What happens when teaching in Thailand all goes horribly wrong
June 2011 - This is a tale that emphasizes the importance of keeping up-to-date with Thailand's complex visa system and how it affects teachers.
I recently changed jobs, gave my old school notice and left on reasonably good terms. I was never given any documentation by them or told anything with regards to my work permit. I signed a contract at my new school and thought everything would be OK but because I gave notice that I would not be continuing at the previous school, they did not give me the performance bonus that I had been promised.
My visa expired at the end of the June and a friend told me that I had 24 hours to get out of the country. Shocked, I tried to find out as much as I could and I tried to exit the country on the weekend and was told I couldn't leave without a letter from the school stating the date I left the school. It was now getting on close to a month since I stopped working, although the contract finished later.
I then tried to get a letter from the school and they refused to date the letter. I then hurriedly went down to The Department of Labor and cancelled my work permit. I was then told I had to go to immigration and apply for a 7 day extension which I did.
When I got there they told me I had to pay a two-day overstay. For the day I supposedly resigned (the day before), and the day I was applying for the extension. I was not even given a day's grace. I had heard you had 24 hours to leave the country. Nope, I was given nothing. Not a week's grace. Not two week's grace. I then paid for the extension and the two-day overstay knowing that it could have been a lot worse. I was too tired to argue.
But I have to say what shocks me is the lack of information surrounding this and the fact we are not even given a day's notice. We are expected to leave the country the day we are fired or leave our job no matter what the work permit says, no matter if you gave them notice.
This sends a clear message that once they do not need you to be a teacher then you can get the hell out of the country. The only other option would be to cancel your work permit, which would take you a day, and maybe just maybe you could be on a bus or plane out of the country somewhere and you would then be charged not ONE day overstay but 2 days overstay despite the fact that you were in fact working the day before. How is it that there is such a lack of decency in this country? When you do the right thing, when you give notice that in the end you land up being screwed. It just amazes me that Thailand continues to operate as it does at will with no regard to the law, human decency and just good old plain honesty.
I have to say that this experience really shows me what Thai people think of foreigners. We are fine to buy houses, get married or come here on holiday or teach their kids, but once finished, then get the hell out of the country the same day you are fired or leave your job.
After a year of being at the school, I was not given one days grace, Not even one. And I have to say that the farang management are just as bad as the Thai's. They do not have the balls to stand up to their bosses or the decency to inform people of this. It really reflects poorly on Thailand and Thai culture and their real attitude towards us foreigners. I have since met other foreigners who had this done to them. The school kept their work permit and refused to give them a letter and they could not leave the country. Finally in the end when they left (a month or so later) they were charged the maximum amount overstay or 20,000 Baht.
What is it with the school system in this country? It is like you do not have to choice but to work at the school under their terms and conditions and if you do not, then they are unhappy. Even when they are at fault or have refused or failed to organize you with the right documentation. If you think you can find something better or do not like some things about the school and decide to move on there are such sour grapes they will do everything to be vindictive. Just like the schooling system here. Most of it is about the money and little about human decency.
May 2011 - This is a rather strange tale of a teacher who becomes ostracized at a job interview simply because she asks for a tour of the school facility.
My story starts with a fairly well-known teaching agency that recruits teachers to work in government schools in Southern Thailand. They are obviously a reasonably large operation. You see their job ads on many TEFL recruitment websites.
I visited the agent's office in early November 2010 and again in April of this year. On both occasions they told me that they had no vacancies, despite my very strong academic background. I was more than qualified for any of the positions that they supposedly offered. Incidentally, the day after my second visit, the agent placed a job ad on various websites, looking for five teachers to fill positions immediately.
I couldn't fathom what was going on here. The company wasn't interested in me conducting a demo lesson or submitting a detailed lesson plan. They weren't interested in references or even putting me under some kind of consideration. I had obviously upset someone and decided to probe deeper and ask a few questions of my own.
The owner of the agency eventually opened up about the underlying problem. He described me as ‘weird and aggressive' and said I was virtually unemployable. When I asked why he would say such a thing, he referred to my visit to their offices last November when I had asked for a tour of the new facility (the agent had recently opened up new training premises) My exact words on that day were "Wow! What an amazing center. Could I have a little tour and see some of the classrooms?"
The owner of the agency described this as ‘aggressive' and going against Thai cultural norms. I responded by saying that I had never been refused such a request in the past. Most schools were only to happy to show off their facilities. The owner then described the request as ‘weird'.
