My life as a farang teacher

My life as a farang teacher

You or your readers might find this little cautionary tale amusing. Despite it all, I still love being a teacher here! Enjoy

I probably should have seen the writing on the wall when I was asked to sign a contract in a foreign language, without a translation. I should have just slowly backed away and then run for the hills, but I was a new Farang teacher and so happy just to have gotten a job! One term later I know that in the future I should always trust my instincts. When I first moved to Thailand I had no intention of becoming an English teacher. I was actually looking forward to an early retirement here in the Land of Smiles. I have always loved Thailand and had visited many times before. My darling wife was Thai, and after spending six happy years living in America we decided to move to the city of L. (and its not Lamphun) We both liked the North, but didn’t want to live in Chiang Mai. For us, L. is perfect; not too big and not too small. We quickly settled in, made many Thai friends, and built a lovely home. In short I was here to stay!

It wasn’t long that people starting coming out of the woodwork, asking me to teach themselves or their children English. Of course I was happy to do so. I wanted to be a good neighbor and perhaps rack up some good karma. Often I did so at no charge. Of course my wife, like most Thai women, controls the purse strings, and quickly decided that if I was going to be teaching, that I should be paid for it. So why not apply for a teaching position at one of the local high schools. Why not indeed? I have a degree in Education so I might as well put it to use. It wasn’t long before I was joining three other Farang teachers and preparing for my first day of class. Two of them, Ajarn M. from Australia and Ajarn D. from America had started here last year. Ajarn R. from Australia, like me was a newbie. All of them were first rate educators and great people. It was nice to make some Farang friends. I love the Thais, but sometimes you just want to talk to some folks who share your background and interests.

The Thai members of the English department seemed friendly enough, but from the very beginning were useless as far as giving out any practical information. Was there a syllabus? Were there text books? No, just make it up as you go along. Okay, no problem. I have plenty of ideas and there is no much information on all the ESL web sites. What were the policies and procedures that needed to be followed? No answer, even from the department head. Okay….just use my best judgement and common sense. Can I have a copy of the academic calendar? To date I still don’t have one! The only way I know if there’s an upcoming day off is when I say to a class, “See you next week”, and the students tell me that there is no class that day. Ajarn M. and Ajarn D. have been as much in the dark as myself. They told me never to hold my breath waiting for any information what so ever, because it would never arrive. They of course have been 100% correct.

Work permits? Five months have gone by and we still don’t have one! There is always one excuse or another, but the end result is always no work permits. Ajarn M. and Ajarn R. have wound up in plenty of hot water because of the school’s inability, (or unwillingness) to fulfill their legal obligations. Ajarn R. had to fly to Lao last month and spent quite a lot of money out of his pocket. Since the teacher’s visas are tied to the contracts and work permits, not having the required paperwork is completely unacceptable. But try telling that to the school officials. All you’ll hear is that we are a bunch of ingrates. That they have done everything for us and that all we do is complain! Luckily, I’m married to a Thai national, so I simply went and got my own Visa. But if I had waited for the school, I would be in violation now and would have incurred an astronomical fine!

To say that there is a lack of communication here would be an understatement. We have been in full mushroom mode since day one. Perhaps it is because when you come down to it, the Thai teachers resent the presence of Farang teachers at their school. We get paid more than they do, we have more freedom than they do, and of course we know more about teaching English than they do! This brings us to the actual job of teaching. This is where most of my real headaches begin. I’ve been teaching 18 classes, one period per week. Most of they are Matiyam 4, with a few Matiyam 3 classes. The average class size is close to 50. I of course knew that because of cultural differences that there would need to be some adjustment as how to communicate. My Thai is extremely limited. When I want a good giggle out of the class all I need to do is speak some!

What I encountered on my very first day was enough to drive one to tears…or to drink! With all the Wais Thai’s perform everyday, one might think that the typical student would be more polite and respectful than his or her American counterpart….well you would be wrong! My first classes were complete and utter madhouses! The students would not even lower their voices to listen to me. I was reduced to practically shouting to be heard. I thought, well maybe they are just giving the new teacher a little initiation. Next time it will be better. Wishful thinking on my part. When I commented to the department head on my problems, I was told that I don’t understand Thai culture. Why would I expect the students to be quiet? And after all, they probably just didn’t understand me, and were discussing among themselves what I was saying! So begins the real trip down the rabbit hole.

