Hot Seat

David Fahey

Mr David Fahey, who describes himself as Managing Director, Senior Trainer and general dogsbody at Creative Language Solutions, puts down his mop and floor-shine to answer Bangkok Phil's tedious questions.

Q

Thanks Dave for taking your place in the hot-seat. Now first up is one of my old favorites - between the British, the Australians, and the Americans, who are the ones who bring that certain harmony to the teacher's room with their witty banter and nothing is too much trouble attitude?

A

It depends where you’re coming from Phil. Personally I find Thai jokes easier to get than American and Australian ones but I do find that Aussies tend to complain the least. Americans on the other hand, whilst often telling us Brits that we whine too much (which we do), also do their fair share and tend to always be on the defensive. Americans teachers I find tend to be the most culturally intolerant (very generally speaking).

Q

We hear a lot about the lack of female teachers in Bangkok. Can we encourage more women to work here or is it always going to be a predominantly male domain?

A

I would love to see more female teachers in Bangkok as I think a woman on staff would certainly bring a much better balance at Creative. I’m not sure exactly why there aren’t more female teachers in Bangkok but I don’t think it’s solely down to the usual reasons given. I have met quite a few female teachers though and they have been generally very positive. Maybe women just have more sense and go where there is much more money to be made like Japan or Europe. I don’t know.

Q

Where do you stand on the native vs non-native speaker issue? Can Lars from Sweden really do the job as well as Dave from Dagenham?

A

I think that the future of English language teaching in Thailand isn’t in the hands of foreigners anyway, native or otherwise. It is down to the Thais themselves. Until Thai people develop a sense of ownership of the language, rather than looking at it as being something that farangs do, then progress will always be slow. Look at the “Happy Birthday” song. Thais didn’t have one so they took the English version, changed it a bit and now own that version. They just have to do the same thing with the rest of the language and if the result isn’t exactly the same as British or American English or whatever, then who cares? Indians, Filipinos, Singaporeans and Malaysians seem to do just fine. I’d like to see more Thai teachers coming through, perhaps younger and more outgoing, who can start showing folks that they can have English as well as their own language.

In the meantime, I think that non-natives who have mastered English and have teaching qualifications can contribute a great deal as they are more likely to be aware of what it takes to learn English. Native speakers, who only constitute around 6% of the world’s English speaking population anyway, have generally never made an attempt to learn any foreign language and if they have, have failed miserably. They have never studied the grammar and vocabulary of their own language because the education system doesn’t require them to know about it. Ludicrously enough though, they then go and impart “valuable advice” to students about how to learn English. Marvellous. Unfortunately until the market realizes that aping an American or British accent isn’t the key to effective learning, then it is always going to make it hard for language schools and students alike to access and benefit from the knowledge that many professional non-native speaking teachers possess.

Q

"Teaching is an ability you are born with and for some people, all the training courses in the world won't help them" I forget who said it, but as a teacher trainer, can you turn the no-hopers into top performers? Actually, I've just remembered. It was me.

A

Having a background in neuro-linguistics, where modelling excellent performance and trying to replicate it is pretty fundamental, I think the answer is “yes”, as long as that person wants to be better. However, people who haven’t completed at least the CELTA or another recognized TEFL training course will always under-perform I think. Would-be teachers need to realize that while having an outgoing personality and great interpersonal skills are important, so is understanding the learning process and how to deliver language in a way that is learner friendly. Most critics of TEFL courses usually haven’t done one and seem to forget or don’t understand that those offered by the more recognized institutions have been put together via a combined experience of tens, probably hundreds, of years by people who have devoted their lives to furthering the TEFL profession. So if you’re a “no-hoper”, go and get a good TEFL qualification. Unfortunately, the “no-hopers” are usually the people who are too thick-skinned to ever believe that they might be doing more damage than good.

Q

When we first ran the hot-seat about three years ago, most of those interviewed said that 35-40,000 was a decent teacher's salary. Surely 50,000 would be nice though eh Dave?

A

It would, and then some. But until the Thai government and consumers wise up to what the difference between a farang and a qualified TEFL teacher is, then all the thick-skinned no-hopers mentioned above are always going to keep the industry and the profession on its knees.

Q

You obviously do a fair amount of interviewing. If a teacher turns up for an interview casually dressed with no necktie, what are your first thoughts?

A

Obviously I notice but I won’t judge them immediately on that basis. That being said, I won’t tolerate any staff, teachers or otherwise turning up to work looking like they have just got out of bed.

Q

What's the number one mistake that applicants make with their resumes?

A

Laziness with spelling. I hate that and generally just chuck any resumes with spelling mistakes in the bin. I was once told that when getting on a plane, to check the tray on the back of the seat in front of you. If there are coffee stains on them, imagine what the state of the engines will be. If a teacher is too lazy to be bothered preparing his or her own resume properly, then I reckon they are probably too lazy to prepare their lessons properly too.

Q

Now, I can't do this interview without giving ajarn.com a plug. What kind of response do you typically get to an advertisement?

A

I get anywhere between 40 and 100 resumes. Ajarn.com does play a really important role in the Thai TEFL industry and I kick myself everyday that I didn’t think of it first!

Q

As you are aware, many teachers feel that Thailand no longer wants them (increased visa fees, work permit fees, etc). Is it going to become much harder to make a living as a teacher in The Land of Smiles?

A

Harsh as it may seem, I welcome the chucking out of people who have neither the appropriate qualifications nor a work permit. It has never been easier to get a work permit for qualified people and in the long run I think it will make life easier for real teachers and legitimate training companies and language schools.

