As Asia-wide recruiter for Shane Language Schools, few people are in a better position to compare and analyze conditions for teachers in Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China.....and of course Thailand.
Welcome to the ajarn hot seat Dave. You've been in Asia for quite a while but never actually worked in Thailand. Is that correct?
I've been in Asia for a total of 15 years Phil, but you're absolutely right - I've never worked in Thailand. I started off with Shane Language Schools Japan and did four years there as a teacher and later became a senior teacher. Then I moved to Taiwan, which has been my home, or shall we say my base, for the past 11 years. I moved to Taiwan originally to take up a director of studies position (again with Shane Language Schools) and got promoted to principal about five years ago. The job keeps me very busy. When I first got here, we had two schools and employed seven teachers. We now have 50 schools and over 150 teachers on our payroll. The growth has been just phenomenal and it's nice to have been an integral part of that.
Tell us a little about your recruitment trips to Thailand?
I generally come here about once a month. In fact it's got into such a routine that I now maintain a small studio apartment in the Sukhumwit area. While I'm here I meet with teachers and teacher trainers, and the trips also give me the chance to socialize with old friends and play a bit of golf and football. I always enjoy coming to Thailand. Although I love Taiwan and consider it home for the time being, I haven't ruled out the possibility of settling down in Thailand one day.
When you meet with teachers in Thailand, what seem to be their primary objectives. Why are they leaving or thinking about leaving?
I think you can divide teachers into two groups; the 'short-termers' and the 'long-termers'. Short termers haven't put down any real roots in Thailand so it's easier for them to move on and experience the culture and lifestyle of another country. They're looking for academic support and ongoing teacher development. Let's just say that money isn't usually the primary concern. In contrast, for long-termers, money is very often the driving force. Unfortunately many long-termers have family ties. Taiwan and Japan can be a great experience for a single teacher, but for someone dragging a family around with them, life can be very tough indeed. I think this is one of the reasons Thailand is so attractive to many teachers. It's relatively easy to survive here. And of course your Thai wife won't be the 'fish out of water' that she'll certainly be in Tokyo or Taipei.
Shane Schools has recruited some fantastic teachers from Thailand but I won't deny that the single folks are usually the most employable. You need total honesty in my position and if that means putting teachers off the idea of relocating somewhere like Japan just because they've heard the streets are paved with gold, then so be it. If I sense deep down that a teacher is not going to make it because family ties are sure to be a burden - then I'll tell them straight.
Before we take each country in turn Dave and discuss the pros and cons, what benefits do you offer to new arrivals?
It varies a little from country to country, but in Taiwan we pay up to 21,000 baht for outward flights and the teacher receives a week's training on arrival. Once a teacher is put in the classroom they can expect to earn a starting rate of 530-570 baht an hour with the potential to earn about 700 an hour, especially in franchise schools located in out-of-town areas.
OK, but what about class sizes? How many days a week? And I presume much of the teaching is with kids?
I would say 70-80% of the teaching is with children, but class sizes are manageable (11-12 students) Teachers work a five-day week. They wouldn't work on Sundays and they'd get another day off during the week.
You said that the benefit package varies from country to country?
Well, Japan doesn't pay for outward flights, but the teacher does get an end-of-contract bonus, so the money is made that way.
OK then, Taiwan. Sell it to me.
I love Taiwan. What more can I say? As a teacher it's possible to save fairly decent money. I would guess in the region of 2,000 -3,000 pounds a year (200,000 baht). It's also relatively cheap to live there. Think of Thailand and then add about 50%. You can get on a bus 24 hours a day / 365 days a year and go off and explore the most wonderful places - beaches, mountains, all sorts. There are also some great western-style bars and pubs. Taiwan is the size of Wales and because of its location, the climatic changes can be incredible as you travel from north to south. It's when you come to Thailand you realize just how much you miss that changing of the seasons.
From an academic point of view, if you get with a good school (and there are many of them about) a teacher gets full academic support, peer observations and ongoing teacher development. Taiwanese students are also excellent. The kids are generally very well-behaved (not always a comment I hear about Thailand) and the parents actually want their kids to learn. This is not babysitting while Mom and Dad swan off around the department store on a Saturday morning. Teenagers and adult learners are also very motivated. All of this does have a downside if I can call it that inasmuch as the Taiwanese speak their mind. If a lesson hasn't met their standards then they will be sure to let the teacher know. The Taiwanese are very unlike the Japanese in that way. Of course there are teachers who appreciate these honest appraisals and direct feedback but it does add a certain level of 'pressure'.
