Thailand, Travel, Working Abroad

The 5 things I learned teaching English in Thailand – a Workaway report.

I sit on the local bus headed to Chiang Rai, my elbow hanging out the window. The falling raindrops creating small pools of sweat, dirt, and cool, sweet freedom on my skin. I welcomed the rain, washing away the anxiety of the last two weeks. My heart cracks open like the sky, and begins to sing.

1. I learned I am not clever.


I posted a few weeks ago about how to teach English without a college degree. I was so very proud that I had found a way around the system, tricking it. However, once implemented, I realized that I had put myself into a situation where I was set up to fail.

Entering a class of 20 students that hardly speak English (that’s why I was there, after all) and who will always prefer Thai, screaming, fighting, and yelling “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!”, the realization hit me that I have no experience in class control, communicating when you can’t use instructions, or measuring progress. This is not a good realization to have at the beginning of a month long commitment. I knew I would think of something, but would it be enough?


Not that having any ol’ degree would have helped me with this, but I realized that there is a reason TEFL/TESOL/etc programs exist – to prepare you for this exact situation. I was not clever by working my way around the system; I was naive. I set myself and my students up for frustration. I worried that I would do them more harm than good being there, and would they even really learn anything from me in such a short period of time?

If I had been there a full academic year I felt I could have earned their respect, they could have learned my teaching style, and we could have really rocked it. With only four weeks, I knew that half the time would simply be devoted to getting a groove down, and that sucked.

2. I learned not to take it personally.

The first few days of teaching were incredibly stressful. Totally winging it, the first week was essentially a power struggle between my students and myself. I would come home steaming, thinking “Kids are such ASSHATS!” “I hope that kid runs into my first or my car!”. **RAAAAGE**


One particularly quiet night, my higher self said, “No, they aren’t. They’re just kids, you know that. Remember what you put your mom through?”  That changed my entire perspective on the interactions I was having with my students. They weren’t expending a conscious effort against me; they were just being kids. Kids get distracted, like to play, don’t like rules, and hate to be in school…I took a moment to remember those days myself.

I also had to let go of not taking things personally with the staff. Thai people are teensy, weensy, tiny, small, petite…..you understand? I was probably the largest person in town. Being in a remote village, most of the residents hadn’t visited America (or anywhere) – the land of the obese. I was often poked, prodded, or laughed at, and I had many body parts of mine compared to fatty meals because of my larger stature.

*kid tries to fit their fingers around my wrists and ends up having to use two hands* *kitchen staff pulls on my arm fat laughing and making it jiggle* *headmaster of the school says that while we’re the same height, he is skinny and I am fat* *children poke my belly and laugh* *comments about how the pork used in lunch that day is lean, unlike me*

Luckily, I won the battle over body image long ago and found their cultural-unawareness more hilarious than hurtful…but man was it a complete barrage of comments. Like, every day. Little do they know I actually find my larger figure helpful to me in my travels.

The school also had tons of animals living there! A parrot, plenty of dogs, and piles of kittens. I saw the staff being rough with the animals (kick the dog in the face, throw a kitten etc) on multiple occasions, which was really hard to watch. I had to accept that I have no right to judge them on this behavior. In particular, there were two kittens who had bloody eyes – I’m sure they are going to go blind. There was talk of taking them to the vet…I sure hope they did.

3. Friends make all the difference

During my first week of school, I had three other teachers volunteering with me as well. A guy from New York, a guy originally from India but who was living in Alabama on a full ride scholarship for school, and a girl from Scotland who planned to never go home.

Having that support network really makes all the difference. Having people to vent with, laugh with, and bounce ideas off of got me over the hump. The first Friday I was there we had a going away party for the two male teachers leaving. We had planned to go to a karaoke bar (dude, they love that shit over here), but a massive storm brought the power down in the entire village. We drank, we walked through town looking at the damage, and we played many rounds of hilarious truth or dare. It was one of, if not THE, best nights since I’ve left Chicago.

4. Setting boundaries and expectations

I spent my time working at Chiang Saen Academy, a private school in the small town of Chiang Saen, Thailand. The school was family-run and founded, with lodging provided by a friend of the family. I would go to school and teach, then return to the compound where my room was.

