Mark is a great example of a teacher who has risen through the ranks. He started as a TEFLer back in 2004 but quickly worked out that better qualifications would lead to better paying jobs. Now he finds himself in a top position at an international school in Vietnam. He's extremely well-traveled, has written many articles for leading publications, interviewed some world-famous names and written a book for new teachers. This guy is going to be worth talking to.
Mark, a warm welcome to the Ajarn hot seat. Your working career began in England where you spent 13 years as a journalist. Who did you work for and what were your main areas of interest.
Hi Phil, thanks for inviting me. My first journalism job was with the Clacton Gazette, on the east coast of England, back in the early 1990s. I covered everything from council meetings to murders; in fact, the best part of the job was having no idea what story would land on my desk each day. I tended to specialise in feature writing as I liked human interest stories that allowed me to delve deeper into various issues. I became news editor of the Harwich Standard before deciding to try something different in 2004, which is when I moved to Thailand and started teaching.
I was looking at your impressive Amazon page and it looks as if you've written tons of stuff for Lonely Planet guidebooks. I assume you have always done this on a freelance basis? How does it work?
Yes, all the Lonely Planet authors are freelancers. About 10 years ago I saw a link on their website that said ‘want to work for us?’ I showed them some of my stories, wrote a small sample guide, and then got added to the list of authors. Since then, I’ve co-authored several editions of the Lonely Planet Thailand guide and written some other books for Insight Guides. I love travelling and I love writing, so I’m very lucky to be able to combine both.
You have done interviews with some very famous names as well (horror movie fans should stay tuned) Throw a few names at us and what you were chatting to them about?
Yes, I’ve interviewed several celebs and politicians over the years. I’ve talked to the likes of George Lucas, Samuel Jackson and Halle Berry at press conferences, but my favourite was the late Sir Christopher Lee. A friend of mine was making a music video with him, and arranged an interview. The day had been quite long without any breaks, so I was about to leave when a booming voice from a doorway asked if I wanted to chat. I turned around and Sir Christopher – all 6ft 5ins of him – was there inviting me to have lunch. We sat for over an hour and talked about everything from choosing Oscar winners, to having Bela Lugosi as a neighbour and the Star Wars movie he was about to appear in. I’ve never met anyone before or since with the kind of charisma and charm that he had.
I also went on a press trip to India to write a feature on Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, who has spent decades campaigning against child labour; it was a genuine honour to meet and get to know him.
You've traveled to over 40 countries in your life. Is there a country that ticks more boxes than Thailand as a place to perhaps live, work and ultimately retire in? (I am assuming Thailand is near the top of your list of course)
I lived in Thailand for 16 years so it’s certainly up there! My bucket list of countries I’d still love to visit would include Bhutan, Cuba and New Zealand. In terms of living and working somewhere, Japan ticks a lot of boxes, I could see myself there some day as I love the culture. For retiring though, I suspect it would be back in Thailand.
So you arrived in Thailand in 2004 and it all started with an online TEFL certificate. That was a major career change from journalist to TEFLer?
Yes, for sure. I’d visited Thailand a few times on holiday and it was the only place I’d really wanted to return to. Originally, I was going to stick with newspapers and was offered a job as a sub-editor with the Bangkok Post. The conditions weren’t quite right though, so I did a TEFL certificate and moved towards teaching.
Tell us a bit about your first Thailand teaching job / jobs?
My first job was at Assumption College Sriracha, in Chonburi. I was offered the job via email (no interview as such) and arrived as the sole foreign secondary teacher in a school of 4,500 students. At first, I was teaching classes of 50 and above, which was crazy but also a very effective way to hone my teaching skills! I helped create an English Programme with far smaller classes, and we soon had about 30 foreign teachers. The first few months were a blur as I had no real teaching experience and also had to deal with the culture shock of arriving in Thailand, so I can always empathise with others starting out on the ESL path.
In our brief pre-interview chat, you said that you quickly realised you had to get better qualifications. What did you study for and how did that pan out in terms of a timeline?
Within a couple of months of arriving in Thailand, I started a part-time gig at a language school. A guy there had taught the IB Diploma at international schools, and I soon realised that was where I wanted to be heading. So, I went about getting a BA (Hons) in English Literature from Goldsmiths, University of London, which took just over 3 years. I then did a Diploma in TESOL (18 months) and then a PGCE from the University of Nottingham (1 year).
With the PGCE under my belt, I could then apply to international schools. After a few years working in those, I completed a Master of Education (18 months) and am now working on a National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). And once that’s done, I plan to enjoy a few evenings to myself without my head in books!
