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Be Like Spencer: From Touchdowns to a BFITS Teaching Adventure in Khon Kaen, Thailand

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I knew my journey with BFITS would begin long before my plane touched down in Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (Bangkok). What I did not fully understand was how many more times it would feel like I was arriving again, fresh off the boat. I hope this serves, not as a warning, but as a heads up, for those who wish to see what the journey looks like for a teacher stepping into this part of the world.

It began a few months ago, ironically not long after I had decided to quit teaching. Among many others, I was growing increasingly concerned with the negatively shifting attitudes towards teachers and education in general in my country. As someone equipped only with a whole lot of passion, and a few years of teaching under his belt, this environment was becoming downright hostile for me. When I noticed an invitation to apply to BFITS Thailand in my inbox, I was skeptical – had I not seen that it was inviting teachers to another country, I would have skipped past entirely.

I filled out the application, which I remember being fairly simple and straightforward, and received an email from their HR Team the very next day. Within the week, I sat with them for a video chat, at the end of which I was offered the job. It seemed that they were looking for someone to teach older students, which was the very demographic I was hoping to work with. I was also willing to work in the city of Khon Kaen, a town I had never heard of before – more on that later.

Making One of My Life’s Biggest Decisions

Kaennakhonwitthayalai (KNW) School Building in Khon Kaen, Thailand

This was a big decision to make, and I didn’t make it alone. My best friend and parents, all of whom I consider quite intelligent people, each got to weigh in on the possibilities and consequences. Ultimately, they knew as I did that this would be a worthwhile experience like no other, and I passed this answer along to BFITS.

This served as a kickstart to the adventure. Within days, I was looking up Thai lessons online, packing my possessions, selling what I couldn’t pack, and donating what I couldn’t sell. Thanks to the BFITS discount, I was also able to get to work on earning my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. Luckily, my family lived close enough to make a couple of trips out and eventually take me in for my final days stateside. At a certain point, only packing and the TEFL course were needed to occupy my mind – though admittedly, those were no small conquests. I could only carry so much weight on the plane (so long, book and games collection), and the modules gradually required more and more essays. Though I had hoped to be certified by the time of liftoff, it was one deadline I had to push back.

Touching Down in the City of Angels (Bangkok, Thailand)

BFITS Thailand Teacher Spencer gets a kick out of being dwarfed by structures like Wat Arun.

I get a kick out of being dwarfed by structures like Wat Arun

Arriving in Bangkok was easy enough! I was able to exchange the cash on me for Thai Baht almost immediately after landing. And, just like all the YouTube videos had explained, there were kiosks for phone service companies and a multitude of taxis ready to take me wherever I needed to go. The two issues I faced belong to my phone company, which would simply not accept a local SIM card in the device, and a mishap in communication with BFITS. Ordinarily, the plan is for them to go the extra mile and have a company representative pick you up, though I was unable to receive such a service that day. It didn’t pose a problem for long, though, as I made a connection with a local taxi driver I otherwise wouldn’t have had.

I’ll take this moment to bring up the two things I would have done before leaving my country, if I had the opportunity to do it all over again. First, as this would come to be a nagging challenge for the month, I would have reached out to my phone company and asked upfront about their policies on using certain devices internationally. Perhaps I could have discovered then and there that my phone simply wasn’t compatible with and Thailand SIM card, and saved a whole lot of heartache. The other thing would have been to give my bank a notice of my travel. More to come on that later too.

The malls and street markets in Thailand often blend together

The malls and street markets in Thailand often blend together

As another side note: Bangkok is massive. It’s one of those cities where you can go somewhere new each day and still live out your life having not seen it all. It’s a prospect that frightens and excites me. From just about day one, I visited mall after mall (I love shopping centers, and it was nice to be in the air conditioning), many of which were stacked by each other on the same streets. And that’s not to diminish the natural beauty, either – the parks, rivers, and even some temples keep a green and clean look in the city.

Visiting the BFITS Thailand Main Office

It was in the heart of the city that I found the BFITS Thailand office. Even though training had another week to begin, I wanted to get the lay of the land so I wouldn’t get lost when it really mattered. I had messaged the team there, and they were all too pleased to meet up. Angel, the BFITS HR Manager, took me out for lunch, where we talked about each other’s families. It made me feel all the more welcome and that I had chosen the right group to work for.

