TEFL in Thailand: Ellen Maling Fires up her Motorbike

Teaching in Thailand

I woke up at 6 a.m. and started my day by plugging in the hot water kettle for coffee. In Thailand, I drink a sachet of “3-in-1” instant coffee/creamer/sugar mix. It’s a far cry from the organic fresh ground coffee in the French press of home, but I’ve come to appreciate the ginseng extract in the powdered version, and it’s very convenient.

I will teach my first English class of the day at 9:30 a.m., the second period after the morning assembly (assembly for the primary and secondary students starts at 8:15 and includes the Thai flag-raising, a prayer to the Buddha, and a recited thank you to the teachers). Since sport day was on Friday last week, the Phys Ed teacher has had the student body doing a series of body movement/exercise to a marching tune. I find this pretty hilarious and try to follow along with whatever others are doing.

When it’s time to head to school, I’ll ride sidesaddle on the back of Tuy’s (my Thai teacher housemate) motorbike and cruise over. It rained last night, so we have to avoid the big puddle in the dirt road shortcut and go against the incoming traffic of the main road (in the bike lane) for about 200 meters. This is relatively common practice in Thailand and the traffic is light at 7 a.m.

The weather this time of year is cool in the mornings and quite warm in the afternoons, so I’ll bring a light wrap for morning assembly.

Living in this country could best be described as friendly and relatively easy. With a few basic phrases, knowledge of time and numbers, and use of the dictionary phrasebook with some sign language, I’m able to get my basic needs met. However, the Thai culture has a series of nuances that I know I won’t understand until I have been here for many years.

No matter how many times I see the sunset, Ialways appreciate the deep golden light at the end of the day. It also is the time that I exercise after work, so whether I’m on a bike ride around the UNESCO-designated ancient forest temple across the street, trying to keep up with the city-sponsored aerobic classes, or simply doing a power walk along the Ping River—I am always grateful to have this beauty in my life and the opportunity to reflect on the end of another day.

The students, overall, are hard to characterize. Some are really motivated and others don’t appear to care. Some students will seek me out to practice English and others will purposely avoid making eye contact with me (and the ensuing basic “Hello, how are you?” conversation) as I make the rounds across campus at the end of the school day.

The worst part of my day today, though, will be when my 9:30 class of kindergartners doesn’t show. Living here has really honed my capacity to operate with a very limited set of information. With all this mystery, I find it easier to become more accepting of the world around me and focus on observation. This is good training for my formerly Type A personality.

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about teaching or living here, it would beto magically be able to understand what is being said around me. Thai is a notoriously hard language to learn. The five pronunciation tones that are barely discernible to new speakers can change the meaning of a word. The vocabulary requires a different use of mouth, teeth, tongue and ears. While I know that my smiling presence and the effort I make to try and communicate in Thai are all good foundations in becoming a part of the school community, the language seems like a barrier that I will never overcome.

I’ll get home from work at 5pm after getting a ride with Tuy and by that time I’m thinking about the 6:30 yoga class that the school’s assistant director, Kim (the director’s daughter and my liaison with the BridgeTEFL placement), has invited me to attend. In my work uniform of green polo and knee-length skirt, I fire up the motorbike that the school’s provided to make a quick run to the nearby market and head back home to change. Kim comes to get me and I’m introduced to the small class of about three other yogis. As with the case on most of my experience here in Thailand, I simply try to follow along and keep up with the rest—but yoga really isn’t my thing. Afterwards, I eat, read some news from the states, take a shower and dive into a new novel on the Kindle. Sleep comes easily!