Language school memoirs

Tales from an academic director / recruiter

Right or rich?

"I just need him to practice his test-taking strategy for ten hours. He is willing to come every day from Monday to Friday of next week for two hours a day. The actual test itself is on Saturday. He doesn't have that much time"

They were the words of a loving mother who only wanted the best for her son. As she begged the Thai school director to sign him up for ten hours of one-to-one study, she nodded towards the floppy-haired youth sitting in a corner of the school reception. OK, the young man had left it far too late to study towards achieving a good test score - but so does nearly every other student here.

"All I'm asking for is a quick ten-hour course", the mother begged.

But the Thai school manager wouldn't budge. She handed the boy's mother a laminated price list. "We can tailor a course for your son" she said "but 20 hours is the minimum number of hours that we sell.

Both myself and another teacher happened to be in the reception at the same time and we eavesdropped on the conversation in horror. We were both working for a start-up language school that was desperate for business. The two full-time teachers - Steve and I - both needed the work. The school needed the income. We hadn't had a paying customer through the door for weeks. And now here was a student being turned away.

Eventually the boy's mother realized the situation was hopeless. She shrugged her shoulders, let out a heavy sigh and made for the exit door with her son dragging his feet behind her.

The Thai language owner had won. But won what exactly?

Steve had only been at the school a month but I had warmed to him immediately. He was one of those middle-aged men who had gone through a mid-life crisis back in The States and had somehow ended up as a teacher in Thailand. With very little to do and certainly no students to teach, Steve and I would often retire to the teachers room and I would listen to tales from his varied career. Steve had crammed a lot into his fifty-six years. He managed a whole chain of restaurants on America's West Coast. He'd been a professional photographer. A brochure design artist. You name it.

But what I loved most of all was listening to Steve's business and life lessons. He had dozens of them and I took them all on board.

On the day the mother was turned away by the Thai school owner because she only wanted to pay for ten hours of study, Steve came up to me in a quiet moment and said "you learned another important life lesson today, Phil"

"There are people in this world who would rather be right than rich. Let me tell you something - being rich is better"


The agency scammers

Teacher placement agencies - companies that supply English teachers to client schools - haven't actually been around all that long.

It wasn't until the end of the 1990's that the agency boom started and entrepreneurs realised there was good money to be made from supplying English teachers to schools who had grown tired and frustrated at handling the recruitment process themselves.

I was sitting in my head teacher's office one morning, performing some routine tasks on the computer, when in walked a somewhat unlikely couple. He was a young, very quietly spoken African guy (Nigerian, I later found out) and she was probably East European judging by the accent. She did all the talking and was clearly the brains behind the operation.

They introduced themselves as a new teacher placement agency and had just opened an office five minute's walk from the school I was working for. The female half of the dynamic duo went on to explain that although they'd only been in business a month, they had won several large school contracts, their reputation was growing, and business was booming. Would my school be interested in using their services?

The answer to that question was no - but being inquisitive and having nothing better to do, I asked if I could take a walk down the soi and see their office set-up. Perhaps my school might use them in the future if we got truly desperate for teaching staff.

Later that day I knocked on the door of the address the agents had scribbled down on a piece of paper (they were still waiting for business cards) and was welcomed into a shophouse that obviously served as both an office and living quarters.

I was appalled by the squalor they were living and working in. The 'office section' was nothing more than a battered old desk, a couple of phones, an ancient desktop computer and miles of tangled cable. Beyond that was a kitchen of sorts with a rusty sink largely obscured by a teetering pile of dirty plates and mugs. Next to that were at least a dozen empty pizza boxes that no one could be bothered to throw away.

I couldn't imagine a company that I would be less likely to hand over my recruitment needs to. I chatted for ten minutes out of pure politeness, made my excuses and left.

I'll admit that over the next few weeks, whenever these two agents came up in conversation, I was less than complimentary. But I was only telling the truth. First impressions count and I was only relaying what I had seen with my own eyes.

Unfortunately, word got out to the agents that I was 'badmouthing' them (if telling the truth counts as badmouthing) and they both stormed into my office one afternoon just as I was getting ready to go home. Well, the female half stormed into my office, her African partner (the quiet one) seemed to be there just to carry her handbag. 

The female agent was angry.  Accusations flew and fingers were pointed. I told them straight that their business set-up had filled me with zero confidence. Eventually she calmed down and they both left. I heard nothing for a couple of weeks. 

Then I got a phone call from a Thai lady working for a large school in East Bangkok asking if I knew the whereabouts of such-and-such a teacher agency. The lady went on to say that the school had handed over a large sum of money as a deposit for supplying teachers and now the agency couldn't be contacted. It was almost as if they had disappeared off the face of the earth.

Yes, I told the lady I knew the agents in question and I offered to walk down the soi and check in on them. When I arrived, the shop-house  was in darkness and the front door padlocked.

