Who is worth working for?

In search of the holy grail.


In the final climax of India Jones and Last Crusade, Indy and the main antagonist, Walter Donovan, are in a cave faced with a vast number of chalices, one of which is the famed Holy Grail. Donovan, on the advice of the pretty archaeologist Dr. Elsa, takes a shiny cup studded with diamonds, fills it with water, takes an awed sip and is promptly smitten to dust. "He chose poorly" quips the 700 year-old Grail knight.

Choosing a job on Ajarn.com's website might feel a little like this. There are so many to choose from - which one is the Holy Grail? Choose wisely and everlasting tropical happiness is yours, choose poorly and be the victim of wrath, vengeance and humiliation.

Perhaps I overstate things. But judging from some of the comments on my previous blogs, it seems that not everyone chooses wisely, and the consequences are rather alarming for these victim-teachers.

Is there a Holy Grail of ELT jobs? Why are some teachers happy, while others suffer under a yoke of abuse? Who are these employers that are spoiling our fun?

I freely admit having some strong opinions on this issue - the foremost of which is that teaching English in Thailand should not be a prison sentence or some sort of hardship posting. To my mind, we aren't meant to be smitten to dust when we sign a contract of employment.

Here are a few of my ideas on these questions - feel free to add anything you think I've missed in the comments:

1. The Holy Grail: While some people think the Holy Grail is real, it's probably just a myth. Similarly, the perfect job. Every employment opportunity has serious flaws. Schools have to run at a profit, and teachers form part of that profit-and-loss process. That means we aren't likely to get the packages we might wish for - no Ferraris, possibly not health insurance, sometimes no holiday pay, surely not a pension policy, probably not a 13th cheque. A professional Holy Grail might be found in other, more psychic rewards.

2. Gem-studded lures: Dr. Elsa and Water Donovan were cunningly lured by the pretty cup studded with gems. It's an easy mistake to make. Over the years, I've seen how poorly managed schools use money to try to please the foreign teacher. It works too - for a while. Money is awesome. But ultimately the truth will out, so to speak. Motivations for becoming a teacher are complicated, but we don't generally become teachers for the riches. More likely it's security, the chance to make a difference, or some such. Well-managed schools understand that teachers are (or aspire to be) professionals, and appreciate being treated as one. I concede, however, that every teacher I know working in the Middle East would tell me to put a sock in it.

3. A seller's market: There are quite often more jobs available than there are teachers for them. That means the teacher is in the driving seat. If you take a job, the person who interviews you is likely to be your point of contact at the school. So the interview is a great opportunity to find out if the school is right for you. Who is this person? Can you trust them? Are they interested in you as a teacher? Is this someone you could turn to for help with the problems that are the inevitable part of a teacher's routine?

Back to point 1, in every school there is a constant tug-of-war between educational demands and operational costs - and foreign teachers are a major expense. Sometimes, when finances dominate, the administration will decide to take control the teachers - keep a tight lid on the expenses and so on. It doesn't work. Teachers need creative space, and they need to talk teacher stuff, they also need to complain. Teachers seem to thrive on complaining for some reason, but it's just part of who we are.

Complain to an administrator, and you'll find that your job is somehow suddenly on shaky ground. Complain to a seasoned teacher, and you'll get some sympathy and three suggestions for how to make things better. When a teacher climbs the ladder and gets to be manager, they may make a lot of management mistakes (given that they are a teacher, not a manager), but at least you know you have an ally who will understand your situation.

So during the interview, find out if your interviewer has taught, or even better, still teaches. Ask them what kinds of problems they have experienced with the students. If they say that there are no problems, be suspicious: this is not how teachers talk.

4. Institutional preoccupations: Like you, schools are waiting for that Holy Grail of the perfect teacher. During the interview, the school will give away important clues about what their Holy Grail teacher looks like. Are they looking to cut costs? Do they want a real educator? A pretty decoration? Are they scared of people running away? Do they revile teachers who make demands?

So, pay attention to the questions you are asked. An administrator will be interested in contractual details. These are important, sure, but they aren't the focus of teachers' every day workload. Be pleased if you are asked what your teaching philosophy is, or how you would teach the present perfect tense, or what techniques you use for managing difficult classes. These are questions that are difficult to answer because there are no definitive answers, but they are questions by teachers for teachers. If you get these questions, and if you take this job, you can expect to be appreciated for the professional they take you to be.

