Back in 2006, ajarn.com conducted an interview with Teacher Rico, as he set out to turn the Thailand TEFL world on its head and provide a forum for teachers to report their good and bad experiences with Thai schools (mostly bad). Two years later and Teacher Rico has decided to call it a day. Ajarn.com catches up with Greg (the teacher formerly known as Rico) and attempts to find out why.
Greg, Welcome. Thanks for agreeing to have a chat with us. You've had a good run with Thai TEFL Watch. Keeping it going for two years has been no mean feat. In a nutshell - and I'm sure you'll get the chance to elaborate later on - why have you decided to call it a day?
Well, I figured that here in the Hot Seat is where it all started and here in the Hot Seat is how it should end. In short, I've called it a day because TEFLWatch ceased to be the type of site that I knew it could be. I felt that it was no longer benefiting teachers. I only took it on to help teachers and that's only reason why I kept it going. When external factors changed that, I could see no reason to continue the site.
As murmurs of TEFL Watch's closure reverberate around the corridors of power in schools the length and breadth of the country, do you think school owners will be breathing a huge sigh of relief or not that many cared? Are most of them likely to say 'what's TEFL Watch when it's at home?'
Oh, for certain there are some schools that are overjoyed. I have a feeling that one TEFL school in Chicago is particularly happy. They have felt that TEFLWatch exists solely to get even with them. Of course, that is what several other schools have thought as well. Maybe that was one of the plusses that TEFLWatch offered the TEFL World. We appeared as if we were tailor-made to put teachers on a level playing field with schools.
I am sure this is where the question about how much success TEFLWatch had in its operation comes up, right? Well, during it's more than 2 year run, countless teachers have avoided employers and recruiters that are less than honest. It's not been limited to Thailand, but it's been around the world. For example, I've put out warnings that have done at least something to protect teachers in the Philippines from illegal recruiters. Not a week goes by that I haven't got some form of thank you from teachers who have benefited from the information provided.
I think the schools that have been actively trying to get information off of TEFLWatch will consider this a victory, but for the majority of schools, they will not care one iota either way. And why should they?
You went under the name Rico. Then it was Uncle Che for a while if I remember correctly. You're also known as Whitey and Greg. You'll always be Greg to me. Do you think that operating under various user names or pseudonyms detracted from the site? I mean sometimes it was difficult to know exactly who was in charge.
During my time in Mexico years ago, I got the nickname Rico and it has stuck with me. I took on the name Uncle Che to run the forum, kind of as a play on Uncle Sam. Whitey? I picked up that nickname solely for Ajarn Forum when it made one of its switchovers. I've been Greg since I was born.
I think not knowing who was in charge was something that the site did successfully. I'd say TEFLWatch jumped the shark when I let out my real name. I asked advice from my mods and it was really a crap shoot on whether it was a good idea or not. The way I figured it, the "bad" guys, aka school admins, already knew my name, why not let the users know the same thing? Bad move on my part.
For a short while, you handed over the reigns to Andy. Now I'm all in favor of quirkiness but don't you think that expressions such as 'I've got your backs my homies' from a goatee-bearded Latino homeboy was a rather strange image for a TEFL website? I gotta level with you - it always fascinated me in a strange kind of way.
At the time I handed over the reins, I felt that we were at a critical juncture. I knew you had a meeting with some schools that were asking about me. I believe you when you said you told them nothing, but I got to thinking. As long as you had knowledge about the ownership in TEFLWatch and people saw a connection between the two sites, I felt that it put you in an awkward situation. I like the idea of plausible deniability.
I asked people who I trusted who were outside of Thailand to give me some help. A friend heeded the call. I asked him to do the write-ups. He had a lot of fun, but he dropped it after awhile. I just couldn't write like he could.
