He sleeps in a storm
Disorganization, discipline, and decisiveness in the overseas TEFL industry
I had a job interview recently at what seemed to be a really good international school here in Phnom Penh. The principal was looking for a grade three teacher. The hours were great; 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Work ten months a year and get paid for twelve sounded good too, and although the pay was far below what I was getting teaching with EPIK in Korea, (about $1,100.00 a month), I would have taken the job in a heartbeat: That is, if it was truly offered to me. But it wasn't. And I truly was disappointed.
To be honest, I really dislike job interviews. Not because of anything I do. I show up on time; I wear the right clothes; I'm polite; I listen and I ask the right questions. Before the interview I sent a well-written cover letter outlining and clearly stating my past experience, educational goals, and teaching philosophy, my resume, and a recent photograph. In both my resume and cover letter I also state my mission statement: "To make a positive difference in the lives of my students"; and my vision statement: "To leave a positive and lasting legacy." I also say that to do this, a teacher must do two things:
1) Marry the school syllabus with the national curriculum; and
2) Go beyond the syllabus and curriculum into the inner lives of each student.
All in all, it's a very positive cover letter which can, and at times does, get "my foot in the door." But when it comes to the interview and meeting other people in this industry, whether fellow teachers, administrators, principals, or directors, the ‘niceties' stop at my cover-letter. Perhaps that has been my downfall. Perhaps that's the main reason why I'm not getting as far as I would like to. I don't schmooze. I don't socialize. I don't kiss ass. In an industry that celebrates the sycophant, in an industry that seeks out those willing to maintain the status quo of educational mediocrity, in an industry that begs for... lives for... and dies for schmoozer's and ass-kissers, I'm nowhere to be found.
Well, to be honest, on weekends you can find me holed up in my room reading books and watching Desperate Housewives. And I have been known to enjoy the occasional buffet and Korean meal, but as far as ‘shooting the bull' or ‘chewing the cud' with my fellow TEFL'ers, I haven't done that in years. So until that happens, it is highly unlikely that in an industry that, with few exceptions, puts personality above professionalism, I will get anywhere. So yes, I do have faults; and not playing by the rules is one of them.
So yes, I really don't like job interviews; especially in this industry. And I'm sure that those doing the interviewing are, at times, not too crazy about the idea of speaking to countless teachers either. The interviewers will tell you, (and I've heard it from a few), that they run the gamut between professionals to semi-professionals to backpackers to long-haired freaky people in shorts and sandals. I have horror stories too. I have blogged about it in the past. I have shown up at interviews in Thailand only to have the interviewer call me by another name. "Oh hello, are you Michael from England?" I have had an interviewer misplace my resume and then tell me to recite it from memory line-by-line. I've had interviews where the interviewer, both foreigner and locals, were so disorganized, it seemed something out of a sit-com if it weren't so tragic. I've had an interviewer accuse me of being in Thailand for the nightlife and the prostitutes. So the revolving door in this industry turns both ways. But there is some professionalism in this industry; albeit not much and I do appreciate the small bits and pieces of professionalism when I see it.
So on to my latest interview. I walked out hopeful that I may have nailed it. The interviewer, a nice woman from Australia whom I enjoyed talking with, said that she would let me know by the end of the day. It was a Friday and she needed someone the following week. Two teachers had already cancelled on her the week before. Ah yes, the professionalism I was just alluding to. Anyway, I did get a text message saying that she had someone else to interview: A friend of a friend, and that she would get back to me once the interview had concluded. So the next morning, with the job still on my mind, I emailed the interviewer.
"Dear Ms. Xxxxx:
Thank you for the text message yesterday. I can imagine how difficult it must be making a decision like this. Time has become a factor and the students need a teacher very shortly. I commiserate with your dilemma. I know that you are looking for fully-licensed teachers and, for the sake of the students, I fully understand.
