Teaching in Thailand will likely be the best decision of your life, but the move doesn’t come without challenges. There are many cultural differences between the West and Southeast Asia, some that you’ll have to embrace immediately…like not drinking water from the tap. As a foreign teacher, you will have to abide by cultural norms so as to never disrespect the Thai people or lifestyle. Check out these three important things new ESL teachers should know before moving to Thailand to teach English.
Polite Behavior is part of the classroom
While there are certain ways Americans show politeness in our daily lives, Thai people have a few customs that you should learn in advance. The most important one is the wai. This is a small bow with hands placed together in a praying-type pose that people do when they greet, thank or say goodbye to people. However, there are a handful of rules about when you wai and how deeply you bow that are dictated by seniority and religion.
Thais place utmost importance on the eldest people in any group. Because of that, you should be the first one to wai when you approach someone who is your senior. This holds true even if they’re only slightly older than you. Being aware of your responsibility to initiate the wai-ing and greeting is especially important when you start teaching because you should wai to all of the Thai teachers upon arrival.
When you wai in response to someone younger than you, like a student, your hands can remain at chest level when you dip your head. If you’re greeting someone older than you, your thumbs should be chin level as you bow. The deepest wai is reserved for Buddha. You should wai to Buddha statues when you visit temples with your thumbs up to your nose.
Language tips when teaching English in Thailand
The best way to become fluent in another language is by immersing yourself in the country, so you might plan on studying Thai while you’re abroad. Unless you set a significant amount of time aside to learn the ins and outs of Thai and practice, you might not pick up as much as you anticipate. The Thai language is super difficult to learn because it involves tones that determine the meaning of each word. As if it needed more complication, Thai also uses an alphabet that’s totally different from ours. It has 44 consonants and 15 vowel symbols that are combined to create 28 vowel sounds.
The tones are really what challenge me because even if I’m using the right word, I’m probably not using the correct tone. In English, the tone of our words is mostly determined by which ones we want to emphasize to convey a more precise meaning. Therefore, I still have no idea how Thai people even understand each other’s tones while they’re also emotive, and I only know enough Thai to get by!
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There isn’t really a way to say “please” in Thai. Instead, there’s a word you add to the end of phrases to make your statements, questions and requests polite. If you’re female, you add the word “ka” (pronounced “kah”) after your thought, and if you’re male, you say “krap” (pronounced “klahp”) at the ends of your sentences. Krap is sometimes pronounced with an “r” and other times with more of an “l” sound. It’s really a mixture of the two for the correct sound.
There are four phrases that I think everyone should know. Disclaimer: There aren’t really official spellings for Thai words in English so you might see these written other ways during your time in Thailand.
- Hello = sawasdee ka/krap = suh-waa-dee-kah/klahp
- Thank you = kap khun ka/krap.= cop-koon-kah/klahp
- Don’t want = mai ow ka/krap = my-ow-kah/klahp
- Foreigner = farang = fuh-lahng or fuh-rahng
I include “don’t want” because popular cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai have big markets that are awesome to browse but full of annoying vendors who are desperate to make sales. I’ve found that if you say the equivalent of “no thank you” in Thai, they stop hawking their merchandise to laugh about how a foreigner or farang knows that phrase long enough for you to walk past. “Farang” is useful to know because Thai people almost always refer to Westerners as such.
Appropriate Dress for teaching in Thailand
Like in America, teachers in Thailand are expected to dress a certain way. Generally, you will be required to wear high-necked blouses that cover your shoulders and knee-length skirts. Many schools also ask teachers to wear closed-toed shoes, like ballet flats or slip-ons. Some ESL teachers go overseas with maxi skirts, which do fit the dress code, but most Thai teachers opt for pencil skirts. Male teachers should wear dress pants or khakis and polos or collared shirts.
Before I departed for Thailand, I bought a few pencil skirts and blouses at thrift stores for less than $10 each. I didn’t want to bring my nice business-like clothes because I knew I’d be traveling with them, sweating in them and washing them often. Additionally, I was hoping to leave my teaching clothes behind when I set off for my post-semester backpacking trip, so I wasn’t interested in bringing high-quality and expensive teaching outfits. You can also find teaching clothes once you’re in Thailand that will be pretty cheap compared to clothing prices in the U.S. However, they’re not usually well-made garments so they will pill and look worn out pretty quickly, especially if you do laundry often. If you’re curvy or tall, you might have a harder time finding clothes in Thailand because they’re usually quite tiny.
Those who live in a small town where it’s common to encounter your students and their families outside of school, you should wear modest clothes around town during evenings and weekends, as well. Teachers are well respected in Thai society and should demonstrate professionalism. I personally lived in a larger city where people embraced Western style with short skirts, tank tops and other summery outfits. When you’re traveling on weekends, feel free to dress however you’d like, as long as you’re away from where you teach. The best way to determine your Thai wardrobe is by taking fashion cues from the locals when you arrive in your new town.
If you’re planning to teach English in Thailand, get ready to make amazing memories, change the lives of Thai kids and learn lots about yourself! To find out more about Christine, visit Teach English: ESL.