Hot Seat

Jorge Jo

Jorge’s story is a simple one of a good, honest teacher giving some of his best years to Thailand’s education system and then deciding that the new teacher licensing laws were the final straw. It was definitely time to leave!

Q

Welcome to the hot seat Jorge. You’re somewhat difficult to pigeon-hole when it comes to nationality?

A

Yes, I guess so. I arrived in the United States from Cuba when I was sixteen and didn’t speak but a few words in English. Both of my parents were Chinese and they had settled in Cuba but had to leave after the Cuban revolution. This made me a Cuban Chinese. Worth noting is that since the parents are the first ones to talk to their child, my first language was then Cantonese, and Spanish was my second language. On the other hand, it is also arguable that Spanish was my “mother” tongue. After a few years, I finished High School and College and also became a naturalized American citizen. I suppose that I had become a Chinese Cuban American and now English was my third language.

Q

You were not a teacher in your early working career right?

A

For thirty years I worked in electronics and computers but at age forty eight decided that I had to spend some time in Asia and having visited many Asian countries before, I chose Thailand. Also worth noting is that in the USA I lived in the Italian neighborhood of San Francisco and since Italian and Spanish are “sister” languages, I chose to study it as an elective subject while in college; this, combined with many trips to Italy over the years as a traveling computer engineer, gave me the ability to speak Italian as well! I can now claim Italian as the fourth language and yes, people literally freak out when they see me as Chinese then hear me rattle away in near perfect Italian.

Q

Very impressive. So when did you actually arrive in Thailand and where did you live?

A

I landed in Bangkok in early 2002 with my guitar in one hand and the rest of my worldly possessions stuffed into two suitcases. I headed for a cheap hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 8. After a couple of weeks searching for a better place to live I moved into a small apartment near Victory Monument.

Q

I presume that job-wise, you would rather have found a job in electronics and computers than in teaching English?

A

True enough. Teaching English was a distant number six on a list of options on how to make a living but still, the first place I visited was AUA on Rajdamri Road. The director granted me an audience but in a very polite way steered me away from attempting to teach English there. Instead, he suggested I look into ajarn.com. In the few months that followed, I went through all the options attempting to get employment in the electronics and computers field but found that there was no apparent interest in hiring a farang for those areas (later on I found out that only very important people, or as they are known, principals, can get employment in areas where locals can work in).

Q

So it was a case of teach English or starve?

A

As a last resort, a few months later, I attended a TEFL course and earned a certificate from ECC on Siam Square (they have moved since). After applying to a variety of want ads for EFL Teachers by both e-mail and regular mail, I got three responses leading to two interviews. One school made me a job offer and it was one that I had found through ajarn.com.

Q

That’s always nice to hear. So tell us about your early TEFL days?

A

For the remainder of 2002 and all of 2003, three semesters, I taught EFL to High School and Junior College aged students at a private school in the old section of Bangkok, near the Chao Phaya River and the Grand Palace. I practically saw first hand all the issues and complaints that people rant and rave about in the various TEFL blogs and columns: the good the bad and the ugly in students, teachers, and administrators… the whole lot. During weekends I also taught a few twenty hour EFL course modules for Siam Computer at their Pinklao, Siam, and Victory Monument branches. In the evenings I also took four twenty hour Thai language course modules at a language school near Sukhumvit Soi 31 and learned how to speak Thai. Got as far as learning to read and write all the vowels and consonants including accent marks. How about that for the fifth language under my belt?

Q

Way to go. It wasn’t long before you were promoted to management level?

A

In 2004 I was offered the position of English Branch Manager at one of the school campuses. Not to be so modest but I am sure this position was not offered to me because of my professional managerial skills or superior organizational techniques or proven track record of success in academics… I was a very Asian looking middle aged man, nearing his fifties, who, while holding an American passport, was not technically a “native” speaker and who had turned from “techie” to “chalkie” as if in a midlife crisis. Apparently I was the only EFL teacher who had at least one remaining bolt holding his head between his shoulders! Since this campus was in Phuket and no one had ever offered me such a “promotion”, I gladly accepted. By now I had acquired a lot of household items and appliances, including a “significant other” that came with a small child from her previous life, so with a truckload of belongings and child in tow, we went south.