For me, home always needs to be a safe place. Especially as an introvert, it’s crucial that I have an area where I can retreat to not be disturbed. This helps control the anxiety levels.

I can go without this for a little while, like when I rode on the Cobrabus to Burning Man. Even with such wonderful people though, there was one night I had to get a hotel room. It wasn’t anything personal at all! I just needed a night in my own space to recharge. I could never survive in an environment where I didn’t get this recharge at least some of the time.

Coming to Thailand, I already knew this about myself, based on the aforementioned Cobrabus experience.Therefore, careful consideration went into choosing my Workaways:

  • Provide me with ample time to work online and make those monies
  • My own private room where I could retreat
  • Have A/C (I’m always going to be a Midwest gal, my body can only adjust so much I think)
  • Weekends off

I felt I would be able to find this through the Chiang Saen Workaway. Unfortunately, there were a number of complications once I arrived. The school and staff were wonderful, but the compound owner made me feel like a caged school-pet in a classroom. I was always waiting to be pounced on, poked, prodded, or disturbed in some way.


It started the day I arrived. Somehow my tarot cards came up and I ended up doing a reading for everyone on the spot. Stephanie The Scot kept saying “Well, let’s let her get settled first” (I knew I was going to like that girl) while the woman kept saying “You have your cards here? Where are they?”, pressuring me to do it the reading then. Ultimately it was my decision to do it, but I should have recognized then that her take-a-fucking-hint skills were not up to par.

It continued immediately after the readings. Having now semi unpacked my bags to dig out the tarot cards, she told me that my outfits were unacceptable and insisted I go and buy new clothes from the market. I went and spent over 800 Baht on new clothes. This put things off to a bumpy start. If dressing in a certain way was that important, it should have been discussed ahead of time. She makes a comment about my dreadlocks so I plan to put a scarf over them in an effort to be more conservative – like wearing two hats in this heat.


I come down for the first day of school, anxious and nervous about meeting my students. She makes me change my appearance in both hairstyle and outfit. Being my first day, I complied despite getting the very strong feeling that it was not out of concern but simply a matter of controlling me.

The first half of the week goes like this every morning – eyes rolled at my hair, comments like, “Is that all you have to wear”? She tells me that she is getting comments about my appearance from the school, which makes me feel horribly guilty.

I go to the school and talk to the staff, apologizing and promising to clean it up even more. They look confused and tell me that I simply need to cover my shoulders and not wear super short things. Jean shorts, pants, and the nice V-neck T-shirts I brought are completely fine – as are my dreadlocks.

One afternoon she was urging me to go to the night markets to buy even more clothes and I just told her flat-out, “I talked to the school and they said what I have is fine, I’m not buying any more clothes”. She started to lose control over me and pushed harder.


To interrupt myself, I’d just like to say that this lady is not a horrible person by any means. She has a big heart. She feeds the stray dogs in town, the fish in the river, enjoys children, is helping the school out by hosting us, and made us all a fabulous traditional Thai dinner for a going away party for two of the teachers.

She also took us to the Opium Museum because she knew the owner and could get us in for free. That was a treat because I probably wouldn’t have gone if I’d had to pay admission out of pocket. Despite all that, she seemed to have the need to be in a position of clear control, power, and authority. This is what caused my time there to be miserable.


There were several incidents that made me live a life of constant anxiety, dreading every interaction with her. Was she going to knock on my door at any minute to tell me to turn off the A/C? Why is she grumbling about how much things costs around me – is that a passive aggressive dig? I hate that shit so much – if you need to say something, fucking get a spine (they’re on sale at the spine store) and say it.

Eventually, she asked me if I would volunteer an hour of my free time every night tutoring two girls in English. They were paying her for the lessons, but I would not be seeing a single Baht of that.

If it hadn’t been for the week of constant micro power struggle interactions (turn the fan down to 2 instead of 3) I may have considered it, but my inner rebellious teen wanted to reject it simply on principle. Luckily I had the very real excuse of doing work online where I could get paid. I divorced my parents for the same type of behavior; a person I’ve known for a week means almost nothing to me in comparison.

