ESL Teaching in Rural Thailand – Nick Zeller

ESL teaching in rural Thailand - XploreAsia blogAfter a month-and-a-half long stint in the North of Thailand getting trained for ESL teaching and hopping around mountain towns, I finally ended up in a small village in Northeastern Thailand called Muang Khong. You might ask yourself where that is and try to google it.  You won’t find much information online.  Even an hour away from town I’ll tell people where I live an they’ll have no idea where I’m talking about. Oddly, Google already has Muang Khong on streetview if you know where to be looking (google is everywhere!). The town is about 5 hours Northeast of Bangkok in a large conglomeration of provinces in the East that everyone calls Isaan (there are like ten different ways to spell it).


Muang Khong and Isaan


ESL teaching in rural Thailand - XploreAsia blog

Sunset over some rice paddies from a train just outside Muang Khong

Isaan has a few cities (Korat, Khon Kaen, Ubon), but it’s mostly flat farmland with rice paddies, their farmers, and small towns.  This makes for some great sunsets, but doesn’t allow for many activities if one’s passions lie outside the wide world of agriculture. So this region (with a few exceptions) is not an undiscovered tourist destination waiting to happen, it’s a Kansas or an Iowa and only a few of the foreigners ever go outside Miami.  Before I arrived, I was nervous that Muang Khong would be too rural, too flat, too small, and too far away from other foreigners for me to be happy.  It is still rural, small, flat, and isolated, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised in what I’ve found to enjoy in all of that.


In just about everyone’s experience, Thais are naturally, and sometimes overwhelmingly, kind and generous.  This quality is kicked into overdrive in Isaan.  As a foreigner (Thais call us farang) teacher here, locals want to give you directions, help you get a good deal, make sure your food is delicious, and are very, very curious about you (although this usually boils down to four questions that I’ll get to later).  Thai generosity has gotten me a free bicycle, more fresh fruit than I can count (or eat), dirt cheap motorcycle repair, last-minute rides to bus stations, several rounds of rice moonshine, and a road trip to a 5-hour Muay Thai extravanganza, just to name a few.  Trying to reciprocate these favors is futile 99% of the time, which leads to some lingering grateful guilt that I don’t really fight anymore.


One of the fun (and occasionally creepy) aspects of being a foreign teacher in such a small community is that after a few weeks you achieve small-town celebrity status. I imagine it’s a similar feeling to being the new on-site reporter at a small-time local TV station.  Regardless of where or when, if you come across a student outside of school, they will wave and yell some variation of “helloooooo teacher!” then giggle as if they have just done something exceptionally clever and silly. This has happened enough that now everyone in town knows I will answer/acknowledge when the word “teacher!” is directed at me.  Especially in the evenings after school, my trips to the market or to dinner are filled with “helloooooo teacher!”s at regular intervals. Most of the time, this phenomenon is fun; everyone smiles and is friendly, I like that they want to interact with me, even if only for a few seconds, and it’s a good feeling when you’re walking down the street and everyone you pass wants to say hi!  Other times it feels like the locals are those kids at the zoo that poke the glass to try and make the animal move: “If you yell ‘hello’ at the Farang, he’ll say something that sounds funny!”


School and ESL Teaching


ESL teaching in rural Thailand - XploreAsia blog

Get stoked for directional vocabulary!

Teaching has been the best part of my time here so far. I teach 12-14 year olds for 5 periods a day (a little over 4 hours of actual class time).  At the outset, I figured that since enthusiasm comes easily and I’ve been blessed with a 12-year-old’s sense of humor, teaching junior high would be pretty straightforward. My first week in the classroom was revealing.  I found out pretty quickly it wasn’t going to be a breeze and my Robin-Williams-in-Dead-Poets-Society aspirations can be put out to pasture.  Half of my classes have 35-45 kids in them, all with chairs and desks.  The other half are double-classes with 70-90 students, all sitting on the floor.  While there are some notable exceptions, 95% of my students have very, very low English proficiency.  Kids in Muang Khong get instruction in grammar and written English (there is very little emphasis on speaking and conversation) from their Thai teachers, and those teachers often have poor English themselves. I’ll be the first native-speaker English teacher the M1s (12-13 y.o.) have had. Some of my twelve year olds can’t write their first names in English and even my oldest students have vocabularies limited mostly to nouns involving sports, animals, food, and the movies Frozen and Fast 7.




