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Teaching English in Bangkok Another Opinion / Reality Check

The following posting appeared on a newsgroup in the '90s discussing teaching English in Thailand. The author makes some very good, relevant points and I would suggest that most teachers have felt like this at some time in Thailand. There are times when I really agree with this viewpoint.

I taught there before the economy got bad so I don't know about the job market now but then it was very easy to get work then. If you're serious about teaching English in Bangkok you're in for a rough ride. The pay is very low and the living conditions of Bangkok are bad, the pollution alone drove me away. You don't need any knowledge of Thai to teach English. I don't know what you expect of the teaching experience but I can say from extensive experience in a number of schools and situations that basically it's a waste of time. The students would like to know English better but very few will make the individual effort necessary to attain any level of mastery. Your job as a "teacher" is basically to entertain, you can forget any notions of actually teaching anything. Most students are too afraid of failing to attempt to say much so you're left holding the bag i.e. presenting more of monologue, even in so called conversation classes. I taught at a teachers college in one of the provinces and even 4th year English majors would be hard pressed to string two grammatically sentences together. Initially I was frustrated but grew to accept the situation and do what I could the best I could. Quite frankly, I don't think anyone's English was improved as a result of my exertions. The bottom line is the students have almost no desire to improve their abilities but expect to be magically transformed by interacting with a foreign teacher, clown, entertainer-take your pick; obviously nothing can come of this.

My view is completely negative, but I feel realistic and true to my experience. I'm sure you can find positive feedback as well. I don't know your motives, if it's just to be in Thailand then it may be the place for you. If it's to make money then Japan, Korea or Taiwan are better choices. Just remember that if your goal is to teach I think you will be frustrated no matter where you go and I've been to all the above except Japan. I just had a hard time respecting myself charading as a teacher. In Thailand people will ask you what you do and you will respond that you are a kru (teacher) and this will impress them invariably. But every time this happened I couldn't help but thinking "if only you knew". I've blabbered on enough, good luck.

I personally did the CELTA at a language school which was professional in all aspects and one couldn't help but be thoroughly impressed with the whole operation. All of the teachers were fully qualified with a CELTA – NO exceptions – and a number of them had a CELTA Diploma too. More than half of the teachers had also taught English in another country. Systems were in place to ensure that students were placed correctly e.g. elementary level students into an elementary level class etc and this was reviewed as courses progressed. There was a full support structure in place for the students including counsellors who spoke the native language of the students, be it Japanese, Korean etc. There were stacks of resources available for both the students and the teachers. Not withstanding that the whole operation is obviously a business with the requirement to make money, the goal of the school seemed to be to provide a supportive environment to allow the students to learn English effectively. From what I saw, it was extremely successful. Discussions with fellow teachers confirm that the industry in New Zealand, Australia and England is far more developed than the industry in Thailand and very professional.

Sadly, as mentioned earlier, Bangkok is a different story, though things are improving. There are not that many qualified English teachers here – by qualified, I mean with a CELTA / Trinity / TEFL / equivalent qualification. A guess would be that about 15 – 20% are qualified. OK, so business is business and every business operates for one reason – to make money, but so many language schools in Thailand will just take on any Tom, Dick or Harry – a white face, put them in front of a bunch of eager students and forget about it. So many schools don't give a shit about the product that they offer and the teachers ARE the product. I really feel sorry for Thai students who want to learn English because it isn't easy to find a decent school and even harder to get a good teacher. It is TOO EASY to get a job as an English teacher in Thailand.

One of the big problems at private language schools especially, is that the person in the role of DOS or head teacher often doesn't have the required management skills. There seems to be a way of thinking in Bangkok that the best person for such a person is the best or most experienced teacher but sadly, when this happens, often the person appointed proves to be unsuccessful. A person in such a person should primarily be a good manager with sound people skills and teaching skills and knowledge of the industry should be secondary. The role of this person in a language school is critical as they are more often than not the liaison between the foreign teachers and the Thai management. What all of this leads to is some particularly insincere, power happy people in positions of influence. The DOS / head teacher often goes on to hire people that they like, do little to help develop the teachers and add to the value of the business and generally make decisions with their own agenda in mind. Too many DOSs / Academic Directors / Branch Managers or basically people in senior positions have fortuitously fallen into such a position and they very quickly realise that financially they are on to a good number that could not be replicated as a teacher. As soon as this is realised and it dawns on them that they can often get away with doing a mediocre amount of work so long as they do not question their boss and / or the Thai management, they will do anything to keep the position, frequently making errant decisions that impact very negatively upon the teachers at the school.

