Hot Seat

Jason Alavi

After starting off as a salaried teacher at a private language school, Jason got the idea to supply teachers to Thai schools and became what's effectively known as an 'agent'. Since then he's never looked back and now provides teachers to several schools in the Rangsit area

Q

Hi Jason. You started off in Thailand as a plain old teacher at ECC. Do you miss anything about the good old days?

A

Sure! I miss the spontaneity, the bright eyed curious attitude I used to have and the relaxed, informal vibe of those classrooms. Everything I do now is so fraught with intense scrutiny and competition, the nature of the beast. I teach on Saturday mornings, at a local University, just because I miss the rapport between a teacher and students who actually want to learn!

Q

Both of your parents were college professors. I guess you always knew you'd end up in education right?

A

My Dad's retired but my Mom is still teaching part time and two of my sisters also teach so, yeah, it sometimes felt predestined. I think that growing up in a household where everybody around me was talking about teaching and learning helped a lot. It was almost as if I had 23 years of informal teacher training by the time I finished college. I fought it tooth and nail, like a good rebelling child does when he tries to find his own identity, but always felt that I would end up in education.

I taught my first conversational English class to Karen refugees, in Mae Hong Son, in 1987, when I was an exchange student there for my Mattayom 5 year. That gave me a taste and I found that I liked it and had a bit of a natural aptitude. I’ve been teaching, off and on, ever since. I’ve been administrating full time for the last three years, but I taught and administrated before that. I think it helps, as an administrator, that I’ve taught and had to do all of the things that I ask my teachers to do. I’ve paid my dues, done all the shlep work and it’s hard for a teacher to con me, because I’ve seen it all before.

Q

What originally sparked the idea to become an agent and start supplying teachers to schools?

A

Well, back in 2002, I quit from my position as Head of Personnel at a local international school. The school I was at was very well funded, but (in my opinion) the ownership didn’t really know how to run a school and I was burned out! I definitely did NOT want to have to deal with a Thai boss ever again.

I said to my wife “We can either go back to America or try our hand at a local business.” She thought we should try to open up our own English language school, because she had business management experience and I had the language ability and the teaching/administration experience in education. The proper licenses were going to take 6 or 7 months to clear, so I went to work, part time, for a well known local language school chain in the meantime, to bring some revenue in.

They sent me to a famous high school in Rangsit to teach conversational English for 20 hours a week, the typical “Normal Program” setup. There were 5 agencies providing teachers there at the same time. I was the only teacher who started the academic year who also finished it. There was a turnover of 44 teachers that year! The school was making the usual mistakes…no contracts, hourly (unguaranteed) pay, no visas or WPs, putting unqualified, uncaring shrews in charge of dealing with the foreign teachers, etc, etc. Due to the fact that I speak Thai, I sort of became the unofficial “go to guy”. Every time there was some confusion or misunderstanding between a Thai teacher or student and a Western teacher, I became the interpreter. I never really thought about having my own agency, it just sort of fell in my lap! At the end of the academic year the Principal asked me if I would like to try to do it, full time, as the only agency at the school for the next academic year. I spoke with the language school chain I was working for and they said they were ok with it. I didn’t want to make any enemies. So I tried it out and here I am seven years later.

Q

How many schools do you work with and how many teachers do you have on the books?

A

I work, fulltime, with 3 schools and I currently have 17 teachers on my payroll. However, I place teachers in positions, for a one-time fee, about ten to twenty times per year.

Q

You're one of the few agencies to have a full-time site manager for each school. What does the job of site manager involve?

A

Anything and everything! The site manager’s job is to assist the teachers at the school, both Thai and non-Thai, in whatever they need, within reason, to do their jobs. I say “within reason” because I’ve heard some pretty unreasonable requests over the years. For example, one Thai teacher once requested that my site manager “FORCE” our teachers to wear yellow socks on Monday, Pink socks on Tuesday, etc. My site manager very politely, diplomatically and firmly said “No, that has nothing to do with teaching and is an unreasonable request.” I backed the site manager up when that Thai teacher called me, upset. You have to pick and choose your fights.

There seems to be an incorrect, cliché image of all agencies as “bad”, “evil” or “greedy” which I just don’t find to be true. I know many of the other agencies in town and the vast majority of them, in my experience and the experience of others whose opinion I trust, are just regular people trying to make a living as best they can. They’re no more angelic or satanic than anyone else, just people. Saying something like “All agencies are out to screw over their teachers” is like saying “All foreigner are rich, fat sex tourists!” If you only hang out at Cowboy, you’d probably believe the negative hype. Conversely, I almost never see anyone posting any good stories about agencies online or talking about them over a beer. We humans love our dirt don’t we?

