The Ins and Outs of Teaching English in Thailand
How do you define the intense assault on your senses that is Thailand?
It is vibrant, crazy, impossibly romantic, quirky, hilarious, spiritual, – and corrupt. There are many countries, which can claim these adjectives as theirs, but in Thailand you get to experience all of them every day, and it is the intensity of this, which makes the country so unique and, for many visitors, unforgettable.
The EFL teaching industry here is riven with contradictions which are hilarious and frustrating in turns – keeping your hair on is an art form here – but if you want to change your life and let go of the past, this is the place to come. This article is one writer’s attempts to convey the delights and challenges of doing that.
Our journey begins
As a married couple in our fifties, largely expected to be settled, we shocked family and friends by announcing we were going to Thailand. Responses ranged from alienation to fascination – and a slew of irreverent jokes. But the dog had died, we had no kids and we were both royally fed up of Britain, so this framework made it was easier.
We worked hard to make our move a success. Apart from my husband, Mark, doing the CELTA in 4 weeks (idiotic- do it in 6), and learning to meditate for stress relief, we both renovated our house and spent an inordinate amount of time collating the documents we would need. Mark also Skyped with future employers.
We have come a long way since the day we walked off the plane at Don Mueng airport in August 2013 – and were knocked sideways by the heat and 70% humidity: we arrived with only £1200 in the bank, no work and nowhere to stay long-term. I now write this from a sizeable, airy condo on the 28th floor of a high-rise block in Bangkok, with a gasp-inducing view; my husband has just accepted a commission on his work permit from Inlingua to teach in The Royal Palace near Wat Prekao temple, while I am spending my days planning our retirement and turning my proven 7-step superlearning system into a profitable online business.
The current teaching climate
Making a ‘go’ of it here comes from having the right qualifications and from doing your research. In less than a month Mark more or less walked into a job with a work permit, which has since grown and grown, while I came here to heal by dropping shedloads of emotional baggage, have taken up Buddhism, and am now morphing back into a writer.
Certainly, if you are going to work here you need to know that things in Thailand are changing.
After the coup a recession hit, and is now in full swing, with rising prices and a spending slump. This has been ‘aided’ by the Government which has taken native speaking EFL teachers out of State schools, and which is seeking to make up for the gap by imposing a 6-week crash-course in teaching EFL for Thai teachers.
Unfortunately, a Ministry of Education survey found that only 6 out of 43 000 Thai EFL teachers had the ability to achieve native standard, not the actual facility of it (Bangkok Post Nov 2015). When this news hit the EFL grapevine, you could hear the lead balloons falling all around. The idea of being independent is admirable, but there are questions with the method.
The Thai school system follows the ‘speak only when you are spoken to’ policy. Students learn English grammar in Thai and are not encouraged to ‘have a go’. The result is a lack of imagination, the inability and unwillingness to speak, and poor listening. Add to this the conventional Asian shyness and you have a recipe for a difficult and uninspiring scenario. Bright parents will realise the dangers of this recent decision, especially for their charges’ future University studies, where English predominates.
This could cause a flood of students into private EFL schools, but we have seen no evidence of it – yet. Many schools have not had any new students since August 2015; teachers have been taken off contract, and reception staff have left for lack of work. The situation will only prompt remedial action once students have failed several exams (so 2017), but the inevitable bums’ rush for private EFL tuition may well usher in a pricing war and destabilize the industry. If you come here, be prepared for this.
Teaching opportunities and legal requirements
You can teach in private language institutes, international and small private schools, a University, or have private clients. This latter is illegal, even on a work permit, since it applies to your job, not to your person. The risk is yours.
To get an EFL work permit, the requirements vary. In general you will need a non-Imm B visa, which you must acquire before you arrive, plus a Degree and a CELTA or TEFL, which is preferably not of the online variety. Private schools take copies of Degree transcripts and EFL certificates, but don’t offer permits. Universities require more – see below.
