Intern-view with Emma Wallander in Thailand
Tell us about your path to TEFL teaching. Was it hard to leave your friends and family and move to Thailand?
I was originally training to be a secondary education English teacher in the US, but for various reasons didn’t complete my training. I was still passionate about education and giving students a voice, and I love to travel, so I looked into TEFL.
I think it’s been the perfect fit for me. I’m still doing what I love to do, and I got to get away from my hometown after graduating from university. It’s always difficult to leave family and friends, but I went to university quite far from home as well, which made the transition to Thailand easier.
What was the move from the States to Thailand like? Had you ever traveled far from home before? Did you have a bit of culture shock?
During university, I spent a semester abroad in Ireland, so the move away from home for 4 months was pretty easy to get over. Moving overseas is never easy, but I find the temporary situations are more difficult in many ways than long-term moves. I didn’t know what I would be able to find here in terms of toiletries, clothes, etc. It really involves a ton of thinking ahead about what you’ll need and what you can probably go without.
There was definitely some culture shock on arrival. I’d come from a pretty cold spot in the US to humid and hot weather getting off the plane. All I wanted was a pair of shorts and a tank top, but I was in long pants and a sweatshirt. It was 2:00 in the morning when I arrived in Bangkok, I wasn’t used to communicating with people who didn’t speak English, the cab I had ordered prior to leaving the US didn’t show up, and I’d been traveling for over 24 hours. Somehow I made it to my hotel (it was a bit of an exhaustion haze) by 3:30 and was able to get some sleep.
Once I was rested, I found it much easier to adapt to the culture. Culture shock did hit harder once I made it to my placement in Sakon Nakhon though since there’s not as much English spoken in the area. No English translations on menus, different foods than in Bangkok, only a handful of foreigners (the Thai word is farang), and only a few western toilets in the school. That took a week or two to get over.
How was orientation in Bangkok? What was your favourite part?
Orientation was fantastic. I had no TEFL experience beyond my online course so I was nervous about being thrown into teaching (which I will argue might be the best way to actually learn what you’re doing, but that doesn’t make it any less scary). Orientation covered everything I could have wanted to know and then some.
We had crash courses in Thai culture and language, work visas, banking in Thailand, classroom management, lesson planning, English camps, and the list goes on. It was a very full three days, but it was all incredibly useful information.
My favorite part (sorry, American English from me) was definitely meeting all of the other teachers. Since we were placed all over, that was the only time some of us will have had to spend together throughout this entire experience. Everybody has such interesting reasons for teaching, and you don’t feel so alone when you realize how many people are in the same spot as you.
Describe a typical school day since you’ve been in Thailand.
I get to my school between 7:30 and 7:45 and get a bit of prep for the day done before morning assembly. The first lesson of the day starts at 8:30. Our lessons last 50 minutes, and I teach 2-5 lessons a day. I work with Matayom 2 and Matayom 6 students (M2 would be ages 13-14 and M6 would be ages 17-19). I prep and lesson plan for future lessons during my free periods just like I would have as a teacher in a western school.
We’ve got an hour for lunch, and the school has a massive canteen with plenty of options. The program I teach focuses on speaking and listening, and most of my students are graded with a pass/fail system. I’m in the office until 4:30 (sometimes later if I have more prep work to do before the next day) and then I walk back to my accommodation with some of the other teachers staying there as well. The days are quite busy most of the time, and there’s always something to do.
Tell us three things a future teacher in Thailand should know before they go?
First, your students will probably be unintentionally blunt with you; my third day in the classroom I was asked about my relationship status. Two weeks in a student very directly asked for my social media information. My fourth week started with a group of girls pointing out my very slight double chin (they said it was cute so it was clearly not meant to hurt). If you’ve got something to be embarrassed about, they’ll probably ask you about it.
Second, you probably won’t have air conditioning in your classroom. Only 3 of the 18 classrooms I’m in every week have air conditioning. Winter is also still VERY, VERY hot. Be sure to find some nice lightweight shirts before you go.
Third, you’ll be a celebrity. Random people will ask you to take selfies with them, students will call your name when they see you in the streets, and one of the food vendors across the street will probably yell, “I love you!” when you walk past after school every day (seriously, this one happens all the time). It can be really fun but also remember that all eyes are on you.
If you have a bit too much fun on Saturday night, somebody will see you and it might spread around the entire school by Wednesday. Represent yourself, your home country, and your employer well.
Describe the fun you have when you’re not in the classroom? Is it true what they say about Thailand and the amazing parties?
Here’s the thing: I’m an introverted homebody when I’m at home. I’m still me when I’m in Thailand. Especially during the week, my fun is sitting in my accommodation playing The Sims 4 and watching ridiculous Thai television shows (even more ridiculous when you don’t understand a single word) or listening to the same podcasts I listen to in the states.
I’ll go out to dinner with the other teachers and spend an hour or two just chatting, but ultimately my fun on weeknights is getting into my bed. Teaching is tiring. During the weekends though, I like to spend time exploring the city I’m in – Sakon Nakhon. I don’t have a motorbike right now so I’m a little limited in where I can go, but we’ve found the park and plenty of cute cafes and western restaurants.
By Friday night, most of us are ready to go out for a few drinks and maybe go dancing. I can’t honestly speak about the parties since I haven’t been to any yet. There’s a very social culture here, so you do just about everything with other people which makes it all more fun.
What have been some challenges you’ve faced on the road to living abroad? How did you overcome them—any advice for our readers/future TEFL adventurers?
There were some minor fights with my insurance company and pharmacy back in the States to make sure I could get the medications I needed while abroad. My procrastination habits caused a few small setbacks in getting the paperwork through early enough. Premier TEFL & the Thailand team really did a ton of work to make my transition from the States to Thailand smooth.
The Thailand team helped us fill out visa applications, find accommodations, connect us with other teachers, etc. (Seriously, I don’t think I would have made it here without them). The most important piece of advice I can give to possible TEFL adventurers is to ask questions. Ask so many questions. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t understand things. There’s a lot of governmental, bureaucratic forms to fill out that aren’t always easy to understand.
It’s much easier to get help before there’s a problem. Asking questions will also help you find the right program for you. You learn what’s included in the program, how long the program is, how much support you’ll get, and so much more when you just ask. Don’t assume anything and Premier TEFL are more than happy to answer all these questions for you. Find your fit (the Thailand internship is fantastic for first-time teachers in my opinion), and go for it.
Do you have plans once your internship is finished? More English teaching perhaps?
As of right now, nothing is set in stone. I’ve been looking into obtaining my teacher certification back in the US, but I’ve also looked through other teaching opportunities. I really do love what I’ve spent the last month doing, and I think I want to keep doing it for as long as possible.