Q

What would happen without a site manager?

A

Chaos! Whoever the most vocal, confident foreign teacher on site was would become the de facto leader, speaking for all of the teachers. This person is usually not the most level headed, diplomatic person. Most people who have taught here for a few years know exactly the type of person I’m talking about, because they’ve probably had to share a staff room with them, unfortunately.

Q

What's the most stressful part of running an agency?

A

Dealing with selfish, irresponsible, lazy, uncaring teachers who don’t care that they are “not in Kansas” anymore. You know the type…a nice, well intentioned Thai teacher asks them if they could please “Check the English in this one piece of paper”. Then that teacher blows up and says something like “That’s not in the contract and this would never happen back in “The United Nation of Upper Farangland”!” Or they piss and moan all day long about how they have to stand at the front gate for 45 minutes a week. Well, check your contract! If you didn’t want to do that, you shouldn’t have signed the contract, simple as that.

What they should do when they have a problem, is come to me or their site manager and let us deal with it, that’s one part of our job. Unless you have been here a long time and understand Thai culture extremely well, why hit yourself on the head with a hammer? Let your agency deal with it. If you work for a good agency, they will deal with it. I think some people just get off on confrontation, like it’s “us against them”. Relax, have a beer (after work), realize that you are not back home and if a Thai student, teacher, parent, administrator asks you to do something you don’t want to do or feel you shouldn’t have to do, be nice, be polite. Being nice and polite doesn’t cost anything, never hurt anybody and it is the ONLY way you will ever get anything you want here.

Q

You still keep your hand in as a teacher though? Is that important you think?

A

Definitely! I miss teaching, it helps me to exercise my brain and it’s also a great way to make potentially useful connections. As most long term residents here know, it’s not what you know but who you know. Play the game! Once you know the rules of the game, play it so it works for you!

Q

We've seen many agencies come and go over the years. What are the biggest mistakes your 'competitors' make?

A

I think that most of my competitors don’t really try to treat their teachers as they themselves would like to be treated, pretty simple really. I’m not perfect, nobody is. However, I always try to be fair, honest and decent to my teachers. I don’t always succeed, but at least they see me trying. Most of them have been with me for 4, 5 or 6 years, because they know how they’re going to be treated somewhere else.

I’ve had Thai bosses and I’ve seen my wife’s past Thai bosses. Most (but not all) of them treated their employees as second class citizens, to be barked at, insulted and ordered around. I just don’t think that many of them “get it”, culturally speaking. Thai schools need foreign teachers more than foreign teachers need Thai schools. That’s something that they probably don’t want to hear, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. On the other side of the coin, foreign teachers need to understand that Thai people are not going to change (very much) for them, whether those foreign teachers think it’s fair or right or not. What in life is fair? Get over it. Move on. Adapt to your local environment.

If a Thai teacher moved to Manchester, started teaching Conversational Thai to English 7th Graders and constantly complained about and insulted his English coworkers, students, government and culture, they’d probably get fired, after they were taken into the boiler room for an “attitude adjustment”. Why should the Thai attitude towards Westerners who constantly demean them be any different?

The happiest Westerners I see are the ones who understand Thai culture and take it as it is, don’t think they can change Thai people and don’t have unrealistic expectations vis-à-vis their Thai coworkers. No one can fight everyone on every issue, all the time and end up with anything but an ulcer and a pink slip. A lot of my competitors, I think, don’t screen their hires as well as they should. If you hire bitter, belligerent, culturally insensitive teachers, you’ll end up with a lot of headaches.

However, an agency should avoid the trap of always siding with the foreign teachers or the Thais on issues that come up. A site manager should try to be as impartial as possible when dealing with a work related conflict, no matter what their own personal feelings on the matter are.

Q

There must be many schools out there who have been badly bitten or let down numerous times by agency after agency?

A

Of course! I think that the vast majority of agencies out there do NOT do a good job, do NOT treat their teachers well, do NOT try to do things in a transparent, positive manner. It’s a glass wall that I have to deal with whenever a Principal calls me and asks me to come make a sales pitch. I don’t spend anything on advertising. Word of mouth from existing customers gets me new ones. Even when I’m recommended by an existing client to a potential new one, I can see the guarded, suspicious look in the new client’s eyes as if to say “O.K., prove to me you’re not going to send me a bunch of strung out Khaosan Road backpackers fresh from their “finding themselves” trip to Nepal, then never help out and only come back on the 1st of the month with your palm open!” The good agencies get lumped in, image wise, with the bad…guilt by association. The only thing any agency can do is to dispel that image, one client school at a time, with good work.

Q

If a school calls you up for the first time and says "Jason, we'd love you to supply our teachers" what are the first steps in the process of getting them on board as a client?

