He's taught in South America. He taught in South Thailand during the terrorist attack on New York. And he's been the victim of some appalling Thai management decisions. It's been a hell of a journey.
Greg, you've had something of an interesting EFL career, starting in Honduras, then Mexico, and now several years in Thailand. When I first contemplated teaching EFL, Mexico was high on my list but my dear mother said she would be sick with worry. It can't be all that bad? Did you have a good time out there?
Mexico was great. The food, the weather, the people - all great. I still regularly email friends I met while teaching in Mexico. Income reliability was the biggest disadvantage there. $600 one month, $1500 the next, and maybe just $400 the following month. It is hard to save money anywhere, but forget it when you can't plan ahead. That said, teachers there for a few years had a lot of contacts and did well for themselves in occupations other than teaching.
Why Thailand after South America?
I saw myself in Mexico long term but I also wanted the chance to see more of the world before I had too many ties to one place. I wanted to give Asia a try and Thailand had more positive write-ups on the web than other Asian countries. I figured I would be here for 6 months to a year but it has been 3 years and counting and I'm still here.
You worked as a GMAT prep teacher in Mexico so you obviously know your stuff. GMAT teachers are always in short supply in Thailand. Have you tried to hunt out a GMAT teaching position here?
They aren't in short supply in Yala. I never met a student who had the basic English skills to take the GMAT or GRE. You can't really train students for the exams unless they have good English. Otherwise you spend a lot of time focusing on the English and very little time on the test taking hints and training materials. I really enjoyed teaching the classes in Mexico because you got near instant feedback on how well they were learning. It was rewarding to see how the low pre-test scores changed into great final scores. The students were focused, determined, and intelligent.
You worked in Southern Thailand for a couple of years - in Yala to be exact. You were there during the World Trade Center disaster, so things must have got pretty tense down there among the Muslim community?
Tense was an understatement. Many Muslims, and yes I can say many, were happy to see people die. I know because that is the feedback that I got on September 12th and 13th. People I didn't know came up to me to express their happiness. When the US went into Afghanistan, things changed. The attacks were both symbols of a Muslim triumph and a Jewish conspiracy. Don't even ask me about that logic. As things heated up, I found myself dealing more and more with hostile Muslims. Many had settled back down, but a few still persisted to be filled with hate. In November 2001, I went in to pay my phone bill and I was accosted by a Muslim, and I told him what I thought about Bin Laden. After leaving the office, I found several Muslims had gathered outside of office to "talk" to me. Several shouts later, we were all at the police station where a few officers said they loved Bin Laden. I guess that's the short of it. It made the newspapers for what it's worth.
Let's stick with the job in Yala for a moment. You were apparently the victim of some appalling Thai management. Obviously we won't mention the name of the school but what are some of the things that went on?
From what I've seen it was just typical Thai management. I gave everything to the school for two years, I increased business at the school by close to 100%, and did everything that was asked of me. I didn't take any vacations and had only one sick day (and still forced to work half of it). When it came time to leave, I was deprived of my bonus and a large chunk of my final salary, all with no explanation. I got the feeling that when I ceased to make my boss money then I ceased to be treated well. I won't even go into the things done to my son as that is a very private matter (my embassy was involved). Several posters on the Ajarn board tried to give me advice concerning the job, but I didn't listen. I sure wish I had. My hard work and loyalty were repaid with cheating and lying.
How much were you earning 'down South' and did you find it enough to survive on?
I earned enough to survive. I can survive on 10k per month, I know because I did. To really enjoy things, I didn't earn enough unless I clocked more than 120 hours in a month. I am talking about the basics, cable tv, occasional movie, and occasional dining out. Don't let schools fool you about the cost of living issue, because it isn't that much less up-country. Rent is, but other things are priced similar. I really don't know how anyone can get by on less than 35k a month in Bangkok. Survive yes, enjoy? No way. I am making 26k a month and supplement it with private classes. I do ok now, better than I could in Bangkok but still at the end of the month, I am just as broke as most other teachers.
After your experiences in Yala, you did a brief stint in Nakhon Sawan. Was it a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire?
