The fearless administrator of the ajarn.com discussion board takes his place in the chair to chat about family life, recruiting teachers for Southern Thailand, and his future plans.
How has life changed for you mate since you became a father?
Um..well I haven't had it yet, it's a 15 week old foetus at the time of writing, but all sorts of bad habits are being shunned currently in preparation for the big day, predicted to be at the beginning of June. I'm also getting used to the sound of my lovely wife retching at all times of day but no major changes so far...ask me again in 6 months
Well, we're off to a good start. There's nothing like an interviewer who's completely done his research. Staying with domestic matters, I’ve heard rumors that Mrs Minson definitely wears the trousers in your house?
She's wearing these bloody great tents at the moment, but if your question is, is she a bossy bastard then yes, she's most used to getting her own way, but I kind of like it as she's also usually right about everything. Under the thumb? Yep.
You’re in Songkhla. It’s actually one of the few areas of Thailand I’ve never been to. Paradise on earth?
I wouldn't say it's paradise in the classic sense. Samila beach is not a Bounty advert though it tries it's best! It's certainly a pretty town in places. I'm glad Songkhla isn't any more stunning than it is. I'd hate to see it go the same way as somewhere like Koh Phi-phi, as would the town's residents who have refused all efforts to develop the beach in any way in terms of bungalows or selling off beach land which remains public property.
What Songkhla has going for it is that it's a nice place to settle down for a bit. It's no Koh Samui or Bangkok on the nightlife front, but it's not that bad if you know where to look. It can get a bit boring though. I'm not that much of a party animal these days anyway so I guess it doesn't really matter to me much. Hatyai's up the road, which is even livelier, though again not too cutting edge. For a small town it has plenty of schools, and I really can't think of another seaside town which has so much work available.
What does Bangkok mean to you apart from a big city you sometimes see on a map? Did you get your start there?
No, I flew there of course, but without even going out of the airport I connected straight to Hatyai.
I didn't come backpacking, I came to be with my then-girlfriend (now wife) who had been studying in the UK and had to return to start paying off her government scholarship.
I was delayed for a while, trying to sell my house, but as soon as it was completed I got on the first plane I could. To be honest Bangkok like many other capital cities I've been to doesn't appeal to me as somewhere to live. I must have spent a total of 6 days in the Big Mango in the last 3 years and for never more than 3 days at a time, and then I'd return feeling utterly exhausted. I grew up in the Nottinghamshire countryside, and while I enjoyed city life for a while I had found myself craving the quieter life again.
What’s the school you’re at now and what’s your position exactly?
The school I'm at now is one of the two big government secondary (matayom) schools in central Songkhla. It's a former girls only school, but recently started taking boys too, though the old bias is still very noticeable with girls outnumbering boys 3:1.
I've been there for two years now, and they're a nice bunch to work for, though high schools can try the patience of a saint at the best of times, and of course the silly class sizes make life more complicated than is needed. Another thing I like about it is the fact that it's only 3 minutes walk from my house, 5 minutes walk from the beach, and does the best canteen food I've ever eaten in a Thai school (or any other school for that matter.)
My title there is International Staff Coordinator (Head Fallang), which is a very poncy way of saying, I've been there the longest and am the only one who knows how to use the Ajarn.com jobs board properly. I kind of liaise between the Thai staff and the Farrang staff, though not so much this semester as everyone seems to communicate very well. I tend to come in handy when there's a problem that needs communicating. Oh yeah and I'm dressing up as bloody Santa Claus tomorrow.
You seem to spend more time on the internet than I do. You must have a cushy number down there mate?
Well, I probably spend more time surfing than I should, but then again I'm never absent, I do all my classes well, and just because I'm signed in it doesn't mean I'm just mindlessly posting...but ok yes I am a proper mouse potato. I work 17 periods a week, but have to be in for 40. Naturally I don't spend my entire time lesson planning which leaves plenty of room for slacking off. My surfing's increased since I took over the running of Ajarn Forum. God knows how bad it will get when I get ADSL installed next week.
