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It’s more than just teaching

Teaching Abroad is more about the Abroad than the Teaching.

There are few places in the world with as strong an association with backpacking as South East Asia in general, and Thailand in particular. For all this however, the extent of the areas that are heavily frequented by backpackers is actually quite small. In fact, if you were feeling particularly cartographically inclined, you could divide the majority of Thai-originating backpacker trails into three routes.

This leaves huge swathes where the backpacker trail is less well-trodden. It was in the middle of one these huge swathes that I spent a few months teaching English last winter. How I got there is another story, but just under a year ago I found myself in front of 16 separate classes of 40 nice, if a little energetic, Thai school children armed with only a blackboard.

What followed were the best six months of my life.

Why, is difficult to explain. It probably wasn't the teaching itself. As fun and satisfying as the progress I made with my students was, it wasn't the best thing about living half way across the world. What was far more special was the enormous generosity with which we (there were four of us) were welcomed into the town that became our home.

I'm not well-enough travelled to know whether the welcome we received was unique to South East Asia, unique to Thailand, unique to North East Thailand or unique to our province. I'm not enough of an expert in Thai culture to know if it was solely due to the fact we were teachers. All I know is that it was the greatest piece of human kindness I have experienced in my life.

We were guests of honour at weddings, housewarmings, birthday parties and even funerals. Our new friends took us to local places of interest. In fact, we were fortunate enough to be living in an area of rural Thailand that happened to be littered with little historical gems, some of which are as old as the Tower of London and just as well preserved. More special than these individual acts of generosity however, was the feeling that every day this little town was taking the four of us deeper and deeper into their collective hearts.

Teaching abroad shouldn't be seen as an alternative to more conventional forms of travelling – you can do both! Not only do most English language teachers ‘go travelling’ in their time off, working as a teacher will not stop you seeing amazing places, and will not stop meeting amazing people. It just means that by moving a bit slower you can get more a bit more of a feeling for a place. So, teaching abroad truly is more about the abroad than the teaching.

If you take away anything from this article, please understand how much this little town became home to me. I became so comfortable there that I could be sailing down the Mekong River knowing there was a place I called home that I could get to without the long haul flight. Even now, back in the sleepy west London suburbs, I am kept on tenterhooks by the title race in the Thai Premier League. If there was any doubt that my town had become a home to me, they were erased as I left. As my bus began its journey to Bangkok, I had a simple, determined conviction that I would be back.

I deliberately didn't name my town. It doesn't matter really.  You could have similar experiences elsewhere, both in Thailand and beyond.

Alex McDonald spent four months last winter teaching English at a state primary school in North East Thailand. He is a member of the GKBC Writers’ Academy.