Garfield has nothing on me when it comes to hating Monday mornings. Monday morning signals the start of another working week and the passing of my one solitary day off. Yes, Sunday came and went in the blink of an eye yet again. I would love to have the whole damn weekend off but Saturday is such a busy day at the private language school where I work - and those Saturdays bring me in around 8,000 baht a month. Those Saturdays are the rent-payers.
Two things dawn on me this morning - firstly that I forgot to go to the laundry yesterday to pick up my washing, and secondly that I haven't prepared today's lessons. My procrastination continues to wear me down and I'm now faced with wearing a pair of socks and underpants that are very much the fag end of the weekly wash cycle. Still, if I can manage to avoid sitting down in class, the students probably won't notice Bart Simpson peeping out from under my trousers.
I arrive at school three minutes before my 9.00 morning class. God, how I hate rushing to school and having no time to prepare. I've not even got time for a quick coffee. A glass of water is just not the same. Bugger - not even time for a quick puff on a cigarette.
Without caffeine and nicotine, I feel irritable - very irritable indeed. Things are made worse by the fact that my group of three teenage girls haven't done their homework. They promised implicitly that they'd do it, but no - they lied. My whole lesson plan (checking homework) has gone well and truly out of the window. Is this the moment when I vent all my frustration, point a bony finger in their direction and shout "where's your homework you bunch of losers?" Would they complain to the receptionists (sorry, I mean student advisors) on the front desk if I did? Would I be fired as a result? Come to think of it - do I even care?
During the break I stand and smoke a welcome ciggie near the fire exit. Great to at last take some nicotine into my lungs, but not so great to hear the weekend war stories from my teaching colleagues. Nana Plaza is going down the pan apparently. Number 27 at the Titty Twister has an amazing rack on her. And John's sexual performance on Saturday night matched that of the legendary John Holmes himself. "She was begging me to stop" he confides. When we'd finished, she said "how much do I owe you?"
It's difficult for me to comment on such matters. I'm too busy trying to work out an interesting and entertaining way to teach phrasal verbs. I decide that there isn't one. There's only one thing that can get me through the next lesson - a photocopied word-search. The students will never use words like 'telescopic' or 'botanical' but it's the actual searching for the words that they enjoy. You can see it all over their little faces.
In the afternoon, the director of studies - a small, nervous man with a thin moustache and a cruel face - summons me to his office. He doesn't have a teacher to do the corporate job at Bangkok Lighting, located somewhere in the middle of the Whoflungdung industrial estate. It's a nice little earner - 600 baht an hour - if you can put up with the journey, which involves a one-hour bus ride, three motorcycle taxis and a canal boat. I tell him I'll do it. It's an opportunity to expand my teaching skills. I'm also desperate for the money.
I arrive at Bangkok Lighting just in time for the class. Six junior managers, all wearing glasses and with faces only a mother could love, sit around an expensive teakwood conference table. That's actually all that's in the room. There's no whiteboard, no board markers and no hope. I get out a book called 'Presentation Skills for a New Generation' and the class ask me if I have 'lady Thai'. Some teachers might describe the next half hour as conversation practice but to me it's seven guys drowning in that pit of quicksand otherwise known as banal, shallow, conversational bullshit. We eventually turn to page 73 of the textbook. It looks dull. It looks exceedingly dull. I'm beginning to wish that I'd made more photocopies of the word-search.
A two-hour bus journey, three motorbike taxis, and a canal boat later, I'm standing outside my local laundry shop. She still hasn't finished my washing. There's apparently been a death in the family. God, how I loathe and despise that woman with her stupid Thai smile that translates as 'life is a bag of shit...and this is your bag of shit' But truthfully, what I really need is a bag of freshly-laundered clothes.
Standing on a crowded bus to work, I'm gripped with the paranoia that befalls someone wearing a pair of trousers that don't quite meet his shoes - a pair of shoes that could do with a bloody good polish. Upon arrival at work, I find myself face to face with a worried looking Thai mother who wants to know how her little Somchai is progressing in his lessons. How does he measure up to the other four-year olds?
"Oh he's doing fine" I say, instead of "Listen luv, the kid's four years old for f***'s sake - he should be trying to get Xena the Warrior Princess onto level five or sticking pictures in books" I go through the motions of showing concern when all I feel is sorry for the poor little blighter.
In the afternoon I have a new class of six students. I go for the time-honored warm-up of getting them to introduce themselves to the rest of the class. "Tell us all something interesting about yourself"
It never ever works, but right now I'm so snowed under with lesson preparation that it's all I can think of. When we get to the fourth student, everyone else is getting bored and fidgety. I'm getting bored and fidgety. I've now heard four people tell me they like to 'read a book' in their free time. I wonder if it's acceptable to start a new class with a word-search.
I finally have a few hours free in the afternoon and instinctively reach for the Bangkok Post classified. It's the usual stuff. Yet another company is running a teacher training course that will 'open doors all over the world' and a Thai-run school in Sukhumwit 72 is looking for full-time and part-time teachers. They promise top-rates of pay but can only afford the smallest of ads in the newspaper. Something's not quite right there.
With my brain on auto-pilot and with time to kill, I read through all the horoscopes in The Bangkok Post and even glance at the business section with pictures of high-flying businessmen who aren't teachers and probably never ever wanted to be. I begrudgingly take a look at Ajarn Terry's lesson plan in the education supplement. Is it going to be the answer to my prayers? No, yet again it's a lesson plan that focuses on some political news story, and yet again it's aimed at advanced level students. I promise myself to send Terry an e-mail begging him to print something that normal teachers might one day be able to use.
