John and I decided about mid-way through our first year that we wanted to sign on for a second year at Super English. It was the best decision we could have made. I haven't regretted it for a second. But it wasn't an easy one to make. We agonized over it for awhile. So, here are some things I've learned through hindsight that would have made that decision a lot easier.
It takes awhile to adjust here. It's hot. And loud and confusing. The food is spicy and the showers are frequently cold. There are lots of mosquitos and lots of kids. I only mention this because it's the stuff that can get under your skin in your first few months. All of this newness compounded with missing family and friends and snow and cheese can lead to some serious new teacher blues. Sometimes people come in and are so happy to be here, that all of this other stuff doesn't sink in until after a few months. Either way, it can be hard to see Surat and teaching here for what it really is. You don't know if you really like it until you've been here for at least six months.
For me, things changed dramatically after that first six months.
I bought a motorcycle. I finally started learning my way around town. Surat grew from the 3 square-km area I'd been circling into a much bigger place. I found favorite places to eat and drink coffee. I discovered the hole-in-the-wall shop where I can find real cheese and found the phone card that lets me call home for 1 baht/minute. I finally learned how to order more than 2 rice dishes in Thai and got to eat more than fried rice and fried basil with chicken for every meal.
Most importantly, teaching became about 100 times easier. I had a really hard time at first, and I didn't really like my students. I subconsciously believed they were out to get me. They weren't. Obviously, they still aren't. I really like teaching now. I like my students so much. But, I didn't really start enjoying them until I'd gotten a handle on the practical aspects of entertaining and controlling a classroom of 55 screaming kids at Thida. I became a much, much better teacher after that first semester.
If this is your first experience teaching in Thailand, the good news is it just keeps getting easier. Lesson planning also becomes about 1 million times easier about half-way through your second semester. Lesson planning time suddenly drops from 1 hour per class to about 10 minutes. You start enjoying your students. You start really enjoying your classes and getting to know the Thai staff and sharing private jokes with your kids, when suddenly, it's time to go home.
1) It's too soon. I love living here. Most people do. Teaching at Super English is great, and Thai kids are fun. We get lots of time off and have very little paperwork to do. This is a great place to live.
I came to Thailand with my husband at the same time as two other teachers. We all started in October. A year after we arrived, two of the four of us were preparing to leave. John and I had already decided to stay on another year. Both of them were so sad. One said this was the best year of his life. Neither wanted to leave. One of them actually decided last minute to stay on. Because of that decision, he ended up with a terrible schedule and only a few hours. It would have been better to decide sooner.
2) You can't explore all the places in just a year. If you come to Thailand for a week, you'll see everything you want to see. But when you're here a year, you realize how much more there is! There are dozens of secluded islands and beaches within just a few hours of Surat. And then, you've got all of northern Thailand, not to mention the surrounding Southeast Asian countries. Seriously, if you want to get the most out of that expensive Transatlantic (or Pacific) flight, stick around awhile. Give yourself time to see everything you want to see and to even go back to a few places you really like more than once.
3) And to be with people that you like! If you're making a career out of teaching around the world, most of your friendships abroad will have a one year expiration date. Super English has a really fun atmosphere among the teachers. Stick around: Get to know people. Get to know people: Have more fun. This isn't just true for our fellow teachers. It's true about Thai people too.
4) It takes awhile for people to start warming up to you. When I showed up for the first day of my third semester, there was a palpable change in the way the Thai teachers at my school looked at me. All of a sudden, the hardened veteran middle school math teacher was grinning at me and pinching my cheeks (Yes, really.) It seems strange, but imagine if you saw new teachers coming in and out every six months. It'd be hard to put your heart out there I'm sure. I've been surprised by how much warmer people are once they realize you're not leaving right away....