Once you have your non-Imm B visa – which you get when your employer has couriered the required documents to you – you can then go to Thailand, and use your employer’s help to get your work permit and visa extension, allowing you to stay. My husband signed over 40 separate pages to get his. Do study the notes at the end of this article about what papers to bring. After getting your permit, you report cost-free to the Immigration Office every 90 days. There is a special desk in the BKK office for this and you can do the whole thing in 90mins.
Private language schools debunked
Private language schools are often located in the quiet, upper echelons of malls. Most visitors hardly know they are there, and yet they represent a thriving mini metropolis.
They are all unique, but they do all share an awareness of the Thai price sensitivity: last week I saw a school offering a 95% discount to its students for a buffet EFL – an attend-as-you-like class, which brings in the money by signing up large numbers who subsequently do not attend many lessons and are not required to. The teacher has to turn up and teach, however, and if it’s just 4 students sitting in a room for 30. With the students spending much of the class texting and revisiting classwork afterwards not being the norm, a teacher can feel like their life is a ringer for Groundhog Day.
Another interesting perspective is that parents will often use private language schools as cheap baby-sitting. They take the view that getting them do something constructive is better than seeing them mixing with the wrong types. This is undoubtedly true, but motivating these students can be a herculean task. On the plus side, some students are a delight to teach, and will often come and hug their teachers – entirely acceptable here. Furthermore, teaching in private language schools is popular because they are generally civilized places to work: classrooms are neat, air-conditioned, with teaching aids supplied, and some admin done for you.
Most class sizes are less than 16 and can be very small. Pay ranges from 200THB per hour (terrible) to 450THB per hour (not bad) with bonuses for hours or classes completed. Inlingua has a good pay structure here, as my EFL genius of a husband found out: they pay a bonus for each hour completed. Students will buy lessons in blocks of 15 or 20 and multiples of these. Topics are either conversation, writing, grammar, IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC, Business English or analytical and academic English. Others are Presenting or Western Social Etiquette. Students range from five to 50 years old.
Some schools will want you to do a demo, so bring one or two 30-min lessons with you. Classes range from two to three hours – you will soon ditch your CELTA or TEFL format. Teachers in private language schools are not on contract and have no permits, so you will get lulls and no pay during holidays, but you get enormous flexibility to go home between lessons.
Finally, many private language schools offer corporate contracts. These are on-site, and so involve travelling, which is not for everyone, but the work can be fun by all accounts. You can negotiate fees from 500THB to 800thb per hour plus travel. If you want these, ask for them and remind the school you want them.
To bow or not to bow
In terms of teaching etiquette and local customs, there are things to be aware of: valuable teachers attract students to re-book, but if you are sick or on holiday, and the student likes your stand-in more, you may find your students moved to him or her, or vice versa. It cuts both ways. Or you could find that work has dried up entirely, as a few have discovered. The remedy may be to give only two weeks notice.
Other rules about dress code: closed shoes are a ‘must’ in many schools – it causes offence if teachers were sandals. Some schools are barefoot, and you may wear slippers, socks or be barefoot. Take wet-ones to stay fresh. Be smartly dressed – for men this is a shirt, tie and trousers – and ladies should dress demurely: a blouse and skirt or dress, or elegant layers. No woman shows her nipples or goes bra-less here.
Traditionally students will wai (put their hands together in a prayer position and bow) to teachers because they are held in high esteem in Asia – I was once bowed to by an entire Chinese family in a market – but teachers are not expected to do this back. Most teachers reserve this for meeting parents. Staff in shops also wai. Again, don’t wai back – it is the mark of someone who is ignorant – but they will accept it graciously if you do.
Other no-nos are openly criticizing the Thai royal family. In our first year a ‘farang’ (foreigner) was given a 5-year sentence after he was overheard by a local Thai, who instantly reported him. When in the cinema, stand up for the national anthem and in a national park, stand still when it plays around dusk. You may get invitations to national festivals or school parties. Thais are very accepting if you wish to attend – or stay away. We have found it fascinating to join in, however.
Songkran in April is completely mental and so is particularly recommended. You will be variously slapped on the cheeks with minted body talc and water to everyone’s general amusement or have buckets of freezing water thrown over you – the Ice Bucket Challenge has nothing on this because Songkran goes on all day – or be treated to the rather more moving ceremony of a beaming Thai lady gently pouring jasmine water over your shoulder to bring you good fortune.
