The teacher’s diary
One teacher's descent into madness
Garfield has nothing on me when it comes to hating Monday mornings. Monday signals the beginning of another week and the passing of my one solitary day off - Sunday. I would love to have the whole damn weekend off but Saturday is a busy day at my school and it brings me in around 2000 baht. I would be 8,000 baht down if I gave up Saturdays and that's a sizable chunk of my salary.
Two things dawn on me this morning - firstly that I forgot to go to the laundry yesterday to pick up my washing and secondly that I haven't prepared today's lessons. My own absent- mindedness continues to wear me down and I'm now faced with wearing a pair of socks and underpants that are both very much at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the weekly wash cycle. Still - if I can manage to stay sitting down in class, the students won't notice Bart Simpson peeping out from under my trousers.
I arrive at school at 8.57 for my 9.00 morning class. God, how I hate getting to school and having no time to prepare, not even time for a quick coffee. Water's just not the same. Not even time for a quick puff on a cigarette.
Without caffeine and nicotine, I feel gloomy - very gloomy indeed. Things are made worse by the fact that my group of three teenage girls haven't done their homework. They promised implicitly that they'd do it but no - they lied. My whole lesson plan (checking homework) has gone well and truly out of the window. Is this the moment when I vent all my growing frustration, stand in front of the whiteboard and call them lazy, good for nothing arseholes? Would they complain to the front desk if I did? Would I get the sack? Come to think of it - do I even care?
During the break I stand and smoke a fag near the fire exit. Great to at last take some nicotine into my lungs, but not so great to hear the weekend war stories from my teaching colleagues. Nana Plaza is going down the pan apparently. Number 27 at the Doll's House has a hell of a set of top bollocks on her. And John's sexual performance on Saturday night matched that of the great John Holmes himself - she was begging me to stop.
Difficult for me to either digest or comment. I'm too busy trying to work out an interesting and entertaining way to teach phrasal verbs. I decide that there isn't one. There's only one thing that can get me through the next lesson - a hastily photocopied word-search. The students will never use words like 'telescopic' or 'botanical' but it's the actual searching for the words that they enjoy - and isn't that what it's all about?
In the afternoon, I'm summoned to the office of the director of studies. He doesn't have a teacher to do the corporate job at XYZ computers out at the Whoflungdung industrial estate. It's a nice little earner - 600 baht an hour - if you can put up with the journey which involves a one-hour bus ride, 3 motorcycle taxis and a canal boat.
I arrive just in time for the class. Six overweight executives wearing glasses sit around a conference table. That's actually all that's in the room. There's no whiteboard, no board markers and no hope. I get out a book called 'presentation skills for a new generation' and the class ask me about whether I prefer Thai women to farang women. An hour into the lesson and we eventually turn to page 73. It looks dull - it looks deadly dull. I'm beginning to wish that I'd made more photocopies of the word-search.
A two-hour bus journey, 3 motorbike taxis, and a canal boat later, I'm standing outside my local laundry shop. She hasn't finished my washing. God, how I loathe and despise that woman with her nervous and embarrassed Thai smile which translates as 'life is a bag of shit...and this is your bag of shit' What I really need is a bag of freshly-laundered clothes.
Standing on a crowded bus to work, I'm gripped with the paranoia that befalls someone wearing a pair of trousers that don't quite meet his shoes - a pair of shoes that could do with a polish actually. Upon arrival at work, I find myself face to face with a worried looking Thai mother who wants to know how little Somchai is progressing in his lessons - is he participating? is he conjugating his verbs in a clear and succinct manner?
"Oh he's doing fine"I say instead of "The kid's only five years old for fuck's sake - he should be trying to get Mario onto the next level or sticking pictures in books" I go through the motions of showing concern when all I feel is sorry for the kid.
In the afternoon I have a new class of six students. I go for the time-honored warm-up of getting them to introduce themselves to the rest of the class. It never ever works, but right now I'm so snowed under with lesson preparation that it's all I can think of. When we get to the fourth student, everyone else is getting bored and fidgety - I'm getting bored and fidgety. I wonder if it's acceptable to start a new class with a word-search.
I finally have a few hours free in the afternoon and instinctively reach for the Bangkok Post classified. Usual stuff - yet another school running a teacher training course that will 'open doors all over the world' and other well-worn cliches. A Thai-run school in soi 156 is looking for full-time and part-time teachers. They promise top-rates of pay but can only afford the smallest of ads in the newspaper.
With my brain on auto-pilot I read through all the horoscopes and the business section, looking at pictures of high-flying businesspeople who aren't teachers or who never ever wanted to be. I even have a look at Ajarn Terry's lesson plan. Is it going to be the answer to my prayers? No yet again, it's a lesson plan that focuses on football, and yet again it's aimed at advanced level students. I promise myself to write Terry a letter reminding him that in every single class there will always be one student that has no interest in football whatsoever.
Wednesday's a quiet day. I have one of those awful teaching schedules with lessons in the morning from 9.00am to 11.30, and then evening lessons from 6.00pm to 8.30. I have a gap in the day which gives me enough time to go shopping.......in Singapore.
The morning students are tired, the evening students are even worse. I love the way that the office people finish work, and then come to class and just want to be entertained. They view me as some sort of circus act. I want to tell them that I'm tired too. I've spent six hours wandering around air-conditioned shopping malls. I've read the Bangkok Post six times. I even picked up the Bangkok Metro - that's how bored I was. I managed to make a coffee in Starbucks last for an hour, and after filling that time, after filling all that time - I still didn't have the motivation to sit down and prepare the lessons.
Relaxing at home with a good book and desperately trying to keep my eyes open, I receive a phone call. The lady who lives just down the soi wants me to teach her two children on a Saturday morning. She has two little barstards - aged somewhere between 5 and 8. It doesn't matter how old they are - let's just say that they're small. There are two issues here - firstly how much do I charge? and secondly, what do they want to learn?