5) And that you can speak Thai. OK, so I can't really speak Thai, but Thai people are very, very generous if you just give it a try. I remember being shocked when SE teachers would ask for a bottle of beer in Thai from our neighbors. Then the Thai neighbor would turn to me with a huge grin and say sincerely in English, “He/She speaks Thai so well!” A year and ½ later, I can also “speak Thai so well!” Learning languages doesn't come very easily to me, and it's taken me a while to learn my way around in very basic Thai. But even the little bit I've gotten down has made my experiences here so much better.
6) Cash. Second year teachers get paid more. It's pretty simple: Stay longer =Make more money. There's a bit of an increase in hourly pay, but mainly it's the expenses vs. income that changes. As long as you're here you'll be saving for the next place you go. It's difficult to save money in just a year here. This is a question we get from new teachers' a lot: “Will I be able to save money?” Of course, you can always save money by not spending the money you make. But you know, nobody wants to do that when you're living in beautiful sunny Southern Thailand.
7) This brings me to the issue of stuff. When John and I first got here, we wanted to buy some furniture and a stove and a motorcycle and some other stuff, but we couldn't justify doing any of that if we were just going to be here a year. We didn't have much money saved up, and we wanted to (and did) use most of it for travel. But our second year in, our quality of life is a lot higher. We've
got a really comfortable bed, have adopted homeless cats and dogs and regularly use our little toaster oven. Of course, I'm not saying you should stay somewhere longer just so you can buy stuff! But, if you're freezing through a cold shower and contemplating whether you should go to Chiang Mai for Christmas break or pay 1,500 baht for a hot water heater, sign on for your second year and do both.
8) And this is where I bring up the little issue of professional development, which we don't talk about very much in the travel-TEFL crowd but matters when you've got somewhere you're trying to get to. This is a small school so Super English teachers have the chance for a lot of one-on-one training and counseling. If you have a problem in your classroom, someone will always be here to help you think of creative ways to deal with it. Peter has some excellent strategies and teaching plans that really work with kids. But he's also open to teachers trying almost anything creative to deal with problems in a classroom, and he lets you learn by doing instead of just copying what someone tells you to do.
9) We also get more freedom than any other other teachers' I've met here to do what we want to do with our classes. When I wanted to teach my students to make requests, we played “Honey, let me see you smile” (EFL version: “Will you smile, please?”) for an entire hour. A year later, my students still ask me “Will you smile, please?” when I'm sad. We stand up and scream and run around and shout words in English. It's a lot of fun to be able to teach in your own style.
10) Hugs. Don't laugh. Coming from the U.S., I was so, so, so hesitant about touching my
students my first semester here. And then you've got the whole cultural, no touching on the head or the face or with your feet or blah blah. So, I was paralyzed into No Touching land. But Thai kids LOVE getting and giving hugs. It took me a year to realize the most powerful effect my teaching was having on kids was them knowing that I liked them. And, slowly, I started liking them a little bit and then more and now, a whole lot! I love getting hugs from my tough teenagers and seeing their faces light up when I give them a squeeze on the shoulder or a high 5. This is my favorite part of my job! But it took me awhile to get comfortable with them. And that brings me to:
11) Names. Good luck learning all of your students names in a year. Seriously. Good luck.
12) And last, but most importantly: Super English is a really, really great place to teach. Of course, none of these reasons would matter at all if working here sucked. I think it's impossible to beat this company for work environment, schedule, support for teachers, training and fun. I work with the best group of people I could imagine. SE staff really work to help you become a better teacher. And you can't beat the location. I love how close we are to the beach. Surat has so many amazing restaurants and rice shops to explore, you could never get bored with the same old thing. Air Asia keeps offering cheaper and cheaper flights from Thailand to all over Asia, and I'm finally learning my way around in Thai.
If you want to travel around the world, that's cool. This is a great place to be for just a year. But if you're interested in really experiencing Thai culture, in building relationships with Thais and other foreigners and really knowing this place, stay longer. You don't really get the full experience unless you stick around a little bit.
Are you convinced yet?