Do students in private language schools have the right to choose who teaches them?

Do students in private language schools have the right to choose who teaches them?

Should the most popular teacher get the largest share of the work?

Ajarn got an interesting e-mail and question from Brian, a teacher working at a private language school in a suburb of Bangkok. The letter struck a chord because it reminded me of my own private language school days and how sometimes the amount of money you earn depends purely on how popular you are with students. Here is the e-mail. 

I taught a student for a two-hour lesson at a language school in Bangkapi. The student was very happy with my lesson  and asked if I would continue teaching her for the remainder of her thirty-hour course. I said I would be delighted and we agreed that providing there was a classroom available, I would teach her the following day.

When the lesson was finished the student told the receptionist that she wanted to study with me from that point on. The receptionist didn't envisage a problem and said she would pass the students' request onto the language school manager. Later the same evening, the manager called the student and said that she did not want the student to learn with me, but had arranged for the student to learn with another teacher. Naturally, the student was not happy with this arrangement and asked the manager why I could not teach her. The manager replied, 'You learn with who I choose, not who you want. And I have chosen the other teacher.'

The manager also told the student that she had forgotten to call me and tell me about the class and by then, it was too late. The student called me the next day and asked if I wanted to teach her and said yes. I then asked her what had happened and she told me the story of the previous evenings phone call with the manager. The student had paid 25,000 baht for a thirty hour private course. She has not received any books or paperwork from the school and was charged 800 baht for documentation plus 100 baht for an assessment test, which to the best of my knowledge should be given free.

Hi Brian. Firstly the figures and charges mentioned at the end of your e-mail are pure opinion. I think every language school I ever worked at charged a test fee. That fee was generally waived if the student decided to enrol on a course but I see nothing wrong in a school charging something. A test has to be administered and a vacant classroom or test area has to be provided. And that costs money! 800 baht for what I assume is a registration fee sounds a bit steep but I can certainly imagine higher end private language schools charging something in that ball-park.

However that wasn't the main point of your communication, and yes, I sympathize with the problems you have faced. It's amazing that even in these uncertain times of economic recession, there are school managers who see their role as one big power trip and forget that time-honored adage - the customer is always right. I worked for one such school manager myself some years ago and one day, after one argument too many, I told her straight - "you're a person who would rather be right than rich". And the penny finally dropped.

The manager at your school is on a power trip. That's what this is all about.

Back to your main question though - do students at private language centres have the right to choose who teaches them?" My answer - of course they do. Private language schools are a business. The students keep the money rolling in. The last thing a school wants is a teacher who is so unpopular that no one wants to study with them. What are the students going to do? I'll tell you. They vote with their feet and go elsewhere.

There's no doubt about it. A popular teacher is always good for business!

I worked at several schools where the admin staff would sometimes hand out questionnaires to paying students and have them score each teacher for personality, effectiveness, appearance, etc. Fortunately I used to score well in these surveys but I still enjoyed a moan about what I felt was the unfairness of the system. It's only years later the reality has dawned on me - why shouldn't schools survey students and find out which of the teachers are cutting the mustard. Which of their teachers are keeping those re-enrolments going? Which teachers are bringing in the cash? It's all a business at the end of the day.

And you usually find that the teachers who complain the longest and the loudest about 'popularity surveys' are those that the students dislike anyway.   


I agree that the guy was power tripping. If it were my school and i found out the manager had treated a customer like that I would have fired him on the spot should I have found out that those were indeed the circumstances. A lot, if not most private language school teachers forget the arena they are teaching in which is a language school which is operating on a for profit basis. Without customer -students nobody has a job. Expectations are totally different in these kinds of schools. I went to a private University in America where the dean would no doubt laugh in your face if you came at him with a similar complaint, HOWEVER a different product was being offered. Graduating from my University with honors would get you into any graduate program in the country or a job with a fortune 500 company no problem. The cerificate from a language school here with 60 baht will get you a latte at Starbucks. It's what the market demands in language schools- and as long as they are private tax paying enities their obligation is to service the customer. This usually means English classes given in a comfortable atmosphere. Most definately students should be able to choose their teacher in a language school , and teachers should accomodate whatever the class wants. Unfortunately not everyone can be accomodated in a class but with private students it is certainly possible.

By lee lepper, nonthaburi (19th April 2011)

Hi Brian, I would advice you to stop thinking like a real farang. Now you are in Thailand and you are in their backyard which means they do what they want. Don't try to understand them, just go with the water... It is sad, but it is the truth. You are a white man working for them and they are the boss. If I tell you my adventures about these things, you would be shock.

Also, maybe you should think why the manager wanted to change you. I know your answer is you have no idea. I told you my friend, don't think like a farang, think in their shoes. Don't think about what happened too much. It will break your ambitions and that's what they want. If you know you are the right one in your heart, leave it there.

Another advice, don't forget this: It is very easy for them to replace you, but not very easy for you to find an another job.

By Bird, Khon Kaen (13th April 2011)

Brian, I would totally agree with the first comment stating that the manager is/was on a power trip. Anyone who feels it necessary to say 'You learn with who I choose, not who you want. And I have chosen the other teacher', is a little too self-absorbed.

