In the realm of teaching English overseas, the expectations placed upon foreign teachers can change dramatically from country to country. What will win you points as a teacher in one country doesn’t necessary hold true in other countries. I spent three years teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand. I saw many teachers snap because they hated the Thai educational system and Thai work habits.
The following 20 tips are a guide to help foreign teachers in Thailand have a smoother experience while teaching in one of the world’s lowest ranked educational systems. Notice that the title of this article says “successful” and not “good.” They’re not the same!
1. Don’t take teaching too seriously
If there’s one thing that’s kryptonite to Thai students and your fellow Thai teaching staff, it’s a teacher who takes their role as an educator too seriously. Naturally, going from a developed country’s educational system to Thailand’s educational system is going to shock you. Chances are most of the teachers you had growing up back home took their jobs seriously and actually wanted to teach you something. Well this is not how most Thai teachers approach their jobs and neither should you.
Realize that you were most likely hired by your school to fill some kind of quota put in place by Thailand’s Ministry of Education, not because the school thinks hiring foreign teachers is noble cause. Never forget this. So just chill out, relax, always have a playful vibe, crank up your clown game a notch, and never take this “teaching” thing too seriously. Most of your Thai colleagues sure aren’t.
2. Bring snacks to the office
If you’ve spent much time working in offices in Asia, then you’ve probably noticed that Asian employees regularly bring snacks to share with the rest of the staff. The Thais are no exception. Half the time I walked into my Thai office, there were fresh snacks lying on the eating table, and my Thai colleagues were always insistent that I try some. So don’t hesitate to bring some food with you next time you’re on your way to the office. Fruit, crackers, cookies – anything will do. And if you ever travel within or outside of Thailand, especially all the way back to your hometown, bring back some specialty snacks from that region. You’ll win BIG brownie points with your Thai colleagues if you do so.
3. Sync your priorities with Thai priorities
What are your priorities as an educator? The sharing of knowledge? Maybe academic credibility? Those are great and all, but you’re in Thailand now, and Thais prioritize different things. Adherence to the dress code, singing the national anthem in the morning, wai’ing the teacher and other social formalities, creating vibrant cultural displays, ceremonies, Sports Day – these things are all at the top of most Thai schools’ priority lists, and now they need to be at the top of yours, too. Don’t worry about that whole knowledge thing. You can always deal with that later.
4. Accept that most Thai students have little to no interest in English
If you’ve spent long in Thailand, then you’ve surely noticed that the average level of English is pitifully low. The reasons for that are up for debate, but one thing is quite obvious and indisputable: the average Thai doesn’t care a whole lot about speaking English. Listening to some foreigner babble on about grammar rules in a language that they can barely comprehend isn’t most Thai students’ idea of a good time. The sooner you can accept this, the happier your students will be. Now if you have a class that’s clearly the exception to the rule and has a strong desire to actually learn English, then by all means give them special treatment. They’ll be thankful for your effort.
5. Keep your private life private
You might be tempted to share the awesome details of your private life with your Thai students in order to become popular with them or to get a good laugh out of them, but it’s best to keep your private life out of the classroom and out of the office. Don’t let your students add you on social media, don’t give out your private contact details, and don’t boast about any of your “conquests” in the realm of the Thai dating scene. And absolutely never tell anyone if you enjoy partaking in local “pay-for-play” activities. If you’re teaching in a small town in Thailand, then following this advice becomes exponentially more important. The misadventures of misbehaving foreigners are a juicy piece of gossip to many Thais’ ears, so try your best to keep your private life out of the spotlight.
6. Maximize fun activities, minimize lecturing
There’s no way to lose the attention of your Thai students faster than to start lecturing. A lecture in Thai is bad enough for them, but could you imagine listening to a dull, never-ending lecture in a foreign language? You need to maximize fun activities as much as possible. Games, games, and more games! My most successful English lessons in Bangkok were the ones where we played fun English games, particularly the ones that involved teamwork. I had the class’ full attention and everybody wanted to participate. As long as your students appear to be having fun and using English, then the school staff generally won’t penalize you for playing so many games in class. Just make sure you also get done whatever it is the school requires you to get done.
