Let's have a chat with Mr Barry Cowger. He taught for a couple of years in Europe and moved to Thailand almost a year ago. Even in that short time, he's experienced a couple of Thai primary schools and designed an English program that got approval from none other than the local mayor.
Welcome to the ajarn hot seat Barry. Tell us a little about life in America before you decided to become an international teacher?
Well, first off, thank you for having me on.
I came from a middle-class family; youngest of three brothers. Grew up in Seattle. Parents are both musicians. My dad's a retired music teacher and recording artist. Picked up the drums at age 8. Was in numerous rock-bands 'till I 'retired' at 25. Started to travel in 1996 and never looked back. I've been to 25 countries; lived in six of those: India, Nepal, China, Czech Republic and Holland. Picked up Dutch along the way. So as a Yankee, I'd like to think I'm not totally language challenged.
Impressive. You taught for a couple of years in Prague. I'll let you into a secret - I'm hoping to take my wife there in October of this year. It's a city I've always wanted to visit and it does sound like the most wonderful place. What's the draw from a lifestyle point of view?
Living in a very old and classy city like Prague was great; very inspirational. Old world. I was hired by Linguarama, a UK based business language school. They paid their teachers very well. I taught one-on-one mostly, going to the clients' offices. 15 hrs a week. But the winters are brutal. October is a good time to go. But it can begin to get cold even then. Bring your mittens.
But in general how are the pickings for an English teacher? Can most teachers make enough to survive?
My school paid for our flats too, on top of our salary. Other teachers were jealous. We made about 250 Pounds, free and clear, in 1996-8. So it was good money. We had other bennies too.
I bet you had a few run-ins with that world-famous Czech beer didn't you?
The beer is great. Gambrinus and Budvar were my faves. This is pretty amazing stuff. I really wouldn't call myself a drinker, but a pint or two after slogging through a few hard-core business English lessons tasted great. Cheap too.
My Prague guidebook says to be wary of the taxi-drivers. Are they truly that bad?
Not my experience. Prague has good public transport. Our school gave us tube passes, which we could use anytime. So I didn't have to brave the taxis.
But you eventually decided you'd had enough and decided to make the move to Thailand. Why the land of smiles?
Actually I came directly from Mac Leod Ganj, India. The Dalai Lama has his residence there. I sat Vipassana 3 hrs a day, everyday, for almost 2 years. This'll clear your head! I came to Khon Kaen directly, because I have a friend here who is management at The Hotel Kosa. This is my first visit to Thailand. March 3rd 2008 will be my one-year anniversary.
Did you set up a job here before you came?
No. Lucky that, tho. I was sick for a month when I arrived; recovering from India you might say. I stayed at Hotel Kosa, gratis. Nice friend, huh?
You've spent the whole of your Thailand teaching career in Khon Kaen. Looking at our ajarn.com region guide, it says that there is a growing demand for teachers in this city, but admittedly the guide was written a couple of years ago. What's the latest?
Yes. There are jobs here for sure. I have a new post here, which I am looking forward to. You can also get part-time gigs too. Khon Kaen University is here. So there are lots of kids who are thinking English here. I like KK because it's not really a tourist destination.
Good place for a single fella to make friends?
Yeah, I'm doing ok there. I had a nurse girlfriend for a few months. It all seemed to be going good until she wanted a huge sum of money. It's a numbers game. Just keep perspective on things and a guy like me will be fine. Lose perspective, and proportion and it can get pretty messy pretty quickly. But in all, it's very nice to be here! I think I'll be in KK for a while.
Well, if you can't trust a nurse then who can you trust? You taught in two Thai primary schools in a fairly short space of time. It sounds like you're still looking for the perfect match there as well?
Yes. As most of us know it's easy to see where improvements can be made. This is how I got my second primary school job, only two months after I began teaching here in KK. But I encountered the same thing: lack of organization, even though I was assured this would not be the case again. Wrong! The kids are great, of course. But management is too "Thai-style" for me.
Tell us a little about this English program you designed and why you felt the need?
I woke up one morning and had an idea to approach the mayor of KK because things were still going the same way. Drives me nuts. (In hindsight, it was a procedural mistake to just go into the mayor's office. I would not recommend that a teacher just waltz into a higher-ups office of your choice and start to make some suggestions). In any case, I did. He was alarmed at what I told him. He called a meeting for later that day. There were nine of us present; the director of my school, other directors and teachers, etc. I had already scribbled out my ideas. But now I had it all printed out with charts and so forth from my pc. It was a three-year program where I took 100 students (25 per class, 4 classes day, which came out to 20 hours a week!) and followed these 100 kids through three years, starting at grade 2, graduating at the end of grade 5. I also asked for a whiteboard, and overhead projector, my own classroom and a pay raise.
You did well to get that far. How many appointments did the mayor cancel before you got to see him?
None. I saw him on the first day I went to his office. Good karma, I guess. Or bad, depending on how you look at it.
And he liked the program?
Yes. He verbally approved the program, with everthing I was asking for; with everything I had laid out in my proposal.
Unfortunately the whole thing got scuppered by someone who was present at this meeting?
Yeah. I didn't get the original agreement in writing! The moral of the story here is, get it in writing. Words are cheap. I got everything I asked for, even my own classroom. But when I met with this certain director two weeks later, in an attempt to assure myself that we will still on track with this program, she didn't budge on the salary hike. I reminded her that the mayor himself approved the whole deal two weeks earlier, so what's the problem? I think they would have gotten a pretty good deal. Who ever heard of a teacher signing on for three years at a primary school? As some of us know, they can be a real circus. I like the school, the teachers, and the kids. But when someone doesn't keep their word, who has had a history of this with me (third time's a charm) I gave my 30 day notice.
So it's pastures new for Mr Cowger?
I have a new gig in town. And I think this is going to be a better match for everyone. I've matriculated into the higher grades. The school in question has a good rep and I like the director. His English is very good and I hear that he looks after 'his' teachers. It'll be good for me because I think I'll be going home with a sense of having done something worthwhile. It'll be good for the students because I think they'll be getting a decent teacher. The moral of the story here might be: find an environment that will bring out your own skills to everyone's advantage. I guess you could say my first year was learning about this as well.