Oh well. This is the first time I've ever been penalized for showing enthusiasm and initiative.
April 2011 - The story of a great teacher who suddenly becomes an 'unwanted teacher' when a big swinging dick strolls into town.
My Thailand horror story happened last year. I applied for a position at an international school. The advertisement was in Thai-ized English, but I didn't mind. I came over from Australia, helped them voluntarily at their summer school and then continued working at the start of term teaching science and social Studies because they were desperate for a teacher. I am an economics/history graduate with a couple of Masters, but not really qualified to teach science. I am a fully qualified teacher with many years experience and was planning to bring my (Thai) family back to Thailand after the great welcome we got from the school (initially).
Then a younger American with a PhD turned up as the principal. A Google search showed me that most of what he said was crap and he was a refugee from a failed financial business course in the USA.
As the school was trying to get international status with a rather complex 'middle American' syllabus - even though most of the kids had little grasp of English - this man was obviously going to pull a few strings to get them through. The fly in his ointment was me - the only qualified teacher on his staff AND as I had a military pension, was also not dependent on my salary as his other four (degree only) teachers were. I was also unhelpful by suggesting we really needed some remedial English specialists to help the kids. I suspect this was my mistake and where being a 'threat' grew from.
So in a week, I went from being 'a great teacher with a military background' to somebody who needed to move down to their primary school level. In fact the school had been interviewing a science graduate during the week, as if I didn't notice. So I walked away. Despite many people suggesting I hold them to my contract, the legend of the mayor including his supposed gangster background did discourage me. The experience of others on Ajarn shows I would have been wasting my vindication of sorts.
It was a valuable lesson. The friendly Thais, as mentioned in one other story, all but disappeared. It was a real eye opener for me even though I had heard and read many stories not so different to my experience. This more than anything else disappointed me. I had a backup plan but I was trying to 'give something back to Thailand'.
I did recently get some satisfaction seeing the headmaster position advertised on Ajarn, in Thai-ized English again, and can only wonder what happened to my 'nemesis'?
February 2011 - The story of a teacher who found himself a dream job at a dream school. But mid-way through the second semester, his colleagues' smiles and laughter disappear. And replaced by cold-hearted sneers and silence.
After one year spent working at a government school, I got a job offer to work at a private school about an hour outside Bangkok. At the beginning everything went well. It seemed like a dream job at a dream school. All the paperwork for the visa and work permit was processed within a couple of weeks. I even got a higher salary than I had been promised at the interview. On top of all that, I got on well with my fellow teachers and the students seemed to like me.
My good fortune continued throughout the first semester. I could go home whenever I wanted as long as I had no further lessons to teach on that day (and this was agreed in my contract) The Thai staff were always helpful and I got along with everyone. In fact I was so happy with the situation that I started an English Club as a ‘thank you' for all the faith and support that my employers had shown me.
Then in the second semester, it all started to go pear-shaped. The school principal, teaching colleagues and Thai staff members became cold towards me. There were no more smiles or friendly chats or small gifts of food. Something was definitely wrong but I had no idea what it was. I turned up at school on time every day and was never ever late for class.
The principal started to make unfair demands. I was asked to do gate duty twice a week and meet and greet parents. OK no big deal but it clearly said in my signed contract that I would not be required to do it. The Thai management complained that I played too many games in class. They also put an end to my going home when I had no lessons to teach. They wanted me to stay at school all the time - lessons or no lessons. The final straw came when I was ticked off for walking around the school grounds while eating an ice cream. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had to be seated when eating an ice cream. I mean just how petty is that?
Suddenly my dream school had turned into the school from Hell.
It became blatantly obvious that the school wanted me out. They wanted my plums on a skewer and a resignation letter to boot. However, I continued working to the best of my ability. The atmosphere was horrible but I just kept me head down and aimed to see out my contract.
My refusing to play them at their own game seemed to rile them and they hit me where it hurts most - in the pocket. They refused to pay me for my last month of work and also for two month's holiday (all guaranteed according to the contract)
When I approached the principal about these pay issues, I couldn't get a straight answer. I decided to go and see The Ministry of Labor. The Ministry advised me to sue the school and assured me that I had a valid case.
Armed with the support of The Labor Ministry, I sauntered back into school to face my employers again. This time I was confident the pay issue would be resolved. It wasn't.
When I told the principal about my visit to The Ministry and the advice I had been given, she played her trump card. She produced no fewer than seven witnesses (including janitors and cooks) all ready to testify that I had physically assaulted the principal. My Thai partner was with me at the time - and she couldn't believe what she was hearing either.