'Just give them conversation' is a sentence I love. It's about as unimaginative and wearisome as any sentence you care to mention. And what exactly madam do you propose that I converse with two small Thai boys about? - China's emergence as an Asian superpower? The advantages of holding the world cup in two different countries that have a history of bitter rivalry?
Saturday morning it is then Khun Somphop. I'll see you at 7.30. Oh...the price? (the price, the price, how much is it worth?) There's a little man in my head. I call him my spiritual accountant. He's saying "charge her 800 baht an hour, go on. You're professional, you're qualified, you have a good reputation. Charge the loaded old bag 800 baht an hour" The words are there in my throat but they won't come out " Shall we say 500 Khun Somphop?"
Khun Somphop is more than happy. I couldn't really understand her reply but I'm guessing it's the Thai equivalent of 'sorted'.
I feel quite good this morning. I've got my best shirt and tie on and I'm clocking my reflection in the mirror 'not all five Spice Girls please!' It's a good 'money' day today - an eight lesson day with almost no breaks bar the one-hour break at lunchtime. I'm going to treat myself today. I'm going to have sausage and mash or pie and chips at the Toby Jug. Yeah, I know that rice and a few scraps of chicken followed by a bag of fresh pineapple is healthy but I'm a bleedin' farang - I need sustenance, I need carbohydrates. I need to occasionally enjoy the delights of an unhealthy diet and not feel guilty about it. Bollocks, after my sausage and mash nosebag, I might even grab a Mars bar from 7-11 and stick two fingers up to the world.
The day was spoiled by only one thing - a lesson observation. The head teacher came and sat in one of my morning classes - a class that didn't go particularly well. After the observation, we sat down together to discuss and analyze the class in detail, as you would expect two professionals involved in Bangkok's EFL profession to do. It was a case of pinpointing my weak areas and making suggestions on how I can become a more competent and successful teacher.
"You didn't move around the class enough".
"Well what do you expect for 220 baht an hour. Why don't you get me a pair of bloody roller-skates."
"The one student participated very little in the class. It was as though you were deliberately trying to avoid asking her questions."
"I avoid asking her questions because she's a complete f***ing retard. Every time she answers a question, she's 100% wrong. That takes a special kind of talent."
"Do you feel that you used the whiteboard correctly?"
"Well, I wrote on it if that's what you're getting at. It's generally what I use the whiteboard for. I do know some teachers who take it off the wall and take the students out for a snowboarding session but they're few and far between"
Ahhhh, professional development - the cornerstone of any language school.
I start off the morning's kids class with a Mr Bean video lesson. It involves watching two episodes of Mr Bean (fills an hour just nicely) and then the kids tell me whether it was good or not. Listen chum, while they keep telling me it's good, I'll keep on giving the punters what they want.
I'm then left with two hours to kill before my next lesson and have no alternative but to mingle with my colleagues in the teachers room. Our teachers room is no different to any other I guess - there's a selection of coffee mugs, 'world's greatest lover', 'If you had it last night smile' you get the picture. Next to them there's the communal spoon, which is caked in dried coffee powder, coffee mate and sugar. That's about all as regards the comforts and luxuries department.
In the academic department of the teachers room, there's a battered old sofa which literally thousands of people have farted into, and half a dozen ergonomically challenged armchairs. There's a bookcase full of textbooks written by Oxford University professors, with titles like 'English Grammar - Full on', and 'Grammar and more Grammar - the non-illustrated version' There's a crossword game with half the pieces missing and a trivial pursuit with all the answers marked on the cards with a cheap biro. We have a hanging file index where teachers can put ideas for activities, and things that worked well in their lesson. It currently contains a paperclip, a discount coupon for happy meals at Burger King and an old lottery ticket.
This time spent idly in the teachers room does give me the chance to meet up with some of my teaching colleagues. Thursday is a busy day and most of the staff are present in one form or another.
There's Daphne from the home counties. She's here with her husband, who's been sent from the UK to work on a big chemical project on the eastern seaboard. She teaches just to keep her hand in and keep her from getting bored. She regales me with stories of last night's superb meal at Auberge Dab and that the foie gras is simply 'to die for'. She keeps getting interrupted by Dagenham Dave, who is trying to fill us all in on why Soi Cowboy just isn't the same since the Big Pussy Bar closed. And then there's Jemima, darling Jemima, a new graduate from the USA, coming to teach in Thailand because......well, actually she doesn't have a reason. The school arranged to pick her up at the airport, arranged an apartment, sorted her out with a schedule, told her where she could buy decent underwear, and still she's pissing and moaning.
And while the rest of the Bangkok population push trolleys around supermarkets and play computer games in the peace and quiet of their homes, I'm faced with my busiest day of the week.
Those who don't push trolleys or play computer games, come and sit in my lesson with expectant looks on their faces. They expect me to open a little trapdoor in the top of their heads and insert a small component that has ' English Language' stamped on it. There are horrified looks all round when I imply that learning the English language involves opening books to certain page numbers and performing alien functions such as speaking, moving and getting up out of your chair.
It all comes as quite a shock.
Monday morning promises to be interesting - I've taken on a private course with Mrs Sakakaki, a Japanese housewife who lives in a high rise condo on Sukhumwit 33. I'll do one hour of conversation with her and then one hour with her eight-year old son Aoki . With him it will be basically anything I can get away with. I've slipped a cheap coloring book into my satchel as purely a precautionary measure. It may well be a case of ‘close the door little Aoki and let's see how many of these animals we can color in - oh a blue kangaroo, you're making wonderful progress'
I arrive at the condominium well before our scheduled 9'o'clock start, which gives the insecurity guard ample time to subject me to the closest of scrutiny. He regards me with a look of contempt that is usually adopted by people inspecting a particularly horrible carpet stain.
