It's often said that Thailand can be a tough place for a female teacher. Well, Lucie Redwood has been here fifteen years already and is more than happy to tell us how she's survived.
Lucie, welcome to the hot seat. Our very first hot seat of the year and it's May already. Lucie, you come from Devon in England. For those not familiar with it, I consider Devon in the South West of England to be one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Despite being in Thailand for such a long time, I bet sometimes you must get really homesick for Dartmoor ponies, thatched roofs and home-made scones with a great big wobbly dollop of clotted cream?
It’s not despite, it’s because of being in Thailand for such a long time. The first few years here everything was a novelty. It’s the later years, when som tam and sticky rice is no longer so exciting, that you start to miss things back home. But I confess that I did just get back from a trip to the UK – and my mum makes the best scones… Every couple of years I go back for a fix of scones, pubs, cliff-top walks and putting my feet up on tables.
OK, on with your story. You came to Thailand way back in 1992 during your gap year. You ended up living in a dusty village in Kamphaeng Phet. How long were you there and the obvious question - why?
In my last year of school, I applied to a gap year organization called Project Trust, for a year’s voluntary placement abroad. They send volunteers to a lot of places, and I requested Africa. So when I got the acceptance letter telling me I’d been selected for Thailand, I had to get out the Atlas to find where it was! I arrived with very little idea of what Thailand was all about, and was thrown in the deep end teaching upper secondary students – the same age as me, and with a much clearer idea than me of what makes a good teacher! It was a steep learning curve, and I suppose it shaped me more than I ever thought it would – seeing as I’ve spent most of my adult life back in Thailand and back as an English teacher!
I’ll bet you anything that school now has several foreigners teaching there on proper wages. Back then (and we’re only talking 19 years ago) there was no way government schools could employ foreigners – we were financed by ourselves and an oil company!
You then went back to university in England for several years and did some other things including a few ski seasons in the Alps. I bet you had a whale of a time on the piste?
Yes, I bet I did. Nuff said. Oh and the university only lasted a year and a half – I wasn’t cut out for self-regulated study. (I am living proof that sometimes you can get on the teaching ladder without a degree. Or you could a few years ago!) Basically, for 4 years I bummed around London streets, Devon beaches and French Alpine bars. It was great, but after a while I thought I should perhaps do something more useful…
1997. You're back in Thailand and working as a volunteer at a gibbon rehabilitation project in Phuket. After this you moved to Khao Yai National Park and another gibbon research project. It's not often that gibbons come up in ajarn hot seat interviews - let alone twice. Was this down to your general love of animals or is there a gibbon fixation we need to perhaps devote some time to?
Oh I’m just a big bunny hugger. If I could make a living in this country working with wildlife, I’d jump at the chance. I wasn’t fixated on gibbons until I spent a few years working with them!
During your second gibbon project, you met your future husband. So romance really can blossom amid the smell of rank incontinence in the gibbon enclosure?
Actually, while the Phuket project was mostly mopping up after rescued gibbons in enclosures, Khao Yai was all about researching their natural behaviour in the wild. I fell in love with the place the moment I set foot inside the forest. It’s awe-inspiring, beautiful, and I learnt something new every day. I was up at the crack of dawn, traipsing around in pristine tropical forest all day, watching gibbons, watching out for tigers, bears and elephants… and then sitting around the fire with guitars and colleagues in the evenings. Very romantic, if you like that kind of thing. That’s when I first fell for my husband – by a fire, with friends, guitars and a couple of bottles of rum…
I am always amazed that so many foreigners never visit the national parks, and that most of the people (Thai and foreign) who do visit, spend all their time in the car, the guest house and at a couple of select tourist spots like waterfalls. I recommend it to anyone – go camping in a beautiful forest on your next long weekend. Or on second thoughts maybe it would be a good idea to wait until the dry season!
Joking apart, your husband is from Ubon and you both decided to move back to Ubon in 2001. What were the reasons behind the move?
My husband’s dad had, a few years earlier, bought a piece of land for him to do what he wanted with, and he decided it was time to start doing something with it. I followed a few months later, and we lived in a house-in-progress for years while he and his brother turned a wilderness into a chrysanthemum plantation. They gave up eventually, and now he’s a landscape gardener instead!