Private teaching is perhaps the most financially rewarding – teachers report charging fees of between 1000 to 1500THB per hour so you can see how this racks up, especially if a student is studying for their exams and wants 4 hours per week. Some are highly organized and earn well from teaching large groups in their condos. Yet others meet students in coffee shops. Note that this EFL work is still not legal as it does not carry a work permit, but the risk is yours.
La crème de la crème of teaching gigs, International Schools are normally beautifully laid out and have every facility imaginable. In Bangkok there is a mini Harrow, for example, patronized by the kids of ‘hiso’ (high-society) parents with palatial houses, drivers, maids, cooks and nannies.
Teachers can earn over 70 000THB per month, but need a formal teacher’s qualification such as a PGCE. A CELTA or TEFL will not normally suffice.
Some run EFL Summer Schools, but you may be working long hours including weekends. Teachers at these schools and Universities are some of the wealthiest out there, living in nice houses with pools and so on, but teaching is formal and may come with a heavy administrative burden and the requirement to be there all day, which you don’t have in private institutes. A good school teaching week is about 16 to 20 hour with prep time on top of that, but some schools will work their teachers harder.
Working at a university
Working at a University is an interesting proposition and we know a few who are doing this. You need a Masters, an EFL qualification and at least three years post EFL-certificate experience. They will ask you to do a sample class, whereby the formal brief is that ‘an aspect of more advanced EFL should be taught, not a simple point of grammar’.
Classes can be up to 30 or 40 students. Your teaching load will be a modest 16 hours, but you can make up your income of 45 000THB to 80 000THB by doing more classes which the university organizes. Contracts may come with perks like accommodation, but the University can be isolated. Thammasat Rangsit is 1.5 hours away from the centre of Bangkok by minivan. Its grounds are stunning, but this may not make up for the isolation. Each University has its own idiosyncrasies. Student forums will reveal more.
Be warned about corruption: one student’s father was outraged when his son was not given an A grade because he said he had paid for it – with tuition fees. The Dean had to explain that he expected students to earn their marks. Plagiarism is also rife and is even tolerated by some lecturers – some of whom are western.
Last year I gave free help to a Masters student in Environmental Sciences to read some papers in readiness for writing an essay. When she showed me the essay, I had to explain to her that she could not just lift entire blocks out of someone else’s work and call it her own. I might as well have been speaking Klingon. She went ahead, presented it anyway – and got an A. Not a single sentence in the essay was her own.
Health insurance may be included in some EFL jobs, along with other perks like travel or paid for holiday periods, but this varies and so does cover. Contributions may be docked from your pay without your having a choice. Good employers will offer it as an option or they will have found something unbeatable that you will not want to refuse. Note that annual health insurance from global companies is often cheaper when bought from their local office in Thailand.
There is no national health service here and there is no network of local doctors – only doctors who run clinics in hospitals which you visit on spec. You pay for everything, but you can choose the hospital and doctor you go to and they all differ hugely in price. It is worth asking around.
Bumrungrad in Bangkok is outstanding – 5-star service for an amazing price, although expensive by Thai standards. Example: I was sent for a Doppler scan. I waited 10mins and the scan took 15 mins. The report was ready within the hour and I saw the doctor again to discuss it. All of this cost
me about £55 all in. This would have taken months in the UK and cost thousands. Chest X-rays are immediate and cost £6. Bloodwork is more.
Thailand is the place to get work done cheaply, but as with everything, do your homework and don’t rush. When attending the hospital take your passport, immunization record, family medical history and meds. You will be weighed and your temperature and blood pressure will be taken before you see the doctor.
The magic of Thailand
We have been here over two years now, and we still find things to be passionate about every day:
Vibrant? – Taxis the color of boiled sweet wrappers; watching over 100 breath-taking New Year firework displays from our balcony; floating candles on the lake during Loi Krathong; the glorious puppet show in the Artists House by the river; and the rainbow displays in the stalls at the elegant Ot Tor Kor market, sponsored by the Royal Thai family, no less.
