When it comes to teacher recruitment and interviewing, few people have more experience than John Caulfield, the cheery, cricket-loving Australian chappie who holds the position of academic director for Inlingua. Ajarn.com gets John C (as he’s affectionately known) to sit still for five minutes and answer a few questions.
John, thanks for doing an ajarn hot-seat interview. I wasn’t joking when I referred to you ‘sitting still for five minutes’. You always seem to have great enthusiasm and passion for what you do. You seem to thrive on the pressure that being academic director for a major EFL player like Inlingua brings. Is it getting more difficult these days being in the AD’s chair?
Thanks for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you Phil. Actually I don’t find it stressful, I quite enjoy the job. But it is becoming more time consuming to do it properly. Inlingua is growing. We are up to 10 branches now – I think there were two when I started in 1996. As well as the added demands that that expansion brings for more teachers, resources and support, the clients are far more discerning now, so quality control takes a lot of time and energy.
You’ve interviewed literally thousands of job applicants, so I’m going to throw up a few questions that I get asked but feel you’re more qualified to answer. I get emails from ladies and gents over 60 who feel they’re perhaps too old for the hurly-burly of life in Bangkok. Any words of reassurance?
Mmmhh I’m no spring chicken myself so I’d better be careful here. At inlingua we have a policy of equal opportunity and provided the teacher still has the desire, ability and energy to contribute we will take on the best person for the job. The oldest we took on was a young 72 year-old a few years back, who I notice still writes letters to the Bangkok Post. We have several over 60s in the classroom at the moment, but opportunities are limited as they are best at academic writing and one-on-ones, rather than teaching 5 and 6 year olds.
What about the black teacher issue? Are we still living in an age when Thais have a very pre-conceived notion of what their farang teacher should look like?
That’s an issue I feel quite strongly about. In my experience the initial reaction from the Thai staff and clients is one of apprehension rather than rejection. We have a supportive group of Western head teachers and they have smoothed the transition for black teachers. We have several in the branches and two teaching corporate, and they are doing well
That's good news. Now which is more important to you as a hirer and firer, the teacher possessing a degree in metalwork or a TEFL certificate?
Well that is a question that will be debated until the buffaloes come home. I like to see at least two of degree + CELTA/TEFL + experience. However in the case of outstanding applicants we will work with them to help them gain teaching qualifications and / or experience. I like to find ways to help genuine applicants, even if we can’t employ them in our branches. I must say the quality and variety of teacher training has improved greatly in Bangkok in the last few years
I always think that females make far better kids teachers than men. Would you go along with that one?
Yes, they seem more able to remain cool, calm and collected in the face of the growing demand for young learners – and the ages are going down. Now we’re teaching 4 and 5 year olds. Having said that, I have seen several wonderful male children’s teachers. They tend to be more ‘born teachers’.
Overall, would you say that the quality of job applicants is going up or down?
Just recently I have seen some reluctance from well qualified, career ESL teachers to come to Thailand. Maybe it’s a combination of relatively low salaries and some degree of uncertainty of what changes may happen to ESL teaching down the track. Prior to that I thought that the quality had gradually improved over the years as schools became more professional and training opportunities increased.
What about quantity? Do you still get good responses to your ads on ajarn.com?
We used to advertise in the broadsheets, but now most of our applicants come from ajarn.com by email. We receive around 40 applications a week by email, 10 or 20 by phone and 1 or 2 a month by mail. The standard of applications varies tremendously. This week I had emails from Nigeria, Turkey, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan as well as the traditional countries.
Are you one of the ‘old school’ that likes to see an interviewee arrive for an interview looking suited and booted, or is the open-necked casual approach now acceptable?
If an applicant has just got off the boat, I don’t mind if they don’t have their smart business-like shirt and slacks, but generally I expect teachers to turn up in the clothes that they would teach in – and the teacher shouldn’t be the worst dressed person in the class. At inlingua we require a shirt and tie for men and smart business-like dress for women. To me it is what is required in Thai culture. Teachers from Korea and to a lesser extent Japan and Taiwan (and the U.S.) seem to have had far more “relaxed “dress requirements.
One of the current 'hot topics' on the ajarn discussion board is how schools don’t acknowledge EVERY e-mail application they receive. Is it someone’s responsibility to afford every single application a reply?
I try to personally answer every email application - certainly every one that conforms to the criteria in the advert. Often I will advise them to come to Thailand and look around before making a decision over the net. We very rarely offer a contract without a face-to-face interview. I try to be positive and polite to all applicants but there is no doubt that a well-written cover letter and organized CV gives an applicant an inside running.
Let’s go back to the interview itself, what do you look for in a job applicant apart from the obvious paper qualifications?
A positive outlook on life, a genuine interest, if not love for teaching and an open honest attitude to the interview. I don’t like to hear applicants go overboard with criticism about their previous schools and I definitely don’t like to hear that they will drop their existing classes at the drop of a hat!
Do you give teachers a grammar test to see if they are up to the task?
I ask a few questions about grammar, more along the lines of how they would teach various aspects of grammar or how they would incorporate the grammar into the lesson. Although everybody who has been interviewed by me has been asked one grammar question. Can you guess what it is from my last sentence? I ask that because I find it sorts out the genuine practitioner from the traveling conversationalist. That doesn’t mean I discard a good applicant with sketchy grammar – we just make them aware where they need to brush up. Most of our good teachers have a very good grasp of grammar.
Firing a teacher is always a nasty business. What’s the main reason for having to show teachers the door?
Thankfully it happens rarely. But the main reason is a history of no-shows with flimsy or no excuse.
Do you ever slip into a Silom Road hostelry for a sandwich and a glass of Coke and see a teacher legs-up in the corner of the bar singing ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’ and think "bloody hell, that's one of ours"?
What bar was that?
Errr...I'll take that as a no then. With Inlingua currently having ten branches, how do you keep all the head teachers focused and making sure they do a good job?
I am very happy with our HTs. They all have their own style, but we have monthly meetings to discuss common problems and share solutions that work. I suppose the one thing I try to get across is my philosophy that a happy teacher is a good teacher. And they are going to a lot happier this week – our GM just let me know that a pay rise, a lift in the end of contract bonus and a move to a vastly superior medical insurance with BUPA have been approved for 2004.
Thanks for doing the interview John, and I managed to get through it without once mentioning the rugby world cup. One final question – how do you see the EFL market changing in the next five years?
What rugby world cup? I think quality and professionalism will continue to improve. There will be a place for small customer-focused schools but the large schools should continue to do well in line with the growing demand for English in Thailand. There could be a drain of teachers to other better- paid countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and also back to the Middle East.