Give a warm welcome to the extremely likable Mr Hugh Butler, the Academic Director of English First Thailand. I’ve seen Hugh zipping around on the sky-train going from one EF branch to another, dripping in sweat, but all for a good cause – keeping the English First empire running smoothly.
As an academic director for a large EFL organization, you must work incredibly long hours. Does it ever get to the stage where you wonder what your apartment looks like?
Well, Phil, we’ve actually just moved into a new house. As you know, we were living “oop north” near Ladprao, but the commute was a bit of a stretch. We’re now on the Skytrain route, so getting to and from work is less of a pain. As regards the job itself, it certainly is a busy one, whether I am organising something centrally, or visiting one of our eleven centres. There is an awful lot to get done, but it does all get squeezed into a relatively normal working week, and I do manage to get evenings and weekends with Michelle, our son, Damon, and the dog, Bez.
How would you summarize your duties and responsibilities?
My job title is actually Academic Operations Manager. I think the cover-all description would be that my job is to support our centres and the EF organisation in Thailand from an academic point of view. The majority of my work is connected with supporting the centres through their Directors of Studies (DOS) and Centre Managers so that they can offer the best to their students.
Many teachers who have risen to the lofty heights of academic director have then gone back to being teachers again (me included). What about the old argument that you can actually make more money being an hourly paid teacher?
I think that is certainly true in some situations but it’s not all about the money, is it? We are looking at two quite different roles which have different attractions and require different skills sets. I think there are many who move into a DOS position based on experience as a teacher. I don’t think it is always a logical step. Being a good teacher is not necessarily the same as being a good DOS, though there are certain similarities. Some of these people simply do not enjoy the role, and therefore go back into teaching. The role involves many pressures, and is sometimes a thankless task.
What do you think of ADs who ‘bump up’ their own salary by stealing teaching hours from needy teachers? That goes on quite a lot here doesn’t it?
I’ve not had any direct experience of this in Thailand, but I am sure it goes on. To be honest, any DOS who increases their teaching load purely for financial gain is not looking at the bigger picture. The DOS’s role is to support teachers and be active in terms of professional development. Why “steal” a group from a teacher when you can better help them by allowing that teacher to gain more classroom experience and, through observation and feedback, to grow as a teacher. Furthermore, I don’t think this kind of attitude will help in terms of keeping teachers. Needy teachers would move on fairly quickly if this were the prevailing state of affairs, wouldn’t they? However, there are reasons for the DOS to teach. The DOS should be the most experienced teacher in the school. It is their job to deal with any classes with which, in their professional judgement, other staff members may have difficulty. This very often means examination or business courses, or more specific needs students. Part of the DOS role is to be a model for teachers. This involves having teachers observe your classes. If the DOS does not teach, then teachers can’t observe.
Is the standard of job applicants going up or down in general?
In general, I don’t think it has changed that much over the last year or so. The number of applicants seems to be diminishing, but the standard is, on average, still the same. Unfortunately, the majority of applicants are unsuitable.
When a new teacher arrives and starts a teaching career in Thailand, what are the most common problems you have to deal with?
There are a lot of issues here, but really it is a case of ensuring that the teacher is as comfortable as possible with the move to a new country. Many of the people we see have relatively little overseas experience, and there are many things that we “old hands” can forget. We have to be sure, also, that the communication between employee and school is as clear as possible, and that the centre’s policies are as transparent as possible. Most of the problems that come up are connected to a lack of clear communication.
Do you find that new teachers become too dependent on you and start coming to you with the most trivial problems?
A DOS certainly plays a “mother hen” role to a certain extent. I have found myself “in loco parentis” from time to time, and often with teachers older than myself. One of the traps a DOS can fall into is the belief that if something needs doing, it is often quicker and smoother to do it yourself. This just leads to further expansion of a job description that is already full.
How much teaching did you actually do yourself before you took up your place in the academic director’s chair and what’s your favourite age group to teach?