It all sounds too good to be true. The downsides?
Well I suppose you have to watch out for the typhoons (laughs) and the pollution and traffic congestion can get you down a bit, particularly in the industrial areas down south and of course the capital city, Taipei. Things have improved a great deal though over the past few years. Taipei built itself a decent public transport infrastructure with bus lanes and an underground train system, which is modern and clean. The pollution and traffic chaos is nowhere near as bad as it is in Bangkok.
Let's move on to Japan.
Japan is great for the culture vulture. That really goes without saying. It's also terribly convenient - everything runs on time. You have the four seasons as well. It gets unbearably hot in summer and it can be brass monkeys and welding work in the winter months. Japan's a nice clean-living sort of place. You feel healthy and 'alive' there.
It all costs a fortune though?
Oh yeah, Japan is certainly not cheap. Transportation is pricey so it's difficult to get away for the weekend. Everything is expensive. I don't really know where to start.
But the potential is there for a teacher to earn money?
Well.....yes and no. The days of earning 'megabucks' in Japan have by and large disappeared because schools have capped teaching hours at around 25 hours a week. This means the teacher avoids going into a higher tax bracket and also means the school gets away with paying less tax as well. Of course, teachers still supplement their income with lucrative private work even though contractually the employer forbids such activity.
One of the difficulties for any new teacher arriving in Japan is the set-up costs. Even the most basic studio apartment will eat up 25% of a typical teacher's salary and that's assuming you can find one. We always provide our teachers with a basic studio apartment and things such as fridges, washing machines and cutlery. It takes a lot of the stress and headache out of those first few 'difficult' weeks as you adjust to your new surroundings.
I suppose I'm most interested in hearing about China. Probably because I get such mixed reports.
(pause) China. How can I summarize China? It's a kind of 'frontier teaching' meaning very often it's not for the faint-hearted. Teachers can get messed around a lot if they land themselves at the wrong school. many schools will have the teacher work in-house at the weekend and then outsource them to elementary schools during the week. This can result in lengthy commutes from one side of the city to another. China just isn't as structured as say Taiwan or Japan and as we all know - for the Chinese, business comes first and people come a very definite second. Salaries are not bad but you won't save as much money in China as you will in other countries.
I don't want to paint a completely negative picture of China though because it certainly has its good points. Teachers are often promoted to higher positions very quickly here. I've seen teachers get promoted within 12 months of starting a new job. More often than not there will also be a western manager who acts as the 'buffer' between the sometimes unpredictable Chinese bosses and those people in the teacher's room. You always need to be aware of cultural sensitivity in China though. You can definitely live cheaply in China but the same rules apply as they apply to Thailand. Spend half your life in western bars and fancy restaurants and your money can go very quickly. I would say big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are more expensive than Bangkok - but you can save money.
We haven't talked about Korea yet but you don't recruit teachers to go there anyway right?
No I don't, but I know plenty of teachers who have worked there. Korea is easily the number one choice if money is your primary goal. You can save a packet in Korea if you get with a good school. Unfortunately there are a hell of a lot of bad ones out there. Korean people can also be notoriously difficult to get along with, especially outside Seoul. There is something of a growing 'anti-foreigner' sentiment, which has mainly been the result of postings on popular discussion forums. Many foreign teachers are sadly looked down upon as almost 'sex tourists with fake degrees'. It's sad to see how opinions have developed for the worst, but the Koreans are a proud people and they are far more aware of what gets said about them on the internet than for example the Thai people are.
There's good and bad about every country Dave. I think you've proved that. Can teachers contact you if they have any questions about working in any of the places we've mentioned?
Oh I'd love to answer any questions. Teachers can e-mail me at email@example.com
Thanks for the interview Dave. Good luck to you and I hope we see your beloved Cambridge United back in the football league.
Well, we look to have a useful team this season so anything's possible. Speak to you soon.