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Teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand: Alumni Q&A with Joe Barbor
Written by: Joe Barbor
Last Updated: July 19, 2021
What is your citizenship?
What city and state are you from?
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
How old are you?
What is your education level and background?
Have you traveled abroad in the past?
I studied abroad on Paris, France, and have traveled to Vietnam, Mexico, Spain, Singapore, and Cambodia.
What sparked your interest in going to teach English abroad?
After teaching one year of public high school in Louisiana, I knew there had to be a better option.
What were some of your concerns before teaching abroad?
My biggest concern was being so far from home. I was petrified that as soon as I left, something catastrophic was going to happen.
What did your friends and family think about you moving and teaching abroad?
My mother, bless her, offered me ten thousand dollars not to go. She was apprehensive about me moving so far away and understandably so. I also knew better to take her up on the offer because she still owes me ten thousand dollars from that time I cleaned the house for a Christmas party she hosted in 1996. She later visited me in Chiang Mai and fell in love with Thailand's food, culture, and people.
Why did you decide to get TEFL certified and choose International TEFL Academy?
I've never been one for due diligence, but I did my homework as this was such a massive decision. Time after time, ITA came up as the top choice. I once did a knock off TEFL class from a Groupon and found out, shockingly, that it was fraudulent. I should have known because they referred to adjectives as "noun blasters." I knew I needed the best certification I could get on my meager budget, and ITA was the best choice.
Which TEFL certification course did you take?
I took the in-person 4-week TEFL course in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
How did you like the course?
I had the best time taking the course in person. I was 37 when I started, and I thought I might not fit in because I was the weird old guy. It turns out, I was still weird but not the oldest in my class, and it didn't matter anyway. My class consisted of weirdos from around the globe: Australia, Canada, Germany, even Estonia. Never in my life did I think I would meet someone from Estonia, and it turns out, he was the coolest guy I've ever met.
The instructors were precisely who I would tell someone to emulate if they wanted to have a successful teaching career. They were incredibly patient, knowledgeable, and welcoming. I recently messaged my former instructor for some help, and even after two years since I was in the program, he took the time to send me a long list of information I needed. You don't see that kind of dedication out of any other program.
The teaching practicums were some of my favorite memories from the month I spent in the course. We went all over Chiang Mai and taught in schools in the city and way out in the countryside. These are places you'll never get to see, let alone interact with unless you were to take this certification class. By the time you reach that stage of the program, you are so close with your classmates through your shared experience that it turns into an indelible memory.
How has your TEFL training helped you in your current teaching position?
I used most of the techniques I learned when I started my job in Bangkok. More than anything, the training gave me a great deal of confidence that I wouldn't have otherwise had. I not only learned English teaching techniques, but we learned a great deal about Thai culture. After visiting local temples, praying with monks, and touring the Lanna Heritage Museum, I was dedicated to doing my best and representing my country in Thailand.
How long did you teach English in Thailand and why did you choose this location?
I started teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand in 2018 for a year and a half. Thailand had everything I wanted. A low cost of living, warm weather, world-class beaches, the best food I've ever had in my life, and the kindest people on the planet.
What school, company, or program are you working for?
I taught at the Raffles American School.
During which months does your school typically hire?
They are always looking for talented teachers.
Did you secure this position in advance of arriving?
I did not. After I completed my Thailand TEFL course I just looked for job openings.
How did you interview for this position?
It was an in-person interview.
What kind of visa did you enter on and what was the visa process like?
For all of the good things Thailand has going for it, unfortunately, the visa process is not one of them. I arrived on a tourist visa that gave me thirty days in The Kingdom. I could renew that twice while I was in Chiang Mai at the immigration office, and I had to take a bus to the border of Myanmar once to get an overland extension. However, they did lose patience with me being in their country on a tourist visa after almost six months when I took a weekend flight to Phnom Penh, and when I came back, I was detained at the airport. I was able to communicate through my terrible Thai that I was in the process of getting a non-immigrant B visa through my school. My biggest tip would be not to push your luck with immigration like I did. Thailand is filled with beautiful souls who want you to enjoy their stunning country, but you need to respect their visa regulations no matter how frustrating they might be. The absolute best way to stay long term is getting your school to sponsor your non- immigrant B and paying the extra baht to make it a multiple re-entry visa instead of a single entry so you can travel freely. If your school doesn't sponsor it, I would suggest finding one that does.
What are the qualifications that your school requires for teachers?
Bachelor's Degree, a TEFL certification, and you need to be a native English speaker.
What is the best way to apply?
Tell us about your English teaching job!