5. A wooden chalice: Indiana Jones identifies the right Holy Grail as a wooden cup, matching the reality of the real source of Jesus' humble origins. I'm stretching my metaphor here, and apologize in advance: happy teachers are those who are well-matched with their school. Not all teachers fit into every teaching scenario. Uptight, militaristic teachers are probably not really suitable for laid-back language schools, as an example.

Think about what makes you tick as a teacher before your interview, and see how closely this school matches your dream. There won't be a perfect match, I predict, but finding a school where you can stretch your own personal wings will make waking up in the morning much easier.

6. Red flags: Some schools don't trust teachers. You may have come across a school like this. In these schools, the contract tends to be peppered with threats, or perhaps teachers are separated from one another to prevent union behaviour. Sometimes, they try to entice teachers' buy-in through weekend picnics and the like. To me, these are red flags; but they aren't terminal - if you spot these but the job seems to work, try negotiating around them - it's possible that you'll get through the mistrust and find a good employer after all.

There is unlikely to be a Holy Grail. But there are certainly a lot of options - and it is possible to choose wisely. Our goal is perhaps to find a school where we fit, or one that is accepting and gives a reasonable amount of professional space to get along with whatever it is that teachers do.

Fortunately, unlike Walter Donovan, if you choose poorly, you don't get smitten to dust and you get to try again. If you have chosen poorly more than once, you need some lessons.


Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.


Comments

Talking about agencies I find they create a barrier between the Thai and foreign staff. I worked for 4 agencies before and the relationship between the Thais and foreigners was a weird one. Everyone was polite and nice but no one ever really spoke that much to each other. Everyone would always pass messages on through the agent. One teacher was shouted at for speaking directly to the school because the boss of the agency said the school don't like teachers doing that. I don't know if that's right or wrong but it's not good for the relationship between the school and the foreigners.

I also work directly for a school and find the relationship so much better and more natural. It's forced me to work on my Thai and the Thai teachers to work on their English. Our bosses are very adamant that we all get along and chat with each other. Some Thai teachers can't speak much English so I always speak Thai with them. The Thai teachers who can speak English always wanna speak English. That's fine by me ha ha. I think it's good for the kids to see everyone getting along in a natural way. Also we don't have any gap year teachers etc. One guy has been at my school for 15 years and the teacher with the shortest time is 3 years. We have regular meetings. We still get some information at the last minute ha ha, but we all know this is just how it is. I'd rather be told 5 mins before by the school than 30 mins after by the agency.

By Ricky, Chai Nat (5 months ago)

There is no 'perfect' job. There are very good jobs, but familiarity usually breeds some contempt. I'd always advise any teacher to avoid working for an agency. Really, the best compliment I've heard about any agency is "Well, they always pay on time". The bar is clearly set too low.

I worked for two schools through two different agencies. Both schools were great, but the agencies were always a pain. Anytime anyone from the agency came to the school it put the foreign teachers on edge. Often it made people nervous because the agency were too overbearing about looking and behaving perfectly. They were obsessed with looking good and keeping their contract. That's fine, but have some faith in your teachers. You employed them after all. Both agencies paid on the right day, but you'd never know what time. It was never before lunch and 1 time it was at 9 o'clock at night. There's only really one thing I expected from my agency, pay the money on the day and preferably in the morning. You have one job.

Now I work directly for a school and it is awesome. I have a boss who studied in the US so I can talk directly to her. There's no middle man diluting or simply not passing on information. She's a businesswoman first, but she's smart. She sent me on a course to learn how to use and utilize my interactive whiteboard. I have a projector, laptop, printer and awesome wifi. I even have a pleather office chair. I got an extra 5k for summer camp and a 'thank you' because we had a lot of students signing up. That really made me happy. Even just a thank you sometimes makes a huge difference. It does to me. People need to feel the love sometimes.