Wednesday's a quiet day. I have one of those awful teaching schedules with lessons in the morning from 9.00 to 11.30, and then evening lessons from 6.00 to 8.30. I have a gap in the middle of the day which would give me enough time to go shopping.......in Singapore if I so wished.
The morning students are tired, the evening students are even worse. I love the way that the office people finish work, and then come to class and just want to be entertained. They view me as some sort of circus act. I'm their bearded lady and human canonball rolled into one. I want to tell them that I'm tired too. I've spent six hours wandering around shopping malls, looking at things I can't afford. I've read the Bangkok Post six times. I even leafed through one of those free "What's On in Bangkok' magazines - that's how bored I was. I managed to make a coffee in Starbucks last an hour. And after filling all that time - I still didn't have the motivation to sit down and prepare the lessons.
Relaxing at home on the bed with a good book - and desperately trying to keep my eyes open - I receive a phone call. The lady who lives just down the soi wants me to teach her two children on Saturday mornings. She has two sons aged 5 and 8. It doesn't matter how old they are - let's just say that they're at the age when they would rather run around making aeroplane noises than look at a picture and tell me whether Jane is sitting or standing. There are two issues here though - firstly how much do I charge? and secondly, what the hell do the kids want to learn?
"Just give them conversation" says the mother. It's a request I dread. It's about as unimaginative and wearisome as any request you care to mention. And what exactly madam do you propose that I converse with two small Thai boys about? - China's emergence as an Asian superpower? The advantages of holding the world cup in two different countries that have a history of bitter rivalry? Saturday morning it is then Khun Kittikorn. I'll see you at 7.30. Oh...the price? (the price, the price, how much is it worth?) The voice in my head is saying "charge her 800 baht an hour, go on. You're professional, you're qualified, you have a good reputation. Charge her 800 baht an hour. The old cow's minted. They've got four cars on the drive and a house with five bathrooms" The words are there in my throat but they won't come out " Shall we say 500 baht an hour Khun Kittikorn?" Khun Kittikorn is more than happy. I've sold myself short yet again. I couldn't really understand her reply but I'm guessing it's the Thai equivalent of 'sorted'. The voice in my head says "Geez I've come across some losers in my time but you take the biscuit"
I feel quite good this morning. I've got my best shirt and tie on and I'm clocking my reflection in the mirror - 'no, please, be gentle, not all five Spice Girls please!' It's a good money' day' today - an eight-lesson day with almost no breaks bar the one-hour break for lunch. I'm going to treat myself today. I'm going to have sausage and mash or pie and chips at the Toby Jug. Yeah, I know that rice and a few scraps of chicken followed by a bag of fresh pineapple is healthy but I'm a bloody farang - I need sustenance, I need carbohydrates. I need to occasionally enjoy the delights of a 'farang sized portion' and not feel guilty about it. Bollocks, after my sausage and mash, I might even treat myself to a fun-sized Mars bar from 7-11 - and stick two fingers up to the world.
The day was spoiled by only one thing - a lesson observation. The head teacher came and sat in on one of my morning classes - a class that didn't go particularly well. After the observation, we sat down together to discuss and analyze the lesson in detail. As you would expect, this was a conversation between two EFL professionals. It was a case of pinpointing my weak areas and making suggestions on how I can become a more competent and successful teacher.
"You didn't move around the class enough" the head teacher remarked.
"Well what do you expect for 220 baht an hour. Why don't you get me a pair of bloody roller-skates and maybe I can move a bit quicker"
"The one student participated very little in the class. It was as though you were deliberately trying to avoid asking her any questions."
"I avoid asking her questions because she's a complete fruit loop. You mean the girl who sits in the corner licking Lego? Every time she answers a question, she's 100% wrong. That takes a very special kind of talent."
"They're just kids Jim. Do you feel that you used the whiteboard correctly?"
"Well, I wrote on it if that's what you're getting at. It's generally what I use the whiteboard for. I do know some teachers who take it off the wall and pretend it's a magic carpet - but I didn't have me screwdriver handy"
Ahhhh, professional development - the cornerstone of any language school.
I start off the morning's kids class with a Mr Bean video lesson. It involves watching two episodes of Mr Bean (fills an hour just nicely) and then the kids tell me whether it was good or not. Listen, while they keep telling me it's good, I'll keep on giving the punters what they want.
I'm then left with two hours to kill before my next lesson and have no alternative but to mingle with my colleagues in the teachers room. Our teachers room is no different to any other I guess. There's a selection of coffee mugs with cheery messages such as 'world's greatest lover' and 'If you had it last night smile' - you get the picture. Next to them there's the communal spoon, which is caked in dried coffee powder, coffee mate and sugar. There's a battered old sofa which generations of teachers have farted into, and half a dozen ergonomically challenged armchairs. There's a bookcase full of textbooks written by Oxford University professors, with titles like 'English Grammar - Full on', and 'Grammar and more Grammar - the non-illustrated version' There's a crossword game with half the pieces missing and a trivial pursuit with all the answers marked on the cards in cheap biro. We have a hanging file index where teachers can put activities that worked well in their lessons. The idea being that other teachers can dip into the activity file in their hour of need. The activity file currently contains a paperclip, a discount coupon for a Burger King happy meal - and an old lottery ticket.