Tell us a little more about the students you teach? How many have been given a snidey dig while the Thai assistant’s not looking?
Thai assistant? What Thai assistant? We have classes of 40-50 students 'khun diaw'. Yes you're right it can be a nightmare at times, and I can often be found in the "Staffroom" forum despairing about my M3's. Sometimes it's like banging your head against a brick wall, other times they can be a joy to teach. It often depends on the groups overall mood and most importantly the activity you have for them. Finding an activity that doesn't involve too much unguided free speaking, lots of fun, and adaptable to all abilities can be difficult week in week out.
One cannot however conclude that groups of 50 students is an effective way for students to learn conversational English which is what I'm mainly assigned, you just have to manage as best you can.
Some are going to read this and tell me how bad I have it, but having been there two years I'm used to it now, and quite frankly I've had worse jobs in the west that paid less. Let's just say I'm fairly cosy there for all its faults.
The students range from highly intelligent, witty, lovely human beings, to downright hoodlums, though in the time I've been there I've only witnessed two fist fights. Reading accounts of teaching at schools in the UK, I realize just how good we have it here in Thailand on the behaviour side.
As for giving digs? No, I don't think it's wise for Farrang to start dishing out corporal punishment, though I'm quite in favour of it given the conditions we have to work in. Sometimes it's the only threat we have given that the students know that academic threats, such as getting zeroes, are entirely hollow and they will eventually pass however much they apply themselves. I usually approach one of the elderly lady school "enforcers", who have sticks and are not scared of applying them to bottoms. I tried lines..they liked them and did them instead of my homework because it was just copying stuff...they didn't even spell them bloody right! (I can talk, I know!)
Is it getting more and more difficult to recruit teachers in the south, with all the restlessness down there?
It was tremendously diffcult in May-June 2004, but by the beginning of this semester (October 2004) there were a lot more applications coming in. We didn't exactly go without teachers last semester, but we were having to lower our standards somewhat just to meet the timetabling demands. Songkhla also received an influx of Pattani teacher "refugees" who filled a number of the positions around town. To be honest, aside from the insurgency unrest happening only 2 hours away from us you wouldn't really notice anything out of the ordinary in Songkhla, aside from the odd vehicle security check in Hatyai.
What are the three things you look for in a job applicant?
Number one. Experience. If it's with Thais thats great, but preferably with a similar Asian culture.
It's good not to have to guide new recruit through the whole culture shock thing, and a little mai pen rai and jai yen yen already installed is a great thing. Checkable PHONE references are also vital here, I'm not a great believer in written references.
Number two. Qualifications. A degree is stipulated by the school, but what I am looking for is a TEFL cert if that degree is not in education related fields. We have had teachers with degrees in basket weaving (or something silly like that!) who were rotten teachers. I look out for fake degrees as well, and I won't knowingly hire someone with one. I will stick my neck out with the school if I think theres a good teacher with an associates degree or vocational diploma with a TEFL, provided the personality looks right.
Number three. Enthusiasm. The last thing we need is a burn-out, in fact sometimes a fresh TEFL graduate can be better than years of experience in this regard. Fresh ideas and a certain energy can work wonders with Thai students of all ages. It's often quite clear at interviews and in resumes who is here because they want to teach and who is doing it because they have either no other choice, or they have ulterior motives for being in Thailand. An example could be the out of season diving instructor type who will disappear on you the moment the season starts, whether the semester is up or not.
Has the internet and the ‘wealth of info’ it’s created improved things for would-be teachers or is there just too much bullshit from barstool experts?
I agree that there's a hell of a lot of bullshit online. A lot of teachers sites promise the world and deliver nothing, not for free anyway. There is some very good stuff out there but you have to use your common sense as to what you believe. Personally the only sites I use on a weekly basis are Ajarn.com and ajarnforum.net (natch!) - for country specific info, cameraderie (sometimes!) and getting yourself a job/getting teachers
eslcafe.com - St Dave of Sperling 's wonderful ideas cookbook has saved my life on so many Sundays nights and englishdroid.com - I'm such a huge fan of Simon Barnes. His site isn't so much practical as soul restoring. Wickedly cynical, and laugh out loud funny.
