About time we had another interview with someone who actually runs a language school - enter Terry Burton stage right - the owner and director of Amerithai Education Center in Surat Thani.
Terry, we get quite a few jobs on the ajarn board for Surat Thani - so it's more than just a place to get the boat over to Koh Samui then?
Yes, we are so much more than that, why you can process rubber here and we are also the coconut picking monkey training capital of Thailand! Seriously though, Surat is a nice place to live. We are surrounded by jungles and waterfalls and we are within three hours of Krabi, Phuket, Koh Phangyan and of course Samui. The expats who do the best here are the ones who have decided to make Thailand their home. It’s great for those of us tired of Bangkok.
How difficult has it been to start your own language school? I think a lot of people go into this without realizing the hard work that it takes to build up business.
the saying “That which does not kill can only make me stronger.” Opening my school has been challenging at times but when those trying trying times come we just drive on. My advice to anyone who is thinking about opening a school would be to honestly evaluate yourself as a businessman. You may be a great teacher but owning a school is a whole different ballgame. Yes, it is a lot of frustrating, hard work, but at the end of the day you are working for yourself.
What kind of students do you cater for? Do the people down in Surat Thani have money to chuck around on language lessons?
That’s quite a good question. I originally wanted to cater to those students in the lower middle socio-economic class. We have a policy here that no student who truly wants to study English will be turned away simply because they can’t pay tuition. We have actually been paid in food, trash hauling, landscaping and auto repair! You see, even though our tuition averages only 700 THB per month some parents can’t even afford that, so if they are say somtum sellers, we will ask for a somtum lunch once a week. It’s all about not making them feel like charity cases but instead helping them fell like they paid their way as best they could. That being said, we also have students from the two most powerful families in Surat. So I guess we cater to anyone with a sincere desire to study English but don’t like the alternatives.
I suppose this is an obvious question but how difficult is it for you to recruit teachers?
Actually we get tens of emails for every job opening we have. The problem is that after we sort out all the: “I was thinking about coming to Asia, could you tell me a little about living in Thailand?” “Do I need any qualifications?” and of course “I make five times that here in ___ why is the salary so little in Asia?” replies, the list gets quite short. Once we actually see the teachers and cut all the ones who thought maybe teacher was a colloquialism for building site laborer, or trash man, well the list just
shrunk in half again. People, please, you are applying for a white collar job. Look how teachers dress and groom themselves in your own country and at least put an effort into projecting yourself as a trustworthy, clean cut individual whom I would be willing to stake the reputation of my school on by putting you in a classroom! As far as qualifications: At least get a TEFL! I mean I would like a job helping to map the human genome but I nearly failed anatomy 101! Being a bricklayer who can speak English does not mean you can teach the language, spend the money and get a TEFL! Sorry about that rant but a school’s reputation is like your virginity, once it’s gone you can never get it back. Nothing will kill a good rep faster than having poor teachers.
In your email you describe AmeriThai as a semi-charitable school, can you explain what you mean?
I started AmeriThai, as I said before, as a way for the vast majority of Thais who can’t afford to study to have the opportunity. I also require that teachers spend at least one hour a week involved in a charitable cause of their choice. We also support the local orphanage with money, English lessons and we will be having a special Christmas party for them this year. We must remember that we are guests in this country, and even the salary of the worst paid expat teacher would make most Thais feel rich. The least we can do is give back something to the community that supports us. I often think about how I would feel if my hometown were suddenly invaded, by say Indians, who made five times my salary doing the same job, and didn’t even try to be a part of our community. It’s easy to see where the resentment that some Thais feel toward us comes from.
What is the worst thing that has happened to your school?
At the risk of having a stroke (the blood still boils after this one), It would be when a teacher who begged me for a job went to work directly for the contracted school where he was assigned, then opened his own school! Although the school is quite frankly a joke in the community here, it still
stung. Even worst was when we found out he did the same, work a couple weeks try to steal contracts, from three other schools in town….Oh well….
You got your teaching start with Siam Computer. Siam seems to have made great strides in improving their image over the last year or two?
