A TET ETA and Thai English teacher stand together in front of a class of children

The challenges facing the English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) who spend 9 weeks in Thailand may be great, with mosquitos, monsoon rain and a brand new culture to get to grips with, but the payoff is far greater. Not many programmes give you the chance to visit one of the most beautiful countries in the world, really get to know the locals, help prepare children for the future, all while adding to your CV and getting valuable real world work experience.

The Thailand English Teaching (TET) Programme is now in its fourth year with 142 undergraduate students from 37 universities across the UK, working as ETAs across the country.   Since TET started in 2012 around 600 Thai teachers of English, over 500 schools and around 200,000 Thai students have had the chance to have daily direct contact with over 600 UK students.

This year the ETAs are working in 94 primary and secondary schools from both state and private sectors and vocational schools in 45 provinces of Thailand. After an initial training programme in the UK, online and in Bangkok, conducted by British Council teaching staff, they travelled to their assigned school to support the teaching and learning of English for a 9 week period until the end of August.

Read more about TET below, including the wide ranging benefits of the programme and the experience of two ETAs from 2013 who returned as interns in 2014.

Benefits of TET

The benefits of TET are far reaching with all participants gaining something from the experience.  The Thai English teachers benefit from having a UK native speaker of English who can support their everyday work in and out of the classroom. The pupils will have, maybe for the first time in their lives, the chance to speak and listen to a young person whose first language is English, to hear pronunciation "live", to interact with a person of a different culture and to learn at first-hand about life and culture of the UK.  This can increase motivation to learn English greatly.

The benefits of this project, however, are not just one way.  There is real mutual benefit for both Thailand and the UK.  The ETAs themselves will in return have the opportunity to live in Thai communities, away from the tourist trail, to learn about Thailand's unique culture, to sample its food, to learn a little of the Thai language, to develop the links and understanding that leads to further and deeper interactions. This gives them invaluable international experience, the confidence to engage with people from other cultures, the track record in learning and speaking another language.  All of which is hugely attractive to future employers and international businesses operating in the global economy.

ETA, Rachel Murphy recently received a scholarship with BP and claimed that “at my interview they absolutely loved my English Teaching Assistant experience and I'm pretty confident it was what made me stand out compared to the other candidates as the interviewer was really intrigued by it”. 

Afope AdeniyiI works as a marketing assistant for Camp America (a recruitment company that sends young people to work in the States) and says that “A good 70% of my interview was questions based on my experience in Thailand and what I got from it. They were VERY impressed with my time there, and it showed really good communication and problem solving skills which are transferable to marketing. It also showed my ability to work independently and that I can be 'outgoing' which was what they were looking for”.

Thailand's aspirations to develop its economy, to take part in international education and to engage with regional and global organisations, depend in large part on the ability of its citizens to be competent and confident users of English.  The ASEAN community will put this into sharp focus, when English will be the common language of SE Asia, not just at the highest levels of government, but throughout business, education and the cultural world.  With English as a basic skill in all of these interactions, Thailand's competitiveness is very much linked to its ability to teach its citizens the language.

Charlotte Ogilvie - PR and Communications Intern

What were some of the highlights of being an ETA?

I have some wonderful memories; living in a wooden teacher house with no windows in a tiny village 10 hours away from Bangkok; white water rafting down the river Khek with a gang of fellow ETAs over a long weekend; gradually getting to grips with a new language and having my first conversation entirely in Thai; sitting under a hot tin roof surrounded by Thai teachers as the light in the grey sky above faded into the vast rice paddy and guitar music and Thai songs filled the air; seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter of my students as we pretended to be animals, ice skaters or government officials in a hot classroom at a small school in a village where foreigners don’t go.

What were some of the challenges of being an ETA?

There were a few challenges: Sweating constantly; being bitten by mosquitoes; being conspicuous at all times; trying to get students not just to copy things but to understand them; going to staff meetings which were entirely incomprehensible to me; running out of English books to read; finding nice vegetarian street food; feeling like simple tasks are no longer simple because of the language barrier (though this eases over time).

However, the highlights far outweighed the challenges!

What was your most memorable classroom moment?

“Teacher Angel, are you single?” I approved of my new nickname, less so the question following it. Surrounded by 18 year old technical college students I knew that I’d have to do something different to keep the class’ attention whilst teaching them about British culture. I was visiting another ETA and was used to cute pre-teens, so this class presented a new challenge. However, without any lesson plan, I taught them some of the basic steps of the Highland fling, because if any of the students ever do go to the UK, what could be more useful? I noticed that one of the boys was sitting alone and not participating. I tried to coax him to join the class. Laughter filled the room, and he blushed. His classmates kindly, if somewhat too late, pointed out the crutches that were propped up against the wall behind him.