What none of us knew at that moment was that the dynamic duo were already on the first plane to Lagos. As the story unfolded, the couple had managed to con almost a dozen schools in Bangkok. One institute was into them for over a million baht. 

The agents were never seen or heard of again. Now that was some seriously easy money.

The teacher stinks!

I have never been a fan of student surveys. I've always felt that asking for anonymous student feedback to questions such as "what did you dislike about the lessons?" and "how could your teacher's lessons be improved?" are just asking for trouble. I've seen student surveys do irreparable  damage to teacher / student relationships and drive a wedge between the foreign teachers and school bosses and admin.

Students need to fully understand the questions being asked of them and from my experience, too many times they didn't. Student surveys, particularly those filled in by adult students and corporate groups too often became an opportunity to stick a knife into the teacher's back - especially if the student hadn't performed well on the course or flunked a final exam.

Student surveys were par for the course at one language school I worked at and at the end of the questionnaire came the dreaded 'any other comments' box. This gave students a licence to go to town and dance on a teacher's grave if they felt that way inclined.

But at this school at least teachers got to see the forms for themselves and digest the feedback, as hurtful as some of those comments might have been.

At the end of one particular month-long April term, an adult student in his mid-20s, who none of the teachers liked I might add, decided to really tell it like it was and in the 'any other comments' box wrote "the teacher smells really bad"

It was the end of April - the hottest month of the year in Thailand - and while I'll admit that there were days when the teacher in question could be a bit ripe, I don't think the odours were anything you could sew a button on. And of course no teacher in the world wants an unpopular student telling them that they stink.

Those of us who were sat around in the teachers' room that day were treated to a barrage of swear words as the teacher with questionable personal hygiene kicked in locker doors and threatened to meet his student outside for pistols at dawn. 

I felt sorry for the teacher because he was genuinely one of the best I had ever worked with. He was a guy who cared about his students making progress and put he 100% effort into every single lesson.

Perhaps one of us should have approached this delicate matter with him or maybe subtly left a can of deodorant on his desk with a note attached saying 'please use me'.

Always a difficult situation.  


When is guaranteed income not a guaranteed income?

I'm not sure whether private language schools still offer something called ‘a guaranteed income' as part of a teacher's contract but it was quite a common ‘package' for a language school to offer its better teachers in the past.

Basically it worked like this. Even though the teacher may be working at the school for an hourly rate, the teacher would be considered ‘full time' and there would be a clause in the teacher's contract stating that the school promised to pay the teacher X amount per month regardless of how many hours they taught (up to a target figure).

Teach 100 hours a month (or whatever the target is) and you get 30,000 baht. Teach 50 hours a month (because business is slow) and you still get 30,000. That's how guaranteed income works. If the school can't find the teacher enough hours, it's the school's fault.

You could see the logic in offering a guaranteed income package. The language school teacher had the security of knowing that they would earn enough money each month to pay rent and feed themselves, etc - even in those ‘slow' months like April and December, when students cancelled lessons to go on vacations, do other things, etc and business dropped off alarmingly.

It was also a way for private language schools to attract decent, loyal teachers. Yet I was constantly amazed by how much trouble schools had with applying rules that they themselves had come up with.

I worked at a language school in the mid-90s, who were kind enough to offer me one of these ‘guaranteed income deals'. If I remember correctly, the hourly teaching rate at the school was 250 baht. We had a number of teachers who just came to do a ‘few hours in the evening' and 250 baht an hour was exactly what they were paid. If you taught thirty hours a month, you received 30 x 250 baht in your pay packet. Simple

But the ‘guaranteed income package' made things far more complicated. It shouldn't have done - but it did.

As a full-time teacher, I was also on a pay rate of 250 baht an hour but I was guaranteed a monthly income of 30,000 baht. If you divide that 30K by 250 baht an hour you get 75 hours. And that was my target - 75 hours a month

In a busy month, where I would teach say, 100 hours, I would get the 30K ‘guaranteed income' (for the first 75 hours) plus extra pay for the 25 hours ‘overtime'.

Are you still with me?

However, the problems arose when business at the school went quiet and I (and other teachers) failed to reach that 75 hour target.

Let's say we ended up doing 60 classroom hours that month.

Instead of the school paying us our 30,000 baht salary and taking full responsibility for not giving its teachers enough hours (which is the whole point of a ‘guaranteed income') the management would say "OK, there was a shortfall of 15 hours this month, so next month your target is raised to 90 hours"

That logic was just ridiculous. There was no point in being on guaranteed income - or even calling it a guaranteed income - if you had to somehow ‘pay back' the hours you owed in the following months.

I sat in front of the school director for what seemed like hours trying to put across my argument. I filled endless sheets of A4 paper with figures and diagrams. But he just didn't get it.

I heard similar stories from teachers at other private language schools as well.


Teacher power!

