Why Thailand wasn’t for me
Don’t get me wrong, Thailand is, in many ways, a wonderful place and I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to visit. But, after 6 months here, I am ready to leave. The truth is, despite the perfect image I had in my head before coming here, Thailand just isn’t the country for me. In fact, I have never been to a place that has disagreed with me as much as Thailand does. I don’t have anyone to blame but myself, and this post is not meant to discourage anyone who is considering doing what I did and coming to Thailand to teach for a while. Despite the lack of satisfaction I’ve found over the past few months I have learned a lot from my time here, and I hope when I leave I can do so without too many regrets. If you are considering moving to Thailand then I am sure, like me, you have read about the mostly wonderful experiences people have. I write this post not to discourage anyone, but to share some of the reasons my own experience was not the one I had hoped for.
It hurts to write this post at all because it is, in a way, an admittance of failure on my part. I took a drastic leap after college and it didn’t work out. I know there is nothing wrong with that and I will work hard to focus on the positives of this experience, but it still hurts. I could choose to relocate and try a different part of Thailand that would be better suited for me, but I fear the underlying problems would still prevent me from finding happiness. So, for the time being, I’m admitting defeat and heading home to reassess my plans.
Before I get into a bit of negativity let me take the opportunity to write how lucky I was to be able to come here at all. I did meet some great people and I will always remember my amazing students who almost kept me here despite the other issues I had.
I want it to be known that my experience should in no way be seen as a reflection on the company that facilitated my Thailand experience and trained me for my TESOL certification. I will always be grateful for Xplore Asia, my instructors and the friends I made in my first month here and I would highly recommend them for anyone looking to come to Thailand.
So what exactly went wrong? Well…
The school system in Thailand is…not great
I should have read the warning signs better. When I arrived in Thailand and after completing my training course I was confident that I would be the teacher I envisioned myself as and my students would all care about English and write me letters years later to thank me for being awesome. But the Thai school system is debilitating for both students and teachers in countless different ways. For a more complete understanding of this, I will direct those interested to a great essay written by one of my TESOL instructors who has been at this far longer than I have. I’ll just outline a few of the most troubling issues here and how they affected me.
- Appearance over everything – This extended beyond the classroom but the manifestation at school was most troubling. The school does everything it can to look good but very little to be a good school (qualified in this instance by providing a good education for the students) and I get the impression this is true to an extent of most government schools in Thailand. The school will build new building and paint the front gate but they won’t replace broken whiteboards and desks. The troubling thought was what that meant for me. I was paraded in front of cameras and introduced to all sorts of important people, but once I was in the classroom no one cared what I taught or did. When I asked for help with actual teaching issues I was mostly ignored and occasionally laughed at. I was left with the feeling that the school didn’t necessarily care about me as an individual, but they wanted to be able to say there was a native English speaker teaching at their school.
- The students can’t fail – There are so many things wrong with this I don’t know where to begin. For one, no failing means kids can skip any number of classes without consequence, a fact which my students fully exploited. When you know you will pass the class anyway the kids see no reason to try and as a result never put effort into their work.
- Copy copy copy – Because there is little accountability in the system and the stress is on how the school appears rather than what the students are learning, it is ingrained in the Thai school culture to copy. Being guilty of *cough* occasionally *cough* copying myself in my school years, I can now fully appreciate why it is such a bad thing. Copying inhibits learning and, worse, creativity. Give a classroom of Thai students an open-ended question and you will get 40 of the exact same answer. I’ve had students literally photocopy completed worksheets and write their name over the original student’s name as if I wouldn’t notice.
- Lazy teachers – I will write delicately here because I do have a lot of respect for many of the teachers I taught with. This notwithstanding, the current system does not train teachers well and there is little accountability if a teacher chooses not to go to a class or even come to school one day. For example, on top of the seven classes I was responsible for, there were six additional periods I was meant to teach with a Thai teacher. As in, the class belonged to the Thai teacher – they were responsible for assigning work, keeping grades and attendance and making tests – and I was there to help. However, one of these teachers elected to rarely show up for what was supposed to be her own class. One day when I addressed her about a class she had just missed and she laughed and said, “I forgot”. Basically, the Thai education system is such that a teacher can forget about one of their classes and everyone will just laugh it off. So three times a week I was often stuck teaching classes who barely knew or respected me because I wasn’t actually their teacher. But I’m not pointing this out because I was the victim in this situation, I’m pointing it out because the students are the ones who suffer.
- Too many missed classes and no way to make them up – The Thai school semester was supposed to be 20 weeks, or so I was originally told. Since I see my classes twice a week I hypothetically should have seen each class 40 times. Given I was forewarned that things came up and there was an occasional holiday in the mix, I imagined I would have about 30 class periods to work with, a conservative estimate, or so I thought. Fast forward to the end of the semester – which ended 3 weeks earlier than I was told – and I’m looking at my books wondering where all the time went. It turns out I didn’t see any of my classes nearly 30 times. The worst offender was my 3/4 class which I saw a grand total of – wait for it – 15 times the entire semester. Wait what? You might be thinking that can’t possibly be right. Did I really only teach this class 37.5 percent of the times I was supposed to? Yep, and maybe it wouldn’t have been a huge problem if at the beginning someone bothered to tell me, “Hey James, I know you’re supposed to have 40 class periods with these kids but maybe only plan for half that many okay?” But no such luck, with this class and my others, I wound up having to rush assignments into the last few days just so I had something to grade. Or at least I tried, but those classes also turned out to be cancelled.