7. Keep your mouth shut during the teacher’s meetings
Being a person who’s not afraid to express his or her opinions generally doesn’t vibe well in most Asian workplaces. I’ve been to countless staff meetings in Asia, and the ones that involve foreigners are usually dramatically different than the ones that only have local staff. The former usually consist of a lot of moaning and complaining about things that the school is realistically never going to change. Whereas the latter consists of listening quietly and patiently to the higher-ups. They only voice a comment when it’s required or asked of them. And anytime there’s a meeting involving both parties, the foreign staff is almost always talking far more than the local staff.
Don’t be that foreigner who feels the need to vent all of his grievances at the meetings. Just keep your mouth shut, and if there’s a genuine problem that you feel absolutely needs to be addressed by the school, then talk in private with your immediate supervisor once the meeting is finished, and approach the situation in as non-confrontational of a way as possible. Thai society and offices are very hierarchical, and you as a foreigner are almost always at or near the very bottom of the social totem pole, so you’re not exactly supposed to be voicing all of your opinions and grievances so freely for everyone to hear. The overwhelming majority of Thai staff simply would never do such a thing, so you shouldn’t either.
8. Be prepared to smile (and wai) a lot
Thailand has a culture of putting on a fake mask of positivity to hide one’s true emotions. Even if you’re having a very bad day, it’s best not to make it obvious. So be ready to flash that big bright smile of yours everywhere you go. And let’s not forget the wai, a byproduct of Thailand’s hierarchical society. Whether you’re entering the office for the first time of the day, or whether you spot one of the higher-ups, you need to be prepared to wai. If you absolutely cannot bring yourself to wai, then at the very least give a deep nod of the head as a trade-off. And you’re way less obligated to give Thai students a return wai than they are obligated to give you the initial hello wai. Never wai you’re students first, as they should be wai’ing you first. You’re the teacher and they’re the students, so you’re above them socially, hence why they must wai you first. But with everyone else, it’s safe to assume that you should probably initiate the first wai.
9. Don’t openly complain
A lot of things are going to piss you off to no end working as a foreigner in the Thai education system. There are going to be times where you just want to vent to let off some steam. Unfortunately, your fellow Thai staff are not the ones to vent to. Even though some of them may be close or trusted friends, complaining about the educational system or your dissatisfaction with your school with them is usually not a good idea. They might take your complaints as a personal attack on Thailand as a country. You risk being labeled as a negative nancy who “no like Thailand,” and as a result, many of those Thai friends may start to distance themselves from you.
If you need a good venting session, find the resident foreign burnout at the school, as many Thai schools have one. This is the guy who’s been in Thailand way too long, and as a result pretty much despises everything about the country. He will usually be all ears to your complaints and will welcome them with open arms, as they only help to justify his hatred of the country. Just don’t fall into a downward spiral by hanging around him too much. Also be careful complaining to other foreign teachers, as some of them are Thailand apologists (the polar opposite of the burnout guy), and they will quickly let you know that “if you don’t like Thailand, then you can leave!” They also tend to be the backstabbing types, so be careful who you complain to. Sometimes that foreign “friend” is actually your foe.
10. Handle your own problems
Spend one month in Thailand, and you’ll quickly learn that it’s not a very efficient country, and many of the locals lack a strong work ethic. You’re now in the developing world, and you’ve got to learn how to start handling your own problems. The more people you put between you and your own problems, the more you set yourself up for frustration and anger later on. Thais aren’t going to treat your problems with a sense of urgency, they’ll forget to address them, or they’ll just flat out avoid handling the issue as they fear it might lead to conflict.
Got a problem student disrupting the entire class? You deal with it. Lessons aren’t going over as smoothly with the students as you had hoped? You deal with it. Have a critical visa issue that might force you out of the country as early as next week? You deal with it. I know this is not the truth you wanted to hear, but it’s the truth you need to hear. Your problems are now your problems.
11. Polish up your appearance
Thai society is quite a vain one. Looking clean and pristine is one of the most important things a Thai person can do to leave a positive impact on their peers. That said, if you’re planning to teach in Thailand then you need to make sure your appearance is well taken care of.
Carry around a handkerchief to wipe away your sweat on those many burning hot days. Get your dress shirt ironed. Throw away your ratty old shoes and get new ones. Make sure your necktie is color-coordinated with the rest of your outfit. If you’ve got the body for it, where form-fitting clothes that compliment your appearance. Keep your face nicely shaven. A five o’clock shadow is fine, but no scruffy look. If you have a beard, keep it thin and nicely groomed (no wild caveman beards). Also, keep the hair on the back of your neck groomed and well-aligned. Style your hair, or at least keep it nicely trimmed and parted. All of these little points add up to make a big overall difference.