When I joined my first private language school, I went out of my way to be as friendly as possible to all the people around me - teaching colleagues, Thai staff, the school owner, etc. I suppose it's human nature to want to be regarded as ‘the nice guy' at a new place of work.

But after several months, a new Thai employee was taken on as a student advisor and this woman pushed everyone to their limits, especially the foreign teaching staff.

No one really knew her story. Had she had some bad experience with a foreign husband? But whatever her back story was, she had turned into the classic ‘farang hater'. She must have been awake half the night devising ways to make our lives a misery.

And regardless of how politely you asked for her help, the end result was always the same. You would be scolded like a five-year-old kid who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"Excuse me, do you know when the service people are going to come and fix the photocopier?"

"How the bloody hell should I know. I don't work for the bloody photocopier company"

Hard to believe but sometimes this would happen in front of adult students who were sitting in reception waiting for their lesson.

Unfortunately, complaining about her behavior was pointless. She had secured her position because of her connections within the company. She had one of those Thai surnames that indicated an aristocratic bloodline and a name that got maximum respect from other Thais (whether deserved or not) and she carried a handbag to school that was probably worth more than all the foreign teachers' bank accounts put together.

She was bulletproof.

Eventually, things reached breaking point and the situation became intolerable. She started to play her own little games purely to spite the foreign teaching staff.

The language school had a very strict student cancellation policy. If a student did not cancel before 4pm on the day before their lesson, they would be charged in full. Not only that, but the teacher would also be paid and if it was the last lesson of the day, the teacher could go home early. It was a most agreeable arrangement.

But the power trips and the mind games took over as the student advisor took phone calls from students wanting to cancel lessons but decided not to tell the teachers concerned. Why should the farang scum get to go home early and not her?

The teachers decided that something needed to be done and it's still to this day, one of the few times I've witnessed a show of ‘teacher power'.

We held a late evening teachers' meeting in the largest empty classroom and things got quite heated. Fists were banged on the table. We would go directly to the school owner and demand that the problem staff member be removed.

Unbeknown to us, the student advisor from Hell was standing behind the door and eavesdropping on the conversation. Suddenly the door was flung open, and with a face crimson with rage, she shouted "You faggots! Look at you all sitting there you useless bunch of faggots!" And having said her piece, she left.

We did go to the school owner the following day and the ‘faggot' outburst only served to give us more ammunition.

A couple of days later, the student advisor was moved to another branch and you've never seen a happier bunch of teachers.

Teacher power!


The fine art of interviewing

"I never employ a person who has been teaching in Thailand for more than three years"

I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing. I was enjoying a spot of lunch with Greg. He was the owner of a language school on Rama 4 Road in Bangkok and the school was doing incredibly well. They were actually turning customers away because their weekend kids' classes were full and Greg was already on the lookout for a suitable location for a second branch.

Greg was an Englishman in his mid-thirties, qualified to the hilt as a teacher and an astute business person to boot. I had known Greg for many years and he always liked to ‘pick my brains' on certain aspects of the TEFL profession in Thailand.

But having steered the conversation towards hiring and firing foreign teachers, this new revelation was way out of left field.

"Seriously? You never hire teachers who have been here longer than three years?" I said.

Surely there must be some method in his madness I thought and urged Greg to go into more detail.

"Teachers who have been here for several years have generally lost sight of what it's like to work for a good employer and to work at a great language school. They've probably had half a dozen jobs already and been badly treated at all of them. So they bring all their negativity and emotional baggage with them. I don't want that. I'll admit that it's very often not the teacher's fault. It's the fault of the system. But those are my rules...and at the end of the day it's my show"

Personally, I never ever refused a teacher an interview opportunity on the basis of how long they had been in the country but I did devise my own ingenious way of sorting out the interview wheat from the interview chaff.

My pre-interview ‘test' or questionnaire consisted of four sides of A4 paper with 10 questions printed on them and space underneath to answer each one.

None of the questions were particularly taxing. What would you do if you wanted to conduct a pair-work activity and you had an odd number of students? Give an example of a sentence using the present perfect continuous? What do you think makes a good teacher in a Thai classroom? That sort of thing.

When a teacher came to me for an interview, I'd put them in an empty classroom, give them the ‘test' and tell them I would return in thirty minutes.

Now here's the rub. I wasn't particularly interested in the answers the teacher gave for each question. OK, if the teacher had really struggled with the test, then there was cause for concern. However, what I was most interested in was ATTITUDE - the teacher's attitude towards investing half an hour of their time and performing the task put before them.

Hopefully these two contrasting interview stories will show you what I mean.

Paul had recently arrived from England and simply wanted the opportunity to teach in Thailand. He had no qualifications and no classroom experience. I think he may have done a short on-line TEFL course but that was all.

I gave Paul my paper test as the first part of the interview process. When I stuck my head around the door after 30 minutes, Paul asked me if he could have more time. He was barely half-way through.

