Ralph Sasser doesn't hold down a 'big position' in Thailand's EFL business and he has no illusions of grandeur. He came to Thailand purely because it felt like home and happiness was of paramount importance. He's a regular guy and a regular teacher.
Hi Ralph. A warm welcome to the ajarn hot seat. Let's roll back the years to begin with. You were born in the USA but upped roots to go and work in Iraq for three years. Was this a teaching gig or something totally unrelated?
The job I had in Iraq was totally unrelated to teaching. I had Iraqi citizens working for me and because we had a serious language barrier, I started teaching my assistant English simply so I could communicate with him. Very soon after I started, my assistant told me that other Iraqis who worked on the same camp also wanted to learn English and asked me if I would help them. So after normal working hours, we would meet at my office and I taught them all English 4 days a week for 3 hours a night in my spare time.
Was Iraq your first 'home away from home'? Did you know deep down that you wanted to live in another country?
Actually, going to Iraq was not my first “home away from home” experience. That distinction belongs to Costa Rica. I moved there after renting out my house in the USA. Unfortunately the taxes in Costa Rica were enormous, so after nine months, I decided I had had enough. I then decided to move to El Salvador (hope you're keeping track of all this?) I had friends there and thoroughly enjoyed the life style, but I was having problems with the renters of my house back in America and it was very difficult to take care of things whilst living in El Salvador........ so I moved back to my home in Tennessee. In my prior career, I traveled to many countries with my company. Living wherever I was for short periods until I had the problems under control.
When you returned to the USA after your three-year stint in the dunes, was it difficult to fit back in?
Oh boy! is that an understatement. I felt like a total stranger. Of course I had my family and close friends to help me re-adjust, but something was missing and I couldn’t narrow it down. I had been back home twice a year while working in Iraq and really didn’t pay a lot of attention to the changes because I was always so busy seeing everyone I wanted to see and taking care of business in the short amount of time I had. I didn’t realize the changes until I left Iraq and went home. I didn’t know what it was, but I did know I wasn’t happy and wanted more.
Thailand was an obvious destination for you because you'd vacationed here many times in the past right?
While I worked in Iraq, I would take a break every 90 days and visit Thailand for 15 days. I got the “exotic” feeling I every time I came here and loved it. I knew one day I would wind up here. I just wasn’t sure when, or what I would do, or even how I'd do it.
A definite 'yes' though. It was the obvious destination.
There must have been something difficult about finally saying goodbye to Uncle Sam?
Sure, it was very hard saying “goodbye” to Uncle Sam, my family, my friends, and the comfortable life I had. But to be honest, I felt like I had to get out for the sake of my own sanity. I felt like the term, “a fish out of water”. I was flopping around with no direction in my life. I was existing and I wanted more and I felt like Thailand offered me the direction I needed. Or at least I hoped it did. So....... here I am.
You describe yourself as something of a rebel, so you went and broke one of my golden rules, which is never secure a teaching job before you get here. Do you still think that's good advice?
Yes, I certainly do. I believe it is always better to look a future employer in the eye before committing to anything. I hesitated about securing a job over the internet after reading several horror stories but, being a person that has to find things out on my own and normally the hard way, I chose to do it anyway.
Would I recommend another person doing the same? No. As we all know, my case is the exception, not the rule. There are many truly “bad” schools out there. My success in finding a good school was down to sheer luck. I have been offered some really great sounding jobs over the past year or so, but I feel like the devil you know is far better than the one you don’t. For that reason, I am very hesitant to leave where I am now.
So you arrived in Thailand with an email telling you you had secured a job at a school in Suphanburi. Was that the only offer you had received? What made you go for that particular job?
No. When I posted my resume on the internet, within three hours I received responses from all over the world. I’m not sure how many, but it was more than I ever imagined. I specifically wanted to come to Thailand, so I weeded out the other countries and focused on Thailand. I contacted the many schools in Thailand that responded to my posting and during the process; I chose the school I'm working at now. I chose it because my dear old dad told me many years ago, to “go by your gut feelings. If your gut tells you it’s the right thing to do then it most likely is. I have always lived my life that way and I have never been sorry for any decision I have made. As I said, the way I did it is not the way I would recommend to anyone else though.
You've worked at your present school for two years. My guide-book describes Suphanburi as 'a very old Thai town with mystical connections but developing into a typical prosperous Central Thai town with a significant Chinese population. A nice place to stop off for a couple of hours' It's not exactly Las Vegas then?
When I arrived in Suphanburi, I was instantly impressed with how clean the town is. It’s one of the cleanest towns I have ever seen - including any in America. The people are proud of their town and it shows. If you're looking for night-life, then you're in the wrong town. I am not a “night owl”; I don't drink or frequent the bars. I am not even sure how many beer-bars there are.