This time spent idly in the teachers room does give me the chance to meet up with some of my teaching colleagues. Thursday is a busy day and most of the staff are present in one form or another. There's Daphne from the home counties. She's here with her husband, who's been sent from the UK to work on a big chemical project on the eastern seaboard. She teaches a few hours a week just to keep her hand in and keep her from getting bored. She regales me with stories of last night's superb meal at Auberge Dab and tells me that the foie gras was simply 'to die for'. She keeps getting interrupted by Dagenham Dave, who is trying to fill us all in on why Soi Cowboy just isn't the same since the Big Pussy Bar closed. And then there's Jemima, a new graduate from the USA, coming to teach in Thailand because......well, actually she doesn't have a reason. The school arranged to pick her up at the airport, found her an apartment, sorted her out with a schedule, told her where she could buy decent underwear, and for all that she's still pissing and moaning.
And while the rest of the Bangkok population push trolleys around supermarkets and play computer games in the peace and quiet of their homes, I'm faced with my busiest day of the week. Those who don't push trolleys around supermarkets or play computer games come and sit in my lesson with expectant looks on their faces. They expect me to open a little trapdoor in the top of their heads and insert a small English Language microchip. There are horrified looks all round when I imply that learning the English language involves opening books to certain page numbers and performing alien functions such as speaking, moving and getting up out of your chair. It all comes as quite a shock.
Monday morning promises to be interesting - I've taken on a private course with Mrs Sakakaki, a Japanese housewife who lives in a high rise condo on Sukhumwit 33. I'll do one hour of conversation with her and then one hour with her eight-year old son, Aoki . With Aoki it will be basically teaching anything I can get away with. I've slipped a cheap coloring book into my satchel as purely a precautionary measure. It may well be a case of ‘close the door little Aoki and let's see how many of these animals we can color in - oh! a blue kangaroo, you're making wonderful progress'
I arrive at the condominium well before our scheduled 9'o'clock start, which gives the insecurity guard ample time to subject me to the closest of scrutiny. He regards me with a look of contempt that is usually adopted by people inspecting a particularly horrible carpet stain.
" I'm here to see Mrs Sakakaki in apartment 53B"
"Are you an English teacher?" he asks with a sneer.
"Yes I am" I reply "Why else would I be here at 8.30 in the morning, wearing a tie and dripping with sweat?"
Mrs Sakakaki's apartment is exactly what you'd expect to get if you were willing to shell out 80,000 baht a month on rent. It's a palace in the sky with a host of doorways leading off from the sumptuous main living room. No doubt they are doors that lead to fitted kitchens, master bedrooms, and en suite bathrooms. I can barely conceal my jealousy.
In the refreshments department, Mrs Sakakaki stretches to a glass of tepid water and a plate of nibbles each predictably wrapped in a thin coating of seaweed. As we spend a painful hour trying to ascertain which part of Japan she's from, little Aoki races around the room on a skateboard and periodically crashes into my chair with a resounding thump. To which his mother berates him with the Japanese equivalent of "go and play in your bedroom my precious little darling"
At the end of an hour, I've discovered that she originally hails from Tokyo, her husband is presently at the office, and her favorite place in Thailand is surprisingly the Bridge over the River Kwai. I've also discovered that little Aoki should have been strangled at birth.
Today is something of a kid's day for me - I have a class of five-year olds waiting for me back at the school in the afternoon. After three weeks spent coloring in animals, I decide to introduce them to the world of drama.
"Now kids, I want you to imagine that I'm a little seed buried deep in the earth, and you're the sun. That's right you're the sun. Let me see your rays. Let me see those rays nourishing me as I grow bigger. Now I'm a fully grown tree. Can you see my conkers?" I just pray to God that the director of studies isn't ear-wigging this on the other side of the door.
I spend the morning at home going through the pages of Ajarn.com and trying to fill some of the gaps in my schedule. I make two phone calls. One is to a school on Sukhumwit 58 that is looking for...wait for it.....English language facilitators. I just love that. As though avoiding the word ‘teacher' is going to conjure up an image of anything different to standing in front of six bored shitless teenagers while holding a well-thumbed Interchange. I had already sent my resume to the school director so he was expecting my call. After the traditional pleasantries, he goes on to ask me about my resume itself.
"I see that your C.V states that you have an interest in English grammar. Can you tell me the difference between a countable and an uncountable noun?" I immediately respond with "Good heavens man, it says I'm interested, not f***ing obsessed"
It becomes crystal clear that this is not a job for me.
The second phone call is to a woman who has advertised for ‘teacher wanted for casual conversation' She picks up the phone and I ask her for more details about the job. "Yes, we are three middle-aged Thai women with big hair and faux pearls. We want to sit around a table with a farang teacher and make the most appalling grammar mistakes while at the same time pawing each other's silk dresses and cackling raucously. For this we are willing to cross your palm with the princely sum of 400 baht an hour" I ask her if I can have some time to think about it. She reluctantly agrees.
On the bus journey into work, I sit next to a pretty young girl who is clutching an American English textbook. She is obviously on her way to an English class. I can sense that she so desperately wants to say something, but she's at the distinct disadvantage of having studied the Interchange textbook. She spends the whole bus journey wondering if I'm American and wondering if "Hey dude, how are they hanging?" is really the most appropriate conversational gambit.
