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The future of education in Thailand

Should the serious TEFLers be preparing themselves for change?


The COVID-19 crisis and ensuing disruption of ‘business as usual’ in education here in Thailand (just as everywhere) has so many of us thinking about the future. 

Will things change? To what extent? Should we expect what we’re used to with mostly superficial reforms or could this be a shock to the system that provokes more profound shifts in Thailand’s TEFL landscape? 

Recent discussions on the topic (on Twitter, in Facebook groups, etc.) reveal that while nobody knows for sure what will happen, there’s certainly a lot of interest, some cynicism, and even a bit of hope and optimism. 

Teacher pay

The bedrock of a lot of the discussion is the fact of nearly frozen average salary levels over the last fifteen or more years. All it takes is a scroll down the jobs board on this site to see “30-35K” on offer from many schools and agencies. But this is about the same thing you’d have seen on your screen in, say, 2005! Now I’m no economist, but I agree with the assessment of the TEFL masses: something is amiss here! The question of why and how this might eventually change? Quite a lot harder to figure. 

Over on Twitter, Tom Touhy wrote: “Hopefully this‘ll shake up the teaching landscape in Thailand which badly needs it. There have been no meaningful salary increases and overall benefits since I stopped teaching in Thailand in 2006. Root and branch reform is necessary & there’s never been a better time to start it” and I found myself nodding, even while admittedly unsure whether the current conditions might bring out the best or the worst in our sector. 

More Thai students?

I’ve seen a few commentators suggest that if COVID-19 means many foreign teachers have left and many won’t come, the ones who remain should be the beneficiaries of the resulting supply/demand re-balance. Add to this the not insignificant number of Thai students who may have planned to study English abroad, but will now stay here. 

When business opens again, will they be rushing through the doors of the language centers? Another piece to an MC Esther picture puzzle. 

What about qualifications?

One tweeter replied: “Won't happen. Krusapa [the teacher’s council] is still demanding you pay for a teaching course. It will take years”, bringing in the other foundational issue that underlies a lot of the discussion in Thailand TEFL circles: qualifications. Will this disruption inspire the powers that be to appreciate the quality of many experienced and committed teachers here who just happen not to have the right piece of paper? And I’d add: what about great teachers who happen to be non-native speakers of English? 

I engaged in that Twitter thread a bit and wanted to share the gist of what I wrote here. 

Firstly, when it comes to 'teaching qualifications', you have the pieces of paper and you have what those pieces of paper are supposed to represent: productive professional development and educational experiences resulting in an increase in applicable knowledge and skills. If a teacher education course is rubbish, that’s an issue. If such a rubbish course is forced on teachers, that’s double the rubbish. 

I nodded at the second tweet, too, because of how often it appears that the people at the top of the chain - really people at every level of the system - are blinded by the pieces of paper and unable to recognize knowledge and skills. 

With all that said, the one thing that every teacher has in their control is the extent to which they commit to professional development themselves. Not the acquisition of any particular piece of paper, but the ongoing work of self-directed professional development, living the kind of engaged professional life that leads to plenty of pieces of paper. 

But my overall sense is that there is a relatively small percentage of foreign EFL teachers in Thailand who are particularly engaged in this way. And sometimes it’s even the loudest voices shouting about the “top-down” expectations, while completely ignoring the absence of any sort of “bottom-up” element. 

Which is why I tweeted - “If the population of foreign EFL teachers doesn't want to be treated as a cheap commodity by Thailand's education system, the one sure-fire way to stand a chance is first and foremost *don't BE a cheap commodity*. Tell me that more than 50% of all TEFLers in Thailand don't act like one”. 

Better jobs are out there

Obviously I wrote that in a way that was meant to provoke a reaction. Because...well, what else is Twitter for? But that’s the simple and entirely uncontroversial (I think) message I want to share: if you’re stuck at the mercy of stagnant wages, you need to upgrade yourself because there ARE better paying jobs. There’s just fewer of them. 

There are also schools who offer better benefits, schools with good staff cultures, schools who commit to their teachers, even during a global pandemic. You can recognize the faults and failures of the system and do your part to make the most of it. 

