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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

Who can truly teach?

Who can truly teach?

The letters from the people who are trying to project their self intellect and portray themselves as educators (or trained mechanics- thank ya Mr. Meade) and not English teachers who are teaching English as a foreign language please get a grip of common sense. If these people want to be worshipped and praised then that's fine but can you actually teach ESL?
Education and ESL are two different things. Its that simple. What does a degree in Astro Physics have to with teaching a foreign language to a 9 year old for example? I would say this connection is minimal. Ask how many of these "graduates" know what a predicate adverb is and they'll fall flat on their faces. Ask someone with a degree in Sports science" what your Gluteas Maximus is and I'm sure they'll tell you its the arse muscle - what these self proclaimed educators use to talk with.

CELTA is the number one qualification for teaching ESL - so say the University of Cambridge, whom I'm sure people will agree is a recognized University by anyone's standards. The University of Cambridge, I think knows better. The reason these people keep writing in and saying that being as highly educated as them is needed to be a teacher are only saying it because they know if there is a lack of teachers in this country - and that will force the schools to pay more money. This meaning they are only motivated by their own self-gain and greed and really do not give a monkeys about teaching English at all as long as they get more money. If I want to study Chemistry then I would need a Professor with all the right qualifications in that field. If the Professor was qualified in accountancy then he would not be much use to me. I have an education and I am not a great teacher. I have worked with teachers who only have a CELTA or TEFL and they run rings around me. What is the point in having Celta schools advertising "do your Celta in Thailand" if you can't work here.

As we all know, most people who have degrees do not decide to make their fame and fortune by becoming a teacher in Thailand. Lets be fair most salaries are a joke compared to what they could get in their fields at home. People end up teaching because they discover what a great job it is and to be able to work in amazing Thailand is a great opportunity to stay. When you come to Thailand as a backpacker, you do not decide to do a Celta course and earn enough money to continue traveling because Celta courses aren't cheap. They could obviously use this money to continue travelling. As for the Canadians who were sent home because they only had a TEFL then I really do feel sorry for them and I'm sure some of them would have made great teachers. It wasn't their fault that they didn't meet the legal visa requirements, It wasn't their inability as an ESL teacher that caused them to be sent home. it was in fact, quite simply the rules of the needed visa requirements which were that you needed a degree.

Maybe, they were people who lacked opportunity in their own country and went abroad to teach in a wonderful profession to see if they could make a life and career for themselves like the millions of immigrants who poor into Great Britain and United States etc to seek careers and a better education, legal and illegal. Are there that many degree holders who want to leave their field and come work for a quarter or less of what they could earn at home who want to work as ESL teachers in Thailand. I think not. If it is the future of children's ability to make a career for themselves through the learning of the English language that you care about, then I'm sure you' agree with the statement CELTA is No.1. Astro physics degree holders please apply to Nasa, the wages are much higher if you are competent enough and remember, no one likes a smart arse. I think if Mr. Meade and his followers actually stop and listen to something apart from the sound of their own voice that continually keeps reminding them of their greatness then they would realize that the Thais are the educators and we supplement their system by teaching ESL. As long as we act accordingly and do not abuse our own education for wrong doings then I'm sure children will will act accordingly to. I'm sure, not even Mr. Karr acted like Jim Carrey on ecstasy in his school.


Let's expose dodgy teachers

With the recent news about an alleged paedophile murderer hiding out in Bangkok as a teacher, perhaps you could do some investigative journalism run a story about how few employers in Thailand actually do background checks on teachers and how easy it would be for a psycho to get a job here probably in a matter of minutes. Perhaps the city of Angels hides more deeply sinister figures than we had hitherto imagined.

In the UK for example, every single person involved with children or other vulnerable groups must provide a recent police disclosure of criminal records (either full or partial based on the kind of position applied for). Proper background checking involves contacting academic registrars at universities and records officers at training providers, it also involves contacting superiors or former employers (not colleagues or acquaintances as most EFL teachers here seem to think).

Sadly so few employers in the EFL business in Thailand actually take the time to check qualifications and backgrounds, that I am often insulted and accused of being some kind of verification nazi or beaurocratic fool for attempting to get some basic background information from candidates, beyond the fact that they may be white, which many teachers assume is qualification enough, it seems.

You will say “Caveat emptor” or the equivalent – ie employers should check, or it’s their own fault if a teacher turns out to be a potentially dangerous liar or phoney. But I hope that you can understand that contacting academic registrars and referees takes time – weeks or months usually – and often those employers who do check are forced to either recruit only from abroad (with a significantly lower number of fraudulent applications in general) and / or to install a ‘probationary period’ of 3 months or so in order to buy time to complete the verification process.

