Are you thinking about teaching abroad in Thailand? It might seem overwhelming and you'd want to hear about the experience from someone who has actually gone through the program. That's why we sat down with former participant Kristen Palmer to find out what it's really like to Teach English in Thailand!
Kristen taught in Phayao Province for two years before joining Overseas Education Group (OEG), InterExchange's partner in Thailand, as an International Advisor. In this continuation of our earlier conversation, Kristen discusses salary, traveling around Thailand, and other frequently asked questions about living and working in the Land of Smiles!
How is the Thai workplace culturally different than a U.S. workplace?
Thai culture is very hierarchal. Seniority is important and this aspect of Thai culture plays a big role in the workplace, especially in schools. The director is the head of the school, followed by vice directors, heads of departments, senior teachers, junior teachers, and at the bottom are students. As a foreigner, your place in the hierarchy is a bit unclear. The director’s whims and wishes can have an effect on your co-workers and your classroom, and as a guest all you can do is go along with it and be flexible.
How would you describe your quality of life in Thailand, given the monthly 25,000 THB salary?
When I was a teacher in 2013, the salary for foreign teachers was 20,000 THB. With this salary I was able to live comfortably, eat out daily (Thai food), and travel on the weekend and still save enough money to travel during the school break between semesters. Thai food, utilities, accommodations, and transportation are very inexpensive compared to U.S. prices. However, alcohol and foreign food costs are comparable. Limiting those things can help you save money!
I think it’s important to note that the starting salary for a new Thai teacher with a degree in education is less than 15,000 THB, and Thai teachers are expected to work really hard. As a foreign teacher, your salary will be higher than many of the teachers in your department and you will have comparatively fewer responsibilities.
Is it easy to travel throughout the country?
Thailand is a very easy country to travel in. There are many forms of inexpensive public transportation that make it possible to go from one end of the country to the other in a relatively short amount of time.
I preferred to take local buses to visit other teachers who were placed in towns and small cities nearby. It was fun comparing their experiences in Thailand with mine.
Thailand has many public holidays, so on long weekends it’s possible travel a little further and explore new areas. During the school break between semesters, there is plenty of time to go to the northern or southern parts of the country, or to see other countries in Southeast Asia.
What challenges did you face at your school?
At first, I disliked being “the last one to know.” As an outsider and a newcomer to a Thai school, things can seem chaotic and disorganized. Often you are informed of important details at the very last minute and that can be frustrating. However, it’s important to remember what we can see and understand (mostly due to language) is very limited.
Class size is another big challenge. It’s difficult to maintain order in a class of 40 students, let alone teach them English at the same time. This is something that gets better with practice and experience.
What did you enjoy most about your school and your neighborhood?
My school-provided housing was located on the school grounds. I loved living at school. After class I would walk around and visit kids and teachers as they were doing activities. I would ask them questions, “What are you doing? Is it fun? What time will you go home?” Sometimes they understood me, sometimes they didn’t, but they always smiled and tried to engage. Usually they invited me to join. There was a group of girls with whom I would play badminton on a regular basis. I loved having interactions with the students, whether I taught them or not, outside of the classroom environment.
As I said earlier, the community where I lived was quite rural. There were only two foreigners who lived in my area. Everywhere we went, people knew we were the English teachers from Phusang School. At the market I would meet my students’ parents; they would introduce themselves to me. Often I didn’t understand what they’d said to me, or I would have no idea who their child was but it felt very welcoming to have people recognize me and say hello.
What are essential attributes to successfully complete this program?
Commitment to being a teacher is essential. Although you will have time to travel and explore this amazing country, it’s important to remember that the majority of time you spend in Thailand will be spent in the classroom with your students, and they should be your first priority. Everything else should be secondary.
Working in a Thai school and working with kids is often unpredictable and things can change suddenly. Life in Thailand isn't always easy, so flexibility is essential. Also, being an optimist, or at least trying to keep an optimistic outlook is helpful. When things go wrong - and believe me, sometimes things will go wrong, be it lesson plans or bus timetables - it is important to look on the bright side.
Thailand has a conservative and traditional culture, especially for women. As a guest, although you can be yourself, you are expected to adapt. Once a teacher, always a teacher. When out and about in your local community you need to be seen as respectable and responsible, otherwise it will reflect badly on you and your school. Having a smile on your face will get you a long way in Thailand. Walking around with a big grin will make you approachable and someone who Thai people want to get to know.
Recommended packing items? Items you advise participants leave at home?
You will definitely need an umbrella or rain jacket. No matter what season you come to Thailand, there’s a good chance it will rain. It’s okay to bring your favorite sweater or hoody and a pair of jeans. In the north, it gets a little chilly in the winter season. Also, bus and airplane AC often requires a sweater. Bring yellow, pink, and black work-appropriate shirts; in Thai culture, colors have meaning and these colors are important.
Avoid bringing too many clothes and shoes. It will all feel like a burden later, and some of the things you bring will inevitably be unsuitable for a Thai workplace (not to mention Thai weather). It’s usually best to bring a small amount and plan on doing a little shopping once you get settled in. Also avoid overloading on toiletries, such as shampoo and lotion. Most of the big American brands are widely available in Thailand. For the ladies, however, there are certain toiletries that aren't widely available so if you prefer a certain brand, stock up!
No need to overload your suitcase with school supplies, but some teaching aids like family photos, maps, or postcards might come in handy.
Do find that most participants obtain the CDC-recommended hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines? What about Japanese encephalitis and malaria vaccines?
In my experience, most people choose to get the hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines in the U.S. before they travel, as these are usually covered by insurance.
Japanese encephalitis, on the other hand, tends to be expensive to get in the U.S. and it's not covered by all insurance providers. The vaccine is widely available and less expensive in Thailand.
At this time, cases of malaria in Thailand are extremely rare. Most participants choose not to take malaria medication, even those who are going to rural areas. The medication is quite expensive and the side effects are often unpleasant.
It’s always best to speak to an informed medical practitioner before traveling.
You are now a program advisor at OEG. What led you to take on this role?
Throughout my time as a teacher I loved to come and volunteer at OEG’s Teach in Thailand orientations. It was a great chance to meet the new incoming teachers and talk about my experiences in Thailand. I got to re-live the excitement of first arriving and tell stories about my crazy students.
Being a teacher in Thailand has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, but it comes with challenges. I think that’s one of the reasons I appreciate what I do at OEG. Having a challenge makes us grow and learn new things about the world and ourselves, but it’s nice to know that you have support and advice from people who have been through a similar experience to you.
A big thank you to Kristen for sharing her experiences teaching in Thailand! Participants on InterExchange's Teach English Thailand program will have access to in-country support from Kristen and the rest of the knowledgable team at OEG.