" I'm here to see Mrs Sakakaki in apartment 53B"
"Are you an English teacher?" he asks with a sneer.
"Yes I am" I reply "Why the f*** else would I be here at 8.30 in the morning sodden with sweat and wearing a cheesy smile" I mutter the last sentence under my breath.
Mrs Sakakaki's apartment is exactly what you'd expect to get if you were willing to shell out 80,000 baht a month on rent. It's a veritable palace in the sky with numerous doors leading off from the sumptuous main living room. No doubt they are doors that lead to fitted kitchens, master bedrooms, and en suite bathrooms. I find it hard to control my jealousy.
In the refreshments department, Mrs Sakakaki stretches to a glass of tepid water and a plate of nibbles each predictably wrapped in a thin coating of seaweed. As we spend a painful hour trying to ascertain which part of Japan she's from and where her husband is now, little Aoki races around the room on a skateboard periodically crashing into my chair with a resounding thump. To which his mother berates him with the Japanese equivalent of "go and play in your bedroom my darling"
At the end of an hour, I've discovered that she originally hails from Tokyo, her husband is presently at the office, and her favorite place in Thailand is surprisingly, the Bridge over the River Kwai. I've also discovered that her little Aoki should have been strangled at birth.
Today is something of a kid's day for me - I have a class of five-year olds waiting for me back at the school in the afternoon. After 3 weeks spent coloring in animals, I decide to introduce them to the world of drama.
"Now kids, I want you to imagine that I'm a little seed buried deep in the earth, and you're the sun. That's right you're the sun. Now I want you to come over and touch me and watch me grow bigger" I just pray to god that the director of studies isn't ear-wigging this on the other side of the door.
I spend the morning at home going through the pages of Ajarn.com and trying to fill some of the gaps in my schedule. I make two phone calls. One is to a school on Sukhumwit 58 that is looking for...wait for it.....English language instructors. I just love that. As though avoiding the word ‘teacher' is going to conjure up an image of anything different to standing in front of six bored shitless teenagers holding a well-thumbed Interchange. I had already sent my resume to the director so he was expecting my call. After the traditional pleasantries, he goes on to ask me about my resume itself.
"I see that your C.V states that you have an interest in English grammar. Can you tell me the difference between a countable and an uncountable noun?"
I immediately reply with "Good heavens man, it says I'm interested, not f***ing obsessed" It becomes crystal clear that this is not a job for me.
The second phone call is to a woman who has advertised for ‘teacher wanted for casual conversation' She picks up the phone and I ask her for more details. "Yes, we are three middle-aged Thai women with big hair and faux pearls. We want to sit around an expensive-looking dining table with a farang teacher and make the most appalling grammar mistakes while at the same time pawing each other's silk dresses and cackling raucously. For this we are willing to cross your palm with the princely sum of 400 baht" I ask her if I can have some time to think about it. She reluctantly agrees.
On the bus journey into work, I sit next to a pretty young girl who is clutching a copy of the Interchange textbook. She's obviously on her way to an English class. I can sense that she so desperately wants to start a conversation, but she's at the distinct disadvantage of having studied from Jack Richard's hallowed text. She spends the whole journey wondering if "Hey dude, how are they hanging?" is really the most appropriate conversational gambit.
Back in school and time to pick up my photocopying. We have a marvelous photocopying system. The teacher decides how many copies of a certain page they need, fills in a photocopying request form and leaves it on the receptionist's desk. The following day you walk into the school and find that the request form is exactly where you left it. A truly wonderful system. And why may you ask should a receptionist spend her valuable time fiddling around with an archaic photocopying machine when the time can be spent calling up boyfriends and manicuring her fingernails.
So after an hour or so of fishing jammed-up paper from the machine's internal workings, I can at last retire to the sanctuary of the teacher's room. Only to find that the maid is sick and the communal coffee spoon has gone missing.
On my way out to work I stop in at the reception to pay my apartment bill - 280 baht for international phone calls I never made, and 1,300 baht for air-conditioning that I rarely use. As I leave through the front gates being careful not to wake up the security guard, the apartment owner pips his horn from behind the wheel of his new Mercedes.
Before work, I drop by the English language bookstore in Siam Square. I'm desperately looking for something that will spice up my lessons. The choice of books is mind-boggling. All of them seem to have wistful and romantic names like ‘Expressions', ‘Whispers', and ‘Lifestyle' - names that are quite frankly more suited to a luxury panty liner than a range of English language textbooks. It takes me an age to select something I'm happy with, and at the end of the day I just want to grab the book, slap 250 baht on the counter and fuck off, but no......there's the teacher's manual to consider. Not to mention the workbook, the video, the class cassette, the student-counseling guide, and the CD Rom with supplementary dance-mat.
In the afternoon, I have a private one on one lesson with a Thai businessman. He is the product analyst for one of Bangkok's leading pharmaceutical firms. He tells me that it's his responsibility to meet with international clients and explain to them the merits of a whole range of cancer-fighting drugs and the advantages that original medicine can have over its generic competitors. After listening to him waffle on for half an hour and with my eyes feeling like they have lead weights attached to them, I ask him to think of some questions to ask me. He pauses for a moment, purses his lips and just comes straight out with the first question.
"Do you have lady Thai?"
I sink to my knees and beat my head on the carpet. Before breaking down into uncontrollable sobbing. Yes.....I would rather be driving a bus for the Greater Manchester Transport Authority.
The Director of Studies calls all the teachers in for an emergency meting. We all sit there in a semi-circle and wonder if our jobs are on the line. I've noted down the number of Siam Computer just in case.
