Hot Seat

Ken May

Ken is the quintessential 'American teacher abroad' - he's worked in several countries teaching EFL, had a book published in Thailand, and has interesting views to share on many EFL issues. Enjoy the read.

Q

Ken, welcome to the hot seat. First off, are you an EFL teacher per se or do you specialize in one particular area?

A

I am a EFL teacher by heart, but not by TEFL certificate. I have a MA in the liberal arts and a certificate in international development. My educational background emphasized sociology, history, gender studies, and anthropology (all the unmarketable degrees). However, I have taught overseas for the past five years. Like many EFL teachers I found myself in this trade by accident. Teaching was a way to travel and interact with other cultures at a deeper level.

I teach the basic English coursework, but I also specialize on classes relating to the tourism industry, American studies, environmental studies, and folklore. I try to teach English by applying it to students lives. For example, I might teach American studies by having students make comparisons with Thai culture, or I might teach tourism-related English by taking students on a tour. There are some expatriates who might not consider me a EFL instructor, but teaching English is where my soul is at.

Q

How much of your teaching career has been spent in Thailand?

A

I have taught in Thailand for nearly two years. Almost all of this time was spent at the Rajabhat Phranakhon Si Ayutthaya. I have also taught at the college level in Hungary and the United States. In Korea I worked with children in what is called a "Hag wan", basically a private school.

Q

We'll get to some of the other countries later, but teaching in Bangkok vs teaching in the provinces. Any thoughts on that issue?

A

I prefer to teach in more remote area. I think that students appreciate the opportunity more. I know that I can have more impact because native speakers are more scarce in the provinces. I believe that the smaller population size helps me to form stronger bonds with the local community.

I have a love/hate relationship with Bangkok. It is nice to visit so that I can find supplies, watch movies, or just escape for a while in a nightclub. However, I would be much happier in Isan with the friendly people and nice music. True, Bangkok is where the wealth is at, but if I was in this vocation for the money I would go to Japan or the United Arab Emirates.

Q

You’ve had a book published in Thailand. What’s that all about?

A

Bangkok Post (Postbooks) recently published a book that I wrote while in Thailand - Road Rash: Western Tourists and Expatriates at Play in Asia's Global Village.

I wanted to document the historical impact of tourism in Asia. There were over 10 million tourist visits in Thailand last year. This has made a major cultural and environmental impact in the country. We take tourism for granted because it now seems so commonplace. However, most of this tourism has been recent, within the last fifty years, ever since the vehicle of war, the airplane, was modified to transport travelers after WWII. Westerners have since carved a path across Asia like a melting glacier. I was trying to trace the various outcomes: pub crawling with English teachers in Korea, drug trafficking by tourists in India, the politics of the souvenir, the concept of home to expatriates in a global village. Basically, just wanted to raise consciousness about tourism issues and controversies.

Q

You’ve also taught in Korea and Hungary. Hungary was always a place where I fancied teaching and working. Summarize the situation out there for us.

A

I loved working in Hungary. I taught at the Berzenyi Daniel College at a time when the economic system was rapidly changing from communism to a free market. Teachers are not highly respected in the country. The average teaching salary was only $250 US per month. The students spoke brilliant English and the Hungarian teachers had a better grasp of English grammar than most native speakers. I was turned onto some great Hungarian rock and roll, fine wine, and tourism sites.

The difficulty in living and working in Hungary was the language. I was never able to speak any better than survival level. There was also some competitive American expatriates that made problems for everyone. The low pay wasn't't that much of a problem. I only made $250 per month, but traveled across Europe and got all my dental work done from the fantastic Hungarian dentists. I know that Central Europe isn't't that appealing for U.K. teachers, however I really enjoyed the experience. Overall, I think Hungary would be a bad place for a "cowboy" teacher or a first time novice. If you are willing to learn some local language it will open up many social doors. Hungarians will be very friendly once they warm up to you and establish a level of trust.

Q

Do you think that more and more of your fellow Americans are looking to work abroad as teachers these days?

A

Up until the last decade or two Americans worked abroad mostly in religious organizations, the military, and the Peace Corp. There is a more recent trend of English teacher. Internet web sites such as the eslcafe make it easy to find jobs. Unemployment increased during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and the Bush dynasty. The trend was that many students graduated with a large debt in student loans and little chance of finding a solid job. One of the fastest growing vocations in the United States is as a temp worker. You are hired as a short term laborer with few benefits. It is highly unstable income. The United States might be a wealthy superpower, but it is rotting on the inside. A large amount of graduates find that better opportunities are to be found overseas. The trend is that a large surplus of over-educated graduates, who majored in less desirable fields, are having to migrate out of the United States to find work.

