Three weeks ago I arrived in Thailand from the Philippines with the goal of securing an English Teacher position for the upcoming 2016-2017 school year.
The school year in Thailand typically starts is early May, with the hiring season for teachers beginning in mid-March and I can only assume it lasts until all positions are filled. I knew that when I arrived in Thailand I had to begin a rigorous job search, and having been to Thailand several times before, I had a good idea of where I wanted to work…or at least I thought I did.
My first ten days back in Thailand I spent on Koh Lanta, a lovely island in the southern part of the country that for the most part has remained less touristic than many of the other well-known islands here. Rather than start my employment search right away, I headed to the beach in order to cool off from the sweltering heat of southern Thailand. After a few days getting reacquainted with one of the best beaches on the island, Long Beach, I decided it was finally time to put in the effort and begin my search for a teaching position.
There I was, sitting in a chair on the front deck of my bamboo hut with a fan blowing directly on me so that my laptop would not overheat. Thankfully, my laptop survived but I basically sweated my ass off in the heat and humidity while searching for teaching vacancies on Ajarn.com and responding to a dozen or so job postings from across Thailand.
At the beginning of my search I targeted two towns in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. I spent a month in Chiang Mai back in October 2014 and absolutely fell in love with not only the culture of the north, but also with the cost of living which is much less than that of Bangkok and some of the more well-known islands in Thailand. Within 36 hours of sending out my first email blast which included PDF copies my CV (aka resume), my passport photo and Thai visa page, copies of my university degrees and TESOL certificate, and a copy of my criminal background check, I had my first reply from a prospective school in Chiang Mai!
The Head of the English Programm from Varee Chiangmai School emailed me asking if I could “drop by” the school the next day to discuss the vacancy in more detail before scheduling a formal interview and demo lesson. What a great opportunity I thought to myself, except that I was in southern Thailand and the school was in northern Thailand. In case you are wondering, that’s at least a 21 hour bus ride that makes no less than six stops along the journey. I emailed back asking if he would be available to speak with me over the phone or Skype regarding this position since I was not in Chiang Mai at the time. We agreed on a time to speak on the phone the next day, and that I could pay a visit to the school when I arrived in Chiang Mai the following week.
Well, the following day I never did get the call from the Head of the English Programme as planned so I sent him an email. It turns out that the current teacher changed their mind and decided to remain at the school so there was no longer a teaching vacancy at the school. Having this opportunity disappear as quickly as it had appeared did not discourage me one bit because I knew that with my qualifications and background, there would be many more to come. After finding out that there would be no call about a teaching position on this day, I grabbed my sarong that I purchased during my first visit to Thailand way back in 2009 and headed to the beach to cool off in the Andaman Sea.
In the days that followed I had an epiphany, and instead of heading to the mountainous region of northern Thailand, I shifted gears and decided to start looking for teaching opportunities closer to the beaches, because after all, that’s where I love to spend most of my free time anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the mountains but at this point in my life I find myself being drawn more and more to the ocean. That being said, there are no beaches and no ocean anywhere close to Chiang Mai, and in my mind the decision to stay in southern Thailand just seemed like the right thing to do.
With my new found direction, I refocused my search for a teaching position to southern Thailand and since there is only one licensed international school on Koh Lanta, I set my sights on the much larger island of Phuket. Phuket has dozens of private and international schools, but of all the places in Thailand that I could find a teaching position, I never really considered living and working on Phuket. Perhaps it was all of the negative things I had heard over the years of the Patong Beach Walking Street scene, or maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t really spent any time exploring the island for myself. Whatever the reason, I knew that if I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to live and work near the ocean in Thailand, I had to do my own toes-in-the-sand research on the island of Phuket.
A few days before I set off on my journey from Koh Lanta to Phuket I replied to one job posting for a Training Manager/English Teacher position at a wellness resort, PhuketFIt, located in the southern part of the island. Since I am very much into fitness and living a healthy lifestyle, I imagined this would be the perfect position for me given my background in training management. However, even after applying online and stopping by in-person to fill out an application for the position, I have yet to hear back from anyone at the resort as of this posting.