Back in school and time to pick up my photocopying. We have a marvelous photocopying system. The teacher decides how many copies of a certain page they need, fills in a photocopying request form and leaves it on the receptionist's desk. The following day you walk into the school and find that the request form is exactly where you left it. A truly wonderful system. And why may you ask should a receptionist spend her valuable time fiddling around with a knackered photocopying machine when the time can be spent calling up boyfriends and filing her nails? So after an hour or so of fishing jammed-up paper from the machine's internal workings, I can at last retire to the sanctuary of the teacher's room. Only to find that the maid is sick and the communal coffee spoon has gone missing.
On my way out to work I stop in at the reception to pay my apartment bill. It includes 280 baht for international phone calls I never made, and 1,300 baht for air-conditioning that I rarely use. As I leave through the front gates being careful not to wake up the security guard, the apartment owner pips his horn from behind the wheel of his new Mercedes.
Before work, I drop by the English language bookstore in Siam Square. I'm desperately looking for something that will spice up my lessons. The choice of textbooks is mind-boggling. All of them seem to have wistful and romantic names like ‘Expressions', ‘Whispers', and ‘Lifestyle' - names that are quite frankly more suited to a luxury panty liner than a range of English language textbooks. It takes me an age to select something I'm happy with, and at the end of the day I just want to grab the book, slap 250 baht on the counter and piss off, but no......there's the teacher's manual to consider. Not to mention the workbook, the video, the class cassette, the student-counseling guide, and the CD Rom with supplementary dance-mat.
In the afternoon, I have a private one on one lesson with a Thai businessman. He is the product analyst for one of Bangkok's leading pharmaceutical firms. He tells me that it's his responsibility to meet with international clients and explain to them the merits of a whole range of cancer-fighting drugs and the advantages that original medicine can have over its generic competitors. After listening to him waffle on for half an hour and with my eyes feeling like two lead weights, I ask him to think of some questions to ask me. He pauses for a moment, purses his lips and comes straight out with it.
"Do you have lady Thai?"
I sink to my knees and beat my head on the carpet. I would rather be anywhere else than here. I would rather be waving my arms in the air at a Barry Manilow concert. I would rather be in a casino in Poi Phet. Never again will I moan about queuing outside the Thai consulate in Laos for fifteen hours only to be told to come back tomorrow.
The Director of Studies calls all the teachers in for an emergency meeting. We all sit there in a semi-circle and wonder if our jobs are on the line. I've noted down the number of a nearby kindergarten just in case.
The DoS looks worried. "We are not attracting anything like the number of students that we should be. From now on, I'm introducing a student request system. Students will decide themselves which teacher they want to study with. If a student would rather study with a teacher purely because the teacher makes them laugh, then so be it. So I'm telling you now - GET FUNNY!"
That night I go home and practice in front of the full length mirror. I pull faces and do a funny walk. Which side is my funniest? Can I remember my best classroom jokes? What's the laziest letter in the alphabet? - answer: the letter E because it's always in bed. I visualize a scenario where no one laughs and so I have to tell the joke a second time. Then the brightest student in the class has to explain it to the rest and any hope that the joke ever had of being even mildly entertaining has vanished forever. I see a vision of six students beating a path to the reception and banging collective fists on the desk. "That teacher just isn't funny enough. We don't want to study with him" I reach deep into my pocket and finger a scrap of paper. It's the phone number for a kindergarten.
In the morning I have a corporate training class at Bangkok Jams limited. The training manager has complained that I'm not gearing the lesson towards the needs of the students so I prepare an ambitious lesson based on the present perfect - the ‘have you ever' question structure followed by the past participle of the verb. After familiarizing them with the structure by asking them questions such as ‘have you ever been to Lumpini Park?' and ‘have you ever seen Last Tango in Paris?' I remember the words of the training manager "Gear the lessons to their needs"
"So class, how many of you have ever fallen into the jam?"
"Have you ever dropped a jar of jam? If so, what flavor was it?" (I thought that added a nice twist)
"Excuse me teacher. What's jam?"
My Saturday students have all cancelled so I have the rare chance to hit the town tonight. One student is burying her grandmother for the eighth time this year. Still, let's not dwell on the possibility of it being a white lie - it's Soi Cowboy and all its after-dark temptations for this here language instructor.
And as the sun goes down and the night owls come out to play, I'm sitting on a barstool next to a chubby Isarn girl called Noi. I'm making a bottle of Super Leo last forever. After a marathon session of Connect Four, she eventually asks the question that we all dread - "you work what in Bangkok?" She probably wouldn't understand the expression ‘language facilitator' so I plumb for the more universally acceptable "I'm a teacher"
"Oh, Bangkok have farang teacher too much" Noi responds
Her grammar is appalling, but I can't think of a six-word sentence that conveys a message so brutally honestly, so embarrassingly forthright. Her words are like a dagger to the heart.
Today I've been invited out for a meal by a group of ex-students. Suprise, surprise, they've chosen a seafood restaurant near the river. Hell, I didn't see that coming. But the evening passes pleasantly enough with a group of eight ex-students nibbling on shrimp-cakes, and the teacher answering time-honored questions such as "Why do you live in Thailand?" and the annoyingly vague "What about your country?"
And I realize that I've still got Monday's lessons to prepare.
Hangover. No aspirin.
The following Monday
At my corporate class with Bangkok Jams, I bump into the ex-pat general manager, Mr Hertz Van Rental, a cheerful, middle-aged gentleman from the land of clogs, windmills and funny looking cigarettes. Mr Van Rental is a dapper figure (suit by Daks of London, shirt from Reiss, necktie from the Gucci Spring collection, shoes by Churches of Northampton, socks by Burberry, and hair by Keith at Stink - 'would sir like a dab of mousse on that?'