I can't mention the name of the school, but the school owner threatened to blacklist and sue me if I said anything bad about her school. As she said, Thailand is for Thais and foreigners aren't welcome. About all I will say is that lies concerning money were made and with two dependents, I just can't play that game. I should have checked out the school more carefully, found out how many teachers stayed on after they finished their contract, and most importantly seen how many first time teachers the school had.
I'm guessing that there have been many times when you've questioned exactly what you're doing working in Thailand?
I ask myself that question every Monday morning. The daily grind really gets to me. I like to see real progress from my students, but in Thailand any progress comes very slowly and may not be so noticeable. I am sometimes very frustrated come Friday afternoon. Teaching in Thailand sure is hard on teachers, but when a great student comes around or when your class has a light-bulb moment, it makes everything worthwhile.
You and I met very briefly when you first came to Thailand. You seemed to make your mind up very early on that Bangkok just wasn't for you.
Bangkok is big, congested, and expensive, at least to my first timer eyes. I came to Thailand at the end of January 2001. There were a lot of jobs opening up "later" but none at that time. I had about $1100, not enough to make a good go of it in Bangkok but enough in the provinces.... so I went south. My advice to anyone reading this is to come with at least $3000 so you can choose the job and location you want rather than having your wallet choose for you.
You're now down in Songkhla province. Have you managed to find a job you're truly happy with yet?
Truly happy? Probably, I will let you know when my contract ends. Seriously though, I have a good job, no job is perfect in Thailand but my salary is paid on time, I have freedom to teach how I want to teach, I have great materials to work with and I have time to spend with my two sons. It is as much as I could hope for in Thailand and probably better than what I could have back in the states.
Probably a predictable question, but in your opinion what are the major advantages and disadvantages of working in rural Thailand?
Rural Thailand is great if you are married, don't have a lot of money, and are easily entertained. I have a vcd player, tv, dvd player, Sony Playstation and a decently equipped kitchen. Some of the real advantages are the lower cost of living ( there is nothing to spend money on) , friendly people and a slower pace. Some of the disadvantages are the lack of privacy (students ride their bikes to my house in order to play in front of my house), the huge language barrier, the lack of entertainment options, and the isolation.
You've taught all kinds of groups from corporate to kids to TOEFL students. What do you prefer doing and why?
I prefer young children - the ages before they get too indoctrinated and their minds are still sponges. They can pick up English very, very quickly, lesson prep time is minimal and the lessons are enjoyable for all of us. I know it would be hard to go back to corporate teaching after teaching kids for 3 years. And TOEFL? I've been teaching long enough that I really hate to teach a boring lesson. For that reason, I can't teach TOEFL anymore, it's way too boring. I just can't figure out how to make a lesson that is boring for me somehow less than boring for my students.
Now I have to mention this but you are one BIG fella. The term 'gentle giant' was made for you. Besides making a great Father Christmas during the yuletide season, don't the kids find you a bit intimidating when they very first clap eyes on you?
Gentle giant? Me? One of my biggest concerns coming to Thailand was my size and how I would be perceived by students. The youngest kids have a problem with it for a lesson or two, but it's their first time studying with a foreigner so maybe there are other issues. Older kids treat it like a big red nose on a clown. Some kids take to patting it to see what it feels like or even if it is real. It was irritating during my first year here, now I don't even think about it. Funny you mention about Father Christmas, no school has yet gone to the trouble of getting me to wear a Santa suit.
After a fair amount of negative experiences in Thailand, how long do you see yourself sticking it?
I'm here as long as I am welcome. Bad experiences happen everywhere. I am more concerned about how welcome foreigners will be in Thailand in the coming years. I haven't invested much in Thailand, just 3 years of blood, sweat, and tears. I really feel for those who have invested their families, savings, and heart in Thailand. As my sons get older, I think a lot more about going back home, but right now I think I can do better for them here in Thailand than back home in America.
I've got to ask you this as a final question. You seem to choose Filipinas rather than Thais to be your 'soulmates'. In Thailand? Is it just the way things have worked out?
A old man in Mexico once told me that when the passion ends you are just left to the woman's cooking. I think I would die if I could only eat Thai food. I am ok with Filipino food like adobo, spaghetti, and pancit. I found a great girl here in Thailand. She was willing to love my son as her own and gave me another son in November. I can share anything with her, she likes to play Playstation games, she likes country music, and she cooks the best adobo in the world. She just happens to be from the Philippines.