One area that many TEFLers show an interest in is hotel teaching. Can you imagine a job where your work environment is a five-star luxury hotel surrounded by swaying palms and waves lapping on to some private beach. And you probably only have to teach a couple of hours a day as well. Is it really as good as all that? Step forward Preston Dixon - a teacher at a hotel resort on Thailand's Koh Samui.
Preston, welcome to the ajarn hot seat. You're a 39-year old Canadian man. Looking at your resume, you have quite an extensive sports-related background and then suddenly this drastic career change in your mid-30s. Tell us how it came about?
Most North Americans don't travel the way the Brits or the Aussies do, but I always had an itch. I was involved in back to back start up businesses in the U.S. (most recently as the GM of a Semi-Pro ice hockey team), but I was getting burnt out on business and politics in the States. So I decided to take a risk by doing a TEFL in Asia somewhere. My family and my professional colleagues thought that I had lost my mind. I will admit to a sort of mid-life crisis.
Korea was your first choice as a place to kick-start your TEFL career but it never happened. What attracted you to Korea initially and then what later put you off?
I had my eye on Korea because a lot of Canadians go there and I heard there were a lot of decent paying jobs. I read that Korea offers one of the best financial packages with airfare, bonuses, and paid apartments. Also, they have ice hockey and I thought I could get involved and help coach – maybe a college team. I was never put off by Korea. I just never made it there. Now if I go to Korea, I’m afraid I’ll be homesick for Thailand.
You ended up in Thailand and headed straight for Koh Samui. You just didn't fancy Bangkok then?
I decided that if I was going to get a 4 week TEFL certificate, I might as well go somewhere with a beach and combine a holiday while I was at it. I was only in Bangkok for four days and it was really exciting and vibrant, but it was a bit overwhelming, too. It was nice to arrive on Samui, study a little map, and explore around on a scooter and find some quiet places to relax.
And then as all great stories go - a chance meeting in a bar?
Yes, I was about to finish my TEFL (still with no plan) when a friend of mine invited me down to a local bar for a beer and a game of pool. After a few too many rum (sangsom) 'n' cokes and a good string of losses on the table, I met a British guy who worked for a hotel training company. He said his company might be looking for teachers. I dropped by their office the next day. They asked me to teach a private class. I guess it went ok and they offered me a job thereafter.
How many resorts / hotels do you teach at and what does your weekly schedule amount to in terms of hours?
I usually teach at about 3-4 different hotels in a week. The hours can range from 9am to about 6-7pm. I usually have between 5-6 hours of classes each day, so an average week is between 25-30 teaching hours. However, during the high and peak tourist seasons here the hotels are too busy to train so we don’t have nearly as many teaching hours. The other time is spent getting to and from the various hotels on my trusted Yamaha motorbike. The hotels are usually close to our office/school (about 10-15 minutes), but sometimes we have contracts as a far away as 45 minutes to an hour. The roads on Samui are an adventure, to say the least, and you have to employ a combination of defensive driving and aggressive driving in order to survive.
So are you employed by one hotel chain in particular or are you totally freelance?
I work for a company called International English. They have a general English school, but the majority of the business comes from their subsidiary called Mise En Place. Mise En Place trains hotel staff in service procedures and service language (English). The owners are English and Swiss, and they have a virtual monopoly on the hotel business on Samui. Plus, they have created a wealth of hotel lessons. So you can just follow the curriculum. They’re a good group to work for in that they give you a lot of freedom to be creative within the course curriculum. Also, they have fostered a pretty good team environment and I haven’t experienced too much in the way of office politics or petty jealousies – in fact, the more experienced teachers have been really supportive during my rookie year. Further, they’ve started to diversify into some corporate training and team building which is more to my interests. We recently hosted a team building exercise for a Singaporean company. We chartered a catamaran to a local island, ate lunch, went swimming, and played games all day. By the way, we’re always recruiting new staff so if anyone’s interested you can go to www.traininghotels.com and contact Dave or Rolf.
Typically what hotel departments do you teach?
You name it...from beginner level engineers, kitchen staff, gardeners and housekeepers to elementary level food & beverage, back office and spa staff to lower intermediate receptionists and heads of departments.
Are some of the hotel staff resentful of having to take English lessons? Aren't they hired on the strength of their language competency?
Yes and no, most of the hotel students are very good and are willing to engage and give it a go. I think that some of them even understand that we’re trying to help them improve their level of service language which may ultimately improve their career and job prospects. However, there are some hotel students that don’t see the benefit of learning English, even for their job. It's curious because the general public pays our school to learn privately and in small groups, and they're fairly motivated. But even though English training is a perk of the hotel job (free), some of the hotel students still don’t want to attend classes. I find that the higher level students (reception) are fairly motivated, and even the lower level (housekeepers and engineers) are willing to give it an honest effort. It’s some of the younger restaurant, bar and beach wait staff that have the poorer attitudes.
It seems like every ad for hotel employment requires a good level of English, but there are so many hotels on Samui that I think employers have to take what they can get. So the average Thai person may not feel that they need to improve their level because there’s a surplus of jobs.
