The Grind: A Day in the Life of an ESL Teacher

A lot of sites on the web try an offer an explanation of what ESL teaching is like- responsibilities, lifestyle, schedule, etc. Most of them are broad enough to ‘describe’ any job from prostitution to religious ministry. So, in an effort to provide a more accurate idea of what ESL teaching can be (not will be, because each job is going to be different), I want to describe a typical day at Triumbundhit School in Lam Luk Ka.

The Morning:

The day starts at 6:30 am. which allows for 30 minutes of preparation before catching the bus at 7. The bus ride is easy and fairly quick and the speed bumps and open windows make for some waking up. After checking in, breakfast and a cup of iced coffee will set you back 30 baht. The menu is made up of 5 meat dishes, of which you pick two, over some rice. The 5 meats are generally the same, with two specials present about once a week.

After breakfast, you stroll out to the front gate to greet the arriving parents and students for 30 minutes. When the gate is closed, the song from Mario comes on and everyone congregates in the parking lot. You stand in the back, silently, while they raise the Thai flag, say a prayer, make the day’s announcements, and practice the multiplication tables. 10 minutes of meditation closes the morning assembly, leaving you with 45 minutes until your first class. I usually listen to yesterday’s news on my iPod or take a nap.

Assuming you have my job and it’s Tuesday, the day is hectic. At 9:00 you cross the street to the kindergarten and enter your first class. I start class with 10 minutes of ‘good morning’ and ‘how are you,’ to make sure they have greeting down. After the review, a warm up performance or two of ‘head, shoulders, knees, and toes’ is in order, followed by 15 minutes of singing and chanting some oddly non-rhythmic songs off of a children’s CD. I close the class with a 3 minute, Wild Things worthy, Beatles fueled dance rompus. I will do this 3 times for the next hour and a half.

After the kindergarten classes are done there is a 20 minute snack break. While the kids eat and scream, I tend to hit the computer lab for the latest at si.com, to read email, and check on the blog. At 11:10, it’s back to class: Intensive English Program level 2/3. This class is tough, not everyone in the intensive program should be, leaving half the class at an English level of the kindergartners. This class also meets 5 times a week, so the excitement of me coming in has worn off, they would rather muay thai and draw. I only try to teach on Tuesday. Monday is a review day and coloring with any left over time (usually about 20 minutes), Wednesday and Thursday are work book days, and Friday I don’t try to do anything- I pass out paper to draw on and practice English with the 7 kids that are eager to learn.

After IEP 2/3, its lunch. Probably you wont like it. The soups are good about 50% of the time and the curries are tasty; but, there is also hot dog fried rice, beef gelatin, chicken gelatin, and assorted other unidentifiable things. Lunch is free though, so if you are really hungry there are chicken wings and fries available at the snack counter.

The Afternoon:

The afternoon is long, 4 classes are lined up. IEP 1/3 is smart and loves you, so that class is generall a breeze. There will be lots of hugging and you will say ‘underwear’ and ‘kfc’ a lot. Class should be split into three parts: go over new words/structures, workbook, game. Make sure you keep your eye on Heng Heng (lucky) who likes to act like a dog and is thus aptly named ‘scooby’ in your class. He will try to disrupt it at all costs, but at 35 pounds he is an ideal means of weight lifting.

On your way to the next class, you will be screamed at by every person in the school: “TEACHER!” You will have to nod or say hi at least 400 times and several kids will burn you by high fiving you with a hand coated in something you don’t want on you. Though they see you every day and do this between every class, you will never get a day off.

IEP 1/4 is a sharp contrast to your previous class. This class has several mentally disabled kids (yeah, in the intensive course, that’s right) who are tough to keep from distracting everyone (self-defication and random guitar hero solos are always around the corner). You can tell they have an adverse affect on the class as only 2 students speak English at the level of 1/3. This class is not worth getting upset over. Speed through the vocab and give the class the next 40 minutes to do workbook. They won’t be able to do any of it, so set up a line where they come to you and you tell them the answer to the next three questions. Bring lots of cough drops because at this point your voice is gone from yelling basic instructions and new vocab words.

On your way to the next class you are on “hi” duty again. This time you will walk by the older kids so expect to garner lots of attention and giggles from girls. Also be ready for a stray curse word from the boys, when you catch one it makes your day. You get to scare them with your response that it isn’t ok to swear at teacher. They don’t know what you’re saying, but you get to pull out your best, prison worthy crazy eyes.

Time for your first conversation class of the day, it’s 2/1. This class is wonderful- they are happy to see you and they seem to want to learn English. Well, some of them. Teach the 10 kids a new line and 3 new words. They really like the random call on method to check if they are learning/paying attention. If you have a rolled up packet of paper, use it as a gun or bat to illustrate when a student is wrong. They love this. If a kid does something really dumb, the ‘fun bat’ also serves as an excellent bludgeon. Note: Beating kids is wrong the world round, but a worthy smack to the shoulder with the bludgeon is money in a society that routinely uses corporal punishment.

The gauntlet of ‘hi’s’ and ‘high fives’ on the way to your final class.

Your final class, the light is near. This class is a blow off, you have had too many teaching hours already today. Tray and teach them a new phrase and maybe 2 words in the first 15 minutes, then distribute some sort of coloring activity. Generally you can find something related and further the lesson, but not always, that’s ok.

You now get a drink downstairs and provide 300 more high fives, this time accompanied by ‘good byes.’ After, there is one hour of ‘office hours.’ No one comes to your office, so you can go read the news on the internet downstairs.

Arrive home at 5:00pm.

Now, I want to stress again that not every job is the same: schools vary, grade levels vary, student levels vary, etc. Some of our friends have 2 classes a week! Some have real teaching jobs. However, get used to the idea that if you come to Asia, there is a high probability that you will receive a similar ‘baby sitting’ style job, as young learners are a huge demographic and schools rarely have any curriculum in place. As a result, kids are provided with random, spartan instruction that was largely dependant on the skills/motivation of the instructor. If you have a class book, that can help provide some structure, but it’s pretty difficult to teach a class that has mentally disabled kids, above average students, far below average students, and of course average students. How do you keep them all happy?

I look forward to posting a follow-up to this post next semester, as my next job looks to be completely opposite of Triumbundhit. Sattriwitaya 2 school is the largest governmental school in the country and the Special English Program offered to the high school students is highly selective. I got to teach a class there already and the students were essentially fluent in English, were reading Stoker’s “Dracula,” and wanted to ask me about college in the U.S as many were applying. I was excited to see that there was a curriculem in place and each classroom is air conditioned, equiped with smart board and computer, and has internet access. So, I would assume that version two of this will provide a much different look at ESL teaching in Thailand.

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  1. Semra

    wow i got a good laugh out of this. . . maybe I shouldn’t be reading this in class. . . note to self read when it is okay to laugh out load

    :)

    Mar 09, 2010 @ 8:38 pm


  2. marchesano

    great daily run-down, love the contrast between teaching those that actually want to learn compared to everyone else… also hilarious that they love the random call on method

    Apr 30, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

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