Phil of ajarn.com
In this edition of Hot Seat, ajarn.com’s very own Bangkok Phil jumps from the frying pan, right into the fire. Phil arrived in Thailand as a teacher in 1990 but since then, his entrepreneurial spirit has helped him to become a relatively well-known figure in Thailand’s TEFL industry. He’s certainly carved his own path and Phil believes the secret to his success has been the fact that he tells it like it is. True to his word, he doesn’t disappoint - Eric Haeg
Phil, you came out to Thailand 20 years ago. Some of the people reading advice on your site today were in the womb when you were making those first flight arrangements for Bangkok; does it feel like it's been a long time?
Oh boy, twenty years here have gone past in the blink of an eye. Believe it or not, Thailand wasn’t my first choice destination as a place to teach English, even though I had been here before for a holiday and knew the ropes as it were. My first choice destination was actually Taiwan. Don’t ask me why. I even bought the Lonely Planet guidebook so I must have been serious about it.
Anyway, en route to Taiwan, I decided to stop off in Thailand and have a four-week vacation. I remember sitting on the beach in Hua Hin and thinking “how can I possibly leave all this behind?” And the rest is history.
When was the last year you spent most of your working hours in a classroom teaching? How often do you find yourself working in one now?
I think my last year of working as a full-time teacher was 1999. At that stage I had done at least eight years in a classroom, teaching well over 30 contact hours a week. Monday to Friday, weekends, evenings. Little wonder I was so burnt out.
Then in 1999 I became academic director of a private language school for a year or two and then left to take over as a sales and marketing director for an e-learning company.
I’ve never totally given up teaching but for the past ten years I’ve only done corporate training seminars whenever I’ve been invited. This year, I spent a total of thirty hours in a training room. Not much really. The work just wasn’t there.
I think it’s very important for me to keep my hand in though – even if it’s only thirty hours a year. I mean how could I run a TEFL website if I didn’t do any teaching myself? Frankly speaking I would feel a fraud. You can’t be in tune with the needs and problems of Thailand’s foreign teachers if you are not a teacher yourself in some form.
Owning your own business in Thailand presents challenges you might not find back in England. What's been the most frustrating aspect of dealing with Thai officialdom?
As far as ajarn.com is concerned, my wife handles all the company paperwork so nothing frustrates me personally. I also have two fantastic accountants – a couple of Thai sisters well into their 60’s – and they know every nook and cranny when it comes to dealing with Thai officialdom.
This will make you laugh but we actually had a very difficult job registering ajarn.com and making it a legal company. The Ministry didn’t want to help us because they couldn’t find a category for us to go into. We told them that we made money from on-line advertising and their response – I kid you not – was “Oh no one can make money out of that”. So there was ajarn.com trying to do the right thing and pay its taxes and VAT to the Thai government and they told us to carry on as normal (not issue receipts, etc) and stop bothering them.
Eventually we made them see sense and they filed ajarn.com as an advertising company or something.
How many people are still writing in wondering if Thailand is safe after last year's riots in Bangkok?
Nobody asks that question anymore. By and large the riots seem to have been forgotten. I do still get ten people a week ask me if they’ll find teaching work in Thailand without a degree though. I’ve decided there is no answer to that question. Certainly not an answer people seem willing to accept.
Outside of Thailand, where does the majority of ajarn.com's traffic come from?
I love this question because I’m a real ‘statto’. One of the things I pride myself on is knowing every nut and bolt of the ajarn.com operation.
So with a little help from Google stats, I can tell you that 70% of ajarn’s traffic comes from within Thailand. The USA comes next, followed by Great Britain, The Philippines, Canada and China. But in any given week, we can get traffic from well over a hundred countries. I find it fascinating to look at the website stats and see that someone from Malta or Iceland has looked at a dozen pages of the website. I would love to know who they are and exactly what their story is.
Aside from the help you get with ajarn.com's forum, do you have any help running things these days?
Firstly, it would be inaccurate to imply I ‘get help’ with the ajarn discussion forum because that’s certainly not the case. I handed the forum over lock stock and barrel to my good friend, Louis Minson, several years ago - and he’s done a fine job with it.
Although I still consider the discussion forum to be an important part of the main ajarn.com website, I never consider the forum as ‘mine’. It belongs to Louis.
I go in there from time to time to join in with discussions or start a thread or perhaps do a little moderation, but that’s as far as it goes.
As regards the main ajarn website, I have a wonderful partner who takes care of the technical and marketing aspects of the website, leaving me free to concentrate on the content. To be honest I would love him to get more involved but because he’s the best in the business, he’s constantly in demand.
To what extent does ajarn's forum help or harm the .com side of things? Which side offers up better information for Thailand's noobies in your opinion?
