Hot Seat

Adam Marshall

In what has become known as 'The Nonthaburi Project', the government has taken up the challenge of employing 250 teachers (or thereabouts) and placing them in Thai schools in the Nonthaburi area. A lot of confusion has arisen over certain aspects of the scheme but we are privileged to have Adam Marshall join us for an ajarn.com hot seat, and attempt to put the record straight.

Q

Adam, welcome, thanks for going on record and giving us the facts about this major development in Thailand's EFL business. Let's put things in a sort of chronological order to start with. The Nonthaburi Schools project was originally the brainchild of the Nonthaburi Provincial Administration Organization (although we are not quite sure of their exact official title). Why was Nonthaburi singled out first of all? Is it an area that finds it particularly difficult to recruit teachers?

A

I would like to start off by saying that the following statements and points of view are 100% unofficial and provided completely of my own volition. I feel that something special is happening in Thailand regarding English language teaching and I would like to share this with everyone. I was the very first native speaker to join the project and have therefore taken it upon myself to act as an unofficial spokesperson. Thank you Phil for giving me this opportunity.

I believe that the authorities in Nonthaburi have vision. At the inauguration ceremony at the civic hall and in the early meetings, it was explained that the authorities here in Nonthaburi wanted to exploit the area's hidden potential and develop the local economy, and they naturally see English as an integral part of that plan. Speaking from personal experience, I believe that prior to this project the calibre of the foreign teaching staff was not as good in Nonthaburi as it was in Bangkok proper. Nonthaburi is not as attractive a proposition as Central Bangkok for many teachers and schools have been forced to offer better salaries as a means of attracting them.

At my school we had two English teachers who were both in the twilight of their careers and who both lacked some of the youthful enthusiasm you need to engage the children and win them over. It is exhausting at times and I don't think they were really willing to see it through. One was a retired teacher from England and the other chap, also English, was a recent career changer...they quit shortly after I arrived. In my opinion, motivating teachers is as key an issue as motivating students: although very good when compared to the salaries of most Thais, qualified foreign teachers are unlikely to be overly impressed by the rewards on offer and it is therefore essential that they enjoy their work and find it rewarding in a 'job satisfaction' sense.

Some of the children can be so apathetic that at times you can feel that it's simply not worth it. Before you can learn you have to be taught how to learn so part of my job is introducing unfamiliar learning styles but both foreign teachers and native students will naturally have different expectations. There is apathy and there is passivity but as we all know if you can inject that little bit of 'sanook' then just maybe .... Some of them would be more than happy to sit through six grades of English and have nothing to show for it, but some of the children are absolutely brilliant and they are the ones that give you the desire to keep going - if one child is capable then all are capable.

I think that by the time the M1 grade has reached M6 we could be looking at a very different picture. The younger students have a fresh outlook, whereas the older grades are already jaded and have capitulated due to a history of negative learning experiences connected with the subject. It takes a great deal of energy and determination but when you do get results and you realise that there is genuine progress being made then it means so much more. Anything that is worth doing in life takes effort and my job is certainly a challenge. Defeatists need not apply!

A wise man once said: 'Education means guiding and promoting persons to progress in learning, thinking, and performing according to their own ability. The ultimate aim should be for each individual to be able to make the best use of his or her potential, to benefit oneself and others in harmony and without conflict or harassment.'

Q

The task of recruiting the teachers was originally given to OLA (Obrum Language Academy) in conjunction with Chulalongkorn university. How many teachers were wanted at this stage and how many were actually recruited?

A

Chula initially hired 57 teachers back in July but there were more successful applicants than jobs and so a waiting list was then drawn up.

Q

Where were the jobs advertised?

A

I applied through ajarn.com but I also saw an advert on the university's Faculty of Education website. The agency (OLA) managed to recruit about 75% of the teachers using their own means.

Q

You told me in your email that you were the only native speaker out of 57 teachers. What happened?

A

When I turned up to the first of two days of training and entered the lecture theatre I actually did a double-take! I exited and checked the room number above the door. I was wondering when all the foreign teachers would turn up and wondered why only Thais were in attendance. Then it dawned on me that everyone was Filipino - quite a shock at first - but I must say it was a pleasant surprise because the Filipinos are very nice people and it was kind of nice to be something of a novelty. In fact, although I am English and proud of the fact, I also now consider myself an honorary Filipino!

Basically, from what I can gather, they experienced some difficulty recruiting native speakers because of the time of year. The project was launched at short notice and most eligible teachers were already in jobs; the location may also have been a factor in dissuading would-be applicants. On a personal note, I actually very much enjoy living in Nonthaburi as you get to experience a bit of the 'real' Thailand and the locals seem genuinely enthralled at having a foreigner in their midst. The area around my school is pretty and tranquil too, with lots of greenery.

