Today I’m happy to introduce a guest post by a LanguageCorps alum who spent time teaching English in Thailand. He does a great job of thoroughly articulating all aspects of teaching English abroad, from the job search, to placement and beyond. Enjoy!
Teaching English Abroad from Start To Finish
Dreams know no boundaries. They are subjectively-personalised but objectively-perceived. Are dreams only meant to give people hope that something better awaits them, yet more often than not, unattainable due to a whole host of factors, the most common being financial sacrifice, relationship commitments and plain inertia?
Well, I had a dream, one that was unfathomable to many, and even considered immature and irrational to the older generation because it seemed to signal a step backwards in this age of rapid societal progress and development. However, I was determined to carve out a path that veered greatly off the route of conformity on which the last 26 years of my life have built upon. My dream was to discover a lifestyle set in a rural region of Thailand, where I could sustain my livelihood by Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
When asked about what led me to take this path less travelled, I could only say that I have always been an adventurous person who seeks uniqueness to life by not wanting to live under the shadows of others. Teaching and living independently in a rural locality would create a new experience and challenge that few might relate to in Singapore. Thailand was a viable choice to anchor my dreams due to three reasons. Firstly, the country comprises of many provinces, some less urbanized than others, thus providing more options to cater to my locational preference. Secondly, it is a country situated not too far away from home. This was important because I was travelling all alone and could easily make a quick return should any emergency occur. Thirdly, the country offers an setting in which almost everyone communicates using only the local language (especially so in the rural areas). To adapt and face up to this linguistic challenge was something which I yearned for!
Stumbling Blocks at the Onset
Months of diligence were spent in learning the Thai language at community centres in Singapore, and understanding Thailand’s education system and employment rules. Moreover, the preparatory phase was fraught with the toughest obstacles that almost derailed my plans. It did not help that my request was so specific in the sense that I only wanted to teach in rural or village schools located away from big cities and urban centres.
I had initially wanted to secure a teaching position in one of the less-known provinces before even travelling to Thailand. However, I faced roadblocks while communicating with several schools and random teaching contacts recommended by my one and only Thai friend living in ChiangRai Province. In addition, I learnt that no school was willing to hire a foreigner unless he or she had obtained a teaching qualification of some sort, and the schools preferred someone who was already present in Thailand, rather than accepting an individual who was still based overseas.
An ex-colleague of mine in Singapore chanced upon and recommended an American-based programme called LanguageCorps, which offered a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) a qualification that many schools in Thailand were looking out for. I had to go through two weeks of training in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and two weeks of hands-on teaching experience in Pattaya, Thailand. Upon graduation, some job-search assistance would be provided too. I felt that this could be the safest way to embark on my journey rather than diving into the deep end without any organisational support.
On 5 March 2011, I touched down in Phnom Penh to begin my teacher-training course. My journey started off on a bad note when I realized that the red packet which my mother had given me for good luck and protection had gone missing! Bearing in mind an advice from a friend back in Singapore that ‘things can only get better’, I struggled to stay positive for the rest of that day.
I was the only Asian in the group of trainee-teachers and faced difficulties integrating with the rest mainly because of social habits. Before long, two weeks were up and I headed on to Pattaya for my hands-on teaching experience. I felt more comfortable in Pattaya because I could speak some basic conversation Thai. Throughout this time, I remained very focused on my ultimate aim, which was to work closely with the American organisation to get me a rural or village school to hire me.
Unfortunately, when I finally graduated, my trainers informed me that they had tried unsuccessfully to match my locational job preference with several schools in Thailand. My request was a bit unorthodox, and schools situated in the less developed parts of Thailand were not well-positioned to hire foreign teachers because of various administrative reasons. It was unlikely that I could get what I wanted at that point in time. I lost faith and felt like giving up.
Just when I was considering a return to Singapore as a defeated soul, I received an email invitation to be interviewed by a school located in Thailand’s northwestern provincial capital named Tak City (pronounced as ‘Meuang Tak’ in Thai language), some 870km away from Pattaya. I had earlier randomly applied to this school online on my own accord.
Very few locals in Thailand have actually been to this province and I was informed by my course trainers that the location could more or less be what I was looking for. My only concern was travelling across the country for an interview which I might not even secure, but I also knew that this was a worthy shot at discovering what laid ahead for me. With much fervour and hope, I went ahead.
Travelling over 850km for a job interview
The bus ride proved to be a 9-hour journey during which I hardly slept and arrived in Tak City at an unearthly time of 3.30am. The school, named ‘Anubantak School’ (meaning Tak’s Kindergarten and Primary School) had kindly offered a room for interviewees to temporarily bunk while waiting for the interview next morning.
When I entered the room, there was another interviewee— an African— already resting within. To my horror, the room proved to be a mosquito-feeding site and I was literally swarmed by the insects for the three hours spent ‘resting’ in the room. Nevertheless, I remained thankful that the school actually provided an optional place interviewees, especially those who arrived at odd timings, to rest. Other interviewees, consisting of Filipinos and Africans who stayed at nearby guesthouses, arrived at the school compound the next morning.
Ten interviewees fought for five job vacancies and we had to perform teaching demonstrations in the morning followed by attending interviews in the afternoon. Though I was extremely fatigued due to lack of rest, I believed that I did well in the tests because I was confident of my knowledge and ability, thanks to the world-class Singapore education system which I had been nurtured in. It was certainly a long, nervous wait for the selection results as my dream of teaching in a rural region like Tak Province hinged on this moment of truth! When the five names were finally read out, two Africans and two Filipinos were chosen, with my name being the last one announced! I was so elated as I had finally taken the first successful step in realising my dream!