The town is a very prosperous one and in truth there's no need to go to Bangkok. Everything you need is right here. Unless you just can’t wait to get into the traffic, smog, and crime of Bangkok. Crime is almost non-existent in Suophanburi and the prices are very cheap. I live in an upscale gated community on the outskirts of town. I can be anywhere in Suphanburi from my home in ten minutes or less. The people are very accepting of foreigners and will engage in conversation albeit in their version of the English language. But they try very hard. There is a large Chinese population and they too are friendly. Yes, it's a very nice place to stop over for a couple of hours on your way to the pub in Bangkok. Do I like living in Suphanburi? You bet I do.
Tell us a little about the school you work at and the type of students you teach?
I teach at a large, family-owned, private school. Until this year, we had Kindergarten through to Pratom. This year we allowed Muttayom one and two.
I teach ESL to Pratom 3, 4, and 6 intensive and Muttayom 1 and 2 intensive. The rumor is the principal is thinking about taking on Muttayom 3 and 4 also. We have a new gym that will be completed in January and six new classrooms that will be completed in March. We have a media room with all the gadgets. The students are wonderful and for the most part want to learn English. Many of the parents speak English and are fully aware how important it will be as the students mature, to know English. But to be honest, there isn’t much support from the parents. Every class is air-conditioned and has a television. We have a large swimming pool. The school is well known in the area and is considered one of the best. It’s growing fast and I'm sure it will continue to grow.
An obvious question but what are the good and bad points of working there?
Whew! You’re really putting me on the spot now. The worst part of teaching here is that there is very little teacher support. If I need something, I buy it myself or try to borrow it. That in itself is a problem because I am the only farang teacher that teaches the grades I teach. So I have to try and find it. If I can’t, I do without. The owner and principal are great to work for, but tend to delegate responsibilities to their Thai staff. This causes problems because these staff members don't speak English to any extent.
We do not have a discipline policy either. Even though we don't have the problems a government school does, we do have the occasional child who just won't co-operate and disrupts the whole class. The Thai teachers do not have this problem because the students know the teacher will take a stick to them. They rule with fear. I don’t feel like it is my right to hit someone else’s child.
As for the good points....well... if I am not teaching, I do not have to be there. The Thai teachers have to stay at school all day. I can do my “school work” in the comfort of my home. I don't have to attend those boring teachers meetings and training sessions. I get thirty days vacation and all the Thai holidays off a year and the school pays my insurance. I receive 30,000 baht a month. But the best part is they pay on time. That in itself is a plus according to some of the stories I have heard.
If you ever changed jobs, would you stay in the same region or perhaps try your luck in the big cities or near the beach?
If I ever change jobs, I would like to stay in this area. I have no desire to go to any big city. The beach would be nice, but I am not interested in leaving at this time. The only exception would be a chance to go back to Central America and teach. I would seriously consider leaving if a school in Central America could come even close to the benefit package I have now.
Do you keep in touch with things in the USA or has it become a far-off land that you never want to see again?
My children and grandchildren still live there, so I am connected at the hip to Tennessee. I loved living there for many years. I still love Tennessee but I’m not happy living there any longer. I don't think I'll ever go back there to live, but I go to see my family whenever I get the chance. Of course, I do keep in touch with what few friends are still there.
How's family life in Suphanburi?
My family life is great. I don’t have much of a social life. It's self-inflicted though. I tutor at my home and I teach on the weekends at another school. So I'm either working, going to work, or getting material ready for work. Having so many irons in the fire keeps me busy and let’s not forget I have to give some time to my wife. Many days I wonder where the time has gone.
You've offered help and advice on ajarn.com to Julia in her 'Julia's Journey' column. What would be the advice you'd give to any newbie looking for a life in Thailand as a teacher?
Easy question to answer. The very best advice I could give any one coming to Thailand to teach is if they haven’t taken the TEFL course before they get here, go straight to Ban Phe and enrol on a course with Dave Hopkins. Dave is the best trainer you could have. It's an intensive course but I learned so much. Before I took the course, I had been teaching for three years in America and one year in Suphanburi, so I had my “style” down to a science. Or so I thought. Dave changed all that and taught me a new way to teach. I didn’t stop teaching the way I was, but I incorporated what I had learned into it. I firmly believe he made me a better teacher. I’m sure there are others that will disagree, but my new found “style” seems to be effective.
What do you make of all these changes going on in the teaching profession - criminal background checks, Thai cultural courses, etc. Do you think as foreign teachers, we are still welcome here?
I think the proposed changes are from a system that is honestly trying to keep pedophiles like John Mark Karr and others out. I fully support their efforts if that is the case. However, the Thai cultural course and all the mountain of paperwork involved to be able to work here legally is bull****. It seems like they make it as difficult as possible for the honest, hardworking teachers that truly want to make a difference - if only in one child’s life.
A recent graduate I believe would have second thoughts about coming here to work if he/she knows what is involved in becoming a legal teacher. Add on the average salary, sometimes impossible demands, and it is easy to see why so many go somewhere else to work. The government knows full well how important English is to be competitive in the global market-place. I believe as a foreign teacher, we do not get the same respect as a Thai teacher gets. I believe they look on us as a necessary evil and that if they want to make money - the driving force - they must have us here.
I have enjoyed talking to you Philip and thank you.