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A little spring cleaning unveiled a tote bag of my old teaching supplies and lesson plans during my first year living in Chiang Mai. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and see what my typical day as a teacher in Thailand was like.
As many fellow English-speaking expats may have already done or are considering to do, I, too, became a teacher in Thailand. I was personally curious about the profession, had prior experience tutoring adults (which I later found out was nothing like being a primary level school teacher), and wanted to make money while Chris and I were first getting our footing as newbie expats.
I took a TEFL course after moving to Chiang Mai, and upon earning my certificate, I was immediately offered and accepted a full-time position teaching 24 classes per week for 28,000 baht per month at a private Thai school not far from where we lived.
Here’s what my typical day as a teacher in Thailand looked like.
6:45AM Getting Ready for My Day
My typical day as a teacher in Thailand started by waking up around 6:45am Monday through Friday. I did my morning routine of putting on make-up, doing my hair, and ironing my work clothes.
The female foreign teacher’s dress code at my school included knee-length or longer dark colored skirts; pants, dresses, and short skirts were not allowed. Ladies were also asked to wear blouses or collared shirts that were light colored or white with minimal pattern.
Foreign male teachers wore dark pants and light or white long-sleeved collared dress shirts. Wearing a tie was optional, but most of the guys wore them. The Thai teachers wore strictly black and white attire.
I wasn’t expecting such a conservative dress code, so that meant that I had to buy a whole new teacher wardrobe. The few patterned skirts, pair of dress slacks, and nice but non-collared shirts I had brought over with me from the US weren’t going to cut it.
I wore black and dark grey shoes. In fact, I don’t think I would have survived teaching without having my comfortable pair of Crocs ballet flats.
7:50AM Arriving at School
Chris took me to school on the back of our motorbike each morning. People have asked me how I learned to ride side-saddle, and this is how: the first time I wore a narrow pencil skirt to school I didn’t have time to change, so I got on the back of our motorbike sideways and held on tight. I’ve been doing it ever since!
I would arrive at school just shy of 8am every day. It gave me just enough time to walk down the street and grab breakfast of moo bping – skewers of grilled pork – and sticky rice for myself and Chris and then I walked through the school’s entrance and clocked in.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, I’d pick up my heavy stack of photocopied worksheets for the week, which I had dropped off at the copy room on Friday. I’m glad they were made at school and were free-of-charge because it was about a foot high.
I’d go straight to the foreign English teachers’ lounge and drop the worksheets off at my desk. I’d open the shutters of our screen-less, glass-less windows, flip on the ceiling fan (there’s no AC in any of the classrooms or teachers’ lounges), and dive into my paperwork. Often times that meant rushing off to the computer lab to print out flash cards, or if necessary, hand draw and color in the flashcards and then write up answer keys to my worksheets.
Otherwise, I usually jumped right into grading for the next hour until my first class at 9:10am, second period.
8:00AM Morning Assembly
While I was conducting paperwork in the teachers’ lounge or computer lab, school started at 8:00am and the Thai teachers and students assembled in the courtyard. I didn’t take part in the morning rituals, but I was aware of what the students and Thai teachers did every day.
There were roughly 1,100 pratom (elementary-equivalent) students that sat on the concrete ground and listened to announcements lead by the school’s vice principal. Students sung the national anthem and then around 8:15am were dismissed for their classes, the first of which started at 8:20am.
I taught every single one of these 1,100 students. They were between six and twelve years old in pratom 1 through 6. My schedule was on a two week rotation, so I had 550 students the first week and then the remaining 550 students the second week.
9:10AM First Class of the Day
Although the second period of the day started at 9:10am, this was my first class four out of five days of the week. There was one sweet-sounding bell to notify students that it was time to switch class, but surprisingly no second bell.
I’d go to the students’ home room (either on the first, second, or third floor of the school), line them up, and have them follow me several flights of stairs down to the ground floor where my classroom was. Needless to say, I got a great leg workout every day.
The first five minutes of class were typically dedicated to getting my students seated and passing back graded papers. It was one of the few chances to make a solid name-face connection. I learned a lot of Thai names and made sure to put the accent on the last syllable (Sutita, Baitoey, Oy, Jui, Narumon) but there were always a few students with unique vowel sounds that I butchered endlessly and for that I’m forever sorry! A handful had Western names (I’m equally forever thankful), and some had really cute nicknames like Mint, Guitar, and Donut.
My school assigned a number to each student in every class, so I often relied on their numerical labels to determine who was who. Unfortunately, half the students’ English phonetically spelled names did not quite match up with the true Thai spelling of their name in my master gradebook. Other students used nicknames with no last names. And as any teacher knows, it was inevitable that at least one student per class forgot to write their name at all.
I’d spend the first 15 or 20 minutes of class teaching new vocabulary and concepts. I quickly found out that teaching solely in English, as per instructed by my school director, just got me a bunch of blank faces. So I adjusted my lesson plan and made sure to write the Thai words on the blackboard along with the new English words.
The next 20 to 25 minutes was worksheet time. I quickly learned that I couldn’t just pass out worksheets and have students dutifully fill the answers in while I sat down and had quiet time. That’s because my students’ English skills varied wildly within each class.
If I did that with the older students (pratom 4 5, 6), I’d have a third of the class finish the worksheet within five minutes and then the other two-thirds of the class ignore the worksheet altogether and start playing games. So their worksheets were mostly empty and we would fill them in together (real-time) with small games, making lists, and group work where afterwards students shared their answers.
