Kelly was from Canada.
And like most Canadians he was friendly and smiled a lot. He fit into Thailand and never had trouble finding a teaching job in the Thai school system as a foreigner in Thailand.
But after a few years Kelly grew bored with the politics of teaching in the school system. He wanted a change of pace. So he applied for a position teaching Business English to adults.
The language center I worked for hired Kelly under a 30-hour contract to teach at a welding supply company outside of Bangkok. He loved the new environment and loved teaching adults.
But there was a problem. Despite being a friendly guy in the classroom, Kelly’s students weren’t fond of him. About halfway through the contract a student complained to their company’s human resources manager. And the human resources manager complained to the owner of language school.
Kelly didn’t know this, but was making his students uncomfortable. While he tried to be helpful, he went around the room and looked at his students’ papers, pointing out the mistakes he found during the writing activities.
Aren’t English teachers in Thailand paid to help their students? Yes. Except that he leaned over the shoulders and heads of his students all the time. And in Thailand, this is a big no-no.
The owner of the language center took Kelly off of the contract and gave it to someone else.
How you use your body and how you interact with other people’s bodies is important in all cultures. Research shows that 55% of communication happens through body language.
But how you use your body and how you interact with other people’s bodies is even more important in Thailand. Thais consider the body a hierarchy of human anatomy, which they interact with in a respectful way.
What I’m about to get into are generalities. I’ve seen Thais inside and outside of the classroom break these rules. But it’s their culture. They may know when to break the rules and when not to. But for the sake of respecting Thai culture, follow these guidelines.
English teachers in Thailand must be mindful of the head, the hands, and the feet.
Thais consider the head the most respected part of the body.
Never, under any circumstances, touch one of your Thai students on the head. Not adults. Not teens. Not children. If they are part of your family, okay. If they aren’t related, don’t do it. If you touch a Thai on the head or do any activity above their heads, you’ll offend them.
Kelly made this mistake. But he could’ve avoided it by seating his students in a U-shape, and then approach and help them from the front of their desks.
If you have a student who is out of arm’s reach and you want to hand something to them, don’t reach over students to get to that person. Ask the students closest to you to pass it down.
The hands are another important body part to be mindful of.
When calling on your students in the classroom don’t point at them. Most people in the world think pointing is rude. Thais feel the same way.
Instead of pointing, hold out your hand as if you’re receiving something in the palm of your hand. And then direct your hand toward the student you’re calling on.
At coffee shops or malls or other places where exchanges happen, you’ll notice Thais handing things to each other the same way. They’ll even put their opposite hand under the elbow of the extended arm to be polite.
The least revered parts of the body are the feet.
Just as Thais respect the head because of its position on the body, they consider the feet dirty because of their position. So never point your feet at a person, an image of a person, a monk, or a member of the Royal Family. To keep it simple, keep the soles of your feet facing the floor whenever possible.
In the classroom you’ll probably stand most of the time, so it’ll be easy to avoid showing the soles of your feet. But when sitting, don’t sit cross-legged and point the bottoms of your feet at anyone. If you go to the temples in Thailand you’ll notice the Thais sitting on their legs, pointing their feet away from themselves. This is a good rule of thumb for any environment which calls for sitting on the floor.
And aside from sitting, do not step over or on top of anyone or anything with your feet. Don’t grab and pull things with your feet. In the classroom, if you drop a marker on the floor and it rolls under a table, bend down and use your hands to pick it up. And because the Thai King’s image is on the Thai baht, never step on a bill if you drop it and it’s blowing in the wind.
Lastly, it’s impolite to rest your feet on top of things. So keep them off other people’s furniture, the middle console of taxis, or anyplace else that looks tempting.
Don’t overwhelm yourself with the dos and don’ts all at once.
Thais will give you some slack because you’re a foreigner in Thailand. But don’t think you’ll get too much slack. In due time you’ll grow more and more mindful of what customs to be aware of when you get a job as a foreigner in Thailand.
Another thing to consider is that most TEFL courses don’t cover all the Thai customs to be aware of when teaching English in Thailand.
P.S. Like Kelly, you’ll either learn these customs the hard way, or you’ll have to do your homework. You can read books about Thai culture and customs. You can talk to Thais about the important dos and don’ts. Or you can download the Teach English in Thailand Audio Guide and find out all the secrets at teaching English to adults in Thailand.