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Day in the Life of a TEFL Teacher in Thailand

Kelly's students in Bangkok, Thailand. Kelly Iverson

Think you want to teach abroad? Be prepared to test your limits.

I am woken up by the beating of a hammer next door. Construction in my apartment apparently begins at five a.m. If my alarm wasn’t already set for six, you might’ve found me up in arms, Google Translate my weapon, as I try and charade my way through my frustrations with the front desk.

Instead, I lay in my watery grave, preparing to unstick myself from my sheets to begin the day. My skin radiates with the heat that suffocates my relatively small apartment.

My morning routine is simple: brush my teeth, find a skirt and shirt I haven’t unintentionally dyed pink, and seek out coffee. (For those of you who aren’t coffee drinkers, do prepare to acquire a slight addiction to the much-needed caffeine needed to survive teaching English as a second language.)

To describe teaching in a foreign country as exhausting is an understatement. You will break sound barriers explaining directions, and you will sweat in places that you didn’t even know existed.

My hair is pulled back and my face is naked; no trace of makeup to be found. (For those of you hoping to wear any, I must forewarn you that it will, eventually, melt off.) I am lucky enough to have air-conditioning not only in my office, but also in my classrooms—but not all teachers in Thailand have this luxury. This can become quite problematic in regards to the dress code as well. Knees, shoulders, cleavage and—depending on the school—toes, must be covered at all times while teaching. (It was only after a week or so of blistering heels did I discover from a fellow Thai teacher that I could, indeed, wear open-toe shoes that weren’t flip-flops or sandals.) I also have a tattoo on my arm, so the students are never to see me without a sweater.

I am at school by 7:30 a.m. My first class begins at 8:30 a.m., and while my lessons are planned out beforehand, I always like to have an hour to work before my day begins. 

That being said, many of classes and lesson plans are easily derailed by something as simple as a disruptive class. Classroom management is your best friend as you tackle the wild creatures that double as your students. Be ready to manage and discipline students who have no idea what you're saying, and some who, quite frankly, don’t care.

Why don’t they care, you ask? Thailand has a "no fail" policy. Regardless of a student’s effort, attendance and overall participation (or lack thereof) every students passes—and I mean everyone. The boy who smacks some strange jelly toy hard enough against his desk that it explodes all over himself and five other students? He passes! The girl who skips the unit quiz, project presentation day and never turned in her journal? What do you know, she passes! (An blog post in the near future will address my strong feelings towards the no-fail policy, but for right now, let’s continue on with our day.)

I teach four, 50-minute classes a day, but some teachers teach as many as eight classes per day. It all depends on the school you work at. To describe teaching in a foreign country as exhausting is an understatement. After school, I walk home, strip off my layers of clothing and almost immediately fall into a deep sleep until hunger pains me awake just in time for dinner.

In class, you will see things you never dreamed of. My students had to make a list of things they have and don’t have, and I had a student approach me with his list; penis being the third bullet down. Although he was technically correct, I had to take some sort of disciplinary action against using or referring to genitalia in class assignments. I’m teaching English, not health education. This frustration I did not explain to the students using charades, just FYI.

You will project your voice at such a volume you might even startle yourself. You will break sound barriers explaining directions, and you will sweat in places that you didn’t even know existed. (Hey, maybe this is health education?)

I begin my classes with a game involving words we used in a previous lesson; this gets the students up on their feet long enough to liberate some energy they may have bottled up as well as review words they might’ve forgotten or didn’t care to know.

The no-fail policy does promise English teachers in Thailand one thing; your classes will be fun. Because a student’s lack of desire to learn English will have no sort of negative domino effect in the very near future (or so they may think), you have to make your classes fun, or students will simply not show up.

Using games incorporating vocabulary words is one way to keep students engaged and, hopefully, learning. Create fun projects. Let the students work with one another. Be prepared with backup activities if your game completely fails. Be armed with the knowledge of how to say, “be quiet” in Thai. One of the best ways to get a classes’ attention is to find some common ground, as they will find humour in your atrocious accent while being simultaneously impressed by your attempt. Don’t be afraid to let students laugh at you, and truly enjoy a job where you have fun and get paid to do it.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Kelly Iverson

Although Dorothy was quite content, Kansas was no place like home for native Kelly Iverson. After studying abroad, she returned with an itch for travel no amount of scratching could alleviate. She lives in Bangkok, Thailand, where she teaches English.

Website: https://www.facebook.com/KellyJIverson/

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