Teaching English in Thailand | What You Can Expect in the Classroom

Last Updated on April 3, 2024 by Kylie

As an English teacher in Thailand (kru farang), many notable differences between Thai and American education caught me by surprise! Here’s what you can expect as a foreigner teaching English in Thailand!

Curious to know what happens on a typical day? Click here to find out!

All photos were uploaded with permission

Thai elementary student completing an English assignment

Is there a dress code for English teachers in Thailand?

YES. I arrived while Thailand was celebrating King Rama X’s coronation (May 2019). In his honor, all teachers (local and foreign) wore yellow every day for four months, unless we were told otherwise, from his coronation date until his birthday in July.

In Thailand, each day of the week has an assigned color, and since the king was born on a Monday, the royal color was declared yellow. Wearing this illustrated loyalty, honor, and respect towards the country and king.

Regardless of status, everyone was expected to wear yellow, except students. If I ran out, white or any light color sufficed. Dark colors showed mourning and therefore were to be avoided (i.e. black and grey were worn for one year to honor King Bhumibol’s passing in 2016).

Thai elementary students walking to class

Aside from yellow, the dress code for us teaching abroad was quite conservative. Blouses had to cover shoulders, chest, and midriff. If I opted for a dress, it had to reach my knees and the same went for skirts. Pants weren’t allowed for female teachers (this is often school-dependent) and shoes had to be closed-toe.

Student attire was just as conservative but changed each day of the week.

  • Mondays and Thursdays: Thai school uniform including a white collared top with a long, navy blue skirt (for girls) or khaki shorts (for boys), and school shoes
  • Tuesdays (P.E. days): The school’s athletic pink top, black sweatpants, and tennis shoes
  • Wednesdays (Thai scout days): For primary school girls, blue scout dresses, navy blue collars, and matching blue scout hats. For boys, brown scout tops, khaki shorts, knee-high socks, and a matching brown scout hat
  • Fridays: School colors including their pink school uniform with a navy blue skirt (girls) or khaki shorts (boys)

Thai teachers also dressed in accordance to the days with their own attire that correlated with the students. Also, Thai schools required female students to have their hair cut in a bob, or braided (often accessorized with blue bows).

My BIGGEST challenge teaching in Thailand: COPYING!

In Thai culture, people selflessly help one another in every circumstance and the classroom is no exception. When kids had trouble comprehending lessons, they were encouraged to copy off of their classmates because it was a form of helping others. I tried explaining why I wanted them to complete their own work, however, the kids couldn’t fully grasp why. One girl said, “But Teacher, she is my friend. I want to help her.”

While teaching English abroad, I was encouraged by both my teach abroad program and school coordinators to have students complete their own work. Enforcing this was challenging since foreign teachers were the only ones implementing this rule, while other Thai teachers allowed students to copy one another. I was torn as a foreign teacher between adhering to this difference in Thai culture and implementing something I strongly believed would benefit students.

In addition to copying peers, students had tended to copy everything exactly as I shared. For instance, when creating family trees, I showed an example of mine and suddenly everyone had an Uncle Glenn. Initially, I was disheartened (as this occurred every time I gave autonomous work) and assumed I wasn’t clear on my instructions. However, I learned this is a common occurrence for foreigners teaching English abroad.

Elementary students in Thailand completing an English assignment
P1 on a Wednesday

Side note! In Thailand, every student passes, however, grading is school-dependent. At mine, students were allowed to retake tests as many times as needed until they passed, while my friends at other schools were told to just change the students’ answers or grades. This aspect of the education system was largely due to maintaining face. Regardless, students are expected to try their best.

They allow WHAT in the classroom?!

We all know America has a reputation for gun violence around the world. However, in Thailand, it’s not uncommon to see kids holding toy guns, laughing, and pretending to use them in school. In fact, many students used their pencil cases as guns in class. To them, it was just innocent play and no big deal, but to me, I was shocked seeing the casual nature of it around the country.

Every market I went to had multiple vendors selling toy guns. Out of everything I experienced while teaching abroad, this was hands down the craziest cultural difference for me. I’m so used to guns associated with violence, that seeing toy guns played with so casually seemed almost unreal.

Respect in Thai Education

One aspect I truly admired about Thai education was the level of respect students had for authority figures. At the beginning of every class, students stood to wai (hands folded in a prayer position) and said …

“Good morning Teacher Kylie. How are you?”

(To which I responded with) “I’m ____. How are you?”

“I’m fine. Thank you.”

At the end of each class, students rose again to wai and say …

“Thank you Teacher Kylie. See you again next time.”

In Thai culture, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body, while the feet are the lowest. In light of this, respect is also demonstrated with the removal of shoes. When students returned from morning assembly, they removed their shoes before entering the classroom.

Elementary students in Thailand sitting at morning assembly
Students sitting politely before teachers (notice their yellow attire)

Whenever students needed help, they came up to my desk and seated themselves on the floor. This honored the hierarchy and authority of my position as a teacher. Similarly, in passing, they lowered their heads as a sign of respect.

Respect Amongst Teachers (including those teaching abroad)

When it comes to teachers, two elements come into play:

  1. Position within the school
  2. Age

Everyone is expected to show their fullest respect towards the administrative staff, especially the director, and demonstrate respect by using a proper wai, kneeling, and offering refreshments at school events.

Anytime the director passed by, we had to wai and lower our heads and if the director was seated, we were to sit on the ground, illustrating Thailand’s value of authority.

And lastly, similar to how in Hawai’i we address someone older as “aunty” or “uncle”, in Thailand, an older person is addressed with “P” and a younger with “nong”, followed by their nickname. You’d hear their names such as: P’ Pui and P’ Wow

English teachers in Thailand with Thai school teachers
A few of the ESM teachers on my last day

With all of these in mind, you’re much more prepared to take on the Thai classroom! Understanding Thai customs and values is critical when it comes to teaching English abroad.

Take a look at these for more insight!

King Rama X’s Coronation

The Mourning of King Bhumibol (Rama IX)

Why Thai Students Copy in School

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