What to Expect When Teaching English in Thailand

As you walk through the doors of the Thai school that you will call home, you’ll be brimming with conflicting emotions.

Of course, you will be excited beyond belief. You’re about to begin a new career, maybe in an entirely different field than you’ve worked in before, in a foreign country full of adorable children.

However, you will probably be nervous as well. It’s totally normal not to know exactly what to expect when teaching English in Thailand.

Like the first day of any job, or your first days of school as a student in the past, butterflies will be fluttering in your stomach and your mind will be moving a mile a minute. Perhaps you’re worried about being unprepared for classes, concerned about missing cultural cues or doubting that you have what it takes to be a teacher.

Regardless of what you’re feeling on your first day as an ESL teacher in Thailand, there are a few things to know that can make you more comfortable at the beginning of the semester.

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Students across the country are required to have the same uniforms and hairstyles.

Even if you work in public school, you’ll arrive to a classroom full of students who match. There’s a nationwide uniform for boys and girls, either navy or khaki shorts and skirts with light blue collared shirts.

Additionally, all of the boys are required to have “high and tight” haircuts and most girls can’t grow their hair past their ears. This can make it difficult to learn all of your students names, or even figure out which class is yours. Prepare to be overwhelmed by a homogeneous sea of school uniforms on your first day, and know that eventually you will be able to tell your students apart.

You shouldn’t necessarily mimic everything the Thai teachers do.

expect when teaching english in thailand
ESL Teachers Teaching English in Thailand

From hitting children with bamboo sticks to wearing sleeveless dresses, Thai teachers may behave differently from you. It’s common for Thai teachers to carry thin bamboo sticks to discipline naughty children. That’s shocking for Americans to see because that would never be okay in our schools, but it’s culturally accepted in Thailand.

That being said, it’s not acceptable for a new English teacher to use violence against students the way Thai teachers do.

Additionally, you’re expected to follow the dress code you’re given, even if other teachers don’t. I saw Thai teachers with skirts above the knee, exposed shoulders, low-cut blouses and even house slippers at school. Even so, I continued wearing pencil skirts, high-neck blouses with sleeves and closed-toe shoes the whole time I was teaching English in Thailand.

Prepare an introductory lesson that can be adjusted for different levels.

expect when teaching english in thailand
The author with her students in Thailand.

If you complete a TEFL course, you’ll know all about introductory lessons. Like with classes you’ve experienced as a student, it doesn’t make much sense to dive into the course work on the first day. Plus, you’re new to the school and the country so spending time to introduce yourself on your first day teaching English in Thailand makes sense. One challenge with this primer lesson is trying to figure out how much English your students already know.

On my first day, I discovered that my 10th grade students spoke much more English than I anticipated. My lesson only lasted for half the class period and I looked pretty dumb. Be better than me! Make sure you have thought of ways to tailor the same lesson to various levels of English so all of your classes can enjoy getting to know you, something you’ll learn in your TEFL training. 

Schedules are more like suggestions and plans change constantly so ask questions.

This is where fellow foreign teachers and Thai teachers who speak English are essential. Communication in Thailand sometimes leaves much to be desired. You’ll often find that information you were supposed to receive down a line didn’t reach you or wasn’t explained correctly. It’s important that you can roll with last-minute changes and confusing situations.

For example, take the morning ceremony at my school in Chonburi. This was held every morning but my English Program students only went sometimes, and I was expected to be there for special ceremonies. Some mornings I would show up to teach and find that my students were at ceremony instead of class. Other times, my coordinator would come running into the teacher’s room and tell me I was supposed to be at the ceremony. These changes weren’t communicated to me; I was confused and a little frustrated.

If you don’t know where your classrooms are, which books to use or are unsure of other little details, just ask for help! There will likely be an English-speaking teacher who has worked there longer than you have, a student who can speak English well or a Thai teacher with English skills. I won’t lie, sometimes you never get a straight answer. That’s when you roll with the “mai pen rai” (no worries) attitude of the Thai people, take a guess about what’s happening and flash your biggest smile at everyone you pass. You’ll soon relish in the new lifestyle, and it will change you. You’ve got this! 

Words by Christine Hayes.