A lot of people have made claims about who they thought Andy was really. The most humorous was the school admin who made posts claiming that Andy was really the Ajarn Columnist, Curt Crossley. His proof? Ajarn.com and TEFLWatch had used the same clip art image. TEFLWatch used it to advertise the site, Ajarn.com used it as a logo for the columnist.
To answer point blank if Andy was one of my pseudonyms, I will just say this. The writing was over the top and an interesting style. If I could write like that then I'd be the American Ali G.
Lets go back to what you might call a gentleman's agreement. The ajarn forum had a policy not to have threads naming and shaming schools, however, we would direct people to TEFL Watch in the event they might like to spout some vitriol. It's hardly rocket science is it? It's hardly what you would call a complex business plan? And yet it all seemed to go tits up. What's your take on that?
When you allow an environment to exist where people are encouraged to be angry, you are bound to get people who go overboard and instead of dealing with their anger in a positive way will allow their anger to build and build. In that kind of environment you are also likely to get people with diminished social skills who will do what they can to make these angry individuals even angrier.
Despite these inherent negatives, it's quite striking that things went along quite well for most of TEFL Watch's run. I credit that to the spectacular team of moderators. Unfortunately, things started to take different turn when a particular school decided to try a new way to get the information taken down and that involved corrupting less than honest teachers. I don't blame the teachers, I blame the school. The school is the one at fault. Enough about that, this isn't the place for accusations, rather this is the place for closure.
You've often said that ajarn.com (and I presume you would mean the website) has a responsibility to name and shame schools. Go on mate, get it off your chest. And every time you mention the words 'advertising revenue' you have to donate twenty bucks to my favorite charity.
I don't need to mention that dirty word combo. I'm sure your favorite charity is not my favorite charity. Seriously though, when a forum exists, there is an invitation to discuss topics. Restricting topics to those that are advertiser friendly makes it very clear that your forum is operated not as a place to discuss topics but as a place to make as much money as possible. The Ajarn empire is making money from teachers who are taking these less than golden jobs, but I see that the Ajarn empire is unwilling to do anything to help teachers get a better deal.
I think it's quite obvious that the sites exist to help schools, not the other way around. That's OK, everyone needs to make money, I just think the Ajarn empire needs to be clear about this to the masses in general and newbies in particular. I see absolutely no disclosure policy on either the Ajarn.com or Ajarn Forum sites and I think it's time to see one.
As long as Ajarn Forum purports to help teachers, then it's time the forum starts honestly helping teachers.
I'm looking back at the interview you did in 2006. You said at the time that you felt you had a great set of moderators. I don't want to dwell on this and please let's not name names, but it hasn't been all plain sailing in the moderator department has it?
I think I choose a great set of moderators. Most of my moderators have done a fabulous job in making the best of a tough situation. I know I am not a born leader and my management and people skills leave something to be desired. In fact, I admit that I was probably one of the worst forum admins out there. The only reason why the site survived as long as it did was due to some very exceptional moderators.
All of my choices for moderators didn't work out like I'd hoped they would. When one of my moderators jumped the shark several months into the forum, I made a very bad mistake. Instead of eliminating him as a mod, I tried to get him to reform his posting. It didn't happen and that turned out to be a bad deal. When I did finally do what I should have done earlier, it was too late. I had allowed it to go too far. I tried to cover for it by bringing on another moderator that I didn't properly vet and even when I was presented with evidence of impropriety, I ignored it. In that respect, I failed to exercise good judgment. I let my mod team down.
What kind of effect do you feel that trolls had on the TEFL Watch site (bearing in mind that a site of this nature is sure to attract plenty of them)?
Sometimes teachers wouldn't know when to stop talking about a school. These teachers would eventually turn the school into the victim because after you read the same type of post for the 100th time, you start to understand why the teacher was caned. Of course, those types of teachers weren't the trolls.