Now, doing a diploma or certificate or whatever’s next can be a heavy load, financially and otherwise. But if professional development in some way feeds your soul, you’ll make it happen. There’s always a “next” for some teachers. They’re the ones who end up above the fray of the worst conditions, no longer at mercy of the worst parts of the system. The blame game is useless when it comes to improving anything.

Again, nobody knows what’s going to happen when and if things get “back to normal” in the TEFL scene, both globally and here in Thailand. Many have ridden the sudden waves of disruption by teaching online or finding a new employer who is more supportive of staff, or leaving until the coast is clear, or just packing it in to start over in some other life. 

But we’re all in the same boat on the same sea of good and bad: living in paradise, gratifying work, professional respect, largely frozen wages, confusing Krusapa announcements and sometimes uncaring employers. 

There’s just one thing to do: don’t be a dead weight and row! 

Matthew Noble




Comments

Big Jim Beam, you're a great guy! Congratulations, you made it.

By Richard Constable, Bang Na (6th May 2020)

I just wish everyone would stop crying about wages. If you stay at the same school for all intents and purposes you'll be lucky to get a cola let alone a raise. Therefore, you need to move and possibly prior to that: get a PGCE, get your license, polish up your resume, buy new clothes, lose weight, shave and take a shower before the interview. My wages have gone up 200% in six years, why not yours? Maybe self reflection is in order. I realize many of you are entirely skill-less and teaching English is free money but that's the 35K barrier. Usually after 35K schools actually want something in return. Unless you're stuck upcountry with a kid and a house, you've got to be really lazy frankly. That's fine but just stop whinging. Accept your shitty existence or grow a money tree.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (29th April 2020)

Unless the theories of economics are completely wrong, the demand for foreign teachers in Thailand will decline as the Thai economy declines (much like the demand has risen over the last thirty years more or less aligned with the rate of economic growth in the country).

It is generally felt the Thai economy will slow at least as much percentage-wise as the global economy and probably even more due to the country's reliance on international trade and tourism.

For teachers already in the country they might not be in a terrible situation as while it seems close to a certainty the demand for teachers will decrease, the supply might also decrease.

What is much harder to predict will be the long-term economic impact based on social behaviors, will most people be willing to jump on an airplane or enter a crowded restaurant anytime soon? I am guessing it will take a little longer for the world to get back to normal than often predicted.

Without a crystal ball it is hard to predict the future but it is very difficult to come up with a scenario where the average wages for ESL teachers in Thailand will rise in 2020.

By Scott, At home (29th April 2020)

Excellent ideas Matthew, and good point about being the industry there before with the "why are salaries so low" platinum 75th annual reunion. I made 50k at a school in the year 2000.

Great points about professional development. When things get back open, will the drop in global tourism, even educational, affect things? Well that seems obvious, but how quickly will that trickle down and also how long will a downturn in the language market last? Either way, wages won't go up, so like most teachers, earning money to save is a side hustle whether it's covid-world or not.

Thanks for the read.

By Francis, USA (28th April 2020)

Nobody knows the future, still we have an idea from history. And so far, people with money tend to be the same people or families that always have had money.

Only a very small percentage of students attend language centres at the weekends, and unless all their once wealthy parents and grandparents have been rendered bankrupt - those same few will be back.

18 years of experience tells me that if people have a reasonable amount of money, they will demand that their children study a language with a native speaker.

As for foreign teachers basic salaries going up - it must have happen once because the government Thai teacher's pay has doubled since I've been here. Although I wouldn't like to put my neck out and say when but I'll keep rowing.

By Richard Constable, Bang Na (27th April 2020)

The sinking economy in Thailand is gonna negate most, if not all, of the points you raised. People will be out of work. Lots of them. They won't have money to pay language school fees, let along regular school fees. Many university students will have to take an unplanned gap year. Unemployment could be hitting 20% by the end of May, and the economy here is expect to contract around 6 percent.....the highest of any ASEAN member country. Farang pay is the LAST thing they will be thinking about. They will hire filipinos on the cheap. That will be the new normal. Khursapha rules will stay the same.

By Bill, Bangkok (27th April 2020)

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