Aaron Flack works at a multinational company in Bangkok in a position I've always referred to as an 'in-house company teacher'. Let's pull up a chair (after we've screwed the legs on of course) and hear about what the job entails working for that well-known Swedish company with the yellow and blue logo.
Aaron, a very warm welcome to the Ajarn hot seat. You've been involved in the teaching game for a number of years. Tell us about the teaching experience you gained in other countries prior to arriving in Thailand?
Hi Phil and thanks for having me. And yes, I’ve been in the teaching game now for around 13 years. I’ve been in Bangkok for around 12 of those but I started my long road into teaching back when I contemplated going to university. I decided not to in the end and to travel the world instead.
I found myself doing volunteer teaching in a small town in China for six months and guess it was here that I decided that this was the road I wanted to take in life. After a brief stint back in the UK, myself and a friend went to Nairobi, Kenya and helped in a school out there. And then I found myself travelling again - this time to Asia where I ended up in Thailand.
You've been in Thailand for 11 years but still only 35. Are you a family man with kids or still enjoying the single life?
Still only 35? Haha. I feel a lot older! I am very much a happily married man. I met my wife in Bangkok a year after I arrived in Thailand and I suppose it was then my life started to take shape. Six years later we were married and today we have two beautiful daughters. Looking back, I‘m not sure I would have stayed here for so long if I hadn’t met her. It was kind of a defining moment for me.
In the brief chat we had in preparation for this hot seat, you let on that you had worked at several Thai schools but didn't really enjoy the experience. What were the problems?
That’s right. I started my life here working through an agency and being sent to a local school in Bangkok. After a year or so, I moved schools and it was here I learnt a lot about the way a Thai school works. A few years later, I got a lucky break and landed a position at a well-known bilingual institute. I was there for five years and it was here I decided I wanted out of the system.
I wouldn’t say the schools had problems, more like I didn’t like the way the schools I was at were being run from the top to the bottom. To give some examples would be the fact that kids weren’t allowed to fail and were rather spoon-fed information, There was also the constant battle in communicating with Thai teachers. But as much as I didn’t like all this, I learnt that complaining doesn’t get you anywhere and from this I made a decision that I wanted to seek other opportunities in Bangkok if possible.
But then came the chance to work as a ‘full-time English Trainer ‘ at a reputable private language school. Was that something you enjoyed more?
Absolutely. I was doing a lot of weekend and evening corporate work with a few language schools, but one school and the team in particular were very good to me and they must have seen potential because they started asking me to do the bigger contracts. After getting constant renewals I was offered a much more permanent role with a salary, visa and work permit.
This was my big break and yes, teaching in companies and especially adults was something that suited my style of teaching and my personality. My boss was really helpful and supportive and he trusted me to run the classes how I wanted. And from here I found myself teaching at really nice places such as hotels and top local and international companies, one of which was Mega Bangna - and that’s kind of how I got offered the role at IKEA.
Right place at the the right time, Aaron, I'm eager to talk about this full-time position you have at the world's favourite furniture store. You're the in-house teacher / English language expert. Could you list some of your day-to-day responsibilities for us?
Haha, I wouldn’t say expert. I’m responsible for everything that happens in the English Program ranging from scheduling, promoting the English Program around the store as well as on social media.
I deliver different courses that co-workers request or that I think will work. These courses tend to last for around 2-3 months. After a quick break, new courses will begin but it’s not just about ‘teaching’, it’s also about talent development and helping people individually develop their communication skills on a daily basis.
I also have daily one-on-one sessions with managers to give them the opportunity to learn the English they need and to talk about problems they are having in English. So aside from scheduling, teaching and assessing, my day-to-day responsibilities are just as much outside the classroom as inside.
What hours do you actually work? Do you find the work is sometimes demanding or stressful?
I get to the office just before 7:30 and usually leave at 5,00 pm. I don’t find the job especially demanding because I have been taught from previous employers how to teach effectively in companies and what works and what doesn’t work. Like I said, I was essentially allowed to run the classes how I wanted before I came to IKEA, so I think this helped my gain valuable experience and has helped me more professional and more effective in English training.
Some aspects of the job are stressful yes, but again when I encounter an issue I usually know the best methods to deal with it. Rather than complaining, tackling the problem yourself is much more beneficial and healthy in a company.
So talk us through a typical day at IKEA for you?
Let’s give you an example of what I’ll be doing tomorrow. I’ll start early in order to sort out what needs to be done that day. I‘ll be conducting sales training at 9:30 – 10.00 am on the shop floor here in IKEA. This involves me helping the Sales / CR team with communicating with foreign customers more effectively. I would typically have 15/20 co-workers with me for his class. It’s all standing up, role-plays and activity-based training, no books! I then have a conversation class for intermediate speakers.
Lunch would either be in the IKEA canteen or perhaps somewhere in Mega Bangna with friends. I have a presentation skills class for an hour for managers in the early afternoon. And then we I would finish the day with a class with co-workers who are the in the ‘IKEA Next-Step Program’. These are co-workers are have been selected as potentials to develop themselves into a higher position. I prioritize this class the most and work with co-workers individually. And that about wraps the day up to go home around 5.00pm.
