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What Does It Take to Be a Good Teacher Abroad?

Lex entertains kids on Thai Culture Day. Lex Cowan


If you're thinking about working in Thailand, here's how you can prepare yourself to be the best teacher you can be.

Having been an English teacher in Thailand for five years, I’ve seen all sorts of teachers come through my school. Some take to the job straight away, others take a while to adjust to the Thai way of doing things and then there are a rare few who just straight-up can’t cut it. It’s often not age, or years of experience that determines whether you’ll be successful—instead what really makes the difference in how you’ll take to the Thai teaching life is the attitude that you bring along with you.

Be flexible

If you’ve got to pick one characteristic to work on before you leave for Thailand, make it your ability to roll with the punches. Oftentimes things seem to happen without reason or thought and with no discernible pattern to help you predict when it might happen again. Classes are often cancelled, events will be sprung on you without warning and what you thought was going to be a Monday morning math class can suddenly turn into a dance practice or a two-hour-long presentation from Ovaltine. While it certainly can get frustrating waiting for teaching resources to arrive or battling with a perpetually broken printer, there’s also plenty of reason to never get too worked up about anything.

If you take some time to remember where you are, then every interruption becomes another opportunity to learn about confusingly delightful aspects of Thai culture.

Things move slowly here. There’s a relaxed attitude to work that doesn’t inspire the same urgency you might be used to. For the same reasons it might take time for a classroom television to be fixed, you’ll also have extra time to catch up lesson plans, or be caught up in the playful energy of the learners as they delightedly cheer on whatever event has cut through classroom time. Sure it can be tough sometimes, when you’re desperately trying to get through your syllabus before the end of term. But if you take some time to remember where you are, then every interruption becomes another opportunity to learn about confusingly delightful aspects of Thai culture.

Think culture

If you’re coming from a more European-influenced part of the world, then without a doubt the culture is going to take a little time to adjust to. While avoiding cultural faux pas on our travels is usually easy enough, the workplace offers up a little more of a challenge. The Thais' respect for knowledge runs deep. Being in a place that ultimately trades in knowledge means there are some awkward situations that can be avoided.

Don’t touch the learner's head (in most cases) because it is the source of intelligence; definitely don’t leave books on the floor as they contain information; and while you’re at it make sure you don’t step over any schools bags, as they also contain books. Don’t sit on desks because that’s where we write down our knowledge, and be careful not to step over the learners who’re working on the floor because. . .well you get the point.

That’s not where it stops though, because not only are there some day to day missteps you’ll need to avoid, you’ll also need to start thinking about what kind of teacher you want to be. You might have years of experience in education and be a very valuable asset to any teaching team in Thailand, but that will only get you so far if you don’t work within the expectations of the parents and owners of the school.

Perhaps you don’t see the value in checking books, or think homework is an outdated concept, but the culture is such that they judge the value of their teachers by the visible bookwork that is produced. The parents want to see those red checks, they want to know their sons and daughters are taking work home. And all the educational experience in the world might not be enough if you don’t find a way to effectively communicate your teaching methods and strategies.

It might all seem like a daunting process, and perhaps it is, but with an open mind and a positive approach it won’t take you long to adjust to the Thai school way of life. Remembering that feet are dirty isn’t very hard to adopt (because let’s face it, feet are kind of dirty) and respecting knowledge is hardly a stretch most of us will have to make.

Thailand is also a wonderful place to try and build something new and apply the teaching skills you might have learned in your home country. If you find the right school, show the right respect to the parents and demonstrate a willingness to learn, then parents, your Thai colleagues and your bosses are almost certainly willing to listen to what you have to offer.

Just have fun

Thailand has a strong belief that fun should be incorporated into everything that you do. It is an essential part of what makes Thailand the place that it is and almost certainly what makes Thailand such an attractive place to live and work.

If you’re working in a Thai-run school then you’re going to need to leave your "work first" attitude at the door and embrace fun as a way of teaching. Schools don’t want you to come in with a stern attitude and an unbending discipline structure. They are looking for you to share your English skills while you enjoy your time at school and make sure the learners do too.

Sure, sometimes you’ll get frustrated. Learners might not always behave or a torrential downpour might soak you on the way to work. But if you keep a smile on your face, you’ll be much better suited to both the Thai way of life and the kind of disposition which will allow you to make the most of every little moment that comes your way.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Lex Cowan

Lex Cowan is a 31-year-old South African living and working as a teacher in the south of Thailand. He loves travelling and spends his free time exploring Southeast Asia.

Website: www.twoshoestravels.com

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