March 2018 I returned to International TEFL Academy (Chicago Campus) after living abroad to share my experience teaching in Thailand with the newest graduates of the certification program.
It’s nearing the end of my time in Thailand so we are finishing up exams in class and I’m beginning to pack up some of my belongings. I’m also beginning to reflect on the emotional rollercoaster this experience has been.
These last 6 months have been some of the most challenging of my entire life. I’ve been living in a small town where most people speak very little English. This can sometimes turn simple conversations into big, overwhelming interactions. Every act of communication takes more effort, which at first is exhausting but gets easier over time. I was able to understand people better after about a few weeks of getting used to hearing the accent. I also learned which words to use that people will understand, when to just point at things and at times have resorted to Google Translate when necessary.
This being said, I truly believe that Thai people are some of the nicest people on Earth. I have had so many touching experiences where a stranger went out of their way to help me. While having these experiences I’ve been very appreciative and blown away because it’s just not something that could be expected in the U.S. (not that people don’t sometimes show random kindness at home, but the point is this isn’t random, it’s just a natural, usual way of life here). Once while traveling on an island, I fell into this huge hole in a sewer grate. My whole calf went down this grate and the only thing that stopped me from falling further in was my knee. It sounds dramatic and it was scary but I wasn’t too badly injured. However, my knee was bleeding and I wasn’t quite prepared to take care of it. A Thai couple that owned a shop across the street came up to me and gave me tissues and the woman actually applied ointment herself to my wound. I was incredibly grateful that they went out of their way to show me kindness when I needed help. Another example is when my friend and I were on our way home and her motorbike ran out of gas (for the record this wasn’t negligence, the gas gauge is unreliable). We attempted to ask a group of Thai people who owned a food stand where we could go to fill up her bike and they told us to wait. We were a little confused until we saw a man drive off and shortly later arrive back with gas for us. While we did thank him and pay him, I was again astounded by the selflessness of people who don’t even speak the same language.
The only transportation available is driving a motorbike or taking motorbike taxis or tuk tuks around which are not very cost effective. However, I’ve been forced to rely on these methods a lot since I only drove a motorbike a few times here. It wasn’t something I ever got comfortable with since not only do they drive on the opposite side of the street as at home but there also aren’t really any “rules of the road” and it can be pretty unclear at times who has the right of way. I decided I would rather spend a little bit more money to make sure I get home in one piece.
It’s pretty impossible to keep work and personal life separate, which is something I appreciate a lot at home. I’ve had to learn to be friends with the same people I work with everyday and most of who live in the same apartment complex as me. It’s been an extremely different lifestyle just in that alone from living in Chicago where English is widely spoken and your friends sometimes live in whole different neighborhoods, not to mention the difference in population size.
This has been a positive experience in that I’ve had to really put myself out there to form connections with people I don’t immediately have a ton in common with so I’ve had to get out of my comfort zone not only in living in Thailand but also in making friends. It’s also been a negative experience at times because it feels so alienating to be in a country alone with people you don’t really relate to on a deeper level most of the time. I have questioned everything about my own judgment and myself more in this time than ever in my life. At times I could feel completely confident in everything I’m doing and at other times I could feel utterly torn down and like giving up. This experience has taught me a lot about myself, that’s for sure.
Speaking of health, I have struggled a lot with my physical health as well as mental health. I have been sick more than half my time here even when taking as many preventative measures as possible. This also affected my mental health because feeling lethargic and sickly doesn’t exactly promote optimism in general. Some of the sinus issues I believe has to do with the air quality as well as the different weather and changes in weather. Some days it is extremely hot and the next day it is cooler, rainy and extremely humid. Another aspect of this was my change in diet, which was pretty unavoidable. Although I did manage to continue to be a pescetarian, many food places are not regulated up to the same health standards as in the U.S. In general, there is a lot more MSG used in a lot of the food and a lot of sugar is added to pretty much any kind of cold beverage except water.
Finally, the biggest challenge here was unsurprisingly the job itself. I had a little experience teaching English as a foreign language but only to different proficiency level adults. I have never taught children and don’t have kids in my family. I only remember ever holding one baby in my life and that is the son of one of my best friends. (Hi Grieta if you’re reading this!) Even having a conversation with one kid at a time is not something that ever came naturally to me and then I had 33 students in class at once. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I had to learn what level they were at, what I’m supposed to teach them and how to get them to improve. Now at the end of this semester I’ve never felt like I’ve understood kids better. I’ve learned how to make them laugh, how to cheer them up when they cry, and how to get and hold their attention. They’ve taught me more than I will probably ever realize but one of the most important things they taught me is how to truly be a kid again (or at least feel like one). They’ve taught me how simple happiness can be and how fleeting every moment is. They’ve brought me so much joy throughout all the stress and times I wasn’t feeling my best. They love unconditionally and show it so simply. I hope to be more like them in certain aspects of my life and remember not to take life so seriously all the time. (I definitely cried my eyes out saying goodbye to these beautiful, happy souls a few days ago).