Certainly a full day there. Actually, I'm no stranger to in-house company work. Many years ago, I worked for a brief period at one of Bangkok's top hospitals as the English-speaking 'Mr Fix-it'. The idea was that I would sit in reception for a couple of hours each morning and if any hospital staff had a problem communicating with a foreign patient, they could come to me for help and advice and we could analyze where things went wrong. The project was a huge failure because no one came to see me and ask for my advice. So after the first week, myself and the hospital HR / training managers decided that for a nurse or doctor to come and ask for my guidance was 'a loss of face'. Looking back, I guess it was a cultural thing. Do you run into these issues at your company?
Not so much. IKEA is such a diverse, international place to work, co-workers don’t tend to feel like this (at least I haven’t seen it). In the open office where I am situated, there are around five foreigners (mainly managers) so speaking English is expected of most of the managers and team leaders.
Of course Thai would be the main language you hear, but people don’t have a problem asking questions in English, presenting in English, etc. People here are confident to speak up and voice their opinions.
There is also a great sense of ‘family’ here at IKEA with everyone helping each other, whether it be in English or Thai. This is one of the things I like about IKEA office life.
What are some of the biggest challenges that Thai staff have when dealing with foreign customers (and of course IKEA Bangkok sees an awful lot of foreigners)?
Yes, foreign customers here are plentiful on a daily basis! Our sales team, as well as our teams in Checkout and Easy-Buying (Exchange and Return) all need to speak English to a fairly good level. Yes, of course, not all of them can speak fluently, but I guess that’s why they have my position.
Foreigners here usually ask the same questions, so by creating a list of possible FAQ’s, as well as regular English classes and of course the opportunity to speak English every day, the co-workers here at Bangna have everything they need to develop their English and to speak to our customers to the best they can.
If they run into problems with a customer, we always have a team leader or manager on duty who can speak English and assist the customer. Then we can reflect on that situation and learn from it from next time.
I was going to ask about the perks of your job and then remembered how much I love IKEA's cafe food. I bet you're stuffed with meatballs covered in raspberry jam aren't you? LOL
Haha, of course! IKEA does indeed offer some fantastic benefits, not only with food. But yes, sometimes I delve into the wonderful world of meatballs, salmon steaks and fresh coffee at discounted prices. Sometimes it's free!
I was looking at some of your tweets on social media, Aaron and you're obviously a decent Thai speaker. How did you get to the level you're at?
I am very modest when it comes to my Thai skills. Yes, I can speak to a fairly good level but not as good as it should be considering I’ve been here for so long. I was very lazy when I first came here and only picked up the basics, but over the last few years, I have realized how important it can be towards making friends, especially in the workplace.
I have never taken Thai classes. The Thai I know has come by speaking with Thai people and picking up the accent. I watch a lot of videos to help me too on Facebook and YouTube. But the key point was when my eldest daughter started to learn Thai. I then realized how much I wanted to communicate and teach my daughter Thai as well as English.
Do you have to use Thai much in the workplace with your students and colleagues or do you try to keep to an 'English-only' environment?
Excellent question and something I have pondered repeatedly. As much as I would love to practice Thai, I try not to. IKEA hired me to teach encourage and inspire an English-speaking workplace. If I had a Thai teacher who just spoke English all the time, I wouldn’t like it.
When co-workers speak Thai with me, I usually answer in English. Again, this is something I have learned through experience. My role here is to encourage people to use English and I tend to use English 90% of the time.
Because you're in a managerial position at IKEA, do you get to learn new skills that you might ordinarily not have had opportunities to?
Absolutely. That was a major positive when I learned of it in my interviews with IKEA. I have had the opportunity to learn from afar how IKEA is run and what is involved in running such a huge, multinational company. IKEA offers a lot of training to every co-worker and this allows you to understand IKEA values and how to grow within the company.
I have also helped the IKEA Bangyai team and also there are also plans to travel down to our IKEA in Phuket or do some Skype sessions to help out down there too, which I have never really done before professionally so I’m excited about that.
When I look back to my previous jobs in schools and the cooperate world, I realize how limited my opportunities were and how mundane my work was at times. Now IKEA has given me belief that I can grow as a professional here in Bangkok.
And wow! You even found the time to study for a degree over here?
Yes, because I didn’t go to university after college and this was always a stumbling block in terms of working as a teacher here. So, after leaving the school system, I decided to get a BA.
After searching around and weighing up my options, I knew it was an investment that I had to make. So I went through the University of London International Program, studying a BA in Sociology for four years and I sat exams at the British Council every year.
It was by far the most challenging time of my time. Juggling a full-time job, a family and attempting to keep a social life really tested my limits. But I came out the other side and I am reaping the benefits of that little piece of paper now.
One final question, Aaron. What advice would you give to any teacher looking for this kind of 'in-house' company work? Is it a case of knocking on doors and firing off e-mails or are full-time jobs of this nature generally set up by private language schools?
Honestly, it’s not easy to find a position like this. I think I got lucky with timing but at the same time I think my hard work paid off - with both my teaching methods and interpersonal skills being recognized. I have always given 100% as a teacher and tried to be as professional as I can be with everyone. Yes, you need a little bit of luck of knowing the right people, but perseverance does prevail.
I tried firing off endless CV’s to companies in hope one would want me but to no avail. Language school teaching can be great and I really enjoyed most of it. Stick with it, be as professional as you can both inside and outside the classroom - and hopefully someone will see the potential in you.
Good advice. All the best, Aaron.