THE SEASONALS PRIMER TO:
BY AUSTIN BENTZ
The Land of 1000 Smiles
hese were all descriptions of Thailand I heard before moving here to become an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.After being here for the past two-plus years, not only can I confirm that
these are all true, but the real rewards of this experience aren’t actually found on white sand beaches or rooftop sky bars. While you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy those things, this is first and foremost a cultural adventure.
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If what you’re looking for is the ability to grow as an individual, to learn about yourself, and to have a period of your life that you’ll never forget, please keep on reading. If what you want is a sweet tan and a fleeting increase in Instagram-likes, go book a hostel in Phuket and enjoy your two weeks.
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In this edition of The Seasonals Primer, I’ll lay out a step-by-step process of exactly how to start your ESL teaching career in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
STEP 1: GET CERTIFIED
he days of rocking up with your passport and a smile and being handed a job are over. You’re going to need to get some sort of teaching certification. The most popular and common options are to
complete either a TEFL or TESOL course (‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’ vs. ‘Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages’). They’re essentially the same thing, though TEFL focuses more heavily on grammar. Schools don’t typically have a preference between the two, they just want to see that you’ve put in the time and are committed to being a good teacher.
There are two ways to go about taking this course: In-class or online. To be honest, doing it online will be both cheaper and easier (Premier TEFL and Uni Prep Institute are two online options; ~$200-250 USD). However, if you want to feel like you actually know what the fuck you’re doing on your first day, do yourself a favor and find an in-class course (International TEFL and TESOL Training (ITTT) offers courses throughout the U.S., U.K., and Canada; ~$1,500 USD).
Courses typically last 4 weeks (120 hours) and you’ll be able to learn how to teach and practice with a group of classmates. Your instructor, who will likely have a wealth of real-world experience, will give you feedback on what to do differently and general tips on how to suck less.
If you really want to do it right, find an in-class course that's actually taught in Thailand (XploreAsia offers courses in both Chiang Mai and Hua Hin; ~$1,000 USD). This will give you a month of living here to adapt to the food, culture, language, etc. Plus, you’ll probably be in a class of a bunch of cool, like-minded, attractive people. By the end, not only will you be prepared to teach, you’ll have a bunch of friends to meet up with and/or fornicate with over the holidays.
When it comes to costs, as with everything in life, the better alternative is more expensive. You’ll have to pay to enroll in the course and then have enough money to sustain yourself for two months. One month to cover all expenses during your course and then enough to pay for the first month of living expenses in your new town. Your first paycheck will come at the end of the first month of teaching.
An online course will be significantly cheaper, but there isn’t a “best” online institution that is universally accepted and respected. While some schools will accept online certifications, most of them strongly prefer someone who took an in-class course. The one exception to this applies to you folks with a teaching degree or a degree in English. Schools dig that shit. Still, an in-class course will be hugely beneficial once you actually start teaching. Those courses are geared towards practical success in an ESL classroom, not just a bunch of theories that you “read” about as you got your degree.
But Austin, I don’t have a degree!
Well fear not, my friend, these past 700 words have not been a waste. There is an extremely large population of teachers here that are working in schools and doing so without a degree. Now, technically, if you asked someone at Thai labor department, they will tell you that all English teachers in Thailand must have at least a bachelor’s degree. However, the reality is that the demand for teachers in this country is significantly greater than the supply (I’ll explain why a little later). Therefore, since kids learning English is important in this day and age, a wink-and-a-nod scenario exists between the Ministry of Education and Thai Labor department. It may be a little corrupt, but that’s Thailand for you.
STEP 2: GET A VISA
ou should get a visa before your arrive. You may have friends, Khao San road veterans, who will tell you, “Don’t worry about it!” and that you can just get a free visa-on-arrival. They’re not wrong.
However, that VOA will only get you 30 days. There’s a bunch of different visas you can get, but we’re only going to talk about two in particular.
If you are one of my degree-less friends, you’re going to have to get a tourist visa. This will get you 60 days that you can then extend for another 30 at any local immigration office (90 days total; $40 USD). After that, you’ll have to briefly leave the country and do what’s called a “visa trip” and apply for a new visa in a neighboring country.
A quick note about tourist visas. On them, in big bold letters, it will say explicitly: EMPLOYMENT PROHIBITED. Remember that wink-and-a-nod scenario I mentioned? A large percentage of teachers in Thailand are working on tourist visas.
If you do have a degree, the holy-grail of visas to get, and the one you want is a one-year, multiple entry, Non-Immigrant B visa ($200 USD). Having this will allow you to eventually get a work permit through the school that hires you. I’m not going to get into the specifics of single vs. multi entry visas, but just get a multi and I promise it will make your life easier down the road.
