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.
The article turned out amazing Alex! Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity, you’re a rockstar! We’ll meet up in Thailand one day, I promise!!
Thank you Miss Leah! The info you’ve shared here is invaluable!
This is exactly what I am thinking of doing. I land in Thailand in just over a week and plan to travel for a few months and then hopefully investigate doing a TEFL course. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Good luck Lisa! You’ll love Thailand, definitely don’t miss out on Chiang Mai!
Way to go, Leah!
Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and the longitudes.
~ H.D. Thoreau
Thank you! And that’s a lovely quote, I wholeheartedly agree 🙂
If people are looking into teaching in Thailand, I would highly recommend CIEE’s program. You do not need TOEFL certification, although you can get it if you choose. They also help you acquire the necessary Non-Imm. B Visa and will place you with a school, as well as contacts at the school to help get you settled once you arrive. They also coordinate housing and transportation, and provide a really nice orientation in BKK at the start. I met several people who had tried to go through other organizations and did not have the same luck as Leah in finding a placement, and at least one person who got in trouble for working illegally, so I’d be really careful with that!
There certainly is a risk to working illegally in any country and I know ideally everyone would like to avoid that. However Thailand is known for being a country that is more lax with it! Until they crack down on the employers, workers are going to take the jobs they can get.
Awesome post! Also, I hope you enjoyed Arequipa–that’s a city I went to with very few expectations and walked away from just blown away by. And Peruvian food (especially Chifa!!), second only to food from the Lower Mekong countries in SE Asia, as far as I’m concerned!
We absolutely loved Arequipa — my post about it is linked to up there where I mention it 🙂
And a question for Leah: what was your experience like trying to find work in Chiang Mai, both the public and the private work you took? I am especially interested in how long it took you to find these jobs and how much effort you would say you had to put into finding them, as well as whether or not you would say the legwork you had to put in is typical?
I set up shop to work in Chiang Mai for a couple of months in 2012, and I walked into a TEOFL school and asked if many of their students received placement in Chiang Mai after completing the school, mostly out of curiosity. I was told that TEFL jobs in Chiang Mai are very competitive (many foreigners teaching their who never want to leave and many others who start out elsewhere in Thailand and keep their eye open for jobs in Chiang Mai after visiting or learning more about teaching English and life there) and that most of their students cannot find placement easily. I was not seriously considering teaching English at this time and did not delve any further, but I remember thinking that what I heard was a bummer personally because I felt quite sure that I would want to live in Chiang Mai if I were going to stay in one place in Thailand for a year or longer. Since this was an isolated event and you spent quite a bit of time working there, I am just curious what your take on this is?
Good questions Jason…I would agree with the statement that English teaching positions in Chiang Mai are very competitive. We were informed of this at the start of our TEFL course, which was good motivation to put in a lot of effort. The job at the language school I got easily enough because, as I mentioned, some friends recommended me to their boss and I went there in person several times to meet her and chat. Showing your face and building rapport is very important.
Obtaining the other job took a lot more work, and yes, I would say my efforts were typical. I spent several days driving around town to all the schools (private K-12 schools, Kindergartens, and more language schools-about 15 in total) that I wanted to apply to or that I knew had open positions. I followed up with phone calls and emails, or another in-person visit. Even when a friend recommended me at one of those schools, I didn’t get an interview. There are a lot of teachers who never want to leave Chiang Mai, but there are also people who realize halfway through the school year that teaching isn’t for them and quit without warning, creating openings throughout the year. If you are able to network with other teachers, you’ll be the first to know about these positions if they know you are looking for work. You may not magically get a job right away, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t if you can be patient and persistent!
Our TEFL instructors also encouraged us to take any part-time work we could find at first, as this type is much easier to come by, and that can allow you time to gain some experience and make a little bit of money while you look for something more stable.
Very helpful info Leah, thanks!!
Inspirational! I have an uncle who was teaching in Japan for a while but is now teaching in Bangkok and loves his job as well and said the same about how prideful Thais are.
I say the same things to any jealousy I encounter.
I love Bangkok so much, I think that would be a fabulous city to teach in! I’ve actually heard though that most teachers prefer the laid back vibe in Chiang Mai, making it more competitive up there.
This was a great post and gave a true insight into teaching in Thailand. It brings back a lot of memories! One thing I will add, if you’re thinking of starting in Thailand but then moving onto other countries to teach, think very carefully about what certification. In some countries/companies it’s very very difficult to get a job with a regular TEFL cert as they require CELTA or Trinity TESOL (something I learnt the hard way!)
However, I agree that Thailand is a great place to start teaching as teachers really are respected and you can get some decent money.
That’s certainly good advice, Emma! I have a feeling there are many teachers in Thailand who are there specifically for the country more than the career track, but it’s definitely important to note for those hoping to take their teaching skills around the globe!
Thanks Leah! This was an incredibly thorough and informative Q & A. I’m thinking of teaching English abroad so it’s nice to hear about other people’s experiences. Thanks again 🙂
That’s great, I’m glad you found it so helpful Justine! Most of the credit should go to Alex for asking all the right questions! 😉
This is a great article! Leah, I liked reading about your experience in Thailand. I spent a year teaching in Taiwan (still here, but I’m working elsewhere and not teaching anymore), and I can totally relate to some of your experiences. The children were adorable, but I couldn’t stand feeling so out of the loop in the classroom. We always had a Chinese co-teacher in the room, which was helpful sometimes, but they definitely ran the show and I felt out of the loop 90% of the time when it came to events and classroom news.