Q

And how did it work out?

A

For the next five years I ran the English department. We had five to six hundred students taking various levels of English and five EFL teachers to manage. I ordered supplies and books, made class lists and teaching schedules, maintained CD’s and CD players, made and printed tests, collected and recorded grades, made grade reports and graduation name lists, surveyed and evaluated teacher performance, resolved teacher and student conflicts, and finally, with the help of a Thai lady, dealt with contracts and applications for work permit, visas and their eventual extension issues. I also helped new teachers find apartments, rent motorcycles, and find their way around town. Since I was technically a teacher, I also taught EFL although at a reduced load. As the head of the department, I also dealt with the Thai staff: not only did I have my boss and his Thai boss in Bangkok, here I had the school manager, the school principal, the Thai teacher coordinator, and the school owner as well.

Q

Hectic times but probably challenging and enjoyable at the same time?

A

I enjoyed the work immensely. When I arrived, there was only one teacher. There weren’t any CD players, dictionaries, tests, teaching plans, curricula, test grade record keeping, or any kind of established methods. I had heard that previous teachers had used hotel brochures and restaurant menus as teaching material as opposed to actual textbooks. The internet connection was so slow that you had to wait for several minutes for the Hotmail webpage to show up. For the first year I hired three additional teachers, equipped them with all the materials mentioned above and more. I worked practically every Saturday morning during that first year in order to get all things organized and in place so that we could have a smooth running operation. Since I like to work and enjoy what I do, none of the above was objectionable to me; on the other hand, these obstacles were but welcome challenges to overcome.

Q

What about the downsides of this management job?

A

Not everything was smooth sailing. The two most difficult areas were people and the rules that people make for themselves and others. When I worked in electronics and computer engineering I could see that machines, even the electrical ones, were predictable to the point of being almost mechanical in nature. Software programs also bear this predictable behavior. People on the other hand are incomprehensible at times (some all the time) and this does not show right away. An interview tells little about a person, only time and stress does.

Q

Tell us a few teacher stories.

A

In my thirty years of previous professional work, I have never seen so many people (EFL teachers here), in a relative basis, arrive at work all banged up, with scratches on their legs and arms, skinned knees and elbows, bandaged up as if they had fought a grizzly bear (and the bear had won). This applies to both male and female teachers as well.

Every term one or more major injuries would take place: a teacher was found unconscious on the road after passing out while driving his motorcycle; the same thing happened to a second teacher at a different time and place altogether (each was so drunk that they survived the impact); a third teacher was driving so fast that he couldn’t stop on time, dropped the motorcycle and broke his leg (he had a cast for several weeks and couldn’t come to work); after this man recovered, the fourth, a female teacher came to work wearing a foot cast as she had rammed a car with her motorcycle; the fifth was another female teacher, who upon learning that her boyfriend had arrived from overseas to visit, stood up and in an overt explosion of joy, ran out the door only to come back a few seconds later bleeding profusely from a nasty gash on her forehead: she was tall and on her way out had hit the doorframe of the next room.

The sixth teacher, another lady, one day came to work with a large bandage over her upper lip: she had swerved to avoid hitting a dog and dropped her motorcycle (in a friendly way Thai teachers were joking and saying, “she kissed the street”); the seventh teacher one morning warned me that we should call the police because his Thai girlfriend had caught him together with another female Thai teacher in a questionable place, had a fit of jealousy and was threatening to disrupt the morning flag raising ceremony and make a scene in front of all staff and students assembled in the courtyard.

The eight teacher, upon my arrival at his residence to meet him for the first time, attempted to open a heavy sliding metal gate and while doing that, got his foot caught under one of the rolling wheels on the sliding gate guide rail thus accidentally pinching his big toe; within seconds, there was blood all over and I hadn’t even met the guy.