I was impressed with Paul's attitude. All of his test answers were detailed and well thought out. He had taken the task very seriously indeed and I decided to take a punt on this inexperienced teacher. After a week's in-house training, he was ready to be let loose in a classroom.

Paul worked for the language school for almost two years, became one of the star teachers and never gave me a minute's grief. Last I heard he had gone on to a well-paid university position. Hearing about his success came as no surprise to me.

And then there was Doug.

Doug had walked into the language centre one afternoon, without an appointment, to ask if there were any teaching positions available.

Everything was wrong about him. He was shabbily dressed, was living in a guest house in Banglampoo, and pulled a dog-eared resume from a battered old backpack. The resume showed he'd been TEFLing in at least four other countries - none of which he'd lasted more than six months in. But out of common curtesy, I offered him an interview.

I gave him my ten-question teacher test and left the room. When I returned, the test was in exactly the same position on the desk. Doug hadn't even bothered to pick it up. To add insult to injury, he'd fished a paperback book out of his backpack and continued reading where he'd left off.

"Were the questions too difficult?" I asked

"Oh, you seriously wanted me to fill that in?" he replied in a surprised tone.

I told him not to worry about it but when the interview was over, I binned his application before he'd even left the building. A dicky bird later told me that he found employment at a nearby language school and caused no end of problems.

He was fired within a couple of months.


Drunk as a skunk

I taught a fair number of corporate classes over the years. Very often the classic twice a week gigs - Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 5.30 to 7.30 when staff have had a long, stressful day at work and they're in no mood to study English. All they want do is go home. Even more so when they're a large group of Thai engineers - all at beginner level.

This particular client was a large multinational company best known for its baby care products and they had a factory, production line and offices on an industrial estate in Samut Prakarn. The school sent four teachers out there to take care of four different groups. I drew the short straw. I got the engineers. And if you've ever taught a group of Thai engineers, you'll know what I mean. Their lack of motivation and effort - at least when it comes to studying English - can be staggering. 

But I decided to give the class my best shot. 1500 baht an hour plus a generous travel allowance wasn't to be sniffed at.

On the first day of the course, I met with the young lady who was the company training manager and liked her immediately. Most HR and training managers (or whoever is responsible for organising English training) talk a good game but rarely deliver. "My door is always open if you have a problem" they'll say, "I'll be making sure that the staff stay motivated and attend the lessons"

Then what usually happens is that you don't set eyes on the training manager for the entire duration of the ten-week course. Well, apart from a token 'is everything OK?" when you bump into them at the elevator.

This training manager was different. When she told me she'd be following behind the staff with a big stick, she looked like she meant business.

I asked her what she felt I should be doing in the classes for a group of 18 engineers aged between 25 and 55.    

"Their English is terrible" the training manager admitted, "and they hardly need to use English in their daily jobs. But the company just wants to give them a chance to improve themselves"

Great! If there's one thing worse than a bunch of disinterested engineers, it's a bunch of engineers who don't need English in the first place. I was in a no-win situation. 

And so the course started. 

Although I believe English lessons should never turn into a cabaret, I knew from the off I was going to have to crank up the edutainment level to maximum. It was the only way that we'd all get through this.

The first few weeks went very well. I kept things moving at a fast pace and there was much laughter and fun. Truth be told, me and the engineers started to warm to each other. I began to like and respect them as people and I could sense they were fond of me also. Attendance never dipped below 100% (always a good sign)

And then BANG! - along came a situation I'd never had to deal with before. One of the engineers turned up to class after what had clearly been a lengthy liquid lunch. He wasn't what you would describe as 'a little tipsy'. He was shit-faced. Out of his tree. He could barely sit up straight in his chair. And of course drunken people generally like to make noise.

I decided to shoot a question at him early doors to test things out. He shot a hand up in the air and with eyes like piss-holes in the snow, mumbled the wrong answer and collapsed in a heap on his desk. The class roared with laughter.

Perhaps the best tact was to ignore the drunk completely and let him sober up in a corner, but that didn't work either. Every time I directed a question at another member of class, Old Beer Legs would put his hand up and shout out the answer on their behalf. The lesson was becoming a farce. The more the class laughed, the more the drunken student basked in the limelight and played to the crowd.  

I had a dilemma on my hands and I needed to think on my feet....fast! I could muddle through to the end of the lesson and hope it somehow never happened again. That was certainly one option. But would I get into trouble for not reporting the incident?

I could stop the lesson and go and seek out the training manager. I didn't fancy this much. Firstly, it made me look like a snitch. Secondly, I would probably get the engineer into terrible trouble, perhaps even lose his job. And I should mention at this point that the problem student, had up to that particular lesson, been one of my favourites.

Or I could report it to the training manager the following day. I weighed things up and this seemed to me like the most professional way to handle things.

