Jimmy has been one of Bangkok's most active teacher recruiters for well over ten years. During that time he's hired literally thousands of teaching staff for a chain of private language schools. On the rare occasion I manage to get together with Jimmy, I can sit there for hours and listen to a wealth of anecdotes. What follows is my own personal favorite. I've heard the story a dozen times and I can only hope I live long enough to hear it a dozen more.
Jimmy was looking for someone to go and teach a group of management level executives at one of Bangkok's top law firms. Not only did the teacher need to have a background in law but he also needed to look the part. This wasn't an opportunity for some geriatric world traveler with chronic smoker's disease. This was a job for a well-cut Italian suit and the kind of face you only see in stock photos. To Jimmy's delight, such a gentleman knocked on his office door one rainy Bangkok afternoon and within thirty minutes he was hired.
Cometh the hour, the ten legal eagles are sat in a plush company boardroom waiting for the first lesson of their ‘Business Communication Skills' course to begin. In walks their new teacher. Wow! Clothes so sharp and freshly laundered that they've still got the coat-hanger in them. Polished shoes squeak with every step and there's that unmistakable waft of expensive aftershave. The teacher nods at the small gathering and launches into the time-honored ‘getting to know you' section - the cornerstone of any good first day class. "Good afternoon everyone. My name is Peter. Before we begin, I'd like to get one thing straight. I'm a Christian. I have certain views on Christianity of course but basically anyone who disagrees with them can blow it out of their ass"
Now I'm all in favor of making an impact with first day classes but dare I say there's a right and wrong way to go about things. Peter spent the next twenty minutes walking the participants through the curriculum and course content. He needn't have bothered. No one was taking a blind bit of notice. The participants sat there rigid with fear, avoiding eye content, lest the teacher strike them down with great vengeance. One of the female class members is even rumored to have burst into tears at one point. Eventually one of the group managed to excuse himself from the training room and raise the alarm. The law company's training manager called Jimmy on the phone and barely able to control her anger, demanded a school employee come down immediately and remove the teacher from the premises - by force if necessary. The saddest part was that the teacher couldn't see what on earth he'd done wrong.
I guess we're all strange in certain ways. We all have our little quirks and peccadilloes. The opportunity to share interview anecdotes always makes me think back to some of the truly amazing people I've interviewed down the years. Someone once said to me they considered Bangkok to have more oddballs per square foot than any other major city in the world but as those who have hired teachers for private schools will know - when you work for a school owner who won't get their hand in their pocket for more than 250 baht an hour, there are times when you are simply desperate to get bodies in classrooms.
One elderly gentleman came to see me about hourly paid weekend work. He sounded good on the phone, knew his stuff and I thought he might be a good fit for the two Saturday classes I had in mind. He turned up smartly dressed and on time for the interview. So far so good. The only thing worrying me were the two enormous supermarket carrier bags he was holding, both bulging with the profits of a very recent shopping trip. Sensing my obvious bewilderment, he told me that he'd decided to "pick up a few things on the way". The situation got weirder (if that was possible) when we sat down for the formal interview. Rather than placing the bags at his side like any normal, sane person would do, he plonked them down on the office table itself. I was just about to give him some background information on the school when one of the bags collapsed and both of us watched as two cooking onions and half a dozen cherry tomatoes rolled across the polished surface and bounced onto the floor. The details are hazy but they may have been followed by a couple of French Golden Delicious. Anyway, I do remember that we spent the first couple of minutes retrieving fruit and vegetables from various dusty corners and recesses.
After a busy day's interviewing, the school owner approached me and asked if I'd been successful in my quest to find the school a new teacher. I assured her that everything was under control. She lowered her voice and said "it's not the guy with the carrier bags is it?" I said "no, it's not the guy with the carrier bags"
I've always been wary of religious types. Let me be the last man to begrudge anyone the right to have a faith but there's a time and a place. Sunday morning in church springs instantly to mind. But if I ever saw the name ‘Jesus' written on a lesson plan I would subconsciously file the teacher under ‘one to keep an eye on'. If that same teacher suddenly appeared at school with a guitar, then the needle would twitch momentarily and then go straight to red alert. I've seen teachers and guitars hold groups of young learners spellbound for hours but when you peer in a classroom window and a bunch of Thai adults are clapping along nervously to a slightly wonky rendition of Micheal Row the Boat Ashore, complete with rousing Hallelujahs, it's time for a quiet word in the office - and of course the promise that you'll write the teacher a good reference.
I've never been the world's greatest interviewer. Despite there being numerous books written on the topic of interviewing - all promising to turn you into a master interrogator - I think it's a skill that few people master. One of the best interviewers I ever worked with once offered me some good advice - "just let interviewees talk. It's amazing how many will hang themselves once they feel the need to fill silences". I've always found this to be true as well. I've lost count of teachers who have given an overview of their classroom experience, a quick tour of their family background and then got on to the more delicate topic of how they fill their spare time. Before you know it, the eyes develop a slightly wicked and perverted look and you're getting a blow-by-blow, stroke-by-stroke account of nearly every bar in Nana Plaza.
