Teaching English in Thailand. My experience living and working in Chiang Mai.
Over 10 years ago, before I was a blogger, before I started my charity (The GiveBackGiveAway), before I made $1m+ blogging, and before I visited every country in the world, I was stuck in Ireland. I had finished University in the summer of 2006, worked at a summer camp in the USA, traveled around the US and now I wanted to travel. But I had no money. After furiously googling “How to travel with no money”, “Cool stuff to do when you’re broke” and every possible permutation in between, I stumbled across something I knew nothing about ‘Teaching English As A Foreign Language’ (TEFL) or ‘Teaching English in Thailand’.
I delved a bit deeper. Noticing that as a university graduate, with Engish as my mother tongue, I could get a job teaching English in most countries around the world, so where did I want to move to? When you embrace teaching English, the world is your oyster. You can go anywhere. I was 22 years old, I wanted an adventure. Asia was calling, and what better place to move to and live in than Thailand! So I decided, Teaching English in Thailand was it. Before I long I had studied my TEFL, had booked my one-way flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand and I was off. It was the first step to an amazing 10-year journey to every country in the world, it was my first leap of faith and in all honesty, I haven’t looked back since.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
I was in and around Chiang Mai for the best part of 18 months and it truly was one of the best times of my life; I want to shine a little light on the lifestyle of teaching English in Thailand, the way the teaching worked, and generally discuss the ups and downs as my life as an English Teacher in Thailand, and then deal with all the extra trips, funny stories and crazy shenanigans later blog posts.
My First Experience in Asia, and Teaching
I finished my TEFL qualification and I was now fully qualified to teach English in pretty much any country in the world. That qualification gave me a greater feeling of freedom than any other course I had ever finished, my degree included! To know that now, no matter what life throws at you, you’re can fly to Costa Rica, or China, Thailand or Tunisia tomorrow and legally look for work there is exhilarating, and to do this day I find myself casting an eye on jobs available in obscure countries, knowing I could go there. It’s crazy.
When I signed up to my TEFL, I also signed up with an agency to help me get a job. To just fly to Thailand, or China and look for work there was too scary for me at 22 years old, so I signed a contract for a job in China, ready for me after my time in Chiang Mai, but after spending some time in Chiang Mai and truly falling in love with Thailand I reneged on my Chinese contract to try to carve out a living in Chiang Mai.
Finding an Apartment in Chiang Mai
First up, sorting out accommodation. My budget was tight, very tight. Initially, I had been living in guest houses and hostels, which although was admittedly fun, all those late nights and new friends weren’t overly conducive to me setting up a new life in a new country. All the modern condos that Thailand houses these days were beyond my means at that stage of my life. So I jumped on my rented scooter and scoured the city to find something that would work. I was figuring that I needed to survive on around 15,000THB per month ($450USD or so), which meant I could spend around 4000THB ($120) or so on rent.
Soon I managed to find a serviced apartment in the north of the city, on Changpuak Road. For around 4000 Baht per month I could have a small studio in the Wipanan Mansion. Instantly I felt at home. This was probably my first indication of where a life in Thailand can shine brighter than most many countries in the world.
Within a month I was good friends with all the staff -the receptionists, the owners of the property, the cleaners. So much so that they wouldn’t let me leave the building on an empty stomach, or head to a job interview with a wrinkled shirt. They’d insisting I eat with them before I go out, and have that shirt ironed while I wait. It can be a scary thing to move to a new country on your own, with a one-way ticket, but throwing yourself into situations like this, saying ‘yes’ to people and
It can be a scary thing to move to a new country on your own, with a one-way ticket, but throwing yourself into situations like this, saying ‘yes’ to people and socialising instantly settles you down, and my humble condo was so helpful in that.
Each week, Chiang Mai and Thailand seems to have a public holiday or some religious celebration. The staff would bring us along and show us the ‘real’ Thailand, on so many occasions. 2 particularly amazing experiences were the Visakha Bucha Festival where we trek to beautiful temple, Doi Suthep, on top of the mountain in the middle of the night or Loy Krathong, an amazing festival where we let off lanterns into the sky and little vessels down the Ping River. Never would there be an event on without an invite from the staff there, the Thai people are very, very special.
Teaching English in Thailand. Finding a Job in Chiang Mai
My accommodation was sorted. I had rented a scooter for another 2000THB ($50) a month, so my transport was good to go. Now it was time to find work. I had zero income and almost zero life savings. It was imperative I found work within a month or so. Knowing I had turned down a decent paying job in China to set-up in Chiang Mai put some additional pressure on me. I had to make it work.
I researched all the Private English Language Schools in Chiang Mai. Personally, I had decided to avoid working for the Government schools for a number of reasons. Number 1 was that it would feel too much like the rat race. 9-5 hours, a recognisable structured hierarchy, too many students in each class. I wanted an adventure. So a Language School, working in evenings, at random hours, with private older students, suited me perfectly.
After a few applications, proudly bearing the news that we I was a graduate with a recognised TEFL, interviews were flooding in. I was offered a position at the British Council and had a number of other schools asking me to work there, in the end, I decided to work at AUA, one of the most famous language institutions in the country with branches in every city. The facilities, by Thai standards, were great:
- Class sizes ranging from 5-20
- Air-conditioners!! (even in Universities in Thailand that wasn’t guaranteed)
- Student ages ranging from 15-30, average around 18 years old. I didn’t want to be teaching children, so this was perfect.
