Interview with Stephanie Gaertner, Thailand Q & A

PERSONAL PROFILE

What is your name, age and nationality?

Stephanie Gaertner, 29, from New York City, USA.

What is your education level and background?

Wagner College B.A. Theatre Performance and Speech, minor in English. In between theatre gigs, I worked as a private nanny and tutor, so I had tons of experience with children before coming. I also taught drama at a summer camp, which prompted me to try a career in teaching!

Have you travelled abroad previously, and if so where?

I have traveled abroad a few times, yes. I spent 2 summers in Turkey with a local family, tutoring their elementary-aged daughters in ESL. That first trip helped me face my fear of traveling abroad alone and opened my eyes to the absolute magic of traveling. I also toured Australia for 6 weeks performing with a musical, which was incredible.

What motivated you to teach abroad?

Ever since I went to Turkey, I felt the urge to explore more parts of the world, which is something I never expected for myself. That travel bug gets you! I wanted to leave New York City, leave a 9-5 job I had settled at for a year, and take some time away from “everything” and have an entirely new, challenging, rewarding, terrifying adventure. After 3 months here, I can safely say I made the best decision of my life!

What did you want to personally achieve from the experience, and have you succeeded?

I can’t say I had completely clear goals for myself coming here. It was something more in my subconscious about wanting to have a better sense of self. Sometimes you have to just remove yourself from situations to see things clearer, gain perspective and appreciate the things you have and the people in your life. It’s ironic that leaving makes that happen, but it’s always true. Step away, reset yourself, and then move forward. I have to say I do feel a major shift in me and the way I view the world now. Thailand helps slow you down and let things roll off your back, which is an amazing change for this New Yorker.

Did you apply for the program with a friend or on your own?

I applied individually, knowing I had to do this one on my own. I think there are pros and cons to each scenario, but personally, I am very happy I came alone but now I have a bunch of new friends that are seriously like family.

Did you know anyone who had taught abroad before you?

Yes, tons! I was lucky to have been connected with over 10 mutual friends who had spent significant periods of time teaching ESL abroad. It seemed every time I mentioned my desire to apply for TEFL Heaven, another person said “Oh I know someone who taught abroad!” And many of them were in Thailand!

What were some of your concerns before you began teaching abroad?

My biggest concern was the potential feeling of isolation in a school or a town, if I was placed somewhere that I was the only English-speaking person. I read a few blogs where that was the case, and everyone seemed to be fine anyway. I am a particularly social person, so for my personality, I just thought that would make me more homesick.

However, none of my friends through TEFL Heaven have had that type of experience at all. In fact, a lot of us share the same agency for placement, which led to a lot of us teaching in schools with our friends. This is not at all a guarantee, but seemed like TEFL Heaven and the agents really try to make sure everyone has support wherever they are!

TEFL PROGRAM INFORMATION

What made you decide to do a TEFL course and choose TEFL Heaven?

I knew I wanted to travel more than a vacation, and that would mean finding a way to make money abroad. Deciding to teach wasn’t too difficult since I had lots of experience with kids and was curious to try teaching in a classroom setting. After a few nights of online browsing, TEFL Heaven seemed to be the best choice from everything I read. The reviews and references were solid, and obviously the photos and locations were stunning. It took me almost 8 months to pull the trigger, but I am so happy I did!

What made you choose a face-to-face TEFL course over other options?

I actually didn’t consider an online TEFL course for very long. Like I said, I am a social person, so I wanted the experience of meeting a group of people and bonding through a program. Little did I know, the on-your-feet experience throughout the training was invaluable to my skills as a teacher. I’ve met a few people that just did an online course and they often run into some challenges. I highly recommend the in-person option!

Which TEFL program did you do?

I completed the Koh Chang TEFL Heaven course in April of this past year.

What did you enjoy about your TEFL course?

I enjoyed many things about my TEFL course! During the experience, I loved how the teachers made the day (9am-4pm) fun while covering so much information. We were on our feet doing games and activities to better study ESL teaching techniques and put ourselves in our students’ position. I particularly enjoyed the Thai language lessons (1 hour a day) because we felt what it’s like to learn an unfamiliar language and also picked up SO much Thai that I use every single day. I can speak loads of Thai and I don’t think I would’ve been as inspired to learn the language without the springboard of vocabulary that TEFL Heaven covered.

Another major aspect that’s great about the program is the connections you make. You become very close to people in the 3 weeks and develop lifelong friendships. It has made for a great support system to share ideas, experiences, and travel together on weekends.

Lastly, and this almost goes without saying, I enjoyed the gorgeous views of Koh Chang. The sunset there was breathtaking, and the oceanscape was the best backdrop to our training days. We were right outside during class and could dip in the pool on our 10 minute breaks!

How prepared did you feel for your teaching position?

I felt very prepared to be in front of a classroom. Of course there were a ton of nerves because you don’t know what to expect, but I had a bunch of lesson and game ideas that I was eager to try out and gauge where my students were at, and TEFL Heaven helped me learn the process of lesson planning so I was ready for that too.

How long have you been teaching in Thailand and how long do you plan to stay?

I have been teaching for 2 months and initially made a 1 term commitment, but I have decided to stay another term! I absolutely adore my students and am really happy in my school and my town (Ayutthaya), so I can’t imagine leaving just yet. I truly never thought I’d stay longer but I am so happy here, I want to extend the experience before I figure out my next move.

How did you secure your English teaching job?