I presume that Ubon was where you decided to start teaching English seriously? But there couldn't have been much demand for teachers up there?
When I first arrived, I had no plans to be a teacher, and assumed there wouldn’t be much scope for it either. But Ubon is actually known as a city of learning – there are loads of big schools in the city centre, and even then there were a lot of little private language schools. I knew I was going to have to find a way of making some money, so I went to what was at the time the only school that employed foreigners – a big private school. (There are now several.) They smiled benevolently at me and my sparse CV, and said they’d let me know. So I went to “a well-known language school” and got 200 Baht an hour for ‘teaching’ a group of monkeys for a few months. I also kept in touch with people I’d known in Khao Yai, and worked on all sorts of English camps and environmental camps there. It was fun – every month something new, and some months I was just working on the farm with my husband. Teaching stayed at the back of my mind. I didn’t really know any foreigners in Ubon – there was, as you say, not much demand!
You worked for something called the 'Magic Eyes Barge Program' in Bangkok. I thought the whole gibbons thing was out there, but magic barges? with eyes?
Ah, I bet a lot of your Bangkok-based readers will have heard of it, even if you haven’t. Magic Eyes is an environmental awareness charity, and their barge program is fantastic. The barge is an old rice barge, which has been converted into a floating classroom, complete with a big communal sleeping room and all mod cons (sort of). We did ‘camps’ for groups of schoolkids (and sometimes adults) – with activities focusing on the relationship between the river, its environment, people and the economy. I volunteered with them regularly for maybe a couple of years. Great fun. It was working there that taught me a lot about being a teacher – I worked with some great people and learnt a lot from them. The only reason I never went to work for them full time is that they’re based in Bangkok – and I couldn’t live there, no way!
In 2003, you started work for a large and well-known college in Ubon. You originally worked there just three days a week right?
I still do! It’s the same school I took my CV to when I first arrived in Ubon. Late in 2002 they needed a teacher for emergency 1-month cover, and so I proved myself competent enough in that month to be offered a job the following term. By then I’d had enough of living in a house with no walls, and wanted an income to pay for some! Since then I’ve always worked 3 days a week - I forego a decent wage for the chance to have more time out of school than in it!
You're now the longest-serving foreign teacher at this institute. Come on girl - what's been the secret?
Easy – I work part time. That keeps me sane! Actually, that’s only part of it. I’m such a fantastic teacher that they make my life easy, to make sure I stay… Ahem. I have managed to get myself a reputation as being a useful member of staff – speaking Thai, and knowing how to keep away from cultural faux pas, goes a long way. They appreciate having someone there who understands the system and can explain it to other foreigners, and I appreciate being able to choose my own hours! I honestly wouldn’t have survived if I had to work full-time, as well as be a mum. I can view my job, in some ways, as something I do for part of my life in order to finance the rest of my life. I’m a bit of a hippy – we live outside the city, in a tiny village, and I grow my own vegetables, keep chickens, bake the best cakes in Ubon, and enjoy being a mum… I need time for that, and 3 days a week of work fits in fine.
I recently read a hot seat interview with Scott Walker, who said that teaching English in Thailand isn’t a good idea as a long term strategy. I tend to agree, but on different grounds. For me, the money is enough. But if you come here relatively young, and have a lot more working years ahead of you, you need something to look forward to in the way of promotion, and more responsibility, and that’s a rare opportunity in TEFL. I’ve moved up a very small step, but am still teaching the same number of hours, and there just isn’t any room for moving up any further. That’s what is frustrating. I can’t imagine doing this until I retire – I don’t even want to think about how many years that is!
We should point out that you are now - to give you your official title - Assistant Head of Department, in Charge of Recruitment. What are some of your duties in this role?