But I wish I could show you the reading and writing assignments I have brought into the classroom; assignments that are making my students think and give their opinions. Yes, there are times when their writings and opinions are a bit sloppy, but I give them credit for trying. It's frustrating for me now, (and has been for a while) because I feel that I am being held back by the limiting nature of EFL schools. So because of that, I continually bring in reading and writing material because I want my students to develop into fully thinking and creative people. In fact, one of my heroes in the educational field is a teacher in Los Angeles named Rafe Esquith, who teaches his nine year old students everything from Hemingway to Shakespeare. He doesn't read to his students, he reads with his students and they prosper. His students perform fully-abridged Shakespearean plays every year. You can check out the website here:
Now I'm not saying that my students will perform Shakespeare, but under my care they will become the best they can be. That has always been one of my goals.
So Ms. Xxxxx, good luck with any further interviews and I'm sure you will make a sound decision regarding your teachers. But I am still hopeful that we can work together to meet Xxxx-Xxxx International School's objectives of fully developed students and my goals of each student having reached his or her potential.
Once again, Ms. Xxxxx, thank you for considering me."
The same day I received this response:
"Thank you for this Steve.
I do not like leaving anyone hanging. I have no doubt that you are a good teacher and that you will love and care for the children and develop their skills.
When I talked with my friend she suggested that I contact a lady she has been working with who is a trained teacher. So we sent her a text. I am waiting to hear from her this morning.
I know that you appreciate that I have to follow every option as the decision will be who will be the best fit for the current students.
I hope that I can respond to you today about the decision."
After two more email exchanges the following day, the interviewer finally tracked down the friend of a friend for the interview which was to take place on Monday, three days after my interview. On Monday night, no phone call or email, but on Tuesday morning I received this:
"August 23, 2011.
Finally I can get back to you. I interviewed the teacher. She has taught Grade 3 for sometime and has had many years of experience in education. However, she is going back to the States for a month in September.
One of the teachers from school who was going to be here for 3 months is now staying for a year. He said he would be available for Grade 3.
There is juggling that needs to be done. He was going to relief teach for 2 and a half months until our Grade 4 teacher arrives. If he teaches Grade 3 then I need a relief teacher for 2 and a half months. I do not know what hours you work and if you would be interested to do this. However, if you are willing I would love to have you at the school for this time.
I expect that it will not be possible for you.
I am sorry that the process has been drawn out. Thank you for your patience."
As much as I would have loved to have been at this school, this offer was certainly not good enough, if only because I was wise enough to ask myself a simple question: If she needs a ‘relief teacher' for two and a half months, then where will I be two and a half months later? Out on the street looking for another job, I suppose.
I was planning to write her back. In fact, I was to use the two and a half hours I have during the very large lunch break here in Cambodia. But I wanted to take at least 24 hours to calm down and think about what I wanted to say. Nothing mean, I just wanted it to be a well thought-out letter.
The following day at lunch time, I sat down at a computer in the teacher's office at my language school and opened my email to find this:
"August 23, 2011.
So much has happened since I saw you. I feel as if my mind is doing mental gymnastics.
Since writing last night there has been a further development with the teacher at school who will now stay. This may have the impact that will mean I do not need a relief teacher for the 2 and a half months.
I am sorry that you have been caught up in the drama of all this. My intention was to keep you informed and to tell you that I have been seriously considering you and your application. If you had teacher training I would not have hesitated. I think your ESL training and teaching experience is important and I believe you are a good teacher.
Thank you for the contact. I will keep your name on file. I wish you well in all you do."
Well, there you have it: Quite a drama, huh? I do admit that this whole thing took a lot out of me and I don't look forward to more interviews any time soon. I did eventually write back to the nice Australian woman who interviewed me. Here it is in its entirety:
"September 9, 2011.
Subject: He Sleeps in a Storm
Dear Ms. Xxxxx:
Thank you for your letters on Tuesday August 23rd and congratulations on finding what we both hope to be a suitable teacher for grade three. I did want to write to you sooner, but I felt it best to take my time and think of the right words to say.
