Welcome Imran! Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am from Cape Town, South Africa and a Molecular Biologist by profession. I worked in the diagnostics and medical devices industries for 12 years, but I felt burnt out and badly needed a break. This is when I first started thinking about taking a “gap year” and doing something different like teaching abroad.
Roche: My last employer before I left for Thailand.
How did you end up as a TEFL Teacher in Thailand?
I think Thailand chose me, because I had interviews for China but didn’t receive any offers. Thailand was the one place that seemed to be open to TEFL teachers even if you had no experience, so it’s a great sandbox where you can hone your teaching skills, learn your teaching style or identity, and gain valuable experience without having too much in the way of expectations (other than “English them!”). It also seemed like a place where life had a slower pace, which was what I was looking for due to a stressful job back home.
My students love to take ‘selfies’ together!
What has your career been like in Thailand? Did you only Teach English or did you branch into another career?
Initially my plan was “I’ll teach for a year”, which is a pretty common commitment for TEFL. But honestly, you have no idea how much a year can change you on an intrinsic level – you come out of the year a changed person to the one that went in. All of a sudden a return back home isn’t all that attractive, and you end up staying another year. So in total, I was teaching in Thailand for about 2.5 years before the pandemic hit, and finally quit teaching when the format changed from in-class to online. I had no interest in teaching online: it was dull and one-dimensional, so I was glad to take a break and focus on other goals.
I took some time to get back into my career, by acquiring remote projects on Upwork and doing freelance gigs on Fiverr. Looking back, I can see that the pandemic accelerated and normalized “working online” so it was a good time to invest effort into growing my online presence. Over the last few years it has grown and stabilized, so I realized one of my own long term goals in the process: To be able to travel and work online.
What are some of the challenges you have faced while Teaching in Thailand? What have you learned from these experiences?
A language barrier and a huge cultural difference is always going to be the biggest challenge, especially if you are a westerner teaching in South East Asia. The only way to overcome them is to keep learning yourself: By being a student of the country that has temporarily adopted you. Make an effort to learn the language, read books to learn about the culture, watch Thai movies, listen to Thai songs, and in general just immerse yourself as much as possible. It won’t be long before you also have a “mai pen rai” attitude, basically the Thai equivalent of “hakuna matata” – no worries.
What were the best parts of your TEFL experience? Do you feel like it prepared you to Teach in Thailand?
The thing with TEFL courses is that you don’t really know what is going to be useful until you get in the classroom! Most times you don’t know which grades you’ll be teaching, and sometimes you don’t even know which subjects. To give you some context, I’ve taught not only English, but also Math, Science and Health (This is known as Teaching Other Subjects in English or CLIL)! So only once you get to meet your students and start teaching the curriculum do you start to incorporate aspects of the course into your teaching.
When I was placed at my school, I taught grades 5-6, and what I found useful was playing games where the students competed against each other. Thai students are extremely competitive so I used that to my advantage. Roleplaying is great too, and I would choose a character and play a part as well. This was always a source of comedy for my students, so they would deliberately give me a female character to play. One time they even had an outfit ready!
What is your favorite age group to Teach English?
I generally enjoy upper primary grades such as grades 4-6. It’s a nice age group where the students can follow basic instructions, work independently, and have general conversational abilities. I also enjoy teaching and mentoring young adults, as training the incoming graduates was part of my job prior to leaving home.
One of my crazy Grade 6 classes.
What is one thing about the life of Teaching Abroad that you never expected?
What we can all relate to is that nobody was prepared for the pandemic. Every teacher I know abroad has a “COVID origin story” – we all knew exactly where we were in March 2020. Some of us lost our jobs and had to go back home, some of us were in transit or had flights canceled, and some of us were basically stuck with only two options: 1. pay an enormous cost for repatriation or 2. wait and see what happens. We chose the latter, and luckily Thailand had low case numbers so life was pretty normal for the most part.
For me personally, the thing I never expected was that I would build strong and lasting relationships. Some with other foreign teachers or expats, random people I meet along the way, and even with my Thai neighbors. Let’s face it, building new relationships in a foreign country is hard. But when you do it’s extra rewarding, as you bond over your shared experience of living abroad and doing a job that neither of you did before. So while I do miss my family and friends back home, I have my family and friends in Thailand too.
What has been your most rewarding experience as a TEFL Teacher Abroad?
Wow, where do I begin after 5 years in Thailand? There have been so many classroom laugh-out-loud moments, instances of hilarious miscommunication, and often being mistaken for a Thai person!
In the classroom, the most rewarding experiences often have nothing to do with school – it will just be an ad hoc conversation with a student about a movie, a song, or what our plans are for the weekend. Those are the real wow moments for me – to see that type of confidence grow in my students as time goes by.
Some other experiences were being invited to a Thai wedding, getting my Thai bike and car licenses, running my first half marathon in Bangkok, and adopting our shelter cat, Kimchi! It’s sometimes those little wins that count the most, as you slowly but surely become more integrated into your new home.
My most recent race in Thailand: The Bangkok Park Run 21km. Our rescue cat, Kimchi.
Where’s next? What are your Teaching plans for the future?
My first trip abroad since the pandemic was on my bucket-list for years: to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu! It was my first time setting foot in South America and I absolutely loved it! The people, language, and culture was so fascinating, and now that I’ve lived in Thailand and explored SE Asia for 5 years, I am definitely craving a new sandbox. I cannot wait to return to South America and maybe do a TEFL gig there in future, as this will provide me with a base for some exciting, new adventures!
The farming terraces at Tipon.
What advice to you have for someone who is on the fence about Teaching Abroad or not?
The truth is that you’re never going to regret traveling and living abroad. It’s such an incredible opportunity to accelerate your growth and alter your life’s trajectory. You’ll learn so much: not just about the country you’ll be in, but also about yourself: How adaptable, resourceful, and resilient you can be. So if you’re on the fence, just take that first step and go for it!
Machu Picchu: I made it!