The DoS looks worried. "We are not attracting anything like the number of students that we should be. From now on, I'm introducing a student request system. Students will decide which teacher they want to study with. I'm telling you now - GET FUNNY!"
That night I go home and practice in front of the full length mirror. Which side is my funniest? What's the laziest letter in the alphabet? - the letter E because it's always in bed. I visualize a scenario where no one laughs and so I have to tell the joke a second time. Then the brightest student in the class has to explain it to the rest and any hope that the joke ever had of being even mildly entertaining has vanished forever.
And I see a vision of six students beating a path to the reception and banging collective fists on the desk. "That teacher just isn't funny. We don't want to study with him"
I reach deep into my pocket and finger a scrap of paper. It's the phone number for Siam Computer.
In the morning I have a corporate training class at Bangkok Jams limited. The training manager has complained that I'm not gearing the lesson towards the needs of the students. The fact that their primary need is simply to distinguish the difference between the ‘he' and ‘she' pronoun is lost on him.
I prepare an ambitious lesson based on the present perfect ‘have you ever' question word followed by the past participle of the verb. After familiarizing them with the structure by asking them questions such as ‘have you ever been to Lumpini Park?' and ‘have you ever seen Last tango in Paris?' I remember the words of the training manager "Gear the lessons to their needs"
So class "How many of you have ever fallen into the jam?"
Have you ever dropped a jar of jam? If so, what flavor was it? (I thought that added a nice twist)
"Excuse me teacher. What's jam?"
My Saturday students have all cancelled so I have the rare chance to hit the town tonight. One student is burying her grandmother for the eighth time this year. Still let's not dwell on the possibility of it being a white lie - it's Buckskin Joe Village for this here language instructor.
And as the sun goes down and the night owls come out to play, I'm sitting on a barstool next to a chubby Isarn girl called Noi. I'm nursing a bottle of Super Leo and wishing I were anywhere else. After a marathon session of 4-in-a-row, she eventually asks the question that we all dread "you work what in Bangkok?" She probably wouldn't understand the expression ‘language instructor' so I regrettably plumb for the more universally acceptable "I'm a teacher"
"Oh, Bangkok have teacher too much"
Her grammar is appalling, but I can't think of a five-word sentence that conveys a message so brutally honestly..so embarrassingly forthright. Her words are like a dagger to the heart.
Today I've been invited out for a meal by a group of ex-students. They say that there are only two things in life that are certain - death and taxes. But there are actually three. Whenever you are invited to dinner by students they will invariably choose one of those restaurants that a) specializes in serving up spectacularly average sea-food b) can seat 4,000 Thai customers at the same time c) is near the river, and d) has a menu the size of the Koran.
And yet after an entirety spent ordering, re-ordering and then calling back the waiter to change the order a third time, what arrives at the table? .............shrimp-cakes. Always bloody shrimp-cakes. Why don't these restaurants just present their customers with an A4 sheet of paper with shrimp-cakes printed on it in a size 48 font.
And so the evening passes pleasantly enough with a group of eight people nibbling excitedly on shrimp-cakes and the teacher answering time-honored questions such as "Why do you live in Thailand?" and the perpetually vague "What about your country?"
And I realize that I've still got Monday's lessons to prepare.
Hangover. No aspirin.
The following Monday
At my corporate class with Bangkok Jams, I bump into the ex-pat general manager, Mr Hertz Van Rental, a cheerful, smiling middle-aged gentleman from the land of clogs, windmills, tulips, peep shows and 24-hour sex shops. Mr Van Rental is a dapper figure (suit by Daks of London, shirt from Reiss, necktie from the Gucci Spring collection, shoes by Churches of Northampton, socks by Burberry, and hair by Keith at Stink - 'would sir like a dab of mousse on that?'
This is in sharp contrast to yours truly (shirt from the Mall, Bangkapi, necktie borrowed from a mate, shoes from the Bata clearance sale, and hair by Mr Somchai at Ekkami barbers - 'that'll be 50 baht sir, next!'
He seems pleased to see me and shakes my hand warmly.
"Thank god you've come, we've been sweltering these past few afternoons with the air-conditioning not functioning properly"
"Actually sir, I'm not here to fix the air-conditioning. I think you'll find that's a job for a Thai. I'm here to teach English to your staff"
" Oh I'm so sorry, I thought you were here about the air-con"
How we both laughed. What a lovely man.
In the afternoon, I'd prepared a lesson on ailments and cures for my conversation class of some 8 students. It involved holding up a series of pictures showing common maladies such as a sore throat and a backache. The class then had to tell me what they would do if they suffered from such an affliction.
I held up the picture of a man with a toothache.
"Go to the pharmacy" shouted the class in unison.
"Ok, yes, you could go to the pharmacy. What about this picture?"
The man with migraine brings about the same response. "Go to the pharmacy!" they all shout. A similar pattern develops for the woman with period pain and the man with malaria.
"Go to the pharmacy, go to the pharmacy, let's all go to the bloody pharmacy. Let's forget about the power of healing with the mind, home remedies, hypnotherapy, reflexology, let's all go to the bloody pharmacy!
The vein on my forehead starts to glow bright purple, which always happens when I get mad.
A silence descends on the class as though a naked man has just run through the room. I have, in what is referred to on EFL training courses, lost them.
The following Tuesday
Chinese New Year - Student cancellations threw the whole day into turmoil. It seems that my flock would rather stay at home and gorge themselves stupid than come to my English class and study the present perfect passive. Whichever way you look at it, I lost 4 periods of teaching. To make matters worse the director of studies says that we have to show compassion toward the students and not charge them for late cancellations on this special day. I just stood there a quivering wreck. But I have bills to pay - the laundry woman always has 800 baht off me on the 15th of every month. And then there's the phone bill. I'll get cut off If I don't pay within 3 days and it costs 2000 baht to be re-connected. What am I going to do?