After securing a place in the school, there were still about two more weeks before Thailand’s school semester began. It was also the period marking Thailand’s traditional New Year (named ‘Songkran Festival’ or commonly known as the ‘Water-splashing Festival’).
My only Thai friend was residing in ChiangRai Province, though I did not know the exact locality. He was glad and willing to host me during this period. Therefore, immediately after the interview, I made another long-distance trip northwards and this part of the journey proved to be an interesting discovery for me.
When I boarded the bus heading to ChiangRai Province at another unearthly time of 1am, I was sure that I would fall asleep immediately because of my prolonged fatigue. However, when the bus arrived, I was shocked to see that all the seats were already fully occupied! The driver merely shoved the boarding passengers stools to sit on along the aisle. Obviously, due to the lack of space, I could not sleep because everyone kept hitting each other as the bus rolled on. When I arrived 7 hours later in ChiangRai City, you could imagine how I felt, mentally and physically. I later realised that this was a common scenario for certain long-distance buses, but what an experience it has been!
My friend picked me up at one of ChiangRai’s districts named Chiang Saen and took me to somewhere near the Golden Triangle. To my surprise, I realised that he was living not in the city, but in a village! I did not expect a village stay but was extremely happy to be given such an opportunity. This was precisely the kind of environment that I sought to teach in! The village was set in a quiet and beautiful environment, occasionally covered by mist and surrounded by mountains bordering Thailand and Myanmar. Despite the breath-taking landscape, my friend informed me that it was impossible for me to teach in his village due to safety and culturally-sensitive reasons.
From my two-weeks stay in my friend’s village, I vividly remember the huge slope which I had to conquer whenever I entered or exited the village. Pushing my bicycle up the barren slope as vehicles sped past me and churn clouds of dust on my face was certainly unforgettable. I also experienced Thailand’s Songkran Festival for the first time in my life. It was a privilege to enjoy both the traditional (e.g. visiting a hill-top temple to make offerings) and modern (i.e. water-splashing activities) celebrations in the village.
Before heading back to Tak Province towards the end of April 2011, I made a stop at a school located on the outskirt of ChiangRai City. I had initially made contact with this school back in Singapore but was informed that foreign teachers could not be hired due to a couple of administrative reasons. As I was passing by ChiangRai Province, I decided to pay the school’s Vice-Principal a visit to put a face to her name following our email correspondences made in the past. Little did I expect her to gladly offer me a room in her house to stay for the night, and promises of specially-prepared Thai dishes to whet my appetite. Other than communicating online, I was a complete stranger to her, but I received was great hospitality and generosity. I was touched. This welcoming gesture of hers was reflective of the kind-hearted and pleasant attitude of Thais towards others, which proved to be one of the numerous times of assistance I received while travelling alone in Thailand.
First Singaporean Employee in the Provincial Capital
I have been on a tourism visa ever since I left Singapore and in order for me to legitimately extend my stay here in Thailand, there were various employment and immigration procedures that had to be sorted out. I needed to first obtain a Non-immigration VISA B from the capital (i.e. Bangkok), meaning the necessity to travel hundreds of kilometres back down south. After a couple of months, I had to visit the Labour Employment Office in Tak City to obtain a work permit and make another trip to Bangkok to collect a compulsory Teaching Licence. Following that, I had to make my way to the nearest Immigration Office in Tak Province located at the border town of Mae Sot to apply for a Stay Permit (an official document to state that I am allowed to stay in the country up to the last day of the school’s semester). I suddenly empathised with what a foreign worker or expatriate in Singapore had to go through with regard to immigration documentation.
This tedious but necessary procedure took place across many months and involved quite a few long-distance trips, but it at least ensured that I did not infringe the country’s immigration laws and could live and work with a peace of mind. In the midst of this procedure, I was also informed by a Labour Employment Officer that I was the first Singaporean employee to be working in this provincial capital! Having created a mini-history for myself, I promised myself to carry the Singapore flag up high by working hard and leaving a good impression for others to see!
The process of finding accomodation in Tak City was a challenge and settling down in my temporary home could not have been more interesting. I chose a very affordable room on the fourth level of an apartment situated just 150 metres away from my school. Besides an old mop and a roll of toilet paper lying at a corner, the room was completely empty when I entered. No mattress (let alone a bed frame), no cabinet, no refrigerator, no television, no chairs, no table and no fan! It was also evident that the room had not been used for some time because of the filth accumulated within (moths, bird droppings, cockroaches etc.). It was indeed another memorable experience as I had to do a thorough clean-up of my room and make multiple short trips (using a bicycle as my form of transport since I did not know how to ride a motorbike or scooter) to the riverside market to scout, choose and bargain for basic household essentials and simple furniture. Do not get me wrong, I enjoyed the process so much as it gave me a chance to set up my home from scratch!
Teaching and Living Life
Most would deem the highlight of my journey to be the period of teaching and living in this quaint and peaceful town of Tak City. After settling down in my simple but cosy home, I started to learn cooking. I have always been ‘forbidden’ to use the kitchen back home in Singapore, so I struggled initially but soon, guided by useful instructions and advice from my mother, I learnt to whip out a couple of decent home-cooked dishes. Before long, I even knew how to prepare a few well-known Thai delicacies such as ‘Basil Leaves with Pork and Steamed Rice’, ‘Tom-yam Soup’ and ‘Pad Thai’.
I woke up before sunrise every day, even on weekends, because there was a loud radio broadcast speaker along the road outside my apartment which blasted precisely at 5.40am each morning!
It did not help that I slept like a chicken at night, waking up at the slightest sound. I attributed my heightened awareness to my constant vigilance, being all alone in a foreign country. Looking back, I realised that my adrenaline had never stopped pumping ever since I left Singapore!
Check back soon for the next installment of this teachers adventure in Thailand!