I’m giving you a fair warning in advance: This post will not be an inspirational manifesto to all of the greatness of travel. I’m going to tell the truth about our past situation, and it’ll most likely be a bitch fest. But it’ll be a very honest bitch fest, and hopefully a helpful one to those looking to teach English abroad.
I’ve been going back and forth about writing this, and then even more back and forth about actually publishing it. Over the last three months, I’ve received so many emails and messages asking about Teaching English Abroad and about my experience, what it was really like, whether I would recommend it or not, etc. While my number one goal is to inspire others to travel and see the world, I also don’t want to push others into a bad situation. I started this blog over two years ago to record my adventures, inspire others to travel and recount my perspective about traveling the world and living abroad. That means being completely honest about the good… and the bad.
I’ve had many friends teach English abroad and absolutely love it. They rave about the experience any chance they can, and some even went back to teach again. This seems to be the case about 80% of the time, and I’m not giving up on teaching English abroad just yet. I just wish I had a bit more guidance on what to do if we drew the short straw of English agencies in South East Asia, instead of the usual “Omg, you’re just going to love it no matter what.” Because, guess what, we didn’t love it. We quit.
So here I am, 276 words later, finally starting my story of the last two months of my life teaching English in Thailand.
It all started back in January when Sam and I decided to take a job offer with an agency in Thailand to teach English starting in May. During the interviews, we were woo’d and seduced with the lure of three day weekends, 22 teaching hours a week, free accommodation, health insurance, 25 paid personal leave days and 30 paid sick days. I mean who wouldn’t want to join in on all of the fun with all of those benefits! We were told it was a 30,000 baht per month salary, which is less than we hoped for but were assured it was the going rate around the town. AND the agency was the only one we interviewed with that said it was okay we had to leave for Sam’s brothers wedding in Colombia for three weeks in the middle of the term. All was fine and dandy. Less than two weeks later, we had our flights booked.
After we accepted the positions, we had a Skype call with the recruiter, who then decided to tell us that there was a mandatory training for two weeks before term started. We were also told that since I completed my TEFL online, I had to participate in their own TEFL Foundations certification. Oh ya, and that’s unpaid. After the TEFL training, we start to teach full time, but there’s this little loophole called “probation”, where we teach for five days 6-8 hours a day. Oh ya, and that’s unpaid too. So here we were, left with little to no choice of me being unpaid for an entire month, but also being expected to pay rent and other miscellaneous expenses we weren’t told about before arriving.
Never mind all of that. We were excited and ready to teach our little Thai students, and we disregarded some of the warning signs that were showed to us well in advance to arriving in Thailand.
Before settling in Surat, we traveled to Phuket to train at Tiger Muay Thai, and from there we were en route to Penang, Malaysia to pick up our 90 Day Visas. I had triple checked that all of the documents we needed to obtain our visas was printed out and in complete order. I obsessed over having second copies of everything. Once I arrived in Phuket, I felt so relaxed about the whole process. Until we received an email in completely broken English saying that we needed to pick up the original documents from the school before heading to Penang. Umm I’m sorry? We were leaving for Penang the next morning, and had told the school we were in Phuket a million times before hand. Was this not the 9th year the agency was operating and sending teachers on visa runs?
We came to a conclusion that the agency must send a courier to our hostel in Penang, where ours, along with the other teachers’ documents, would be delivered. So now, we were in charge of being at our hostel to pick up our documents and then also making sure the other teachers received theirs, as well. How was this our problem? Warning signs started piling in after that, but we were hopeful at the moment with our 90 Day Visas in our hands and big grins on our faces.
Stepping off the plane and onto Surat’s soil, I was sure this was going to be the greatest year yet. I was bright-eyed and eager and ready to make a difference. We’re both really hard-working people, and we wanted to help the school in any way we could. Sam offered to help with extra-curriculars, and I offered to help the school with their social media efforts. Neither of which were taken up on.
We were picked up from the bus station, and dropped off at our humble abode. At first, I was taken back by its Thai charm and bright green paint, and then I took a real good look around at the dingy walls, broken cupboards and two inches of dust coating every surface of our room. We immediately went to the closest shop and bought about 1000 baht ($30 USD) worth of cleaning supplies. There went our entire afternoon, we were set off to clean the rest of the day. Six hours later, we were completely covered head to toe in dirt, dust and sweat. We haven’t even made a dent in the amount of work we needed to get done, and hadn’t even looked at the bathroom that was shared amongst four people.
On top of all the dirt and grime, there was a trail of termites in the wall right next to our bed. The “air conditioning” didn’t even properly work, and when we turned it on, black specks were spurted across the room, making us reluctant to breathe the air because of mold. But the real determining factor of the absolute disgusting state the room was left in was the fact that there was condoms, candle wax and other unmentionables strewn across the whole room. I just felt that we would never ever ever feel clean in that room. The bed bent inwards in the middle. The cupboards were all hanging off its hinges, and the spare bedroom literally looked like it was straight out of a horror film scene.
This was the accommodation they were offering us. We quite simply said that if something couldn’t be changed, we can’t live like this. We didn’t care that “It’s Thailand, get over it” is the usual response you get about everything. It may be Thailand, but we weren’t going to live in a shithole for a year. Immediately, they moved us into a nicer, newer 1 bedroom apartment, that would later prove to be yet another problem the agency got us into. But at the moment, we were happy to feel clean and not completely covered in termites and mold.
From there, we continued to go to training (unpaid) and continued to hand in our lesson plans for the first two weeks (also extra work that was unpaid), and continued to basically work for free until everyone started catching on how unfair the whole process was. But as soon as it really started to get unbearable, we finally got paid. A whole whopping 13,000 baht (About $500 USD). And that was supposed to last us until the following month’s pay, along with all of the extra costs incurred.
