Tim McCrystle has spent six years teaching English in The Land of Smiles and in his words "had a good look around all the aspects of teaching in Thailand" - so let's hear what he's got to say for himself.
Tim, thanks for getting in touch and offering yourself as a hot seat candidate. You're a 39-year old American from San Francisco who's been teaching here for six years. Let's rewind to life in San Fran first of all. You toured the world - twice in fact - in a rock band. Tell me about any moments where you almost touched greatness?
The closest I have ever been to touching greatness was staying at Kim Deal's house in Dayton, Ohio. My band was on tour with the immortal Ed's Redeeming Qualities, who were friends with Kim from her Boston days with the Pixies. She came to the show and afterward we went back to her house to crash. Her small two-story brick house was on a beautiful old suburban street lined with huge elm trees. It was amazingly unrockstar-ish. She had an enormous TV, maybe an 80" screen, in her living room. Her sister had an even bigger one in an upstairs bedroom. Other than that and the impressive music space in the basement, it could have been the house of a kindergarten teacher or a secretary. In the morning she served us toasted bagels with cream cheese. The best part of the story is that our drummer and mandolin player and one of the guys from Ed's had to sleep at her dad's house down the block. In the morning they said, "We just ate Raisin Bran and watched the O.J. trial for two hours with Kim Deal's old man." Woooo-hooo! Rock and Roll!!!
Teaching in Thailand is a far cry from fondling groupies backstage and snorting coke in the dressing room. You must miss those days?
Of course I do. Unfortunately, unless you are Keith Richards or have some burning desire to look like Keith Richards, that kind of life just can't last forever. Like a lot of people I got a little lost and some things went kind of negative and I bottomed out. The band broke up, a serious long term relationship ended, my mom got cancer, my car threw a rod totally destroying the engine, and those are just the main things I can think of off the top of my head
What other things did you do back in your native America?
I worked as a groundskeeper and landscape gardener for the athletic department at Cal. I really love trees and plants and sports, so it was a pretty cool job for me. The best part about it was that at 3:30pm I forgot about it until 7am the next day. I played A LOT of basketball. I started playing when I was about seven years old and was always the shortest guy on the team. Amazingly, I grew more than six inches in one month just before my final year in high school. When I got to university I must have played hoop 3-4 hours a day. With a few breaks here and there, I did this until I moved here. Now I am old but I am still pretty good. I drank too much beer.
So I'm guessing that at the age of 33 or thereabouts, you decided you'd had enough of the rat-race?
You are exactly right. The USA has a lot of good points, but it has a lot of horrible ones as well. The materialism, consumerism, racism, bigotry, and elitism that pervade society can be tough to deal with, even when your head is screwed on straight. Also, the amount of stimuli you are exposed to and the pace of life are unhealthy physically, mentally, and spiritually. That is my opinion anyway.
As I traveled the world in 2000, every country I visited seemed to me a better choice for living than home. By the time I reached Thailand I was actively seeking work contacts. I met a woman who owned property on Ko Lanta Yai and was building a resort there. She offered me a job and I accepted. My trip wasn't finished however and between the time I got home and earned the plane fare back to Thailand her father had died and she had sold the property and moved to Bangkok to take care of her mother. If I had gone west around the world I probably would be living in Bolivia right now. Maybe someday...
You started your teaching career off with a year in Isaan at the smallest and poorest Rajabhat in Kalasin. Tell us a little about those days and what you miss most?
Oh man. Where to start? One of the greatest years of my life. Seriously. I lived in a three bedroom house with hot water, A/C, and a huge garden for which I paid the princely sum of 2000 baht a month, utilities included. I met my wife that year and we had so much fun cruising around the province on weekends on the Yamaha Spark I bought and still own. We both weighed a lot less then. Every evening we would walk into town and buy food at the market, a routine that was essentially an invaluable year-long Thai language lesson. At least twice and usually five times a week we would eat a communal dinner with our neighbors on either side of us. I woke up at 5:30 every day and gardened for an hour with my next door neighbor. It was exactly what I was looking for- a slower life with a lot more emphasis on simplicity and a lot less consuming and technology etc.
Rajabhat was great, too. The students couldn't speak a single sentence of English the first day I walked into class, but they still are the hardest working, most attentive, best students I have taught in my six years here. I had very little experience and zero materials so class was me just teaching English off the top of my head for the first 6 weeks or so. I am 6'7" so they spent a lot of time laughing at me. It was challenging and exhilarating and really really fun. I still keep in touch with four of my original students. Their English is excellent now. And though I take very little credit for their learning the language I think that part of the motivation to continue studying was from the great experience we had that first year. Incidentally, it was an ad on ajarn.com that took me out to Raj. Kalasin, so I owe you guys a big thanks. THANKS
I miss the communal dinners with my friends/neighbors and the garden. It was an impressive garden.
You eventually moved to Chonburi. I've never really thought much of that place. It's home to you though?