TEFL Heaven placed me with an agency who managed my placement with a school. They connected with me, got my information and paperwork, and assigned me to the school in Ayutthaya. I am placed with 3 other English teachers, 2 of whom completed my TEFL course with me (and actually flew here with me too!).

What does a typical working week look like for you?

Monday-Friday I work at the school 7:30-3:30. I have 22 50-minute lessons in the week, seeing 10 classes of 40 students. In my off-periods, I work on lessons for the following week, since my agency collects lesson plans weekly. I’ll often stay after school for about an hour to unwind and organize for the following day. A few times a week, I meet my friends from town for dinner, but other nights I’ll just grab food from the market and relax or plan at home. There is a good group of foreigners here, so we do trivia nights, game nights, plan dinner or shopping trips, and it really makes every week so fun! If we stay in town, we’ll go out with our friends most of the weekend and catch up with people from home too. But many weekends, we plan a trip within the country to meet other friends, see their town or another city, visit a beach, a national park, waterfalls, elephants, monkeys, etc!

Lots more detail here! https://steftalkstravel.wordpress.com/2017/07/15/teaching-in-thailand-2-month-reflection/ 

What age group or range to you teach?

I teach Prathom 3 (age 8-9), 5 (10-11), and 6 (12-13). They are great! I especially love my P3s because they are super eager to speak English and play fun games that really lock-in their knowledge. The P5s tend to be more rowdy than my other levels. P6s are great because they know so much more in general, but some of them have the “too cool for school attitude.” Each grade has a wide range of English levels, so sometimes age/grade level ends up being irrelevant! You get to know your students and each class dynamic and make adjustments to suit them.

What do you most enjoy about teaching your students?

The most obvious thing that I enjoy is witnessing students’ breakthroughs and evidence of growth. It’s amazing to watch them learn, practice their pronunciation, and for their confidence to grow. It’s definitely the best part of teaching. But some of the “behind the scenes” moments are rewarding too; seeing my students in the hall, knocking on my office window, coming up to talk during lunch, or giving me a note or drawing. They are so sweet and thoughtful and really love their English teachers!

How did you get your work visa?

My agency managed the bulk of paperwork, thankfully. They secured contracts from my school, my accommodations, and my American paperwork (passport, visa, degree and degree legalization, TEFL certification, etc.) and I just had to sign all the photocopies of those. They completed an application with me that we submitted in person at the immigration office, for 2000 THB ($60). We waited about a week until it was approved and returned to the immigration office to receive the visa. A representative from our agency was always with us.

How did you find somewhere to live and what is it like?

My agency initially recommended and booked a popular hostel for me to stay at, but it wasn’t the best fit for me in a long-term way. The wifi was too spotty (it can be spotty generally but this one didn’t reach my bedroom) and there was no access to a refrigerator or laundry, so I actually found another place in town and was able to book there. The landlady speaks English and is super helpful! Most agencies assist with securing accommodations, but I promise it is very possible to do on your own as well! Just stay in a hostel for a few nights and see what is close to school. It’s better than booking sight-unseen, in my opinion. I’m in an amazing apartment now with the best landlady and staff, I couldn’t be happier!

COUNTRY INSIGHT

I have a ton to say about these things, I feel like I’ve seen and learned so much in 3 months! I break it all down in a thorough blog post here.

What are your monthly expenses?

Rent: 5,000 THB ($146)

Food: you could live on as little as ~500 THB ($15) per month, but I go to restaurants and grocery shop frequently and still it’s less than 1200 THB I’d say ($36)

Other bills: electric ~700 THB ($21), water 100 THB ($3)

Social life: depending on the month, 2000 THB ($60) for activities, trips, bars and shopping

Transportation: I walk to and from school, but taking vans on the weekend is very cheap, maybe 200 THB ($6) per weekend, or 1,000 THB ($30) for a flight

Phone: 4.5GB phone plan 400 THB ($12)

Other costs: convenience store for medicine/toiletries likely 200 THB ($6) each month

Would you say you are able to live comfortably on your monthly salary?

Absolutely! I am saving a ton of money and living extremely comfortably! I live much better than I did in New York and can often spend money on things that I don’t actually “need.” I put a bunch aside for trips and spending, but I have a huge chunk to put away entirely each month.

ADVICE FOR PROSPECTIVE ENGLISH TEACHERS

What advice would you give someone thinking about teaching abroad, and would you recommend teaching English in Thailand?

I would say if you have been considering it for 3 months and are just hesitant, send your deposit. There will never be a time that you feel ready to say yes or ready to teach. You have to take a risk and trust that you will learn so much from the experience no matter what happens. TEFL Heaven provides so much support and assistance, you are in good hands. Don’t let any of your friends or family influence your decision. You have to want to go for yourself and maybe do something out of your comfort zone.  If it’s something you want, do it!

I absolutely recommend Thailand! This country is SO beautiful and the people are some of the nicest I’ve ever met in my life. Even with the language barrier, people try to accommodate your every need or even just give you a smile. Traveling abroad requires a level of patience, resourcefulness, and bravery, but that all comes in time as you’re abroad. If you are an extremely anxious/nervous or high-maintenance person, I wouldn’t specifically recommend Thailand, just because of the structure of the country. It is really hot and generally easy-going, to the point that the pace is very slow. I love it! It’s helped me be less anxious and less tightly-wound. Sometimes you don’t have air conditioning or toilet paper or wifi, and it’s fine. For the most part in your town, school, and apartment, you’ll be fine, but for traveling and exploring, just be ready to go with the flow in the best way. It’s a ride of a lifetime!

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