Angie Remsen caught the travel bug at age 39 and left the U.S. for a job in Kuwait. After seeing what the world had to offer, she went to Thailand to teach English and eat her way through Southeast Asia. She is currently back in Florida where her latest adventure is navigating the U.S. job market so she can fund her future travels. Here’s her advice to those looking to follow her footsteps and teach English in Thailand.
I took a major gamble in 2012 when I applied for a transfer to Kuwait with the company I worked for at the time. I knew I was taking a chance because I had not lived outside of my home state of Florida. So here I was going 8,000 miles away. When I do things, I usually don’t do them halfway.
My biggest fear was once I got there I’d hate it and want to turn right back around. The exact opposite happened. My job, although demanding, was much less stressful than my job in the U.S. I had a great group of coworkers, and I met people from all over the world. This is where the itch to travel really began, and I don’t think I will ever stop scratching!
Although I only got to see two other countries while living in Kuwait (Qatar and the U.A.E), my eyes were opened to a whole new world. When the time came for me to make my next move, I knew I wasn’t ready to stay in the U.S. Some of the people I had met in Kuwait had come there to teach. My Kuwaiti BFF, a fellow Floridian who had been introduced to me on Facebook through a mutual friend, had taught English in China earlier in her career. She suggested I do some research on how to teach English in Thailand.
Even if you have no teaching experience, if you have a four-year degree and are a native English speaker, most schools consider you qualified.
I had been hearing much about Thailand – the food, how cheap it is to live there, the friendliness of the people, and of course the beautiful beaches. So after some research, I had found an agency that sends people to Thailand to teach English. I would say 95 percent of the people in my orientation group were first time teachers.
Being as this wasn’t my first overseas rodeo, I thought I was more prepared than most. And in some ways, I was. I spent my months before my departure stocking up at Walgreens on anti-diarrhea medication, condoms, Excedrin migraine and other assorted things that are difficult to find overseas. I shopped the outlet stores for professional clothing and comfortable shoes. Imagine my joy when I found out I could wear flip-flops to work every day!
On speaking Thai…
It probably wouldn’t hurt to learn a few Thai phrases just to get around. You may find yourself seduced by the aromas of amazing-smelling food from a café only to sit down and be handed a menu that’s printed only in Thai. In that case, you either have to know the same of a few local dishes or smile and point at one of the pictures on the menu and take your chances.
The agency I went with provided a basic lesson in Thai during orientation, and I wish I would have paid more attention. You will find sometimes if you just try to speak Thai, shopkeepers and business owners may give you a break on the price of items, which is always nice on a teacher’s salary! Also, if you tell the teachers at your school you want to learn Thai, they will be happy to practice with you. It also gives them a chance to practice their English.
At my school, I would say 10 percent of the teachers spoke English. It was probably the same for the students. Depending on where you are in Thailand, this may be the case. The fluency and comprehension level of the students also varies greatly. Don’t always assume that because students are older that their understanding of English is better. Sometimes, the reverse is true.
On Lesson Planning…
My best advice to someone who wants to teach English is come prepared with plenty of lesson plans, but be prepared to be flexible. Like Gumby flexible. Classes may be cancelled for the strangest reason, and it’s always on a day you have a lesson planned. If you’re running short of ideas and hoping class will be cancelled, it’s probably not going to happen.
Also activity-based learning is very important. For example, if you have kindergarten students, do a few vocabulary words that start with a certain letter, say A. So apple, ant, etc. and then give them tracing sheets so they can practice writing. For my second grade class, I was teaching them the words under and over. Once they got the concept down, I took a yardstick and laid it across two desks and gave them a chance to go under and over the yardstick. Simple, but they loved it!
On What to Pack…
If you’re going to teach, depending on the length of your contract, you’re going to want to pack professional attire, which for women is skirts and dresses knee length or below. Depending on your school, you may be able to wear pants/jeans on certain days, and they may also give you polo shirts to wear. For men, I would say polo/collared shirts and khaki type pants. For both men and women, comfortable shoes are a must. And keep in mind that many classrooms only have fans and are not air conditioned.
Speaking of shoes, my school made us take our shoes off and wear flip flops they provided whenever we used the staff bathroom. It was a little weird at first, but you have to adapt. Some stores also require you take off your shoes when you enter!
Because it’s Thailand, of course you’ll want to pack a bathing suit or two. Comfortable athletic shoes and hiking shoes may be a good bet if you plan on hiking/trekking while you are there. You can probably ship things ahead of time to your school, but it’s going to be at your own expense most likely. And you have to get everything back home eventually, of course. I ended up with an extra bag that I had to drag around Australia and Japan – not fun. So try not to buy too much while you are there or bring too much when you first arrive. If you can ship things home or give them away, it’s always good because then you’ll be traveling with less.
On Traveling in Southeast Asia…
Finally, what made this whole experience worthwhile for me was the opportunity to travel to other countries in the region. Flights and hotels are relatively cheaper in Southeast Asia, particularly compared to Europe and the U.S. It’s not uncommon to find hotels/hostels for $5 a night. Just be mindful that some of the cheaper accommodations may not be safe or very clean. A couple of people I know went to Koh Samet, one of the popular islands closer to Bangkok, and got bed bugs from their hotel! So do your research on the travel sites and of course talk to people you know who are there for recommendations.
I was able to book a round trip flight to Cambodia for less than $100 and to Myanmar for just over $80. If you’re not in a rush to return home, I would suggest taking at least several weeks after your teaching assignment is over to see some of the surrounding countries.
So if you’re thinking about teaching English in Thailand, I would definitely say go for it. With a good Wi-Fi connection, it’s easy to stay in touch with family and friends back home through Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, Viber and Whatsapp. Do your research online and try to seek out people who have gone before and pick their brains. Remember it is a commitment to your school and not a few months off from a real job to party. You’ll have plenty of time to explore once you arrive.
It may take a leap of faith on your part, but it is an experience most people don’t have, and everyone I know who did it immensely enjoyed it. However, you probably won’t look at Thai food in the U.S. the same way again!
Words by Angie Remsen.