I suppose we should talk a little about the ajarn discussion board. It certainly gets a mix of characters doesn’t it? Does the TEFL profession in Thailand contain more loonies than just about any other vocation?
I don't think the TEFL proffession in Thailand does, but I think Ajarn Forum does. Lets not forget that we have people posting with very tenuous links to both teaching and Thailand...builders living in Jomtien spring to mind, as do would-be Captains living in Australia. I also think that people online are often different people to how they are offline. The reality filter that is the Internet sometimes does funny things to people's characters, and they behave in ways or say things that they'd never dare to offline. I know I do. There are some great people on there, and they make the board what it is. There's the odd clash of personalities......actually loads of them, but when that so-called cut and thrust isn't there, people soon miss it. I'd like to think that people don't take things said on there TOO seriously, after all, it's only a message board.
Does the job of running the board get you down at times?
The thing about being admin is it's a unique blend of techie stuff and politics, and that's not a natural combination. Although much of my time is spent doing technical stuff for the board it is the politics that people remember, and put a foot wrong and some amongst our users will rip you to shreds, and coming after you've spent two hours installing some new feature or another, sometimes I wonder why I bother. There are other times when the place just makes me crease with laughter.
The hackings are depressing things too, and they are the biggest wake-up call any admin can face, but if it's done one thing for me it's made me more aware of the need for security and a solid back up plan. We have been extremely fortunate that our userbase is pretty loyal and very little damage, aside from the loss of our archives has been done to the forum as an entity. When it's happening I sometimes feel like giving up, but that lasts for all of an hour and within a week or two it's like it never happened.
I just push the buttons and try and keep it going in the right direction. An admin has a great many tools at his disposal and they can be used negatively as well as positively and having the judgment to know when to leave something and when to take action on something is a thin line that I'm forced to walk every day. Take action and one set of people will call you a "power hungry megalomaniac", leave it and others will accuse you of "giving a free reign to trolls."
Trying to keep everyone happy is sometimes an impossible job. The board has had a turbulent year what with one thing or another, and I hope that we can enjoy a period of stability and growth for a while.
Overall being admin is a great privilege and way too addictive and time consuming. It's also a lot of responsibility and in some ways has changed me, both in terms of my online personality, or changed the way in which I'm perceived, I don't think I've changed as a "real" person though. It's all a very steep learning curve, sometimes I make mistakes both with development of the site, and with what I say or do; admin does not make you a robot, and you sometimes just want be as loony as the other posters, but I've quickly discovered that people will pick you up for things that other posters could do or say with impunity.
Complete the sentence ‘if I wasn’t a teacher……….’
‘if I wasn’t a teacher, I wouldn't have to trawl through Daves ESL cafe every Sunday night for M3 would I'? Cop out enough for you?
Er....yeah. What’s the most annoying mistake that conversation students make (apart from ‘I go to shopping’) that makes you wish you’d chosen another career?
Is "I like singasong" too obvious? How about "rstu WEE w EK yz"
Have you been drinking sir? So will it be Songkhla forever, or is the missis going to one day be pushing a supermarket trolley around Asda in Nottingham?
We do have plans to go back to the UK within 2-3 years. My wife is intent on doing her PhD over a 5 year period...the current thinking is Leeds Uni. I'll certainly be topping up my HND into a proper degree and maybe get a Masters done too so I can get some cushty Uni job when we get back to LOS, and by the time she finishes she'll owe the Thai government some serious sponsorship payback to the tune of a decade or so....so I guess that gives me an excuse to stay here a while in the long-run, that's the general idea right now but who knows what the future will bring. I like my life here right now, and I worry about the upheaval and reintegration back in the west. It could prove to be as big a culture shock as moving out here.