Hot Seat

Richard Kirtland

Now here's a guy worth reading. He worked at the prestigious Harrow School in Bangkok, but still felt that there was a danger of stagnating and becoming just another part of the Bangkok TEFL crowd. So it was back to the UK for a PGCE.

Q

I think you must be the first hot seat candidate to ever work at one of those infamous Bangkok ‘technical schools’. Inter-school fights or ‘scraps’ have always been common, but we’re talking guns and knives and home-made bombs here aren’t we?

A

We certainly are! It was the first job that I had after completing my TESOL certificate and I didn’t really know what to expect. I was the only Western member of staff out of a total of 200 and my spoken Thai was non-existent. I was lucky to have an excellent boss, who guided me through my first, rather bizarre, working year in Bangkok.

One extra-curricular activity I helped with was the intra-campus radio show, which involved me coaching various enthusiastic students in public speaking. I had one particular student – I forget his name now, let’s call him Benz – who was great fun but slightly hyperactive and sensationalist, to say the least. One lunchtime, whilst we were sitting under a tree out by the running track and playing fields practicing his lines, I heard a few pops and cracks and some muffled jeering emanating from the home economics block. At first, I thought there were some fireworks or the like being let-off in aid of some mini-celebration of some sort- perhaps the home economics students had finally produced a sandwich that doesn’t appear to be filled with paint and doesn’t taste as if it has been dipped in glue. Apparently not, as the next thing I know, Benz is shouting, ‘Ajarn Rik … the sound of the gun!’ and leaping to his feet whilst heroically shielding me from the apparent danger by jostling me forcefully up the stairs towards the staff room (bear in mind that Benz was about 5 ft short, bespectacled and built like whicker basket – a natural born bodyguard if ever I saw one).

The staffroom, four floors up, looked directly on the sports track and playing field. As one of the female, middle-aged, big-haired ajarns leisurely bolted the staffroom door behind us and pulled down the iron grille, I nervously looked out of the bay windows to see about 60 male students tearing out of the home economics block and running for their lives as another 100 or so chased them, one or two firing pistols in the air, others ripping the wooden slats from the stadium seats and a handful throwing home made Molotovs. Although this is obviously quite shocking, it was the reaction from the Thai teachers that stunned me most. They had all formed a line hugging the windows and were staring out, smiling gently, shaking their heads and muttering sentences to the effect of, ‘Those crazy kids….bless ‘um’, as if the situation was no more than a conker smashing competition which had gotten out of hand – unbelievable! But not as unbelievable as the fact that the fight was sparked-off because of a petty row between the furniture making department and the home economics department! I’ve never heard of hordes of heavily-armed chefs or highly-explosive carpenters rampaging through schools in the UK, but, as we all know, this is ‘Amazing Thailand’!

All joking aside, a few months later my school had a very serious altercation with another technical school which resulted in one death and over 200 arrests. It was plastered all over the news and considered to be the most serious incident in 20 years.

Although I really enjoyed my time there and learned a great deal, it is understandable why the technical schools have earned their infamous reputation and it was certainly a wise move to leave and seek greener pastures.

Q

Unbelievable stuff! After the technical school job you moved on to work for Harrow International School. That was surely an enormous feather in your cap?

A

In some ways, yes. I had a friend working as a primary teacher at Harrow and she had recommended I contact one of her colleagues, who was in charge of language services, while I was still in England. I exchanged a few Emails with him and we finally met when I arrived in Bangkok. I had enrolled on a TESOL course prior to leaving the UK, so a few days later I left Bangkok for a month. I returned to Bangkok and took up the position at the technical school. I still kept in touch with the guy from Harrow and about a year later language teaching position opened up, so I attended interview and was offered the job. Obviously, Harrow is a top-notch outfit so, yes, I suppose it augments the CV nicely.

Q

I’m sure Harrow only expected the best. How did they make sure they’d got exactly that?

A

Schools like Harrow can afford to be selective, but I guess that any employer takes a gamble, to a certain extent, on any prospective employee that they have not worked with before. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it appears that Harrow were happy with my pudding.

Q

You then decided to do a PGCE at Cambridge University. When or why did you realize that you wanted to take teaching that seriously?

A

I cannot remember the exact date that I decided to apply for the PGCE, but it had been on my mind for some time. I had already been teaching for 2 years in Thailand and I decided that I needed to make a decision about my future pretty quickly; I had seen so many people who seemed to eek out an existence in Bangkok indefinitely. They seemed to just exist and live month-to-month, rather than think about the long term. I was certain that I didn’t ever want to be in that situation, so I weighed up my options.

Initially, I came to Thailand and completed a TESOL certificate so that I could hold a position as a qualified language teacher. I was unsure how long I would stay, perhaps 3 months, perhaps 30 years, I had no idea. I think that it was a combination of luck (working at schools that I liked, with people that I liked, trusted and respected) and a disposition towards working with young people that convinced me that I could be an effective teacher and also enjoy my job. I discussed various options with friends and colleagues and finally came to the conclusion that if I really wanted to take teaching English and Drama seriously, then I had no choice but to apply for a PGCE in England.

I was, at the time, settled nicely in Bangkok and had a girlfriend, apartment etc. but I knew that I would get itchy feet if I stayed too long in Bangkok teaching purely ESL, as the compulsion to teach mainstream English was growing stronger. I flew back to England for an interview at Cambridge and returned to Thailand to await their response. I was fortunate to be accepted onto the course.