ESL teaching in rural Thailand - XploreAsia blog

The smaller classroom

Thais have a deep-seated cultural aversion to the idea of ‘losing face,’ and this makes things harder for them and me.  Unless there is candy involved, Thai kids hate to answer a question they aren’t absolutely sure about in front of the class.  I’m learning to fight through this with a lot of games, group-work, praise, and goofiness. For instance, if you can demonstrate that your students can answer a question in groups of three students, that they’ll have some time to prepare their answer in their group, and that the class will applaud when they’re done, you might have some volunteers.  If you just ask for raised hands, you’re dreamin.’  Buuuuut since the students have such limited English, demonstrating this to them becomes rather difficult.  A vicious cycle.


Another feature of the Thai educational system is that I can’t fail any of my students.  I know it and they know it.  This is rarely a problem, but in every class there are a few students who make it plain that they have no interest in learning English or doing much work.  In an American school, I could make it clear that they will fail and be held back if they don’t put in a bare minimum of effort, but in Thailand this an empty threat.  I have no little recourse if a student doesn’t want to do an assignment or participate other than making the assignments and activities as engaging as possible.  A lot of the Thai teachers simply don’t teach to these kids and leave them to their own devices in the back of the class, and sometimes I do the same so that the rest of the students can keep progressing.  However, when we have time the solution seems to be games, games, and games.  If you can bring out the competitive spirit long enough for the kids in the back to nail ten or twelve words of vocabulary, that’s a win.


Muay Thai


ESL teaching in rural Thailand - XploreAsia blog

Bicha and his son Bat working on combos. Note the set of dumbbells made of two paint cans filled with cement and an iron rod.

In the second week at school, the janitor/handyman introduced himself and asked me if I like boxing. I’ve never been terribly intrigued by boxing, but I wanted to make friends so I said yes.  WIth no other explanation, he told me to meet him after school and drove me to the neighboring town about twenty minutes away. It turned out that his friend Bicha runs a Muay Thai boxing ‘gym’ out of his front yard as a side-gig. This guy is pure rural Thailand: he smokes like a chimney, doesn’t speak a lick of English, and makes dirty jokes about you in Thai when he doesn’t think you’re hitting hard enough.  He has two sons, (I think 16 and 17, definitely still in high school), who are both absolute lunatics with a pair of boxing gloves, and Bicha himself was a good fighter in his own right back in whatever decade was his heyday (he could be anywhere from 35-60).

 Video of Bat’s kicks. Watch with sound

Muay Thai (thai-style martial art in which kicking, punching, elbows, knees, and wrestling are all allowed) has grown on me and I’ve been going every day after school for the past three weeks.  Since no one speaks much English to give me instructions, I fall in behind Bicha’s sons and do what they do. The routine is generally a half hour running session (which is the most brutal part since it’s usually 90+ in the sun), followed by stretching, shadow-boxing, and hitting the punching bags.  Then we go into the ring one at a time with Bicha and work through combinations with pads, followed by some sort of conditioning drill on the punching bags.  The session always ends with the two boys doing ungodly amounts of situps, laughing at me as I try, sweatily, desperately clinging to my last shreds of dignity, to keep up.


Interesting Tidbits


  • ESL teaching in rural Thailand - XploreAsia blog

    Meeting the local 5:0

    We showed up to school one Wednesday and were told that we wouldn’t have classes in the afternoon.  Then, a little before lunchtime, we were updated that the reason we were excused from classes was that we were going to be teaching the local police force.  The end of the lesson was a question and answer section in which the other English teacher and I were speaking on behalf of Western civilization.  Most of the questions were things like “do westerners feel uncomfortable when we call them farang?” and “why is it bad to ask a woman how old she is?” The highlight was “if I meet a French person, will they expect me to kiss them on both cheeks?”