Fortunately for me, before departing Koh Lanta I also applied for a full-time Native English Teacher position at a well-established Thai-Chinese school, Phuket Thaihua Asean Wittaya School. Yes, the school's name is a mouthful but the job description really caught my eye because it mentioned that the school has a student-centered approach to teaching. This was intriguing to me since I had not seen that wording before in any of the other teaching positions I had applied to in Thailand, or anywhere else for that matter. More on this school in a few minutes.
I arrived on Phuket on a Sunday and my plan was to visit selected private and international schools starting on Monday so that I could apply in-person for English teaching vacancies. On Monday I visited the PhuketFit resort as well as one private school, and after completing one lengthy paper-based application at each location, I decided it was time to check out one dozens of beaches on the island. I knew that Phuket had a lot of beaches, but I had no idea that the water was such an eye-popping color of turquoise blue-green. I was convinced that after visiting just one beach on the island that I needed to find a teaching position on Phuket!
On Tuesday I visited two more schools and completed two more lengthy paper-based applications before deciding it was time to investigate another beach on this island. Again, I was amazed at the color of the water as well as the diversity between the two beaches that I had visited. By Wednesday I was at wits’ end with filling out applications, and in fact, I was in the midst of completing one application while inside the teachers’ lounge at a private school when my mobile phone rang.
Although I didn’t recognize the phone number, I answered the call without hesitation and it was someone from the well-established Thai-Chinese school that I had applied to via email before leaving Koh Lanta. As soon as I answered the phone, the woman who gave me the application to fill out returned to the lounge and tried to ask me if I was finished filling out the application. I just looked at her, shook my head and held up two fingers as if to say, I’m not done yet, come back again soon please.
I asked the gentleman with the British accent on the other end of the phone if I could kindly call him back in 15 minutes and thankfully he said yes. After hanging up, I quickly completed the rest of the application while keeping an eye on the time, and had a very brief conversation with the lovely Thai woman when I turned in my completed application. I called back the gentlemen from Phuket Thaihua Asean Wittaya School and he asked if I could come in for an interview that day at 3:00PM.
When I arrived at the school a few minutes before 3:00PM that day, I was asked to complete yet another paper-based application. Keep in mind that the application asks for pretty much the same information that is already included on your resume such as your name, address, date of birth and marital status (yes, it’s legal to ask for this information in SE Asia), and education and employment history. Not only do they ask for this information, but the boxes that are provided for your answers are so small that you can’t possibly fit everything in legibly.
After completing what I had hoped was the final application I would need to fill out this year, I was walked over to a scale model of the school’s campus, and it was here that I learned that the older buildings are occupied by the primary school (elementary school) students, and that the newer buildings are where the secondary school (high school) students attend classes. While we waited for the other two interviewers to become available I took the opportunity to ask questions about the position, the school, and also the students.
This was my first in-person interview for a teaching position, and I have to admit that I was a little nervous for the actual interview simply because I didn’t know what to expect. The interview itself went well, and afterwards I was taken on a brief tour of the campus and even had a chance to meet a few of the current teachers. Two of the three western teachers that I met were actually from Pennsylvania, and believe it or not, one of them was an alumni from Penn State University just like myself!
That Wednesday afternoon I spent a little over 90 minutes on the campus and got a great vibe from just about everyone I met. At the end of my time on campus I was told that I would hear back from someone from Human Resources once the school’s Headmaster had a chance to review their recommendation, as well as all of the required paperwork that I had submitted as part of the application process. The following day, Thursday, I received a call from the gentleman with the British accent who informed me that the Headmaster had not yet reviewed my paperwork. He mentioned that I should hear from someone else at the school on Friday about employment since he was starting a long holiday weekend and would not be in the office on Friday. Well, Friday came and went and I didn’t hear from anyone so I just assumed that I would get a call on the following Monday.
At some point on Monday morning my phone finally rang and the Thai voice on the other end was that of the Head of the English Program (EP) at the school. She asked me why I had not shown up yet at the school for work so I had to explain that nobody ever called me before the weekend to actually offer me a teaching position, and that I had no idea I was supposed to report to school that morning. Once that was cleared up, I was asked to stop by in the school that afternoon to discuss the students as well as what I would be teaching them during the summer program which had just started. Although it did take a few more days than I had expected, I was finally offered my first teaching position in Thailand!