I don’t know if being a kindergarten teacher is my life calling. In fact this could possibly be the only time I ever do it. But I can say it has definitely been one of my favorite jobs so far.
Although 6 months may seem like a short time to some people, that is how long I planned to stay from the beginning and it’s fairly unique in that it’s somewhat rare (although definitely possible) to find contracts with a teaching agency abroad for less than one year. It’s a good way to try it out without making a huge commitment. Tourist visas in Thailand last only 30 days although it is possible to get them extended to a maximum of 90 days. I think it’s pretty cool that I got to stay double the time someone just traveling would be able to spend in Thailand.
I’m really happy with the experience I’ve had, with the changes I’ve made in my life and with the person I’ve become. I’ve really grown up a lot here because I’ve had to. I’ve met some incredible people who I will never forget and have learned so much about the world and myself. I am grateful to my parents and everyone else who supported me and feel blessed that I was able to go pursue one of my dreams overseas at 24.
Now I just have to get through the reverse culture shock of returning to the life that I knew in the U.S. but constant change = life and I feel pretty much ready for anything these days!
This post is just an update about some of the topics I’ve been covering with my students and some of the activities I’ve really enjoyed. Last Friday we made Mother’s Day cards since Mother’s Day in Thailand is August 12.
We’ve covered one letter a week so this week we are on Letter N. I’ve begun adding their names to the phonics for that letter so every student whose name begins with N will be sounded out, written out and repeated by the class. They all laugh when this happens but they seem to enjoy the lesson more.
Some of the recent topics I’ve covered have included colors and shapes, five senses, my home, safety first, healthy food, fruits and vegetables, Thai/western culture, Mother’s Day and this week is seasons.
For the topic of “Seasons,” I had to ask what exactly they meant by that because in the U.S. specifically Midwest, we have four seasons (summer, spring, fall, winter) but here in Thailand they really only have two (wet and hot). It is currently the wet season. Sometimes that can mean cooler temperatures during a storm but most days I’ve been here it has still been extremely hot temperatures. Similar to the week of Thai/Western culture, they wanted me to do a little bit of both. The main vocab words are “season,” “winter,” “spring,” “rains,” and “summer.”
The last few topics of the semester I will be covering in the rest of my time here will include trees, flowers, “butterfly,” weather, “enjoy with numbers” and finally “project.”
I’ve also still been teaching my non- English program classes as well. I see two classes each once a week focusing specifically on speaking and listening (they call it “English for Communication”). Since I only see them once a week for one hour, it is difficult for them to remember what we learned so it’s a lot of repeating and reviewing.
A usual class session with these students starts with me having an individual conversation with each student where their classmates listen until it’s their turn. Then I will attempt to have two students stand up and talk to each other although this usually includes a lot of help from both their Thai teacher and myself.
Example of what point we’ve reached thus far:
Me: Hello (waving)
Student: Hello (waving)
Me: How are you?
Student: I am happy/good/okay.
Me: What is your name?
Student: My name is _________.
Me: Nice to meet you.
Student: Nice to meet you.
Me: Goodbye. (waving)
Student: Goodbye/bye-bye. (waving)
Next week I am going to introduce them to handshakes during the “nice to meet you” section and intro the response of “nice to meet you too.” I take very small steps with them since these few classes they’ve had with me are their first ever English classes whereas my homeroom class have been in the English program for one year already and I know a few of them have tutors outside of school to help them with their English and a few also attend a Saturday school program at the school here.
I also always play songs and videos for these non EP program classes since they don’t have internet or a video projector in their classrooms and I like to make it as fun as possible for them.
This weekend was a long weekend due to Mother’s Day, which in Thailand is on August 12. On Friday we made Mother’s Day cards at school and then Friday evening I embarked on a trip to Ko Chang. It’s a longer journey than I’ve taken by van previously so I split up the trip by staying overnight one night in Chantaburi and then continuing to the Trat ferry pier in the morning. The ferry goes from Trat to the island of Ko Chang. Then a taxi truck took me to Chang Park Resort, which I had booked through booking.com. (Use this referral link for $25 off- https://www.booking.com/s/34_6/cnc93081 )
Ko Chang was larger and less touristy than Ko Samet. However, perhaps due to the holiday or it being an off-season, a lot of shops and restaurants were closed down. That being said, there were still many worthwhile places open and within walking distance.