I enjoyed speaking with you at our interview and I learned something about being here in Cambodia when you talked about how the tax department of the Hun Sen administration keeps threatening to shut your school down if you don't pay them the taxes that they ask for. It is tragic. How the government here can get away with holding the future of school children hostage while they pad their bank accounts. It compels me to question my role here as well. But such is one of the many distinctions between first-world nations and third-world nations. This seems like a society that eats its own children for breakfast then wonders where they are come lunch time.
Having said that, your emails of August 23rd did concern me for the reason that they gave me the impression that you were disorganized and indecisive: Two character traits that teachers and leaders in this industry should not have. I hope I'm wrong here, Ms. Xxxxx, and that our experience was an anomaly. I do realize how difficult is dealing with teachers in various parts of the world with different schedules.
On Friday evenings, and the occasional Saturday morning, you can find me at the Chabad Jewish Center enjoying some stimulating conversation and kosher food with the Rabbi, his wife and children, and some of my fellow Jews. The Rabbi is a smart and wise man, as Rabbis tend to be. Rabbis love to tell stories. In fact, ask a Rabbi his name.
"Rabbi, what's your name?"
"What's my name? What's my name!?! Wait; let me tell you a story."
On Friday evening following appetizers of humus, various salads, fish, eggplant, and chala bread, he stands in front of his flock and delivers ‘the Torah portion' of the evening. This is a story or a fable, usual from the Talmud, which is meant to educate and teach us how to live. As I was thinking of how to respond to your emails of August 23rd, I thought of one of the Rabbi's stories. So in true Rabbinical and Talmudic form, let me tell you a story. It is titled: "He Sleeps in a Storm."
Once upon a time there was a man who had to quit his job. He held the job for some time, but for personal reasons had to leave. So in the morning he went to his boss' office to ask for a letter of recommendation. His employer said "Sure, come back at the end of the day and get the letter."
So the man went back to his boss' office at 5:00 to collect his letter. The letter simply read "He sleeps in a storm."
The employee looked at the letter of recommendation and said to his former boss, "Thank you but how can I get another job with this?"
And his former boss replied "Trust me; it's a great recommendation letter. I meant every word; and your next employer will know what that means."
So with this letter in hand, the man set out to find his next job. Unfortunately the economy wasn't so good, so all the man could find was a job on a farm. He gave the owner of the farm the recommendation letter. The farm owner read it: He sleeps in a storm? What does that mean?
"I'm sorry" said the man who was truly embarrassed about having to give his new employer a letter like that. But it was harvest time and the owner desperately needed a farmhand. So the man was hired.
A few weeks pass and then suddenly a powerful storm rips through the valley. Awakened by the violent rain and howling wind, the farm owner pounds on the bedroom door of his farmhand, but he is soundly asleep.
So the owner runs to the barn only to find that all of his animals are warm, resting soundly, and have plenty of feed; he dashes out to the field to see bales of hay and wheat that are securely bound and wrapped; he then races to the silo where the doors are locked and the grain is dry. Then the farm owner remembers; he then understands.
He sleeps in a storm.
So, Ms. Xxxxx, while it is more than fair to hire well-trained, licensed, and professional teachers; in fact, it is ethical and proper that we do so since the future of our children is at stake; it is also smart and prudent that we look at those who bring to the table other factors and characteristics that we may miss while searching for the ‘perfect' candidate: Discipline, decisiveness, and planning and organizational skills: In other words, someone who can sleep in a storm. This is why your emails of August 23rd concerned me. You were in a storm and consequently, you were not sleeping soundly.
To be honest, I can't remember the last time I was disorganized and disheveled as a teacher. I suppose it was back in the late 1990's when I started. Since then, I am always prepared for class. I know what to do and what has to be done long before I step into the classroom. Over the years I have worked with many disorganized teachers; teachers who walk around almost in a panic saying "Oh my God, I have a class in five minutes! What am I going to do?" It would be comical if it weren't so tragic. I say this not to show off or to put down other teachers; I say this because planning and being organized is a big part of my character. I prefer to sleep in a storm.
