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.