I have found that some "managers" get ideas well above their station once they get a printed business card, and simply forget what their job function is, but more importantly where they came from. It also speaks volumes about the school that they would promote someone with this kind of attitude.

Still, there are loads of good managers out there, so lets not finish on a downer :)

By SM, Bangkok (3rd April 2011)

Brian, you have to realize one thing about teaching in Bangkok, especially at private schools. We get more pay then the average Thai teacher or non-native teacher (who may happen to be much better at teaching then you or I combined.)
To a Thai. We are liked dog crap to them. If they so decided to switch a student from you to another teacher, they can do that and ignore you. I would have advised the student in question along with their mother to do private tutoring with them. Since the outcome of a new teacher on that student maybe traumatic to them and scare them for life, requiring extensive psychological counseling and maybe medication (drinking, drugs and smoking).
I have told one lady who was a manager of a now defunct language franchise near Kaset University who demanded that I go from a school near the train station to Bangna and teach a Korean student. No time to get there in 2 hours due to traffic. I told her now and hung up. She called again and demanded it again, like I was some pile of dog crap. I told her to go f**k herself. The owner called me and asked if I refused her commands, I told him, yes. He said, you’re fired.
So, we maybe native speaker and your students like you including the parents, we are nothing more than dog crap to ESL Schools. To Thai we are supposed to say to them, Yes, Imm, Yes, Imm.

By Charlie, Bangkok (27th November 2010)

Free placement test without strings attached? I don't think so, unless it is internet-based. Otherwise little Somchai will sign up and his parents will just ask the school to also test their whole extended family just for fun...

800 baht for materials isn't that much if students are given a genuine course book (and maybe workbook). Maybe a bit cheaper at the book store, but hey, these outfits will do everything to make some extra profit.

By Mike Meadows, Thailand (15th November 2010)

Brian doesn't seem to know very well how the Thai system works. You don't just go scheduling or taking over students without consulting the person (manager/scheduler) in charge. If a student asks, you refer them to that person because it's their business after all.

Btw, I wonder what kind of email Brian would have written if he'd been the 'other teacher'. What if, after a sick day or visa trip you noticed that some of your students were 'taken over' by the fill-in guy who just happened to have a brighter smile or higher fun factor?

By Tom, Bangkok (15th November 2010)

Some good comments coming in here. At one school I taught at for five years, the students would often study several levels and each level was one month of intensive study. So students could be with us for four of five months. Students would often request the same teacher for the same topics (writing, reading or conversation) level after level and I would say to them "why don't you have different teachers and get used to different accents and speech patterns"
"No, we like you" they would all cry.
It wasn't always because I was the best teacher for that particular topic, but Thais love that familiarity of studying with a teacher they know.What can you do about it apart from force them to study with a different teacher? And that often leads to dissension in the ranks.

By philip, (15th November 2010)

I think we're only hearing one side of the story. Language school managers are usually quite eager to please all the customers - sometimes to the detriment of teacher but hardly ever to their business. If this was a pure power trip, no good will come of it, although I doubt that the harsh words you used were the ones spoken by the manager.

Anyway, back to the question. Do students have the right to choose their teacher? Yes, to a certain extent and provided that their chosen teacher isn't already teaching other students. One more consideration. Is it possible that the manager preferred another teacher because that person was employed on a full-time contract basis with a minimum guaranteed salary? If so, managers will of course make sure these FT teachers get enough hours to cover the minimum. Part-timers will come second. Makes sense financially if you ask me.

BTW, I agree partly with the comment below, saying teaching shouldn't always be a popularity contest. If we allowed every student to cherry-pick their teacher, only youngish, blond and blue-eyed teachers/entertainers would get a job. What about the older, more experienced ones? I also think nationality should play too much a part.

Finally, I think 100 baht for a placement test is cheap and the 800 baht 'documentation' you mention probably includes course materials and/or book.

By Hippolyte, Bangkok (15th November 2010)

You're living in a perfect world, Adam. Language centres are businesses. Therefore, the customer gets what they want.

I always used to get classes wanting to continue with me, but they would always pass the students onto another teacher. The main reason for this is because most students would only continue for 2 courses and then run out of money or freetime. The idea was that I get a new class and they hopefully continue. They're going to leave after a second course anyway.

It shouldn't be about who looks good or is funny. It should be about which teacher can actually teach. But this is Thailand, and the customer wants good looking and funny. Sad but true.

By Liam Gallagher, Bangkok (15th November 2010)

All in all, while the customer is always right, teaching should never be a popularity contest. Of course, feedback is the lifeblood of any successful program; however, I think it is irrelevant whether the students "like" the teacher or not - more important is what they think of the teaching.

At the end of the day, the school has a commitment to its staff as well as to its clientele, or at least it should do. Possibly, the manager in question made a rod for his or her back by scheduling Brian to do the first slot when he intended on giving the course to someone else.

With the uncertainty that surrounds hourly-paid tefl teaching, I don't necessarily agree with students shouting the odds about who should get the work. I have worked for prominent schools who would not bend to that type of thing but I have also fallen foul of this while doings stints at low-end chains (probably my own fault due to a lack of motivation in the latter instance).

In short, I think they may both be right.

By Adam Marshall, Bangkok (15th November 2010)

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