Hot Seat

Matthew Noble

We first put Matthew in the ajarn hot seat almost five years ago. At that particular time, he was about to move back to America with his Thai wife after six years as a teacher in Thailand. Matthew always came across as a very dedicated and serious teacher and I was eager to catch up with him to find out how life had panned out for him since our first chat.

Q

Hi Matthew, good to hear from you again and welcome back to the ajarn hot seat. I’m going to start with Apple, your Thai better half, because I’m always interested – as I’m sure are many others – how Thais cope with living abroad permanently. How’s she getting on?

A

Well, I have my perspective on that but I thought I’d go straight to the source and ask her. Here’s what she said, lightly paraphrased:

“Great! I like living here. For me, it wasn’t too hard to adapt because I love to explore and learn new things. In Boston there’s lots of culture, I like that. I’ve made friends with people from South America and Africa and everywhere, at work and in classes.

Another part of it is because of Matthew. He prepared me well! Plus, we had a strong relationship before we moved. I spent time with the family, etc. So, it was natural and it’s warm for me here (not the weather!). I know some Thai women move abroad with a foreigner and have a hard time; maybe it’s not moving or the culture, it’s more the relationship that makes it a challenge. Anyway, I think I’m getting on fine!”.

There you have it. I chalk it up to her core personality which I’ve always found to be exceedingly sensible and sober. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; she comes from a solid, pragmatic southern Thai family. Honest, reasonable, and hardworking.

And guess what? Ignoring the extremes, that kind of Thai character profile fits in with the American scene just right. So, no crisis really…beyond the intractable issue of so much of the food being exceedingly bland!

Q

Is there much of a visible Thai community in Boston? Does Apple get much of an opportunity to mix with her own people and have a good old natter in her native tongue?

A

There is indeed a visible Thai community in Boston, absolutely. There are many Thai students (both undergraduate and graduate) with their own student associations at places like Boston University and Harvard (we crashed their potluck events on occasion).

There are Thais on F1 visas enrolled in the many language centers in town. There are a good number of Thai immigrants; restaurant owners, married-ins, and others. I had the occasional Thai in an immigrant ESOL class in a Chinatown education program.

So it’s not a shock to hear a sawasdee kraap. In fact, the largest Thai temple outside of Thailand was recently completed about an hour south of downtown Boston. Apple pretty quickly developed strong friendships with several Thai women around her age. She even found a cousin on Facebook - and guess what? Small world, turns out she lived within a 10-minute walk of our apartment.

Since last September, we’ve lived in Tacoma, WA about 45 minutes south of Seattle. We moved here for my job. It wasn’t entirely easy leaving the hometown. But whaddyaknow, another relative of Apple’s lives 30 minutes away, and a friend from college lives up in Seattle.

There’s less of a full fledged community right here in Tacoma town. But just like any major US metropolitan area, there’s a *insert nationality in the blank* community to be found if you just know where to look. We’ve already got our upcoming Songkran plans sorted at a lovely Thai temple in Woodinville, WA.

Q

How about you Matthew? Once you got back to America, how long did it take you to get back into the groove because you had been away for a good few years

A

I’ll answer this question in two parts: personally and professionally.

First, on the personal level I’d say not too long. I was worried about the so-called ‘reverse culture shock’ hitting me but more than anything I found it was just easier to maintain a healthy sense of amusement and, often, appreciation for my surroundings.

On the professional level, things turned out fine but…Phil, mate, I’ll never forget the first couple of weeks! I found myself back in the classroom not a week after we landed. I was tapped to sub in an advanced class at The Boston Language Institute. Two days in, things clearly were not going great. To the point where some of the students walked out of class to go complain about me! It was then that I realized what was going on. I was so thoroughly habituated to dealing with lower-level Thai students that my whole manner in the classroom was off, I was grading my speech far too low. Once I snapped out of it things were fine, but that was embarrassing.

Q

What were the most difficult parts of adapting to life back home?

A

Four things come to mind:

1) no cheap and delicious food available all over the street and at all hours

2) lots of people trampling all over their own houses wearing shoes!

3) people frequently and openly opining about politics

4) all of a sudden I had a diverse range of students from every corner of the world rather than a relatively predictable and homogenous crowd at their desks each time.