I don't like using the term trolls. I think bullies is a better word. Online bullies were the ones that would purposely take an opposite position to the complaining teachers in an effort to satisfy their bullying desires. Fortunately, for much of TEFL Watch's run, we had very few bullies. Unfortunately, you should never underestimate the tenacity of someone who takes money to do a job. Things forever changed when someone realized that you could pay a cyber bully to take care of your teacher problems.
In the end, the bullies made it difficult to go on. In effect, I didn't want my users bullied by online thugs. When people, including me, started being stalked online, I realized that enough was enough.
I wasn't a regular visitor to TEFL Watch Greg I must confess, but I will say this. You and I have always had a mutual respect for each other, probably born from the fact that we have met face to face. Slowly over time, even though I only had your internet words to go on, it was clear to me that running the forum was stressing you out. Surely there are times when you have to say well, this isn't worth it - no matter how noble the cause may seem?
I wish I was a more stoic person. I wish the insults could have rolled right off of my back, but they didn't. I was flabbergasted by some of the insults and maybe I took them to heart too easily. Yes, I let the stress get to me. And when I did let it get to me too much, I came to the conclusion that the only way forward was to close up TEFL Watch. It ceased to be worth it.
It's been said that I wasn't the best person to lead TEFL Watch. Maybe that's true. Maybe there are many others who could have done a better job in leading TEFL Watch, but the reality is that I was the only person willing to stand up and make it work. I was the only willing one to put everything on the line to help teachers. I brought in a great team of moderators who felt the same towards this noble cause and we tried our best to make it work.
No one has a right to say they could have done better. If anyone out there truly feels they could have done a better job, I ask, where were you? Why didn't you do your best to help TEFL Watch succeed?
Last year, there was a particularly 'nasty' thread - full of attacks on a well-known TEFL course provider. And then you dropped the case. Perhaps I shouldn't be going down this route but is there something you'd care to comment on?
I frankly grew tired of the increasing personal attacks leveled against the course provider's CEO. I have always had immense respect for his marketing ability, even if I thought they were less than 100% honest. I also didn't agree with some of his business practices and felt they left much to be desired, but the truth was that this man was always trying hard to make things better for the TEFL community at large.
As I poured over more and more of the complaints, I felt that people, including myself, were holding this man to a standard that they themselves were unable or unwilling to live by. Every one of us have made mistakes in our life and done things that we thought were best at the time, but later we found out they were mistakes.
This man had admitted he made mistakes and I felt that the best thing for everyone concerned was to put this matter in the past. I don't know about you, Phil, but I sure hope that people can forgive me for the mistakes I have made. Forgiveness is usually the best way forward.
The short of it is that I decided enough was enough. Since forgiveness and closure is such a foreign concept to some people, I was accused of taking money to take the threads down. It's funny that some people have such a negative outlook on life, that they are unable to see the good in others and can only see the bad.
What were some of the rumors and half-truths about you or TEFL Watch the forum?
Oh, I have heard people posting things like that I have multiple wives, that I have been fired from schools, that I am an abusive teacher, that I have horns coming out of my head, that my children are not really mine. It's even been said that I got an account on Ajarn Forum and used it to make trollish posts. Get the idea? The most humorous of all is that I ran the forum as a moneymaking enterprise. Since July, all of the revenue from TEFLWatch has been funneled into projects that help disadvantaged children.
You know I should just be laughing all of this off, but in all honesty, I have been a member of Ajarn Forum since 2000. I consider many of the posters to be friends. To see people I consider to be friends saying such nasty things is really saddening indeed. People who I have been friendly with over the years have suddenly ignored me because of what someone else has told them. When it's a complete stranger saying something, it's easy to ignore. When it is someone you consider to be a friend, it hurts like hell. I sure wish I could be a cold and calculating person, but just about everyone who knows me knows that I will go out of my way to help someone, even if I am not particularly fond of them.
Introducing the Hall of Shame category was a very bold move. Do you look back on that as a good decision? Do you think that some schools suffered unnecessarily or generally they got what they deserved?
