He took an international school to the Thai labor court. He studied for a master's degree in ELT at a Thai University. He now lives and teaches on the Burmese border and knocks up teakwood furniture in his spare time. Let's have a chinwag with Andrew Stark.
Andrew, welcome to the ajarn hot seat. Let's consider your story in chronological order. You came to Thailand three years ago and started off with a TEFL gig in Southern Thailand. Why did you choose to work down there?
My wife is from the south. We lived in Pak Meng, a small fisherman’s village in the far south for two months. I got a job as an English teacher at a Thai government school in Trang, 50 kilometers away.
The job didn't last very long though. Why was that?
Although I enjoyed teaching there, the money wasn’t enough to support me and my family. I was only making B25,000 per month on a ten and a half month contract. I got an offer for B41,000 a month at a bilingual school in Bangkok on a twelve month contract. Just do the mathematics.
So you moved to Bangkok to work at what you've described as an 'infamous international school'. Did you hear negative reports about the place even before you started work there?
No, I did not investigate. I liked the school principal (administrator) and, believe it or not, the owner too! The school was desperate for a math teacher and I demanded a high salary. A friend told me about the position on a Tuesday. I went for an interview on the next day (cold call) and got the job two days later (Friday), starting the Monday. My salary increased by the same amount as with the previous move, plus there was bonuses, tutoring, summer school, etc. I was looking at the money and I was happy (at first). I was also working part-time and my salary had nearly doubled.
Your contract at this 'infamous international school' was not renewed. What reasons did they give or what promises were broken?
I was never given a reason why my contract wasn’t renewed, nor did I ask. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that when you earn more than the Head of Maths or English, who had been there for a number of years, that I had overvalued myself. In April of that year I had a meeting with the new principal and he gave me his assurance that everybody who wanted to continue with their contract, could. The following month, I was told that I would not be rehired. The following day, however, I was told (by the principal) that my work permit and visa would not be cancelled. He also told me that I could stay on until I found a job. I wasn’t worried because I was a Math teacher, but the market had turned and I couldn’t find a job. At the end of the contract (July), I asked them if I could stay on for another couple of months. I was told that they had nothing for me. I asked the principal about my work permit. He told me to speak to the visa lady and she said she was going to cancel it by the end of the month. I had no job, no work permit, and no visa. My luck had turned.
You eventually took the school to the labor court. What did your teaching colleagues think of your plan? Do they think you should have just taken the decision on the chin and found another job?
It is a decision that I did not take lightly. I would have left it there if I was not encouraged by my colleagues. They saw me as a good teacher and what was happening to me was unfair. There were about a dozen of us that got ‘fired’ that year. And many before that. Either couples or a spouse got fired. This meant that the other spouse was still working at the school. There was a lot of anger about what was going on at the school. Everyone was terrified of the owner though, and no-one ever challenged him. I got the most encouragement from the then current teachers, but also from ex-teachers and the members of the Ajarn forum. I do have to admit that I did not enjoy taking the school to court, I am glad I got some justice.
You're something of a crusader I guess. I mean you would like to see a lot more justice out there for foreign teachers?
Yes, although I’m not a fighter I do like to see justice being done – both to the employer and the employee. When a teacher gets fired, his work permit and visa gets cancelled. He has twenty four hours to leave the country. Many teachers get fired at the drop of a hat and it is seldom performance related. We have bills to pay and in many cases families to support. And we don’t have the same family and support structure that most Thais enjoy.
What do you think is the answer to the problem?
