Balancing the Teacher vs. Traveler Role in Thailand
by Andrew Cassidy, Greenheart Travel Teacher in Thailand
My time in Thailand has been spent playing one of two roles. Of course my first role is my professional one; an English teacher at a secondary level school. This role fills the standard Monday to Friday, nine to five hours and, with some exceptions, is similar to having an occupation anywhere else in the world. My second role is that of a long-term traveler. I still get to experience this role often, sometimes even in my own town. I am just starting my fourth month here in Tak, Thailand and that still leaves plenty of new experiences to be had without going far from home
When I first arrived in Thailand I had no choice but to play the traveler role. I had never been outside of North America so all my senses were over-stimulated by my Asian surroundings. Riding in a taxi from the airport to my hotel I was fascinated even by the blinking lights on the highway lane markers. Luckily I had a free day to explore Bangkok before teacher orientation started, as well as other teachers to roam the city with. I was very happy to have arrived in Thailand with a group of like-minded explorers. People willing to hop into a tuk-tuk with a relative stranger in a foreign land in hopes of finding cheap beer and food. My first 24 hours in Thailand were spent solely playing my role as a traveler.
The start of orientation reminded me of my upcoming role as a professional. I was not in Thailand simply to travel. I had to practice my teaching skills and prepare myself for my new job. There were a few times when I found myself nervous of my impending responsibilities. Would I actually be able to stand in front of 40 students who barely speak English and do anything besides pronounce words? Still, the nerves never lasted long (and unfortunately neither did my attention in orientation classes) so I found myself waiting for the nights to arrive. Every night during orientation I switched back into travel mode and went out to explore the city further. I was so energized from being in a new place and making new friends that I felt no effects of jet-lag. I did my best to absorb as much information as I could during my orientation classes, but the travel spirit occupied the majority of my thoughts during orientation week. Orientation week also introduced me to a whole new gang of friends. The vast majority of the other teachers were young, adventure-seekers like me, so naturally everyone bonded. One of the great parts about using a company like Greenheart Travel is establishing contacts all over the country.
When the week of preparation ended and I found myself getting on a separate van than my orientation friends, I was kicking myself for having not paid more attention in class. Now the expectations of me as a teacher had been raised, and I could no longer spend all my time in travel mode.
I arrived in Tak a few days before the start of the semester, which I thought would be used to go out and explore my new home. Of course, since I was in Thailand, my expectation of solo exploration was way off. On three consecutive mornings my school coordinator, P’Deng, woke me with a phone call warning me that she was 5 minutes from my apartment. After I hurried to wake up and get dressed, P’Deng would drive me around the city, take me to lunch, give me a tour of the school, or show me where to go shopping. It was a great feeling to know that my coordinator was looking out for me, although a bit shocking since it was way more involved than any boss had ever been back in the US.
My classes during the first week of the semester were nearly identical. Introduce myself to the students and tell them about my home. Describe myself and my interests and try to make that a lesson where they tell me a bit about themselves. I teach the American equivalent of grades 6 and 9, so most of the students still take an active interest in their teachers. The students put me on rock star status that first week, always shouting “Hello!” wherever they saw me, including after school at the market. My anxiety over teaching students went away quickly. My professional role was easy to fall into, since the students and staff at my school provided such a welcoming, positive environment.
After 3 months, I have now struck a balance between my two roles. Lesson planning, teaching classes, and even sometimes standing on stage during morning assembly in front of 2,700 hundred students are all parts of my professional role. The staff at my school is extremely nice, so any questions I had were quickly answered. There is also far less pressure at school to have an exact goal for each class, hold each class accountable to the same pace, or give regular standardized tests. Class start time, coming with books and notebooks, and keeping quiet while the teacher speaks are also American standards observed much more loosely. This allows class to be fun and energetic, rather than focused on test preparation. My professional role as a teacher does not come with the same stress as a professional role would in the US. Because of this relaxation my professional role is extremely enjoyable. The students seem way more enthusiastic to be in class that I remember being at their age, which sets the pace for the whole school’s attitude. Yes, I do have a job with responsibilities, accountability, and meetings, but these do not cause the same stress that my professional duties did back home. Overall I am thrilled to have found an inviting and stress-free working environment. It leaves me plenty of energy to continue filling out my role as a traveler.
I am fortunate that my school encourages me to travel on the weekends. During the work week my co-teachers will speak with me about interesting or fun places I should go see. Added to that is the Facebook group for all the English teachers in our program talking about their weekend adventures. Tak can be a quiet town on the weekend, so when I am craving some adventure and excitement I head to another city. The Thai teachers will always ask the foreign teachers “Where will you go this weekend?” as we say goodbye on Friday afternoon. I love that my school promotes weekend travel. In that way my school encourages me to continue splitting time between my professional and traveler roles.