This is in sharp contrast to yours truly (shirt from the Mall, Bangkapi, necktie borrowed from a mate, shoes from the Bata clearance sale, and hair by Mr Somchai at Ekkami barbers - 'that'll be 50 baht sir, next!'
He seems pleased to see me and shakes my hand warmly.
"Thank god you've come, we've been sweltering these past few afternoons with the air-conditioning not functioning properly"
"Actually sir, I'm not here to fix the air-conditioning. I think you'll find that's a job for a Thai. I'm here to teach English to your staff"
"Oh I'm so sorry, I thought you were here about the air-con"
How we both laughed. What a lovely man.
In the afternoon, I'd prepared a lesson on ailments and cures for my conversation class of eight students. It involved holding up a series of pictures showing common maladies such as sore throat and a backache and the class then had to tell me what they would do if they suffered from such an affliction.
I held up the picture of a man with a toothache.
"Go to the pharmacy" shouted the class in unison.
"Ok, yes, you could go to the pharmacy. What about this picture?"
The man with migraine brings about the same response. "Go to the pharmacy!" they all shout. A similar pattern develops for the woman with period pain and the man with malaria. I've had enough.
"Go to the pharmacy, go to the pharmacy, let's all go to the bloody pharmacy. Let's forget about the power of healing with the mind, home remedies, hypnotherapy, reflexology, let's all go to the bloody pharmacy!
The vein on my forehead starts to glow bright purple, which always happens when I get mad.
A silence descends on the class as though a naked man has just run through the room. I have - in EFL training course terminology -'lost them'
The following Tuesday
Chinese New Year - Student cancellations threw the whole day into turmoil. It seems that my flock would rather stay at home and gorge themselves stupid than come to my English class and study the present perfect passive. Whichever way you look at it, I lost four periods of teaching. To make matters worse, the director of studies says that we have to show compassion towards the students and not charge them for late cancellations on this special day. I just stood there a quivering wreck. But I have bills to pay - the laundry woman always has 800 baht off me on the 15th of every month. And then there's the phone bill. I'll get cut off If I don't pay within 3 days and it costs 2000 baht to be re-connected. What am I going to do?
I approach the director of studies and ask him if there's any chance of an advance on my salary - just 1000 baht will tide me over.
Asking for an advance is every teacher's nightmare. Not only because it tells the world that you are totally incapable of handling your finances but because of the humiliation of going through the 'getting an advance' procedure. The Thai staff member in charge of teacher advances is also the school's biggest farang-hater. It's a perfect combination. After you tell this person exactly how much money you need, she shares the information with the maid, the bloke who delivers the water, and any students who just happen to be sitting around in reception. After everyone has enjoyed a good laugh at your expense, she enters the amount borrowed in a ledger. All that then remains is for her to check your passport, teacher identity card, work permit and to post your name on the teacher's notice-board on a sheet of A4 paper with the heading 'ADVANCES FOR FEBRUARY' cunningly fashioned with Microsoft Wordart.
That afternoon, in my appalling pidgin Thai, I explain to the laundry woman about my finances being a little tight. She listens intently, occasionally shaking her head in sympathy, and when my sob story is complete and it is obvious that no money will be forthcoming, she stares at me and mutters the word 'buffalo' under her breath. Happy Chinese New Year love.
The following Wednesday
Once more I'm calling around after jobs advertised in the Bangkok Post classified. Happy English are claiming that if I'm serious about teaching, then I shouldn't consider working for anyone else, and a company called Edutain ('are you the clown we're looking for') are promising new improved pay rates. A Christian school on Sukhumwit Road is looking for new teachers, as it does every month, and ABC Language are looking for their fifth academic director in a fortnight. One school is looking for 'professional teachers - you need to be either male or female' I feel like calling them up and asking what other categories applicants might fall into, and another school promises 'loads of work for the right teacher'. The right teacher usually means a guy fresh off the boat who will happily teach a 50-hour schedule and not ask for advances.
I resign myself to staying at home with the bane of my life - the devious Noi. This girl shows me so much affection and all she asks in return is a roof over her head, the opportunity to play cards twice a week with the girl on the fourth floor, the freedom to spend hours chatting with the motorbike taxi drivers at the end of the soi, and 500 baht a day to put clothes on her back and rice on the table. Realising that I'm going to be under her feet all day, she retires to the balcony and rustles me up an omelette (the Thai equivalent of spam and chips) Is this what I get for my 500 baht?
In the evening I have an interview at the imaginatively named ' School of English Language ' on Soi Thonglor. Being 2 hours late and sweating profusely from both armpits didn't do much to endear me to the interviewer, so to show his impatience and arrogance, he launched straight into a grammar test.
"How would you teach adverbs of frequency?"
Ah, here was a double whammy - he wants to know about my teaching style and also if I know what an adverb of frequency is. I spend the next five minutes enlightening him as to the subtleties and how best to make students understand them. But as often happens in these situations, I get too clever. I tell him that 'often' is an adverb of frequency but 'I often go to the movie theatre' could mean once a week, whereas 'I often go to the dentist' might convey the idea of twice a year, so it really depends on the situation.
The interviewer thanks me for coming and says he'll be in touch. I have no doubt whatsoever that the moment my back was turned, he scribbled the word 'smartarse' across my resume and shoved it in the bin.