I am so glad that I made the decision as early as I did; it is probably the wisest thing I have ever done. Too many ‘teachers’ stay on in Thailand and moan about how they don’t earn enough money, or how they are working in an inadequate school, with ‘thick’ students etc. but these types of people seldom make any real effort to improve their situation by gaining qualifications/better qualifications. I always try to have a pin in the map somewhere so that I always have something higher to aim for. When I finally reach that point, I can take it out and place it somewhere more ambitious. I think that the worse thing anyone can do is stagnate.

Q

And to complete the background, you’ve just been offered a position at another prestigious international school so you’re Bangkok-bound once again?

A

Yes. I have just returned to Bangkok and will start a new contract in September. I am lucky to have been offered a position working, once again, with some colleagues from Harrow, who are now working for a different international school. The PGCE year was very hard, possibly the most challenging thing I have done, so it is great to be returning to familiar surroundings with familiar faces rather than starting from scratch. It will be nice to teach some of my old students again, too – not sure if they will be so happy!

Q

I suppose a major question must be why Thailand (given your qualifications)?

A

There are many things that I love about Thailand and a few things that I consider quite negative. On the whole, however, I feel very comfortable here and enjoy the company of Thai people and learning about Thai culture. I am getting stuck into learning the Thai language and have begun to read and write, so I really want to keep that going. I also have good friends, a partner and a good job here, so why would I want to move? I think that one can lead a very fulfilling and comfortable life here in Thailand if one conducts oneself properly and leads a ‘normal’ life in what can be a most ‘abnormal’ country at the best of times! With regard to my qualifications, they are basic, entry-level teaching qualifications that I hope to extend in the near future. They enable me to work in the international sector in any country. I chose Thailand, again.

Q

From the outside looking in, how do you view this bunch of foreigners who teach English in Thailand for a living?

A

There really is a myriad of language ‘teachers’ here in Bangkok. We have all seen the degenerate, unqualified, bar-girl-begging characters that pass themselves off as ajarn so frequently that they have even convinced themselves that they are worthy of the title. I have also worked with people who are highly qualified, experienced and motivated professionals. So vast is the chasm in between the two that the diversity is almost infinite.

If someone is conscientious, motivated and has followed a recognized teacher training course then they have the potential to be an excellent teacher. I firmly believe that to be an effective teacher you must be trained by professionals, whether it be a 4 week intensive TEFL certificate, a PGCE, or an MEd. Those people that hold recognized certification of some sort are probably doing an excellent job, but it is the idiots that have never prepared a lesson in their lives, think that pedagogy is some type of venereal disease, and think that they are great teachers because the students like them, that cause the significant damage to the reputation of teachers in Thailand.

Q

Do you think Thailand is a place that you could reasonably call home for the rest of your life, or will there always come a time to move on

A

As things stand at the moment, I have absolutely no intention of leaving Thailand. I feel very at home here now and look forward to building foundations for the future. There are certain people who seem to be amazingly cynical of Thailand and Thai people, but when you mention the fact that Bognor Regis is only 12 hours away, there is an immediate rejection of the idea of ever moving back to the UK or whichever corner of Farangland they fled from many eons ago. Everyone has a moan every now and again, but all things considered I am happier here than in the UK.

Q

What’s the worst teaching job you’ve ever held in Thailand?

A

I have only had the 2 jobs I mentioned earlier and I am lucky to have enjoyed both. I refused to work for any language schools as I see them as hugely money-orientated with little or no regard for their students or teachers. This is not true of all language schools of course, but it is certainly true of many.

Q

I presume you prefer teaching adults to kids?

A

I actually prefer teaching kids and young adults, hence doing the PGCE which qualifies me to teach English and Drama to 11-18 year olds. I think that teachers can have an extremely negative or positive impact on young people. We all remember the teacher that we hated or liked from our school days. I like the fact that with the job comes not only the responsibility to nurture academic excellence, but also the responsibility to impart personal and social skills to students.

Some kids don’t have a role model at home because the parents are too busy, have significant personal/social problems, or simply don’t care about them. All students need to be shown consistently positive attitudes and behaviours by teachers in schools. Seeing students grow and mature into responsible leaders in society is one of the best parts of the job. Also, students this age are great fun!

Q

Which part of Bangkok do you aim to settle down in?

A

I would love to settle in Satorn, as this is the area that I have always lived and the area that I will be working in for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, I am not a millionaire. And will most likely never be one. Sukumvit holds no attraction for me and I don’t want to live too far out, as getting to work would be a nightmare! I suppose I will continue to rent in Satorn as it convenient. If I were to have a family here then my priorities would obviously change and I would strongly consider buying a house somewhere. Anyhow, that is all in the future and for now I am just happy to be back in Thailand.

Q

I introduced you as a man who you wouldn’t find trawling the bars, but is the nightlife part of the attraction?

A

There are so many things to do in Bangkok apart from visiting the ‘morally modified’ entertainment areas - I am most likely to be found in one of the Irish or English pubs tucking into a cold beer and a game of pool, or at the department store watching a movie and having a meal. As I mentioned earlier, to hold down a ‘proper’ (qualify that however you will) job I think that one needs to lead a well-balanced life, as opposed to an unhealthy, hedonistic rampage. Some may choose to frequent the more dubious pockets of Bangkok nightlife, but that is their choice.

Q

Do you see the attraction of teaching out in the provinces?

A

I have never really considered it, although I have thought about perhaps moving to Chiang Mai in the future. Also, I have friends here in Bangkok, so it would mean leaving them all behind. I can see why working in the provinces may be attractive to some people, but I think I would get too bored. I am used to living in cities and enjoy the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. I am pretty sure I will stick around here a good few years before going anywhere else.

Q

And the old chestnut to finish – does a degree make a good teacher?

A

No. It usually makes about 12,000 pounds of debt.

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