It’s an interesting question. Quite a number of people – my marketing partner included – have made noises in the past about the forum being generally bad for business. Perhaps employers and school owners see the discussion forum as a ‘naughty boys club’. Do they worry that if they put a job ad on the main website, their school will be picked apart by disgruntled, bitter ex-employees logging into the forum to stick the virtual boot in? This is one reason the discussion forum has to be so well-moderated and one of the reasons I still log-in from time to time. I need to perhaps satisfy myself that the forum rules are being followed and nothing is getting out of hand. Even though we have a great set of moderators, there will always be times when they can’t log-on to the forum because of work commitments or holidays, etc.
Personally, I can’t imagine the ajarn website without a discussion forum. There is so much good info on there and I learn so much about things like the latest government rules and regulations, etc. Many of the forum members are out there in the firing line. They know far more about the current Thailand TEFL environment than I do.
The main ajarn website provides good answers (hopefully) to those questions that come up time after time. “Will I find a job without a degree?” “How much can I expect to earn in Chiang Mai?” These are questions where the answers have been the same for the last five years. But for questions such as “Is it possible to get a double entry tourist visa in Vientiane?” no two days are ever the same. The situation is constantly changing. That’s where the discussion forum comes into its own when you can get feedback and answers from people who have been in the same situation literally days or weeks before.
You've got a job seekers' page where people can post CV's and even include a picture themselves. What do you have to say to the types of people who submit pictures while standing in front of fireplaces, holding samurai-style swords or even wearing popped collars?
What do I have to say to those people? You’re looking for a job. You’re trying to create a good impression. At least take the bloody thing seriously.
You must get a lot of emails from people looking to "start over" in Thailand. What's your advice for those who've perhaps lost their jobs during this worldwide recession and wish to start anew by teaching in Thailand?
From the very first day I took over ajarn.com, I was determined to tell it like it is. And that’s always my approach to answering e-mails. You may not like my answers but I think most people appreciate the warts-and-all approach. Let me tell you – working and surviving as an English teacher in Thailand can be VERY tough indeed. A lot don’t make it past the first year and of those teachers that are here, many are now struggling to find decent work. I’m just honest with people. I want them to think about things carefully because moving to Thailand might be the worst decision they ever made if they are truly not cut out for life here.
I don’t want to give people false hope and promise they will come here in their 40s and 50s and within a couple of weeks, they’ll be earning 40,000 baht a month working in a school made out of coconuts, with a view of the beach from their classroom window. But so many would-be teachers, sitting in their little village in Northern England, really do think it’s that easy.
I think Thailand is becoming more and more a place for the ‘gap-year traveler’. Come to Thailand, teach a year or two, get it out of your system and go back to the real world. You’re young and gorgeous and if you fuck up, at least you’ll have Mommy and Daddy to bail you out. But for the guy in his 40’s and 50’s who has the worry of ageing parents back home, health insurance, pension plans and the question of who will care for him in his twilight years, it’s a whole different ball game.
I sound a bit gloomy there. If you read the ‘Dave’s Journey’ section of the ajarn website, you’ll read the story of a middle-aged guy who arrived in Thailand with zero teaching experience and proved me wrong on all counts – so what do I know?
Those teaching TEFL in Thailand don't exactly enjoy a great reputation amongst Thailand's other expats. What's the most common dig you hear said about TEFL teachers? Do you think it's deserved?
I think this whole disrespect for the farang teacher thing is a bit of a myth to be honest. And I’ll put my hands up and say that I’ve been guilty of posting the odd ‘fun article’ on ajarn.com and fanning the flames a little. I think most working farangs here – those who do not teach – appreciate the hard job that teachers do. It’s a long time since anyone accused me of teaching English because it’s the only job I can get.
Since a 2005 interview with Stickman where you said salaries had been going up "across the board", salaries have remained stagnant. Why do you think that is?
I genuinely think that your average Thai school-owner / employer thinks that a 30,000 - 40,000 baht a month salary is a fortune and any foreigner should be damn well happy to receive such an inflated reward for their services.
But at least you can survive on that kind of money. What about the language schools still paying 200 baht an hour? Who told them that this is what supposedly professional foreign teachers will work for? What planet are they living on? I was earning over 200 baht an hour in 1995. That’s fifteen years ago!
Yes, there was a time when a 30,000 baht salary was quite attractive but I recently did a part-time stint at a recruitment company and I was privy to what many Thais from all walks of life are now earning in 2010.
The 30,000 baht a month teacher has been left way, way behind.
My wife has told me the following story several times. She was enjoying a rare girls night out with some old university pals and chat got on to the topic of my salary (which was about 35,000 baht at the time) Her friends all knew that I was a teacher. One of the friends said “35,000 baht might seem a lot, but many years from now, Phil will still be earning more or less the same. That’s how it is with teaching in Thailand. So your standard of living will never go up”
It pains me to say it but that friend was absolutely right - at least in terms of teacher salaries.