What's your teaching philosophy?
When you’re teaching 30 hours a week, driving all over the island, and preparing on the run, the teaching philosophy is “Survival”. Seriously though, I’ve only been teaching for about a year so I haven’t really developed any tried and true philosophy. Nevertheless, I do think you have to keep in mind how difficult language learning is. Most teachers are academic types, were competent in school growing up, and are comfortable reading and writing. But, for most gardeners and housekeepers a classroom environment (let alone in a non-native language) can be quite intimidating. With that in mind, I just try to keep things light (Sanook) and make it as painless as possible for the students. I’m under no illusion that I’m going to re-invent the wheel and convert any Thais to fluency in a three month course, two hours a week. But, maybe I can help the motivated students pick up some service language. If the guest asks for a towel and they actually get a towel and not a pillow, then we’re making progress!
I may be way off the mark here, but doesn't the success of an English language program in a hotel largely depend on the foreign hotel manager. That's to say if he's behind it and enthusiastic about it, it's more likely to be a success?
No, you’re actually right on the mark. But, it gets a bit more complicated. At some hotels the head of the department supports your program and it works out well. Most of the students attend and are somewhat engaged. However, I had one hotel where management was really involved and cracked the whip to make sure the students attended class. They had an incentive scheme and you lost out on bonuses if you didn’t attend. So I got these large classes that consisted of some motivated students and some others who you would have thought that they had been banished to a Turkish prison for two hours each week. At other hotels you never see any management. The training program is unofficially optional. The classes are smaller and the Turkish prisoners hide somewhere and don’t attend the classes.
Hotel jobs don't pay all that well really, but there must be perks. I bet you get to pick your way through the remnants of the hotel buffet? Smoked salmon and lobster thermidor anyone?
I think my pay is about average for Thailand. I don’t really get too many perks from the hotel. There’s the odd lunch, but I haven’t been offered any lobster thermidor yet. I have been invited to some pretty good parties, though.
I presume the housemaids realise that better English means better tips?
I’ve tried to explain to them that there’s a direct relationship between service and tips – service goes up, tips go up. But, I’m not sure they really get that. Also, I don’t see a great deal of vertical motivation among the Thai hotel employees. They may perceive a glass ceiling, so why bother.
I went to Samui about 7 years ago and to be honest I wasn't all that impressed. I remember staying in Chaweng and taking the odd side-trip to Lamai. I thought it would be only a matter of time before the battling foreign lager louts took over. How's Samui shaping up these days?
Well, there doesn't seem to be too many “battling foreign lager louts”. But, there’s a lot of money on Samui from tourism and real estate. I’ve been told that the old coconut farmers would will their beach property to their lazier, less enterprising children and would give the interior rai to their more ambitious, harder working children. Consequently, this has made some of the heirs quite wealthy as they have sold out to large hotel groups. These days, there’s a lot of construction going on. It seems like there are new hotels and villas going up everywhere. The main ring road is very congested and dangerous. Nevertheless, Samui is a lively island attracting people from all over the world. The beaches are still quite nice and fairly clean. And we have two modern superstores, a good mix of restaurants, and even a movie theatre.
Let's have a very green question because we don't have enough green questions I've decided. Is tourism ruining Thailand?
It’s a very good question. I had a nice girlfriend from Isan living with me here on Samui for awhile who complained about farangs bringing materialism and consumption to Thailand. However, in our home she was the one that liked the Air Con, cable TV, and hot showers. So it's difficult to say who is responsible for bringing big changes to Thailand - the demand of the Thais for modern conveniences or the suppliers (marketers) of the material life. I recently broached this subject with a guy from India. I said “It’s just my opinion, but I think that commercialism and consumerism could be the downfall of the Thai culture”. He reminded me that the Asian cultures of India and Thailand, in particular, are thousands of years old. So maybe it will be some years before Thailand turns into Middle America.
Finally, tell us a little about your lifestyle. I can imagine an idyllic beach hut with all mod cons. A little motorbike to zip around on. Go on - make us all insanely jealous you swine!
I’m afraid I may disappoint you here. I live a fairly simple existence. I rent a small, furnished bungalow about a km from the beach in a quiet Thai neighborhood. I don’t need a lot of creature comforts. The bungalow has everything I need - a living room, bedroom, bath, and kitchen. I like to cook at home and there’s a terrific Thai market just down the road with fresh fish and vegetables. I usually go for a swim at the beach in the morning before work and there’s a good gym about ten minutes away by motorbike. There are a few half decent used bookstores on the island so I always have a book or two on the go. I usually go out for a few rum 'n' cokes on Saturday nights in Chaweng where all the nightlife is. There’s an open air Reggae Pub that is always hopping. But my life here is pretty relaxed and quiet. So, I’m fairly content for now. If Samui had a proper library and an ice arena…it would truly be paradise!
If anyone has any questions about hotel teaching or life on Samui, please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks a lot Preston. I'm sure you'll have a few folks get in touch.