After that, I was even able to sit down with Matt, the BFITS Academic Manager, who was able to give some insights into Khon Kaen.

A Quick Adventure Before the BFITS Training

From high up, the Bangkok cityscape is enchanting.

From high up, the Bangkok cityscape is enchanting

I had about another week to get my bearings in the heart of the city before training started. One thing I took to like a fly to honey: The Skytrain! Crisscrossing the city, the BTS had many stations set up with a simple system for those who can afford to wait a few minutes for a ride. Taking the Skytrain cost me an average of 25-40 Thai Baht, roughly one US dollar, per ride, depending on just how far I wanted to go. From there, I managed the walk, taking the opportunity to see all the vendors along the street.

When it came to certain streets, I came to learn that the street bus system, though still far slower compared to motorbike or train, was also preferable to walking in the heat. On the 8-baht “red bus,” I could catch some wind through the open windows, whereas the 12-baht “purple bus” is delightfully airconditioned.

Beginning the BFITS Thailand New Teachers Training

The view of Bangkok from the BFITS Thailand main office!

The view of Bangkok from the BFITS Thailand Main Office

The New Teacher Training from BFITS Thailand was made to be as easy and user-friendly as possible. It reminded me of certain courses I had in college, where showing some effort and engaging with the content was a surefire way to stick the landing. It was fairly apparent that the trainer was working with fresh material, but he was diligent enough to ensure we all understood the content. I especially enjoyed our group work activities, as they allowed us to know our colleagues better and even inspired us to socialize beyond the meeting room. Though I was soon the only one in the room who would be teaching at Kaennakhonwitthayalai (KNW) School in Khon Kaen, I still cherish the connections made in those weeks. There’s something solidifying about being foreigners, even from wildly different countries, here to teach under an English “banner.”

Taking HR’s advice, I stuck around in Bangkok to attend both weeks in person. I must say, I’m glad I did, as the life I lived there gave me great reflection and advanced me as a person, both on the professional and personal side. I learned how two people can see the same streets differently, and I found myself wearing the hats of both tourists and tour guides. As I grew more connected with my colleagues and the vacationers in my guest house, I was slowly familiarizing myself with the Masterclass material being given to us, too. Once I saw that we were to do a Practicum, “performing” a lesson activity at the end of the training, I knew it was time to add a personal touch to my contributions.

BFITS Thailand’s Advanced Resources and the Practicum

BFITS is incredibly accustomed to slideshows, audio files, textbooks digital and material, and had us prepared with all these resources and more. Admittedly, I’m usually one to see lists like these and wonder how to make them more… memorable.

To the surprise of James, the BFITS Training Manager, I skipped past the slideshow portion of my lesson plan entirely (we had only five minutes at that time, and I was going to make them count). Instead, I led a “post-family-tree-assignment” classroom discussion on creating a family soap opera. The “students” got to take turns listing an event that added to or subtracted from the “family,” the members of which were their very “classmates.”

As I caught relevant events, I would check off the introduced vocabulary. Each event, as well as my “shocked” reactions to the births, marriages, divorces, etc, kept the class giggling and engaged.

Enjoying the Songkran Holiday in April!

A view of the Songkran Water Festival from the safest spot - high up!

A view of the Songkran Water Festival from the safest spot – high up!

And then it was done, and time spent preparing for the job was spent preparing for the holiday of Songkran. I knew what to expect so far as kids with water guns on the street. What I was unprepared for was how widescale, and long-lasting, the festival would be. An official three-day holiday started days in advance, and even kept up with an afterparty for a couple days!

Not only that, but these “kids” I was expecting turned out to be more like the entire young adult population of Thailand, along with everyone younger and plenty of older folks too. I had to remember that I picked a main street to stay on, and so I was fated to be “blessed” by ice-cold water sprays or bucket dumps, though I imagine the party took place in every nook and cranny of the streets as well.

 Properly soaked from a day of Songkran, we take the crowded skytrain home.

Properly soaked from a day of Songkran, we take the crowded Skytrain home

When out travelling, I found the “safe” spots to be indoor malls and the skytrain – where the floors themselves were still rather soaked in water from the dripping sandals and clothes of the passerby. I took one day to join the absolute throng of the city, allowing myself to become “one with the water” for hours on end, and that was plenty for me.