I approach the director of studies and ask him if there's any chance of an advance on my salary - just 1000 baht will tide me over.
Asking for an advance is every teacher's nightmare. Not only because it tells the world that you are totally incapable of handling your finances but because of the humiliation of going through the 'getting an advance' procedure. It involves informing the one member of Thai staff that you particularly loathe, who will in turn make a huge play of asking exactly what it's for before she conveys the problem to every other member of staff including the cleaner and the bloke delivering the water. You just have to sit there at the reception counter in full view of students and student mothers while the receptionist from hell reaches behind her to take down a huge ledger into which she enters the total amount to be advanced. All that then remains is for her to check your passport, teacher identity card, work permit and to post your name on the teacher's notice-board on a sheet of A4 paper with the words 'ADVANCES FOR FEBRUARY' cunningly created with Microsoft Wordart.
In the afternoon, in my appalling pidgin Thai, I explain to the laundry woman about needing to show compassion toward the students who have had to cancel lessons so they can enjoy the new year festivities in the bosom of their family. She listens intently, occasionally shaking her head in mild sympathy, and when my sob story is complete and it is obvious that no money will be forthcoming, she stares at me and mutters 'arsehole'. Happy New Year love.
The following Wednesday
Once more I'm calling around after jobs advertised in the Bangkok Post. British American are claiming that if I'm serious about teaching then I shouldn't consider working for anyone else, and Siam Computer are promising new improved pay rates. The Christian school on soi 71 is looking for new teachers, as it does every month, and Adacac are looking for their fifth academic director in a fortnight. One school is looking for 'professional teachers - you need to be either male or female' I feel like calling them up and asking what other categories applicants might fall into, and another school promises 'loads of work for the right teacher'. I have a huge problem with the expression 'the right teacher' because it usually means a guy fresh off the boat who will happily teach a 50-hour schedule and not ask for advances.
I resign myself to staying at home with the bane of my life - the devious Noi. This girl shows me so much affection and all she asks in return is a roof over her head, the opportunity to play cards twice a week with the girl on the fourth floor, the freedom to spend hours chatting with the motorbike taxi drivers at the end of the soi, and 500 baht a day to put clothes on her back and bread on the table. Realising that I'm going to be under her feet all day, she retires to the balcony and rustles me up an omelette (the Thai equivalent of spam and chips) Is this what I get for my 500 baht?
In the evening I have an interview at the imaginatively named ' School of English Language ' on Thonglor soi 45/3. It's mid-way between 45/9 and 45/11 so you'll understand why it took me two hours to find the bloody place. Being 2 hours late and sweating profusely from both armpits didn't do much to endear me to the interviewer so to show his impatience and arrogance, he launched straight into a grammar test.
"How would you teach adverbs of frequency?"
Ah, here was a double whammy - he wants to know about my teaching style and also if I know what an adverb of frequency is. I spend the next five minutes enlightening him as to the subtleties and how best to make students understand. But as often happens in these situations, I get too clever. I tell him that 'often' is an adverb of frequency but 'I often go to the movie theatre' could mean once a week, whereas 'I often go to the dentist' might convey the idea of twice a year, so it really depends on the situation.
The interviewer thanks me for coming and says he'll be in touch. I have no doubt whatsoever that the moment my back was turned, he scribbled the word 'smartarse' across my resume and shoved it in the bin.
The following Thursday
I have an interesting morning in store after Wednesday's enforced day off and zero baht going into my bank account. The director of studies is sick and he's asked me to step in and interview some potential teachers. The first guy is an American. It's obvious he's an American the moment he walks through the door - the shirt and tie with a baseball cap back to front are a dead giveaway. He introduces himself as Chuck De Vittori, or some other pitcher/ESPN/college football/running quarterback type name. It's obvious when he starts to talk about paid return flights home, annual bonuses and free education for his kids that he's probably got the wrong address....in the wrong city of the wrong country. Next!
Charlie Simpson is an interesting fella. Well educated, qualified, a history of being involved in top management, could this man be the answer to all our prayers? I listen with interest as he furnishes me with stories of winning billion dollar contracts and looking for a career change at 57. There's something sinister about him though - he's reluctant to give me a contact phone number and he's a little sketchy about what he was up to between 1962 and 1985. His e-mail address 'ilovenanaplaza at hotmail.com doesn't do him any favors either.
The best of the bunch is easily young Igor from the Balkan states. He's enthusiastic and energetic and more importantly willing to work for peanuts. I tell him about a nice little corporate job we've got coming up - just past Ayutthaya. 70 kilometres past to be exact. Don't worry though Igor (my voice lowers to a whisper) we're gonna stick 200 baht travel money in yer sky rocket. What can you do in the class? Just give 'em conversation me old son but for f*** sake don't mention Bulgaria or any of the other Wombles. I turn to the receptionist and tell her to 'put this man on the payroll'. We shake hands and I end the interview the way I end every interview "Welcome aboard, I hope this is the beginning of a long and happy working relationship between us. Or at least until you've finished the contract" He expresses his deepest gratitude. At least I think it was his deepest gratitude. Difficult to understand that thick Eastern European accent at times.
In the evening, I do a private lesson with a girl from the next apartment. She comes round to my room with a bag of pineapple and her 300 baht tuition money (well you can't charge neighbors too much can you). We both sit perched on the edge of the nylon duvet and talk about what she's done at school today. Despite my pleas to the devious Noi to make herself scarce while I'm teaching, Noi sits on the floor watching a third rate Thai soap opera and laughing loudly for no apparent reason. Unable to take any more of these interruptions, I lash out at her with my foot and tell her to go and do something useful like make me an omelette. My private student is then witness to a whole half-hour of name-calling and face-slapping, which ends with a Thai girl being locked in the bathroom. My private student hands me my 300 baht with a trembling hand. "I think Phi Noi is angry"
"No, she'll be OK later. Same time next week then?"
