Welcome back to Earning Abroad! In this series I’ll introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries.
I’ve mentioned that throughout my Latin America travels, I only made a significant connection with a handful of fellow wanderers. Leah Davis was one of them. It was one of those classic travel friendships — we met in a cab in Arequipa and bonded that night over birthday shots. We’d go on to hike the Colca Canyon and beach bum around Paracas together, and we’ve been in touch ever since our last meet up in Lima. Best of all, I later found her hanging in the background of one of my shots from Lake Titicaca — days before we’d even met!
One of the things Leah and I bonded over was our love of Thailand. While I put in my expat time in the Southern Islands, Leah was teaching tiny people how to speak English up north in Chiang Mai. Teaching English as a foreign language is a popular path for those hoping to work abroad, and Leah’s is a great example of a success story. What I love most about it is that she let her sense of adventure guide her into a whole new lifestyle, embracing the challenges along the way. Over to Leah!
AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job.
LD: In my time in Thailand I had two different teaching positions, the first of which was tutoring at a language school. My schedule there was very unpredictable so I never really had a typical day. I would tutor anywhere from 1-8 hours per day Monday through Saturday, one student each hour. I had most of my lessons on Saturdays. The kids brought workbooks or English homework from school, so very little preparation was involved. Some students were more advanced and practicing conversation so I got to be a little more creative with those lessons—we talked about some deep stuff! I worked there for three months.
The next job I took was teaching Kindergarten English in a private bilingual school, for which I signed a one-year contract. I worked Monday-Friday, clocked in at 7:45am and clocked out at 5pm every day. Once a week I would be on “gate duty” greeting the parents when they dropped their children off, so I would have to be there by 7:15. Other days I’d get to run around with the kids on the playground in the morning, and two or three days a week I would lead 15 minutes of exercises during their morning assembly. I shared a classroom with a Thai co-teacher, so we each had one hour in the morning to give a lesson. In the afternoons, depending on the day, we would take the class to extracurricular activities (like music or PE), teach a second lesson, play games, sing songs, or create an art project. Whenever the Thai teacher was leading the class, I was marking their school work or homework, or planning lessons. There was never any downtime, which is something I really liked about the job.
How did you come to teach English in Thailand? What inspired you to go?
All I really knew before I decided to teach English was that I wanted to travel. I had just finished five years of studying nutrition and realized I wouldn’t be happy working in that field. I knew I would be required to sign a two-year contract if I began working as an entry-level Registered Dietitian, and the idea of putting off traveling for that much longer only to work a job I disliked terrified me, so I concocted this plan to teach English abroad instead. I had never been a teacher before but I knew others who had done it with just a TEFL certificate, and since I didn’t have any other ideas of how to make money overseas, it seemed like a good fit.
The only thing I arranged before leaving the US was registering for my TEFL course with UniTEFL Thailand. They arranged my housing for the month, but they do not offer job placement; only assistance with finding work once you graduate. I actually went to a party while I was halfway through the course where I met a ton of expats who were teaching English. Two of them ended up recommended me to their boss, and I was hired about a week after I finished the TEFL course. Networking is honestly the best thing you can do to find work.
Networking can go a long way to find work at private schools, too. When you make friends with other expats (and gain their respect and trust) they may be willing to recommend you. The most important thing to do though to get one of these highly sought-after positions is to go to the school and meet whoever is responsible for hiring in person. This way, they not only remember you better because they can put a face to your name, but you can find out all their specific hiring requirements and maybe even score an interview on the spot. Every school has slightly different requirements, but the one thing you will definitely have to do is give a demo lesson anywhere from 30-60 minutes long, so have something prepared before you go. Just make sure you dress professionally and bring, at the very least, an up-to-date copy of your CV.
How did your family and friends react to your initial departure?
Oh, there was a whole gamut of emotions! Shock, concern, excitement—even jealousy! To the jealousy, I would always respond that there’s no reason any of my friends couldn’t do what I was doing, too.
I lived at home with my mom for the first time in seven years before I left to save up some money for the move, and she and I have always been close, so naturally she was the most apprehensive and scared to see me move so far away. But I taught her how to use Skype, which helped a lot!
How much money did you make? Was it enough to live on?
Working for the language school, I wasn’t making much. They paid me 200 baht/hour (about $6USD) but I was typically working less than 20 hours in a week – 25 at the very most. It would have been enough to live on, but only barely. At the time, I lived alone in a studio apartment that cost 4,000 baht/month (about $120USD), and I was renting a motorbike which was maybe 2,500 baht/month (about $75USD)… it worked for me initially but I knew I’d be happier with a more consistent schedule and paycheck.
I got all that and more at the private school. There, I earned a base salary of 30,000 baht/month, and eventually started teaching a homework course after school which provided an additional 15,000/month for a total of 45,000 baht/month (about $1,350USD). I moved into a shared house with three other girls where we each paid 3,750 baht/month for rent (about $115USD). I bought my own motorbike to eliminate the cost of renting, so all that was left in terms of necessary costs was food which is ridiculously cheap to eat out and easy to cook at home! Earning this much, I was able to go on weekend trips, shop when I wanted to, vacation in the islands, and save a couple grand (in USD!) by the end of the year without even trying.