Q

So you pretty much took up teaching again as soon as you got back. Had you had that in mind when you left Thailand?

A

I wasn’t 100% sure. One of the primary reasons to come back was doing an MA in TESOL, but I was also entertaining a bit of a break from the classroom. Maybe, like Will Hunting, I would lay brick in the day and ponder the complexities of second language acquisition secretly at night.

Well, that didn’t happen! I found plenty of teaching work. I built a full-time schedule out of private language center hours and a part-time position with an ESOL program serving immigrants. Not ideal, but workable.

The students were fantastic, especially the immigrants. I always think of them as the most American of all: brave, aspirational, family and future-oriented.

Q

As I said in the intro, you always struck me as a very professional teacher who cared about improving himself, so I guess you’ve got a few more qualifications under your belt. What have you been up to on that score?

A

I appreciate that recognition, Phil. I guess I’ve just always found myself naturally interested in and compelled by the puzzles and possibilities of this work. The fact is, I’m one of the least ambitious people I know in the conventional sense; I’m near-useless as a ‘professional climber’. But for better or for worse, I’m deeply interested in reflecting on and researching learning and teaching in this field in a very personal way. So I’ll bring classroom research papers for beach reading, stuff like that. Yep, it’s pretty weird, isn’t it.

Anyway, the fact is I have earned some concrete and official qualifications since coming back. The biggie was my MA TESOL. As I mentioned in the interview way back when, I was looking into a few different programs. Lesley’s turned out to be much too focused on public school teaching. SIT’s was very attractive, but also very expensive.

While I was still trying to figure it out during the first few months stateside I enrolled in a single class offered as part of a graduate certificate in TESOL program at Boston University. It met at night so I could fit it into my schedule. And it was great. I then found out that as a local boy I was eligible for a fellowship that would bring the price of the full MA TESOL at Boston University down considerably.

That plus the prospect of learning from brilliant and passionate professors there sealed the deal. I completed the program in a year and a half.

I also get continuous professional development done online. My favorite source is the International Teacher Development Institute. I’m been a participant in many online courses for teachers through iTDi, and participate at least once a year as a presenter for one-off webinars. The quality of the content there is high, and the ethos is amazing.

Q

Were the courses on your MA challenging?

A

Most of them were. Not every class was fully satisfying, but I was definitely happy with the program as a whole. It delivered a really good mix of linguistics, TESOL methodology and theory, and very hands-on teaching practicum experience.

The latter turned out to be really key as it enabled me to get accepted by Cambridge ESOL as a CELTA tutor in lieu of the more typical DELTA qualification (I’m working on that one).

Q

As I understand, you got involved briefly with a BA TEFL program in Thailand?

A

I did. For a whole host of reasons, my interest and the focus of my studies on my MA TESOL became as much about teacher education itself as it was about methods, instruction, second language acquisition, etc.

So when I heard that an upstart BA TEFL program aimed at working teachers in Thailand was getting off the ground, I offered my services. I ended up developing and running an online unit in which the working teachers taking the class kept reflective teaching journal for the semester.

My role was to a) give instruction and guidance on productive ways to analyze and reflect on teaching experiences and b) read and comment on all the journal entries and hold a live chat every few weeks to discuss common teaching challenges.

I thought it was fantastic because it was so thoroughly ‘bottom-up’: focused on the teachers’ actual classroom experiences in a really organic way. Theory would come up, but only in the service of understanding experience. The often unsatisfying game of trying to squeeze personally salient meaning out of a dense research paper was avoided, even while an appropriate academic or theoretical framework could be brought in to help make sense of a teacher’s analysis of a critical incident in a recent class.

In addition to the online work, I flew over to teach two intensive week-long classes (Intro to Linguistics and Teaching Grammar). This was my first structured experience as a teacher educator, and it was challenging sometimes but I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it.

That success gave me more confidence in working with teachers. I don’t think I’d have thought of applying to become a CELTA trainer without what I brought out of that experience.

Plus, you know what was really cool? How into it the teachers doing the BA were. Sometimes so-called ‘TEFLers’ in Thailand get painted with a broad brush and get a bad rap as hackish. But the participants in those classes showed that they did think critically about their teaching and were invested in their work and professional self-improvement.