With the younger children (pratom 1,2,3), I spent a lot of time keeping them seated and focused on the worksheet. I was constantly answering questions about what to do next or give them reassurance at each step. Or designating who shared what glue stick or pair of scissors.
A few minutes before the bell rung, I’d attempt to get everyone to stand up, say their goodbyes (a roaring “Goodbyyyyye aaaaand thaaaaaank yoooooou, teeeeeeacherrrrr!”), and then collect their papers as they were leaving. On good days, I got my students to hand their papers back in numerical order, which saved me a little time later putting the papers in order for easier grading. I always took a few more minutes with the younger classes to line them up and have them follow me upstairs and back to their homeroom Thai class so there were no stragglers.
20 Minute Morning Break
I loved that my school provided breaks for both students and teachers in the middle of the morning. Take a hint American schools! The mini-recess was from 10:00am to 10:20am, and although it always felt like it went by a little too fast, I welcomed the opportunity to sit down, grab a snack, and refuel on some coffee. Students would get stacks too, play, or catch up on homework.
There was a little snack shop which sold hot soup, baked goods, little grilled or fried meats, bags of noodles or rice, and drinks. Most items cost between 5 and 10 baht. It was just enough to keep me going until lunch. Sometimes I’d grab a cup of 3-in-1 instant coffee but had to drink it quick! There were no microwaves to warm the coffee back up.
I had two back-to-back classes from 10:20am to 12:00pm which needed different lesson plans. It was a whirlwind of students and papers and a lot of stairs to climb.
School lunch was served from 11:30am to 1:00pm, but my classes didn’t get out until 12:00pm. Lunch usually consisted of steamed rice, a stir-fry dish, a soup or curry, and a dessert. The teachers would line up, grab our white plastic plates and cheap metal spoons and forks, and wait for the lunch lady to spoon out big ladles of whatever was being served that day from gigantic metal pots.
I ate the school lunch every day because it was free and I’m not a picky eater. In fact, I’ve eaten several new Thai dishes thanks to school lunches, the most memorable being blood cake. (It’s nearly flavorless and soft like tofu if you’re wondering). There was a filtered water dispenser but no sodas, juices, or milk. I didn’t see the point of packing my lunch. It was just one more thing to do in the morning and there was no refrigerator in either the foreign or Thai teachers’ lounges.
Afterwards, every teacher brought their plate over to a trashcan to scrape their leftovers in. We’d hand wash our own plates and utensils in a communal sink and put them on a drying rack.
Lunch break ended at 1:00pm for the entire school. Any free time after eating was considered recess or relax time. Some days I stayed longer in the lunch hall to socialize with the other teachers but most often I’d go back to my teachers’ lounge or computer lab to catch up on grading.
1:00PM Two Afternoon Classes
My first afternoon class was from 1:00pm to 1:50pm. I had a new set of faces and the same routine but a different lesson plan. I passed out papers, taught new vocab, and tested comprehension.
From 1:50pm to 2:40pm I had a fifty minute break. Again back to grading! Because I had so few opportunities to collect grades from students (I saw them between six and seven times the entire semester), I felt that it was necessary that every class had a worksheet so that I could get enough grades in for a fair assessment of their skills.
I need one grade each for Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing, and another for Attitude. The worksheet obviously made collecting reading and writing grades easy. But keeping track of 1,100 individual students’ speaking and listening skills were a whole different matter! So when the students lined up with their finished worksheets, I used this as an opportunity to give them a mini listening or speaking quiz and quickly scratched a score on their paper as they handed it in.
The fifth and final class of the day was from 2:40pm to 3:30pm. I’d usually wrap up the class a few minutes early and then stand up for the teachers song and national anthem.
At the final bell, the students would rush out and I pushed the benches and chairs back into order, did a quick sweep of the paper bits and eraser remnants on the floor, and then I grabbed my papers for the final climb to my teachers’ lounge. I put the worksheets in numerical order again, stashed away any worksheets that weren’t handed back to absent students, and cleared off my desk. Time to go home!
4:00PM School is Finished
Chris picked me up in front of the school between 3:45pm and 4:00pm each day and off we went to one of our favorite cafés to enjoy a fruit smoothie or an afternoon coffee together. We typically discussed how my day was, what milestone he made with the blog, and details of our next blog post.
At least once a week I took a nap (talking, walking and being in the heat all day wore me out!) and most days I relaxed after school with a beer. Only one, though. I couldn’t risk having a hangover the next day, even the slightest one.
Reflection on My Typical Day as a Teacher in Thailand
I taught for one year (two semesters) and then decided it wasn’t for me. Would I have taught longer? Yes, if I didn’t have a blog, was single (or if Chris was also a teacher), and accepted a job that paid 25% more with a workload of only 16 classes per week.
On the plus side, this job helped keep our finances out of the red the first year we were in Thailand and I also learned a lot about the Thai teaching culture and saw it as an opportunity to share my experiences with others.
I will say, I have a new appreciation for teachers and all the hard work they go through to educate children. This was really an eye-opening experience for me and I have a lot of respect for the people who really are trying to be good teachers and make a difference in children’s lives.
If you taught before, what was your typical day as a teacher in Thailand like? Any major differences? Anything that surprised you about mine? We’d love to know!