Have you ever wondered what it would be like to teach English as a Second Language in a foreign country? We interviewed one of our returning volunteers about what his experience has been like teaching here in Thailand.
What is your professional background, does it include teaching?
Since my high school years I have been involved with international service, starting with my first experience as an exchange student in the American Field Service Program and subsequent volunteer work with AFS.
Most of my jobs have always involved teaching and/or training in one form or another. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa from 1978 – 81 where I worked a fisheries extension agent for two years and as a classroom biology teacher for one. As an independent consultant for USAID my assignments included computer training.
When I worked for Peace Corps Headquarters and the U.S. Information Agency my role included management and delivery of computer training for agency staff. During my 21 years at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations I implemented a computer training program and delivered a variety of ad hoc training opportunities to colleagues.
Since obtaining my TEFL certification in 2018 I completed a three-month assignment with Warm Heart Foundation teaching English in first and second grade in a public school located in Phrao District, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand. I am currently working on a second six month assignment with Warm Heart. In 2018 I began working as English conversation teacher for Native English Institute.
When did you first become interested in teaching English as a Second Language, what was your motivation?
I retired from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2017. That’s when I really became interested in teaching English as a Second Language.
At that time FAO set a mandatory retirement age which was quite young. I still wanted to be engaged in the workforce at an international level.
Teaching English as a Second Language seemed like a natural fit, given my previous experience teaching and training in an international environment. It’s also a job that provides experience for travel. What I didn’t realize at the time was how many opportunities obtaining my certification would open up!
Once you decided you wanted to pursue a TESL teaching position, what resources did you use to find opportunities?
The training center provided a brief overview on looking for teaching positions, as well as a list of schools and non-governmental organizations looking for volunteers in Thailand. I used a couple of internet sites which list job opportunities.
Was the process difficult to apply once you found an interesting opportunity?
Not really. Within a short time I received several job proposals.
What were the deciding factors on accepting a position?
Since I received my certification to teach English as a second language, I have worked as a volunteer teaching first and second grade, and for NE.Institute teaching adults.
The most important factor for my in accepting the volunteer position was the opportunity to work with underserved students. In Thailand good English language skills translate into better job opportunities. And not just in Thailand. English is a skill which gives applicants a leg up worldwide.
Working with NE.Institute is a great opportunity for me because I enjoy working with adults. The NE.Institute methodology is excellent for students who already speak English but need to improve fluency, and learn to speak more naturally. It helps them take their language ability to the next level.
Did you find it hard to adapt to a new culture with different living standards?
Not really. My last positing with the United Nations was in Bangkok, so I had previous exposure to Thai culture. The environment at the school where I was placed by Warm Heart Foundation was very welcoming.
What has been the hardest part?
Getting young students to speak is the hardest part. Helping them overcome their shyness can be a challenge. It takes a lot of encouragement.
What has been the most surprising?
The most surprising thing for me was how easy it was to adapt to teaching younger learners. Except during teacher training, I had always worked with junior high and high school students, or adults. I wasn’t sure I was ready for young learners.
What have you enjoyed the most about your experience living in a foreign country?
Living in Thailand wasn’t my first experience overseas. And Thailand wasn’t new to me – I was assigned to Bangkok for my last assignment with the United Nations. I hadn’t visited Northern Thailand much, and had never been outside of Chiang Mai.
Living in an agricultural area was very interesting. It’s amazing to see the variety of cereal crops, vegetables and flowers that are cultivated. Everywhere you look there seems to be orchards of tropic fruit – mangos and longan.
I also enjoy participating in local festivals, such as the Lisu New Year. The Lisu people live mainly in China, Myanmar and Thailand. Approximately 55,000 Lisu people live in Thailand, and are considered one of the six main hill tribes. They mainly live in remote mountainous areas.
The hospitality offered to myself and my teacher colleagues at the school is exceptional. My previous classroom teaching was with junior high and high school.
My students love to sing in English and dance to the songs. It’s great to see them get enthusiastic, and it’s a real change from my previous classroom teaching in junior high and high school.
As far as the actual teaching, has the experience lived up to your expectations?
Yes. The Thai teachers and the administration are very supportive.
What age group are you teaching?
First and second grade. The students range in age from 7-10 years old.
What is your favorite part about teaching?
My favorite thing is seeing the look of achievement in my students’ faces when they learn something new. It doesn’t matter is the student is 8 year’s old or 80, they still get the same look of achievement.
What is your least favorite?
Although it comes with the territory when teaching younger learners, classroom management is my least favorite part of teaching.
If you could make one change what would it be?
Most of my students are naturally shy, and this limits their progress when speaking. I guess it comes from the fear of making a mistake, and the fact that in the educational environment we always feel judged.
If I could change one thing, it would be to make sure my students realize it is ok to just jump in to speaking, even if you make mistakes. That’s part of learning!
Would you recommend the experience to other retirees?
Yes, wholeheartedly. However, to be successful as a teacher of English as a second language it’s not enough to simply speak English. One also needs a knowledge of teaching methodology. One develops the required skill set though a good certification program which includes practice teaching.
Chung Ho Lee
Chiang Mai is not only a national recognized city, but also an internationally well known one in Thailand. In terms of ESL in this country, for the language teachers, there are places, small, rural, and unknown as well, where the learning directly from a foreign teacher seem to be a miracle. Why not, then, establish a system of choosing places to teach the ESL possible in unknown places as a prototype example to stimulate a truly nation-wide awareness. Some Thais in a remote as well as unrecognized areas, especially parents of children, would never heard things like that. Well, would it be by their own right exempt from this opportunity almost permanently?
They are nonetheless equally friendly, equally in need of learning English for better of life opportunities, and equally intelligent, as compared to any other children of any other corners. For example, Chum phong, Krubury, Ranong, these three small cities or towns in the mid-south of Thailand seem to me are most neglected places in general terms.