The following Thursday
I have an interesting morning in store after Wednesday's enforced day off and zero baht going into my bank account. The director of studies is sick and he's asked me to step in and interview some potential teachers. The first guy is an American. It's obvious he's an American the moment he walks through the door - the shirt and tie combined with a baseball cap worn back to front are a dead giveaway. He introduces himself and asks about paid return flights home, annual bonuses and free education for his kids. At this point I realise that he's probably got the wrong address....in the wrong city of the wrong country. Next!
Charlie Simpson is an interesting fella. Well educated, qualified, a history of being involved in top management, could this man be the answer to all our prayers? I listen with interest as he furnishes me with stories of a lifetime spent winning billion dollar contracts and now looking for a career change at the age 57. There's something sinister about him though - he's reluctant to give me a contact phone number and he's a little sketchy about what he was up to between 1962 and 1985. His e-mail address 'ilovenanaplaza at hotmail.com doesn't do him any favors either.
The best of the bunch is easily young Igor from the Balkan states. He's enthusiastic and energetic and more importantly willing to work for peanuts. I tell him about a nice little corporate job we've got coming up - just past Ayutthaya. 70 kilometres past to be exact. Don't worry though Igor (my voice lowers to a whisper) we're gonna stick 200 baht travel money in your sky rocket. What can you do in the class? Just give 'em conversation me old son but for f*** sake don't mention you're from a small village in Southern Bulgaria.
I turn to the receptionist and tell her to put this man on the payroll. We shake hands and I end the interview the way I end every interview "Welcome aboard, I hope this is the beginning of a long and happy working relationship between us. Or at least until you've finished the contract" He expresses his deepest gratitude. At least I think it was his deepest gratitude. It's difficult to understand that thick Eastern European accent at times.
In the evening, I do a private lesson with a girl from the next apartment. She comes round to my room with a bag of pineapple and her 300 baht tuition money (well you can't charge neighbors too much can you?) We both sit perched on the edge of the nylon duvet and talk about what she's done at school today. Despite my pleas to the devious Noi to make herself scarce while I'm teaching, Noi sits on the floor watching a third rate Thai cabaret show and laughing like a nutter. Unable to take any more of these interruptions, I lash out with my foot and tell her to go and do something useful like make me an omelette. My private student is then witness to half an hour of name-calling and face-slapping, which ends with Noi locking herself in the bathroom. My private student hands me the 300 baht tuition fee with a trembling hand. "I think Phi Noi is angry"
"No, It's just a phase she's going through. She'll be OK later. Same time next week then?"
The following Friday
It's an early start this morning. I teach an executive from 7.30-9.00 before he starts his proper day job. The hourly pay is good but who in their right mind would want to study at this time of day? Is he human? And so we sit in his pokey little office - an insomniac executive who obviously hates his wife and can't wait to leave home in the morning, and a teacher wearing the face of a man who has had no breakfast, too little sleep and no time for a decent bowel movement. By 10.00 in the morning I'm exhausted.
Friday is also workshop day. I love the word 'workshop'. I'm positive that it was brought into academic circles by radical feminists . . . simply because I blame them for everything else. The word workshop should be used to describe an environment of power tools and blokes in grimy overalls with pencils stuck behind their ear. But no - at our school it's the opportunity for the only teacher with an RSA certificate to stand up and bore us to death for two hours. Today's workshop is titled - ‘Should we be overloading young learners with grammar rules?'. Last week's was just as exciting - 'Can we let students run wild with role-plays?'
The answer to both questions is obviously ‘no' so why do we need two hours to discuss it? Why don't we get it over with in five minutes and head down to Toi's bar for the happy hour? Oh I'm sorry - it's called professional development. I knew I was missing the point somewhere.
The following Saturday
This weekend I've been invited by a group of students to 'do Pattaya'. There are actually two ways to do Pattaya - the Thai way and the farang way. The farang way is 48 hours of beer and go-go bars, the Thai way is 48 hours of Thai food, banana boats, playing guitar on the beach and paddling in the sea with all your clothes on. The Thai way is shit.
The following Sunday
I can't remember ever being happier than when we rolled into Ekkami bus station at 6pm on Sunday evening.
Disaster strikes early. I'm in the office of Khun Amarit, my three-times-a-week private student. He wants to cancel his lessons for a fortnight.
"I'm going on a business trip to Rio De Janeiro " he tells me.
I can barely control my emotions as he delivers this crippling body blow. My bottom lip begins to quiver as I see a potential 8,000 baht a month disappear before my very eyes.
"Don't go Khun Amarit. Please don't go"
"I beg your pardon"
"Please don't go. Rio 's crap. It's over-rated. The girls on the beach wobble with cellulite and homeless kids will pester you at every turn. Take my word for it - Rio sucks. Even that statue of the bloke with his arms out isn't as impressive as you think when you're close up"
"But my company are sending me. It's the annual regional sales conference and I'm the token Thai person"
By now Khun Amarit has walked to the other side of his spacious office to replenish his coffee cup while pulling me along by his trouser leg. I am also wailing hysterically.
"What am I going to do Khun Amarit! There's no bloody work out there!"