- A structured syllabus with textbooks and workbooks. Coming from the West we expect this to be a pre-requisite of a teaching Institution. In South East Asia, you can’t guarantee that’ll be the case. Do your research before you accept a position).
- Working hours of 5.00pm – 8.15pm every day and all day Saturday. This was a deal-sealer for me. I would have all day each day to explore the city and the region, to drive around on my little scooter, to study Thai and hit the gym.
- The majority of the other teachers there were all relatively young so it gave me an automatic social group too. Something pretty important when you’re setting up a new life in a foreign country.
How Much is an English Teacher’s Salary in Chiang Mai, Thailand?!
The question on everyone’s lips.
You don’t sign up for teaching English in Thailand for the money, that’s for sure. Head to South Korea, Eastern China, or the Middle East for that. My salary was around 25,000 Baht a month ($730). As a 22-year-old, that was easily enough for me to have a fun, middle-class life in Chiang Mai. I had a decent studio serviced apartment (wifi, air-con etc). My scooter was rented monthly. Local Thai food for breakfast, lunch and dinner (35THB ($1) or so a dish). I was partying a lot. Each holiday meant traveling the region, and I still managed to save a couple of hundred bucks here and there for my travels when I finished my contract one year later.
Foregoing my Western vices was pretty tough though. Almost no foreign food, only local beers (no imports, which meant no Guinness, heartbreaking for an Irishman!), my travels were all overland on romantic but tortuous bus journeys, sleeping in run-down Guest Houses in China, Cambodia, Laos or wherever I had traveled too. Life was good. I was seeing the world, learning a new culture, exploring a region and making new friends. It was one of the happiest times in my life, and although I had to think about money each day, I felt alive. Nothing but good memories.
What’s Teaching English in Thailand actually like?
Honestly speaking, I don’t think I’m a natural English teacher. But I threw myself into the experience with all my heart. As a first time English teacher, it can be quite stressful standing up in front of a classroom of people, all eyes on you, with nowhere to hide. The first month for me was stressful indeed. I would arrive at the school each day around 1 pm or so, 4 hours before the classes began at 5pm. I’d prepare my lessons diligently. I would check today’s lesson AND tomorrow’s lesson as I was scared of running out of content and being left at the front of the class with nothing to say! As the months went on though, I learned how to pace the lessons better. Learning how to expand on topics adlib; how to manage a classroom and its students.
By month 4 or so, I was actually enjoying my job. My lesson planning was much faster. Now I could come into school around 3-4pm now for my 5 pm classes. The students, with an average age of 18 or so (when I was only 22) responded well to me, never once was I disrespected, or challenged. The structure of my school helped a lot, working through modules, and my co-teachers were also a source of help too, extra activities, advice here and there. This kind of thing was priceless for a newbie teacher like me.
Thai students are literally a pleasure to teach, it’s all smiles, light-hearted behaviour and respect. The one thing I noticed most about Thai students in comparison with the West is a lack of ego. Our egos often create such friction – so worried to let ourselves go. In the Thai classroom I found quite the opposite and teaching there was awesome because of this, also the students actually seem grateful for you teaching them – a notion that is very foreign to anyone who has taught in a British comprehensive school I’m sure.
In Thailand, you have no teaching assistant to help you, no bilingual staff in the room, once you are in the classroom it’s all on you.i Initially then, I was feeling the pressure. Remember, you don’t have to speak the language of the country you’re in to teach English there. So when you’re teaching English in Thailand, like I was, you don’t have to speak Thai. In fact, if you can speak Thai, you’re not allowed to use it in the classroom. The best system for Language appropriation is full immersion, so you should only communicate in the language you’re teaching, English.
In theory that’s wonderful, but as a young, new English teacher, it can be pretty scary. A room full of people, sometimes at a beginner-English level, and you have to get your points across, new vocabulary, grammatical rules. It sounds impossible, I know, but it works, and it works well. Soon I was in the swing of things, as you will be, and your communication skills develop hugely. A skill I cherish as I travel the world these days.
In private language schools in Chiang Mai, Thailand term times generally lasted 6 weeks. Each lesson was around an hour long. So every evening we had 3 sets of one-hour lessons. I then taught those kids every day for the 6 weeks so naturally, you make a real connection. Student’s English levels varied a lot from absolute beginner to university students studying business English. Knowing that, I was really thankful for my TEFL training. I know many countries who don’t require a TEFL course and to be honest, I would have been 100% lost in a classroom Teaching English in Thailand without it. The thought of standing up, educating people, with no formal training isn’t fair on you. Nor is it fair to your students.
Looking Back Fondly
Teaching English in Thailand, I worked at AUA for over a year. I made lifelong friends and genuine connections with my students, some of whom I’m still in contact with 10 years later. Every day was fun at AUA and I would definitely recommend working there if you are a first-time teacher. The benefits are amazing – low levels of stress, lots of autonomy, cool kids and awesome coworkers. Good times and ones I like back at fondly.
Sometimes looking back at my time Teaching English in Thailand, I feel nostalgic. Sure I was broke and pretty clueless, but what an adventure. I was young, free, with the whole world waiting for me to explore. Teaching English changed my life, one of the best decisions I ever made. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.