And to score bonus points with your Thai peers, follow the “color of the day” scheme that many Thais follow to stay lucky (Monday = yellow, Tuesday = pink, etc).
12. Never fail any student for any reason
Take my word on this. You absolutely don’t want to fail a Thai student for any reason, as it will only come back to bite you in the ass later. While many Thai schools will technically allow you to fail a student, said student will almost always be allowed to keep retaking your exam or to keep redoing your assignment until they get a passing grade. What this does is add a massive burden to your workload. Grading hundreds of exams and assignments is bad enough, so the last thing you want is to have to deal with some students (usually your least favorite ones) coming to bother you again and again when you think you’re all finished grading for the semester.
When you fail a student, the blame almost always comes back to you as the teacher, rather than back to the student. You also need to have a VERY lenient grading system in place that pretty much allows students to get a passing grade no matter how awful or how little effort was put into their work. You need to pass out A’s and B’s like candy. I know that sounds like an unfair thing to do, but that’s how the system works in Thailand. Practically every foreign teacher in Thailand hates this no-fail system, but let it serve as a reminder of the massive lack of integrity in the Thai educational system.
13. Leave a buffer when dealing with scheduling
Thai society is not a punctual one, so I rarely met any Thai teachers who took their school’s schedule seriously. Showing up to class five to ten minutes late, and then subsequently ending the class five to ten minutes late was the norm. Just because your class is technically supposed to start at 10:20 AM doesn’t mean it actually will. And if you show up to said class at exactly 10:20 AM, I can almost guarantee you that you won’t be starting class on time.
By showing up to your next class right on time, you put indirect pressure on the previous Thai teacher to hurry up and finish their class, which is not cool to them. They can see you standing outside the classroom waiting, and it makes them feel like they’re being rushed, which of course they don’t like. My advice would be to show up two to five minutes late for class, and then just end the class on time. Let the Thai teachers’ lack of punctuality benefit you a little. In three years, not once did I get called out for showing up to a class late and then later ending it on time. Just observe how things work at your particular school and adjust accordingly.
14. Discuss the things you like about Thailand
This is the reverse of number nine. We all have things we despise about Thailand and its educational system, but for the most part, the Thais don’t want to hear about them. But on the other hand, many Thai people will light up when you actually talk positively about their country. This is understandable and certainly not unique to Thailand.
Had an amazing Thai dish over the weekend? Rave about it with your colleagues on Monday. Think a certain Thai celebrity is cute? Your peers would probably be interested in who a foreigner finds attractive. Wanting to know some interesting places around the city that you can visit? Inquire from your fellow teachers, and they’ll probably feel delighted to give you their recommendations.
As you can see from my website, I myself loved taking photos all around Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. I would always show my favorite photos to my Thai colleagues, and I can tell it made them respect me a bit more. After all, I was highlighting the beauty in their country, and I could tell they really appreciated that, especially considering none of my foreign colleagues ever bothered to do something like that.
15. Have rock bottom expectations
As mentioned before, Thailand is home to one of the worst educational systems in the world. Every year there’s a survey released ranking the world’s educational systems from best to worst, and without fail, Thailand’s is always in the bottom twenty percentile. Shameless cheating, blatant corruption, fifty years out-of-date classrooms, overcrowding, out-of-whack priorities, and severe inefficiency are all rife in Thai schools.
If you come to Thailand expecting much, then you’re setting yourself up for some major disappointment down the road. Shocking things, one after the other, are bound to happen during your time in the working in Thailand. The best thing you can do is to just watch everything around you, have a good laugh, and be thankful that you weren’t educated in such a system. As they say, just “roll with the punches.”
16. Address your fellow staff with the proper titles
Thailand is still a very hierarchical society, so Thais tend to take titles pretty seriously. If you ever bother to learn the Thai language, one of the first things you’ll probably learn is how to address people properly. Your elders, monks, doctors, senior employees, your social “equals,” etc. – they all have proper titles. And yes, even teachers have different titles, depending upon their experience level.
“Ajarn [insert family name here],” which is basically the most typical and polite way to address a teacher, is probably the one you’re going to hear most in Thai schools. It mostly neutral, as it doesn’t really imply that the teacher being addressed is above or below you. On the other hand, “Kru [insert family name here]” is a more respectable way to address a teacher. It’s mostly reserved for senior teachers with decades of experience.