What kind of legal hoops do you have to jump through?
I can only speak for my experience back in 2012, because I understand there are some stricter rules in place as of this year. At the language school, I was working illegally. I applied for a tourist visa before arriving in Thailand, which gave me 60 days in the country with the ability to extend for another 30 for a total of three months.
Thankfully, the private school offered me a work permit. You must apply from outside the country and so off I went to Laos to apply for a Non-Immigrant Type B visa, which allowed me to work legally along with a work permit provided by the school – no more visa runs required!
What skills and/or certifications did you need for this job?
You have to speak English or at least have a good enough command of the language to pass a proficiency exam, and you need a TEFL certification OR a university degree in any subject. Teaching experience helps, but is not necessary if you have the aforementioned qualifications. I hold a BS in Nutritional Sciences and had no prior teaching experience, so the TEFL course gave me the confidence I needed to get up in front of a classroom. If you haven’t taught before and are apprehensive about it, a TEFL certification may be the way to go. (Some of these requirements may be changing, so I would recommend doing some additional research if you’re planning to pursue teaching in Thailand.)
But perhaps most importantly, you need patience. Lots and lots of patience. There will be things about the Thai education system that frustrate you, students who frustrate you, teachers who frustrate you, and administrators who seem to be working against you. And even though they still practice corporal punishment in Thai schools, you WILL lose your job for knocking somebody out.
What were the best and worst things about teaching English in Thailand?
The kids were the best part of my job. I fell in love with some of those munchkins so hard! They are bright and inquisitive and playful and just SO. DAMN. CUTE. Except when they pooped or peed their pants in class, that part was not so cute.
I’d say the worst part was how powerless I felt at times. In my school, the Thai teachers ran the show and never fully included us English teachers when it came to planning events or making decisions, so I felt out of the loop pretty regularly and, on occasion, completely foolish when parents would ask me questions (about an event or party, for instance) and I’d have no idea what they were talking about.
What would your advice be to someone seeking to do the same?
Do it, do it, do it! The job itself is incredibly rewarding and living in a country with a culture so drastically different from your own is an experience I’d encourage anyone and everyone to have at some point. Otherwise, just do plenty of research and try to have your ducks in a row before departure to avoid any major setbacks. I recently wrote a blog post answering the most common teaching- and TEFL-related questions I’m asked which you can find here!
What do you know about Thailand that you wouldn’t have learned as a tourist? How did working in Chiang Mai change your experience there?
I really got to know Chiang Mai, and a lot of northern Thailand, inside and out. I don’t think I could have made a better decision than to live in Chiang Mai—it’s such an amazing city. I got to experience all the different cultural events and holidays that took place throughout the year, and unless you know about them and plan for it, the chances of a tourist landing in Chiang Mai during a celebration are slim. You get to see how proud Thai people are of their country and culture, and they invite you to share in that with them.
Are there differences between working in your home country and in Thailand?
On a basic level, working in either place is the same. You are expected to look nice (even if it’s 95 degrees and you have to walk to work in business casual), show up on-time, and do quality work. But teachers are very highly respected in Thailand, which I don’t always find to be true in the States. Of course, the cultural formalities are totally different as well; you wai someone instead of shaking hands, you never point the bottoms of your feet toward someone, and you never touch another person’s head. Oh, and I taught barefoot. I always had to be really conscious of these and other customs, and mindful of the fact that I had to conduct myself as they would in a professional setting.
Was it difficult to transition home and re-enter the mainstream workforce?
Of course! I didn’t actually do that until this year. Between my job teaching English and the job I have now in my home state of Washington, I went an entire year without working, which was the hardest part. I got used to not answering to anyone and I had forgotten how to act appropriately in a corporate setting. But that’s why I’m planning my next escape – this American life just ain’t for me!
Have you had other experience working abroad?
I did some volunteering here and there while I was in South America. The first of those experiences was teaching (in Spanish and English) to kids in Venezuela between the ages of 5 and 13. It was quite disorganized but fun and challenging nonetheless. I also worked in a hostel bar for a while in Peru, which is an easy way to get free accommodation!
What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future?
Right now I’m living in the States, saving up money again by working through a temp agency and teaching Spanish on the side. My plan is to spend the summer here so I can go to some friends’ weddings, then head back toward South America, traveling through Central America on the way. I imagine I’ll teach English again at some point on my next trip, but I can’t imagine signing another long-term contract. My feet are too itchy for that.
Many thanks to Leah for sharing her experiences with us! As always, please let me know in the comments if there are certain questions you’d like to see asked, or a certain job you’d like to see highlighted.
Find Leah over at The Sweetest Way for more stories about travel, location independence, and living your sweetest life. You can also follow her on Instagram @thesweetestway.