If for whatever reason you can’t get that Non-B visa (the Thai embassy in the UK is notoriously fickle), get the same 60+30 day tourist visa as our non-degree friends. Your future school can then help you through the process of converting that to a Non-B and eventually into a work permit to make sure that you’re super legit.
Side note: If you’re American, apply for your Non-B through the Thai embassy in Portland. They dish out Non-Bs like condoms at a university health clinic.
STEP 3: GET YOUR ASS TO
hase three people. Profit is coming soon. First let's fly around the world. Buy your ticket into Suvarnabhumi airport in Bankok.
If you’re coming in on a tourist visa, buy a round-trip flexi-ticket so that you can adjust your departure date (~$700-$1,000 USD). It’ll look dodgy to airport immigration to say you’re a “tourist” that has no intention of leaving. They’ll think you’re either trying to work illegally or trying to wife up one of their women (Yes, you may be doing the former, but they needn’t worry about that. And maybe eventually you’ll do the latter too. One step at a time though).
20-30 hours later, you did it. You probably had a connecting flight in China, Japan, or Dubai and you’ve officially touched down in muggy Bangkok. Now to get into town. You can either risk being swindled by a taxi or you can hop on the airport tram. If you choose this latter and cheaper option, take the airport link all the way to the main line of the BTS (aka the Skytrain, the easiest mode of public transport in Bangkok) and you’ll end up at the Phaya Thai station. (~$1.25 USD/฿45 THB). From there, take the Skytrain to the hostel that you booked before you left. There are endless hostels in Bangkok, but one I recommend is called HI Mid. It’s cheap, clean, and in prime location to go anywhere in Thailand (5 minute walk from the Victory Monument BTS stop; $11 USD/฿390 THB per night for bed in dorm room).
When should I go?
Since the school breaks finish in April and October, most schools re-open at the start of May and November. Arriving at the start of these months is ideal because most Thai schools probably waited until the last minute to hire new English teachers for the upcoming term. And you’re not going to be able to find a job too far in advance. Everything in Thailand happens at the last minute. If you’re going to do your TESOL/TEFL course in country, get here a month early (at the start of April or October) to allow time for that.
Is there anything specific I need to bring?
Sure is, Sally. Before you leave home, bring the original copy of your degree (if you have one), a sealed copy of your transcripts, a police background check, your resume, and record a short 30-60 second video of yourself and put it on YouTube (here's an example of the one I used). This video will help in step 4 and show any potential schools that you have a lovely smile and a clear accent. Looks are important here! Dress nice, speak slowly, highlight any experience you have, and tell them how excited you are to work for them. And did I mention smile a lot? Smiling freely and often will actually be pretty essential to your success in Thailand.
STEP 4: FIND A JOB
ow that you've arrived, thrown your bags down, and cleaned the travel-stink off of you, grab your laptop and let’s go job hunting. Like the teaching certification, there’s an easy way and a cheap way.
I’ll start with the cheap way.
Let’s say that you completed your TESOL training while you were back home. The easiest way to find a job is through a website called www.ajarn.com. Ajarn means teacher in Thai, so get used to hearing it. There will be listings all over the country, so peruse at your leisure and start sending out your resume. Once you’ve gotten this far, it’s like applying for any job back home. Be friendly, flexible, patient, and the school hiring you will tell you exactly what you need to do.
Remember how I said there’s an easy way? I mean like, really easy. Job placement service baby. Sign up, give them the documents I mentioned before, and they go out and do everything for you. If you take this route, the company placing you will hold your hand every step of the way. All you’ll have to do is say yes or no when they find you a job.
These companies will try to keep your preferences in mind when finding you a position. Be reasonable with these. To say, “I’m like, totally open minded to anything, just as long as it’s near a beach, teaching kindergarten, in a place that’s not too hot and has lots of other Westerners around,” is not a realistic request. If you get offered a position that meets one of the main preferences (urban vs. rural or younger vs. older students), smile and sign on the dotted line.
There are even companies that offer an all-inclusive service and will provide both your TESOL/TEFL course and job placement as a package deal. The company I mentioned earlier, XploreAsia, is a great one. This is the most expensive option (~$2,000 USD), but it really takes like 95% of the stress off of you. This will allow you to focus all of your energy on making new friends and trying your damnedest not to get diarrhea.
How much should I expect to make?
A few paragraphs back, I mentioned that the supply of native English teachers doesn’t meet the demand. It’s because of the salary. To be very honest, if you’re choosing to come to Thailand, making fat stacks shouldn’t be your main priority. Cultural adventure, remember? The average salary that you can expect to make is about $800-$1000 USD per month (~฿25,000-฿35,000 THB). Don’t worry, the cost of living is extraordinarily cheap and you’ll still be able to save a few hundred bucks a month, but this is the reason why the government has to ignore people working on tourist visas. There just aren’t enough college grads signing up to come teach here when they could do the same thing in a place like Japan or Korea and make a lot more money.