It must be tougher for agencies now to find teachers. Salaries are still rubbish and places like Bkk are becoming more expensive. I know one young guy on 35k who recently quit. He said the money wasn't enough and he didn't come to Thailand to work two jobs. He's going back home. Thailand is an amazing place to live, but nowhere is fun to live if you don't have enough money. Me working directly for the school has netted me an extra 15k a month. I wish it had happened sooner, but I think I've earned it now.

By Tom, Bangkok (5 months ago)

Come on, Jack. It wasn't personal, mate. I don't know you. You could be Jack the Ripper. Hell, you could be Jack from 'The Titanic', back to seek revenge on Rose for leaving you in the freezing cold water when there was clearly enough room for both of you on that piece of wood. I simply found your posts to be quite negative in places.

Give us a hug, buddy. We can all do with one now and again to release those demons. "Don't let the haters win". Or whatever people on Facebook post to distract themselves and others from their own character flaws and insecurities.

Going back to Stevie boy's post - The pool of available teachers here is getting smaller. No matter how good you think you have it make sure you keep your eye on the job market. I'm noticing more job ads now with bigger salaries and more perks. I'm not saying the grass is always greener on the other side at all. Simply do your research and know your worth. Be informed. Don't get stuck in a rut and take a gamble sometimes.

Unfortunately, life is like a game of poker for most people. Having to bullshit your way through and hoping no one can see through it. Teachers who are good at bluffing will usually have a better time of it. But your luck always runs out eventually if you can't back up the talk. Best to work hard and have integrity. Think happy thoughts!

By Craig, Roi-Et (5 months ago)

"I meant no offence"

Yes you did, that was the reason for your post.

But this is not the place for personal attacks, so my last word is if you think being unappy will make you happy, go for it.

By Jack, Been there, done that (5 months ago)

Calm down, Jack. Calm down. I meant no offence, and I didn't mean to make you appear so vitriolic.

I've read many of your posts and you come across as quite negative. I wish you'd simply ignore the teachers you deem to have the wrong attitude. Believe me, you'll be a lot happier in life if you do.

I'm sure you've read all the studies and that's great. But you really should just ignore these so called negative influences. Let them live their lives and you live yours. The TEFL industry here doesn't need another farang hero being the champion of the locals.

If people are unhappy deep down, telling them they're wrong really won't help. Try to listen and understand. Can't just dismiss people's problems as not being genuine if you won't at least listen. If you don't wanna know, ignore it. There are many things in life that annoy me. You've gotta be the bigger man and just ignore them. We're in someone else's country so let them deal with the bad teachers.

By Craig, Roi-Et (5 months ago)

Craig

It might be better to stay focused on the topic instead of making personal attacks.

There have been thousands of studies done over decades in many different cultural contexts about the factors leading to job satisfaction with a general consensus that internal factors, such as emotional maturity and self-esteem, have as much or more of an impact on job satisfaction in most people than do external factors such as pay and style of management used by one’s boss.

You may not want to believe this, but this is what the evidence indicates, although there are obvious exceptions in extreme conditions.

My first teaching job was a “crappy” job with low pay at a language school. I enjoyed it, but knew it was not the type of work I wanted to make a career out of and therefore gained the skills and qualifications to move on. It was never a victim, I voluntarily took to low paid teaching job as a stepping stone to an international career.

If a teacher wants to play the victim and gather sympathy for voluntary going to a foreign country and having the ability to take on a job which pays more than double the average wage in the country based on the fact the teacher had the good fortune of being born in a country which has the world’s lingua franca as a first language, it is best to stay within a very small circle of like-minded teachers.

It is highly unlikely the average Thai or anyone else will considered the teacher has been unfairly exploited and has no option but to continue to live in semi-slavery.

Be an agent and take charge of one's career and happiness, or play the victim, we all can make our own choices.

By Jack, Been there, done that (5 months ago)

"The concept of the miserable sod becoming a bright happy teacher by finding the perfect job is probably more of a myth than a reality..."

I agree. For some, the glass is always half empty.

The idea that miserable people who love to complain about their jobs will change their tunes if a better job is offered to them isn't realistic.

