Teaching in ThailandChiara Burns
XploreAsia has a vast alumni network. We are a family, and we work together to support and guide new teachers, and veteran teachers alike. Chiara Burns joined us last year in Chiang Mai, and continues to teach in Thailand to this day. We reached out to her as we wanted her perspective on her experience, and her recommendations for those interested in teaching overseas.
How did XA prepare you for your teaching experience?
When I arrived in Thailand, I already had a TESOL certificate but as I lacked real classroom experience, I didn’t have confidence in my teaching abilities. So, I enrolled in XploreAsia’s course. It was the right decision.
The bulk of the course focuses on how to teach English without using the native language of the speakers. This might sound counterintuitive, but as you discover in the course (and through your own efforts at learning Thai), immersion is an effective way to develop language skills.
XploreAsia transcended my expectations. In the October 2016 Chiang Mai course, we had some wonderful instructors. Teacher Justin was a particular inspiration because his authenticity, humor, and sense of duty gave us teachers-in-training something to model off of and aspire to. That’s something you can’t get from an online course. In-person teaching demos also give you the opportunity to work through kinks like pacing, presence, and in my case, public-speaking abilities. By the time we headed to our English Camp, a kind of volunteer capstone, we felt confident and prepared.
The instructors also did an excellent job of educating us on Thai culture, with its many nuances and idiosyncrasies. While learning how to teach was important, I found the cultural aspect particularly edifying; the lessons in Thai language, history, politics, and social norms better prepared us for transitioning into a country very different from our own.
After the course, we were given resources on dealing with culture shock and XA instructors were careful to follow up with each individual in the following months. It’s a wonderful network to have. I spent some time in a hospital over the summer break, and was immensely grateful for the support and kindness I received from the staff at XploreAsia. Not only do they prepare you for the teaching experience, but after the course you’ll be able to reach out to seasoned professionals for support and advice.
What did you enjoy most about a month with XA?
Beyond the classroom, XA organized many excursions in and around Chiang Mai. Additionally, there was ample time to explore and hone travel skills: learning how to flag down songteows, barter in a night market, communicate with locals, plan and book daytrips, and pick the best street food. If this is your first time living abroad, that’s invaluable.
While you may not apply all of the teaching strategies learned in the course (differences in curriculum, time constraints, and student ability may necessitate changes in your approach) spending a month in Chiang Mai or Hua Hin enables you to practice navigating a culture with the added benefit of a safety net–and cool people with whom to adventure. That was the most enjoyable and significant upshot from my month with XA.
What is the best part about teaching?
Connecting with students. It can be a demanding job, but even my worst days tend to be redeemed by an exchange with a student–whether in the form of a smile, a short conversation, or a shout of “TEACHER BEAUTIFUL” from the third-story of a nearby building.
Working in a Thai school system can be exasperating at times. Things aren’t done the way they are in the West in that the whole of Thailand is thirty minutes late to everything and no one is particularly concerned about that except, perhaps, us falang.
I remember once I assigned my higher-level classes a video project in place of a midterm. Two weeks later, when it was due, I found that not a single student had done the work and our “movie day” was a flop. In one of my least graceful moments as a teacher, I taped their vocabulary to the board, walked out wordlessly, and sobbed in a bathroom for the better part of an hour (it had been a stressful week between testing and illness). The self- talk that ensued was something along the lines of: They don’t care about the material, I’m a failure of a teacher, why am I even here, I’m wasting their time and mine…
Only to discover that they needed an additional week to complete the work. In fact, they were baffled and upset that they had distressed their not-so-sabai foreign teacher and when I arrived at my desk I found a gift and handwritten apology from the class. It was unexpected and touching.
It’s cliche at this point, but no less true. Your students teach you more than you’ll ever teach them. I think my kids have taught me patience and deepened my sense of compassion/understanding. And that’s one of my favorite parts about the job; the way it asks you to grow. If you’re open to learning from and cooperating with worldviews different from your own, I believe you’ll find yourself a better human being for it.
I’ve found that in making an effort to truly connect with my students, my experience in Thailand has been infinitely more rewarding than it otherwise would be. My kids to be clever, warm, and funny:
Teacher C: “The hair above her eye is an…”
Teacher C: The hair above his lip is…”
Student: “A nosebrow!”
They love to joke. And make music. And play games. Teaching is not without its frustrations, but ultimately it’s been a joyful and eye-opening experience.
What advice would you give to someone considering joining the XA program?
First, keep your expectations to a minimum. The fewer preconceptions you have about your placement, the people and the country, the more delighted you will be. If you’re embarking on this journey for the right reasons, you’ll find a way to make the most of the experience regardless of what it is. Liberate yourself from expectation, embrace possibility, and you will find yourself far more fulfilled.
On that same note of fulfillment, I think it’s important to recognize that while this is a wonderful opportunity to travel and explore, it’s ultimately not about you. From what I observed, many of those who were disappointed in their time teaching abroad spent more time negotiating days off from work than engaging with it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take advantage of every holiday and opportunity that comes your way; just not at the expense of your students.
No matter your reasons for teaching abroad, the best advice I can give is to prioritize your students. I came to Thailand looking for inspiration, and I found it in them. Teaching abroad is an unconventional spin on the 9-5 (or 8-4 in my case) and allows me to discover and sculpt my worldview, connect with people from a foreign country, and hone my crafts. This could be done through travel alone, but teaching offers something deeper. It’s an immersive experience and there is a sense of service that comes with it…knowing you’ve had an impact on someone’s education is truly fulfilling. That is the memory, the feeling, and the sense of meaning you’ll carry with you long after you’ve left.