"It's only two weeks. I'll be back before you know it"
"How am I going to pay the rent?" And then I immediately stop dribbling snot as an idea comes like a bolt from the blue. "What about your daughter? You always say that you want her to study English"
"But she's only 6 months old"
"So what Khun Amarit! Start ‘em young"
This morning I'm covering two writing classes for a colleague who has gone on a visa run to Penang. My thoughts are with him as I sit in the teacher's room looking over his lesson plan sheet. Right now, he'll be at Hat Yai station tucking into barbecued chicken on a skewer ( it's all you can eat when you travel by train in Thailand). He'll have no doubt had a restless night's sleep, tossing and turning to the pitch and roll of the railway carriage but you can guarantee that the last thing on his mind will be whether my substitution of his writing lessons goes smoothly or not.
We have a system at the school where any teacher who goes on a visa run or buggers off to a tropical island for a month has to fill in a lesson substitution sheet. This invaluable piece of A4 size paper tells the substitution teacher the name and size of the class, the textbook to use, the page number to start on, and the work to cover. The theory is that the substitute teacher can just walk into the class unprepared, perhaps even a little pissed, turn to the lesson plan sheet and bingo - a blind man could teach the lesson - for all the notes and lesson plan have been carefully documented. Except today.
Today there is just one short sentence written in the ‘comments' section. It simply says ‘give them conversation, see you Monday'. No page number, no instructions, no hint of what the class did in the last lesson - naff all. I am for want of a better expression - f*cked.
The first class is an advanced writing class. I ask them what they've been doing with their teacher over the past few weeks. Apparently Ajarn Mick (as the students call him) has spent most of the time telling the students about his favorite eating-places. In no particular order, The German beer-garden in Sukhumwit soi 7, the Rex Hotel coffee shop after 2.00am, in fact anywhere where you find hookers that haven't managed to snare a punter for the evening. I change the subject quickly; it's quite obvious that Mad Mick (as the teachers call him) has not spent much time on topic sentences and thesis statements.
The class is in for a treat today. I'm going to play them six pieces of music and I want them to let their imaginations run wild and write down what comes into their heads. Where are they? Who are they? What is the environment like? I start off with ‘Mars' from the Planet Suite by Gustav Holst. As the cymbals crash and the drums beat louder ever louder, I tell the class that I feel like a gladiator marching to the stadium. Today I'm going to fight the most famous gladiator in the whole of Rome - a duel to the death. The crowd is cheering and mothers hold small children above their head so they can see their all-conquering hero. You get the idea.
I give the class something a little more mellow - a nice Spanish guitar concerto by John Williams. When I listen to it, it evokes images of hot passionate Senoritas. I can almost smell the camp-fires burning in the forests of deepest Cataluna and I can almost smell the paella steeped in olive oil and brimming with freshly caught mussels and squid. When I ask the class of 7 students what is brought to mind by the beautiful flamenco music, four of them tell me it reminds them of window-shopping in the department store, two of them can't think of anything to save their lives, and one has fallen asleep.
I decide to abandon the music lesson and get the students to ask me questions about my family (it never works but we keep trying). One of the students asks if my grandmother is still alive, to which I reply that she died about 15 years ago. After a slight pause, I decide to add a supplementary comment - ‘she's still a good shag though'.
I'm only joking. I didn't really say that. But I would have loved to. Anything, positively anything to just get one spark of reaction from that class. Just for me to see one inquisitive tilt of the head, one furrowed brow or one look of sheer horror and it would have been worth it.
The second writing class is a lower level one so I decide to set them something less taxing. The instructions are simple - draw a plan of your home or apartment and write a spatial description composition based on that diagram. The students set about the task with admirable enthusiasm. As I wander around looking at their efforts, it strikes me how many of the students live in luxurious houses and condominiums. There are servant's quarters, maid's rooms, fruit orchards, wrought iron gates, and driveways with ample parking. When they have finished, I hold up my own plan showing what you get for 5,000 baht a month. There's a bed, a wardrobe, a door that leads to the tiny bathroom and a balcony barely big enough to make an omelette on a single ring gas burner. The students fall silent. Eventually one plucks up the courage to speak. "Teacher. Why did you leave your own country? That isn't living"
I wake up in that familiar state of mild panic - I forgot to go to the laundry yet again. Why is it that I can't organize my life into any kind of shape or routine? Why can't I eat three meals a day at the times my Mom suggested, and is it so difficult to make sure that there are always clean clothes hanging in the closet and my rent and bills get paid on time? I was never ever this disorganized when I lived with my parents. I swing my legs out of bed and go across to the linen basket (actually, it's a black bin-liner). I have one clean shirt - it used to be white but is now an insipid gray. In addition, it has a stain on the breast pocket, which is unmistakably chicken tikka masala. That stuff just never comes out.
I look across at the devious Noi lying fast asleep under crumpled sheets and decide to give her a poke (a poke in the ‘I need a shirt ironed' sense you understand) She groans and goes back to dreaming about being let loose in a Las Vegas casino with unlimited spending money. I'm going to have to iron the shirt myself. A quick glance at the clock tells me that I have exactly 40 minutes to iron a shirt, take a shower, do my hair and get to Mrs Sakomoto's apartment on Sukhumwit 39. Every minute has to count. It dawns on me that I have never had to iron a shirt before - my Mom never showed me.
Eventually I'm away out of the apartment - no lesson plan, late for the lesson anyway, and a crap shirt. The insecurity guard wants to talk with me about last night's football but I've no time to offer opinions. My soi is bumper to bumper traffic - total gridlock. I approach the loathsome gaggle of motorcycle taxi drivers on the corner of my sub-soi. I only ever use them in emergencies. And today is an emergency.