I could go on into every interaction, but let’s just say that I was losing lots of sleep – and not just because the mattress was a piece of wood with a sheet on it.

I left the arrangement early. On the day I came home to giver her the news, she had sat myself and my friend Stephanie down to talk. I went first, telling her I was leaving.

She had sat us down to scold us about the A/C bill. Luckily for me, the point was moot. Aside from me being there less than half a billing cycle, it was yet again another expectation that she misrepresented on the Workaway site, and a reaffirmation of my decision.

  • “Afternoons free” (but tutor for me while I make the money)
  • “Air-conditioned room” (but I’m going to bitch you out about using it, ask you to turn it off, and then rub the bill in your face)
  • “Casual” (but I’m going to make you buy Thai silk skirts, scarves, and new shirts so I can make myself look better)

Luckily, we move on to number 5.

5. Every situation has a silver lining.

I had planned to stick out the Workaway for 4 weeks, but found that I needed to expedite the speed at which my trip was moving. More to see in less time! When deciding where to make cuts, I opted to cut time from teaching at the school. I could have cut that time elsewhere if the home environment hadn’t been so toxic.

Despite all of the above, I still count this experience as a win! This was one of hundreds Workaway options across the globe. I learned a lot about myself, made some good money online, and I believe I’ve met a new lifelong friend in Stephanie.


The owner of the school invited me back anytime, and even offered to get me a permanent residence visa should I wish to reside in Thailand as a teacher. His adorable wife bought me beautiful thank you gifts (doesn’t she look like Edna Mode from The Incredibles?!).


I packed my stuff (the lady housing me basically helped me, after checking on me to make sure I hadn’t turned on the A/C), and she asked Stephanie to leave too. Steph is staying, but she waited with me for the bus, while the lady tried to hail a car for me to hitchhike in, hoping to expedite my departure.

The bus came, hugs were exchanged, and I boarded. My elbow hanging out the window, I faced forward. No need to look back as the rain poured the relief over me.

How do you think you would have coped in a similar situation?

xoxo <3

9 Comments

  • Reply

    Zumaria

    May 20, 2016

    Comment test!

  • Reply

    Chelsea

    May 20, 2016

    I wouldn’t been dying for the opportunity to leave, too. Doesn’t sound like something I would have enjoyed at all, not without adequate preparation…and then, yeah, being told that you’d have A/C, that it’d be casual, and that you had all your other time to yourself, and then being hounded about all of those, no thanks!

    • Reply

      Zoom

      May 21, 2016

      I was so pissed about the clothing thing. Especially because it was obviously for her own gain.

  • Reply

    Fauna

    May 20, 2016

    You did the right thing. I can empathize with your situation and fully recognize the kind of person you are talking about… Seems pretty bossy for a Thai, as they tend (at least in the public and work situations I have experienced) to be pretty deferential. Good on you to see the silver lining and take care of your own needs! The body stuff is the same as a friend experienced in Indonesia. It was shocking but also kinda funny. I <3 your attitude! Keep up the good life and the writing! 🙂

    • Reply

      Zoom

      May 21, 2016

      Guess there are toxic people all over the world huh? The body stuff I didn’t expect, but again I just thought it was funny lol! Thanks for letting me know it isn’t just me though – or just Thailand!

  • Reply

    ariavie

    May 21, 2016

    Wow. I had a similar experience while studying French in Quebec. Instead of staying in a dorm, I opted for a home stay with a local couple. I felt like I had no alone time to recharge my introvert batteries and as a result was stressed out the entire six weeks I was there. Luckily I had running so I could get away to do that and made it so I only was home to sleep. Hugs. You did the right thing for you and that is awesome!

    • Reply

      Zoom

      May 21, 2016

      Dude that alone time is so important isn’t it? Crucial! And it sucks when you have to avoid your own living area! Thanks for sharing Cuz!

  • Reply

    Natasha Rodriguez

    May 21, 2016

    You did perfectly!

    • Reply

      Zoom

      May 21, 2016

      Aw thanks Natasha! I wrestled with the choice …no regrets though lemme tell you!

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