Unexpected Lessons From Teaching In Thailand

by Eric Vukicevich

I recently marked the end of the academic year at our secondary school in central Thailand. As eighth period came to a close and my 45 matthayom 2/5 students rose in unison to say their last “Thank you, Teeecher,” I was surprised to feel a knot forming in my chest. Had my week ended with one of the more difficult classes, the feeling would have been elation to have completed the term. But this group of 13- and 14-year olds always helped me end the week on a high note, and did not ever disappoint, even after taking a final.

Local students in Thailand.

Some of Eric Vukicevich’s students in Thailand. Photo by Eric Vukicevich

What was setting in then was the fact that, in spite of all the challenges — the language barrier living here, the heat, the rampant cheating in school, the large class sizes, the seemingly random and endless class cancellations without informing me...

I had learned far more by teaching abroad in Thailand than I had expected.

The decision to teach abroad in Thailand was an easy one for me to make about a year before. I had a great job working for a dynamic agricultural management company, but I was getting burned out at age 25 and needed to try something completely different. I really enjoyed training new employees, speaking in both English and Spanish, and realized what I was doing was … teaching. Growing up with both parents as educators, I tended to think I would never be a teacher. I had nothing against the profession; it just seemed like I was learning all this stuff to prepare me to do something else.

When my girlfriend graduated from college two years after me, we decided this would be a great opportunity to see the world together and to find out what it would be like to be a teacher. I speak pretty good Spanish … so we decided to teach abroad in Thailand. Huh?

Beginning the Process

We researched how to get a job teaching English in Thailand, and it turned out to be easier than expected. There are a host of organizations that are able to find a school in need of teachers, arrange for a work visa, etc. We chose one recommended by a friend of a friend. Arriving in Bangkok was a shock, to say the least. The reality of the endeavor never really sunk in with me, though I’d been telling friends and family about it for months.

Bangkok, or Krung Thep — the “City of Angels” — shares an air quality issue with another City of Angels — Los Angeles — and I couldn’t help but guffaw out the bus window at the vastness of the yellow, hazy buildings scattered all around. We had little idea of the town in which we were going to work, as there wasn’t much information on it online. But we did get to choose “urban” or “rural,” and we checked the latter box without hesitation. I was hoping for a quiet, primitive little village where we would get to know everybody, play soccer, eat mangos, and get all the kids debating philosophy by the end of the term.

Graduation day at a Thai school

Graduation day at the Thai school where the author taught. Photo by Eric Vukicevich

It turned out our rural setting was a provincial capital of about 80,000 residents. We worked at one of four huge secondary schools; there was a lot of traffic, and it was very modern (as is most of Thailand). There were more than a dozen 7-11s, a Robinson’s, and a Tesco Lotus, two big nationwide department stores. On our first day of school, we realized that the teaching would be a little different than expected: my work load was 17 classes of 45-50 students, each class meeting once a week. We also had expected the students and teachers to be much more proficient in English — after all, our conversion class had an English curriculum, and an everyday English class with a local teacher. Surprise! We were about to climb a very steep learning curve.

Settling In

The first few weeks I spent designing and redesigning lessons to make them simpler; slowing down my speaking pace and simplifying my speech; and trying different techniques to maintain control and keep a tolerable noise level in the classroom. I soon realized all the handouts and lesson plan ideas I’d gotten during my ESL teacher training — and even most of the games that were supposed to be good for beginning English learners — would be totally useless here. So I began to make my own.

At first I was way too ambitious with my “California pair work handout,” where one student had to describe to the other where each city was, using geography words like mountain, valley, coast, and river. The activity digressed when, even after repetition and active learning, they were still struggling with north, south, east, and west. I got better and better at making lessons and designing games and activities to get them speaking and learning words that I thought could be of practical use to them.

Little by little I started to learn their names, but with 750 students, it was a daunting task. The students whose names I learned right away were either those who spoke up often, or those who were troublesome. I found that getting to know them made a huge difference in my ability to teach them. In that simple student-teacher bond that develops with the recognition of real learning, and ideas sparking in the student’s mind, that unmistakable “light bulb” switching on in their eyes — there is powerful encouragement.

I will mostly recall two boys who always sat next to each other, in or near the back of the classroom, wearing matching yellow watches. They were called Mai and Big (Thais usually go by their nicknames). For the first half of the semester, they did not want to give me the time of day, and their only efforts were in distracting other students. But, as my teaching style began to improve, so did their attention spans. I was amazed.

With each class, I would keep an eye on them; I figured if I was getting through to Mai and Big, I was getting through to everyone. They became my barometer and my most improved students. Each time I would see them nod in understanding of a new word or struggle to construct a good sentence, then succeed, it encouraged me to become a better teacher, too. By the end of the term, they were sitting in the middle of the class, participating in all the activities, laughing at my slapstick humor, and coming to my office to make up assignments from earlier.

What Teaching in Thailand Taught Me

Here comes the curve ball (this is Thailand, after all). I was thinking that maybe I could be a teacher, though I knew logically that teaching abroad in Thailand would be quite different from teaching back in the U.S. As I was researching environmental issues for a lesson with my advanced class one day, I came across an article on integrated land management. It reminded me of a long and intense (if slightly inebriated) discussion about agriculture I had with an older local man one night while traveling in Peru. Ever since then, I’d been thinking about how to make a positive difference in our food system. It occurred to me that although teaching in Thailand was an extremely valuable experience for both personal and professional reasons, teaching English really isn’t my calling. But what I can do is teach the subjects that genuinely interest and motivate me.

Now, I am planning to pursue a master’s degree and do research aimed at improving the sustainability of our food sources on a holistic level. Then, maybe I can pass on what I’ve learned in a classroom somewhere, because what I’m sure of is the importance of quality education.

So thanks to taking a chance, and getting out to see the real world, and doing my best to engage with it — I now am energized and excited about what I can do with my life.

I’m not sure if I would have arrived at this decision without that hot and sticky Thai classroom, without the disorganization, or without Mai and Big and all the other kids who motivated me and drove me crazy. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.