The COVID-19 crisis and ensuing disruption of ‘business as usual’ in education here in Thailand (just as everywhere) has so many of us thinking about the future.
Will things change? To what extent? Should we expect what we’re used to with mostly superficial reforms or could this be a shock to the system that provokes more profound shifts in Thailand’s TEFL landscape?
Recent discussions on the topic (on Twitter, in Facebook groups, etc.) reveal that while nobody knows for sure what will happen, there’s certainly a lot of interest, some cynicism, and even a bit of hope and optimism.
The bedrock of a lot of the discussion is the fact of nearly frozen average salary levels over the last fifteen or more years. All it takes is a scroll down the jobs board on this site to see “30-35K” on offer from many schools and agencies. But this is about the same thing you’d have seen on your screen in, say, 2005! Now I’m no economist, but I agree with the assessment of the TEFL masses: something is amiss here! The question of why and how this might eventually change? Quite a lot harder to figure.
Over on Twitter, Tom Touhy wrote: “Hopefully this‘ll shake up the teaching landscape in Thailand which badly needs it. There have been no meaningful salary increases and overall benefits since I stopped teaching in Thailand in 2006. Root and branch reform is necessary & there’s never been a better time to start it” and I found myself nodding, even while admittedly unsure whether the current conditions might bring out the best or the worst in our sector.
More Thai students?
I’ve seen a few commentators suggest that if COVID-19 means many foreign teachers have left and many won’t come, the ones who remain should be the beneficiaries of the resulting supply/demand re-balance. Add to this the not insignificant number of Thai students who may have planned to study English abroad, but will now stay here.
When business opens again, will they be rushing through the doors of the language centers? Another piece to an MC Esther picture puzzle.
What about qualifications?
One tweeter replied: “Won't happen. Krusapa [the teacher’s council] is still demanding you pay for a teaching course. It will take years”, bringing in the other foundational issue that underlies a lot of the discussion in Thailand TEFL circles: qualifications. Will this disruption inspire the powers that be to appreciate the quality of many experienced and committed teachers here who just happen not to have the right piece of paper? And I’d add: what about great teachers who happen to be non-native speakers of English?
I engaged in that Twitter thread a bit and wanted to share the gist of what I wrote here.
Firstly, when it comes to 'teaching qualifications', you have the pieces of paper and you have what those pieces of paper are supposed to represent: productive professional development and educational experiences resulting in an increase in applicable knowledge and skills. If a teacher education course is rubbish, that’s an issue. If such a rubbish course is forced on teachers, that’s double the rubbish.
I nodded at the second tweet, too, because of how often it appears that the people at the top of the chain - really people at every level of the system - are blinded by the pieces of paper and unable to recognize knowledge and skills.
With all that said, the one thing that every teacher has in their control is the extent to which they commit to professional development themselves. Not the acquisition of any particular piece of paper, but the ongoing work of self-directed professional development, living the kind of engaged professional life that leads to plenty of pieces of paper.
But my overall sense is that there is a relatively small percentage of foreign EFL teachers in Thailand who are particularly engaged in this way. And sometimes it’s even the loudest voices shouting about the “top-down” expectations, while completely ignoring the absence of any sort of “bottom-up” element.
Which is why I tweeted - “If the population of foreign EFL teachers doesn't want to be treated as a cheap commodity by Thailand's education system, the one sure-fire way to stand a chance is first and foremost *don't BE a cheap commodity*. Tell me that more than 50% of all TEFLers in Thailand don't act like one”.
Better jobs are out there
Obviously I wrote that in a way that was meant to provoke a reaction. Because...well, what else is Twitter for? But that’s the simple and entirely uncontroversial (I think) message I want to share: if you’re stuck at the mercy of stagnant wages, you need to upgrade yourself because there ARE better paying jobs. There’s just fewer of them.
There are also schools who offer better benefits, schools with good staff cultures, schools who commit to their teachers, even during a global pandemic. You can recognize the faults and failures of the system and do your part to make the most of it.
Now, doing a diploma or certificate or whatever’s next can be a heavy load, financially and otherwise. But if professional development in some way feeds your soul, you’ll make it happen. There’s always a “next” for some teachers. They’re the ones who end up above the fray of the worst conditions, no longer at mercy of the worst parts of the system. The blame game is useless when it comes to improving anything.
Again, nobody knows what’s going to happen when and if things get “back to normal” in the TEFL scene, both globally and here in Thailand. Many have ridden the sudden waves of disruption by teaching online or finding a new employer who is more supportive of staff, or leaving until the coast is clear, or just packing it in to start over in some other life.
But we’re all in the same boat on the same sea of good and bad: living in paradise, gratifying work, professional respect, largely frozen wages, confusing Krusapa announcements and sometimes uncaring employers.
There’s just one thing to do: don’t be a dead weight and row!