After what seemed like the longest two-hour corporate training class in my life, I touched base with the language school owner and asked for his advice. He told me to make a decision and whatever it was, he would back me 100%. Fair enough I suppose.

The following day, I called the company training manager. She listened to the story unfold and sounded extremely concerned. She asked for some time to evaluate the situation and she would get back to me. 

When she called me back a couple of hours later, she said she had spoken with the student concerned. 

"Mr Philip, I appreciate you bringing this matter to my attention. You did the right thing. The drunken employee has been given a verbal warning and no further action will be taken. But I would appreciate if you come and let me know right away if this happens again. This employee operates machinery. The company can't have guys like this turning up for work or English classes or whatever, in that condition"

I was full of admiration for how the training manager had handled things.  And no one got fired.

When the course resumed the following week, the problem student bore me no grudges and he became the star of the class. But this time for all the right reasons.


Office tittle tattle

One of the most disagreeable aspects of teaching at a private language school - certainly the ones I worked at - was the gossip. Not so much teachers' room gossip but tittle tattle and private information that concerned the teaching staff but somehow found its way to the students. And more often than not, you could trace all the rumour-mongering and muck-spreading back to the school reception staff. They were poison!

I very rarely 'got on well' with school reception staff. That's not to say we disliked each other but I always strived to keep the farang teacher-Thai admin staff relationship on a strictly business level. I would greet them with a cheerful good morning and always be polite and civil if I needed to ask about a teacher's late pay or the state of a broken photocopier, but that's as far as it went. 

Looking back, I probably came across as extremely aloof but to me it was all about being professional. I frowned upon teachers, particularly new teachers, who during a quiet period of the day, would pull up a chair at the reception and start gassing with the Thai office staff. I never saw anything good come out of those situations.

Which teachers fancy which students? Which students fancy which teachers? Whose lessons are the most boring? And moving up a level - which teacher has money problems and is always asking for pay advances? Which teacher gets shit-faced on Friday nights and turns up hungover on a Saturday morning? Sometimes it felt like no topic was off limits. I found such gossip deplorable. Even now I get angry thinking about it.

By and large, the office girls had a fairly mundane job. I suppose you can only explain the lesson price structure to potential students so many times before you become perhaps a little brain-dead, and start searching for alternative ways to bring a little colour and excitment to your life. Gossip was certainly one way to achieve it.

At one language school I worked at, the Thai boss put the head receptionist (on account that she had been there the longest) in charge of teacher pay advances. The role didn't really involve much and the rules were very clear. Teachers were allowed an advance of up to 5,000 baht a month on their 30,000 baht salaries. You could take the 5,000 baht in one hit or spread it out over several dips into the petty cash. Those were the rules and teachers followed them implicitly.  

But for the head receptionist, the opportunity to go on one almighty power trip was hard to resist. Teachers were met with Gestapo tactics every time they asked for an advance.

"Why have you run out of money?! It's only the 20th of the month!"

"This is the third month in a row. Why can't you take care of your money! Maybe you should spend less time in the pub!"

I stood and watched from a distance. But not for long. The teachers were part of my team and I was the team captain. I decided to point a finger in the girl's face and give her a dressing down she'd never forget. She needed to be reminded that her job was simply to record the figures in a ledger and count out the banknotes. And yes I could've handled it better.

As often happens in the Thai workplace, raising your voice to a Thai member of staff results in them never talking to you again for as long as thou shalt live.

It's unfortunate but that's the way it is. I always found it mission impossible to keep the foreign teaching staff happy and stay on the good side of Thai admin at the same time. 


When teachers say no to the dress code

At some language schools, teachers are required to wear a shirt and tie, at others it's maybe a plain polo shirt with the school logo on the breast pocket. Whatever it is, teachers are always made aware of the dress code early on. But not every teacher was willing to toe the dress code line. Gareth was a prime example.

Gareth had been a desperation hire, but when you are recruiting for a language school paying 200 baht an hour, most hires are.

There was nothing fundamentally wrong with him. He had rocked up to the interview in a nice navy blue whistle. He came across as extremely professional. And he had spent the previous five years making a mint on the floor of the Hong Kong stock exchange.

The only downside was that he had no teaching experience. He had never been anywhere near a teacher training course either. But as I said, I was desperate and I just needed a warm body in the classroom. Gareth also told me that he was very new in the country and was looking to make some good contacts. In other words, his motives for teaching were all wrong.

All I could offer him was a group of eight teenagers doing a basic writing class on a Sunday morning for three hours. There wouldn't be many contacts in that lot!

Gareth told me that all he wanted was a chance. Against my better judgment, I decided to give it to him. I said he could start the following Sunday.

"By the way Phil" Gareth said, "How much is the hourly pay?"

200 baht an hour" I replied.

There was a long silence like you would get if a naked man had just run through the room.