We were then told that Sam’s brothers wedding we were attending in August (the very same one they said we could leave for at the beginning of the recruitment process) was going to be a problem. They told us we had to find cover for those three weeks for both of us, which we thought wouldn’t be a problem. Until we arrived, and we figured out that they don’t pay the teachers who cover for you… Ummm, so who is going to cover for us for three weeks unpaid? Their response, “Oh well it’s only fair if you pay those teachers out of your own pocket.” Ummmm, what? I’m sorry, who’s the employer here? Well, let’s just say we got that sorted reaaaal fast, because there was no way in hell we would be unpaid for a month for a wedding we had to attend and then on top of it having to pay the teacher covering for us…
While all of this was happening, Sam started to get overwhelmed with how much he hated the process of education here. As an educator, he was appalled with the “nobody fails here” and “just write the answers in the book” mentality. He just couldn’t wrap his head around listening to his own voice repeat the same directions 80 times in one hour. I literally had a 12 year old almost make me cry because he was being so mean. Weren’t the Thai students supposed to respect teachers? That’s all I’ve been hearing from my friends about their experience teaching abroad, and most of my kids couldn’t give a shit about learning English or even about me. So on May 26 we decided that the agency wasn’t offering us much more to outweigh the shitty feeling we felt at school.
Soon after, we received the electric bill from our apartment, and it was an extortionate amount of 2,300 baht ($77 USD) for a month’s worth of electricity and water. We had been so frugal with our A/C, barely turning it on, we unplugged every power point before we left for the day, and rarely had any lights on. We couldn’t believe what we read, especially because every other teacher had said they pump the A/C through their whole HOUSE and it never goes above 1300 baht, but we had a tiny one room studio apartment and it amounted to that… Little did we know, that the agency signed a contract with the our landlady agreeing to the utilities rate. The manager said not to worry and it would get sorted out, and in typical form, we got a call a few days later saying it’s not the agency’s problem anymore and we had to pay within the hour or our electricity would be shut off. Another prime example of the school not taking responsibility for anything it says it will do.
From there it all went downhill really, the manager asked us to stay for two weeks extra to help the school find a replacement for the two of us, and even though we quit during probation period and didn’t have to abide by the rules, we still agreed to stay. Then right after, he came back and begged us to stay for another week. So we drew up our demands and what we wanted if we stayed for three weeks to help the school, and the school agreed and signed. Apart of these demands were that we were to be paid for the “hours that we have worked” as opposed to their bullshit, loophole scheme of 1,000 baht per day X 30 days = 30,000 baht salary. So even though we would have worked two full working weeks in June, we would only be paid up to June 12th, and therefore be paid 12,000 baht instead of the owed 15,000 baht for a half a month’s of work. Knowing the agency would find a way to screw us over, we specifically made sure to write the “hours” as opposed to the “days” in the new contract, which the school signed. It also stated in our new contract that the school couldn’t take any of the housing deposit on our apartment out of our last paycheck.
Well both of these stipulations in the contract were voided. The agency took 3,000 baht out of our pay for our scumbag of a landlady to decide if our apartment was in “appropriate condition.” Their reasoning behind it was because they had lost too much money on the apartment and we just “had to understand.” Um no, I don’t understand. That’s your problem. My problem is getting paid correctly, which we weren’t, because the school also decided to overlook the second stipulation and still pay us by the day instead of the hour. Needless to say, there was a huge fuss kicked up about it as we had finally had the last straw with this agency. With two days left of teaching, we told the manager we would no longer be working at the school and not coming into work the next day or the following. We demanded to be paid what we were owed, and after fighting tooth and nail, we were finally paid. The managers were in shock about how we managed to “figure out the hourly wage”, as if it was a secret to all of the employees. So here it is – 30,000 baht divided by 88 hours in a month = 340 baht. WHOA MAGIC. Oh and also, the hourly wage is 340 baht an hour, but for some reason the agency got away with paying 300 baht an hour for overtime. They also acted like no one else knew this. Except every teacher knows it, we’re not idiots.
On top of that, we became good friends with other teachers in the area. Turns out we were being paid the least out of all of the major schools… At that point, we weren’t even shocked. It was just hysterical.
To be honest, it should have all been a very simple and easy process. We put in our notice during the probation period without a fuss. We didn’t even tell the other teachers about quitting out of respect for the school and the new teachers starting out. We didn’t want to make a scene right away. We agreed to stay on three extra weeks to help the agency find a solid replacement. And then all we were asking was to be paid the appropriate amount, for the appropriate amount of hours we worked. Not a penny more, but because of their inability to treat employees like more than a price tag, they couldn’t wrap their head around it.
I mean, I guess it speaks loads about the agency when two more teachers quit right after us, and a handful more are planning to quit soon. I’m glad we got out when we did. I’m glad we eventually got paid correctly. I’m glad we made the amazing friends we did while at school. I love Surat Thani and its quirkiness. I love the memories and road trips and pier nights and our favourite restaurants. I loved learning Thai, and so so so much more. But I am so glad the professional side of this experience is over.
I really hope this opens a few of your eyes up to the fact that not every agency or school is going to be a good one. I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying the experience out because like I said 9 times out of 10 it’s an amazing one. But please please please ask all of the right questions before accepting a position, and even more importantly, please don’t be afraid to quit if it’s not what you expected. There’s a million and one jobs teaching English out there, and there’s no point being unhappy in one.
At the moment, I’m writing this blog post on the beach watching the sunset fade in Koh Tao. There are no regrets 🙂