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of becoming an ETA?

Are you interested in teaching? Are you a good communicator? Are you open minded? Can you take care of yourself?

Are you willing to learn about a new culture and to adapt to a different environment rather than expecting it to change to suit your needs or desires? Home comforts and luxuries are not part of the deal – some people will have access to wi-fi and western toilets, many others will not.

Look at it as a chance for professional development; you are there to work in Thai schools. Though many ETAs go travelling at the weekends and after the programme, the TET Programme provides work and a job. Don’t look at it as an excuse for a holiday.

Recognise that Thailand is a developing country. Though some areas are extremely well connected there are swathes of Thailand that are difficult to access and public transport in Thailand is not as developed as it is in the West. Some placements are remote, so don’t come expecting otherwise.

Do your research. Read up about the programme on the British Council website, read blogs from previous ETAs, talk to your university careers advisors about it.

Good luck, and enjoy! Make the most out of it, as it’s a wonderful opportunity.

What does your job as TET intern involve?

Tom and I have different roles as we both have very different interests, experiences and skills, so between the two of us we have all bases covered. My role involves supporting the communications and PR team. Last week I assisted on set in Ayutthaya when Spring News TV came to report on the TET 2014 Programme. I have been liaising with contacts in Thailand, East Asia and the UK to publicise the programme. I am helping organise the blog competition which is judged at the end of the programme and have set up and run weekly photography competitions for the ETAs.

In addition to the press and communications side of things, Tom and I are available for peer support. We are available to advise, console and encourage ETAs throughout their time in Thailand.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently applying for the British Council English Teaching Graduate Scheme 2014 and plan on completing my CELTA course in Thailand after I finish my internship in Bangkok. I hope that with this teaching qualification I will be able to work in various countries around the world where I can continue learning and growing. I also plan to do a Master’s degree in either International Relations or International Studies and Diplomacy in the not too distant future.

Tom Mortensen - Digital Communications Intern

Why did you decide to become an ETA?

Normally on my university course, one would do a sandwich year (in industry), however after all my final interviews I didn’t get a job.  As I had all the necessary experience I applied to become an ETA.  I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get an industry placement from my course but in light of my work as an ETA last year I have never looked back as it was a fantastic experience and I returned home a different more rounded person.

What were some of the highlights of being an ETA?

It’s a long list – the culture, the people, the environment, the simplicity. It makes you realise how lucky we are as westerners to have what we have. It really puts life into perspective. Many ETAs also experience development of their personal character and their skills.  It’s very noticeable from the start of the programme to the end.

What were some of the challenges of being an ETA?

For me the language barrier and working out how to simplify things for my students were big challenges.  It also took me time to develop my ability to communicate to make it easier for both parties. Being away from home and learning to be independent were also real factors.

What did you learn from the experience?

Personally I learned a lot more about my own communication than I thought I would. I have always been a strong communicator. However, since last year I have presented to more than 60 people without a worry in the world.  60 UK students are easier than 40 Thai school children, I can tell you that! My clarity of voice had developed along with my confidence levels and maturity.  My family told me I came back a different person.

What was your most memorable classroom moment?

Every class was different and I don’t think there was one stand out moment. But something happened gradually as I gained respect through my teaching.  One day I was no longer Ajarn-Farang (Teacher Foreigner), I became Ajarn-Tom (Teacher Tom). I was no longer this weird stranger, I was a source of education, and had earned respect from the students.

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of becoming an ETA?

Do it!  Complete it and you will never look back.  Times can be tough, but through grit and determination you will complete the programme. You will visit amazing places and the culture and people are so welcoming and generous. There are ups, and downs, but it’s really a chance for personal and professional development, and is (as clichéd as it seems) enlightening.

What does your job as TET intern involve?

As an Information Technology Management for Business graduate, I have been able to apply my knowledge and skills to help develop the digital communications channels for the programme.  These include our Facebook presence and the TET 2014 website.  I am also assisting with a report to help review, analyse and make recommendations for future developments of the programme.

What’s next for you?

I’m looking forward to returning home to start my career with this experience under my belt.  I believe with the diversity of experience and knowledge I have gained in the past 4 years, post-college, I am now a very employable graduate, so I am positive about my return to the UK.