Gareth converted the pay rate into US dollars in his head. Always a mistake.

"Jesus. That's barely six bucks an hour. I would make more flipping burgers in McDonalds"

"Yes" I said "Welcome to teaching in Thailand"

I'd been doing the recruitment thing for several years and I'd learned to give it to teachers straight, especially when they'd done a woeful lack of research. 'Don't dance around your handbag' was my motto.

But despite the appalling hourly wage, Gareth still wanted to go through with it. He was desperate for those contacts.

Sunday came around. It was also my day off. Gareth and his first day writing class were a million miles from my mind. The phone rang at 8.30. It was the school receptionist.

"Mr Philip, Mr Philip" She was bordering on hysterical. "Mr Gareth has turned up and he's not wearing a shirt and tie"

She then spent a painful five minutes trying to describe what he WAS wearing but I was none the wiser.

At 8.45 I got a second phone call. This time from the school director. A fine fucking Sunday off this was turning out to be.

"Mr Gareth has turned up and he's not wearing a shirt and tie"

"Yes I know. And there's absolutely nothing I can do. I'll speak to him on Monday. Just out of interest, what IS he wearing?

Another five-minute explanation in poor English. And I still haven't got a clue.

It bugged me all weekend. The first thing I did when I got to the school the following day was collar a teacher in the staffroom. "Kathy, tell me, what the fuck was Gareth wearing at school yesterday?"

Kathy burst out laughing. "Oh that's the new teacher right? Hahaha. He was wearing a cream-coloured, skin-tight turtle-neck sweater. Everyone was talking about it because from a distance, it looked like he was naked from the waist up. That's how tight it was"

I got on the phone to Gareth. Pleasantries quickly over with, I had the awkward job of reminding him what the school dress code was and the gear he'd paraded around in yesterday was totally unsuitable"

"No, no, no, no, no Phil" he said. "When I teach, I want to be comfortable. It was a very smart and expensive turtle neck and I feel comfortable wearing it"

"Sorry Gareth, you have to wear a shirt and tie. Those are the school rules. I spelled them out to you at the interview"

"Sorry Phil but I'm not wearing a shirt and tie on a Sunday. End of story" Gareth replied.

"Then we're going to have to call it a day" I said.

Gareth sighed, muttered the teeniest of 'very wells' and put the phone down. And I began the search for another teacher. A situation I'd been in so many times before.


An afternoon beer

"You know what. I just fancy a beer" said Gary, one of the best and most experienced teachers at the language school.

The other three teachers around the table just stared at him in silence. Did Gary just say 'beer'? In the middle of a working day with lessons still to teach in the late afternoon and evening?

If the language school had only two rules, then not dating students was one and not drinking alcohol during working hours was the other. But rules didn't stop Gary when he had a thirst on.

He ordered a small Singha beer from the waiter but the restaurant only had large bottles. Large bottle it is then.

The waiter plonked it down in the middle of our table. The bottle seemed to grow bigger before our eyes. At 12.45 in the afternoon, it looked evil and obscene. Gary reached for a glass, poured himself a large one and took a long and grateful sip.

"By God that tastes good" he said.

I could smell the beer fumes already. As academic director, I was wrestling with my conscience. I should have put a stop to it.

But I felt safe in the knowledge that the restaurant we'd chosen was well out of the way. Exit the language school, turn left down a small soi, right down an even smaller one, and walk to the end. The Thai school boss never came down this way. He'd be busy in his office anyway.

WRONG!

It was a million to one shot but the boss had decided to take advantage of a quiet afternoon as well and go for a stroll. I was the first one to see him as he peered into the restaurant window. "It's the boss!" I cried out "hide that beer for fuck's sake!"

I'll never forget the sight of four teachers in a blind panic as they tried to hide a large bottle of Singha. It bordered on classic Marx Brothers. After much dithering, I stuffed the bottle under the table where anyone could kick it over at any time.

"Hello lads. Great minds think alike eh?" said the boss as he spotted us and came up to the table. "Mind if I join you?"

He sat down and ordered himself a fried rice. For the next 30 minutes, the four teachers shot anxious glances at each other while making awkward conversation. And all the while in our minds - don't kick the bottle over. Please don't kick the bottle over.

Eventually the boss paid the bill and left. It had been the longest 30 minutes of our lives.


The crying game

Although teaching in Thailand can sound like one big adventure, I'm convinced that some people are not really built to ever leave home. One such person was Nadine.

Nadine had been taken on by the language centre boss to teach three hours in the morning, three days a week. A total of nine hours. That was the deal. Everything was spelt out to her and there were no hidden clauses. The school paid 200 baht an hour. But this was the early 90's. I think they pay 220 baht an hour now.

On Nadine's first morning at school, having done her first three hour session, I walked into the teachers room and she was sitting in the corner in floods of tears. "What's wrong Nadine? Wahat's wrong?" I said.