The following Friday
Early start this morning. I teach an executive from 7.30-9.00 before he starts work. The pay is good but who in their right mind would want to study at this time of the day? Is he in fact human? And so we sit in his pokey little office - an insomniac executive who obviously hates his wife and can't wait to leave home in the morning, and a teacher wearing the face of a man who has had no breakfast, too little sleep and no time for a decent bowel movement. By 10.00 in the morning I'm exhausted.
Friday is workshop day. I love the word 'workshop'. I'm positive that it was brought into academic circles by radical feminists . . . simply because I blame them for everything else. The word workshop should be used to describe an environment of wooden work surfaces and blokes in grimy overalls with a pencil stuck behind their ear. But no - at our school it's the opportunity for the only teacher with an RSA certificate to stand up and bore us to death for two hours. Today's workshop is titled - ‘Should we be overloading young learners with grammar rules?'. Last week's was just as exciting - 'Can we let students run wild with role-plays?'
The answer to both questions is obviously ‘No' so why do we need two hours to discuss it? Why don't we get it over with in five minutes and head down to Toi's bar for the happy hour? Oh I'm sorry - it's called professional development. I knew I was missing the point somewhere.
The following Saturday
This weekend I've been invited by a group of students to 'do Pattaya'.
There are actually two ways to 'do Pattaya' - the Thai way and the farang way. The farang way involves copious amounts of lager, a simple but comfortable hotel room with a mini-bar and a queen-size bed, the obligatory run-in with a mouthy ladyboy, pie and chips at an establishment known as the Red Lion or the Rovers Return, a stroll along the beach road, the hire of an obscenely large motorcycle, a smile and an offer you can't refuse from a rakish freelancer, and getting legged by a bunch of Thai hoodlums.
The Thai version consists of 2 days in Naklua (which isn't really Pattaya at all), a makeshift bed on the floor of a ludicrously small living room, a guitar, an icebox, a f***ing banana boat, and the opportunity to stick your head in a bowl of noodles five times in the same day.
The following Sunday
I can't remember ever being happier than when we rolled into Ekkami bus station at 6pm on a Sunday evening.
Disaster strikes as early as Monday morning. I'm in the office of Khun Amarit, my three times a week private student. He wants to cancel his lessons for a fortnight.
"I'm going on a business trip to Rio De Janeiro " he tells me.
I can barely control my emotions as he delivers this crippling body blow. My bottom lip begins to quiver as I see a potential 8,000 baht disappear before my very eyes.
"Don't go Khun Amarit. Please don't go"
"I beg your pardon"
"Please don't go. Rio 's crap. It's over-rated. The girls on the beach positively wobble with cellulite, and homeless kids will pester you at every turn. Take my word for it - Rio sucks. Even that statue of the bloke with his arms out isn't as impressive as you think when you're close up"
"But my company are sending me. It's the annual regional sales conference and I'm the token Thai person"
By now Khun Amarit has walked to the other side of his spacious office to replenish his coffee cup while pulling me along by his trouser leg. I am wailing hysterically.
"What am I going to do! There's no bloody work out there!"
"It's only two weeks"
"It's 8,000 baht" I cry. And then I immediately stop dribbling snot as an idea comes like a bolt from the blue.
"What about your daughter? You always say that you want her to study English"
"But she's only 6 weeks old"
" So what! Start ‘em young"
I have an afternoon conversation class, which consists of three male teenagers who should, in all honestly, be taken out into a forest, any forest, and shot painlessly in the back of the head. As you may guess it's a class I don't really look forward to.
I decide to lighten things up a little by playing a game called 20 Questions. Briefly, you choose one student to stand in front of the class and they must imagine that they are a famous person. The remaining students ask direct questions such as "Are you male?" or "Are you a movie star?" In theory, the game becomes one big raucous party swing-a-long as the clock counts down and the students fight each other to ask the very last direct question - the one that will reveal the identity of the famous person.
This is how the game goes when you play it with a group of Thai students.
First question. "Are you black?"
Wow that was quick! says the teacher, trying to desperately inject some kind of enthusiasm into the proceedings but failing dismally. Let's have another one.
"Are you a movie star?"
I don't know one single teacher in the entire f***ing universe who has any success with this game. I think it's referred to as a ‘lesson filler' because you end up wanting to actually fill the students in.
I do get my own back though. When it's my turn to be the famous person, none of them can guess that I am in fact Donald Sutherland from 1973's Don't Look Now, and they struggle even more with Patrick Troughton, who was quite superb as the flamboyant time-lord Dr Who before Jon Pertwee assumed the role. I punch the air having won the game yet again. Fuckwits!
This morning I'm covering two writing classes for a colleague who has gone on a visa run to Penang. My thoughts are with him as I sit in the teacher's room looking over his lesson plan sheet. Right now, he'll be at Hat Yai station tucking into barbecued chicken on a skewer ( it's all you can eat when you travel by train in Thailand). He'll have no doubt had a restless night's sleep, tossing and turning to the pitch and roll of the railway carriage but you can guarantee that the last thing on his mind will be whether my substitution of his writing lessons goes smoothly or not.
We have a system at the school where any teacher who goes on a visa run or buggers off to a tropical island for a month has to fill in a lesson substitution sheet. This invaluable piece of A4 size paper tells the substitution teacher the name and size of the class, the textbook to use, the page number to start on, and the work to cover. The theory is that the substitute teacher can just walk into the class unprepared and perhaps even a little pissed, turn to the lesson plan sheet and bingo - a blind man could teach the lesson - for all the notes and lesson plan have been carefully documented. Except today.