While it is admirable for a website like ajarn to champion the rights of foreign teachers in Thailand, I also feel there is a hand in hand obligation to acknowledge and understand the high proportion of ‘dodgy’ native English speaking EFL teachers out there at the moment. The EFL community in Thailand needs to take a long hard look at itself and examine the sometimes exploitative, commonly cynical and occasionally openly hostile and racist attiudes that prevail in some parts of the community. There also seems to me to be a kind of middle-aged, boys dinking club mentality common to many staffrooms.

The all pervading conspiracy of silence when it comes to the behaviour of western EFL teachers in general can be seen in far too many places. “It’s them against us.” But who is for the students, then? It is more likely that a person will be ostracized for speaking up against errant behaviour, than the person who is spoken out against, although I understand this is common to Thai culture as well.

In Thailand I have had to turn away literally hundreds of western teachers for want a a single reference from a former employer, let alone anything else. I would also conservativelty estimate that amongst the applications I receive from native English speaking teachers (and I recruit for positions which are generally above average as you can see from my postings) and of those I attempt to check, at least 30% or even more are fraudulent in some way. 30%+!!!!! Is there any other field or place in the world where this would happen? That is an epidemic! (I know: TIT.)

I know your solution: offer higher salaries and attract better teachers, but there are several of the usual objections.
1) Increasing higher salaries does nothing to discourage ‘dodgy’ teachers – in fact it only emboldens and attracts them to become more and more brazen as they think of their lifestyle here with considerably more cash in their pockets.
2) If average salaries went up, all the flotsam and jetsam and free loaders of the world would be in Bangkok overnight (that’s not to say they’re not here now, either!) as well as the good teachers who are just as likely to come for an average salary, knowing the enormous cost of living differences which make average salaries here quite livable and who comes to Thailand for the money, anyway?.
3) Salaries can increase when the average middle class Thai family (who our schools mostly serve) can afford to pay more for tuition without being forced to withdraw their child from school. All those Mercedes and other signs of conspicuous consumption were not bought for cash, I hope everyone understands, and Thais generally spend more on their cars than on their houses! Take a look at the average Thai wage and tell me if EFL teachers get positive discrimination here or not!

Anyway, I think the foreign teaching community should stand together to put its collective house in order. Is it permissible to tolerate and condone behaviour which we would find completely unacceptable in our own countries in the foreign teachers staffrooms here, simply because it is a different country and the misogynists, sex-residents and alcoholics are here in significant numbers? I don’t believe something stops being wrong simply because lots of people do it.

I bet that if we ourselves started speaking up, we would find that actually the bad teachers are a minority and only get away with things because they are never confronted by anyone. Thai culture prohibits Thai staff from doing this, so perhaps it is time we took the matter into our own hands.

I’m sure there are other alleged paedophile murderers and other seriously unsuitable people still lurking or hiding as teachers in Bangkok and Thailand. I know for a fact that something like 30% of applicants based in Thailand who apply to me for a job are liars alone. I have no means of knowing what else they may be. That to me, as a hopefully rational, reasonable person with normal standards of decency absolutely shocking and an utter disgrace for a so called ‘profession'.

I’m not advocating a witch hunt, but I would suggest that something could be done to raise the profile of the problem of “dodgy’ teachers to the level when all western teachers would be actively thinking about what they can do to help. Thais may never feel able to do this openly, so perhaps we should import some of our western values into largely western staffrooms rather than turning a blind eye because we are in a foreign country and Thai culture prohibits it.

Anyway, I think the recent news story might be a good chance to post some articles encourage to employers to check teachers’ backgrounds much more carefully than at present and for western teachers in general to try to clean their house up a bit and to stop condoning unacceptable behaviour from colleagues simply because they are in a foreign country.

Chris Pennington

Show me the money

Show me the money

I’ve just spent a few hours perusing through the articles on your web site. With all the talk about teachers not getting paid enough, schools taking unknown taxes out teacher’s pay, or even school scamming to not pay a teacher’s his or her end of the year bonus. I’ve never come across an article on a positive note regarding the money or Baht a teacher can make with the right drive and personality here in Thailand. So, I decided to write this email to you and who ever wishes to read it.

I recall hearing about a teacher some years back, 3 years to be more specific, who was making over a 100,000 baht a month teaching, and as I said…this was three years ago. And get this; I heard that this guy was an African American. Now, I have nothing against African Americans. I’m a firm believer in equality for everyone, heck, I’m from California and you know we are a rainbow of cultures out there which is great, but with all the age, color and nationality limitations I read about on, if this guy is real, and I believe he is, and can make that kind of baht. Why do I get the impression, and I think most people would if they started reading your articles or just talk to teachers in general, that working in Thailand as a teacher is primarily for backpackers and ex-pats who are just trying to stay or live here - which is my main point.

