Don't Overlook the Vounteer Option : Teach English Abroad for a Cause!
By Charles Rice,
Professional English teacher and writer,
with expertise in volunteer teaching programs
and a valued comrade of VFW Post 9951
Don’t overlook the volunteer option
With Thailand becoming such a popular destination for EFL teachers, it is easy for newcomers to overlook one of the most attractive sources of employment, the international volunteer programs.
Not only do they teach you the language and provide you with an income, housing benefits, full medical coverage, a vacation allowance, and free air transportation to and from the country, but they often give you a readjustment allowance, as well, to help you after complete your service.
If that is not enough to interest you, in the case of the Thailand venue, consider that foreign volunteers are regarded as special guests by the Thai government and enjoy a status only slightly lower than that of foreign diplomats.
I first set foot in the kingdom at the beginning of March 1973, back when Thailand had a population of only 40 million, and Bangkok officially boasted just 4 million people. The city’s air was clean, the klongs (canals) were safe to swim in, and traffic moved at speeds which today seem unbelievable. Prices of everything were cheap, and 100 baht bought you as much as 1,000 baht does today.
In my case, I had been selected to become a U.S. Peace Corps university volunteer, which required one to have at least an MA degree and some teaching experience. However, only six of my group of about 40 trainees would be going to a university.
The rest, with a BA and little or no teaching experience, would be assigned to what were then known as teacher colleges. While universities awarded bachelor degrees and higher, teacher colleges awarded degrees similar to an Associate of Arts from a two-year junior college in the United States.
Graduation from a teacher college meant that Thais were certified to teach in government primary schools. Secondary schools required a BEd degree, and teacher college graduates would have to study two more years at one of the regional campuses of the College of Education, which was soon to be renamed Srinakarinwirot University. Entrance to these campus programs was difficult due to the limited number of openings, and usually only the top 10 percent who sat the exams managed to get in. This meant that the students were virtually all honors graduates from the teacher colleges.
After nine weeks of training, first at Prachuab Khirikhan on the coast, and then at Phitsanulok Province in the lower north, the members of my group (minus a few who had dropped out) were sworn in as full-fledged Peace Corps volunteers in Bangkok.
Our language training had been intensive at the beginning, with our studying the Thai language six hours a day, six days a week. After the first few weeks, the language hours were reduced and we began studying EFL teaching techniques.
Nevertheless, by the end of our training, most of us had managed to score at level 1 on a scale of 0 to 4 in language proficiency. This meant that after barely two months in Thailand, we were able to travel around and look after ourselves at a time when far fewer Thais spoke English than today. Our Thai was still quite basic — but try accomplishing that on your own some time!
We were excited and eager to begin. I asked to be sent to the Phitsanulok campus of Srinakarinwirote University (MSW), since I’d be able to enjoy the little city there, halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. During holidays, I thus had my choice of going either north or south.
I enjoyed my work at MSW. Besides teaching reading, writing, and speaking classes, I also taught methods of EFL and supervised student teachers in nearby provinces. My living allowance was just 1,800 baht a month, but remember that 100 baht back then was equal to 1,000 baht today. My two-storey frame house on campus was free, I always ate out, and I wore only tailor-made clothes.
I bought a bicycle for 900 baht, which I used the whole time and then sold for exactly what I had paid for it when I left. One volunteer told me he had never lived as well in all his life. I extended my service several times, and when I did finally “terminate”, I scored, to my surprise, a Level 3 on the hour-long one-on-one proficiency exam. (That was unusual enough that the head of the language program came out to see who I was.)
I had attended Peace Corps TEFL seminars in other provinces and paid visits to Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia. With so much experience in Thailand, I had little difficulty getting a foreign lecturer’s job at a government university in Bangkok.
Since then, I have worked full-time at a number of “name” universities and at a government language institute, where I taught intensive English to graduate students preparing to study abroad. I also spent several years in publishing, editing my own magazine and assisting with others — and for a while was Bangkok correspondent for a Japanese newspaper. I’d have been unlikely to do all of that without my early experiences as a volunteer.
Regrettably, there are fewer opportunities for teaching volunteers in Thailand these days.
Not so many years ago, in addition to the Peace Corps, Thailand had Britain’s VSO International, Canada’s CUSO International, and Australia’s AVI. The Peace Corps has been in Thailand since 1962 and is unlikely to leave in the foreseeable future. It currently has volunteers in primary education and in special placements.
VSO, a privately funded voluntary organization, arrived a year before the Peace Corps, and it was once common for a larger school or university to have both a Peace Corps and a VSO volunteer. VSO is still here, but its volunteers now teach the children of migrant workers or in refugee camps, though some may serve as early childhood-years development advisors in local schools.
CUSO International appears to have left Thailand as far as teaching is concerned, though it is still active in Cambodia and Indonesia. AVI also seems to have ended its EFL program in Thailand, which is ironic, since in the 1980s I had a contract with Australian Development Aid to fill a position until the first AVI volunteers could be trained and sent here.
Nevertheless, for Brits and Americans, the volunteer option is still open. Others programs may come along again in the future.
Keep an eye open for such opportunities, since they provide an easy introduction to Thailand, with your visa and work permit worries taken care of for you. It may take some Googling to find the information you need, however, since volunteer organizations seldom advertise their needs. But give it a try. You may get lucky. I certainly did, and I’ve never regretted it.