A time of change
How does teaching in Thailand now compare to twenty years ago?
1990 eh? Seems a long time ago. Nelson Mandela began life as a free man, Maggie Thatcher stepped down as British Prime Minister, West Germany beat Italy 1-0 to lift the World Cup, Microsoft launched Windows 3 and I launched my teaching career in Thailand. And it's been downhill ever since. Seriously though, how have things changed in the world of Thailand TEFL over the past couple of decades?
I suppose that the mesmerizing variety of jobs on offer has been the most noticeable change. Nowadays you have vacancies at private schools, universities, secondary schools, kindergartens, etc, etc. In 1990, you were pretty much limited to private language schools such as Berlitz and Inlingua, and anyone else who had a fancy logo in the Bangkok Yellow Pages (the place where I found my first job incidentally) It was very seldom that you got to share conversation with someone who had the title of 'university lecturer' or 'college professor'.
Those guys were certainly around in those days, but few and far between. With the current scope for employment, it's become a 'teacher's market' in Thailand. It's always been easy to pick up teaching work here but you couldn't always be choosy in the 90s. I remember taking on a private student for a small school just off Silom Road. It required me going to this huge house in the Sukhumwit soi 33 area (where all the rich people live) and teach (in its loosest possible terms) a seven-year old boy for two hours twice a week. For this I was paid 200 baht an hour. No transportation allowance, no teacher support - just 200 baht an hour. I think I lasted two days but I did get paid the 800 baht owed to me. These days if someone offers me a private student, I'll figure in the time wasted on travel, the level and age of the student, the proximity to shopping malls and restaurants, and even then I'll probably say no.
Teachers or should I say good teachers, have become a lot more discerning today. They are exercising their right to turn down jobs because invariably there is always something better around the corner. It's been extremely bad news for the employers, but who cares? They had it too good for too long anyway.
For those of you pissing and moaning about visa runs, the immigration department, the work permit process, the unpredictability of the consulates in neighboring countries - let me tell you this - it was no better in the early 90s. In fact I'd say marginally worse. The old hands will shudder to recall the dreaded trips to the Bangkok immigration when the most basic of visa extensions would require you to go in three separate rooms on three different floors.
You started off on the ground floor, then it was off to room 302 to join a large nervous-looking group of visa applicants all shifting uneasily on straggly rows of plastic chairs. Everyone waiting for that magical moment when the officer with all the medals would beckon you to his desk. There was no queuing system. There was no losing your temper but there were all sorts of communication problems. The immigration officer didn't speak a word of English, but that was your problem not his. This was his country and he was doing you a favor by not booting your ass out there and then. A visit to immigration is a dream these days compared to the past.
Visa runs have always been troublesome. Nothing's changed. I can remember standing at the Thai consulate in Kota Bahru when only two farangs in the world knew it existed. Me, and the bloke who told me about it. Kota Bahru had a market, an A&W Root Beer, and probably only two places you could call a hotel. I didn't see another white face in the three days I was there, and yet the consulate officer wouldn't budge - "we can only give you a two-month tourist visa. Sorry"
I got the same story in Penang and Singapore. In those days they didn't even look at whatever paperwork you brought from the school. They just said no.
The Ministry of Education has always by and large been 'off limits' to foreign teachers looking to sort out a teacher's license for themselves, but the Labor Department (who issue work permit books) had staff there who positively rejoiced in the misery and hell they could put you through during the work permit application process. I personally knew only three teachers in the good old days who were lucky enough to qualify for the little blue book, and each of them used to come back from the Labor Department with their own horror story.
But if the thought of a journey to the Immigration or the Labor Department had you quaking with fear, nothing came close to the nightmare of the tax clearance office. Tax clearance? What the hell is that I hear you cry? Well, the system was mercifully abolished in about 1991 but that didn't stop me needing to perform the duty on three occasions. Basically for anyone who stayed in the kingdom longer than 60 days either working or as a long stay tourist, you had to show the immigration officer at your departure point that you had either not been working or had been working and paid your taxes like a good honest citizen.
The process, at least in theory, was simplicity itself. You toddled off to the tax office near Banglampoo. A Thai desk clerk would glance at your passport and then stamp 'tax paid' somewhere at the back of your passport. The logistical aspect was a totally different story. Imagine one desk clerk behind one glass window, and now imagine three hundred people (Indians, Africans, large Americans) all waving passports in the air and being incredibly silly. And all this taking place in a corridor barely three feet wide, with no chairs and no water cooler. Yes, it was that bad.
Such was your resignation and acceptance of this nightmare experience that you got there at 8.30 in the morning (for a 9.00 opening) and if you managed to get out by lunchtime, you were one very happy camper. I used to do these 'tax clearance runs' with an old school-friend of mine and we'd ritualistically celebrate surviving the ordeal by having tea and scones at a lovely old colonial-style cafe just around the corner from the tax office.
Enough of the red tape, let's give a mention to the kid's market. My word, how that's developed in the past ten years. To meet someone whose five year old kid 'studied English at the weekend' was a real novelty. Yet walk past any branch of ECC on a Sunday morning and take a look at the hordes of kids climbing over the reception area furniture and goading the Thai desk-staff. Think about Go Chulalongkorn and the fact they now employ something like 30 teachers for weekend kids classes alone. Weekends in private language schools have become almost exclusively kids territory. Adult students are just not welcome.
I taught a private student for Inlingua at the Mall, Bangkapi several years ago. He was off to the States for a month-long training course and wanted to brush up on his social skills. There was me, my student and 500 screaming kids. We locked ourselves away in a little corner of the language school but it was still like being on some noisy fairground ride.
Don't ever complain to me about how long it takes you to get from A to B. In the early 90's if your academic director offered you a teaching job in Bang Na, you'd laugh in his face. Two hours of well-paid work it might have been, but what about a journey that necessitated a detailed map, sandwiches and an overnight bag? And then of course, let's not forget that those were the days when you stood at the side of the road bargaining fares with taxi drivers. Now we've got the sky-train, a subway system and a pretty impressive expressway network. You people don't know you're born.
What about the teachers themselves? Well, I think we've seen a vast increase in the number of middle-aged 'career changers' I'm no sociologist but it could stem from resentment and dissatisfaction with life 'in the West'. However you look at things, there are definitely more men in the 40-60 age group pounding the streets looking for 250 baht an hour teaching work, with the plush offices, the pension plans, and the weekend golf games now just a distant memory. There are certainly a few more females around too. Perhaps Bangkok is shaking off its 'male playground' 'sin city' image and becoming more appealing to the gentler sex? Perhaps Thai men themselves are the draw? No, surely not.
We all like a good bitch now and again. It's often something that helps preserve our sanity. But to say that things have never been worse for a farang TEFL teacher is a trifle surreptitious. Listen chum, I remember when we really had it tough.
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