Victim number nine fared much better: this young beautiful female teacher brought to the school dormitory a set of unidentified and unknown local people and was seen getting into their car and driving away with them. Immediately the Thai teacher in care of the residence asked other farang teachers to call her to find out who she was with and where they were going only to find that she wasn’t answering her phone! We all feared for the young lady but were relieved when she returned unharmed claiming that she had “just met” these people and that they were “very nice”; we admonished her in a respectful way and told her it was dangerous for farang females to socialize or fraternize with local people she hadn’t met through the school. I’m sure that even to this day she can’t understand the risks she took.

Q

Nine teacher stories. There must be a number ten?

A

Ha ha. Victim number ten was me. I used to carry my guitar to the classroom and encourage the students to read English song lyrics and sing along with the CD player in an effort to keep them interested and at the same time to get them to practice both pronunciation and language fluidity as they sang. Since I also drove a motorcycle and it was cumbersome carrying a guitar, I would leave it in my office. One night there was a break-in at the school administration building, where my office was, and besides some petty cash, the thieves took my guitar. It had to be kids, for they didn’t touch the more valuable computers or anything else.

Q

You loved that guitar Jorge.

A

After all had settled, I went home, sat in my rocking chair and burst into tears in front of my wife and stepchild: I had become a teacher and a manager of teachers and had tried very hard to deliver knowledge, power and life to the younger generation and in the process someone deprived me and the other kids of the very materials and personal effects I used for doing my work of love. I may forgive those who accidentally hurt themselves, even though some were outright careless and negligent, but I will never forgive those who target teaching institutions.

Q

You suddenly decided to give up on teaching in Thailand?

A

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the combination Thai culture course and testing requirements to obtain a teacher’s license. This was a new law apparently designed to improve the educational system by raising or insuring teacher competency.

Not so happily I traveled to Bangkok and took the culture course at my own expense. The entire cost including lodging and transportation was about a week’s pay. The test requirement was an alternative to having to go back to college and earn nine units of specialized college work, something that could take a year and cost three month’s pay, and not something most EFL teachers could do even if they wanted to.

My school offered to pay for the testing fees. On the other hand it became clear that practically no one was passing these tests since there was not even a study guide and few could even guess objectively the test content and substance. The Teacher’s Association would issue you a waiver “as long as one shows effort to pass the tests”. So what do we do, test until we pass? Or maybe find out what the test is about by repeatedly taking the test? After all, practice makes perfect… What if somebody in a position of authority decides that a certain teacher is not trying hard enough and does not deserve the waiver or that too many waivers have been issued?

As we knew it then, no waiver meant no teacher’s license, no work permit, no visa extension, thus leave the country no later than midnight the day the last extension expires… Suddenly leave the wife behind, the stepchild, the English books, the lost guitar… Either that or the teacher pays.

Q

I think there were or are many teachers in the same boat Jorge but yes, it’s a far from ideal situation. So what have you learned?

A

One thing I did learn in my seven years as EFL teacher, five of them as manager: never let others make decisions for you, particularly decisions that affect your life or your work. One must pursue one’s own life and happiness and make deliberate and well premeditated choices. Never “wait and see”, instead always be proactive. Explore all the options, weigh the pros and cons. Make a list. Make comparisons. Write a plan. Give yourself a chance to win for there will be others hiding in the dark ready to jump and strike you when you are distracted. Some want to steal your guitar, others take your money, a few, your dignity.

Q

You sound like a great guy and the type of man who always lands on his feet no matter what?

A

With the addition of a new baby to our family, my responsibilities grew and so in 2009 I accepted employment in the Middle East. My salary nearly tripled and no one has asked me to take a culture course or take any tests other than a physical. I did have to provide degree verification and a police report. Of course, the Middle East is not like living in Thailand but this is only temporary. I will return to teach in Thailand again once the laws are more forgiving and teachers are welcomed for the risks they take working in strange foreign lands and the time they sacrifice far away from their homes while delivering their package of knowledge, power, peace, love and life.

Q

I wish you good luck Jorge. Thank you for such an honest interview.

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