  • Thai is a tonal language, so there are lots of words with the same sounds and different tones that all sound identical to me.  The word bpaed can mean ‘eight,’ ‘duck,’ or ‘spicy’ depending on the tone you use, which can get very confusing at restaurants when the waiter keeps insisting that they don’t have duck even though you’re just trying to ask if one of their dishes is spicy.
  • There are four questions I always get asked, almost always in this order with widely varying levels of very creative Thanglish:
    • “Where are you from?”
    • “What are you doing in Isaan?”
    • “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?” (Cue shock and awe noises)
    • “Have you eaten rice yet?” (This is akin to asking someone how they are doing, but it translates to “have you eaten rice yet.” I’m still not sure whether people are asking me how I’m doing or whether I’m hungry in different situations).
  • I bought a scooter for 3,000 baht (a little under $90).  The school janitor helped me pick it out, so I was pretty convinced I had gotten away with a steal when I got it home from the shop without any problems.  Of course the next time I tried to ride it, the kick-start snapped right off and had to be welded back on, the exhaust pipe had something stuck in it, and the headlight wasn’t working.  But four hours and $3.50 to the mechanic later and she runs like a dream.
  • ESL teaching in rural Thailand - XploreAsia blog

    Just a man, his switch, and the respect of everyone within a hundred foot radius

    I wish I had a better picture to do this guy justice. This man is the head disciplinarian/PE teacher at Muang Khong High.  All the young teachers love him and call him ‘papa.’ At any school gathering he can be seen walking around with his bamboo switch, a smile on his face and a whistle in his mouth.  I’ve never seen him actually use the switch, but no teacher commands more respect/fear than he does among the students.  Every morning the students gather to sing the national anthem and do announcements  You can always tell where papa is because the students around him are singing louder than anyone else. In another life, he would have been great as a beneficent dictator maintaining an iron grip over a small, resource-rich nation-state.  For now he just whistles at kids for being late and talking during announcements.

  • About three weeks into my stay here, I started getting these little bug bite-looking itchy red spots on my shoulders and arms.  WebMD had me convinced they were bedbugs, one of the Thai teachers told me I was allergic to the papaya salad we had had earlier in the week, and the doctor at the hospital assured my that he didn’t know so he just gave me some antihistamines.  A few days later I went to a clinic with a different doctor and he told me I was just having a reaction to the extreme heat.  Turns out I’m literally allergic to this place.
  • Thai first names are a mouthful (Nathawat, Panintorn, Durmklang), so everyone has a nice short nickname to make things easy.  For an English-speaker, these get pretty funny.  There are a lot of Nats, Kats, Oms, etc.  My favorites so far (I wish I had pictures) are Boss, a tiny, over-enthusiastic 12 year old with a penchant for asking for high-fives at very inconvenient times and a borderline obese, round-faced, jolly 14 year-old named Turbo.  The English program director’s deputy is named Manoon Moonboom, which is also pretty cool.
  • ESL teaching in rural Thailand - XploreAsia blog

    Here, I’ve been asked to give a lesson on impromptu lesson on “the importance of punctuality” for a morning homeroom. The Thai teacher does not look pleased with my work.

    Most of the time, it’s sort of shocking that Thailand has a functioning education system.  Everything changes at a moment’s notice, no one ever seems to know the full story, things are at least ten minutes late, and no one stops to think “maybe if we tweaked a few things, this could go a lot smoother.” In this sort of environment, no two days at school are ever the same.  We’re often asked to teach some special class or help out with another teacher’s lesson at a moment’s notice. Getting comfortable with freestyling lessons as you go is probably the single most important skill I’ve picked up here.





That’s all I have for now.  Thanks for reading this far down!  Next time: in which Nick joins a small-time Muay Thai entourage.


Sabai Sabai,



ESL teaching in thailand XploreAsia BlogNick graduated our Chiang Mai TESOL course in April 2015. Nick is a Colorado native and a somewhat recent graduate of Colby College. He got a little too comfortable living in DC and figured taking his talents to a different hemisphere was a good way to fix that. He likes mountains, rugby, anything with taro in it, students who prefer fistbumps to high fives, and chicken-on-a-stick. He will never understand Austin’s obsession with toasties, despite his best efforts. He’s a big fan of Thailand, the Thais, and being a teacher here and he totally thinks you should give it a shot.


Interested in writing for the XploreAsia blog? Contact jon@xploreasia.org for more details.

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