Following a very brief meeting on Monday afternoon with the head of the EP to review the syllabus which was 98% in Thai, I started working on my teaching materials for the remainder of the school days leading up to the weeklong Songkran holiday break. In case you are wondering, no, I do not read any or speak much Thai so understanding the syllabus was challenging. My original assignment for the short summer program was to teach English to primary/elementary school children, better known as Prat̄hm here in Thailand.
My first week of teaching was mostly successful but I will admit I was relieved at the end of the week and really looked forward to nine consecutive days off including weekends. On the last Sunday of the long holiday break I received a phone call just before 9:00PM local time (who does that by the way?!). The familiar Thai voice on the other end was again that of the Head of the EP at the school, and this time around she asked me if I would be interested in teaching Mathematics at the Prathm level (P1 & P2) for the remaining two weeks of the summer program.
Since I am the kind of person who likes a good challenge, I accepted the offer to teach back-to-back morning Math classes, but the Head of the EP had no idea what time the first class was to begin the following morning. I must admit that it was very hard to hear her on the other end of the phone, and she mentioned something about being at the salon and apologized for the noise. We agreed to meet first thing Monday morning to review another syllabus which again was 98% in Thai. Fortunately for me, at this level the students were to start learning about geometric shapes as well as how to add and subtract single digit numbers.
After the brief, early morning meeting to review the Math syllabus I quickly went to work preparing my first lesson on shapes. I used colored paper to cut out circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, hexagons and diamonds. Having never taught a single Math class before I really didn’t know what to expect when I stepped foot into the first class. To my shock, the behavior of the P1 level Math students was certainly much different than the behavior I experienced with the students in the English class I taught before the holiday break.
I won’t go into all of the details but my first Math class had 32 students depending on the day, and my second Math class had 26 students, give or take one or two most days. I’m fairly certain the students in both classes saw me as the substitute teacher and tried to see what sort of behavior they could get away with in class. At first I tried to ignore some of their behavior, but I realized quickly that I had to let them know that I was aware of their behavior. I asked politely for them to stop getting out of their seats, and then had to tell them with more authority and volume to please sit down. Finally, after telling them again and again with even more authority while giving consequences, it was time to make an example out of one of the students.
In Thailand if a student is behaving badly and disrupting the class you move their desk to the front of the room, just under the whiteboard and have them sit there for a while. Students hate this because all of their classmates can see them in the front of the class and for whatever cultural reason it seems to work, at least for some of the behaviorally-challenged students. For others, it means they completely shut down and refuse to do anything else for the remainder of the class. Over the course of the two weeks I was teaching Math classes, I learned to live with this sort of behavior because if I worried about it or tried to get the student to participate, I would just become more and more frustrated when they didn’t respond to me.
With one student in particular I kept thinking to myself, “Oh really, you want to sit there with your head on the table for the rest of the class, fine by me, one less rambunctious student I have to deal with!” The behavior issues went on with a few students in both classes for the entire two weeks I was teaching Math, and my prayers must have been heard because during the final week of the summer program I was contacted by two different schools that I had applied to when I first arrived in Phuket. If I was going to survive as a teacher in Phuket, I knew I had to quickly get out of the situation I was in because not only did many of the students have behavioral issues, but there were systemic issues that flowed through the school which would have made crazy by the end of the calendar year for sure.
On the final day of the summer program I was required to test my students on the Math topics that we covered over the course of the two weeks. Now, I know there may have been some distractions in class such as when one student stabbed another student in the arm with a lead pencil, or the time one student kicked another student in the face because he wouldn’t give him back his ruler, but I couldn’t help thinking that I must really suck as a Math teacher when I was grading the tests and came across these answers.
A total of 29 students took the test in my first class, and another 27 students finished the test in my second class. My original test had 50 questions, each worth 2 points but I was instructed (after my draft was complete) that the test can only be worth a maximum of 20 points. Really? Whatever. I reworked the test to cater to the school’s policies and in the end, I was mostly satisfied with the final test results. I say mostly satisfied simply because the class with the majority of the behavior problems that I mentioned above actually had a higher average score than the class with better behavior. I am not surprised, after all, this is Thailand.
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