The pandemic has meant hardship for many businesses in Thailand, including TEFL courses that rely on new arrivals being allowed into the country to do their teacher training programs. Eric Haeg runs one of Thailand's best known TEFL courses down in Phuket. We talk to him about all the problems he's faced.
Eric, welcome to the Ajarn Hot Seat. Many teachers are familiar with TEFL Campus Phuket, but for those who aren't, perhaps you could give us some background in terms of when the business was established and how many years it's been in operation, etc. Also, what about your background before you got involved in teacher training?
I now own the same TEFL training course I attended back in 2004.It was called Via Lingua and it operated in partnership with TEFL International. I taught English in South Korea before coming back to Thailand to teach science at Assumption College Sriracha. I also taught nights and weekends for a language center during that time.
After additional training, I came back to Phuket to work for International TESOL and TEFL Training (ITTT) as an online TEFL certification course tutor. ITTT owned Via Lingua as well, and I was promoted to Onsite Course Trainer shortly thereafter. I eventually became the Course Manager before purchasing the onsite portion of the training center in 2014.
We rebranded as TEFL Campus and have been running onsite, as well as combined format courses ever since.
If we go back to the good old days before Coronavirus struck, how was the teacher training business back then? Do you think Thailand was generally becoming more popular or less popular as a teaching destination?
TEFL training in Thailand has always enjoyed a healthy market, but the years just before COVID didn’t see as much interest as we did back in the heydays between 2008 and 2012.
China and Vietnam have both offered decent alternatives as of late, but if social media is any indication, Thailand remains a top destination for TEFL courses. While Thailand isn’t for everyone, I honestly think it’s an ideal country for those just starting out.
OK, let's go back to March 1st 2020. I remember the date well because I went to a football match in Bangkok and it was the first time I had ever had a temperature gun waved at me. Little did we know what was to come as Thailand then went into a partial lockdown for several months, incoming flights were banned and it all went to shit from there. Now, you were enjoying a family holiday back in the USA at the time, right?
Correct. My family and I left for what we thought would be a one-month holiday in my home state of Minnesota, USA. When we left Phuket, videos of Wuhan lockdowns were just coming out on YouTube, and there was an outbreak starting in South Korea. We had absolutely no idea what we were in for.
So you decided to stay where you were. I guess you didn't have that much of a choice?
It was such a different time back then. Images coming out of Italy were downright frightening, hospitals were filling up in major cities in the US, fear and uncertainty were the prevailing themes on every channel, and the number of events getting cancelled was growing exponentially. We could have gone home as scheduled, but we decided to delay our flights 48 hours before our scheduled return.
My daughter and I have respiratory issues, but we weren’t too fearful of that. Honestly, it was the thought of landing in Thailand and having one of my children run an innocuous high temperature before some hazmat-suited personnel rushed them off to quarantine, only to remain isolated for an extended period of “Thai” time with no answers being provided. I called a friend who works for a major chain of hospitals in Thailand and he confirmed my suspicions— he said there were patients with suspected cases of COVID and no one was allowed into their rooms for days on end.
Isolation would have traumatized our kids and we weren’t prepared to run that risk. We thought it would be a few weeks for things to settle down. We’d soon find out just how wrong we were.
I can't begin to imagine all the things you had to take care of. I'm getting stressed out just thinking about it. What were the most difficult or challenging aspects of staying put?
Looking back, it was the uncertainty of it all. We went from hoping to be back in June, then July, then August. Things got real once it became obvious that returning before the end of 2020 wasn’t realistic. Between walking away from pending flights, purchasing repatriation flights, booking ASQ, getting fit to fly certs and other paperwork, the price tag was US$ 10-12,000. We simply didn’t have the liquidity required on short notice.
I bet during this extended stay in America, there have been some dark days; dark moments when you've wondered if the world will ever open up again and you'll somehow get back to Thailand? Difficult to stay upbeat and positive perhaps?
I’m so proud of the way my family has handled all this, but it was dark at times. My wife and I basically took turns supporting each other on our bad days and that worked really well. But our bad days coincided twice and those were truly awful. Also, there was something about the New Year that had me soul searching those first days of January 2021. I hadn’t ever felt that level of despair and helplessness in my life.
Going back to the TEFL training business, a number of providers turned to offering on-line, distance learning programs to keep bringing in some revenue. Did you go down that route and if so - did it work?
No. I would have liked to develop an in-house online course component for our combined/hybrid TEFL course format, but it was simply too difficult to do while I was in the States. I was separated from staff, contacts, resources, materials, and nearly everything else it would have taken to develop a meaningful course. I focused on starting up an SEO consultancy business and worked part-time teaching Chinese adults online.
What are the main problems or issues involved with offering on-line TEFL courses as opposed to conducting the courses in a face-to-face training room environment?
It’s easy to accuse me of being biased, perhaps I am, but I’ve seen it from the inside. I’ve tutored online TEFL course students; I’ve written online TEFL course material and assessed students’ work; I’ve trained people who have come to our onsite course with online TEFL certificates. You can study ELT theory, English grammar, and phonology online, but effective teaching is difficult. It requires classroom training for the vast majority of those who lack prior experience in the classroom, or at least have experience training or coaching in some capacity.
But let’s be perfectly honest here: Even in-person training that includes teaching practice only provides a modicum of training. People study for years to become fully licensed teachers, so how can anyone become a “teacher” in four weeks? The answer is, they can’t.