A

A meeting where that schools’ Principal, Vice Principal for Academics, Head of The Foreign Language Department and any other relevant teacher are present. I then have an extensive question list that gives me a decent idea of what, exactly, they need. I have purposely put in a few questions that might anger or displease some of them a little bit, to see what kind of reaction(s) I get from them.

After sitting with the people I would have to work closely with for 2 or 3 hours, I can usually know whether I would want to work with them or not. I’m checking them out too. I’ve had 4 or 5 new schools ask me to provide teachers, per year, for the last four years. Fortunately, I am making enough profit that I can pick and choose my clients. If my gut tells me that I would not want to deal with them, then I come up with some polite, acceptable reason as to why I won’t. If I can’t stand them, I don’t want the stress of trying to manage 5 or 6 foreign teachers there who (probably) would me miserable as well. Money is nice, but not at the price of a heart attack! If they pass my tests, I sign a contract with them and get down to nuts and bolts of getting Lesson Plans, Exams, Grading Schemes, Grading Rubrics, etc. written and getting ready for the new academic year, with new teachers.

Q

Do you ever see yourself one day supplying fifty schools with 500 teachers or do you have no intention of getting that big?

A

The only way I could even conceive of being that big is to have access to a steady source of intelligent, culturally sensitive site managers. Without effective, good site managers I would not want to expand. That’s what my wife and I are currently focusing on, interviewing several hundred potential site managers. I will probably hire Thai grads in English or Education, because they already know how to navigate the cultural and political waters of a Thai school. Site managers from a Western nation often, unintentionally, create friction. For example, I’ve been dealing with Thais, on a daily basis for more than 20 years yet I STILL put my foot in my mouth with them, in the workplace, even with the best of intentions! I can train the Thai site managers on the Western cultural stuff they need to know, that’s much easier. We’ll see what happens. I don’t want to expand unless I can keep a certain level of quality control.

Q

Teacher agencies don't have the best of reputations in Thailand. Will that ever change do you think?

A

Who knows? That depends on the behavior of the owners, managers and teachers of each individual agency. I can’t speak for other agencies, but I know that I want my agency to improve. I think a lot of agencies are their own worst enemies, just like a lot of foreign teachers are too. So, with a lot of time and professional, humane management from agencies, I think that our overall image can change! Will it? I’m not a betting man.

Q

You speak, read and write Thai fluently. What are situations in your day-to-day dealings with clients where that's an enormous advantage?

A

Almost every situation I can think of! How can you ever understand a people unless you understand their language? How can you ever hope to have harmonious relations with them, in or outside of the workplace, until you understand them? Why would someone NOT want to know how to speak, read and write Thai? I used to know many Thais, in America, who lived there for twenty, thirty years, working illegally in Thai restaurants, renting rooms in Thai group houses, watching rented Thai movies from local Thai markets, etc. I always wondered why they even bothered coming. (Money, of course.) The same thing applies here.

I’m not necessarily any better or worse of a teacher/administrator than the next farang. But my language ability gets my foot in the door. I also used to have a lot of fun eavesdropping on what cute girls around me were saying about me, since they assumed I couldn’t understand them. Saved me a lot of time and effort in knowing which ones to flirt back with!

The only downside to my Thai language ability is when I don’t want to be interviewed, ad nauseum, by some taxi driver or fruit vendor or don’t really feel like writing the local Education District Principal’s Masters Thesis for him! At those times I wish I could claim “Sorry, I don’t speak Thai.”

Q

Is it becoming harder to get good teachers with all the rules and regulations around?

A

Understatement of the year! I understand why The Teachers Council is doing what it is doing, but I don’t think that the options available to teachers who really want to stay are very user friendly. I remember when I first taught, full time, at a chain language school (during college summer breaks) at The Victory Monument, in 1990. The job qualifications for most foreign teachers back then, all over Thailand, were:

A) Do they “look Western”?

B) Does he/she have a pulse?

C) Does he/she have, beer/drugs/vomit plainly visible on their clothing or smell like a Yak in

heat?

D) Can he/she form relatively coherent, intelligible thoughts, statements and/or questions?

If the answers were “Yes”, “Yes”, “No” and “Sometimes”, they were hired! So I understand and don’t blame The MOE (The TCT) for trying to set up rules that bring a more qualified, less embarrassing bunch of foreigners in front of Thai students. However, I just don’t see many teachers who are truly qualified coming here with the low pay rates or many of the unqualified ones who have made lives here staying. I hope I’m proven wrong.

The only good thing right now that helps agencies and/or schools who hire directly is the depressed economy in the developed West. I think a lot of new graduates are finding it harder to find jobs and this helps the education industry here.

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