I knew straight away that the game was over. What chance did I have against a school principal that I had supposedly attacked and actually punched with my fists? And what chance did I have now that she had a little band of merry men on her devil's pay-roll?
I was angry and upset with the Thai system for allowing things to get to this stage. I packed my bags, said goodbye to Thailand and headed back to the UK
February 2011 - Here is a case of what can happen when a teacher breaks a contract (at least in the eyes of the employer) and the relationship between teacher and employer then becomes positively hostile.
I managed to secure a position with a teacher placement agency somewhere out in the boonies, but after several months of employment, I received a job offer from abroad. Needless to say, it was a far better benefits and salary package than the one I was working for in Thailand. So I decided to tender my resignation by e-mail.
Even though the job offer from abroad made up my mind for me, I had become disillusioned with the agency position for several reasons. Firstly, I was still working on a tourist visa and having to pay for visa runs out of my own pocket. Secondly, I had never received the salary that the agent and I agreed upon in the original interview, and finally, I was offered nothing in the way of health insurance. As bad luck would have it, I became ill for a short time and had to pay all the medical expenses myself.
In short, I felt that I was going nowhere and constantly had to dip into my savings to maintain what I felt was just an existence.
The contract I signed with the agent stated that I had to give an eight-week notice period if I wanted to terminate my employment. However, I could only give a couple of weeks because the new employer wanted me there as soon as possible.
I put all this information in a well-written, polite e-mail and waited for my employer to respond. When the response came, it was short and sweet, but the agent clearly said that he accepted my resignation on a particular date and I would be paid accordingly. So far so good.
However, things took an unsavory turn for the worse when I found myself at the school in the company of both the agent (my employer) and one of the school's senior Thai staff. I decided (rather foolishly in hindsight) to take the opportunity to confirm with the agent that I would indeed be paid for the hours worked and that I could leave the job on a particular date.
Without any warning whatsoever, the agent flew into a rage. I was astounded by the level of hostility and anger that was suddenly being directed towards me - and I decided to remove myself from the situation.
I sent the agent another very polite e-mail. I apologized if he felt I had spoken out of turn or perhaps made him lose face by bringing up the subject in front of a Thai staff member. I didn't want the agent thinking I doubted his intention to pay the salary I was owed. I also apologized for taking sick leave and informing the school of my absence and not the agent as well. I also made it clear that leaving mid-term was something I truly didn't want to do and I appreciated the difficult situation I was putting the agent in - and the fact he would now have to go out and find a replacement teacher.
That said, I wasn't technically breaking the contract or at least I didn't feel that I was. I would actually be leaving to start my new job on the very last day of my three-month probation period.
I got no reply to the e-mail and it took me several phone calls before the agent finally agreed to deposit the money into my bank account.
Having gone through my contract again, I then sent another lengthy e-mail outlining exactly how much I felt I was owed. I wasn't demanding money. I was simply referring to the terms of the contract and asking for what I felt was rightfully mine.
I got a terse response from the agent saying only that he didn't approve of my attitude and that he would like to meet in person. I immediately e-mailed the agent and apologized if my communication had been misconstrued. I certainly hadn't meant it that way. I told the agent I would be more than happy to meet face-to-face. All he had to do was name a time and a place.
The agent got back to me with an appointed date, time and location and I agreed to meet him there. Cometh the day of the appointment, I waited over an hour and the agent never showed up. I also made several calls to his phone but without success.
When I emailed the agent later that day, the agent claimed he had shown up at the meeting place and waited himself for well over an hour. I started to realize that I was probably never going to see my money. I made several e-mail attempts to calm the situation down but the only replies I got from the agent were threatening.
I decided to play my last trump card. I had been advised to go and see the Ministry of Labor in Bangkok. At The Ministry, they were extremely helpful and said that I certainly had a case. They couldn't even find a record of this particular agent being properly registered.
Unfortunately, fighting for the money was going to take time. If I wanted to go all the way and claim a lawful ten times the amount I was owed, the case could take anything up to two years. If I wanted to claim only the money I was owed according to the contract, it would take several weeks.
Time was something I didn't have on my side. With the new job starting in a week or two, I had to wave the money goodbye and put it down to experience.
As a footnote, when I contacted the agent to tell him I had been to see the Ministry of Labor and I made one last ditch attempt to obtain my salary, all I got was e-mails and text messages containing abuse, threats and more abuse.
