Tossed on the TEFL scrapheap
Is teaching in Thailand a young man's game?
Well, we're barely a month or two into the year 2011 - and while it's always difficult to predict how Thailand's TEFL industry will shape up in the coming months, in terms of job vacancies, etc - I am definitely noticing one very disturbing trend. I am getting inundated with teachers asking if I can help find them work. And the teacher group that seems to be suffering more than any other in these uncertain economic times is those over the age of fifty.
Many of the e-mails I receive border on heartbreaking. I truly wish I could do more to help but all I can offer in most cases is a sympathetic ear. These are older teachers who have made their life in Thailand, perhaps even got married and raised children, and are now contemplating the unthinkable. Leaving the home they love. For many it's either a case of seeking out pastures new in countries such as China, where the more mature teacher seems to be welcomed with open arms, or uprooting their family and returning home to a country they abandoned a long time ago - a country they no longer recognize or feel a part of.
Furthermore, these are not unqualified teachers who have spent the last decade bouncing from private language school to private language school picking up a few hours here and there. In many cases, their resumes indicate a long work history of quality employment in the academic sector. Many have been lecturers, professors and trainers at universities and top-end language institutes and held positions of considerable responsibility.
It's almost as if Thailand has brought in a new rule while my back has been turned - no teachers over the age of fifty thank you very much.
It's natural that many of these older teachers, having invested much of their lives immersed in SE Asian culture, would want to stay in the region. But what are the options? China seems to be a fairly attractive proposition as mentioned earlier. Many TEFLers have swopped Thailand for China and consider it to be the best move they ever made. What about moving next door? Cambodia, Vietnam and even Laos are distinct possibilities but all three have major drawbacks. Japan's heyday seems to have gone forever from what I've heard. There's always The Middle East of course, and while the streets might be paved with gold, it's not exactly party central is it?
Not the greatest of choices if truth be told? Not after you've spent years and years living it up in Thailand. I'll resist the temptation to imply older teachers are stuck in their ways and other clichés, but who really needs the hassle of adapting to a completely new culture and way of life in their twilight years? I can certainly sympathize with those reluctant to make such a big move. We all like to cling on to the familiar and comfortable to some degree. But there are still mouths to feed and bills to pay.
Perhaps it's got something to do with nearing the big five-oh myself, but I've started to look back and analyze my twenty plus years here and how things might have worked out differently had I not been fortunate to find work outside of teaching. I've tried to put myself back into the body and mind of the skinny 26-year old who rolled up at Bangkok Airport in the early 90's looking to seek his fortune (OK, maybe just the mind part)
The problem with being in your mid-twenties - carefree and single and all that - is that you consider yourself bulletproof. You are ready to take on anything the world can throw at you. Your parents are still relatively young people themselves so no need to worry about them much. You don't have a pension plan but what the heck! - you can take care of that in a few years time. Worrying about retirement funds is for cissies, or at least folks a good ten years older than you. As far as the future is concerned, it's all about choosing the right bar to kick off that night's entertainment.
Then something strange happens. Twenty years pass in the blink of an eye and you are suddenly a middle-aged man in every sense of the word. And for all the classroom experience, the hours spent devising and marking tests, the help you've given with extra-curricular school activities, the training and advice you've provided to other teachers, you're suddenly no longer as marketable. You're no longer as ‘in demand' - in a country that you thought would provide you with a decent living for as long as you could draw breath.
Suddenly your world can start crumbling around you. Apart from the difficulties finding work, there are other areas of life that may need your attention and before you know it, the reality of the hour kicks in.
I have a good friend in his mid-50s who has been a teacher here for almost fifteen years. His mother, who he is very close to, is now living in a nursing home back in The USA. Not only is she struggling to pay the cost of the sheltered accommodation - and her son is having to help out - but she recently suffered a major stroke. The woman is 92 years old I believe.
My teacher friend has spent the last six months flying back and forth to America as his mother gets increasingly more fragile and when he's back in Thailand, it's an endless round of international phone calls to the duty nurse to check on mother's condition. There is certainly no time for teaching work. That's if he could get any in the first place.
This is a situation that is slowly developing for many teachers here. Sad but true. To go back to those older teachers sending me e-mails, the final sentence is usually "what advice can you give me to improve my chances of finding work?"
One teacher, now well into his sixties, wrote to me and said he had been interviewed for dozens of jobs in the past year but nothing ever materializes.
"The interviewers genuinely seem impressed with my experience and I always offer to give a demonstration lesson so they can judge my ability as well. They tell me there's no need. They can see straight away I would make a decent teacher. Or so they say. Then they promise to get in touch and more often than not, the phone never rings. I'm never surprised. I can see in the interviewer's body language that he or she doesn't feel I'm the man for the job. And it's simply because I'm construed as being too old. It's all very frustrating"
The teacher contacted me again recently to say he had decided to go back to the UK and live with his sister.
What more can you add to that?
Your comments are most welcome. And of course your advice would be priceless.
I'd love to hear from you older teachers as well. Do you agree that things are getting tougher in terms of job vacancies?