Why isn’t there protection for foreign teachers in the form of teaching?
When you've stopped laughing for a minute, and wiped the tears from your eyes, you might want to consider why this question isn't so funny after all? Of course, I understand why people might think it's such a funny thing to actually believe that you could have some form of protection as a teacher in this country, but I don't see why it can't be achieved given some goodwill on both sides. The fact is that, as we all know, there isn't any form of protection at all for professional workers here never mind the teaching sector. In effect, in Thailand you are expected to take it or leave it when things don't go the way you expect them to.
Now, don't start thinking I am Lech Walesa, Jimmy Hoffa, or Arthur Scargill in disguise as I have only ever been in a union once in my life, and it was only for a few months, so I'm not what you could ever safely call a "union" man. I just happen to think there are a lot of benefits for organizations on both sides of the fence to get together and work out differences around a table like mature adults. Better that than the current philosophy which is - if you are not happy with the status quo in Thailand, you need to "take a hike" because if you find yourself being exploited by unscrupulous teaching agencies, refused payment from employers, or just simply treated as a vehicle for making money by owners of schools, there isn't a thing you can do about it.
When things go wrong...
When things go wrong, and they invariably do in any organisation where employees and employers reside without any form of arbitration, whom do you turn to for help? Who can negotiate for you and help you to ‘walk the walk' and tread the fine line between demanding your rights and avoiding insulting your hosts? When a school has reneged on a promise to pay you a bonus, or when a promised holiday doesn't materialize, or when you are let go at a minute's notice, what can you actually do about it?
While I am not suggesting that all teachers here are in desperate need of protection, I am suggesting that they might, during their stay here, need some form of representation which is a right enjoyed in more developed countries. We all hear stories every day of the way teachers are sometimes mistreated and who have little invested in their professional development. They are usually told that this is the way things are done in Thailand and it's largely futile to complain.
This is especially true of new teachers who are often worked into the ground so that language school owners can maximize their profits while they have the teacher contracted to work in their school. When I first came here some thirteen years ago, I was expected to work six days a week for 23,000 baht. That typically meant some 30+ hours of classroom time every week. I would often be put under pressure to do extra classes on Sundays as well, which I sometimes did so that a 40-hour working week was not all that unusual (55-60 hours if you include preparation time). Of course, this is good in some ways because new teachers by definition are greenhorns and so the class time is invaluable in both building up a repertoire of skills and also instilling confidence in the teacher, too.
Speaking your mind
There is a reason I brought up this topic now. Doing research for an article, for The Guardian Weekly newspaper recently, I came across the recent brouhaha surrounding the Thai Culture courses in Thailand and saw an online petition on a local website. As a result, I asked a group of its members to give me a quote about their opinions. While giving honest opinions about their experiences through the secrecy that an avatar brings online, when it came to voicing their opinions publicly, not one person wanted to come forward to say something positive or negative about the teaching license.
This lack of speech speaks volumes. It says first and foremost that a lot of teachers here are afraid to speak their minds for fear of reprisals e.g. if their identity becomes known, they may not have their work permits renewed especially as it is actually an official law that if you show Thailand in a negative light, whether Thai or farang, you can be prosecuted. I also emailed the head of a very powerful organisation, which oversees the Thai Teaching Licenses without reply so it is not only westerners who feel this pressure to keep quiet
When I tried to get a quote from some veteran TEFL trainers, I didn't fare much better so there's clearly a problem here with those involved in the local education industry not having any kind of platform in which to air their views in an open, honest and therefore healthy way. Call me crazy but I happen to believe that when problems are not addressed early on e.g. on or around the time they happen, they tend to come along later and bite you in the butt twice as hard.
Of course, there are arenas in which problems can be aired in Thailand. Dr. Timothy Cornwall, a fellow scribbler in The Bangkok Post's Education section, along with Ajarn Terry Clayton, head the Thailand Educational Network, (TEN) - http://www.thaiednet.org/dr-tim-cornwall.html which "...organizes a monthly opportunity for educators in Thailand to meet on a regular basis in a comfortable environment to share teaching and living experiences with colleagues and peers." Similarly, there are others like The International Schools Association of Thailand (ISAT), - http://www.isat.or.th/about_isat.asp which has the following among its responsibilities, "In addition to disseminating information to its members on educational information to its members on educational issues both at home and overseas, its regular meeting provide a forum for discussion, debate and the exchange of views and information."
There are others but the point I'm trying to make is that there isn't any one, overarching institution that is set up to take care of the high volume of teachers here like the National Union of Teachers in the UK, and this is especially important with the major reform that is currently taking place in the Thai educational system and the recent figures suggesting that between 1-1.5 billion people are learning English globally. If Thailand really is serious about reforming and modernizing its education system thereby taking the county into the next century, can it really afford not to have a system for dealing with the many problems - cultural, economic, practical that so many western teachers face in the country on a daily, basis?
What I'd like to see as teaching representatives are similar to the western style volunteer policemen that patrol Walking Street in Pattaya and who solve minor problems before they become major ones. Unlike the Pattaya guys and girls who do a fabulous job, the reps I'm talking about for the educations sector would be retired teachers, ex-school heads, inspectors, school administrators et al. Will that ever happen in Thailand I wonder? What do you think?
Tom Tuohy is a teacher and writer. His book - ‘Watching the Thais: From the Outside Looking in' - is published by Legend Press, the UK. Versions in both Thai and English will soon be published in Thailand. You can access Tom's blog here.