it is the only way. I am sure that I will go back to America as a more patient and open minded teacher.
“ABC, Easy as 1,2,3..”
Before I left for Thailand, I had many goals in mind when it came to being an English teacher. I wanted to be patient, creative, and fun. I wanted to leave Thailand and know that I was leaving behind students who could speak considerably more English than they could when I arrived. However, I did not expect to arrive and have over 400 students. I had no idea that I would be teaching students who could recite the alphabet very well but had no idea what sound the letter “D” makes. I was not ready to teach phonics, and I certainly had no idea how to come up with interesting lessons for my students when it was seemingly impossible to locate construction paper and markers. All teaching supplies I brought with me were either too advanced or completely irrelevant to what I needed. After a couple of weeks of trial and error, I started to discover what worked as well as what would end in what can only be described as a disastrous lesson.
Despite the differences between American and Thai schools, it quickly became obvious to me that some things are relevant in all educational settings. Children need structure and routine. Children need to have fun or their attention is not going to stay focused on you for long. The Internet is your friend when teaching, but as much information as it can provide, it will never compare to the invaluable resources your teaching partners provide. I became a teacher because I believe it is something that I can do to contribute to the world around me. I am honestly not sure that there is a better feeling in the world than the one I get each day when I walk into my classes and see the students’ faces light up with excitement to learn English.
Teaching is only as great as you make it. I do not think it takes a degree or experience to be a good teacher. I am not sure it even involves being incredibly knowledgeable about your subject. If you want to be a good teacher overseas, just come ready to give it everything you have. Be prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure your students learn what you have come to teach them. If you teach something one way and it does not work, find another way. If something works with one class, understand it is not a guarantee that it is going to work with another class. If you come to teach in Thailand, come expecting the unexpected. It is not rare at all to come to school to find all of my morning classes cancelled because there is a parade the students must attend or a ceremony where they sign a “Get Well” card for the King. It is not rare to walk into my classes and notice that half the desks are strangely empty. Cheerleading practice, field trips to the local temples, and sudden swim days disrupt my classes on a regular basis. Luckily, I quickly adopted the Thai slogan of mai pen rai (no problem) and adapted to the relaxed lifestyle that I have come to love in Thailand.
What You Should Remember Before Volunteering Abroad:
- They recommend immunizations for a reason. Do not forget to visit your doctor before you leave, and it is best to do it well in advance of your departure date, as some vaccinations require multiple shots
- Do your research. Find an organization that works for you based on your interests, time available to travel, and support that they offer. You will find a ton of different options, but do not choose one until you are completely confident that it’s a group that you can trust and will take care of you while overseas.
- Go with an open mind. Every country is completely different, and if you go with expectations for things to be a certain way then you will most likely be disappointed. Be ready for an adventure. Be ready for change.
- Find out as much as you can about the culture of the country where you will be living. This will make your life much easier when it finally comes time to start packing. Check into things like the climate, how the local people dress, and what the local food is like. You will be glad when you arrive to be somewhat knowledgeable about what you are eating and that you did not waste space packing things that you will never use.
- Begin learning as much of the language as you can. The people that you meet in your country will be impressed by your desire to be a part of their culture, and they will be more open to speaking English with you if they see that you are not afraid to try their language, even if you often make mistakes.
Once You Arrive, Do Not Forget:
- To be culturally sensitive. In Thailand, I can wear shorts in Nakhon Phanom, but if I go visit friends in villages it is considered inappropriate. I am not a Buddhist, but I know that I should not touch the monks and that I need to show proper respect when I encounter them. Take the time to learn about the culture and then make sure that you put the things you learn into practice.
- That it is acceptable to bring a little bit of your culture with you. My host family loves to hear about the traditions of my family back home and what we do in Mississippi. I often try to cook dishes that I eat back home for my host family, such as queso dip and spaghetti. Even though they rarely like it, it is still a chance for them to understand a little bit more about me. Pictures, music, and books are a great way to share your culture with those that you meet.
- To keep your family and friends back home updated on what is going on in your life. I would never make it in Thailand without the support of the people that I love back home, and while they may never fully understand what I experience here in Thailand, it is so nice to talk to them about things I am going through. Do not isolate yourself from people just because you are very far away. You will need them often overseas, and you will need them even more when you go home again.
- That sensitivity (as we define it) does not always exist in other countries. Thai people are brutally honest. If they think you are fat, they tell you. If they think your nose is oddly shaped, they will recommend a place for you to go and get a cheap nose job. Do not take it personally.
- To have fun! Take every chance you get to try new things. Travel around the country and explore what’s around you. Do not take for granted the things that become a part of your daily setting, because before you know it you will be back on an airplane heading home. Make sure you leave without regrets!
Haley Boone is from Madison, Mississippi, and graduated in December of 2007 from Mississippi College with a degree in Elementary Education. Prior to volunteering with WorldTeach, Haley taught third grade in Jackson, MS, and she has participated in volunteer work abroad in India, China, Great Britain, and Kazakhstan.