It seems that some people have taken issue with those concerned for employing Filipinos. Of course, as any teacher worth their salt will know, there is debate about what actually constitutes a native speaker in the first place. Although some Filipinos speak English from birth, their 'brand' of English is categorised as NNV (non native variant). Are Filipino teachers of English as valuable to schools as Brits, Americans, Aussies or whoever? That is missing the point somewhat. The definition of a great teacher is not about having more letters after your name nor the received pronunciation of an Oxford Don. It is about aptitude, knowledge of the subject and getting through to the kids; transmitting what you want them to accomplish in a manner that is both comprehensible and engaging.

Furthermore, most of you will be aware that 'World Englishes' and 'International English' do indeed have their place and anyone who disagrees should be obliged to retake their CELTA (why not take a look at the links I have included below and make up your own minds). It amazes me the many times I hear teachers saying that Filipino English is not 'proper' English. Of course, some people do prefer to learn British or American English since the former is seen as more refined whilst the latter tends to predominate because of economics, politics and culture, but there is room for everyone - diversity is the spice of life. It greatly annoys me when people give Filipinos a bad press because everybody needs to make a living and each and everyone of the Filipinos whom I have met have been extremely hard-working. Teachers should be assessed and recruited based on a number of criteria and not purely on their nationality; that Filipino who you find yourself deriding might just, quite conceivably, be smarter or better at teaching than you are.

Q

If we look at the other 56 (Filipino) teachers, a few of them had their employment terminated. For what reasons?

A

There was a two-month probationary period written into the contract. All teachers have been required to provide lesson plans for each lesson and officials from the agency or university turn up and perform spot-checks. They assess your teaching, provide feedback and obviously forward their evaluation to the relevant parties. These assessments occur about once per month and without warning. A few teachers did not meet the minimum required standard and were therefore surplus to requirements.

Q

Then enter Ramkhamhaeng University to take over the project. Was this because OLA and Chula were doing such a poor job?

A

Ramkhamhaeng did not take over. There are two similar schemes that are run separately and concurrently. Ramkhamhaeng have hired more teachers than Chulalongkorn but OLA agreed a deal with both respective universities. Along with the authorities, OLA also deserves a great deal of recognition for getting this thing off the ground, as do the universities for the part they are playing. I believe that Chula wanted to do things properly and not bite off more than they could chew: if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing properly and I echo this sentiment.

The preparatory training we received at Chula was excellent in my opinion and from what I have seen of Ramkhamhaeng's operation it is also excellent. The signs for the future are promising. I personally work with an Aussie guy hired by Ramkhamhaeng, our Thai boss supervises us and we work together on everything. At the end of the day, we all share the same vision and it is my hope that the two universities will eventually collaborate but I don't know if this will be possible in actuality. It is my belief that English language teaching in Thailand would benefit from a greater cohesion. What we really need is synergy and focus, with everybody pulling in the same direction.

Q

Ramkhamhaeng University was looking to recruit a whopping 250 teachers. Who thought that Ramkhamhaeng University was up to the task or rather how did they get the gig?

A

The honest answer is I don't know. I guess that at some stage a decision must have been made to expand the scheme over and above the original 57. We were told from the start that if we were successful then our numbers would double in the second year of the project. Then I saw the advert on ajarn.com the same as everybody else did. I suppose that they are there on merit since anyone who knows the faculty at RIL, as I do, will know that they are very good at what they do.

Q

Talk numbers with us. Did R.U. manage to get the full quota and what was the breakdown of applicants (degreed vs non-degreed, natives vs non-natives, etc, etc)

A

As far as I know, all the teachers have degrees. The job advertisements stipulated graduates only and both certificates and transcripts were requested. People are getting much better at spotting fakes these days so I wouldn't worry. I believe they hired 211 teachers in total: about a dozen Europeans, 58 Filipinos and the rest were native speakers. I believe the original job advertisement mentioned a target of 250.

Q

You are obviously aware that this has become a very hot issue on the ajarn discussion board. There are a few disgruntled qualified teachers out there working for 30K a month, and they're now seeing unqualified non-native speakers walk into 40K jobs within this project. Is that a fair reflection of what's happening?

A

No, I wasn't aware of all the talk. To be perfectly frank, I am far too busy working to read the boards but I will confess to reading the odd hot-seat interview (...ok, ok, and I do keep up with the footy from time to time). Hang on a minute...

...OK...I have had a look at the boards and made some enquiries and from what I can gather everybody is qualified. Even if that were not the case, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, my response would be 'that's life!' Life is all about being in the right place at the right time and taking your opportunities. In Thailand, demand outstrips supply so I would suggest to those bitterly weeping into their beer that they devote more time looking for additional work and waste less time being envious of others. One can always improve as a teacher. Concentrate on bettering your own skills, experience and qualifications and perhaps one day your ship will come in too. Get on with the job at hand.

