"I have just been fired from a school and want to tell the world how bad the place is. Is there a website where I can list all my grievances and warn other teachers against working there?"
What amazes many Thailand-based English teachers - many of them new arrivals - is that no such website exists. Ok, there might be the odd blog knocking around with fifty reasons why a certain school is Hell on earth or a sad looking forum with single figure membership - but there isn't a respected TEFL watchdog site that's well-known and serves as the first place to go when the relationship between teacher and employer has reached breaking point.
There have been several attempts over the past decade to create and run a TEFL watchdog site where teachers can pour out their woes - but all have failed. Some websites lasted longer than others but ultimately the webmasters have given up catering to disgruntled teachers and gone back to their day jobs.
Let's examine the reasons for the spectacular failure of the Thailand TEFL watchdog site.
I'm going to begin with a teacher tale. About the time I took over running ajarn.com in 2002, I worked with a teacher who was doing some hourly paid corporate work in the evenings. I've forgotten the teacher's name so we'll call him Alan.
Alan's corporate work was separate to his day job and as long as it didn't interfere with his daytime classes, he was perfectly entitled to earn a bit of extra cash on the side. For the record, Alan was a likeable, hard-working guy and I got on with him very well. He also knew that I ran ajarn.com so he approached me one day with a problem. He had recently finished a 40-hour contract at a multinational company and now his employers were refusing to pay him. This was a corporate training provider that advertised regularly on ajarn.com and I had already heard rumors that their teachers were having problems getting paid. Because Alan was both a friend and colleague, I decided to step in and find out exactly what was going on.
I called up the training provider and explained the situation to the owner of the business.
"My friend Alan has taught 40 hours for you and it seems you are reluctant to pay what you owe him"
The owner was somewhat taken aback. "Thanks for your call Phil but there has definitely been a misunderstanding here. Alan signed a contract with us before he started the 40-hour course and agreed that the rate of 500 baht an hour would be paid once we had received student reports for the ten students in his group and the course materials (textbooks and tape cassette) had been returned to our office. The truth is we are still waiting for Alan to write the student reports despite telling him several times and he still has possession of the classroom materials. Believe me - we haven't made this up in order to delay payment. Alan was aware of his commitment when he signed on the dotted line. Once he furnishes us with the reports and returns the books and cassette, we will pay him right away"
In all honesty, I had been left feeling a little red-faced. I have taught numerous corporate contracts myself and when an employer states that you will be paid once you agree to submit student reports, you accept those rules. They are NOT unreasonable requests, especially if you were the teacher who signed the contract in the first place.
Feeling more than a little angry and put-out, I tracked down Alan and relayed to him the details of my phone conversation with his employer.
"Alan, how could you ask me to follow this matter up and miss out such an important detail? You haven't done the bloody student reports"
There was an uncomfortable silence before Alan came back at me with the pathetically weak "I'd forgotten the terms of the contract"
"Well next time, why don't you read the contract every so often just to remind you of your obligations" was my response.
That night, Alan went home and typed up the student reports. He handed them in to his employer the following day, along with the class materials, and he was paid his wages within 24 hours. Alan got his money in the end.
Who was at fault here? Many will side with the employer; some might even support Alan the teacher. But one thing is for certain - we will never know the true story. The whole issue is a very dark shade of gray. And this is at the core of why Thailand TEFL watchdog sites have endured such an appalling track record. There are nearly always two sides to every story.
The truth is that I could relate several instances where I have gone to bat for a teacher and been left with serious egg on my face. Alan's story is just one example.
One of the more high-profile attempts to run a TEFL watchdog site was started in early 2006 by a guy who went under the name of Rico. He launched ‘TEFLwatch' as a forum where teachers who had been wronged by school management and unfairly dismissed could have a voice. Ajarn.com did a hot seat interview with Webmaster Rico in the months after TEFLwatch began and when his enthusiasm for the project was commendable if perhaps a little premature. Webmaster Rico - who had suffered himself at the hands of unscrupulous language school owners in Southern Thailand - promised us something that no TEFL watchdog site had offered before. TEFLwatch was going to be a heavily moderated forum where the truth would come out and dodgy employers would be ruthlessly exposed. There was even a Hall of Shame section where the cream of Thailand's worst employers could enjoy a few months of notoriety while numerous ex-teachers lay into them and gave them a virtual battering they would never forget.