I don’t think going to court is the solution. Thais don’t like to loose face and to negotiate with them once you’ve initiated court action can be pretty frustrating. First of all let’s start with the employee, the teacher. Get yourself a good job at a good school. If you enjoy what you do and you are good at it chances of you getting fired is so much smaller. From my own experience, I know this is easier said than done. Secondly, knowledge. Know what your rights are and what compensation you are entitled to. Any employee has the right to get one month’s notice, or one month’s notice pay, as well as one month severance pay after working 120 days. (more if you have worked longer). The Thai labour law is very fair and in my case the judge was knowledgeable and unbiased. Thai law is based on the British system and tends to side with the employee. But the wheels of justice turn very slow and I would advise against going to court. Also, don’t expect to use your school as a reference if you took them court (own experience again). Ideally I would like to see some kind of teachers’ body that could negotiate a fair deal between Thai employers and teachers. Something similar to the labour court ombudsman that will act on employees’ behalf and try to reach an out of court settlement, just geared for foreign teachers. They need to be able to speak English.
The Thai Ministry of Labor are a pretty helpful bunch though aren't they?
Yea, like most Thais they are friendly and helpful. You only need to speak Thai.
You then got fired from a university job for insurbordination. Tell us a bit about what happened there?
Yes, I lost my grade sheets. Actually, if anybody had known me, they would not have given me such important documentation without making backup copies, because I LOSE PAPERS THAT ARE NOT IN MY FOLDER!!! Actually, there was a much more sinister reason behind it. I made my direct supervisor, a Burmese guy, lose face because of some stupid misunderstanding and he was looking for a reason to fire me. The irony is that I was a month away from completing my thesis, had almost three years teaching experience and I only got paid B25,000. There were no benefits. After deductions the pay was actually less than my first job in Trang. I always maintained that at that low salary they needed me much more than I needed them. Clearly, I was wrong!
You then worked for a teaching agency for a short time. How did that work out?
The same. I believe bad luck happens in threes – over and over and over! I was hired through a language and computer school. I was fired after a month and two days – I still don’t know the reason why (perhaps I was hitting too much on a pregnant beauty and ignoring the English head).The very same day (actually hour) I had a nasty bike accident. I broke my foot and couldn’t work for almost a month. I wasn’t paid any notice or severance pay, nor did I claim or even threaten them with some action. I just wanted to leave Thailand.
Let's dwell on something more positive. You studied for a master's degree in ELT at ABAC. That must have cost you a pretty penny?
Yes, it was expensive. The money I paid ABAC was just short of B290,000. And do I think this is money well spend. Yes, I did. The degree already paid for itself. It’s much easier to find a job in these competitive times and Thais really love to have someone on board with a qualification from a Thai university. Plus, you know a little bit more about teaching techniques, etc. Is your next question going to be: “Does a degree make a better teacher?”
Ah, that's where you're wrong. How did you manage to juggle the studying and teaching? It must have been tough.
Yes, it was pretty tough. I had class on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evening from six to nine. Each subject had at least two assignments and an exam. I worked at an International school and was moonlighting at a language centre. Sunday was my day off – reserved for study. But I enjoyed the professional environment and that made it much easier.
You're now teaching up on the Burmese border. You've moved around a bit?
Pushed around, I would say. In the beginning I was changing jobs for more money. After the international school I could not get a math job and I had to teach English to keep the wolf from the door. People think it is easy to get a math job. True, if you are in the job market prior to the start of the school year. I started looking for a job halfway through the Thai semester both the first and second time. The good jobs are taken then. That’s why I had to resort to teaching English and working for these agencies. But yes, I have moved around a bit. I had thirteen fulltime and part-time jobs. I guess you could call me ‘well experienced’.
You make teakwood furniture in your spare time. Is this your way out of teaching?
Phil, you read my mind. I think it is everybody’s ultimate goal: escaping the teacher’s trap! Back home most of us were professional people. Here I can’t even decide which text book I’m going to use. I am an Industrial Engineer (by profession) and back home I had my own business supplying furniture to the beauty industry. But I would like to see my students through school and into university before I jump into anything.
Your TEFL career has been something of a roller-coaster ride. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you could start over again?
I would look carefully at the school and make sure I was going to be happy there. I would not chase after money, but rather have a quality lifestyle.