Incidentally, while we're on the subject, one thing that does genuinely annoy me about working in this country is the 'one-upmanship' of many ex-pat teachers. I have got three words for you: jealousy, insecurity, bitterness. These people are constantly comparing themselves to others. Is this actually helpful in any way? Some people for instance are convinced that because they possess a Bachelors of education or a masters degree that they are somehow superior to everyone else. My role models include people like Morihei Ueshiba, Jesus Christ and David Brent. I don't recall any of them holding education degrees and Brent didn't even go to university!!! OK, I am prepared to concede that Christ may have had an unfair advantage in the job market as he was purportedly the Son of God, related to King David, and was therefore pre-ordained to become King of the Jews. Then again a bit of nepotism never hurt anyone, did it? Stop slating your fellow teachers, support them and let's have a bit of solidarity. Focus on your own life and do the best you possibly can and you shouldn't have too much to grumble about.

A wise man once said: 'Learning is a never-ending process. Those who wish to advance in their work must constantly seek more knowledge, or they could lag behind and become incompetent'.

Q

Many of those discussion board members who don't care either way are just cynical towards the whole project saying it can't possibly succeed. How are things shaping up in the early stages?

A

These types of people have no place working in education because teachers are, by their very definition, idealists. My advice to them is to return home and maybe get a job in a car factory or become an art critic (where they can moan to their hearts content) and leave the teaching to the teachers. Why would you stay in a country you didn't care about? That in itself is an insult to the very people who have welcomed you into their society. You have to ask yourself, did you come to Thailand to give or to take? All the talk seems to be of money but I would say that virtue is its own reward. If you saw how my Thai boss grafts for 10K baht you would have food for thought. What price do you put on seeing a child smile? You never forget a good teacher and likewise the memory of a bad teacher who did not care about a child stays with that child forever (I'm sure that everyone of us can recall at least one teacher from our own schooldays who lacked patience).

Teachers, you can do one of three things: lead, follow or get out of the way. I have no time for "teachers" who baulk at the thought of getting their hands dirty, complaining because they are having to work with blackboards! If you work at the chalk-face, you get covered in chalk. If you are worried about your nails, get a job as a beautician. I mean, really?!! Come on, now. Nelson Mandela said that 'education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world'. Are you gonna argue with Nelson Mandela? Sometimes Thais and farang are like chalk and cheese but there is so much we can teach each other. The children teach me something new everyday, and for that, I adore them. When I came to this country I came for one reason and one reason only and that was to learn. I am not an apologist and where there are flaws I voice my opinions to my Thai colleagues and bosses but you have to do it in the right way. For Thais and farang to get the best out of each other in the workplace, each of us has to make an effort to understand the other. How much Thai language have you bothered to acquire? Do you know the history of the country in which you are living and working? Do you know its customs, its modes of etiquette? If we are to be taken seriously, trusted and listened to, then we have to be prepared to learn too. Show me a teacher who doesn't love learning and I would question whether they were ever really a teacher at all.

One invaluable trait I have acquired from living among the Thais is that of tolerance. The English have a tendency to moan ( i.e. "It's raining again", "The bus is late again", "that's not a full pint, barman", etc.) but in the Land of Smiles I have found that I rarely let things get me down. Having said that, I do feel that although the ' mai pen rai' concept is a strength, it can also be a hinderance at times. I prefer the phrase 'make an effort'. I try to instill a work ethic in all my children.You need to give them incentives, you need to give them discipline, you need to show them that you really care, because kids are intuitive and will spot a fraud, and you need boundless energy. How many of us arrive at the foot of a mountain and without good reason set about climbing that mountain? I came here to share the beauty of my language and my culture in exchange for what Thailand could teach me. Show them the relevence and you open them up to a world of possibilities.

It is early days of course and only time will tell but the Thais deserve to have good teachers. The level of respect accorded to me by my students only serves to further impress upon me the obligation which I have to them. Occasionally lazy, occasionally disobedient, Thai children are never malicious or nasty. Thai children are 'jai dee' and a joy to be around. There are no magic bullets but true success is about failing again and again yet somehow winning through. What would the fate of the English language have been had the RAF capitulated to the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain? At 3-0 down who gave Liverpool a chance against Milan? Who would have predicted the Italian economic miracle? Start whinging at the drop of a hat and the whole thing is doomed to failure. If you're in it for the money you're in the wrong game - have a go at media sales or recruitment in London or some other equally banal and meaningless undertaking.

A wise man once said: 'Education and those directly responsible for it, namely teachers, are of great importance. The people's education is the indicator of the advancement or the decline of a country. The work of teachers therefore means the life or death of the country. Teachers have to be equipped with three significant qualities, namely good knowledge, good morality, and good ability, and should perform their duties completely and well.'

Q

Do you see it being a long-term success?