"Oh it's probably just me. I don't think the lessons went well at all"

"Don't worry" I said "It's only your first day. Many new teachers struggle at the beginning.

Day two. Teachers room. More tears.

"What's wrong Nadine? What's wrong?"

"Oh it's probably just me" she said (are you beginning to see a catchphrase develop?) "I'm not sure how I'm going to pay the rent this month.

Day three. You guessed it.

"What is it this time Nadine?" - patience and sympathy as you may guess were beginning to wear thin. We had a school to run. There was no room for teary passengers

"Oh it's probably just me but it's getting close to Christmas and I'm starting to miss my family"

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I caught wind that the male teachers in the staff room had starting taking bets among each other as what time of the day Nadine would start crying. As academic director, I couldn't have that. Something had to be done.

I called Nadine into my office. "Nadine, I want to help you in any way I can. Is there anything the school can do to help you settle in? Perhaps you want more hours so you can make a bit more money?

Nadine looked at me. And immediately burst into tears.

By the end of the week she was gone.


The immaculate Peter

Peter was one of the most professional teachers I had ever worked with. He was always on time for his classes at the language centre regardless of whether it was an 8.30 'early bird' session with a Japanese businessman or the 7.45 to 9.15pm 'graveyard shift' with a small group of Thai accountants who had all recently undergone personality transplants.

When it came to appearance and dress sense, Peter had no equals. I went round to his apartment once. He opened the wardrobe doors and said "look at that!" - half a dozen freshly ironed business shirts hung neatly on wooden hangers with matching tie combinations. All ready for the teaching week ahead.

The language centre dabbled in a bit of corporate training at the time and we decided Peter was the ideal man to send to a new client, a multinational electronics company on Soi Asoke. He returned from the first lesson and said that everything went well. The group really loved him!

Half an hour later, we got a call from the Thai training manager at the company. The gist of the phone call was that the company wanted someone younger. "We just find younger teachers have a bit more energy and work out better for us" she said. "Peter was a very good teacher and we all enjoyed the class but could we swap him for a younger model?"

Peter was 34.

He never walked into a classroom or training room in Thailand again.

We did swap the teacher. We sent along 23-year old Lucifer with his tousled mane of jet black hair ( a bit like Victor Mature in 'Samson and Delilah'), his sparkling blue eyes, his muscular physique and his gypsy good looks.

And he was shit.


Comments

@Craig - Awesome reply! I hope Phil takes this and posts it on its own!

By Mark Newman, A. MUANG (6 months ago)

I worked for a language centre for two years and it was definitely my most enjoyable teaching job. I gave it up to get a normal 9-5 job so I could spend more time with my girlfriend. About 50 teachers came and left in my period. There were a lot of wrong 'uns but also a few gems. These gems are still my good friends today. But I'd like to talk about my old director of studies.

My old director of studies was this burly English guy who seemingly barely got past his GCSEs. He got the job because he played the game and had been there longer than everyone else. This guy had sold his soul for a paycheck of about 60,000 a month. I remember first meeting him for an interview and just getting bad vibes from him. He was socially awkward and was completely inept. Never trust a man who doesn't make eye contact.

During my two years at the centre I was only late once. I had half a sick day (even though my boss wanted me to not go home 'cos he was too lazy to cover me), and I had students signing up again to learn with me. It was all good. I kept busy teaching 30+ hours a week, and my boss kept busy leaving me alone and looking busy himself. But as with any inept boss who fears losing their job, they can't help themselves by breaking things that are not broken.

He did many dishonest and stupid things, but I'd like to recall my first problem with him. I worked six days a week. I was lucky my schedule was always Mon-Fri and stayed that way 'cos many students wanted to learn with me. I chose to do Saturdays as an extra. My usual hours were 12.00-20.30 - Mon-Fri.

One day, my schedule said I was done at 6pm on a Friday. Wahoo! I never got to leave early. So, on the Friday I was all set to clock out and have a beer. He called me into the office and asked for a “massive favour". He asked me to cover a part-time teacher from 6.30-8.30 as she had to go to hospital. Now, I really didn't want to have to do it, but he said he really needed me to. I also 'assumed' I'd get the money from the class as she was part-time. I said yes and ruined my beer time. Come the end of the month there was no extra money for the class. My boss said I was contracted a certain amount of hours and I was below my quota. I said that wasn't fair and he should have told me at the time. I still would have covered the class, but I appreciate honesty. He obtusely said 'You could have just said no".

From there on in, he'd ruined any trust and decency between the two of us. Any classes that needed to be covered were met with "Oh, I'm so busy marking tests and proof reading". He knew it was BS, but because he was an inept boss, he didn't know how to take control. He went off and printed a poster saying "Teachers must cover classes when asked!". A real manchild in charge of 30+ teachers.