It was the best feature of the TEFLWatch. It has since been removed from the site. I think putting it up was the best decision I ever made. Sometimes, it was tough to separate the BS from the truth on the forum. The Hall of Shame was always about me taking a look at the information given and then making a judgment call myself. Is this plausible? Do I believe what this teacher had to say? Would I want my friends working at the school? I don't think any school suffered unjustly and I also do not think that any school got what they deserved. For the schools that cheated and screwed over their teachers, getting listed in the Hall of Shame paled in comparison to the deeds they were guilty of.
Now TEFL Watch has closed, do you see someone else crazy enough to pick up the gauntlet (and I use the word crazy in the nicest possible way)?
I frankly do not care if someone else picks up the gauntlet, but anyone willing to pick up the gauntlet now will get scarce help from me. To anyone thinking about picking up the gauntlet, I ask, where were you? What did you do over the course of the last 2 years to make things better for teachers by allowing them to express their opinions? I am certainly not bitter, I just think that the time has come and gone for this type of site. In particular, the environment in Thailand has turned into every man for himself.
Anyways, I think any other site would see scant long term success without having an admin on the take. Frankly, more than a couple of bad schools have seen just how effective it is to have minions do their dirty work. They now know that it isn't about presenting your side of the story, it is about destroying the messenger.
What about your future plans Greg? Are you riding off into the cyberspace sunset as the school owners are left licking their wounds?
Well, first off, I want to make clear some future plans for the immense data collected on schools over the course of the last two years. I have been contacted by someone who is looking at making a site that is only for the rating of schools. He's asked the for the database, but I need to clean it up first so that all personally identifiable information is washed clean. I still haven't decided if letting the information be used is a good idea or not. I do not want it to be misused in anyway, shape or form.
For me personally, I have dusted off my sandals and moved on from online TEFL communities. I will no longer be regularly posting on any of the various TEFL sites. It's been suggested that I join in the discussion about this interview, but frankly, any posting I make will just turn into an argument. I think there was already been too much negativity. With many different pots on the stove, so to speak, I have scant time to devote to things that are at best a negative time pursuit.
My newest project will center around providing those who want to get abroad and be able to support themselves with the tools they need to succeed. Phil, you know that at one time in my life I was broke as can be in Thailand. That's all changed. With the tools and techniques that I have learned, I now have the income to live wherever I want to live. I am working less and earning more than at any other time in my life. I'm a teacher, I can't get this out of my blood so my next project is to help people get this same kind of freedom.
It's certainly been a roller-coaster ride. To finish, in one of your e-mails to me, you said that the 'TEFL business was dying'. Care to elaborate? - at least for those left behind.
I think I misspoke, what I mean to say is that the traditional TEFL teacher is going to be a thing of the past. That traditional employment model is dying. Look at job growth in the industry. I know there are no accurate measures to look at job growth, but it appears as though any job growth is decelerating, worldwide. I think you can look at some countries and actually see job losses among native English speakers.
Why is this happening? Maybe it's because of the growth in online English learning. Maybe it's because of the growth in alternatives ways to study English. Maybe it's because of the increased effectiveness, worldwide, of L2 English teachers. Any weight that these are putting on the current job market are only going to be amplified over time.
With the huge numbers of people filling up TEFL courses, the pool of qualified teachers is getting larger. An example is the insatiable demand for teachers in China. Wages are not increasing that rapidly in China. In fact some long term teachers, if job forums are to be believed, claim wages are going down. That seems to be because schools are not finding it difficult to find teachers at the wages they are willing to pay. There is always someone fresh off the boat willing to work for less than you.
I think there will always be some awesome opportunities in the TEFL industry, but you need to get out of the TEFL classroom and quit competing against fresh 4-week wonders. It might mean getting into TEFL support services or even parlaying your experience into a new business. You can still be a teacher, but if you are choosing a long term expat lifestyle, the days of relying solely on TEFL income are coming to an end.