I have always considered cultural immersion as an intangible value by integrating into a community and interacting with local people.It really helps me understanding a country better, see country from a different perspective and get a little bit deeper into a culture. And that’s why I took the decision to volunteer as an English teacher in Bangkok. In the following blog post you will read all about my teaching experience in Bangkok and learn how to volunteer in Thailand for free.
When I signed up on worldpackers to volunteer as an English teacher in Bangkok, I wasn’t quite sure what I had in mind. Certainly, English is not my first language and I don’t recall teaching in the past or have any connection with a group of kids who don’t even communicate in English. Despite everything, I’ve been quite positive about this experience and I arrived in Bangkok quite excited to be a teacher and accept this “challenge”.
As we arrived in Thong Tos Foundation after a really long journey, we were greeted by our Thai host, a really friendly man who always used to ask us If we were happy. The building of the foundation consists of three floors ; there is a kindergarten on the ground floor, some rooms and offices on the second and on the third it was the flat specially used by the volunteers. As soon as we arrived, we met our fellow volunteers who were more than happy to show us around and help us find our way around. During our two week long stay at Thong Tos, we were about eight volunteers in two shared rooms divided by gender. All the volunteers were coming from diverse cultural backgrounds and most traveled alone to Thailand.
About Thong Tos Foundation
Thong Tos Foundation is an NGO organization that aims to help local government schools that have less than 300 students in Bangkok by sending them English speaking volunteers. In exchange, volunteers get accommodation for free and of course a unique opportunity to experience Thailand.
Is it ethical to volunteer at Thong Tos Foundation?
As a socially conscious traveler it was really important to me to examine the ethical implications of volunteering at the foundation. Voluntourism is taking over the last few years in the traveling industry and an increasing number of people are seeking for an opportunity to volunteer abroad.
English is considered a strong tool for Thais nowadays since it gives them a variety of opportunities to get a better job or to join an international program at a university.Thong Tos has recognized the huge gaps between various public educational institutions in Bangkok that have an impact on the quality of education each kids receives. The money that government allocates to each of the public school depend on the number of students leaving small schools (<300 students) with a much more limited budget. However, most teachers in these schools are not qualified to teach English which makes it even more difficult for kids in underprivileged communities to have access to equal education. It has also been noticed that in such schools the number of students who drop out of school before 15 is relatively higher than other governmental schools.
As Mr. Winyoo told us, recently a student from a partner-school has worked really hard studying for school and giving special attention to English classes to get an academic recognition along with a scholarship to study in the USA. The system is Thailand is definitely flawed and there’s a big space for improvements to give Thai kids an equal right to education. However, even If our impact the last two weeks was so little I believe that the constant effort put by volunteers as an on-going project could potentially have a great impact to each person individually. Whilst we spent really little time “teaching English” we received a lot more ; a meaningful experience of being part of the Thai community and understanding the culture better.
The whole project wouldn’t be possible without the help of the people behind this organization. During the day they have their own job and they dedicate some of their time to make everything run smoothly. They even asked for our feedback and how to improve and personally spent some time to interact with the kids which shows that indeed they care about their project.
I didn’t directly pay anything to the organization, so there’s no such question as -where the money goes?-. The kindergarten which is ran in the foundation’s building charges as little as $15 per child each month and includes two meals which is considered affordable in Thailand. I have always had my doubts about volunteering programs that charge a big sum of money and spend a lot on their marketing efforts but worldpacker’s ecosystem is putting an end to intermediaries agencies who take advantage of NGO’s who are in constant need of volunteers.
The experience at the Muslim School
Thong Tos Foundation helps various schools in the area so depending on the demand and availability they assign a school to each volunteer. Personally, we were assigned to teach English to the Muslim school which was only a 10-15 minute walk away from the foundation. At the Islamic school, we had to dress modestly which means we had to cover our shoulders and knees. It was fairly an easy schedule as we had to work 5 days per week from 12:30 to 1:40 and had Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays off! Therefore, there was plenty of time to explore Bangkok and do various trips across the country.