For these reasons, English teachers do not have a particularly good reputation amongst the expat population in Bangkok. Other than the people who sit on a telephone all day trying to sell those bogus share issues to potential investors in other countries, many foreign expats see English teachers as just about the bottom of the barrel amongst Bangkok expat society. The words I'm an English teacher are not always spoken with a great deal of pride in Bangkok because any English teacher will truly know that many of their farang peers are a bunch of sex tourists, beach bums, misfits or no hopers. Getting a job as an English teacher is as easy as getting into a taxi. Sad, but true. Fortunately, Thai society does view teachers in a quite different light.

The whole point that I'm trying to get across here is that although teaching can be a great job, the whole industry in Bangkok lacks professionalism. As an Australian colleague recently said "Private language schools in Bangkok are all clip joints". Most schools have good motives but at the end of the day, they take on unqualified teachers, they mis-place students in the wrong course and are happy to make zillions of other questionable decisions if it means that they will get more revenue – and with the Thai student mentality of seldom ever complaining, the school simply doesn't receive the negative feedback that it ought to. Other than perhaps the best schools like British Council, IDP and the now defunct Austil, it seems that many language school in Bangkok suffers from these problems to some extent – some worse than others.

In quite a few language schools, there can be a bit of friendly rivalry between the British and the American teachers. While I tend to prefer most things British including British movies, television and culture, I do feel that the Brits in Bangkok schools do incite a few problems here. Constant criticisms of American English and the way that Americans do things only contributes to disrupting the harmony of the workplace. Further, there are a fair few Brits do seem to have rather high opinions of themselves as teachers especially when comparing themselves to the Americans. Funnily enough, the Aussies and Kiwis just seem to get on with things and not get caught up in a lot of this nonsense.

As weird as this may sound, I would not recommend anyone to stay in the Bangkok English teaching industry for a long time. Many of the folks that I have met and / or know that have been teaching for a long time have become very jaded and there seem to be a lot of reasons for this. In some cases, they seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that there is a lot of crap going on and they are unable to do anything to counter this. Many of the folks who stay in teaching a long time are slowly withering down their options if they choose to return to their homeland. Teaching for a year or two in another country is fine on a resume but for a long time, it is not the best piece on your resume and you may find yourself trying to unsuccessfully downplay it. In Bangkok, teachers tend to socialise with teachers and I see this as a socio-economic thing as much as anything else. Few expats in Bangkok earn as little as teachers and teachers will be very envious at what their fellow expats in other industries earn. Finally, a lot of teachers simply do not have the skills to do anything else and they are doing teaching by default, and that is sad.

So, I've done my bit to put you off teaching in Thailand…which wasn't my intention, just wanting to be honest about it. You've read all of the information with enthusiasm and anticipation, only to get to the Reality Check bit where Sticky slags it all off! Like a change of job back in your homeland, you have to think things through very carefully. However, what we are talking about here is more than a change of job, it is a whole change of lifestyle. If you are a career teacher, you may find the English language teaching industry in Bangkok to be somewhat unprofessional compared to what you are used to but you have already made the decision to come to Bangkok, so come on over. For many reasons, you'll be in a better position to deal with it all than someone who is new to teaching.

For people contemplating teaching as a way to stay in Bangkok / Thailand, you need to think really hard about what you are doing. The lure of Bangkok can be very strong, so strong in fact that you will consider doing whatever possible within the law, to move there, to live in this exotic, charming land. By teaching English, you should be able to get by comfortably enough but it is very important to realise the following:

  • unless you get very lucky and get an international school job, you will never get rich. Figure a salary of around 25,000 – 40,000 baht per month. This is enough for Bangkok, but should you decide to move back to Farangland, no matter how much you have saved in baht, it won't go too far. If money is important to you – do NOT come to Thailand!
  • the way schools are run in Thailand is that you are there to do a job, and that is it. Most schools really do not do too much in the way of professional development so you might not even get the chance to learn better teaching techniques and tricks, let alone anything else.
  • the schools that you learn as a teacher will bring you confidence and should contribute towards developing your own awareness of the language, and this making you a little more articulate. However, apart from this, you will not gain a lot of other marketable skills.
  • what point are you at in your life? If you are financially set or retired, then teaching is probably a good way to go as it will give you some income and also keep you busy. However, if you are a young guy who has yet to carve out a career, I would question the wisdom of a term in Thailand for anything over a couple of years. A two year jaunt on a CV can be explained away, much more is hard to talk around and you may find yourself suddenly out of the loop.