Credit where its due, TEFLwatch did manage to ruffle a few feathers in school boardrooms during its relatively brief life-span but all good things come to an end and after two years in the spotlight, Webmaster Rico, who by now had mysteriously become Teacher Greg, decided to pull the plug. Teacher Greg gave ajarn.com a heartfelt ‘exit interview' and cited moderator bickering as one of the main reasons for not carrying on. However, it was the responsibility of providing a soapbox for disgruntled teachers that eventually wore him down. There comes a time when even though some names are constantly being shamed, there are nagging doubts that the employers are not getting a true right of reply. Worse still, who wants to put their head on the pillow at night with threats of legal action hanging over them - threats of legal action from often very powerful and influential school owners.
None of this came as a surprise to me. I thought Webmaster Rico or whatever name he went under, did well to keep the shop open for as long as he did.
I've been in the situation where I've splashed something less than savory about a particular school on the ajarn.com website and been threatened with the Thai law courts as a result. Let me tell you - it's not a pleasant feeling. I told Greg at the time that closing the TEFLwatch site was probably the best decision he would ever make. At least he'd given it a go. And at least he would sleep better at night.
There are those who say ajarn.com should pick up the baton and take these awful schools and teacher agencies to task. Name and shame them on the ajarn homepage for all the world to see. I have absolutely no intention of doing so. There are certain battles that a teacher has to fight alone. At risk of sounding like a broken gramophone record - there are nearly always two sides to every story and both sides of a story are almost impossible to get.
Too many teachers who take on the very serious and potentially slanderous task of writing negatively about a school, never choose their words carefully enough for my liking. I sympathize inasmuch as emotions can run high when a teacher feels they have been victimized but you have to tread carefully. Slander is a serious crime in Thailand. Teachers often add color to their writing with endless embellishment and hyperbole when it's important to deal in facts and facts only. Academic directors who simply play by strict rules become 'overbearing tyrants', admin staff who do what they are told become 'tell-tale ass-kissers', the Sister who is in charge of foreign staff at a Catholic school and perhaps doesn't possess the greatest people skills morphs into ‘the barking mad farang-hating nun from Hell'
And universities who make you stay until 5pm are accused of running 'an academic prison'. I think you get the point.
Very recently someone signed up to the ajarn discussion forum to report on a college in the Samut Prakarn area of Bangkok where he had recently taken up employment. The account was well-written and posted by someone with perhaps only a small axe to grind.
The report was divided into two sections - ‘good points' and ‘other points'. I don't know if ‘other points' translated as ‘bad points' but they were certainly not part of the ‘good points' section - so I took them to be negatives. Certain entries are worth analyzing (my responses are in bold type) and although I've changed the actual wording of the original entries, I've kept the gist.
You have to stay at school until 5pm so the moral among the foreign teachers is quite low.
Actually, according to other forum members who joined the discussion, this seems perfectly normal practice at Thai schools.
Rumors abound that the school head doesn't like foreigners and wants revenge for events that happened in the past.
Ah, yes. We all like a good rumor and a bit of office tittle-tattle don't we? But rumors don't equate with facts.
One building has five floors and no elevator.
I worked at a school for five years with five floors and an elevator that was always broken. You do what I did. You just get on with it and start walking. Every job has its downsides. The perfect job doesn't exist.
The recruiter doesn't mention that as a foreign teacher, you will only be teaching boys.
The recruiter probably doesn't have to. I would have thought ‘what kind of students will I be teaching' should be pretty high on that list of questions to ask at a job interview.
Teachers have to use a clocking-in and clocking-out system - just like the janitors.
Where have you been for the last twenty years? Companies want to monitor when their staff arrives and leaves - janitors and teachers alike.
The recruiter will mislead you into believing that the school is near the Bangkok sky-train but it isn't.
But whenever you think about taking a job - anywhere in the world - the ease or difficulty in getting to work should be top of your agenda. I know it's always been top of mine. And it's YOUR responsibility to ascertain how long it's going to take you to get to work and whether taking the position is viable. Everyone has different ideas on what constitutes 'a ten-minute walk' or 'a five-minute taxi ride'. There is only one way to find out - test it yourself. No one with any common sense accepts a job and then at the end of the first day thinks "shit! it's going to take me ages to get home. If only I had researched things better"
Some teachers take part in a drinking and smoking mafia on Friday nights after work.
Why is it a ‘mafia'? I'm sure many teachers would welcome the opportunity to get together with colleagues and socialize. Or is this a small cluster of teachers with nicotine-stained fingers all plotting on how to slip a horse's head into the academic director's bed.
I'm convinced that the Thailand TEFL watchdog site idea will never take off. There are always too many gray areas. It‘s a crying shame because believe it or not, I think there is a real call for a well-run site where teachers and school administration can meet in cyberspace and discuss school policies calmly and sensibly. And if England puts me in the international team I think we have every chance of winning the next World Cup.