I'm in possession of the e-mail exchange between the teacher and agent in this sorry tale, and as you can probably guess, while the teacher's e-mails are professional and neutral in tone, the agent's e-mails leave rather a lot to be desired - and that's putting it mildly. I find it hard to believe that someone in the education business, someone who is responsible for recruiting teachers for schools and depends on getting a good name and reputation, would communicate in such an aggressive manner.
To provide a little balance, I've had to dig deep to try and conjure up a shred of sympathy for the employer. And I'm not sure that I can. There are a few points I would like to add though.
Firstly, try and avoid resigning from a job by sending an e-mail, or worse still a text message. This is always going to be a delicate situation and it's a time when you need to sit down with your employer and thrash things out face-to-face. Sometimes e-mail communication just doesn't cut it. It's easier said than done of course if you have the kind of employer who switches off their phone and simply refuses to meet with you. There are plenty of people who will always take the cowardly way out.
Secondly, break a teaching contract only as a very last resort. Even if it's a job that you positively can't stand, just keep your head down and somehow get through those remaining months.
I realize that the teacher in our story above is an exception because he can probably rightly argue that he left within his probation period. But no one knows if the employer had the teacher earmarked to continue beyond that probation period. It still put the agent in a fix and in the position of having to find another teacher. I've been in that position in the past when I worked as an academic director and in charge of teacher recruitment. When decent teachers suddenly jump ship, it causes all sorts of problems.
However, sometimes you've got to look after number one. You get an offer of a much better job and frankly, you would be a fool to turn it down. Employers need to understand that as well - particularly those that don't offer attractive teaching packages - because we're all striving to better ourselves and improve our quality of life. That's just the way it is.
February 2011 - Here is an almost unbelievable tale from a teacher who found work with an agency and the story highlights the dangers of having no degree and arriving in Thailand seriously underfunded. This is the teacher's account of things.
About four months ago, A teaching agency offered me a teaching position on the outskirts of Bangkok. Come the day I was due to make an appearance at the actual school where I was hopefully going to start working, I was driven, against my will, to a province several hours from Bangkok. This was certainly not what I had agreed to.
Let me say first of all that I have no degree. I come from a European country that has a very different degree system to Thailand, America, etc but I am currently studying in a degree program and only the thesis remains.
When we got to the school, I found out that the agent had lied to the school about my Thailand work history. Before I went into the interview, the agent asked me to play along with the story. I was reluctant to do so but was desperate for a job and had no money at all to travel back to Bangkok myself. I was definitely stuck between a rock and a hard place.
There were four people in the interview room; me, the agent, the school director and school department head. I made it quite clear to everyone that I had no degree. In fact at that stage, I decided I didn't want the job at all because it was so far away from Bangkok. I tried my best to flunk the interview but the school was obviously so desperate for a teacher, they agreed to take me on. The school then gave me the necessary paperwork to obtain a non-immigrant B visa from a Thai consulate in a neighboring country.
I started work at the school but at the end of my first month, there were problems with my salary. Another teacher had told the school that it was illegal to work without a degree and the school took the story to heart and decided not to pay the agent. That meant of course that I didn't get paid either. Fortunately I was able to receive a good chunk of the salary when some kind-hearted teachers loaned money to the agency. The school informed me that I could pose as a student and everything would be OK from then on. So I got documentation from my university back home and had it sent to both the school and the agency.
However, at the end of the second month, the same happened again. I received no salary. Again, the school refused to pay the agent. This time they used the ‘no degree' excuse along with a claim that my paperwork was not in order.
I asked the agent for copies of my contract but nothing happened.
By this time my non-immigrant B visa was running out and I still hadn't received a work permit. When I made enquiries, the school told me it was the agent's responsibility and the agent blamed it on the school.
The school produced a document for me to sign. The document stated that I had received X amount of money in salary (which I hadn't) I needed money desperately and luckily a couple of teachers dipped into their own pockets and gave me enough to see me through the rest of the month.
In the end I just decided to walk out. The worst part is that now the agency is threatening to sue me for giving them a bad name. I feel as if I'm at the end of my tether.
Phew! What a story. You might have the most fertile of imaginations, but you couldn't make this stuff up could you? OK, first things first. I've completely re-written the above account as it was sent to me over the course of several e-mails. Although the teacher in question has a decent command of English, he is not a native speaker and his written English fell well short of what I would consider native speaker standard. As a result, the actual flow of the story and the details were very difficult to follow in places. I hope I've managed to capture the gist of things at least.
