Wed 23 Jan 2008
As Thailand becomes more and more popular with foreign tourists, and as the country continues to trade more and more in the international market place, so too has the ability to use English become even more important to Thai people and to Thailand. In addition to the huge number of Thais working in positions within the tourism industry or other industries that require the use of English, a large number of Thai students are choosing to study internationally, predominantly in the USA and the UK, and to a lesser extent in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
With this continually increasing demand to learn English with native English speakers, English teaching has become the most popular choice of job for Westerners who want to stay in Thailand. And even for those people who choose Thailand as their new home, English teaching allows them a chance to get a foot in the door, so to speak. Becoming a teacher of English is one of the few jobs that most Westerners can do and actually carry out legally in Thailand.
The English teaching industry in Thailand used to be dominated by language schools, but I would imagine that now it is regular Thai schools, both junior and secondary schools, where the largest numbers of Western teachers are employed. Even in some of the farthest flung corners of the country, you find Westerners in the role of native speaking English teacher.
There are many, many language schools in Bangkok and the market is dominated by a few big chains. In addition to the big chains, there are also many smaller private language schools. Other places of work include international schools - that is schools which use the curriculum of a foreign country, usually England or America, universities and even some agencies which send foreign teachers into schools, and Thai companies.
In the past this site used to be most concerned with the private language schools as that is where my experiences were initially. But as the industry has changed, and grown, there is now more and more here about what it is like to teach in a Thai school, that is a regular school like a high school.
The English language industry is in Thailand has developed a lot over the last two decades and while it hasn’t reached saturation, it is probably almost as developed now as other countries in the region like Japan or Korea though it is growing fast.
In the past, folks new to Bangkok would head to the bigger language schools like AUA, ECC and Siam Computer And Language. Big language schools had much greater staffing requirements but tended to pay a little less than some of the other schools. They would usually hire just about anyone, whether they were qualified teachers or not, experienced or inexperienced. This has changed somewhat.
The better schools, of which there are an increasing number, now require qualified teachers - with experience, often stipulated as experience specifically in Thailand, sometimes being a requirement.
There used to be a lot of people teaching in Bangkok who had no teaching background or any formal teacher training whatsoever. Many think that because they can speak the language, they can teach it. Some will go on to become good teachers but many won’t. It is important to understand that the ability to teach is far more important than the ability to simply speak the language well!
A lot of people come to Bangkok for the purpose of living here and enjoying the wonderful lifestyle. It is a fact that in excess of 80% of native speaking English teachers in Bangkok are male. Ironically, there are a lot more female students than males.
Most Westerners moving to Bangkok do so for the lifestyle. It sure is a vibrant city with something for most people. Teaching may just be a job to finance leisure activities - and nothing more and for some, they don’t take it seriously at all. If this is you, try and spare a thought for the students. Many of them come to a language institute to learn English not only to be able to communicate more effectively with foreigners but very often to improve their vocational prospects. Some want to improve their English before they go overseas to further their study. You owe it to your students to do the best that you can - for their sake. For a Thai language student, learning English is invariably expensive when studying with a native speaker. The average Thai earns less than 10,000 baht a month and many save for a long time to study at a school with a native English speaker. It is irresponsible to let such people down. When teaching, don’t think that because you are not receiving any complaints you are doing a good job. Thais will seldom say anything negative about their teacher - quite simply, the culture doesn’t condone criticism - especially of a teacher! Teachers automatically get respect by right of the position - a teacher is almost revered in Thai society. Please don’t abuse this.
Thais are a playful bunch which makes them a lot of fun to teach but the flip side is that they can become bored very easily. Lessons should include a lot of language based activities and if at all possible, some games. Grammar based lessons, although necessary, can really put students to sleep. Try and keep things snappy and moving along at a brisk pace to keep them interested. Thais are also a very consensual bunch and if you give students a test, they will all be keen to see what each other got and that the grades are much the same. They don’t like anyone to fail!
The English language teaching industry is still developing and not nearly as mature as the industries in European countries. Sadly, many schools, even some of the better ones, show little loyalty to their staff and this is reciprocated by the teachers’ attitudes and loyalty, or lack of it, to the schools. Schools tend to manipulate teachers and railroad them to suit the school’s needs by giving teachers horrible schedules where they might have to teach a few hours in the morning and a few at night, with many hours free in the middle of the day. Even at some of the more professional schools, this seems to be the case. This all contributes towards significant staff turnover within the industry in Bangkok. Contracts are frequently broken and there seems to be little recourse for either party, though this is changing a little these days. There has been the odd case of employees taking their employer to court over alleged breaches of contract and winning!
Some schools have been known to shit on teachers. I know a teacher with many years experience who once applied for a job at the best school in Siam Square. She was told that she would be teaching high level adult learners at a pre-negotiated time of the day that was suitable for her. A few days before she was due to start, she popped in to confirm her schedule. She had been given hours at all times of the day with big gaps between classes which were predominantly lower level classes. She told them where to stick their job. They quickly changed the schedule to what it should have originally been but she had had enough and told them what to do with their job. Stories like this abound at language schools in Bangkok. Problems like this are common because many foreigners are desperate for work and will put up with conditions far worse than they would be prepared to accept in their own country. There was a time when I was very, very cynical about the whole English language school industry in Bangkok but things are changing for the better. At last! I used to say to people who were serious about teaching, to go somewhere else. There used to be just so much shit in the industry in this city that it made it difficult to do a good job. However, as the industry has grown and grown and the demand for both more teachers and better teachers has increased, so too have the terms and conditions of contracts, and the general working conditions. In the old days it seemed that if you absolutely wanted to be in Bangkok, then English teaching was the only real option. Again, this is changing as there are many, many more jobs available to Westerners these days. Though if you are considering working in Thailand - especially if you are applying for a job locally, remember, Thais will work for a hell of a lot less than us, speak their language fluently and are quite possibly better qualified. And since the economic downturn post ‘97, Thai students are following the world-wide trend of spending more time in education.
The workplace culture in Thailand is quite different from that which us Westerners are used to. A typical Thai worker will work all of the hours that God sends and will do everything possible to honor their boss. If asked to stay late and work, a Thai more often than not will do so. If asked to cover for someone on their own day off, the Thai likely will. The better Thai managers realize that Thais and foreigners are very different and will not make certain requests or place unreasonable demands on their foreign teachers. Sadly not all managers are like this. Many Thai managers struggle with the way they manage their foreign contingent. One should also be cautious of foreigners who have been in Thailand for many years and who have adopted some of the Thai management style practices. It seems that many start to become “semi-Thai” and will unwittingly adopt some of these Thai practices. As a teacher in Bangkok, especially if you are qualified, you are in demand. Do not be afraid to say NO if unreasonable demands are placed on you. Do not lose track of your vocational and workplace values. Never let go of your convictions!