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Thoughts on TEFL, Money, and Travel

High on the railway in Kanchanaburi created by slave labor.
High on the history-filled railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Teaching Traveling: Welcome to Michelle Aitken of “Go Teach Thailand!” Michelle, tell us a bit about your background.

Michelle: At the time of writing I’m 25 and I graduated from Liverpool John Moore’s University back in 2008. I’ve wanted to be a teacher for most of my life, but after getting a bit of experience under my belt and discussing my career path with a teacher and mentor, I realised that I didn’t want to leave University and jump straight into the World of teaching.

In the UK, it isn’t uncommon for graduates to spend a few months travelling around the World. My boyfriend, John, and I had wanted to do this for some time as my graduation and his (the year after mine) drew closer. Neither of us had spent longer than a couple of weeks on a yearly vacation so this was really exciting.

We made some plans and asked a few questions however and it soon became clear that it wouldn’t be something we could afford. We were looking at at least $1000 a month each as an average and trying to reduce this value would mean doing very little, not going very far or staying for very long. Not what we wanted.

Michelle and her boyfriend in Vietnam mud baths.
Michelle and her boyfriend in Vietnam mud baths.

We ended up going for a middle-ground: TEFL teaching! This allowed us to spend almost 2 years in Thailand and live like kings (or queens).

TT: Fascinating! Tell us more about your teaching travels!

M: As John and I took our teaching abroad, TEFL teaching became our regular job. For the first 6 months of our stay we lived in Phang Nga about 2 hours drive North of Phuket. When the Thai school year ended, we took 2 months off and travelled to South Vietnam, Laos and all over Thailand. When this holiday ended we found work on the island of Koh Samui and spent more than a year working in a British International School in Lamai.

We didn’t venture beyond SE Asia, but we did see Thailand in great detail as expat workers as opposed to tourists. We also took in Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia and would love to go back to see more!

TT: Fabulous! How did you find these travel opportunities?

Phang Nga in Thailand where Michelle and Mike lived.
Phang Nga in Thailand where Michelle and Mike lived.

M: If you visit SE Asia, you’ll see there is a fairly well-beaten path that backpackers tend to take on their round-the-World trip. John and I had friends who were making their way North from Singapore so we joined onto their journey into Northern Thailand and Laos. If you are interested in travelling through this area then is highly recommended!

TT: How did you find the money to fund this travel?

M: Although we’d been working in Phang Nga for 6 months prior to making this 6 week trip around Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, we hadn’t really anticipated it being as expensive as it was. We had to borrow the money in the end to fund out journey and in 6 weeks we managed to spend about $2000.

When you start moving around a lot you will notice that you burn through money pretty quickly so be realistic. You probably won’t want to stay in a hell-hole, you probably will want to go SCUBA diving, eat a nice meal once in a while or go for a drink. Luckily, when we started our new jobs on Koh Samui we were able to put aside a bit of money each month more easily.

Mike with a giraffe at the Zoo at Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
Mike with a giraffe at the Zoo at Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.

M: For me, one of the most interesting things we did during our trip was visit the Bangkok-Burma railway that was constructed during WWII effectively by slave labour. The Japanese army used the local population of the countries it was occupying along with prisoners of war to build a railway out through Kanchanaburi. Kanchanaburi itself is really beautiful but the museum is a must. It’s run by the Australian military and is really well done.

TT: Great tip. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher and in your current career?

M: John and I recently returned to Europe, where we are living with our dog (acquired in Thailand) until she’s completed her quarantine period and can return to the UK with us.

Although I have a degree in Education, I’m not a qualified teacher and being away has made me realise that this is the next step. Becoming qualified will open doors for me all over the World and although I have to return to the UK for the next couple of years to get qualified, I’m not sure if I’ll be staying there.

With friend during travel in lovely Laos.
With friend during travel in lovely Laos.

TT: How have your travels impacted you as a person?

M: Being back in Europe has made me realise how much I loved Thailand. John and I were really happy there without anywhere near as many material possessions as we feel we need even here in Spain.

We’d earn our money (which was a great wage by Thai standards and abysmal by Western standards), do everything we wanted each month (which would often include a few nights on the town, nice meals in nice restaurants and maybe even a day’s SCUBA diving), and always have a few hundred pounds left-over.

TT: What advice do you have for other educators who are dreaming of travel or travelers who are dreaming of teaching?

M: Although a teacher probably doesn’t envisage the idea of TEFL as being particularly pleasant, teaching abroad could make for more than a sabbatical; it could be a potential career progression.

There are high-quality private schools all over the World that will often pay much more than a school back home and offer a really high-quality of life.

A beach in beautiful Nha Trang, Vietnam.
A beach in beautiful Nha Trang, Vietnam. You can see it, too!

For travelers who want to teach, TEFL is fairly easy to get into and it is a great way of supporting yourself for longer periods of time in a host country.

TT: Thanks so much for this helpful interview, Michelle!

Readers, what questions and comments do you have for this teacher-traveler?


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Thursday 1st of December 2011

Beautiful photos and very inspiring.

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