In the first of our new Teaching Notes from Abroad series, UK and International Head Teacher Peter Hogan shares his experience of what teaching in Thailand is really like.
Welcome to Thailand
Thailand enchants many who visit with its fascinating culture, astonishing countryside, great beaches, incredible weather and warm welcome.
It is exotic but safe, luxurious (in places) but still reasonably cheap. Life in many different manifestations coexist in the bustling, busy and endlessly fascinating Kingdom of Thailand.
On a day-to-day basis, for a British-qualified teacher Thailand has more similarities with working in the UK than differences. In international schools the curriculum is the same, the significant majority of staff and school leaders are from UK schools and the language of the school is English. A teacher can leave their UK school and join a school in Thailand with little or no adaptation in their approach, resources or expectations. However, this does not mean that life in school is the same.
Teachers are highly respected in Thailand.
International schools are the target destination of almost all local and expat families. Attending one is a prized goal and their teachers are highly respected by pupils, parents and the wider community. In schools there is even an annual celebration called Way Kru where pupils give thanks for life in school, pay respect to their teachers and offer them gifts.
Typically, Thai medium schools are not well regarded; they are poorly funded with low standards of attainment, achievement, behaviour and pastoral care. New teachers are well advised to park any UK based preconceptions about the distinction between fee paying and state funded education. Parents pay because the alternative may be utterly unacceptable.
There are lots of international schools with more opening every year. Normally, they are new, well resourced with excellent facilities and range in size from 300 to 2,000 students. This means there is a big population of expat teachers who are eager to socialise, share good practice and offer advice. In international schools the standards, attainment and expectations are high. Discipline problems are few and far between. Assistant and support staff are usually abundant and facilities are high quality. This is the rule, not the exception and staff will be expected to deliver high quality teaching. Training and other CPD is provided by all good schools and many staff gain promotion internally.
Contracts are for two years and then renewable on an annual basis. This is different to but not worse than the UK. The fact that teachers are reviewing their position regularly means that schools must work hard to keep quality staff. Leaders may have to compete for the best teachers, sometimes offering enhancements and promotion at a faster pace than these accrue in the UK. If a school decides not to renew a contract then the staff member likely knows before December, giving them plenty of time to get a new post elsewhere. Possibly elsewhere in Thailand.
Expat teachers can live well in Bangkok and very well in cities and islands away from the capital.
Accommodation is provided and this will either be owned by the school or an allowance will be given for the teacher to rent their own place. Healthcare is private and schools will pay all or a contribution towards insurance premiums. Schools normally pay for a flight home every year as well.
Salaries may seem the same or lower than the UK but staff should not panic at the headline figures. Some potential staff look at the gross pay and think that anything less than their current pay means some form of drop in living standards. In reality, this is just not the case.
Taxation rates start at 10% and if a teacher works for 2 years or less in Thailand, they are entitled to claim back all tax when they leave.
As well as net pay being a higher proportion than in the UK costs are a lot lower. Average prices in Bangkok are over 40% lower than in London with rents and restaurants about 70% cheaper. A basic meal can be bought for £1.50, a bottle of water from 20p, petrol is about 60p a litre, public transport is about 75% cheaper and taxis fares are typically £2 to £3 but there are a few anomalies. A fairly average bottle of wine is around £15 and there is a huge tax of around 300% on European cars but these are exceptions. Electricity, mobile charges and internet access are all about 60% cheaper, phones and tech are cheaper too. Salaries for local employees are around 80% lower than the London average but teachers’ pay is much closer to UK rates. All of this means that expat teachers can live well in Bangkok and very well in the cities and islands away from the capital.
Not only does money go further but certain goods and services that may be deemed extravagant or inaccessible in the UK can be bought for far significantly lower prices and are deemed as normal. For example, clothes can be tailor made for prices similar to quality British high street stores and it is commonplace for teachers to have live-in nannies as well as cleaners or maids who will shop and cook if required.
Thailand borders Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. Vietnam and Singapore are short flights away and a flight to Australia takes about 7 hours (pandemic rules permitting). With international school terms not coinciding with Thai school breaks it is easy to get off-peak flights and hotel rates during holiday making fabulous destinations and amazing resorts quite affordable. As regards climate, think about Thailand in three phases: November to February cool and dry, March to June hot and hotter, July to October warm and wet. Almost everywhere is air conditioned and there is ubiquitous shelter from the sun and rain.
Politics, police and the law
Thailand is a mainly law-abiding country although, like so many countries, corruption is part of the legal and administrative landscape although this has almost no effect on the lives of most expats. Schools have experienced Thai staff who will manage local processes such as visas, work permits, translation of documents, dealing with officials, sorting rent agreements, clearing up misunderstandings and they know how the systems work.
Teachers are respected for the work they do and the position they hold.
However, if they break the law this respect will count for very little. In a low cost, still-developing country with a good deal of cronyism and corruption, expats do not want to try to navigate a foreign language bureaucracy while accused of any wrongdoing.
The army upholds the law, the police are not very well respected and at the most senior level schools work hard to foster good relationships with the military and police authorities. This is good for the staff and whole school community, leaving staff relaxed and safe.
In a nutshell
Thailand is not typical of international school postings in that many staff stay for long periods or even make it their new home.
There is an adage that expats plan for two years and stay for ten. The county is an easy one to settle into and feel comfortable.
Bangkok offers the best of a bustling global capital; the smaller cities and islands offer a very different experience and the location means the country is a gateway to many places and experiences. The teaching community is big, vibrant, supportive and sociable with wages and prices meaning staff enjoy a good, healthy standard of living.