Q

"Hello Dave, I have a TEFL certificate, but no degree" Do you ask a few questions or slam the phone down?

A

I try to be sympathetic because I value a (recognized) TEFL certificate more than the degree in the vast majority of instances. However, students and the government don’t because they base the work permit process on Thailand’s education system which has no such qualifications. Basically it’s a case of no degree, no chance. In addition, people with a degree, like in most other professions are more marketable – especially if it is in some way relevant and complements the TEFL cert. A degree is marketing or HRM is useful for teaching business English. Degree but no TEFL? - I slam the phone down!

Q

The old-hands always say never conduct a job hunt by sending e-mail applications. Why is it then that Thai administration staff are so poor at handling e-mail enquiries?

A

I don’t have much experience of this because I haven’t been on a job hunt for a long time. However, I would hazard a guess and say that it’s for two reasons – 1. They don’t understand the email and so ignore it. 2. Computer class never taught them how to use e-mail. It was all sanook.com and clipart. Some companies however, I’m sure get so many enquiries from unsuitably qualified people that replying to them all would require hiring someone dedicated to just this task – and language schools can’t afford that. Unfortunately, sifting through emails can be come such a chore that I think lots of people skip through them. And then there’s that really annoying habit some people have of attaching 35 files with a copy of their passport, degrees, photos etc. It takes ages for them to down load and I for one usually don’t have enough free time to wait around. So anyone reading this thinking of applying for a job, just a nice one or two page resume is great for a first contact.

Q

What would you say is the maximum number of hours that a teacher can do before they begin to lose their effectiveness? Or just become plain knackered?

A

It depends on the teacher, their level of experience, enthusiasm for the job and the kinds of classes he or she is teaching and in what environment. Newbies generally can’t handle a lot of classes. They are prone to much more stress caused by anxiety associated with teaching a class. 15 hours is enough for them with the extra time put into planning and watching other more experienced teachers. Older, more experienced hands can gauge the class more quickly and think much more on their feet. In addition, they come armed with a much wider array of games and activities so the effort they need to put in is less because their experience makes up for it. Some lessons have been done so may times that moving through them is pretty effortless and another trick is making sure that the students work harder than you. I’d say 25 hours in an air-conditioned room is pretty easy for an experienced, energetic teacher. Again, I am assuming all have a TEFL qualification.

Q

I heard a publishing rep tell me that out of every 100 language schools that open in Thailand, over 80% will close within the first year. Why is it such a difficult business to be successful at?

A

In Thailand ease of entry and low start up costs mean that pretty much anyone can open a language school. And they do. English has taken on a commodity-like nature in Thailand – like rice and steel - which forces prices down. When you look at what it costs to hire a foreign teacher versus what students can or are willing to pay, it isn’t hard to see that the two are disproportional.

It is possible to be successful but it takes a combination of three things – a sound experience and knowledge of TEFL, both in general and in Thailand, good management skills and enough money to survive the first two or three years while you establish a reputation. You need at least two of these (and money is the most useful) I reckon to begin with and the third quality needs developing along the way.

Usually though, all three are lacking. Teachers fail when they try to start a language school because they think that by being a great teacher translates to being able to build great language schools. They give little thought tom the notion that language schools are businesses and like any other business, they will succeed because they have sound business systems operated by competent managers. Look around in Bangkok. The biggest language schools are the ones that are most often criticized by teachers for being sweatshops, hiring dropkicks or paying pittances etc. There’s the proof. They don’t have the best teaching I’m sure but I’d be willing to bet they have the best business systems. Where margins are so tight, cash flow management is vital and in an industry where employees tend not to hang around too long, strong systems are more important than teachers. In addition, positioning is vital. Most schools are underpositioned which means that they don’t occupy any particular place in the consumer’s mind. All this does is lead to price wars as that is the only attribute that customers can distinguish between. The result? – the 80% you mentioned above.

I’m thinking purely from a business perspective here though. In reality, ethics are important too and providing high quality services through trained teachers is important. Finding a balance between systems and services is essential for success. The most important of these is recognizing that cash flow is more important than profit.

The other scenario is the “rich middle-aged big-haired Thai woman”, as you put it once before Phil, opening up a shop, putting in a farang, a couple of books and calling it a school. These places suffer from a total lack of understanding regarding TEFL in Thailand and the industry in general. However, I don’t even think the owners care if they make money most of the time. As the Thai government gives you a tax break for operating a school, I suspect that many Thai people who open a school do so because they have too much money, not because they want to make more. The school provides a legal shield against the taxman.

Q

Apart from a big salary, loads of holiday, and a fat Xmas bonus, what do you think it's important for a language school to provide for a teacher?

A

A work permit and visa and a system through which the teacher can develop in their role as a teacher and in areas of teaching they find interesting. Clear opportunities for career development are always nice, but not usually the case in TEFL due to the fragmented nature of the industry resulting in a predominance of small companies – like mine.

Q

What advice would you give to someone thinking of making the move and coming to teach in Thailand?

A

If you have a degree and a TEFL qualification (or intend to do one here) then come. Thai students will no doubt get a great deal of benefit from having you here and you are sure to wind up having a great experience. If you are coming intending to teach without learning how to teach first, or are thinking you will teach because you can’t do anything else in Thailand, even though back home teaching is the last thing you would do and the idea of pulling your eyes out seems preferable, please don’t come.

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