There is just one short sentence written in the ‘comments' section. It simply says ‘give them conversation, see you Monday'. No page number, no instructions, no hint of what the class did in the last lesson - naff all. I am for want of a better expression - f*cked.
The first class is an advanced writing class. I ask them what they've been doing the past few weeks. Apparently Ajarn Mick (as the students call him) has spent most of the time telling the students about his favorite eating-places in the capital - the German beer-garden in Sukhumwit soi 7, the Rex Hotel coffee shop after 2.00am, and at the weekends, he's quite partial to a few hours at the Siam Hotel on Petchburi Road. I change the subject quickly; it's quite obvious that Mad Mick (as the teachers call him) has not spent much time on topic sentences and thesis statements.
The class is in for a treat today. I'm going to play them six pieces of music and I want them to let their imaginations run wild and write down what comes into their heads. Where are they? Who are they? What is the environment like? I start off with ‘Mars' from the Planet Suite by Gustav Holst. As the cymbals crash and the drums beat louder ever louder, I tell the class that I feel like a gladiator marching to the stadium. Today I'm going to fight the most famous gladiator in the whole of Rome - a duel to the death. The crowd is cheering and mothers hold small children above their head so they can see their all-conquering hero. You get the idea.
I give the class something a little more mellow - a nice Spanish guitar concerto by John Williams. When I listen to it, it evokes images of hot passionate Senoritas. I can almost smell the camp-fires burning in the woods of deepest Cataluna and I can almost smell the paella drowned in olive oil and brimming with freshly caught mussels and squid. When I ask the class of 7 students what is brought to mind by the beautiful flamenco music, four of them all agree that it reminds them of window-shopping in the department store, two of them can't think of anything to save their lives, and one has fallen asleep.
I decide to abandon the impromptu music lesson and get the students to ask me questions about my family (it never works but we keep trying). One of the students asks if my grandmother is still alive, to which I reply that she died about 15 years ago. After a slight pause, I decide to add a supplementary comment, ‘she's still a good shag though'.
I'm only joking. I didn't really say that. But I would have loved to. Anything, positively anything to just get one spark of reaction from that class. Just for me to see one inquisitive tilt of the head, one furrowed brow or one look of sheer horror and it would have been worth it.
The second writing class is a lower level of ability so I decide to not set them too taxing an assignment. The instructions are simple - draw a plan of your home or apartment and write a spatial description composition based on that plan. The students set about the task with admirable enthusiasm. As I wander around looking at the plans and sketches, it strikes me how many of the students live in palatial mansions and luxury condominiums. There are servant's quarters, maid's rooms, fruit orchards, wrought iron gates, and driveways with ample parking. Far removed from my own 4,000 baht a month studio apartment (read bed-sit) decorated by the devious Noi and featuring a plastic clothes rail with a blue and white striped nylon cover, a tiny balcony dominated by an overworked rice cooker, pink plastic shelving units and a poster by the bathroom door that depicts a toddler in a leather jacket and sunglasses and bears the timeless legend ‘Hey man I'm cool'. My devious Noi - the queen of tat!
I wake up in that familiar state of mild panic - I forgot to go to the laundry yet again. Why is it that I can't organize my life into any kind of shape or routine? Why can't I eat three meals a day at the times my Mom recommended, and is it so difficult to make sure that there are always clean clothes hanging in the closet and my rent and bills get paid on time? I was never ever this disorganized when I lived with my parents. I swing my legs out of bed and go across to the linen basket (actually, it's a black bin-liner). I have one clean shirt - it used to be white but is now an insipid gray. In addition, it has a stain on the breast pocket, which is unmistakably chicken tikka masala. That stuff just never comes out.
I look across at the devious Noi lying fast asleep under crumpled sheets and decide to give her a poke (a poke in the ‘I need a shirt ironed' sense) She groans audibly "araaaay" and goes back to dreaming about being let loose in a Las Vegas casino with unlimited spending money. I'm going to have to iron the shirt myself. A quick glance at the clock tells me that I have exactly 40 minutes to iron a shirt, take a shower, do my hair and get to Mrs Sakomoto's apartment on Sukhumwit 39. Every minute has to count. It dawns on me that I have never had to iron a shirt before - my Mom never showed me. But I do as best as I can - a squirt of spray starch here and a squirt there. For a novice ironer like me, I still have to endure the challenge of ironing on one of those low ironing boards much favored by the Thais - when you turn the shirt over, the sleeve that you've just done drags across the floor and becomes a mass of creases again (which rather defeats the whole purpose methinks)
Eventually I'm away out of the apartment - no lesson plan, late for the lesson anyway, and a crap shirt. The insecurity guard wants to tell me about last night's football but I've no time to offer opinions. Petchburi Road is bumper to bumper - total gridlock. I approach the loathsome gaggle of motorcycle taxi drivers on the corner of my sub-soi. "I apologize for disturbing your game of bottle-top checkers but could one of you fine gentleman ferry me from here to Sukhumwit 39 for forty baht and a song?" The fattest and most aggressive member of the group removes his sunglasses and takes a sharp intake of breath. "80 baht - take it or leave it" I realize that negotiation is out of the question. The traffic is getting heavier by the second and Mrs Sakamoto will be by now busy arranging a pen and notebook on the living room table. I reluctantly accept fat-boy's extortionate offer. When I get to Mrs Sakamoto's palace in the sky, I'm still fifteen minutes late. She then spends the next hour wrestling with the concept of British time vs American time, and all the while she's trying to work out what kind of stain that could be on my breast pocket.