BUT it was still a great year, and I fell in love with this island. I can’t bring myself to leave. I’m not sure if I could teach again for a long time, but now I know Thailand would be a great option. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Katie, I have a ton of friends who went to Taiwan after Thailand and they love it too! Funny that you encountered a lot of the same issues there, I’ll have to get my friends teaching in South Korea to weigh in as well 🙂
I’ve been teaching English in Japan for almost 7 years now, although I’m not a native speaker of English. Originally I’m from Germany.
It’s always exciting to read about other people’s adventures.
Thank you so much! ^__^
Very interesting read and I really do enjoy this series, Alex. I also used to teach ESl, before later qualifying as a primary school teacher. I really enjoyed teaching ESL and think it’s a great way to see the world (and it was a great way to discover my interest in teaching too). Also nice to hear from someone else who has spent time teaching in Venezuela!
Small world that I met you both in Chiang Mai 🙂
Leah, sounds like you had a way better experience teaching than I did – my high school students wouldn’t come to class, would ‘accidentally’ lock us out of our rooms and bring sugar gliders to class in little pouches…it was a zoo. Still grateful that it allowed me the opportunity of living in CM though!
Hey Alana! Ha yeah I guess kindergarten-aged kids can’t get into quite as much trouble as high schoolers, which I am thankful for. My roommates always came home with hilarious stories about their jobs, but I always came home exhausted! 6-year-olds can be so needy!! 🙂
Small world indeed! xx
I’ve love to do this but I’m not sure if I can commit to a teaching contract. Sounds like a wonderful way to make some money and get to know the country though.
I agree, I’m not sure I could commit to one place for a year! But I do think it’s a great option for so many people who want to find a way to live/work abroad.
That’s the beauty of working for a language institute, you typically do not have to sign a long-term contract. Although, because teacher turnover is a huge problem in Chiang Mai, some places are starting to require people to sign contracts in order to weed out the applicants who aren’t really serious about teaching (I saw my fair share of crappy “teachers” over there).
Teaching English definitely seems like the most popular working option in Asia for foreigners. Just a question, you mentioned that you need a TEFL certificate OR a University Degree to start teaching in Thailand, so you don’t need to have a degree in something to be able to do the TEFL course?
Hm, I’m not sure about that Katie — I’m going to ask Leah to jump back in for this one 🙂
You do not need a college degree in order to complete a TEFL course (in fact several people in my course did not have one). Many schools (not language institutes) will only hire people who have a university degree, but there are other teaching jobs to be found that would not require that. I don’t want anyone without a degree to be discouraged from looking for work as an English teacher, because it certainly can be done, there just may not be as many options.
Thanks so much Leah, that is great to know 🙂
Always love these posts, Alex! Keep ’em coming!
Thanks Susan! I’m so happy to hear that!
Did love the comment about corporal punishment that worked its way in there – even though they still practice it on kids’ in school, you won’t get away with knocking somebody out! 😉
I would love to teach English. I actually thought in Thailand you would be basicly earning enough to live, appreicated that you can save too, that’s awesome!
Yeah, the fact that you can save was something that surprised and inspired me about this story as well! Go Leah!
So lucky, I wish there are a big market for Malay language teacher too! Haha
There might be somewhere! 🙂 Do a little digging!
Great stuff Leah and Alex, I just visited Thailand for the first time last month and loved it, but was totally gutted I missed out seeing more of Chiang Mai because my passport was damaged and I had to rush back to Bangkok, as I’d heard great things about Chiang Mai and this is no different!
Always good to have an excuse to go back 😛
Just wanted to tell you how much of a fan I am of your blog – I recently finished reading every last one of your posts on South East Asia!!
I’m currently waiting till November to take on an indefinite trip around South East Asia, hopefully picking up work somewhere along the way! All of your information has been invaluable, and I loved reading all your posts, often making me smile, and also inspiring me to take on some more adventurous activities I wouldn’t of otherwise considered!!
(ps to get through the mediocre and seemingly everlasting days before I leave, I have been reading hundreds of different travel blogs to get inspiration and yours is hands down the best!)
Keep doing what you do 🙂
Hey Brittany! Thank you so much for your kind words and kudos! Sounds like you have an amazing journey ahead. I love to hear that I’ve helped inspire some tiny part of it. Enjoy these last months of butterflies and daydreaming!
The Backpacking community (and Travel Bloggers) is just so small, i briefly met Leah while working in a hostel in Peru!!! So great to see so many females working and blogging around the globe! I too got my TEFL (lots of advice also on my blog) and used it in Ecuador, its well worth it! Keep travelling girls!
Small world indeed! I love those kind of stories 🙂
I’ve been working in South Korea for 10 years and have visited Thailand 6 times! I actually think I should have just worked in Thailand from the start.
Maybe it’s time for a move 🙂 Thailand would love to have ya!
Ahhh….Thailand! I went there so many times on vacation when teaching in Korea, but just couldn’t bring myself to move there. The pay is a bit low, but I’m sure I would have liked it a lot more than Korea 🙂
There often seems to be a trade off between great pay and great location 🙂 I can empathize!