But why was this such a big problem for me? Doesn’t every kid dream about having a job where they can slack off and not give too much effort? But I came to Thailand more to teach and to work. I wanted to gain experience in this profession so that I might explore it more in the future. After a while I realized I was not growing and learning as a person under this system. I have no power to change the system and I feel guilty leaving because I know I am letting my students down. I hope to see improvement so that I might return one day and feel less like a mascot and more like I’m actually helping.
Of course I also readily concede that I am far from a great teacher (at least yet ^^). I was not equipped to deal with such uncertainty, poor communication and inconsistency. If I choose to attempt teaching English as a second language again, which I intend to, I will work harder to improve myself so that I can be even better the next time.
Further reading on the Thai education system if anyone is interested:
This was a big one. I work with a wonderful woman from Cameroon. She’s been at the school for almost 2 years and clearly has more experience than I do as a teacher. She also makes just more than half as much as I do. At first I tried to think of an alternative explanation, but it soon became apparent that she was paid less than me, and on closer observation respected less than me, because of the color of her skin. In another incident, after I announced I would be leaving, a friend of mine, also from Cameroon, came into our school to ask about job openings. I was in the room and I witnessed one of my coworkers tell the guy, without even looking him in the eye once, that there were no openings. The least she could have done would have been to stand up, be polite and look him in the eye when she told him there were no openings. The rudeness of this coworker, who has always been very kind to me and who I have a lot of respect for, was shocking and unnecessary. I had thought by going to Thailand I would escape some of the horrors of racism. How could a country so accepting of gender fluidity be so intolerant towards dark skin? I know this might sound elitist considering racism is currently rampant in my own country. But at least back home there are people actively trying to make a change. In Thailand, the local people with dark skin are trying to make their skin lighter. It’s okay if you personally prefer white skin, but it’s not okay if you think someone, including yourself, is inferior because of darker skin. This problem was through into sharper relief with a commercial that went viral earlier in the year. The point is, I do not want to be part of system that rewards appearance over experience.
Food and Health
It is common to hear about how wonderful and amazing Thai food is, and it’s true, many Thai dishes are well-deserving of the praise. However, it is less common to hear about the other side of Thai food which involves putting sugar in everything and eating sugary snacks 24/7. When Thai people eat fresh fruit they season is with a sugar-chili mixture. When I was teaching my students about cooking they even told me to put sugar in an omelette. The other big problem for me was, being in a small town, it seemed that 99.6 percent of all the dishes had meat in them. I, being a vegetarian, had very few options for meals and ultimately ate the same three or four things over the course of a week. It was good food, but much like a song that gets overplayed, I was soon tired of the vegetable fried rice, Pad Thai and fish steaks that made up my diet. I know this would have been less of a problem in a large city but as it was, it is one reason I will not be staying.
I did not feel respected or welcome
Here’s one for you, if you want to show someone respect try making an effort to pronounce their name correctly. Especially when that person makes a point to correct you. I won’t harp on this one too much because I understand there are cultural differences, but for everything I heard about how respected teachers were in Thailand, that was not my own experience. It wasn’t as if my co-workers were unfriendly, but neither did I feel there was much of an effort at inclusion. For example, there is a day in Thailand set aside to celebrate teachers and many of the teachers celebrated at our school yet neglected to mention any such celebration to me. I know it wasn’t personal or intentional but there were many events and activities that everyone seemed to assume I would know about without telling me about them. To summarize the problem, I basically realized that if I failed to show up to school at all one day, no one would make an effort to find out why I wasn’t there. I want to be somewhere where my presence or absence at my place of work or work-related functions is noticed, and I’ve just not found that here.
I got what I wanted and it wasn’t what I wanted
This one was my fault, I should have seen this coming. When I came to Thailand I wanted to be placed into a rural farming community in the northern region. Why? I wanted somewhere different. I wanted to get away from the America where people were buried in their phones the whole time and people lived more online than in person. I guess for some reason I thought kids growing up with the reality of growing their own food every day would not be as depressingly attached to technology as back home. So it was much to my chagrin when all those things I didn’t like about America were, impossibly, even worse in rural Thailand. Dining out in Thailand involved families of 5 with the kids playing games (with sound might I add) while mom texted and dad talked loudly on the phone. My classes involved kids playing this immensely popular multiplayer game called “settee” (not sure about the spelling) with each other from across the class.
But phone attachment is only half of the problem, the other half is harder to describe. To illustrate, one day I went with some of the older students to get plants to display in front of the school farm (yes my school had a farm). To get these plants we had to dig them out of a garden. I found myself shocked, therefore, when the students visibly shied away from the manual labor. I know this small example may not seem significant, but it struck me as odd that young kids growing up in an agricultural community would shy away from a simple gardening job. It was an unsettling trend I noticed during my time here. There was literally a farm in my school and these students didn’t want to dig a plant out of the ground. This youthful disdain for hard work and the increasingly parasitic attachment to phones and social media are by no means issues specific to Thailand, but I chose a rural setting in the hopes of getting away from this sort of thing. I suppose this is something I will have to search much harder for.