Like I previously said, it was my first teaching attempt and as soon as I arrived at the class I awkwardly introduced myself to the students and was welcomed with their mischievous smiles. The first time was pretty chaotic to be honest and caught me by surprise. I had no idea what I was doing and the class was completely out of order. The kids couldn’t concentrate for longer than 2-3 seconds and I was getting frustrated as I didn’t know how to keep them quiet or at least have them sit still. Apparently there was a language barrier too since the Thai teachers didn’t speak English or If they did they had a very basic level of understanding. I fondly remember one time when we were learning the animals and asked what is bird in Thai and kids shouted – “Nooooooo!!” –
Then, a little girl walked to the black board and wrote the word ” นก “. I instantly realized that no is apparently the bird in Thai. And that’s only a basic example on how a language can be a barrier. For this reason we were trying to keep our classes as interactive as possible by using pictures, songs and by drawing pictures. We were really free to teach whatever we want every day but It would have been a bit nicer If we could follow a structured program so that kids don’t get confused all the time and so that volunteers know what and what not has been taught before.
As the days passed by, I found teaching to be more and more easy going. I realized that day by day I was receiving a higher level of respect from my students and eventually we had our daily routine. We would firstly deliver our lesson and then play game at the end If everyone was behaving well. I must admit it was quite satisfactory to see how my kids were progressing and the things we were learning every day. Nothing too advanced, some basic words and phrases and some children songs. I also found that we got a lot closer on our last week with the fellow volunteers
You don’t absolutely have to be fluent in order to participate in this program since their level of English is quite low. A moderate level of English is more than enough to keep up with your classes. Also, there’s an opportunity to volunteer at the kindergarten in the foundation If you simply want to interact and play with kids in English.
The camp experience at Kanchanaburi
During our first weekend in Thailand, we had the opportunity to participate in the English camp Thong Tos organized in rural area in a village nearby Kanchanaburi. It was the first time that Thong Tos organized such a camp and the aim of it was to encourage Thai kids to learn English and to have a good time while doing it. We engaged in some really fun activities such as the treasure hunt, games, singing, dancing and of course sports.
I was truly impressed by the enthusiasm of the organizers, the Thai teachers at the school and how heart warming was their welcome and everyone involved in this project. It pretty much exceeded my expectations as soon as we arrived since they had planned an entire welcome ceremony for us. They even gifted us a phuang malai – a flower garland which is a symbol of luck and respect and the kind monk blessed us. That night it also turned out that the term “camp” was referring to us since as soon as the afternoon activities were over the parents picked up their kids and the only people who remained at the place was just the volunteers.
The weekend passed really fast and we indeed had a really good time with our Thai kids. One thing that the camp reminded me was to stop stressing about what’s next in my agenda, appreciate little moments and make the best out of it. Perhaps this is an on-going reminder as I have learned that it’s difficult for me to appreciate the moment and I truly felt that this feeling was heightened during the camp. So most of the time I’d drop my phone and feel completely lost in the moment whether it’s just singing a song or playing football with the kids.
Should you volunteer?
If you are looking to take cultural immersion to the next level and you willing to pay the price that comes with it ( patience, energy and time) you should definitely consider it! There are many perks to be taken by such an experience including meeting people from abroad, being part of the local community, developing knowledge and sensitivity of other cultures, develop a new skill set and enrich your CV (never truly cared about this), inspiring more people so that the world will be a better place, being provided with free accommodation and of course having a life changing experience that you will never forget!
Volunteering is definitely not for everyone. Don’t expect to be living in a fancy hotel (at all!!) and be ready to be as flexible as possible and to do a lot of compromises. It’s no surprise to to encounter some language barriers and there will be some confusion and misunderstanding. Despite everything, I must admit it hasn’t affected my decision to volunteer in this organization and I would for sure recommend it to people who want to take their cultural immersion to the next level!
How to volunteer in Thailand for free
To become a volunteer in Thong Tos Foundation you can do it in two ways ; communicate directly with the director of the place through their website. There is a $50 fee which will be used to support the NGO and its schools. In return you get free accommodation and food for as long as you want. You should stay at least two weeks!
Otherwise, you can register with worldpackers, a platform which costs $49 per year for unlimited traveling. The platform is completely transparent and there is a background check for each and every host which makes the entire experience safe.There are many opportunities that allow you to volunteer in Thailand for free so choose the one that suits you the most!