I’ve got hundreds of pages of teacher’s journal PDFs in my files to prove it. It really was a privilege to work with them in that way. Some of the people in those classes back in 2012 recently graduated. Choak dee!

Q

Tell us about your private lessons with the Thai doctors in Boston? Is this a lead that your wife got you?

A

Yes, but let’s not mention her finder’s fee!

Seriously though, CELTA trainer work is very much full time and I often take work home with me. This means that keeping a foot in the classroom with a night class is unfortunately unrealistic.

When Apple told me a Thai ophthalmologist couple doing a residency at Mass General Hospital was looking for private lessons, I jumped at the chance. I was a good situation and the lessons were fun. Needless to say, I ended up learning more about eyeballs than I could have ever imagined!

Q

You’ve been getting involved with on-line teaching and social media as well?

A

I’ve been interested in teaching English online for a while now but never really got that ball rolling on it. I taught a couple of trial classes through a few sites, but just never committed.

It’s definitely a major TEFL growth area. Social media, at this point, is more my thing though. I’m on Twitter (a hell of) a lot - very active in my PLN (personal learning network). Some people just can’t see it, but Twitter is excellent as a resource for teachers. People and organizations share lesson ideas, materials, talk teaching, and network like crazy. I’ve made both professional and personal connections with a bunch of folks I follow on Twitter, and easily keep current on what’s happening throughout the ELT world with its help.

I’ve been sent books, offered jobs, and given tons of help with teaching challenges. People who blog send out links to new posts, and webinars are announced. It’s a rich resource, I tell you!

No, Twitter’s not just for snarky nonsense! It took me a while to see past the hype and the nonsense and give Twitter a shot for myself, but I’m glad I eventually did. As it happens, I’m co-presenting a workshop on why and how teachers can use Twitter at the upcoming TESOL convention.

Q

Apart from the Twitter workshop, you have also got another TESOL conference presentation this year?

A

Yes. It’s called “Pardon the Correction: Meeting Student’s Needs with Confidence” and it’s all about how to give effective corrective feedback, an extremely important but often challenging aspect of classroom teaching.

It’s a very hands-on type of workshop, which is important to me because so often at TESOL you’re just getting talked at.

Q

Back to domestic life for a moment, is your wife working and bringing in some extra cash? You can’t rely on a poor English teacher’s salary.

A

Yep, these days she’s working at a neighborhood restaurant that turns Asian street food dishes into tasty (and pricey!) plates for the hipster set. It’s owned by a young Thai chef and his Cambodian-American wife. She enjoys it.

She is also a proctor for the TOEFL testing that happens down the hall from me once a month. So yes, she contributes to the cash flow. She had an overall better gig in Boston working in the international patient department of a big hospital before I selfishly uprooted us to move out west.

She works hard, but for her boss and for the family (that’s still only me so far but we’re trying to change that). Honestly, if it weren’t for her bookkeeping skills, there would probably be no cash flow to contribute to. I’d be wasting away in some debtor’s prison, I’m pretty terrible at keeping track of everything.

This is something I’m working on though, because as you mentioned, the salary of a teacher (and/or a teacher trainer!) doesn’t do much more than get you by! I’ll say this: we do sometimes ponder a stint in the dunes on the way back to Thailand.

Q

Presumably you still keep an eye on how things are in Thailand in terms of TEFL jobs, salaries, etc?

A

Sure, I always keep an eye on things.

Q

You always had a plan to come back here one day right?

A

Yes, I’d love to move back if and when the time is right. That was the idea all along. We both miss friends and family there a lot sometimes. I also miss the weather, the ability to travel cheaply, the food, just the whole beautiful catastrophe.

And I miss the Thai classroom as well. I’d hope that with the skills I’ve developed since I last taught there I could be much more effective and hence satisfied with the work there. At the same time, I might be even MORE frustrated by the typical limitations and the systemic nonsense, too. I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

I sometimes dream of opening a small language school, and of course I’d really love to continue with teacher training. I’ll need new face towels. And a new yellow shirt for Mondays. And…oh no, Phil! You’ve got me imagining the sun on my face and coconut trees swaying in the warm breeze, and the sound the 7-11 door makes.

Damn. Maybe I’ll be seeing you sooner than later, Phil. Maybe.

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