Actually, I have only positive things to say about my time with Siam. I was always paid on time, I was never shorted on my salary and what I perceived at the time as bad management by Siam, I now see that those problems happen at every Thai school where foreigners are outsourced. I am definitely not
saying that the horror stories are untrue; I just don’t have any to add. Michael, the sort of 'go to guy' for the expats, has my respect as he always tried to help with whatever problems I may have had, and he really helped me to develop from someone who knew little about teaching to the guy you see now who know a little…still a big improvement!
You then moved on to an international school. How was that period for you?
I worked for the worst international school in Thailand if not the world! The Director was a terrible facsimile of a human being; he was unfair and rude to his staff both Thai and expat; he had a serious Napoleon complex. I guess you could call him a Malaysian Josef Stalin. (You can probably see he and I did not get along too well.) This job started on the first day of the term with me being told I was taking a job other than the one I had been hired to do, and ended with him refusing to pay my final monthly salary until I came with six police men, two immigration officers and a labor inspector. I got my last check….but then the bastard POSTDATED it!! So I guess in a nutshell, this period was the absolute drizzling shits!!
Getting back to your own language school, are you generally happier being the boss rather than a paid member of staff?
Generally yes, I am happier. But I really don’t look forward to the first of the month like I did before! I have always liked to be the guy in charge, so it is great to know the success is mine, but so are the failures….And that’s the way I like it.
Typically how many hours a week do you work?
I sleep six hours a night, spend 30 minutes in the restroom, and turn off my phone an hour a day. The rest is work, work, work.
Do you get much hassle from the boys in brown or other figures of authority looking for a slice of the pie? I mean as a foreigner running a language school in a smallish town, you must stand out a bit.
That’s another great question. First of all the most important
words in are: I don’t understand….can you call my lawyer. I volunteer as an EMT with the local hospital, so as the 2 meter tall 110 kilo white guy at all the accidents scenes the police know me quite well. I have never had a problem with the police at all here. The MOE branch here is a different story. There is a peon who works there whose son in law was a teacher at AmeriThai. After he was let go he thought he could get a few baht by trying to threaten me. Well long story short, my lawyer sorted it out and now the peon is on thin ice at work. The corruption is mostly low level in Thailand and done without the knowledge of the higher ups, as in this case. When an MOE director starts getting calls threatening action with the counter corruption committee, things stop real quick! That is a perfect case in point of a good lawyer being worth his weight in gold. The problem is many expats try to go it alone, if you open a business get the best lawyer you can afford it will save countless headaches.
Do you think the EFL situation in Thailand is improving for the foreign teacher?
I think jobs are getting easier to find but I also think employers are getting choosier after seeing what damaged reputations do to schools. For good, qualified, reliable teachers it has really improved! But for those on the fringe or those just looking to extend a holiday, I have two words for you: NOT ANYMORE! Schools really are looking for more than a white face nowadays.
If you were a foreign teacher about to launch an assault on South East Asia, would Thailand be number one on your list?
I think Thailand is a great first stop for a new teacher. The country is relatively foreigner friendly, the government is stable, and jobs are easy to find. After a couple years here you will be ready to move on to the big money in Korea, or Taiwan. After three years you should be able to teach in the more culturally challenging countries like Cambodia or Vietnam.
It's been said that teachers have been leaving in droves over the past couple of years. Do you think there's an element of truth in that or is it complete bollocks?
I do think many of the more qualified teachers are indeed heading off to the greener grass of Japan, Taiwan and Korea. When we first opened only a year ago most applicants were well qualified and experienced. Now even though we have the same number of teachers interested, the quality of applicants has dropped significantly.
Name a textbook that you won't allow anywhere near your school (I assume they sell textbooks down there)?
Well Phil you know what happens when you assume right? There are no English bookstores here. Forget about textbooks! We order all our books directly from Bangkok, but I have to say if we were trapped on an island and we had no way to start a fire if you were to show me a copy of either Bravo! Or Let’s Go! It wouldn’t take me long to find a way to get those books lit up…absolute rubbish those books are no?, as Yoda would say.