For teachers who feel that they’ve been given a raw deal by an employer in Thailand, there is now a website on which to air their grievances and get things off their chest. teflwatch was launched in mid-January 2006 and is the brainchild of a gentleman who goes by the name of Rico. Ajarn.com tracked down the man at the helm and he outlined his visions for this new and much-needed website.
Rico, welcome. As many ajarn.com regulars will know, the concept of a website on which teachers can lodge complaints and post warnings against certain schools is not a completely new thing. We had no fewer than three re-incarnations of the Thaischoolwatch website and they all failed. Where do you think TSW went wrong?
First off, I never viewed the old Thaischoolwatch projects while they were ongoing. I really can't say why they failed. I did try to view the site a few times, but I needed to create an account before being able to view posts. I baulked at needing to give personal information just to view a site. In a sense that made it a private place. Being a private place where "farangs go to bad mouth schools" might have contributed to its failure, but I really don't know.
You seem to be very passionate about the web having this kind of site. As a sort of double-headed question, why do you feel so strongly about this and secondly, why are you the man for the job?
I really think, and have for quite awhile, that teachers need to have the same tools that management has. I have taught in several countries and have always felt that this kind of site was needed. Teachers in just about every country have unions. TEFL teachers do not have a union and in many countries we do not enjoy the right to collectively state our grievances. TeflWatch will never be a union, it doesn't intend to be, rather it is a place for teachers to gather together to air their grievances.
In Korea, they have hagwon(tefl institutes) owner associations. In Thailand, owners/directors of schools are known to communicate with each other on many educational issues. I'm not knocking it, in fact I think teachers, students and owners all win from these associations and I think owners, students and teachers will win with TeflWatch.
You can see straight away that www.teflwatch.org has a fairly strict moderation policy. How difficult was it to recruit a good set of moderators?
It wasn't difficult to recruit my moderators. I asked for volunteers and vetted volunteers based on their posts on Ajarn.Com and elsewhere, and I contacted fellow teachers who I have a lot of respect for. I think I found a good team of moderators with good judgment.
What codes of conduct, if any, have the moderators been told to follow?
TeflWatch Moderators have been given a lot of leeway in moderating. I selected the moderators because I trust their judgment. I came up with some rules and ask the moderators to use their best judgment in enforcing them. I support my moderators 100% in any action they take.
Rather than concentrate on just problems facing teachers in Thailand, you’ve decided to go global and add sections for other areas of the world. What was your thinking behind that?
TEFL teachers are transient in nature, we might teach in Taiwan then on to Thailand, Japan or the Middle East. I want one place where teachers can talk about their bad and good experiences in whatever country they are fleeing from or returning to. Right now, it takes a lot of effort just to find out where the grey-lists are for many countries. I hope to change that.
The second reason why we are global is that I do not want a site that focuses on bad experiences in just one country. There are enough bad experiences to go around. I don't want anyone to think that my site has anything against any particular country. Any user can post about any school, anywhere, even in the US of A.
It may be just a gut feeling but I can see the Taiwan and Korea sections getting quite busy (laughs)
Yeah, I hope so. I think there are enough bad stories from those places and if I can get people sharing them, all the better. People are more likely to post if they see others posting. I want forums to represent the reality of the TEFL world rather than an unbalanced tilt towards Thailand or any other country.
Do you think that strict moderation will eventually drive many would-be posters away?
I sure hope it scares away the trolls. Seriously, a legitimate poster has every reason to post on TeflWatch. They will share their experience with hundreds and hopefully thousands of TEFL teachers throughout the world.
One of the worries about running this kind of board has to be threats of legal action if a particular school doesn’t like what they read. Surely the board isn’t worth sleepless nights?
Firstly, no board is worth a single sleepless night. I am surprised that I haven't yet received any threats, legal or otherwise, but I know they are coming. TeflWatch is owned by a US company and is hosted in the US. Legal action against the company could be started in any country in the world, but enforcement of a judgment against a US company would have to be done where the company's assets are, the US. If a Thai, Taiwanese or Korean school would like to go to all of that trouble, then I will assist them in any way possible.
Apparently one of the Thai owners at a school heavily featured and criticized on the old Thaischoolwatch site, burst into tears when she saw what had been posted about her business. Will the number of bosses you upset perhaps be a measure of your success?
I feel a little sad hearing that question. I would hope that no one would find anything to cry about on TeflWatch. If a school is characterized as being bad then it is time for the school to make constructive changes. Not only does a school owner know that they have problems in their schools, they know exactly what the problems are. If they posted, I'll bet they could get a lot of tips on how to improve their school, and isn't improving their school what all school owners want to do? That is how I measure success, how many schools try to change themselves for the better.
Seriously though, will the site force schools to look at themselves and look at the way they treat foreign staff and then make necessary changes?
Maybe, but I doubt it. Most schools will continue to do exactly as they have done before, but at least teachers will be wise to the tricks that the schools uses. If a few schools make constructive changes then, well, that's a lot more than I can say about the status quo
Some teachers aren’t happy no matter where they work though?
You can say that again. Chronic complainers are easy enough to spot. They complain about not having their tea on time, complaining about the ink in the whiteboard markers, you name it, they will complain about it. If I see a post like that, I feel sympathy for the school owners, really. That said, those teachers still have the right to air their grievances.
It’s a broad question but what problems do you see cropping up as the site gets bigger and receives more and more traffic?
The biggest problem might well be the teachers who come over, make a single post about their experiences and then leave. Follow-ups usually give a lot of useful information and is the main reason why we use a forum for TeflWatch. Giving users a reason to come back and take a look at posts will be the biggest problem facing this site as it becomes bigger.
Do you think you’ll make money from the site? I mean, is that in your scheme of things?
Not really, but I know if marketed correctly, there is money to be made.
I have google ads on the forum and I make a few cents per click, enough to maybe pay hosting. Our main page will morph into a static list of schools to watch out for and while I may put ads on it, the forum will always, at the most, have google ads. I registered this as a .org because I wanted it clear that money wasn't my objective.
The Thailand section is bound to be the busiest. I think we all know that. Does that mean more teachers get shafted here than in any other country where TEFL is an occupation?
Back in 2000, if you looked on the web, there were very few complaints about Thai schools. Lately, the number of complaints have went through the roof. It's not because Thai schools have all of a sudden become bad, rather teachers have decided to post on the net about things they would have normally talked about only at an expat pub, if at all.
Thailand has a large number of internet savvy teachers, ex-teachers, and wannabe teachers. With this sheer volume, it is not suprising that a few get shafted and with probably the best TEFL teaching website in the world to organize them, it is not surprising that TEFL teachers in Thailand like to make their voices heard.
Best of luck with the project anyway. What advice would you give to a teacher who would like to warn others about a rogue employer but is hesitant to post their account on the site?
My advice is to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and make it as anonymous as they like and I will personally post the report. Their personal details will always remain confidential.