Perhaps next year, I’ll feel ready again…

My Flight to Khon Kaen, Thailand

Traveling around Bangkok City, Thailand

But it was soon after that when my journey to Khon Kaen began. BFITS was kind enough to cover my flight ticket there so I could get accustomed to the new area as soon as possible. I said my goodbyes to friends I’d made at the guest house, then took the long drive to the airport. Though I’d arrived at the wrong terminal, the staff there were able to help me easily upon showing them my flight ticket. I had time to enjoy breakfast (Heads-up, there’s a Krispy Kreme there!) and be on my merry way.

Flying into Khon Kaen gave me approximately the view I was expecting. Though one of the biggest cities in the country, it still pales in size to Bangkok, as do the others on that list. It can be considered a “Little Big City” where, though not everybody knows each other, it is very easy to run into the same folks now and again. It is set against a beautiful forest backdrop, the feeling of which never quite leaves you, even when dropped into the heart of the city. Its downtown includes a few skyscrapers that let you view it from north to south and see where urban jumps into suburban, suburban into rural.

Arrival and Settling Down in Khon Kaen, Thailand

KNW BFITS Thailand Program Coordinator with Teachers Spencer in Khon Kaen International Airport

KNW BFITS Program Coordinator K’ May with Teacher Spencer in Khon Kaen International Airport

Upon arrival, I was greeted by KNW’s very own coordinators, Khun Suthita Rawisit (May) นางสาวสุธิตา ระวิสิทธ์ and Khun Wipada Maneerat (Fah) นางสาววิภาดา มณีรัตน์, who were both happy to take me where I needed to go and show me around elsewhere. Though the goal was to get me set up with an apartment, we still enjoyed the central shopping areas and a few of the restaurants. Reportedly, one or two of the spots we visited were new to them too! I soon found that in every destination I explored, there was always something on the way there that also caught my eye. I have had to begin listing out my “want to go” places for fear of losing track.

Before long, I had made my choice on where to live for the year. To me, the G9 condos offered the best space, proximity to the school, and price overall – and the room I liked even had a small kitchen area, an unusual find in Thailand! Thanks to the coordinators’ help, the place was ready to lease within the week. When I showed up to sign, however, I realized I didn’t have the cash on me, and my bank cards were no longer letting me withdraw cash from my account. I panicked – we rushed around the city, checking every bank and ATM we could find, but nothing seemed to work – and my limited ability to call outside the country only exacerbated the issue.

One of the “Great Lakes” of Khon Kaen, the land of dinos!

One of the “Great Lakes” of Khon Kaen, the Land of Dinos!

Thankfully, the coordinators pulled through for me, and when BFITS heard of the incident, they covered them in a way I simply couldn’t at the time. So, to conclude my other precaution: Talk with your bank. Even when you don’t have your next address yet, make sure they know where you’ll be!

Embracing the Journey: Lessons Learned and Excitement Ahead

BFITS Thailand Teacher Spencer Jarell Pellegrini

As the introductions and revelations continue, I am hit more and more with how much I still have to learn. I have now met the other teachers of the English Program at my school, and will soon be meeting with the students themselves! Even though each step has been like touching down in the country, over and over again, I understand a little more each time.

The one thing I will remark on, is that to truly survive, you must be ready to learn as much as (or more than) you teach. The lessons that BFITS has to offer definitely go both ways.

I, for one, am excited for class.

Capturing Thailand Moments: A Brief Visual Exploration

The art of Khon Kaen’s “The Wall” truly sticks out.

The art of Khon Kaen’s “The Wall” truly sticks out.

Wat Nong Waeng imposes beauty and grandeur, both inside and out.

Wat Nong Waeng imposes beauty and grandeur, both inside and out.

Some funny folk to greet you at the Central Plaza’s arcade.

Some funny folk to greet you at the Central Plaza’s arcade.

Before KNW, I’d never seen a secondary school with a maintained pond!

Before KNW, I’d never seen a secondary school with a maintained pond!

There are plenty of pretty sights at the night markets, such as TonTann.

There are plenty of pretty sights at the night markets, such as TonTann.

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Spencer Pellegrini

Spencer Pellegrini

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