In my own case I became homeless after graduation. I was forced into living in my 1983 Nissan Stanza. When I teach overseas I am provided housing, a stable income, and some health care. I couldn't even dream about these luxuries in the United States. It is odd to think about it, but my quality of life actually improved when I moved to Hungary and taught for $250 per month. In Thailand I had a dream home overlooking the Chao Phraya River that cost me less than $100. I lived comfortably. In the United States more than fifty percent of my total income goes to pay rent alone, add utilities and there is a serious economic crunch. This is one major reason that a large amount of Americans are now teaching overseas.

Q

What are the complications of returning back to the USA once you’ve had a stint teaching abroad?

A

The main difficulty is finding a job. Unemployment is still high in the United States. We have lost more jobs in the past few years than at any other time since our Great Depression. Tax dollars are spent on our military and to pay interest on the $7 trillion dollar debt that the United States has accumulated over the years.

In my case, I have spent nearly five years overseas, so the resume isn't exactly localized. Potential employers don't trust foreign references or prefer not to spent money on long distance phone calls to check your contacts. My employer in Korea lacked advanced English skills, which also made it difficult for people to communicate with her about my qualifications.

I think an important problem is that after spending five years abroad that the excitement and adventure overseas gets into your blood. The United States is boring to me. I miss teaching overseas. It has become who I am. It would mean a career change for me to stay in the United States. I could teach ESL at a community college if I went back to school and earned a teaching certificate. However, I might as well go back to Asia rather than to add more to my student loan debt with additional coursework. I have adapted to life as an expatriate. I thrive on life overseas. In all likelihood I will boomerang back to Asia soon for another round of teaching.

Q

So do you think it’s a case of once you’ve left America’s shores, you had better forget about coming home unless it’s to visit the folks?

A

I think that it was Hippocrates that said, "You can never step into the same river twice". The home that you come to is different than when you left. Friends get married, people move, and shops close down. You can never return to the same place because you have also changed while overseas. Sure, I enjoy a visit home and I miss my friends and family. Yet, after a while it doesn't feel like your home anymore. I actually have worse culture shock when I return to the United States. Its the grocery stores that hit me worse of all. The bright fluorescent lights, multiple brand names, and Muzak blaring on speakers almost puts me into a seizure. The bombardment of advertisements makes me yearn for the more simple Thai family market and modest local bar where I lived in Ayutthaya.

Q

You’re back in America now, but do you plan to return to Thailand? Does Thailand get under your skin in any way?

A

I will return to Thailand one way or another. I loved teaching in Thailand more than anywhere else that I have taught. The people were so friendly and fun. I even miss lecturing about copying each others assignments or cheating on tests. I miss the tropical environment and access to the beaches. I miss the lifestyle of Thais and the Japanese teachers at my Rajabhat. I still research teaching jobs in Thailand. If anything I would love to spend three months on a tourist visa, so that I can make the final revisions on my next book (about mind frames of poverty).

I could end up teaching in China or Japan instead. I might actually get a streak of luck and find something in the United States. However, my thoughts of Thailand are strong and I still design strategies each day for a return visit.

Q

Do Hungary and Korea (and any other country you’ve worked in) get their share of the 'cowboy' teachers?

A

I think that SE Asia has most of the "Cowboy" teachers. The reason is that many people go to Thailand and later find teaching jobs when their money runs out. Korea can't be traveled to by land because of restrictions with China and North Korea. You have to go to Korea with the desire to teach in advance. It is not easy or inexpensive to do a quick visa run outside of Korea. They are also more strict with visa extensions if you arrive on a tourist visa. In contrast, one can easily take a train to Penang and return to Thailand as an official teacher.

In Thailand tourists are more likely to decide to extend their visit. Teaching is one method to achieve this goal. It is very easy to troll for a quick teaching position from Khaosan Road. Hungary and Korea don't have the equivalent of a tourist ghetto. They hire most of their teacher while they are still living in their home country.

For the record, the best example of true cowboy teachers is no longer in Thailand. If you want to find the classic, drunk, stoned, teacher who never plans a lesson or grades homework; there is a vast supply of them in Cambodia that spent all their money on cheap prostitutes and are still trying to find a way back into Thailand.

Q

You must be reading from afar about all the proposed visa changes and rules and regulations that may affect teachers in Thailand next year. Surely that must influence your decision to ever come back here?