Since I worked at an American School, the calendar worked as a regular school does in the States. We had summers off, three weeks at Christmas, and most of the significant Thai holidays. It was great because Thailand has holidays all the time. The workload was manageable, and I was able to design my curriculum. The money wasn't life-changing, but international schools in Thailand and worldwide can pay very well if you have advanced degrees. I had many off-hours to prepare, and compared to my responsibilities teaching in Louisiana, teaching in Thailand was a dream come true. I taught children from age four to fourteen, and they are some of the best students you'll ever meet. They're incredibly polite, and the profession of teaching is massively respected. When I taught public school in the States, and many teachers can attest to this, there were times when I was physically threatened, verbally abused, and given wildly unrealistic academic goals to hit in a woefully underfunded environment. My heart goes out to those teachers who are still in it, and I admire their dedication, but I have no problem saying it wasn't for me. Teaching in Thailand was what I always imagined teaching could and should be all over the world.
Please explain the cultural aspects, public transportation, nightlife, social activities, food, expat community, dating scene, travel opportunities, etc...
Thailand is simply one of the best overall countries in the world. I'm speaking anecdotally, of course, but it has it all. The culture is deeply woven into the society, and while Thais can be quirky to the point of exasperation, it's ultimately an endearing quality. Thai people don't chain themselves to time like we tend to do in the West. A bus might say it's coming in ten minutes, but that might mean an hour or maybe not at all. The trick is to get yourself out of that headspace where you think being on time is life or death and realize the universe unfolds as it should at all times. Believe me, it takes a minute, but once you can empty your mind of the noise and live presently, you see what matters: good food, laughter, and cold beer. I'm telling you, Thailand has life figured out. Bangkok has anything you could ever want socially; it’s absolutely massive with a robust ex-pat community. The international airports will take you all over Asia and beyond for a reasonable price, and Grab, their version of Uber or Lyft is incredibly efficient. I could write sonnets about the food, but I'll just say if you haven't had authentic Thai street food, you haven't tasted anything. Sadly, the pandemic age in which we live may have altered the fabric of the country, but the spirit lives on and if you can visit, you absolutely should.
What are your monthly expenses?
You can ball out as much or as little as you want in Thailand. It caters to people of every socioeconomic level. Speaking for myself, I ate on the street, had a gym membership, utilized public transportation, took awesome trips, went to the beach all the time, and was able to swing it for about a thousand dollars a month. If I buckled down, I was able to spend even less. Phone plans are simple to get, and the networks are great. You can get unlimited data for around thirty dollars USD a month. If you work for a school, they will usually help you set up a bank account, but you won't be able to on a tourist visa. Bank accounts are clutch if you're staying long term because cash is king in Thailand, and those ATM fees will add up quickly. Here's a tip: if you find yourself with a thousand baht bill, which most ATMs dispense, break it in one of the many 7/11's you might see on the street. The vendors don't usually carry that much change, and taking all their baht to break your big bill is tacky.
How did you find somewhere to live?
My school had some great tips on low-cost living options in the area. I ended up living in a tucked-away part of Bangkok called Bang Na. The apartment complex was totally chill, affordable, and had a beautiful pool that I utilized daily. I'm not the boastful type, but we had two 7/11's in the complex right across from one another. If you ever visit Thailand, you'll notice the ubiquity of this convenience store chain. It seems crazy to have so many stores until you absolutely need a cheese toasty and a cold Leo beer, and you see one shining across the street like a lighthouse of melted dreams.
How would you describe your standard of living?
I subscribe to the minimalist philosophy of freeing yourself from the prison of possessions. That being said, I did buy a lot of t- shirts there, including one featuring the face of Neil Patrick Harris that said, "Trust Me, I'm a Doctor." The markets are the place to buy clothes; you can get anything you want for much cheaper than in the malls that tend to be more expensive. The malls are a lot of fun, though, and a great place to cool off in April when it gets hotter than the surface of Mercury. My standard of living, for what I was paying, was high. I'm more of a beer on the beach than a bottle service guy, so I didn't find the simple living to be a burden at all. It's a freeing feeling when you realize you don't have to worry about money if you don't want to. Live within your means, spend less than you make, and you'll have a fantastic time.
In your opinion, how much does someone need to earn in order to live comfortably?
Most schools, if you have a TEFL and a degree, will pay you at the very least around 1000 USD a month. Considering the prices in Asia, it's more than enough if you stick to the basics.
What advice would you give someone planning or considering teaching abroad? Would you recommend teaching in your country?
Apprehension is the biggest hurdle; what if something happens? What if I go broke? What if I get arrested for running nude through a temple? All valid concerns, but the world keeps on spinning whether you're sitting on your couch in New Orleans or catching a weekend flight to Railay Beach. If you're even considering it, then it means you've reached a point in your life where you probably need to do it; my advice is to go. Write down every concern you might have, call ITA, and ask them what you want to know. They have fantastic representatives that will put your mind at ease and help you with the process. Thailand turned out to be the exact place I was meant to go, and it changed my entire life.
Joe Barbor is a 39-year-old teacher, writer, and LSU alum from New Orleans, Louisiana. After a mildly distinguished career in marketing, he decided to chase the money and become a public school science teacher. After a year in the St. Bernard Parish school district, Joe took the leap and bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand, to immerse himself in the land of smiles.
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