If only E-Tech could be in Isaan. Perhaps loathe is a bit strong, but it is just about the only word I can think of to accurately describe my feeling for Chonburi. It is just a dirty, ugly industrial city in a part of Thailand where the people are desperately trying to affect some form of western lifestyle and ideals. That is bad enough in the west but somehow more grotesque here in the 3rd world. We moved here because I was trying to save money for a wedding dowry and beginning a family, pay off the last remnants of my student loans, some credit card debt, and live a life wherein I didn't have to eat only rice with salt every day. E-Tech offered about 15 grand a month more, so I took the job. And I like almost everything about my job at E-Tech. Ajarn Rattana, my boss, is one of the nicest people I have ever met. She has really taken care of me and my family since we arrived. She will be my friend long after we have finished working together. We actually live 8 km out of the city center, and I keep hoping my wife will OK a move farther out to Phanat Nikhom, which I like, but so far it hasn't received executive approval.
You juggle a couple of jobs around - E-tech and Rajamongkol?
E-Tech and Rajamongkol are two different schools on the same property. My main job is teaching at E-Tech, which is a three or five year technical college. Rajanomgkol is a state university that has night classes on E-Tech's campus three nights a week. For E-Tech, In the morning after checking on the internet to see if the Giants and/or Warriors (GO WARRIORS!!!) won, I prepare my classes for the day. We have a very organized curriculum and an amazing resource library, so most days it is a breeze.
Classes start at 8:40 and I usually get to work about 7:00, so I have time to check the internet, plan the day's lessons, get my materials together, have a cup of coffee, and maybe do the crossword or sudoku. I teach between three and seven periods a day, so some days are easy and some days are extremely tiring. When classes are finished, I look at what is coming up the following day and get organized for the morning classes. I know English teaching is nothing more than a means of being here for a lot of people, but I try to have a little more respect for the students and Thai teachers than that and actually put effort into my job.
Aside from teaching classes, each teacher is responsible for one level. Responsibilities include writing exams and quizzes, proctoring the midterm and final, doing speaking tests for that level, coming up with a semester project, and being the overseer of that level. I am usually in charge of the first year students.
You supplement your income with a few corporate gigs on the Amata Nakhorn Industrial estate (I've been there a few times) What do you do there - four nights a week?
I teach a couple nights a week at Amata and one or two a week for Rajamongkol's engineering bachelor's degree program. Some semesters it is four and some three. We are thinking about taking the Great Idiot's Plunge and buying a car this year, so it might be 8 days a week pretty soon.
Ever thought about freelancing and doing corporatework? Ever thought about being the king of the industrial estate?
I suffer from a healthy lack of ambition, so terms like "freelancing" and "king of" don't often make it into my life. Actually I have thought a bit about it, but now that I am a dad the stability of a full-time gig is more appealing to me.
So you've got a wife and a couple of kiddies. I always think that puts extra pressure on a teacher. I mean it's not like you're some single guy who can up sticks and bugger off at a moment's notice if Thailand starts to wear him down?
I think you are right. Fortunately for me, I haven't gotten to the point where it's an issue. Having kids it is resoundingly apparent that I am no longer most important. I am glad to put them ahead of myself. Providing for my family has made it easy for me to set down some roots and encourage them to take hold here. I have seen a lot of teachers here in Thailand, and I think a lot of them aren't here for much more than having a good time, which is fine but isn't me. At the first sign of discomfort they bail out. I was that way 10 years ago, but not now.
Does Thailand wear you down sometimes?
Not yet. I don't expect Thailand to be easy or what I am comfortable with or anything more than it is - a 3rd world country with a long history of institutionalized corruption and a completely different set of values, morals, and customs than the ones I grew up with. In fact, I would have to say that blowhard farangs who complain about everything from the driving to the government to the food to the heat to the turbo A/C in movie theaters wear me down more than anything else about this country.
Now this made me spit my morning coffee out. You sold fresh veggies from your garden......... door-to-door......in Thailand. Pray tell.
In Somdet we had a garden that must have been at least 200 square meters. We grew long beans, snow peas, tomatoes, green onions, Chinese radishes, chilies, pakboong, pakkana, pakkat, watermelons, pumpkins, and a grocery list of herbs. My neighbor had a well on his property that we used for watering. He also had all these Thais organic fertilizer recipes and natural pesticides and other fun and interesting gardening methods and our garden was superbly bountiful. In fact we had more than we could eat and give to our neighbors. So my wife and I used to put a bunch of veggies in a big basket on our way to the market. People would see us and call us over to their doorstep and buy 10 baht worth of beans or a Chinese radish. To me it was fun, but my wife, man, she counted up that money like it was the last baht we had. She used to declare a total when all the stuff was gone and I could tell if she thought it was a good day or not by the tone of her voice. A singsong "eighty-fi-ive ba-aht," or a grumbling "thirty-four baaaaaht." Obviously it wasn't every day, but I have really great memories of doing that.
You didn't have one of those annoying loudspeakers that wakes every one up at 6am just to tell us you've got the biggest onions.
No, we did not. But at my wedding, which took place in a village of about 100 people, my brother -in-law had a music system with speakers that were better suited for Wembley. This was turned on at 6am and turned off at midnight or so. Incredibly there was a selection of two cd's.
So which pays better, teaching or getting Thai housewives to succumb to your doorstep sales patter?
Teaching pays marginally better, but it's the bennies of door-to-door vegetable sales that make it so rewarding...