So.......hmmmmm...........I don't really know where to start. I feel a mixture of sympathy for the teacher because he's gone through such a hard time, but I also feel like giving him a bloody good shake. I'm constantly amazed by the trouble teachers are getting themselves into with some of these teaching agencies.
The story certainly highlights the dangers of just rolling up in Thailand and looking for a teaching job with no degree and no money in your pocket. And thinking everything is going to be OK. Ten years ago this approach might have worked. But those days are long gone. And of course you're also throwing the label of ‘non-native speaker' into the mix (not that I think this was the cause of the teacher's problems)
The teacher talks about being taken to a school ‘against his will'. I imagine the teacher's mouth being covered in masking tape and being bundled into the boot of a car. I asked the teacher about this part of the story and he claims he was driven out of Bangkok in a fast car. So this wasn't just a teaching agency - they were kidnappers!
I asked the teacher if he had done any research at all on teaching in Thailand, given the fact he was a non-native teacher, had no degree, and had no money. Credit where it's due, the teacher was honest enough to admit he could and should have researched things better.
I'm just amazed that the teacher talks about ‘a second month' and ‘a third month' when warning signs had been flashing in front of him from day one. That's the time to walk out. Not three months down the line.
The part about both the agent and school blaming each other when the work permit didn't materialize really says it all for me. It's clear that both parties were dripping with incompetence.
And as for the business about the agent wagging a finger and screaming "I'm going to sue you" for whatever reason, 99 times out of a hundred it's just a load of piss and wind. It's someone who has lost face venting their anger in the only way they know. Sue you for what exactly? You were refused to be shown your contract. You received no salary. You got no work permit. Sue you for giving the agency a bad name? How on earth could you give the agency a worse name than it's already got.
If you fancy a little more reading before you go on to the next teacher nightmare, Jason Alavi wrote two excellent blogs for ajarn.com back in 2008. Despite being a couple of years old, the blogs are still as relevent today if not more so. Jason himself has run a very respected teacher placement agency for a number of years. In the first blog, he talks about why some teacher placement agencies are bad to work for, and in the second blog, he gives valid reasons why teacher placement agencies (the good ones) can be a good option for new arrivals in Thailand.
For even more reading, I wrote an article about teaching agencies back in 2006.
January 2011 - I got this short e-mail from a female teacher working in Cha'am. The teacher is fairly new to the country I believe.
Without telling me, my employer deducted 20,000 baht from my salary and says it will be returned after I have completed 12 months of service with him. The job offer over the phone was for 24 hours a week paid hourly. Once here in person the contract I signed was only for 18 hours a week, which has now dwindled to 13 hours a week and will soon be just 4 hours. All with a 90-minute commute each way. This is not the contract I signed up for! Please help me...anything, anything...I'm drowning. I don't even have a copy of the contract I signed and I'm having trouble getting one from them
As in any 'teacher nightmare' case, it's often impossible to get the whole story. One or two people have expressed the notion that the employer might have financial difficulties. I've since found out that the employer has been in the business of supplying teachers to schools for over a decade, so I think the financial difficulty scenario, although plausible, is unlikely. A few other people have advised the teacher to simply walk away and chalk it up to experience. I would probably say the same thing if we were talking about a few thousand baht but 20,000 baht is a fair chunk of change, especially when you are living and working out in the sticks. I would certainly contact the Ministry of Labor in Bangkok and see if anything can be done. As I've said elsewhere on this website, the Ministry of Labor are extremely pro-employee. They have helped a lot of teachers claim what is rightfully theirs in the past.
This particular 'teacher nightmare' does raise two important points though. Firstly, no matter how desperate you are for a teaching job, don't just accept the first thing that comes along without doing as much research as humanly possible. I am genuinely surprised that the teacher seemingly didn't ask around and find other teachers who had worked for this company. Surely they were not that hard to find in such a small town. Again, I strongly suspect this was a case of taking the first job available.
Secondly, it's important that your world doesn't come crashing down around your ears when you're suddenly stiffed out of a largish sum of money. It's important to have a parachute fund or a bit of 'floorboard money' as I often call it. Years ago, there was a popular book called 'Teach English Around The World' and the author championed the idea of arriving in a strange country, without a dollar in your pocket, and letting your sense of adventure take you the rest of the way. I thought it was a ridiculous suggestion 20 years ago, but in Thailand 2011, you would be plain crazy to adopt such a plan. If you are thinking about coming to teach English in Thailand, get as much money behind you as you can. Just in case that first teaching job doesn't turn out as you hoped.