By: Kirsten Iverson
It all began about two years ago. Everyday on my way to work, I passed the International TEFL Academy office in Chicago and everyday I stared at it, hoping, wondering, wishing for a sign to quit my job and teach English abroad. I finally sent an email to a TEFL Advisor, started thinking about where I wanted to go and how I could save enough money, but never pulled the trigger.
Months and months later, I met Stefano. We are the same person, with the same sense of adventure and love for life. We had an amazing time in Chicago, exploring the city and trying everything, all new to him since he is from Italy. His visa was expiring in the U.S. and the clock started ticking. Were we going to stay together? What was going to happen when August rolled around? Was our relationship serious? It was. We decided we couldn't be apart. Where could we go? What would we do?
Having studied abroad in Spain and having studied Spanish for many years, the obvious choice would have been a Spanish speaking country, but we wanted something crazy, something different. And then there it was: Thailand. Neither of us had ever been to Asia. The weather is incredible, the food to die for, cost of living is low and the people are very kind.
After graduating from Mizzou, I immediately regretted not studying Education. All the jobs I was interested in wanted an Education degree. The TEFL course gave me the opportunity to teach and even better than that, abroad. The International TEFL Academy offers a mixed course in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Pattaya, Thailand. I signed up.
Then came the time to tell my family and friends… You are moving across the world with a guy you have known for less than a year!? You are moving to Thailand? Where is Cambodia? Everyone was happy for me. My family knew I wasn’t meant to sit still, how unhappy I had been at my job and how in love Stefano and I were. It was all beginning…
The TEFL Course
I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, late at night. The airport was one of the smallest I had ever seen. I came down the escalator and the terminal was literally one room. The first thing I set eyes on was a woman holding a sign that says “Beware of diseases” (or something along these lines); she hands me a pamphlet. "Good thing I got my vaccines," I think to myself. I walk out the doors and am swallowed by deep Cambodian heat; straight ahead, I see a Dairy Queen. Where am I again? I walk through crowds of Cambodian people waiting for their loved ones and find a tiny man holding a sign for me. He doesn't speak any Englishbut ushers me to follow him. I am dragging my two very heavy bags (yes, I over packed) through the parking lot and looking around for some sort of van but he takes me and another student to a tuk tuk (a motorized rickshaw common in Southeast Asia). I laugh to myself wondering if there are two of them. Nope. One driver, one cart, two girls, four BIG suitcases. He manages to lift all of our suitcases into the tuk tuk and we climb in on top. Oh how I wish I had a picture of this!
Cambodia is a place unlike anywhere I have been. The people have an astonishing story and the country a devastating past. It is amazing how much they rebuilt in such a short time. I had one free day to get oriented and get over jet leg and then it was time to start classes. What was nice about the course was that we took classes in the same building as our accommodations. It is surreal getting back into the habit of going to school all day. The first day anxiety, meeting your classmates, wondering if the teacher will like you?! The first part of the class not only helped prepare me for teaching but for life in Asia.
Two weeks later, life in Cambodia was over, and it was time for Thailand. We were excited to cross the border to our new home. The trip was long and bumpy; a lot of the roads in Cambodia are dirt. As soon as we reached Thailand we could feel it (literally). The streets became paved, the landscape greener. We arrived in Pattaya and there were only three of us in the class now. We had a new instructor and she was great. The exciting part was beginning, we got to take Thai lessons, start our practicum teaching, make our own lesson plans and apply to jobs.
My practicum teaching was amazing. It was the perfect Thai teaching experience. I knew before coming that I wanted to teach Kindergarten so when I got my practicum assignment, I was especially happy. We had to drive 45 minutes out of Pattaya to get there but I didn’t care. I would be teaching K1, K2 and K3. On my first day, I was so nervous I was shaking. How could I be nervous standing in front of a bunch of 3 year-olds? Besides the nervousness, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride to stand in front of these children and teach them something they could use to travel the world or find a job. Their smiles brought a smile to my face everyday and the whisper of just one English word had us high-fiving. The classroom was like a courtyard. There was a roof over us but no walls. We were outside and it was hot; besides the occasional breeze from the fan, there was no relief. When I finished working with a class, I would be dripping sweat. The kids could not speak English and we had no materials, not even a white board! The Thai teachers were strict. If a student talked they would hit them with a ruler; one day the Thai teacher even put tape over a students mouth. In Thailand this is completely normal and acceptable. For me this was crazy and unacceptable, and I felt so bad for the little kids. This practice teaching prepared me for the future. I was able to teach with no materials, engage kids who could speak zero English, and survive with no air conditioning. It also taught me that my number one requirement when looking for a job was to have air conditioning. They were very kind to us and thankful that we were there. When we finished the practicum, they gave us a key chain that I still keep on my keys. It was sad to say goodbye to my first group of kids. But I knew it would not be my last.
Kirsten is an ESL Kindergarten Teacher in Bangkok, Thailand. Sick of freezing winters, short summers and an office with no window she moved to Asia to teach and travel. She can be found on the back of a motorbike taxi hanging on for dear life, trying to order coconut shakes in Thai or lounging by the pool.
For more on Kirsten's adventures, check out her other writings: