Ajarn Street

I work for the school from hell

Why the Thailand TEFL watchdog site is doomed to failure

"I have just been fired from a school and want to tell the world how bad the place is. Is there a website where I can list all my grievances and warn other teachers against working there?"

What amazes many Thailand-based English teachers - many of them new arrivals - is that no such website exists. Ok, there might be the odd blog knocking around with fifty reasons why a certain school is Hell on earth or a sad looking forum with single figure membership - but there isn't a respected TEFL watchdog site that's well-known and serves as the first place to go when the relationship between teacher and employer has reached breaking point.

There have been several attempts over the past decade to create and run a TEFL watchdog site where teachers can pour out their woes - but all have failed. Some websites lasted longer than others but ultimately the webmasters have given up catering to disgruntled teachers and gone back to their day jobs.

Let's examine the reasons for the spectacular failure of the Thailand TEFL watchdog site.

I'm going to begin with a teacher tale. About the time I took over running ajarn.com in 2002, I worked with a teacher who was doing some hourly paid corporate work in the evenings. I've forgotten the teacher's name so we'll call him Alan.

Alan's corporate work was separate to his day job and as long as it didn't interfere with his daytime classes, he was perfectly entitled to earn a bit of extra cash on the side. For the record, Alan was a likeable, hard-working guy and I got on with him very well. He also knew that I ran ajarn.com so he approached me one day with a problem. He had recently finished a 40-hour contract at a multinational company and now his employers were refusing to pay him. This was a corporate training provider that advertised regularly on ajarn.com and I had already heard rumors that their teachers were having problems getting paid. Because Alan was both a friend and colleague, I decided to step in and find out exactly what was going on.

I called up the training provider and explained the situation to the owner of the business.
"My friend Alan has taught 40 hours for you and it seems you are reluctant to pay what you owe him"
The owner was somewhat taken aback. "Thanks for your call Phil but there has definitely been a misunderstanding here. Alan signed a contract with us before he started the 40-hour course and agreed that the rate of 500 baht an hour would be paid once we had received student reports for the ten students in his group and the course materials (textbooks and tape cassette) had been returned to our office. The truth is we are still waiting for Alan to write the student reports despite telling him several times and he still has possession of the classroom materials. Believe me - we haven't made this up in order to delay payment. Alan was aware of his commitment when he signed on the dotted line. Once he furnishes us with the reports and returns the books and cassette, we will pay him right away"

In all honesty, I had been left feeling a little red-faced. I have taught numerous corporate contracts myself and when an employer states that you will be paid once you agree to submit student reports, you accept those rules. They are NOT unreasonable requests, especially if you were the teacher who signed the contract in the first place.

Feeling more than a little angry and put-out, I tracked down Alan and relayed to him the details of my phone conversation with his employer.
"Alan, how could you ask me to follow this matter up and miss out such an important detail? You haven't done the bloody student reports"
There was an uncomfortable silence before Alan came back at me with the pathetically weak "I'd forgotten the terms of the contract"
"Well next time, why don't you read the contract every so often just to remind you of your obligations" was my response.

That night, Alan went home and typed up the student reports. He handed them in to his employer the following day, along with the class materials, and he was paid his wages within 24 hours. Alan got his money in the end.

Who was at fault here? Many will side with the employer; some might even support Alan the teacher. But one thing is for certain - we will never know the true story. The whole issue is a very dark shade of gray. And this is at the core of why Thailand TEFL watchdog sites have endured such an appalling track record. There are nearly always two sides to every story.

The truth is that I could relate several instances where I have gone to bat for a teacher and been left with serious egg on my face. Alan's story is just one example.

One of the more high-profile attempts to run a TEFL watchdog site was started in early 2006 by a guy who went under the name of Rico. He launched ‘TEFLwatch' as a forum where teachers who had been wronged by school management and unfairly dismissed could have a voice. Ajarn.com did a hot seat interview with Webmaster Rico in the months after TEFLwatch began and when his enthusiasm for the project was commendable if perhaps a little premature. Webmaster Rico - who had suffered himself at the hands of unscrupulous language school owners in Southern Thailand - promised us something that no TEFL watchdog site had offered before. TEFLwatch was going to be a heavily moderated forum where the truth would come out and dodgy employers would be ruthlessly exposed. There was even a Hall of Shame section where the cream of Thailand's worst employers could enjoy a few months of notoriety while numerous ex-teachers lay into them and gave them a virtual battering they would never forget.