I like you, Ms. Xxxxx. That's saying a lot since those who know me know that I like so few people in this industry. But what I sense from you is that you really want to leave a mark here in Cambodia; you want to make a positive difference in a society that seems to care so little for its own people.
The odds are against people like you and me. While there are some good people in this industry, there are so many others who work against it; so many others who don't care; so many others who don't belong in the classroom; so many who use foreign teachers as "cash cows", and who can barely tolerate foreigners in their company; so many others who have given up in the face of adversity; and very few who can sleep in a storm. As a principal, I'm sure you have met many of them, as I have. I speak here of Khmers and foreigners alike. One of the many faults with foreigners in this industry is what I like to call the "facebook affect." This manifests itself in many forms: From the hiring of only friends and friends of friends, to refusing to communicate with others who may work and teach in English institutes that are not viewed as professional or "real schools."
Here is a recent case-in-point: I have been at the school in which I teach for almost eight months now. As you know it is affiliated with an international school and a computer school. All three schools share the same building and have different schedules for their students. Needless to say, it is busy with lots of students making a lot of noise. Just last week I had to interrupt my class to go downstairs to the office because of all the noise in the hallway. I went to speak with two of the directors of the international school about this problem since many of the students making the most noise were high school students during their lunch break. We sat down and discussed the problem telling me that a meeting had taken place the day before. I brought the noise problem to their attention a few days before, so they were quite aware of it. Now here is something of which I was not aware: The director of the international school, a British national, let me know that he was not supposed to be talking to me or anyone else from the English institute, (something within the rules of the organization.)
Well now! I suppose I should be honored that a director of an international school here in Phnom Penh would lower himself to speak to me; a lowly English teacher at a language institute. But I wasn't. You see, Ms. Xxxxx, this is yet another huge problem with the expatriate community in this industry. We claim to have the student's best interests at heart, but in reality, we don't.
Another recent case in point: Just three weeks ago, a student at the English institute, a 10 year old boy, lost part of his finger when a classmate slammed the door on his hand while horse playing. The parents were called. The police were called. There was a lot of blood on the floor. It was a real mess. I am glad that the directors of the international school and the English institute are finally doing something about the noise problem, but I can't help wondering how many more children have to lose fingers before directors of international schools feel comfortable communicating with those working at the English institute.
While there are many foreigners doing great work here in Cambodia under some very difficult circumstances, there are many others who view their positions as a way to practice nepotism, patronage, and discrimination; the very traits that we as foreigners accuse our host countries of practicing. Many foreigners, especially those in positions of authority, excoriate Asians for their lack of compassion and their seeming inability to properly communicate with others in what are in essence hierarchal societies. Yet when given half the chance, we do the same things as witnessed at my current school. It makes me wonder if foreigners in Cambodia, or Thailand, or wherever they happen to live and work are their own worst enemies. The lack of responsibility and accountability on both sides is astounding. While the powers-that-be continue to point accusatory fingers at one another, children, who yearn for structure and leadership are left to run around, yell and scream, slam doors, and lose fingers. Shame on us!
At our interview I said that it would be an honor to work at your school. I still believe that. It would be an honor to work with someone like you who is trying to make a positive difference in the lives of so many children. While waiting for you on the day of our interview, I walked around the reception area and noticed a list of your schools objectives. Teaching the children to be creative; teaching them to think for themselves; inviting them to ask life's essential question: Why? And to seek answers through their own experiences; these are values that I believe in and have taught for years. It is not an easy thing to do in this part of the world, but it must be done. This kind of education is the first step towards freedom. At the interview I also invited you to observe a class or two of mine at your convenience. That is an open invitation. Lately I've been bringing articles, stories, and introducing poetry into some of my classes. Let me know and I'll plan a poetry lesson. You'll be dazzled and impressed by how my students respond.
So once again, Ms. Xxxxx, thank you for the interview. Let us continue to teach to the best of our ability. Let us continue to put the children first. Let us continue to shine the light on those who do not have the educational needs of children at heart. Let us continue to plan and organize. Let us all continue to make the painful decisions necessary so that all of us can one day sleep in a storm."