I was a full-time teacher for a couple of years in Korea before becoming ADOS and then DOS about 6 years ago. I don’t think I need to remind anyone of teaching schedules in Korea, but our minimum was 30 a week, starting at 6:30 in the morning and finishing at 10:00 at night. Everything since then has been a veritable walk in the park. In EF, with whom I have been working for over four years now, the DOS has a maximum teaching load to ensure they have enough time for the other parts of the job. The usual would be between eight and twelve teaching hours per week. As I mentioned above, this includes specialist groups to which other teachers in the school might not be suited.
I’ve taught across the board, and don’t actually have a favourite age group. I used to prefer young adult classes, but since having a son I have found that I can deal with younger learners equally easily – I think most of the skills one acquires being a parent can and should transfer into the classroom.
What qualities are important for you to have and for anyone thinking of taking up this extremely demanding role?
In terms of my current role, the key part of the job is support. This often involves providing solutions to problems, or training when there is a gap in knowledge about certain aspects of the operation. Being able to communicate effectively is essential in both these areas, and 50% of the people I deal with are not native English speakers. I still use a lot of what I learnt as a teacher. Flexibility, I suppose, is the other absolute must. I have to be able to turn my hand to almost anything, whether it be managing, teaching, training, fixing photocopiers, marketing… and the list goes on.
Have you ever been involved in a good old slanging match with a teacher in full view of the Thai staff? You’ve always struck me as a very easygoing guy, but has an EFL professional ever squared up to you and questioned your parentage?
Never. Certainly, I have had differences with staff members, but it has never been on a personal level, and I would never take part in any form of argument in front of other staff. There are situations in which you need to fight to remain calm, but I always seem to manage it. Then I go home and stick pins in my collection of little dolls.
How do you make sure that in the classroom, teaching standards are being maintained and the teacher doesn’t spend thirty minutes of every lesson telling students about life back in the old country?
I’m not dealing directly with teachers much in my current job, but as a DOS this is a huge part of the job. Teachers fall into the behaviour you outlined for a combination of reasons. It could be a lack of confidence with a group, a lack of training in terms of the materials which should be used, a lack of planning, or laziness. The first three can be remedied easily enough. The last one hangs a large question mark over that person’s future as a teacher.
Thailand is a great place to teach English or man, I’m outta here?
Thailand certainly is a great place to live. The ELT industry is growing rapidly, but not addressing many of the “teething” problems that have led to the current state of play. The majority of players seem to me to be reactive rather than proactive. I think it is our job to pass on our experience from other regions with a more mature industry to help the companies and schools in the Thai market.
The Ministry of Education are allegedly about to streamline the process of applying for a work permit, etc and making the whole much easier. Is much of your working day spent dealing with red tape?
Not nowadays, but I have a lot of experience in this area. The whole process certainly does need streamlining. The way it stands presents a barrier to employment for both employers and employees where it should be a simple administrative process.
Whenever I’ve popped in to see you, you’re beavering away in front of the computer. What’s your favourite website and would I need to become a member to fully enjoy it?
Much of my job involves producing procedural documents, hence the “beavering”. Our teacher-training programme is constantly being updated, and the web provides a multitude of resources. We also have our own EF Intranet so that we can keep up-to-date with what is happening in other EF regions. To qualify for the Order of the Brown Nose, I should mention that ajarn.com and the TIT board get hit on a regular basis. In terms of recreational surfing, though, I check the news on the brilliant www.whatreallyhappened.com site or The Guardian, but I have gone off the latter since they blocked free access to the crosswords!
Finally Hugh, the school you work for has branches all over the world. Have you got your sights set on an office overlooking Lake Lucerne or perhaps a two-minute stroll from the central market in Marrakech? Will you ever tire of the Land of Smiles?
Funny you should mention Marrakech. Before coming to Thailand, I worked for EF for 3 years in Morocco. It’s probably the most fascinating country I have visited, and Michelle keeps nagging me to go back, but I can’t trust her to get “just a few things” in the souks! As for the next move, who knows? It could be Florida, Spain or back to Blighty…