The hard work paid off because by 2010, you're working at an international school in Rayong? What was your position there and what were some of your responsibilities?
Initially, I was a secondary ESL teacher at Garden International School. I think my background in journalism and literature degree helped, as I was also given some first-language classes. After a couple of years, I became Head of English, which was a position I loved, as there was a lot of freedom to develop the department and introduce various new ideas. An opportunity came up to become IB Diploma Coordinator, and I was offered that next. For a while, I was also head of secondary.
The responsibilities were pretty wide-ranging, so I looked after the marketing, school trips, extra-curricular activities, and IGCSEs. It was a lot of work but also a great chance to understand all the different aspects of what goes into running a good international school.
Last year, you moved to Saigon to take up another international school position. Was this a case of a job offer you couldn't refuse or that you needed a change of scenery?
More the latter, I think. A long time ago, a newspaper friend told me ‘comfortable’ was one of the most dangerous words she knew. I think I’d got comfortable in a few jobs and so felt it was time for a new challenge. My wife, who’s Thai, also fancied a change and we both thought it would be good for our two young children to experience a different country and culture. At the same time, it was a fantastic opportunity in a country I’ve always been fascinated by, so that made the decision easier.
So you're an obvious man to ask - Thailand or Vietnam for a teacher?
That’s a tough one, Phil! From an ESL point of view, there seems to be more of a desire from students to learn English in Vietnam than there is in Thailand. For example, I read a 4,000-word literature essay yesterday from a Vietnamese student that was mind-blowingly good.
There are heaps of opportunities for ESL teachers in Saigon, including at international schools, as some students need some extra support when they first arrive. I don’t know so much about ESL salaries in Saigon, but for international schools, conditions are certainly on a par with the top Bangkok schools and, to my mind, the cost of living is slightly cheaper in Saigon.
I guess you’d also need to look at health care, transport and places to visit as the other big factors – and I’d probably give Thailand the nod in all three areas.
Let's talk about your book 'Teaching English (How to Teach English as a Second Language) - what was the inspiration?
At first, I planned to write about my first year as an ESL teacher and go through all the bizarre anecdotes (like a cat plummeting into my noodles in the school canteen). Then I realised I’d learned quite a bit about teaching that could be useful, both for newbies and also for experienced teachers. I decided to combine my tales with practical tips and advice about teaching – the aim was to write the kind of book I wish I’d read before I began in my first classroom!
Which parts of the book do you think new teachers will find particularly useful?
There are some parts where you can dive straight in and get heaps of simple warmer activities or lesson ideas. It also has sections about how to manage classrooms well, how to understand Thai culture and how to get your head around all the various, maddening aspects of the English language.
I hope new teachers would find those parts useful, along with the stories of exactly what it’s like to work in a Thai school, which can be frustrating but also extremely rewarding.
When you look back on your teaching career, the top positions at international schools obviously result in a better salary and a higher standard of living, but is there a trade off in terms of more stress and responsibility, etc when you compare things to 2004 and your first TEFL job?
Yes, I think it’s fair to say that with international schools there are higher expectations. With the TEFL jobs, you’re often slightly removed from the main leadership structure, whereas with international schools you can be a part of it. That can certainly be more stressful, but it’s also far more rewarding, as you’re a part of the decision-making process and can actually make a difference. I’d say in general, you’re much busier as an international school teacher, but not necessarily more stressed. Overall, it’s a trade-off worth making.
I'm going off on a completely different tangent here but didn't Vietnam handle the virus situation well! You were there on the front line. You must have been impressed?
They did do well, didn’t they? My school was closed at the start of February for 13 weeks, so they cracked down on things early. The government had an excellent track and trace programme – I’d get daily updates on each new case and where they’d been. We’re now virtually back to normal and I think that’s largely thanks to people doing what they’re told.
Were there many foreign teachers in Vietnam badly affected by school closures? A number of stories trickled through on social media about teachers in dire financial straits.
Many of the TEFL teachers found it tough. Some were left without a contract and without a salary, but still with rent to pay. I really feel for them, as they were completely left in limbo. I hope that with the lock down over they’ll be able to carry on where they left off and be back on their feet very soon.
Thanks for the chat Mark and all the best for the future. Let's hope normality is not too far away.
Visit Mark's website (lots of stuff on Mark's travel adventures, photography, etc)
Buy Mark's book - 'Teaching English' (How to Teach English as a Second Language)
Browse Mark's Amazon author's page for publications he's written for.