Your attitude to your job is entirely downto you and not your job. You can walk away from a crappy job anytime if it's really that bad... and the reason that people don't tells me that they simply cherish the opportunity of complaining about anything they do.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (5 months ago)

"There are many happy workers in "bad" jobs getting on with it with a smile on their faces while there are many miserable people working in "good" jobs who can always find something to whine and moan about"

Dear Lord above us. A man who loves to whine and moan about teachers who whine and moan. The irony. You're obsessed with teachers in crappy jobs who moan about it. Change the record. Would love to know your angle.

If you're in a secure job, with benefits, treated well and 'respected', there's a very high chance you'll be happy. If you're not happy, it's up to the school to get rid of you. Treat people well and with respect and you'll find the right set of 'happy' teachers if the set-up is good.

If you're in a crappy job, where you feel like a disposable white face and not shown any respect, chances are you'll be 'miserable'. Same as any job. If schools want happy teachers, they're gonna have to apply logic and figure out what's going wrong. The buck stops with the employers.

There are always anomalies with good and bad teachers, but overall, treat your staff well and they will pay that back. Insanity; trying the same thing over again and again, and expecting a different result.

Please, Jack - stop being so negative all the time and put yourself in the teacher's shoes.

By Craig, Roi-Et (5 months ago)

A good article but I would warn about assuming too much about the influence of the environment on teacher happiness, as much of job satisfaction comes internally depending on personal conditions such as emotional maturity and adaptability. There are many happy workers in "bad" jobs getting on with it with a smile on their faces while there are many miserable people working in "good" jobs who can always find something to whine and moan about.

The concept of the miserable sod becoming a bright happy teacher by finding the perfect job is probably more of a myth than a reality.

By Jack, Here, not there (5 months ago)

You advise teachers to choose wisely, but there are no reliable sources of information on prospective employers. In fact, there is more information available to travelers: tripadvisor has useful reviews for travelers. By using it, it is extremely unlikely, that you'll stumble into a third-rate hotel-unless you choose to do so. Tourist attractions with consistently good reviews get a certificate of excellence. Is there a comparable site for EFL institutes? I don't think so, but one is badly needed! Cowboy operations are ubiquitous in Thailand and worldwide. Posting queries on online forums is largely a waste of time, and an interview does provide enough information to go on.

By Scott, Saudi Arabia (5 months ago)

Hi, Stephen and thanks for the interesting read.

It's a pretty downbeat one, but why not... us expat teachers have put ourselves in a hole that even Indy himself couldn't climb out of without the motivation of a Kathleen Turner and some special effects wizardry!

Although 'choosing' your appointment has a lot to do with your eventual job satisfaction, there are many instances where you can change the job you accept to suit you - especially if you commit to staying at your school, have management support... and your ideas don't cost too much money!

In other words - even though the only job you were offered is out of the way and looks like being crap - you may be able to do something about it once you are there.

"Every employment opportunity has serious flaws."

Well, I hope this isn't true. It certainly hasn't been my experience. If you are a new kid on the block then it's easy to get talked into a job that turns out to be awful, but I think for most people, finding a position that suits isn't as desperate as you make it out to be.

Part 4 of your article (Institutional preoccupations) contains excellent (and often overlooked) advice for any teacher looking for long term work in Thailand. It's important to get a feel of why the school wants you and whether this matches what you want from them.

There's plenty of blame to go around as to why there are so many horrible places to work for. We expats are a part of the problem and should accept some of the blame. But any serious applicant, willing to do some homework and apply some practical and common sense, will eventually find what they are looking for in Thailand.

Even if you can't find your ideal job, perhaps you can create it!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (5 months ago)

What's the holy grail of teaching? For me it's an in-house corporate gig. Preferably at a 5 star hotel with free bed and board. These gigs do exist, but they're harder to come by than an honest teaching recruitment agency.

As for what's definitely not the holy grail, that's one that doesn't offer a contract nor sick pay. Say no to these kind of jobs and you'll be closer to finding the grail.

By Simon, New York/Bangkok (5 months ago)

Steve, I copy and paste from above:
"Motivations for becoming a teacher are complicated, but we don't generally become teachers for the riches."
My comment on this is: Teacher teach for the outcome as opposed to the income. However, that said, outcome alone does not place bread on the table, thus a fine balance needs to be achieved.
Great article.

By Chris van Schalkwijk, Bangkok (5 months ago)

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