But let's go back to the individual stories. I particularly loved the American woman who I once interviewed for a very routine marketing job. The position basically involved lots of cold-calling and hopefully plenty of sales appointments. It paid about 30,000 baht a month plus a generous commission. As I outlined the details, the woman, obviously dissatisfied with the remuneration package on offer, would butt in every five minutes and ask me if I had any idea how much this kind of job would pay in New York. After tolerating the interruptions for far longer than she deserved, I played my trump card - "but we're not in New York love"
Her expression conceded the fact that I probably had a valid point.
Numerous teachers have expressed disappointment at interviews once you let them know how little they'll be earning. One gentleman I recall had been working as some hot shot financial consultant in Hong Kong and for whatever reason, had suddenly found himself scouring the 250-baht an hour private language schools in search of work. The interview was going swimmingly until I got on to the subject of money.
"So if you can start on Monday Steve, we pay 270 baht an hour. After you've completed a million hours of teaching, you become what we refer to as a senior teacher - and your rate goes up to 280"
Steve paused, not really taking in what I'd just said and so asked for further clarification. He did a few quick sums in his head (never a good idea) and said "but that's barely 8 dollars an hour. I would earn that flipping burgers back in Nebraska"
I shrugged my shoulders. I never really know what to say in those situations and perhaps it's not the best time to comment on an individual's appalling lack of research. Steve eventually came to a decision "well, life is all about making contacts and if I'm teaching a group of eight people then there might be someone in the class who can connect me with something better"
Relieved to have another teacher on board, I shook Steve's hand and spent a sleepless night worrying about his motives.
The day of Steve's first class coincided with my day off, so I wasn't actually there to see him glide across the reception in a pair of designer jeans and a tight beige turtle-neck sweater but I did have no fewer than three of the school staff phone and tell me about it. When I called Steve later that evening and got on to the subject of inappropriate attire for a teacher, he took it completely the wrong way and told me quite plainly that he would teach in what he felt comfortable in. Ever get the feeling that a certain teacher was going to be nothing but trouble? Going back to that first day class, he'd found himself opposite eight Thai teenagers who had never been kissed and probably never ventured further than the end of the street. Not a single high-flying merchant banker among them. Three hours went by and not one of the class had walked over to Steve, a smile playing across his lips, and said "Steve, our international conglomerate needs people like you. How does 250K a year and and a luxury Sukhumwit apartment sound?"
Five minutes before the start of Steve's second class, I got the dreaded phone call. "Sorry Phil, I just can't do this. It's not worth my time. Good luck with everything". Click.
Another favorite was the Canadian gentleman who came to apply for a full-time teaching position. Showing him into one of the classrooms, I told him that I had an urgent phone call to make and wouldn't keep him waiting longer than five minutes. To keep him occupied, I gave him a selection of the textbooks we used in our writing and speaking classes.
"Have a little look at those while I'm gone and you'll get a feel for what we do here"
When I returned five minutes later, the small pile of textbooks was in exactly the same position I'd left them, and to add insult, the teacher was engrossed in a paperback novel that he'd extracted from his backpack. With the gift of hindsight I should have gone through the motions of a short interview and never ever contacted him again. However these were desperate times and he started work the following week. The fact that a month later he turned up to work drunk and threatened to throw a student out of a window is neither here nor there but it has taught me to go with my instincts when it comes to hiring teachers.
Another Canadian teacher (and I don't wish to imply all Canadians are slackers because I've worked with some wonderful Canadian teachers) came for some part-time morning work teaching a couple of speaking and grammar classes from 9.00 until 12.00. The first week didn't go particularly well with the teacher being late three mornings out of five. After a quiet word in his ear, things could only get better. On the Monday morning of his second week, I got off the bus and found myself following the teacher over a pedestrian footbridge. A quick glance at the watch told me that he was already five minutes late for his first class. Expecting him to pick up the pace a little and perhaps jog the last 100 meters to the school entrance, he promptly disappeared into Dunkin Donuts. I stood outside on the footpath with a slightly puzzled expression, as the teacher chatted with the shop assistant and debated whether to go for the Bavarian Crème or the strawberry frosted. Eventually I caught his attention through the shop-window and pointed frantically at my watch. He quickly paid for his goods, came out of the shop and said possibly the worst thing one could say to me in that situation. "Chill out dude". The rest of the story you can probably guess.
My craziest experiences though have always been with interviewees who have in their infinite wisdom, decided to bring a friend along to the interview. In most cases they've probably only known this ‘friend' for a matter of one evening and a long night. Shall we just say the sort of friend who earns a living by doing favors for sailors and leave it at that. If you're intent on coming to an interview with a companion, my advice would be to leave them outside the interview room - a piece of advice one gentleman chose to ignore and subjected me to one of the worst hours of my life as he tried to answer my well-prepared questions while the lady at his side made playful grabs at his crotch. Another teacher I well remember arrived at an interview with his long-term Thai partner - a young gentleman wearing one of those string vest affairs through which one can clearly see the nipples. He did at least have the sense to leave the boyfriend outside in the corridor but every time I turned away to get a textbook off a shelf, teacher and boyfriend would make faces through the plate glass window and wink at each other in that unmistakable ‘just wait till I get you home' manner.
At the time, many of these interview experiences can be both mind-boggling and frustrating. People's complete lack of professionalism astounds me at times but take a step back and you realize that it's all part of life's rich tapestry. These are the colorful characters that truly make this wonderful world go round.
The names of people in this article have obviously been changed.