I’m the mug who gets to spend the long summer holiday on email trying to convince people to leave the comforts of Bangkok / Tokyo / London to come to Ubon. I also spend a lot of time, especially in the first semester of each year, helping new teachers to settle in, settling disputes between some of the more volatile members of staff, and translating all the headed-stamped-signed-and-sealed documents that arrive ‘For the Attention of All Teaching Staff’. I’m all-round problem-solver and go-between. I am also the boss’ general sidekick, and it’s mutually understood that I’ll help her with all sorts of miscellaneous jobs, and in return she tells the school I’m even more indispensable than I actually am!
Which parts of the job do you dislike most? (and I promise I won't mention it to the boss)
Apart from wading through dozens of job applications from non-native speakers, finding a native speaker, getting excited, then despairing at the badly spelt and punctuation-free message they’ve sent to try to get an English teaching job?
The other thing that I dislike is that sometimes all the little extra bits of work take away too much of my lesson planning time. I like to be prepared for lessons, especially as I usually teach science, and if I haven’t had time and have to wing it with no materials, it frustrates me. I love teaching when I’ve had enough time to plan it properly. I teach the little kids, and they can make me smile so easily.
In one of our little chats, you mentioned that almost every year, the institute hires teachers, only to find that cometh the first day of work, half of them don't turn up. And there's a mad panic to find new teachers. I'm intrigued. What happens between the interview stage and the first day at work that makes the teachers suddenly develop cold feet?
Ah well. It’s quite hard to attract teachers to Ubon. It’s sort of seen as the arse end of nowhere. So they accept us as a fallback just in case nothing ‘better’ turns up – which it often does… and they often fail to tell us…
An applicant I was talking to on the phone the other day heard the salary we were offering (the standard 30,000) and said “oh well, no wonder you have trouble attracting teachers”. People generally compare it with what schools in Bangkok are offering, and that’s crazy – Ubon, or just about any other province away from Bangkok or Phuket, is SO much cheaper to live in. Also, people should stop to think about how necessary that extra few thousand Baht is – a single person can live very nicely on 30,000, even in Bangkok, and I and a couple of colleagues support families on it – but many foreigners seem to think they need to eat imported food, go out to fancy bars and take taxis everywhere, even if their previous life in the UK / US / whatever was much more basic.
It’s funny though, our school has one of the highest rates of contract renewal – once we get teachers, they tend to stay a few years. They just don’t know how much they’ll love it until they get here!
Actually most of our current teachers have a reason to be in Ubon (usually a spouse) so their choice of schools is limited to the half-dozen here that employ foreigners.
Come on Luce - you must have a wacky teacher story? I love a good whacky teacher story.
Whacky teacher? Well, we’ve generally chosen them reasonably carefully, and we don’t go for the fly-by-night backpackers. Most backpackers aren’t in Ubon, anyway! We’ve had a couple of awful teachers recruited while desperate, but I don’t want to go on about them – they’d recognize themselves if they read this! There were the 2 ‘ladies’ who hitched their skirts up to climb out of the window, and went behind a wall to smoke – in full view of the classrooms… Several older men who thought they were god’s gift to female university students… and couldn’t understand why the girls involved only seemed interested in their money. The whinger: he found fault with absolutely everything – the students’ attitudes, the photocopier, the timetable, his team teacher, the discipline procedures, you name it. He was well on his way to getting punched by a colleague – that was another fun moment in a staff meeting. He lasted 6 weeks, I think.
My boss’ poor son used to see the best and worst of us when he was dragged along with his mother to all the teacher parties - I think he saw a couple of my ex-colleagues dancing naked, and he witnessed all the karaoke and drinking games! We used to have a lot of staff parties, back when our average age was under 30!
It's been great to talk with you Luce. Finally you've got a couple of kids starting school themselves soon?
My son’s been through the 3 years of kindergarten already, and is now entering our program in P1. I, of course, have moved from teaching P1 to P3 so he doesn’t have to put up with his mum as his teacher! I teach him reading and writing at home already – what they teach at school is aimed at ESL students and he’s a native speaker, so I’ve got hold of a lot of materials designed for native speakers learning to read.
My daughter’s moving up from nursery and starting kindergarten this year. It’s a good kindergarten. They’re happy there, which is a good reason for me to stay too.
And it’s Lucie to you, mate :)