A

Yes, I do (short and unequivocal answer).

Q

This has certainly pissed off a number of private school owners who obviously don't have access to this government project help. Some of them must be losing teachers in droves as non-native speakers jack in 15-20K jobs to pursue the pots of gold in Nonthaburi. Any thoughts?

A

Why do they have a policy of only employing non-native speakers in the first place? Is it because they have found the 'best man for the job'? Or is it to try and balance other excessive overheads? Is it part of some philanthropic mission or is it merely in order to maximise profit? If it is only about making money and feathering one's nest then to my mind they deserve everything they get. Staff turnover is a fact of life (as is redundancy) and a consequence of market dynamics. "All is fair in love and war" (and business), as they say.

Too many private schools put profit above the needs of their students. It is time to dispense with measures that are purely cosmetic in favour of substance, and tangible results. I don't know about 'pots of gold' but I do know that you would never catch me working in a private school, complimentary airfares or no complimentary airfares. Personally, I prefer teaching poor children because there is nothing quite as heartening in this life as teaching a bright child who has got nothing; the child has nothing yet the teacher can clearly see a burgeoning and incisive intelligence, bursting to get out. Choosing to back the underdog is just one aspect of being British.

Q

Are we seeing a major change in the Thailand TEFL business?

A

This is a major initiative and I applaud those responsible for its inception. I still think it's a bit early to tell though, but I would have to say that the various parties appear to mean business. What do you reckon, Phil? Has there ever been anything like this attempted in Thailand previously? I have been in Thailand but a year so there's not a lot I can tell you on that score really, but I do know that the actual school itself where I work in Bangyai has asked me to stay on for several more years so they would appear to be planning ahead.

I think that if you analyse the industry over the last few decades change has been a key feature. The Thais know how vital and worthwhile English is but I don't think there has been quite as much progress as people would have liked. While there are always more jobs than teachers in this country, I think that more and more we are seeing qualified and experienced teachers coming here because of their fondness for the country and because of the obvious scope for interesting work that exists.

The Nonthaburi Schools project began as a pilot project but it goes without saying that if it is successful it will probably expand. Thailand is a progressive and modern state and let's not forget that historically speaking, English has already played a significant role in its development. King Chulalongkorn the Great was a reformer, a modernizer and the first monarch to travel to foreign lands; he was a keen student of both English and ethnography. He is remembered in the Thailand of today as 'the father of modern education' and it was therefore fitting that the project be launched by the very university named in his honour.

Q

I'm struggling to equate it with good news or bad news?

A

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Life is what you make it. It is the responsibility of everyone concerned to make it work. Above all, I hope the children themselves will understand this because they are the future of Thailand and they are very lucky indeed and need to make the most of this opportunity. There are many different factors and issues to consider but personally I would certainly advocate making English optional (as Modern Foreign Languages are in the UK) or introduce certain selection procedures at some point so as to maximize the impact of the investment.

Some of the children cannot read or write properly in Thai, let alone in English, so I believe that these children would be better served if they were to devote their time to acquiring the fundamentals of an L1 and leave English alone for a couple of years. That said, I believe that with continued investment the children will prove themselves capable. The important thing is that foreign teachers who are unfamiliar with the Thai cultural context be prepared to make an effort to adapt their own approach to teaching English, while the students themselves need to be willing to change certain attitudes. The children should do it for themselves, they should do it for their parents and they should do it for their King. Thailand is a country with real potential and English language skills can only enhance these prospects.

Q

Your final thoughts on the future of mass-recruitment government projects?

A

Look at the JET programme in Japan and tell me whether you think it is a good thing or a bad thing. I am of the opinion that Thailand would benefit from an influx of more professional teachers, that is to say, career teachers, and also younger teachers. If we can't reach certain kids then we can at least sow the seed that might arouse their curiosity at a later date. We need ambassadors for the language and teachers who can deliver lessons with verve and vigour. We need to shake the children out of their slumber; to break away from the insular and show them that our ways and our cultures can be every bit as interesting and entertaining as their own.

I remember visiting Amsterdam several years ago to celebrate my birthday. What struck me then was the high level of English competence that all the local citizens possessed. I began asking a road-sweeper for directions using a series of hand gestures, impromptu sign-language, only for the roadsweeper to come back at me in beautifully pronounced textbook English. Perhaps one day people will say the same things about Thailand. Perhaps not, but where is the harm in trying.

It will be His Majesty the King's Birthday soon and I am very much looking forward to the celebrations. I remember the glorious firework display that I witnessed last year just a few weeks after arriving in Thailand. I love living in this country but I arrived here quite by chance; I had always wanted to go to Japan but for one reason or another I didn't go. Isn't it ironic that at times in life it is our fortuitous mistakes that end up yielding the most satisfying results.

Let me close by asking all those who have a faith to pray this Christmas for peace in Thailand.

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