He's a lecturer at a well-known university. He's about to take the Thai proficiency exam...and he's about to start his own business. He's an interesting fellow.
Welcome to the ajarn.com hot seat Hal. Now with you being a lecturer at a university, do you refer to yourself as a language facilitator, a lecturer, or a teacher like the rest of us?
Hi Phil, and thank you for the opportunity. When Thais ask me what I do, then I reply that I am an ajarn. If I meet some guy in the pub, I say I am a teacher. We all get called Ajarn at the university and I mostly talk to the Thai staff in Thai, so that’s the only reason I make the distinction. I don’t like the status distinction Thais make between being a kroo or being an ajarn, because in the final analysis we are all educators and we all work hard for the students.
Did you go straight into University work or have you come via the familiar private language school route? Where did you cut your teeth in other words?
I did a little bit of private work teaching IELTS for a private language school, but most of my experience has been back in the UK, managing a department and teaching on the IT and management side. I was lucky to get good job offers when I wasn’t looking for work at the time just through people I knew. They were good opportunities and I liked the people and institutions so I took them. I hear a lot of horror stories from some of my friends about teaching here, but fingers crossed - nothing bad so far.
I really did not want to teach children or solely English, so even though I have a CELTA to fall back on in case times are hard, I wanted to rely more on my professional and academic qualifications. I have nothing against those who work in the language schools, but I do feel those who are willing to work for paltry amounts just because they are not qualified can denigrate work conditions, pay, and reputations of foreign teachers here. This is not the teachers’ fault, really it’s because some the schools are very lax about standards and whom they employ, and they really in the final analysis only care about the money. Sure I realize that it’s a business, and businesses all exist to make a profit, but I would hope it would always be done with the students’ best interests at heart. It’s a shame that a lot of Thais that I talk to have quite a low opinion of the westerners who teach here. I would just like to add that I am talking in general. Personally I have not met a teacher here in Thailand who has not been 100% dedicated to their students.
Tell us a little about the number of contact hours you do and the size of the classes?
To be honest, the hours vary dependent on what the current requirements are, I would estimate I do about 15 hours a week teaching, though there is also other private work that comes up from time to time. Class sizes vary a little, but mostly I have about 10 – 25 students in each class. Normally each term I have different subjects to teach, so I do teach a lot of students at any one time. It’s hellish remembering all the names.
How’s the teacher’s room? Is it like a flagship for Thai-farang relations or is it ‘them’ on one side of the room and ‘us’ on the other?
The Thai staff are great, very helpful. We don’t have to hang around when we are not teaching so there is not really much interaction. I just turn up when required, teach, and then head off home.
I imagine that lesson prep and exam marking must take up a hell of a lot of your time?
Well it’s true exam time is hell because marking takes up a lot of time, and lesson prep can be pretty arduous at times. The curriculum is pretty much set and the students all have exams to pass at the end. I think the key is presentation, delivery and anticipation. My students are my number one priority and I will go out of my way to deal with any problems they have so I am always looking for ways I can improve as a teacher. Initially when you first start teaching preparation is incredibly important, as you gain experience preparation takes less time but it never loses its importance.
When you know you’ve just given a good lesson and the students are happy then it’s such a good feeling - all the preparation time really pays off. Proper prior planning and all that
Do lecturers in Thailand wear the tweed jackets with the vinyl elbow patches or do you go for the beige safari-suit look?
Very funny… It’s too hot to wear my tweed jacket here. Normally it’s just typical business dress, smart trousers, a long sleeved shirt, and a tie. Boring I know, but it’s what the students expect. At least we don’t have to wear silk shirts every Friday.
What extra-curricular activities do you get roped into?
Well I have to go out and drink and sing Thai karaoke with my students when the courses end. I have a repertoire of about 5 Thai songs I can squawk my way through - a couple of songs by Loso, Silly Fools, and Clash. That seems to keep the students happy and show them how 'jai dee' I am. The last time I went they only had about 6 songs in English and “Scarborough Fair” was the best of that lot…. I am hoping to get “roped into” trips abroad the next time the students go
What are the downsides of working at a large university?
Sorry to say I honestly can’t think of anything negative to say about where I work. My boss is amazing and incredibly supportive, the students are very attentive and motivated to learn. In fact I love my job. The staff are expected to deliver what is required without any interference and there are always other people you can turn to for advice. I guess I am lucky in that we all have quite a lot of freedom, which is an aspect I really like. That can also bring pressure on you to perform because there are high expectations, but on the whole it’s a great environment to work in.
You’re about to take the Thai proficiency examination. What does that involve exactly?
What seemed like a good idea at the time has pretty much turned into something that I can’t wait to finish. It’s been 3 months of mind numbing boredom, where you do the same thing every day and just practice the exam every day. They don’t even vary the format at the school at all, as a result we never have all the students in class at once, and I have been guilty of missing a couple of days here and there. It is an insight into how anally retentive the Thai educational system really is, I mean we even have to dress up in black trousers (or skirt) with a white shirt and tie for the exam (we also had to do that for the mock exams as well!)
Briefly, the test has 5 sections and the pass mark is 50%. Firstly you have to write a letter (20 marks) most of the marks are for the correct formatting of the letter and you have to draw an envelope and write the sender and addressee, you even have to draw a square for the stamp and write 2 baht in it.