Today yet again, I get into another argument with the Thai staff. This time it's over the distribution of board markers. One of the receptionists is in charge of making sure that no teacher exceeds their allowance of three new board markers per month. Woe betides the teacher who dares to ask for a fourth new board marker! His name shall be blackened in the grim recesses of the teacher's room for all eternity. He shall be reminded that the items in question are 14 baht each from Makro and under no circumstances should they be used so generously. I blow my top and ask ‘marker pen girl' why she isn't as protective with her virginity as she is with the marker pens. After a moment's silence, I go off to my lesson and marker pen girl retreats to the toilet to reapply her mascara.
Later that day, I'm called into the director's office. "Take a seat," he says
"Where do you want me to take it?" I reply.
I can see he's in no mood for jokes. "Jim, the Thai staff are frightened of you"
"Oh come on, they know what I'm like. I don't really mean it"
"Jim, the one receptionist is still in the toilet. She refuses to come out. What's her name? You know - the one that's in charge of the board markers"
"That was just something out of nothing"
" Jim, you're a fine teacher. You're one of the best we've got. You're a professional and we're happy to have you on board"
At this stage, my heart is almost bleeding. Someone get me the silver goblet.
I'm in no mood for this shit.
"The Thai staff just can't do their job properly. They forget to take messages, they screw up my pay and what's more - what is a teacher supposed to write with?"
The director looks at me and flashes a half-smile.
"Just try to be a little more culturally sensitive, that's all I ask"
I leave his office. I don't need any of this. Perhaps it's time for a change of direction? But can I really see myself handing out leaflets in Siam Square while wearing a huge dinner-plate size badge that says quite simply ‘I love Herbalife' and putting up with people calling me a prat. Or calling up Australians at 4.00 in the morning Bangkok time and telling them that I'm about to offer them the financial opportunity of a lifetime. No, that's definitely not me.
This morning there's a teachers' meeting on the agenda. Twelve teachers of varying financial status and each with the weight of the world on their shoulders sit around a circular table waiting for the arrival of the director of studies. In the middle of the table, there is a jug of iced water and the obligatory Dunkin' Donuts party pack containing 12 donuts for 109 baht. I never look forward to teachers'meetings, but when the one teacher I really don't get along with dips in and takes the double chocolate, I look forward to them even less.
Being the perfect gentleman, I let everyone else select their choice of donut and find that I'm left with the one covered in pink icing sugar. A donut which would have no doubt made me very happy had I been seven years old, wearing a knitted V-neck sweater and a guest at Tracey Hargreave's birthday party.
The Director of Studies arrives unshaven and hungover. "Good night at the Cowboy was it?"
"Ay, not bad. There are some great looking birds in that Titty Twister bar. Sorry ladies I shouldn't be saying that, hahahaha"
He smiles through crooked yellow teeth. Nothing like a cheap sexual comment in front of the female teaching staff to really break the ice.
The female teaching staff, it must be said, are used to it by now. They are used to having their arses playfully slapped while they're bent over the photocopier. They are used to eating one of those cylindrical ice lollies and one of the male staff saying "I thought you'd be able to get all that in your mouth in one go"
They are used to hearing teacher's room banter littered with references to broken condoms, padded bar-bills, and regulation closing times. Oh, they are used to all that.
Cheap sexual innuendo aside, today we are 13 professionals gathered in one room for the sole purpose of improving the standards of the school. There are over a dozen points to discuss, debate, analyze, and comment on. Some teachers are not filling in their pedagogical cards correctly. I'm not really bothered about that. I'm only concerned as to why we can't refer to them as attendance sheets. Is it that the term ‘attendance sheet' isn't stuffy, overbearing and academic enough? The DOS drones on. "When you prepare a lesson, don't forget your 3 P's - Production, Practice, and the other one"
I personally prefer to have two sections in a lesson plan - what I'm going to teach, and what they're going to learn. It's really that simple.
I can't be bothered to listen to the rest of the meeting. I don't think anyone can. After all, today is payday.
I pick up 34, 652 baht after tax deductions and a contribution to the school health insurance scheme. This is what makes the job worthwhile. It's Friday night, your wallet's stuffed with Thai baht, and the world's your oyster. Come 9pm I'm sitting in an outside bar at Clinton Plaza surrounded by ladies and lady drinks. Tonight I'm not a teacher, I'm Hugh Hefner, Antonio Banderas and any other fanny magnet you care to mention. The girls are laughing hysterically at my crappy jokes and appalling Thai and I sit there like the lord of the manor - the king of all I survey. "Another drink Lek? Get yourself one in" I peel off another 500 baht bill from my sweaty wad. Tomorrow's another day. Live for the moment.
I've volunteered to do a few extra classes. Little bit of overtime if you like. Six hours of kid's classes. Six hours of Incey Wincey Spider climbed a little spout. Six hours of I'm a teapot, what the f*** are you? Six hours of look at me, I'm walking on a floor made of treacle. Six hours of babysitting while the sofas in reception are occupied by mothers in designer clothes sitting on their fat, idle backsides.
On the journey to work by sky-train, I sit opposite a young man preparing a lesson in full view of the commuting massive. He scribbles notes on a jotter pad while the cover of his Interchange 2 textbook flaps around for all and sundry to see. I am so full of admiration for people who see no shame in being a Bangkok English teacher. Here is a young guy putting his heart and soul into the language education of Thailand's baby boom generation and he doesn't care who knows it. When the train stops at Ekkami, a young European-looking executive gets on board. He sits down next to me to take the weight off his suit. No sooner has he sat down than his mobile phone goes off. The phone is tiny and expensive - you can barely see it when it's pressed against an ear. There begins a protracted conversation, which contains loud references to ‘closing down the Stockholm office' and ‘getting Ludwig to meet the client at the Sheraton on Monday'. The teacher puts his lesson preparation to one side and listens to the one-sided conversation. When the phone call is finished, the teacher and executive look at each other. They each have only one question on their mind ‘What's it like being you?'