The second incident I had was with a private student who signed up for 80 hours. A great guy who travelled for work so just wanted to chat and practise his English. Well, one night I had a few beers and forgot to set my alarm. I woke up at 10am to a phone call from the sales girl, "Where are you?". I apologised and asked if someone could cover me. They said my student didn’t want a different teacher, so don't worry. My student said it was no problem. He will see me tomorrow. Come the end of the month - my boss docked me the equivalent of 2 hours part-time from my salary. If another teacher had covered me, I wouldn't have been docked he told me. He had got his revenge. Unfortunately for me, my student cared about who was teaching him. I ended up just sticking two extra hours down on my extra pay sheet and they paid me anyway. Again, my boss was totally inept and just assumed I never lied on my pay sheet. I only did it that one time.

The 3rd example incident is the reason why you take care of your staff and don't try to cheat them. My boss, after all the shitty and underhand tricks he played on people, asked me to work on Saturdays at a different centre. A centre far away from where I live. I thought it was just to cover a course. Maybe 20-40 hours and then be back to my local branch where I was contracted to work. I agreed to cover there for no more than 8 Saturdays. He said, "Great! But if we need you there permanently on a Saturday, you can do that, right?" I knew exactly what he was doing and I just said "You know what? The course you want me to cover - I'm not sure I can cover it now. Let me go away and think about". He replied sarcastically, "You'll think about it???" And I never covered that class.

My language centre was very busy back then. I pretty much always had a full schedule where other teachers didn't. Teachers who weren't so popular (but on the same money as everyone else) were given mundane tasks like putting all the books in order. That took about 10 mins and it was back to twiddling their thumbs again. I didn't care that they were earning the same as it wasn't my business and I'd rather be teaching than sat doing nothing.

I'm pretty sure my old boss was fired about a month before I left. They said he went home for a holiday, but he never returned. The Thai owner did his job for the last month. I knew something had happened to him so I offered my services to help. She admitted that they didn't actually need anyone to do this job. All he did was create schedules for teachers and find new teachers. She could do that. She then began to ask questions like, “what exactly did he do?”. I ripped the “teachers have to cover!” sign off the notice board and said “He made signs like this when his tricks didn’t work and he didn’t know how to assert himself”. She just smiled looking baffled.

I’ve worked under four foreigners. The first one was fantastic. A fully qualified teacher with his own business who really wanted to be the best. The thing I liked the most about him was his honesty. He would admit his mistakes which made him very humble and easy to get on with. The next three were just terrible people. They weren’t qualified to manage and certainly didn’t have the experience to be in control of anything. Perish the thought they ever had to teach an unruly class of young learners. They’d be a shivering mess in the corner after the lesson had finished. But they always had a stupid answer for when things went wrong. It was never constructive and their arrogance just did more harm.

Maybe if all these unqualified teachers out there had a qualified boss it wouldn’t be so bad. Someone who knows how to manage people and utilize them. Reward the good ones and dispose of the bad ones quickly. Instead, they tried to manage by lying and cheating. They thought that being a boss gave them some kind of omnipotence. That they could constantly lie and cheat people making 35k a month and these people would never ask questions nor just walk out one day. “Party Paul has really left us in the shit today! He’s not picking up his phone and Dave saw him down Cowboy last night”. Yea, creatures of habit behaving like creatures of habit – shocking!

By Craig, Chiang Mai (6 months ago)

Interesting to read the part about setting a 30 minute 'test' and observing the attitude of the applicant.

Earlier this year I had an interview at one of Thailand's most prestigious schools (in most top 5s). The panel interview went fairly well, as did the demo lesson. However, after this (I had been there for almost 2 hours at this point) they asked me to write some lesson plans and gave me a text book at the Pre-Intermediate level. The woman gave me about twenty blanks sheets and basically told me to start 'from the beginning'. I asked 'How many do I need to write?" She just said "Do all." They then left the room.

I started and nobody came for about an hour. Then one of the bosses came in and asked "You ok?"

My reply was to ask again, "Do I need to complete 20 lesson plans right now?" The reply was "Yes, please." I laughed and said "This will take me all night." I had done about 4 plans in an hour and on seeing my rather perplexed look, the woman said "Ok, you can go now. We will be in touch."

I didn't get the job. I just wonder if they would've kept me there until midnight!

By Jim, Bangkok (11 months ago)

Naturally entertaining! Great materials for comic book illustrators.

By Mitch, Manila (1 year ago)

Entertaining read, while my own experience at low wage language schools is limited and long in the past, I could still relate.

By Jack, In front of my computer (1 year ago)

I love this

By Mike, Bangkok (1 year ago)

Keep 'em coming. It's all good stuff!

Makes you wonder if these things happens anywhere outside Thailand to the same extent.
It's hard to imagine that they do.
I've met an extraordinary range of oddball characters during my stay here.

Something that they eat in Thailand gives them Ass Burgers!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (1 year ago)

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