Of course there are a few that get into management or administration that make a little bit more. But, as I said, if this guy can make this kind of baht…then teaching in Thailand can be a very lucrative opportunity. Lets see, now a 100,000 baht is about 2,500 USD and that’s a pretty good living here in Thailand. If you paid…lets say 5 – 8,000 for a room, 3 – 5,000 baht for food, 3 – 5,000 for misc., and 5 – 10,000 for entertainment, that would be between 16 – 28,000 baht a month. You could then save almost 75,000 baht a month. Now that’s enough to save for retirement even in the states. Ok, let’s add that good old Thai Insurance plan that you mentioned awhile back at 500 baht a month. You would still be in the ballpark. So now all we have to do is find this guy and ask him what is his secret…right? Not at all, I watched Jerry McGuire on HBO last month and I love that phase “Show me the Money. So, here it is or were/how I think a teacher can get it.

Well, I live here in Thailand going on 5 years and when I first came to Thailand, the average starting monthly salary was between 20 and 25, 000 baht. In my first job, I started out at 30,000 baht a month, and at a Thai Government school. I found that many people found this amount at that time to even be some what unbelievable. In fact, a friend of mind in Pattaya, and he was quit insulting at the time, thought I had to be doing something sexual with somebody to be get this amount. I didn’t tell him at the time, but I was actually making a bit more by doing a few extra classes on the weekends. My average take home baht was around 40 – 45,000 a month and I was only working 24 hours a week.

Since that first job, I have entered the business IT environment/corporate world here in Thailand. I make a lot more in comparison, but I’ve continual to teach part-time because I love it. It’s still relaxing and enjoyable to me. I teach corporate classes now in the evenings and some classes on the weekend, but I’m still making more than many of the full time jobs I see posted on your website. First let me say that I’m not trying to make myself out to be some kind of superstar teacher, because I think I’m quit average and I’ve met plenty of outstanding teachers in Thailand that I consider much better than myself.

The point I’m trying to make is that teaching here in Thailand in a great living. I could go back to the USA and make over a 100,000 USD (4,000,000 baht) a year in IT, but Uncle Sam (taxes) would take 38%, it would cost me another 40% if I wanted to own a home ( 28% if I only rented) and to eat and drive around would eat up the rest. If I want to save as much as I could here in Thailand making a 100,000 baht, I would have to make at lease 20 – 25,000 USD more a year. Hey…maybe my numbers are wrong…no, they’re not, unless you are spending a lot more on entertainment…if you know what I mean.

Recently, I just sat down and calculated what I could make if I went back to teaching full-time and continued corporate teaching part-time at the same time. I realized I could get pretty close to the salary of that guy I heard about three years ago. The English industry here in Thailand is on the move, and the direction is up. I just heard from teacher friend of mine this week that the Thai government is on the move again to increase English competency in Thais and I’ve noticed myself that corporate teaching has increased 30% to 40% over the last three years.

Three years ago, I had to struggle to find a part-time corporate teaching jobs on So, why do I get the impression that the teaching industry here is a some what an ok career to have when it’s actually it's great and better than some jobs many of us could get in our own countries? Maybe, I’m just nutty and blowing the whistle on something we, us ex-pats, are trying to keep a secret. If I am...ok, I’ll keep it to myself, but can we stop complaining so much about the money. Because teaching here in Thailand…can “Show you the Money”, if you really work at it with the right attitude and love it.

In conclusion, I’ve had people ask me how much do I make, how much rent do I pay, or how much does this or that cost . But, I have to say that, although I’ll always try to help out new comers to Thailand or my friends. I’ve had to come to the conclusion that the answer to these questions varies from person to person. What I mean is that if you walk into an apartment building or job wearing saddles, a T-shirt, and holes in your jean when I walk in wearing nice pants, clean shirt, and closed toe shoes, when we start negotiating a price for rent or pay, and it is negotiable, we may get different amounts. I’ve stayed at a places where there were people paying different amounts for the same room.

Some of you may say this is unfair, but I believe that this is because Thailand is a culture that is based on relationship not fairness. If you don’t know this by now, then keep living here, reading or the newspapers. You will soon wake up. The first impression has a higher impact then other places/countries. In your own country you may have laws to protect you from this type of unfairness, but not here. Just read the paper and see all the advertisements specifically requesting a male or female age 22, or less than 45. Another important area is attitude. I have met countless people who think that Thailand should change…and I’m one of them too, but I must first remind myself that Thailand was here before I came and will be here if I choose to leave. So, I try not to focus so much on what needs to be change, but rather focus on my job and teaching English the best I can to my students. I came here to live and enjoy life, not to change a country. I’m not that important nor do I have that much clout. But, what I can change is my style, to be respectful, my method, to be more successful at teaching, and my attitude, so I can enjoy living here. I can always go back to the USA and complain about my president.

Believe me; he’s given me enough to complain about for a lifetime. Ok, I think I will stop here, but one last thing. I’m sure we all will agree that Thailand is great place to live. If not, we can always go home. But let’s realize that for native English speakers/teachers. We have it pretty well here. So, let’s make sure that we can see the forest through the trees. Then Thailand can “Show you the Money”. I’m not rich by any means, but I’m not living at the poor house either.


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