A good rule of thumb for knowing which title to use when addressing new teachers: just use “ajarn” with any teacher who looks under 40 years-old or so, and just use “kru” with any teacher who looks over 40. Don’t worry, no older teacher is going to be offended if you incorrectly address them with “kru.” They might laugh and take it as a compliment, but they certainly won’t be offended. Of course there are countless other people who work at schools who are not teachers, and they will have their own unique titles as well, but I’ll let you research which titles belong to who, or else this post will go on forever!
17. Don’t try to change the system
Seems like every school in Thailand’s got one. Yep, you know who I’m talking about – the foreign teacher who does everything within their power to go against the grain of the educational system do everything the way it would be done back home. Of course there are many things that the Thai educational system could learn from the West, but the hard truth is it’ll probably never learn. The sooner you can accept that, the happier you and everyone else at your school will be.
I’m aware that the Thai educational system is in desperate need of modernization and a makeover, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a change. Thai schools are dominated by senior teachers who have been doing things the same ol’ way for decades, and they’re not about to change anything for anyone, especially some come-and-go foreign teacher who acts like he knows how to do everything better. Instead of being abrasive towards everything and always being stressed out because nothing ever goes as planned, just chill out and enjoy the show. You’ll be so much happier when you stop caring so much, because neither Thailand nor its educational system are changing for anybody.
18. Prepare for things to move very slowly
Similar to number 13 above, you need to be prepared for things to happen at a snail’s pace in Thailand. This not only goes for the educational system, but for the country as a whole. Thais are rarely in a hurry for anything. Strict adherence to scheduling is almost non-existent. Be prepared for your students to take forever to put their books on their desks. Be prepared for important documents to be given to you at the very last second. Be prepared for students to walk like slugs when returning from lunch to your just-after-lunch class. Be prepared for people to flat out forget about that important get-together you suggested earlier in the week. But on the bright side, you too can work at a snail’s pace and rarely if ever be chastised for it. Just view that as a positive thing and enjoy it while it lasts.
19. Communicate with the staff in Thai
Like I said before, the average Thai person just doesn’t speak English well. Of course there are exceptions to everything, but the majority of Thai people don’t know much English beyond a few simple phrases and vocabulary words, and this is even true of many Thai English teachers. If you can speak Thai, or if you’re wanting to improve your Thai, then by all means communicate with your fellow Thai staff in Thai. That is unless your specific school has a policy against it.
But it’s best to keep Thai language out of the classroom as much as possible. Many schools do have policies against foreign teachers speaking Thai with their students. A Thai word or phrase is okay here and there, but for the most part, just use English. You might also have a few Thai teachers who only want to communicate with you in English because they’re actually dedicated to improving their English. After all, you might be the only foreigner they know. So use Thai with the staff, English with the students, and English with the rare Thai teacher who actually wants to improve their English.
20. Stay within your tribe
In many ways Thai people still have a village mentality leftover from the days of the past. One of the features of such a mentality is a deep mistrust of other “tribes,” or in today’s modern office world, other departments. This is not only true in schools and offices, but in all aspects of Thai society. Just take a look at the Thai government. Even different departments of the government distrust one another and communicate poorly.
So what this means for you as an English teacher is that you need to stay within your tribe of fellow foreign and Thai English teachers. If your school doesn’t have a foreign languages department, then your tribe porbably consists of the teachers in the classrooms surrounding you. If you decide to go against this unspoken rule and start to meddle in the affairs of other departments and buildings, don’t be surprised if you to find yourself the subject of lots of vicious gossip, unhappy looks, and distrust.
Some schools can be worse than others, but I can promise you that many teachers at Thai schools mostly only socialize with other teachers from their respective departments and buildings. You don’t have to take this rule to the extreme and absolutely cut off all contact with others, but bear in mind that you need to be spending the majority of your time with those closest to you.
Teaching at a Thai school can be quite fun. No one takes their work too seriously, students mostly want to play games and laugh, and you simply don’t have to work too hard. But Thai society has a lot of subtle rules and cultural expectations that spill over into the workplace. If you can simply have a good laugh, always stay light-hearted, not expect too much, and be a little culturally sensitive, then your pleasure teaching at a Thai school can increase tenfold.
Teaching in Thailand will make you laugh, and sometimes it’ll even make you cry. Just be prepared for your school to be nothing like what you grew up with in the West, and you’re already on the right track.