But legitimate TEFL courses that hold to rigorous standards and provide teaching practicum with real students can turn trainees into decent, sometimes very good rookie EFL teachers. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and it’s due to the support trainers and peers can only provide in-person. And based on all the online course grads looking for help finding jobs, I strongly doubt online course programs can offer meaningful job support as well.
And of course, TEFL Campus Phuket is a bricks and mortar business. You needed to have staff taking care of the building maintenance, etc while you're away?
We suspended operations in Phuket after June 2020. Our Head Trainer was scheduled to retire that September anyway, and our part-time trainers understood the situation. Our receptionist has helped with duties here and there, and we reimburse her accordingly. I still do all the sales, marketing and admin work.
Viewed from afar, how do you think Thailand has handled the pandemic in general?
I’m not a virologist, but since you asked, I think they cut their nose off to spite their face. Sure, infection rates were zero for months, but at what cost?
Thailand made some good decisions in the beginning but then they took it too far. The redundancies in their repatriation program were absurd, and recent restrictions such as banning the use of public parks and outdoor areas suggest to me that they’re ignoring the science that would allow for a more effective middle patch approach.
But there is now light at the end of the tunnel and we now have the 'Phuket Sandbox' kicking off on July 1st. The rules appear complex at first glance but basically, tourists can now come here provided they fly directly to Phuket, have been vaccinated, spend their first week in Phuket at designated hotels, blah, blah, blah. Presumably you are using the Phuket Sandbox scheme as the easiest way of getting back into Thailand?
That’s correct. As soon as that proposal was announced, my wife and I decided to roll the proverbial dice. We’ve adopted a rather stoic approach and remain cautiously optimistic. One thing is certain though: I won’t relax until immigration stamps me in and that first burst of hot, humid Phuket air hits my face as I exit the terminal. Honestly, I’ll probably shed a tear of joy.
And has it been difficult to arrange all the transportation, accommodation and paperwork, etc?
After all my family and I have been through, it’s hardly a bother. I work on my end dealing with airlines and what I know about getting my visa/COE. My wife is a miracle worker when dealing with Thai officials, so she takes care of that end. We remind each other that these folks are probably as stressed dealing with us as we are dealing with them. A patient demeanour and genuine kindness go a long way.
I think the Phuket Sandbox will be used mostly for people like you - long-term expats who simply want to come home. It still sounds to me like far too much hassle (not to mention too costly) for your average 2-3 week package tourist. Would you agree?
I’m not so sure about the Sandbox plan being marketed for long-term expats. The way things are written, and the parties most interested seem to be hoteliers and tourism-related businesses.
As of right now, I might have to pay for 7 nights’ accommodation at a facility approved by Thailand’s Safety and Health Administration, yet I have a house in Phuket to go home to. That doesn’t help folks like me, but your average vaccinated holiday maker would jump at the chance to do it.
Either way, let’s hope the plan works, there’s no outbreak, and people can start living their lives again.
I was down in Phuket with my wife in December - the first time I have ever been and we thoroughly enjoyed having the place almost to ourselves. The beaches were stunningly beautiful now that there has been what the environmentalists might call a 'nature reset'. However, walk down the main streets of the most popular resorts, gaze on endless rows of boarded-up businesses and it's a very different story. Phuket desperately needs the tourist dollar. What are your thoughts on these extremely positive and negative strands running in parallel?
I know people who’ve closed their business and even had to move back home permanently. The first guy to set up a zipline in Phuket is back in Europe indefinitely now with his wife and 11-year-old daughter. They may never move back. It’s awful, but at least he had options.
The way the Thai government has left its citizens in financial peril is an abject failure. They erred far too much on the side of caution. Sure, what’s the point in worrying about money when you can’t breathe, but the will to breathe diminishes when you’re sitting in squalor. Thailand’s a Buddhist country but no one in power tried to find the Middle Path.
The arrivals will soon come and boarded up shops will eventually open. Phuket will rebound just as it did after the Asian crisis of ’97, the 2004 tsunami, and it’ll do it again.
Realistically, when can you see Phuket getting back to how it was in its tourism heyday (if of course that's what Phuket wants or needs)?
I think that it’s out of Phuket’s control. Even if the TAT miraculously made all the right moves, Thailand’s tourism goose isn’t going to lay another golden egg until people start feeling safe enough for a holiday overseas and the international aviation industry gets back up to running at capacity.
Assuming vaccine roll out continues around the world and no new strain renders them useless, maybe 2-3 years???
So you are arriving in Phuket on July 2nd. You must be getting quite excited. What have you missed most of all?
I miss my friends more than anything. After that, Thai food and hanging out on Koh Yao Noi - my happy place since 2004. I miss heading to a quiet beach at the last minute on a nice weekend, and trail running through Phuket’s jungles. I miss riding my motorcycle, and I honestly miss running the TEFL course. Oh, and I absolutely cannot wait to see what flavors Lays has released in the past 16 months. Maybe Watermelon Mutton or Vanilla Terrapins, they always keep us guessing.
You then have the task of getting TEFL Campus Phuket up and running again. What's your plan to take things forward?
We’re going to offer six courses in Phuket in 2021. We also started a partnership with CMU TEFL and offer courses up in Chiang Mai too. Before we start committing to new changes too fast, we’ll take a day-to-day approach, and hope to see what the post-COVID era will bring us as soon as possible.
Best of luck, Eric.