Aside from salaries, how has the general job climate changed in the past five years?
Firstly, I would say that the full-time job market – government schools, universities, colleges, etc – has improved because so many more places are employing foreign teachers but the corporate market – teaching at companies, hotels, hospitals, etc - has gone way down.
In addition, I think employers have become a lot more careful about who they hire. We’ve seen the introduction of the criminal background check at some places. In addition, qualifications come under greater scrutiny and personal references are checked out far more carefully.
Do you support the TCT's Culture, Language and Ethics course initiative?
I don’t agree with it, no. How can you make a guy who’s taught here for several years – in many cases a lot longer – prance around the room performing traditional Thai dances? And worse still - that’s supposed to make him a better teacher in the classroom.
The course has been described by many as a ‘cash cow’ and while I don’t subscribe to that point of view entirely, I do think the program is a waste of time.
I’m willing to bet that someone in authority realized very quickly that it was a daft idea, but this is Thailand. You implement such a program and you have to see it through – however painful it gets. To abandon the whole program mid-stream means someone inevitably loses face.
Like any other public figure, you've seen your fair share of detractors--some of whom have even given you the nickname, "Bangkok Shill". Have you anything to say to those who think you're out here only to make some dosh at others' expense?
I think the ‘Bangkok Shill’ label was given to me by a few ex-discussion forum members who found it an easy way to have a pop. It’s all water off a duck’s back. I couldn’t care less what people think. I make money out of ajarn.com but it’s certainly not a fortune. I spend many hours tinkering with the site content or on site-related tasks. Why shouldn’t it make me some money?
In the past, the ajarn site cost virtually nothing to run but these days the overheads are considerable.
About a year or so ago, I lost one of my regular ajarn bloggers. He just stopped writing. No reason was given. A dickie bird told me it was because this particular blogger felt I gave nothing back to the TEFL community. He felt I was all about advertising revenue and take, take, take.
That blogger never sees me on the phone advising a customer how to best word a free job ad – sometimes as late as midnight. That blogger never sees me when I speak to an employer on behalf of a teacher who hasn’t received their pay - or to chew the ass off an advertiser who has written ‘caucasians only’ in a job description.
I’m not looking for a medal. Just as long as people know that running ajarn.com isn’t about me going backwards and forwards to the bank with a wheelbarrow.
Besides the site's revenues, what keeps you plugging away on ajarn.com?
I enjoy it. It’s as simple as that. I can work on the site at six in the morning or ten ‘o’ clock at night so there’s a lot of personal freedom. And every day is different running a busy website.
Have you got any other irons in the fire?
Actually, 2011 is suddenly looking a bit hectic. I run a company that designs training materials for certain industries in The Middle East and we’re looking to expand into Dubai - so that’s quite exciting.
Myself and another guy have designed a terrific seminar program to help Thai jobseekers perform better at an English language job interview. If we can get the right strategic partners, we are hoping to launch that in the first quarter of 2011.
I’ve also had a few meetings with one of the world’s largest training and business certificate providers, who are eager to expand their operations into Thailand (they are already big in other Asian countries) and they see me as the ideal guy to spread the word and promote their services in this country. It would certainly be a challenge.
And then of course ajarn.com will tick along in the background I hope. Now whether I have the motivation to do all that remains to be seen.
Certificate (5), BA (1), MA (1)
Canadian (male, 46 years old, native English speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
Certificate (1), BA (1)
Irish (male, 28 years old, native English speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
American (female, 59 years old, native English speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
Certificate (3), Phd (1)
American (male, 60 years old, native English speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
Turkish (male, 26 years old, native Turkish speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
Certificate (2), Diploma (1)
Canadian (male, 47 years old, native English speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
Filipino (female, 39 years old, native English speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
Certificate (1), Diploma (1)
Filipino (female, 30 years old, native Tagalog speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
BA (1), Certificate (1)
German (male, 41 years old, native German speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
BA (1), Certificate (1)
American (male, 33 years old, native English speaker). Currently living in Thailand.
Ajarn.com was started as a small hobby website in 1999 by Ian McNamara. It was a simple way for one Bangkok teacher to share his Thailand experiences and pass on advice. The website developed a loyal and enthusiastic following. In 2004, Ian handed over the reins to Phil Williams and 'Bangkok Phil' has run the ajarn website ever since.
Ajarn.com has grown enormously and is now the most popular TEFL site in Thailand - possibly even South East Asia. Although best-known for its vibrant jobs page, Ajarn has a wealth of articles, blogs, features and help and advice. But one principle has always remained at Ajarn's core - to tell things like they are and to do it with a sense of humor. Thailand can be Heaven or Hell for an English teacher. It's always been Ajarn.com's duty to present both sides of the equation. Thanks for stopping by.
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