A

These visa changes are the only thing that prevents me from signing a new teaching contract in Thailand. I know three teachers that have already left Thailand because of these proposed visa restrictions. All of them are well qualified teachers that speak fluent Thai, and have taught in Thailand for three of more years. They would still be in Thailand if not for the visa changes. Nobody wants to get trapped, so they haven't renewed contracts. I don't know what the Thai government is thinking. Maybe they prefer to replace most of the native speakers with Filipino teachers. I feel bad for the expatriates that have married local women and/or had children. There life will likely change soon. I was so close to signing a new contract with a Thai school. I had to turn down the opportunity so that I could wait to see how the visa changes will unfold. Maybe I will have to teach in China instead. They seem to welcome American teachers these days.

Q

There are jobs in Kuwait advertised on the jobs board. Fancy it?

A

I would love to teach in Kuwait. I reviewed some of the job offers on ajarn.com. The one obstacle is that I haven't earned my teaching experience yet. I have a MA degree and over five years of ESL experience, but Arabic countries seem to prefer the certificate. I planned to invest my royalty payment for my book, Road Rash, into a certificate program. This would be one way to advance my life to a higher level.

As an American teacher I feel an obligation to counterbalance the impact of our military. The military defines the United States overseas. This has become increasingly antagonistic presence. The Koreans despised the American troops that dominated the Itaewon district. Korean, Japanese, and Filipino women have suffered sexual assault by American troops. The U.S. military base is infamous for causing environmental damage in its host country. The foreign perception of Americans is getting more negative each day. For this reason, I am especially interested in teaching in an Arabic/Muslim country. I want to contribute a more positive image and communicate on a more personal level. Education is the only real key to peace.

Q

Let’s go back to talk about Korea. It always seems there are more negative comments about the teaching life in Korea than there are positive ones?

A

Korea has earned its negative image. The fact is that a large percentage of schools dishonor their contract. I can't tell you how many teacher that I know who have personally been denied a bonus or have been shortchanged on their salary. A common trick is to force teachers into teaching private lessons without pay. It is common for teacher to go on a "midnight run", which is to flee the country without notice after receiving your monthly salary.

To be fair, many native English teachers are first timers in Korea. They don't have much experience or prepare themselves for lives overseas. They often get homesick or fail to adapt to a new culture. Like in other countries many of these teachers are alcoholics, former convicts, or people fleeing something from home. This young or dysfunctional type of instructor is the Korean version of a "cowboy" teacher. Many Korean teachers resent them for being lazy, overpaid, and unskilled. The combination of negative elements makes for a poor working environment.

Another reason that Korea has a poor reputation is due to the "hag won" schools. These private schools are more about money than education. In Korea workers will often labor for twelve hours shifts. The children are sent to private schools to learn English while their parent's are still at work. The children have already studied at the government school for ten hours and just want to play. It is hard to teach children English when they don't want to be in school all day, especially if the Hag won owner is cramming thirty of them into one classroom to maximize profits. I was lucky and found a "hag won" that honored its contract. They paid my salary on time and rewarded me with the bonus promised in my contract. I enjoyed Korea overall. The people were friendly and I loved the food. I still keep contact with some of the adult students that took evening classes. However, I learned my lesson. I will never teach children again., it is only high school and above for me in the future.

Q

I’ve often said that Americans come across as over-cautious when contemplating a teaching career abroad. Only a small percentage seem to adopt the ‘let’s just do it’ attitude. Would you go along with that?

A

Despite the fact that we are a superpower, Americans tend to be very frightened, isolated, and xenophobic people. Americans fear foreigners, although our country is comprised of migrants. There is also a swelling anti-American sentiment across the globe. There is the persistent belief that we are targets of terrorism the second we place a foot on foreign soil. This partially explains the caution of Americans. However, many Americans do go overseas on business trips. Americans are willing to become expatriates for a substantial amount of money. Americans tend to be motivated primarily by money and teaching salaries aren't high. Most Americans are in major debt from credit cards and student loans, so the low Thai salary keeps some away. Americans that want to teach overseas are likely to look toward the Peace Corp first because this volunteer organization has many long term benefits.

The reluctance to teach abroad is changing. Like I mentioned earlier many graduates are heading overseas because of unemployment at home. Like myself, Americans are learning that they can have a higher quality of life overseas because housing is provided and the cost of living is low. It is slowly changing. Nevertheless, I am in no rush to witness a surge in the population of American teachers. To be honest, I much prefer the company of a Aussie, English, Welsh, or Scottish teacher while I am overseas.

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