To Teach or Not to Teach

First published on 25th February, 2009

For some of us, the lure of living abroad is irresistible, and often, teaching the ever-marketable English is the easiest route there. For me -- already a teacher in the US -- it was an obvious means to an end. But for others, the transition isn't as natural. Here's my story -- and a bit about what to expect from yours -- should you decide to give it a go.

Phase 1: Choosing a program

With the ever-changing laws governing foreign teachers (that's you!) I suggest acquiring some sort of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. With it, you'll be much more marketable, and safe as requirements fluctuate. The TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification and the CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) are the two in highest demand in Thailand. Finding a course is easy as there are literally dozens of organisations across the globe, but the costs -- upwards of US$1500 -- can be prohibitive.

However, there are ways around it and after quite a bit of internet research, I enrolled in the Special Thai Project through TEFL International which -- to recruit teachers -- has slashed fees in half and guarantees at least four months of paid work upon completion. You pay a $500 "non-refundable administration fee", and buy your ticket. They pick you up from the airport, and the rest is... well...

A quick Google search on TEFL International or Special Thai Project will yield thousands of hits. The preliminaries are sugar-coated TEFL-based websites that outline the various courses and programs on offer. Dig a little deeper, and the results are less sweet. Embittered graduates alongside satisfied customers and course hopefuls hash out the nitty-gritty on sites such as Dave's ESL Cafe and blogs dedicated to the cause, like The TEFL Blacklist. Allegations abound and TEFL International is accused of such transgressions as withholding pay checks from trainees and cancelling contracts. Needless to say, I wasn't aware of these claims prior to making my $500 commitment. Fortunately, I didn't experience the grave indiscretions mentioned above, but that is not to say my experience was without frustration.

Phase 2: Arrival in Ban Phe

Our group -- about 12 in total -- was picked up from the airport at the appointed time and ushered to vans that would whisk us to the "beautiful and quaint village" of Ban Phe -- this according to TEFL International's website. Not to knock Ban Phe -- it ultimately found a sentimental home in my heart -- but beautiful, it is not.

And any morsel of beauty that was there was overshadowed by the behemoth Condochain -- yes, one word -- the provided accommodation. Now let me take a moment to disclaim here. At 29, I was older than most participants by at least five years. And I'd done the roughing-it sort of travel that some of these recent uni grads were craving. I'd earned my stripes; I was over it. While I was by no means expecting luxury living, I'd anticipated something ... cleaner?

Alas, in my old age I've gone soft. I can't exactly put my finger on what made Condochain so detestable but I spent the three weeks there desperately trying not to touch anything with my bare skin. Lest this deter you, also know that as grim as it sounds, Condochain won me over in the end -- in a bring-your-own-sheets sort of way -- and is nestled next to Ban Phe in my memories of that month.

Phase 3: Teacher training

The actual training was mediocre at best and riddled with nonsensical and sometimes maddening goings-on -- not the least of which was the fact that a few of the trainers were recent grads of the training themselves, some with no teaching experience save the four lessons required as part of the curriculum! Other absurdity included having to memorise the International Phonetic Alphabet, which could have been helpful in practice had Thai students ever been exposed to it, and grammar instructors who couldn't write a complete sentence.

Further, the TEFL pedagogy -- and I use the term loosely here -- revolves around one very formulaic lesson plan that trainees are penalised for deviating from -- something you'll need to do in your teaching practice -- especially if you're working with younger learners who haven't yet reached the level of sophistication the lesson requires. To be fair, you do come away with a generic lesson plan that you could probably teach in your sleep for all the reinforcement it gets -- something that will help through your first week in the classroom.

So while the training left much to be desired, the setting -- in a breezy, jungle-like Buddhist temple -- proved reason enough to take the TEFL plunge and I would encourage you to ask if this is where your training will be if you're considering this route. Lectures took place in simple concrete classrooms and while there was no air-con and plenty of bugs, the space had an ethereal feel and evoked a tranquil vibe. We delivered our practice teaching sessions to eager novice monks and that interaction -- for many of us, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- was incredibly special. Just delightful.

Phase 4: Placement

Most trainees in our group were placed in the Bangkok vicinity, with one as far south as Phuket (though I believe Phuket has its own TEFL program now) and one as far north as Khon Kaen. I was placed in Nakhon Ratchasima -- better known as Khorat -- better known, at least in travellers' circles, as the gateway to the region of Thailand you probably won't get to.

A large city in the northeast, Khorat is bustling with life and Thai-ness -- factors that ultimately made for an amazing experience, but at the outset were difficult to navigate. The lack of spoken English -- or even English signage -- made communication and orientation nearly impossible, which contributed greatly to my initial feelings of homesickness.

Fortunately, through TEFL's partnership with my school, I was assisted in the basics of finding an apartment -- a nice one! -- and navigating around town. I was additionally lucky in that my school had nine other foreign teachers. Though this number is on the high side, do expect that there will be other western teachers at your placement. While I did not form any life-long friendships there, it was helpful to have more seasoned veterans around and I wish I'd looked to them for even further guidance.

While getting acquainted with my ridiculously adorable group of six-year-olds was entirely charming, my acclimation with the administration and organisation of the school was less so. Thai politics are absolutely alive and well in government schools and take some getting used to. Please know, I see the perceived criticism evident in such a remark, but I do not present it to judge Thai society. Rather, I offer it to be real about my experience and to point out that when working and living in a place, you are often privy to facets of culture that as a traveller, you would not see.

These experiences both taint and enrich your experience, and in the end, you have a more complete understanding of the world -- only a good thing. But I think it's important to address that these challenges exist and certain cultural differences will be very hard to accept. However, it is also important to remember that we are putting ourselves in this situation -- we are the different culture -- and as such, we need to do our very best in adapting.

At the time, I thought I was doing my best, but still really struggled with the adjustment. I tried and failed to develop a professional working relationship with my Thai team teacher and as the newcomer, wasn't really supported by the powers that be. It got bad enough that at some point, I considered leaving the position, but ultimately, I let the issues go and was much better for it. I wish I could say TEFL was helpful in resolving the conflict, but unfortunately, that was not the case.

Phase 5: The end

And in the end, as the song goes, "the love we take will be equal to the love we make." I loved my 32 six-year-olds. And it showed. So despite my less-than-ideal working environment, I was doling out a lot of heart. And I got a lot of heart back. And on my last day, I cried for the end of it. But I'm a crier. And a retrospectively rose-coloured glasses wearer. So do with this what you will. But I'd recommend it.

About the author:
For Travelfish, Charly Paap has found the best pizza in Nakhon Ratchasima, sampled sunsets in Vientiane, washed elephants in Luang Prabang and shrugged off dodgy motodops in Sihanoukville. She's currently writing freelance in LA, but we eagerly await her return to Asia.


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