Teaching English in Thailand

James Eckett at Thai orphanage
A Q & A with James Eckett '09, bachelor's degree in international business, main campus; some online.

James Eckett '09, bachelor's degree in international business, teaches in Thailand. It's something he'd always considered, but making the leap wasn't his decision so much as the economy deciding for him.

Britta Wright, director of International Programs, said, "We encourage our students to share their experiences, learn about other cultures and serve as ambassadors around the globe … Not every recent Columbia College graduate should choose Jim's path, but it's gratifying to see him doing so well and enjoying a foreign culture."

Q: Where are you from?
A: Centerview, Mo., just west of Warrensburg and about an hour from Columbia.

Q: Why did you choose Columbia College?
A: I was originally a cadet in the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Missouri. I wanted to do international affairs or IT work. Another big factor was my mom [Rebecca Sue Van De Mark Eckett '78] having graduated from Columbia College … I also loved the feel of Columbia and the college.

I first studied computer information systems but decided to switch when the IT degree just didn't feel right for me, and after I had read more about the types of courses involved in international business (and the international relations minor). I felt the change might be more in line with the future international career I wanted.

Q: Tell us more about wanting an international career.
A: I'd always wanted to do something where I felt I was making a difference. Through my parents, I'd grown up seeing the good and bad in a life of constant hard work and business building, but I wanted more than the 9 to 5. I wanted to get out in the world and make some kind of difference.

When the Air Force didn't work out, and after I'd done some work in general business, I began thinking the best way for me to finally break into an international career might be to teach English as a second language. The recession also had a direct impact on my attempts to get a business career going in America.

Q: How did Columbia College prepare you for teaching abroad?
A: The opportunities I had while at Columbia College most certainly did help -- Columbia College's Partners in Education reading program [reading to Field Elementary School students] and Columbia College's Community Consultant program were opportunities to do something positive, even though I didn't have a thought of being a teacher when I began each. I also taught at-risk preschool children from poverty or violence-stricken homes through Americorp.

Dr. Brian Kessel's international and politics courses were particularly challenging and exciting. Dr. Angela Kinworthy's experience as a true international business person was as marvelous as her international marketing and culture classes. My advisor, Dr. Timothy Ireland, always had ready counsel and imparted a firm fundamental understanding of international business. Liz Metscher was great to work with through the Community Consultant program, and her experience in the ESL field also proved to be a guiding influence. Add to those wonderful teachers Faye Burchard and Kim Coke in Campus Life and Britta Wright in International Programs, and I never felt far from not only professional and life-building support, but never far from good friends and company either.

The classes that helped me the most were, without a doubt, Politics of Developing Nations and Cross-Cultural Communication.

So teaching English abroad wasn't too big of a leap because I'd had so many courses on world cultures and political systems at Columbia College, plus volunteering, substituting and other opportunities kept arising to give me more experience with teaching.

Q: Why Thailand?
A: I'd have to say that the recession was the biggest reason. I'd spent a little over six months during and after my last semesters at Columbia College trying to find a career-starting position.

I honestly didn't know much about Thailand until my last courses at Columbia College. Then later when I started grad school [a semester of TESOL at the University of Missouri], I was randomly paired with a Thai student to tutor. After tutoring the Thai student and finally getting a response from a foreign school on my submission, it didn't matter much to me where it was, if it was Thailand, then great.

Q: Tell us about your school and the area.
A: My current school, Srithammaratsuksa, is in southern Thailand about 800 kilometers from Bangkok, in a capital city of a province by the same name, Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Srithammaratsuksa is a well-established school of more than 5,000 K-12 students -- what they call Anuban 1 (kindergarten) for kids from 3 to 4 all the way up to Matayom 6 (high school seniors). Most students are regular program students who receive a classical Thai education, but a growing number participate in the English program from age 3 all the way up to 17 and 18. My students are 4- and 5-year-olds, but I've had opportunities to work with all levels at one time or another.

The English program is now in its 10th year and continuing to grow. We currently have a foreign staff of more than 20 from the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. All classes are under 30 students, so it's a friendly and supportive environment, a lot like Columbia College.

Thai scenery
Nakon Si Thammarat is an ancient trading capital with most modern Western conveniences: Internet, satellite TV, pizza. Renting a house can be done for about 15 percent of a monthly salary, leaving plenty of baht to experience local culture. Thailand has much more geographically going for it than white sandy beaches and islands -- mountains and waterfalls are within a short drive, and the famous tourist meccas of Ko Samui, Ko Pa Ngan, Krabi and Phuket are a short drive away.

Q: Tell us about your experiences with Thais and Thailand.
A: My initial experience with Thailand was right out of a culture class textbook. My honeymoon phase with the culture was very intense: the land was beautiful, the living much easier and cheaper than back home, and the people generally much friendlier and open-minded.

Thai floating market
I sometimes forget I'm still in a developing country and there are some serious societal, socioeconomic, political and cultural issues. I try not to let the bad experiences poison the rest, and now that I've been here for more than half a year I've noticed good days and bad days. The culture here has an entirely different set of priorities and values, sometimes the differences are pretty radical. Sometimes it's a good thing, sometimes not, but I remind myself that this is the experience I studied for and worked hard to achieve. I try to enjoy my time here to the fullest.
Pom poot pasai Thai nit noi mak khrup. [I speak a little Thai.] I'm slowly learning the language (I'm not counting being able to order food), but its intonations, structure and inability to be uniformly transliterated makes it exceptionally difficult.

Q: Would you recommend teaching English abroad to other Columbia College students?

A: Definitely, if you are interested in true travel and near to total immersion in a foreign culture. Different countries have different education standards, but being an English language teacher in a foreign country gives you a whole new set of opportunities as a teacher -- both in how one can approach teaching and how one can develop their career.

Doing this job anywhere in Thailand requires (basically) only that one has a bachelor's degree and a TEFL/TESL certificate. The certificate can easily be obtained by going to classes on the weekends for one month or by doing a course online. There are other options too.

Teaching positions are always open in Thailand, particularly between February to April and August to October. A Columbia College graduate with a degree in teaching, master's in education or a state professional teaching certificate would practically be hired on the spot -- English being their focus or not.

Now that I am "in country" I can confirm that it is much, much easier to find the next teaching position. I was told this as I searched and searched for a position. I've also been told I might be able to work at a provincial university next year, and I've been approached by private tutoring services and individuals.


Anonymous said...

I remember Jim from class, he was a good guy and great student. I am glad to see he is doing well. I think this was a well written story I would love to see more like this.

Anonymous said...

Jim's experiences are very interesting. I read his Facebook commentary and this story gave very nice support to the comments seen there. I enjoyed working with Jim for the INCC class. He did excellent work with that class.
Liz Metscher

Anonymous said...

I am originally from Thailand and attending CCIS at NY. I'd like to have the same experience that Jim has one day. It's a great feeling and i'm glad to read about Jim's story. Thank you Jim for sharing.

Monica said...

I am interested in teaching English in Thailand next year when I graduate, was wondering what program you went through. Thanks