The next section is to write a 30 line essay about a topic (30 marks), this could be anything, from “Why I love Thailand so Much”, to, “Who is the best person I know”. After that comes what is for me the worst (and most pointless) part, the dictation (20 marks). All that is required is that you must write down exactly what the teacher reads out, you hear it twice and they always choose words with irregular spellings and words that can be written about 20 different ways and still sound the same….. Then we move to the reading comprehension test (20 marks), 2 passages with some questions that may or may not relate to the passage and finally you have to read a piece out loud (10 marks). So that’s 100 possible marks. In the final analysis, there are no grades and a pass is a pass, so that’s all I’m aiming for.
And once you’ve passed it, do we have to ‘wai’ you with the hands raised slightly higher? What does it do for your status in Thailand?
In reality it means pretty much bugger all at the moment, however it is supposed to be a requirement for teachers in some sectors and it seemed like a good way to finish off my study of Thai. If you apply for residency here it’s supposed to help support your case as well. In the current political climate, and the fact that no one really knows what will happen in the future for us, I guess it’s my futile little attempt at staying ahead of the game before the goalposts are moved again.
The greatest benefit for me is that you can listen to people around you and understand what your students say about you, but you don’t need the exam to achieve that. It also helps you understand why Thais make the mistakes they do when they speak English. I have to be honest, Thai is not an easy language to learn and I still struggle in some situations. I had to go to Homepro to buy supplies for the business and my vocabulary was not adequate to the task. I guess “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” can apply for me here. I am still not fluent and perhaps I never will be, but I will never stop learning and trying to improve. The bor 6 exam is currently the only way of gauging ability with the Thai language and it is recognized by the Thai Ministry of Education and therefore the Thai government, although I feel there is too much emphasis put on writing and there should perhaps be an oral element.
When does being able to read Thai come in handy, apart from knowing you’re probably on the right bus?
Well Thailand is noted for its high quality literature…… In Bangkok most things are in English as well, but when you go up country then it’s very useful. I guess it’s nice to be able to read menus and Thai newspapers and get the news that is reported to the local population. You can also read friend’s girlfriend’s emails for them when they have problems….
Seriously though I guess the biggest benefit is you can insulate yourself from the dual pricing, which is one of the worst things about living here. Writing it can be useful, and I have ambitions of writing for a Thai publication one day.
You’re about to start off your own book business, so go on mate – give it a plug. What is it exactly?
Don’t laugh, but the business is called Thaibrary ( Thai + library). We have more than 3000 books and for a small monthly fee you can borrow up to five books per month, it’s also a drop in place where you can come and grab a coffee, put your feet up and have a quiet read. We have a website which should be up and running www.thaibrary.com and a percentage of the profits will be donated to Thai charities to fund education for children that don’t have the opportunities we have all been lucky enough to have. We hope to get up to around 10,000 books and I hope it will be a useful service, not just for the ex-pat community, but also for Thai people who want to cheaply improve and practice their English. If anyone wants to drop me a line or ask me any questions they can email me at: email@example.com . We will also be buying and selling second hand books, but the focus will be on providing any books people want to read, Teaching reference books, science fiction, fantasy, fiction, literature, etc. Lots of people don’t have space to store lots of books and they still love to read. Please feel free to pop in and take a look.
You will be able to see a full list of what we have available online as soon as I get chance to inventory the books, and possibly we might even think about a delivery and pick up service in the future. The library is located on Sukhumvit Soi 24, turn left after the 7-11 on the left hand side when you walk down soi 24 from Sukhumvit and it’s on the left hand side. Go up the stairs to the first floor and there we are. There will be a map and full directions on our website. I hope to open up on the 16th December in time for Christmas. To be honest everything is taking a bit longer to finish then I had anticipated, but I am hopeful we can open on time.
Where did you get the idea from?
Well the idea came to me when I was talking to some other teacher friends who work in Bangkok and everyone was complaining about the cost of books, I love reading and books are expensive here and their selection is not exactly great, and also the second hand book market is a real rip-off. So there was the idea to open a library of English language books. The challenge was to make it affordable for everyone and the hardest thing was finding a place to do it. Most bookshops in Thailand are Thai owned and they don’t have any idea about what we like to read and what is popular. I guess I read 2 books a week, mostly books that I brought from England, when you think the average price of a novel is around 300 baht, that is a lot of money. We will be charging around 150 baht a month for what I hope will be a quality service and access to good books. Hopefully we will also branch into providing music and English/American TV series DVDs as well.
Any plans to go into other business areas?
I have a couple of other ideas, but I guess I will have to see if the current one takes off or not first. A teaching collective that benefits the individuals and guarantees a good standard of teaching would be a good idea.
Will you always do a bit of teaching to ‘keep your hand in’ or do you dream of giving it up altogether?
I really enjoy teaching, and I will always keep it up, my students are absolutely fantastic, and I enjoy it a lot. It’s strange how some memories stick in your mind, so I will just relate one that I still remember. I was teaching a pre-course MBA class, and one student in particular was pretty troublesome, she was also the oldest in the class and was chatting away in Thai all the time even though her English was actually pretty damn good, I guess she thought she couldn’t learn anything useful, she would also come in late, answer her mobile in class etc. I really took my time with her, and made sure she realized that she would benefit from the class, and after 2 or 3 weeks she was a perfect student, after the term finished she asked if I would come and teach at her company. I guess I love the fact that as a teacher that you can make such a difference to someone.