Christmas abroad is hard. Not only are you missing your friends and family, but you miss the traditions associated with the holiday too. So, naturally, I was quite disgruntled to have to work on Christmas this year. I was homesick, cranky, and dreading the normalcy to come when I arrived at school.
At every Thai government school (and probably most private schools), you have a Thai co-teacher that sits in on all of your classes. Their role is mostly to assist you if there is a language barrier or try to quiet the kids down when they’re getting crazy (all boys here). Some Thai teachers may give you advice on how to teach differently or more effectively, but most will just let you do your thing. I have math and science co-teachers with varying levels of English. Most of the time they just hang out and do their work, but sometimes they help explain my topic to the students.
So why should you worry about getting on good terms with these teachers? Well, since they watch you teach, they have some input about how well you’re doing. And, according to one of my co-teachers at school, they are often intimidated by the foreign teachers. Think about it: Many co-teachers struggle with or are insecure about their English. A new native speaker comes in and can judge their speaking abilities right away. It’s intimidating! They’re speaking with a pro. Sadly, this intimidation can sometimes be met with attempts to find problems with your teaching style, lesson plans, disciplining, and even your appearance (I got in trouble once for having no back strap to my shoes…) So, to ease into your new school and minimize the awkwardness and intimidation, follow these easy steps!
*Every school and group of teachers is obviously different, but from the few schools I’ve taught at, these aspects have made the biggest difference in getting on good terms with my co-teachers.
1. Look the part: I can’t stress enough how much stock Thais put into personal appearance. I have seen great teachers fired because they looked ‘messy’ on the first day and never got a chance to redeem themselves afterward.
For women, dress modestly with dresses and skirts to your knees and a collared top if possible. NO sleeveless tops and absolutely NO cleavage. Yes, it seems a bit absurd when you consider the booty-hugging pencil skirts and see-through blouses most Thai teachers wear, but that’s how it is! Also, closed toed shoes are a must (I prefer flats, though most wear heels).
Men, shirts must have a collar. Your best bet is a long-sleeve, button-up collared shirt with slacks. Shirt must be tucked in, and if you don’t wear a belt, the teachers will think you’re crazy. A tie is a nice touch, but not necessary. Closed-toed dress shoes are a must. Facial hair is acceptable though the Thai teachers seem not to like it. Also, piercings seem iffy on men.
Side note: Whenever I wear really Thai outfits, like a collared top in a pencil skirt, all the Thai teachers make a big point to tell me how beautiful I look. I think it’s their way of trying to encourage proper clothing choices.
2. Make an effort: Although it can be intimidating, seeking out the Thai teachers for conversation and help can really solidify positive relationships with them. Bridging that initial awkwardness is crucial on the first few days. Thai teachers are shy to talk to native speakers, so if you show them you are approachable and non-judgmental they will be less shy with you. If you are one of those English teachers that hides out in the office and is afraid to talk to the co-teachers, on your own head be it! But I would recommend against that course of action. The Thai teachers can be really enjoyable to socialize with and an invaluable resource when you have questions about culture, language, apartments, food, etc.
3. Attend lunch and other activities: Sitting with the Thai teachers at lunch solidifies the idea that you are ‘one of them’. Meals, like in all cultures, are very important and social in Thailand so make the effort to enjoy them with your co-teachers. This is also a great way to learn the names of your favorite Thai dishes, or get some recommendations for new ones. If you are invited to participate in activities at school, definitely do so. Not only are they usually fun but you also earn the respect of the co-teachers who unfortunately are used to English teachers being really flakey and uninvolved.
4. Don’t talk down to your co-teachers: This is a tough one. There is certainly a large gap in the English speaking abilities of the Thai teachers and the abilities of the foreign teachers. Thailand unfortunately has a pretty low standard of English, which means the English teachers sometimes struggle with the language too. But once you get used to it, you learn how to grade your language. Don’t talk loudly or in ‘Caveman English’ to your co-teachers, like some of my lovely coworkers like to do (WHERE I GO NOW?). Just find ways to simplify your language, slow down your speech, and when that fails, think of different ways to say what you mean.
Me: Ajarn, why is there no assembly today?
Me: There are no kids here today. Where are they?
Ajarn: Because, finished already blah blah blah…. (you get the point)
The worst thing you can do to alienate your co-teachers is act frustrated, arrogant, or like they are stupid/children when you talk to them. This is completely unnecessary and unfortunately I see a lot of foreign teachers do just this. Please don’t be a dick, remember that you are speaking in YOUR native language and respect that your co-teachers are speaking a language that is structurally completely different from their own. Give them a break, man.
5. Make a lot of jokes: In my experience, Thais love to joke around and have a good time. If you can keep things light and fun and not take your job too seriously, you will fit right in. Enjoy it!
Have any recommendations to add to the list? Can you relate? Have any of these worked for you? Let me know! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org