Among the other things I “learned” from my Thai supervisor during the following months were: The reason they are doing other teacher’s homework in your class is that that is more important than what you are trying to teach them. The same is true as to why they are not doing the homework you give them…and why are you giving them homework anyway. You were brought here to teach conversation. (maybe because the amount of English vocabulary they understand is pathetic?)

I should say that in the end most of my students were fine. After a period of adjustment most of them learned to appreciate my style of teaching. Out of over 700 + students, 70% wound up getting a good or excellent first term grade from me. (of course I was a VERY generous grader.) But the other 30% were simply taking up space, if they bothered to show up at all. When they did, the girls spent more time putting on make-up and doing each other’s hair than listening to me. Or they were playing with their cell phones, reading Anime books, or just plain old gossiping. The boys spent most of their time simply being surly. Any and every attempt I made to discipline them was met by a stern rebuff from the English department. Of course as a faring I knew I could not use corporal punishment, so I tried all kinds of other techniques. I had them stand in the corner of the classroom, until I ran out of corners. I tried marching them up to the English department, hoping that they would at least receive a lecture on respect. Of course they didn’t even hear one sternly spoke word, and once out in the corridor simply laughed at me in a mocking way. I had them write 1000 times: “I must be quiet in Ajarn Larry’s class”, or “I must do the homework for Ajarn Larry’s class”. Needless to say that I was told from the powers to be to stop this “cruel” punishment. I tried simply throwing them out of the classroom so that I could teach those students who wanted to learn. Not allowed. I have lectured that there are no naughty students, that I am simply not “motivating” them! Sometimes I feel that I’ve been sentenced to some kind of Orwellian alternate reality, where Ignorance is Bliss. We Farang teachers often joke about this school as being the Ministry of Love.

Fast forward to the time for giving out grades. We were given a flash-drive with a grading program completely in Thai. No one, despite many requests would show us how to use it! Ask Ajarn M. I was told, he was here last year. I’m too busy. Unfortunately Ajarn M. had only the vaguest clue how to use it! Somehow all of us stumbled through the process without having a clue of whether what we were doing was correct! When I handed in my results, I was in for another nasty surprise. Apparently this school has top ranking in the area, and so NO ONE IS ALLOWED TO FAIL. That includes the 90 students who I gave a score of zero. These are the sweet boys and girls who: came to class only if they felt like it, and then came 15-20 minutes late; would not pay the least amount of attention; disrupted the class continually, and finally did not hand in even ONE piece of homework for 5 months! I was told to change these 90 grades, not only from zeros, but to passing grades!

Oh, I see. This is how the school has such a high ranking! It gets even worse than this. Ajarn R. teaches Matiyam 6. When he gave his classes a test for written English, 75% failed. The Thai solution? Post the test in the hallway, so that the students can learn the correct answers, and then retest them! Not surprisingly, every student received a perfect score! Guess which test results were recorded? I have steadfastly refused to change ANY of my grades. If the administration wishes to do so, they can go ahead and do so, but I won’t be part of that little scheme!

What I wound up doing is going over EVERYONE’S head here. Luckily I am friends with the former director of the school. Last year I tutored her two grand daughters, and she likes my wife and I. Three of us teachers visited her home and poured out to her all that I’ve talked about here. Now this woman is a formidable lady and extremely well respected in the community. When she talks, people listen! She immediately set up a meeting with the English department to discuss all our concerns. Immediately the atmosphere got extremely frosty around here. The meeting turned out about the way I expected. The Thai teachers kept going on and on about how we simply didn’t understand Thai culture, yada, yada yada. There was a lot of shouting. Luckily the former director is still on our side. She conferred with the present director, and promises were given about improvements for the future. And my 90 failures? Their parents will be contacted. They and their children will have to attend a special meeting, and the students will have a few intensive days to make up at least some of the work. I was willing to accept that compromise…..if it truly happens!

And the future? Hopefully I can make it through the end of my contract with no major incidents. After that I’ll just have to wait and see. There are plenty of other schools in the area if things don’t improve. Despite all of my problems, I can I honestly say that I enjoy teaching in Thailand. The good students make it all worthwhile. I have a dozen girls who come over to our home each weekend to learn cooking from me. (I have a degree in Culinary Arts) You’d be amazed how much English you can absorb by learning to make pizza, cookies, ice cream etc.!

And the best news? Last week my wife gave birth to a beautiful baby boy! Hopefully he will be able to integrate the best of two cultures into his life.

Larry Gellar


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