Crazy? – On my first day I saw a motorbike with a man, woman, three children and a dog on it, without safety helmets. And three men, resting circus-style on each other’s shoulders, as they bastardized the tangled overhead cables for their food stall. In Thailand you are free, but you are also accountable.
Impossibly romantic? – Only in Thailand’s Svensons could you see four staff gathered around one ice cream glass, discussing how to make just the right amount of swirly strawberry patterns for you both on your Valentine’s date.
Hilarious? – Only in Thailand could you come to a police station and see a travelling street stall selling knock-off police uniforms – to the police. Or the taxi driver who reeled off the same sentence flawlessly in every imaginable English accent just for fun: Australian, South African, Scottish, British, cockney and American. I loved the man.
Quirky? –Thai students choose unusual names to make life easy for teachers. Endearing ones include Mint, Pea, Earth and Rose. Then there were Ding, Dang, Dong, Ping, Pong, Pee, and Poo. Erm, yes, really. Names like Chateau, Benz, Bonus and Boss may infer personal strength. Bomb and Phlop not quite so much.
Did I write it was spiritual too? – I will forever remember sitting high above Chiang Mai, in the middle of a waterfall, in a little-known temple complex, and feeling a kind of peace I have rarely felt in my life. Or the hour I spent at the Erawan Museum – a giant cast-iron, three-headed elephant which houses an ethereal blue temple inside its stomach, and which you reach by climbing up a winding staircase inside its rear legs. This towering beast nestles in verdant gardens featuring white statues of peacocks, dragons and fish, pearling water into carp-filled ponds. How could you not dream there?
For all its foibles and madness-inducing inconsistencies, Thailand has wended its way into my heart to remain there forever. I encourage you to see its vibrant beauty – at least once in your life – and I defy you to leave without feeling the same.
Remember that no matter what the legislation is, immigration staff and border guards can use their discretion and overrule any law, and they do do this. Avoid demanding anything as your right, criticizing and/or raising your voice. With Asians particularly, this is a bad idea. Their eyes turn a steely grey; the emotional shutters come down, and you will be told with a broad, empty smile that you can’t enter or must leave.
If you are attending the Immigration Office regarding a work permit and visa, being smartly dressed is a requirement, so follow it or take the consequences of alienating the staff. We think this is an easy way of showing respect and it may help you if you have any anomalies in your paperwork, which can sometimes be sorted out with their help. Do not arrive drunk or on drugs. It will make staff suspicious of your reasons for being in the country – and you may be arrested.
Identity papers needed
- Birth certificate (+min 4 copies) – essential for married couples
- Original marriage certificate (+min 4 copies) – same
- Up-to-date passport with at least 5 years validity, the correct visa stamp from your home country and your arrival/dep. card
- Immunisation record showing required shots (+min 1 copy)
- Return airline ticket (+min 1 copy)
- Hotel or apartment reservation confirmation and address (+min 1 copy).
- Bank statement showing your savings (+min 1 copy) – this may not be asked for, but it is recommended.
Employment papers needed
- Twenty-four colour passport photographs
- Degree certificate (+4 copies)
- Degree transcript (+4 copies)
- CELTA or TEFL certificate (+4 copies)
- Criminal records check with enhanced disclosure if seeking to teach kids – ask about this because the requirement varies from employer to employer (4 copies)
- Any contract or formal work offer letter (+4 copies)
- References from past employers (+1 copy)
- A bank statement showing your savings – in case asked for
- Driving license and International driving license – for car rentals
- Family medical history including ailments and treatments (+1 copy)
- Letter from your doctor explaining current treatments and meds (+1 copy)
- Colour copies will be refused so get b&w only.
- Scan all documents as jpegs onto a flashdrive and keep copies of each other’s documents.
- Save the jpegs on your laptop and to the cloud. Whenever an item changes, i.e your visa stamp, rescan and save it.
- Charge up your IT. Airport staff can ask to see your HD.
By Ingrid Burling @IngridBurling
If you have any questions for Ingrid or have taught in Thailand and would like to add some additional advice for prospective teachers please leave your reply in the comments section at the bottom of the page.