Since I’ve been here around 5 months now, I’ve finally started to become a little bored with Thai food so I indulged in greek salad and pasta to change it up a bit. The cacio de pepe I ordered at an Italian place was TO DIE FOR. It was honestly better than what I had in Rome and it’s a traditional Roman dish. The owner is from Milan and decorated his cozy little restaurant with antique and vintage items for an old-fashioned décor.
The resort was almost deserted with the exception of a few families. I expected it to be pretty crowded so it was a nice surprise that it was fairly secluded. There were always beach and pool chairs available even during the beautiful sunset. The pool bar wasn’t overpriced either. 120 baht for a cocktail is a great price especially considering you’re right on the beach.
The resort also had a lot of pets including 4 black cats some of which would always follow you up the stairs and were very friendly. The dogs were friendly as well but kept more to themselves than the cats. My personal rule in Thailand is to only pet animals with a collar and even then approach quite slowly so as to not startle them. There are a lot of strays everywhere since they don’t neuter them here.
I have been very fortunate with the amount of paid holidays this semester since we had another 3 day weekend July 28-30. This time I visited a small island that took about 5 hours to get to by van and ferry. Ko Samet is a very small island that can be either very expensive or fairly affordable depending how you travel. For example, the ferry took about 20 minutes and had a pretty view but they also offered a speedboat option, which cost double the price of the ferry. They had a 20 baht entry fee for everyone just to enter the pier (but 20 baht is less than $1 USD so it’s not a big deal).
It was extremely crowded since it was a holiday weekend so I definitely saved a lot of money by booking a place to stay ahead of time. The hostel I stayed at was called Samed Thanee. They were the cheapest option I could find with wifi and AC included. It was very nice and clean but on the opposite side of the island from the good beaches, however you can drive there on a rental scooter easily in 10 minutes or less. The plus side of this location was that it was very quiet at night since it was pretty far away from all the touristy bars and party hostels.
There were also lots of food choices for about 150 baht on average but I managed to find meals for 60 baht since this was the end of the month and I had a very low budget. I also went to the beach early enough in the day that I didn’t have to pay the 200 baht they normally charge foreigners since the good beaches are located inside a national park.
The first beach I went to was called Ao Prao and it was fairly empty which was surprising considering that there are resorts located directly on the road on this beach. There were tree swings, which were fun to relax in the shade on especially since it was an extremely hot and sunny day. There was some trash which is a problem with a lot of the beaches I’ve visited around this area of Thailand but they at least have workers picking it up and have signs put up that ask tourists not to litter.
I stopped at one more beach that was next to Ao Prao (not sure of the name of this one) but this beach had very soft, white sand so it was very beautiful as long as you kept your eyes open for broken glass around the entrance. Overall, it was definitely an enjoyable weekend getaway with gorgeous views!
Our school had a 3-day weekend from July 8-10 due to the Buddhist holiday, Asalha Puja. It celebrates the Buddha delivering his first sermon. I decided to use this time to do a little traveling. I chose Bang Sean, a part of Chonburi, since it is only about an hour away from here and would be a lot less costly than some other destinations. It also has a beach, which was pretty much all I was looking for to relax near this weekend.
I soon found out this is not a very touristy area. I had to rely on the very little Thai that I knew at most restaurants and at the hostel but some of the servers at restaurants and bars did know a little English. It felt like a very Thai town but offered some different activities than Chachoengsao. It was perfect for me as a pescetarian because Bang Sean has a huge seafood market and the seafood is extremely fresh everywhere. They were even selling giant crabs and squid right along the beach.
The beach was nice enough but wasn’t as clear water as some of the places I’ve seen before in Thailand. The beach was also very narrow and crowded but it had a cool vibe with lots of groups of Thai people having picnics and lots of families relaxing and enjoying the holiday. Because of the holiday the whole weekend most bars were closed and 7/11’s were not selling alcohol. Of course, if there’s a will, there’s a way definitely applies here as people will discreetly sell beer on the street and we did manage to find one bar that was part of a hostel that was open.
I also visited the Burapha University aquarium at the Institute of Marine Science and received a discount since I finally completed my paperwork and now have a Thai work permit so that was a nice plus and saw some beautiful fish.
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