Where should I teach?
Every teaching gig in Thailand is going to differ drastically from the next. First off, Thailand is actually really big. It takes probably around 30 hours to get from the mountainous northern area of the country all the way down to the tropical southern region. Combine that with a population of 67 million and you end up with a massive number of schools and regions that all need English teachers. While some people are lucky enough to lock down a job in a place that you can find in your Lonely Planet book, those positions are not the majority.
When it comes down to it, your experience is going to be what you make of it. Your level of happiness isn’t going to directly correlate to the address on your mailbox. Your success will lie in the connections that you make and the experiences you have. I’ve had friends who taught in beach towns and hated it and I’ve had friends who taught in places I’ve never heard of and loved it.
What are most jobs like?
When it comes to actual classroom time, most teachers on average spend about 18-22 hours per week in a classroom. You’ll still have to be at school in your office from 7:30-3:30 everyday, but some days you might only teach 2, one-hour lessons.
Thai schools also love to cancel classes. It could be a citywide sports day, an impromptu parade, or school-wide scouts day (did your parents ever sign you up for an extracurricular boy-scout or girl-scout camps? These are mandatory programs for all Thai students). And as for all of these schedule changes, you likely won’t find out about them until arriving at school that day. Smile and go with the flow.
As for what age group you’ll teach, schools will typically hire you for one of three levels. The first is kindergarten, or Anuban as it will probably be listed on Ajarn.com. These little nuggets are adorable, are between 3-6 years-old, and you’ll probably spend a lot of time with each individual class.
Level two and three are primary and secondary school, respectively. Primary is called Prattom and secondary is called Mattayom. Prattom students range from 6-12 years-old and Mattayom students are anywhere from 12 to 18. With these grades, you’ll probably only see each of your classes once or twice a week.
As for contracts, they’re a funny thing in Thailand. Schools do them because they know that’s how we do things back home. Typically though, most schools will just ask you to commit to either one or two terms, with each term lasting about 4-5 months. Beyond that, think of a Thai school contract like an NFL contract. The school can terminate it at any time and you can give a month notice and opt out at any time.
Does my age matter?
Kind of. Schools ideally want to hire teachers between the ages of 18 and 50. Thailand is full of exceptions, though.
Man this all sounds pretty intense, will I still be able to travel?
Of course, my horse! I’m not naive enough to think that traveling southeastern Asia isn’t at least part of your motivation for wanting to do this. While teaching will be a full time job, Thais love their breaks and want to chill just as much as we do.
There are countless public holidays and the majority of schools are going to be closed for all of March, April, and October. Remember when you were a student and summer was one 3-month long stint? Thailand breaks it up. Which is pretty great because you never have to go longer than 4-5 months without getting an extended break.
It’s during these months that you’ll be able to explore and achieve that Instagram-fame that you’ve been so lusting after. Go rock climbing in Krabi. Sign up for a jungle trek in Chiang Mai. Recreate the Hangover movie with your buddies in Bangkok. Take a trip to any of the islands (Koh Lipe, Koh Chang, or Koh Lanta. Not Phuket). And, if you’re feeling extra bold, proceed with caution and check out one of the infamous ping-pong shows.
Alright, I’m stoked. But is it safe?
You and I are badasses that don’t worry about trivial things like “personal safety.” But your mom does.
Like everywhere in the world, if you’re an idiot, you’re going to get yourself in trouble. I’ve traveled through different places throughout Mexico and Europe and I’ve felt safer in Thailand than I have anywhere else. Use common sense and you’ll be fine. Don’t get too drunk, smile at locals, avoid confrontations, be extra vigilant in touristy places, and be careful crossing the street (seriously, this is probably the most dangerous part about Thailand). Otherwise, the common sense required here is the same as it is back home. Lock your doors, don’t cruise down dark alleyways by yourself at night, and never say anything bad about the King. Okay so that last one is a little Thailand-specific, but Google Lese-Majeste and you’ll see why.
Oh and don’t do drugs. They’re hella illegal here. There’s also a good amount of corruption that exists within the police department, so technically you can pay your way out of most things, but I still think your money is more wisely spent elsewhere.
STEP 5: PROFIT!
You’re not going to make a ton of money, the backs of your knees are going to sweat, and you’ll probably eat a bug at some point (intentional or not). Some of you will end up with “better” jobs than others, but regardless of the situation you end up in, the friends you make and the kids you teach will be the best part of your cultural experience.
So many of my friends back home, when I tell them what I’ve been up to, they all say the same thing: “Man, I wish I could do that.” Well, guess what? You can, and it’s actually really easy. Just deciding to do it is the hardest part. Approach this adventure with a positive and open mind and create your own destiny. If you do, you’re going to live well, eat well, and be well. Make it happen and I promise you won’t regret it.