"I apologize for disturbing your game of bottle-top checkers but could one of you fine gentleman ferry me from here to Sukhumwit 39 for forty baht and a song?" The most aggressive member of the group removes his sunglasses and there's a sharp intake of breath. "80 baht - take or leave " I realize that negotiation is out of the question. The traffic is getting heavier by the second and Mrs Sakamoto will by now be busy arranging a pen and notebook on the living room table. I reluctantly accept fatboy's extortionate offer. When I get to Mrs Sakamoto's palace in the sky, I'm still fifteen minutes late. She then spends the next hour wrestling with the simple present tense, and all the while she's trying to work out what kind of stain that could possibly be on my shirt pocket.
Today yet again, I get into another argument with the Thai staff. This time it's over the distribution of board markers. One of the Thai admin staff is in charge of making sure that no teacher exceeds their allowance of three new board markers per month. Woe betide the teacher who dares to ask for a fourth new board marker! His name shall be blackened in the grim recesses of the teacher's room for all eternity. He shall be reminded that the items in question are 20 baht each and under no circumstances should they be used so frivolously. But I need something to write on the board with and my lesson starts in five minutes. I blow my top and ask ‘marker pen girl' why she isn't as protective with her virginity as she is with the marker pens. After a moment's silence, I go off to my lesson and marker pen girl locks herself in the toilet to have a good cry.
Later that day, I'm called into the director's office. "Take a seat," he says
"Where do you want me to take it?" I reply.
I can see he's in no mood for jokes. "Jim, the Thai staff are frightened of you"
"Oh come on, they know what I'm like. I don't really mean it"
"Jim, the one receptionist is still locked in the toilet. She refuses to come out. What's her name? You know - the one that's in charge of the board markers"
"That was just something out of nothing"
"Jim, you're a fine teacher. You're one of the best we've got. You're a professional and we're happy to have you on board. But you need to show a little more cultural sensitivity where the Thai staff are concerned. They are people Jim. People. Even the girl who's employed to polish the leaves on the indoor plants and make sure no one runs out of paper-clips. She's a person Jim"
I'm in no mood for this shit. "The Thai staff just can't do their job properly. They forget to take messages, they screw up my pay and what's more - what is a teacher supposed to write with if he doesn't have a board marker?"
The director looks at me and flashes a half-smile.
"Just try to be a little more culturally sensitive, that's all I ask"
I storm out of his office. I don't need any of this. Not from that Thai management arse-kisser or anyone. Perhaps it's time for a change of direction? Perhaps I need to get out of teaching altogether. But what are my alternatives if I decide not to teach? I'm not cut out for calling up gullible pensioners in Australia and conning them out of their life savings? That just isn't me.
This morning there's a teachers' meeting on the agenda. Twelve teachers, each with the weight of the world on their shoulders, sit around a table waiting for the arrival of the director of studies. In the middle of the table, there is a jug of iced water and the obligatory Dunkin' Donuts party pack. I never look forward to teachers' meetings, but when the one teacher I really don't get along with dips in and takes the double chocolate frosted, I look forward to them even less. Being the perfect gentleman, I let everyone else select their donut and find that I'm left with the gayest donut in the box - the one covered in pink icing sugar.
Eneter the academic director and today we are 13 professionals gathered in one room for the sole purpose of improving the standards of the school. There are over a dozen points to discuss, debate, analyze, and comment on. First point - apparently some teachers are not filling in their pedagogical cards correctly. I'm not really bothered about that. I'm only concerned as to why we can't refer to them as 'attendance sheets'. Is it that the term ‘attendance sheet' isn't stuffy, overbearing and academic enough?
The DOS drones on. "When you prepare a lesson, don't forget your 3 P's - Production, Practice, and the other one"
I personally prefer to have two sections in a lesson plan - what I'm going to teach, and what they're going to learn. It's really that simple.
I can't be bothered to listen to the rest of the meeting. I don't think anyone can. Today is payday. I pick up 34, 652 baht after tax deductions and a contribution to the school health insurance scheme. This is what makes the job worthwhile. It's Friday night, your wallet's stuffed with Thai baht, and the world's your oyster. Come 9pm I'm sitting in an outside bar at The Pleasure Plaza surrounded by ladies. And in front of them are lady drinks. Tonight I'm not a teacher, I'm a smoldering Latin lover. The girls are laughing hysterically at my crappy jokes and my appalling Thai and I sit there taking it all in and extracting a steady stream of 500 baht notes from my wallet. Tomorrow's another day. Live for the moment.
I've volunteered to do a few extra classes. A little bit of overtime if you like. Six hours of kid's classes. Six hours of 'Incey Wincey Spider climbed a little spout' and 'I'm a little teapot short and stout' Six hours of babysitting while their mothers go off and do evil things with their husbands' platinum credit cards.
On the journey to work by sky-train, I sit opposite a young man preparing a lesson in full view of the commuting massive. He scribbles notes on a jotter pad while the cover of his Interchange 2 textbook flaps around for all to see.
When the train stops at Ekkami, an executive gets on board and there is the unmistakable waft of expensive after-shave. He sits down next to me to take the weight off his suit. No sooner has he sat down than his mobile phone goes off. The phone is tiny and expensive - and you can barely see it when it's pressed against his ear. There begins a protracted conversation, which contains loud references to ‘closing down the Stockholm office' and ‘getting Ludwig to meet the client at the Sheraton on Monday'.
The teacher puts his lesson preparation to one side and listens to the businessman's conversation. When the phone call is finished, the teacher and executive look at each other. They each have only one question on their minds - ‘What's it like being you?'