Credit where its due, TEFLwatch did manage to ruffle a few feathers in school boardrooms during its relatively brief life-span but all good things come to an end and after two years in the spotlight, Webmaster Rico, who by now had mysteriously become Teacher Greg, decided to pull the plug. Teacher Greg gave ajarn.com a heartfelt ‘exit interview' and cited moderator bickering as one of the main reasons for not carrying on. However, it was the responsibility of providing a soapbox for disgruntled teachers that eventually wore him down. There comes a time when even though some names are constantly being shamed, there are nagging doubts that the employers are not getting a true right of reply. Worse still, who wants to put their head on the pillow at night with threats of legal action hanging over them - threats of legal action from often very powerful and influential school owners.

None of this came as a surprise to me. I thought Webmaster Rico or whatever name he went under, did well to keep the shop open for as long as he did.

I've been in the situation where I've splashed something less than savory about a particular school on the ajarn.com website and been threatened with the Thai law courts as a result. Let me tell you - it's not a pleasant feeling. I told Greg at the time that closing the TEFLwatch site was probably the best decision he would ever make. At least he'd given it a go. And at least he would sleep better at night.

There are those who say ajarn.com should pick up the baton and take these awful schools and teacher agencies to task. Name and shame them on the ajarn homepage for all the world to see. I have absolutely no intention of doing so. There are certain battles that a teacher has to fight alone. At risk of sounding like a broken gramophone record - there are nearly always two sides to every story and both sides of a story are almost impossible to get.

Too many teachers who take on the very serious and potentially slanderous task of writing negatively about a school, never choose their words carefully enough for my liking. I sympathize inasmuch as emotions can run high when a teacher feels they have been victimized but you have to tread carefully. Slander is a serious crime in Thailand. Teachers often add color to their writing with endless embellishment and hyperbole when it's important to deal in facts and facts only. Academic directors who simply play by strict rules become 'overbearing tyrants', admin staff who do what they are told become 'tell-tale ass-kissers', the Sister who is in charge of foreign staff at a Catholic school and perhaps doesn't possess the greatest people skills morphs into ‘the barking mad farang-hating nun from Hell'

And universities who make you stay until 5pm are accused of running 'an academic prison'. I think you get the point.

Very recently someone signed up to the ajarn discussion forum to report on a college in the Samut Prakarn area of Bangkok where he had recently taken up employment. The account was well-written and posted by someone with perhaps only a small axe to grind.

The report was divided into two sections - ‘good points' and ‘other points'. I don't know if ‘other points' translated as ‘bad points' but they were certainly not part of the ‘good points' section - so I took them to be negatives. Certain entries are worth analyzing (my responses are in bold type) and although I've changed the actual wording of the original entries, I've kept the gist.

You have to stay at school until 5pm so the moral among the foreign teachers is quite low.

Actually, according to other forum members who joined the discussion, this seems perfectly normal practice at Thai schools.

Rumors abound that the school head doesn't like foreigners and wants revenge for events that happened in the past.

Ah, yes. We all like a good rumor and a bit of office tittle-tattle don't we? But rumors don't equate with facts.

One building has five floors and no elevator.

I worked at a school for five years with five floors and an elevator that was always broken. You do what I did. You just get on with it and start walking. Every job has its downsides. The perfect job doesn't exist.

The recruiter doesn't mention that as a foreign teacher, you will only be teaching boys.

The recruiter probably doesn't have to. I would have thought ‘what kind of students will I be teaching' should be pretty high on that list of questions to ask at a job interview.

Teachers have to use a clocking-in and clocking-out system - just like the janitors.

Where have you been for the last twenty years? Companies want to monitor when their staff arrives and leaves - janitors and teachers alike.

The recruiter will mislead you into believing that the school is near the Bangkok sky-train but it isn't.

But whenever you think about taking a job - anywhere in the world - the ease or difficulty in getting to work should be top of your agenda. I know it's always been top of mine. And it's YOUR responsibility to ascertain how long it's going to take you to get to work and whether taking the position is viable. Everyone has different ideas on what constitutes 'a ten-minute walk' or 'a five-minute taxi ride'. There is only one way to find out - test it yourself. No one with any common sense accepts a job and then at the end of the first day thinks "shit! it's going to take me ages to get home. If only I had researched things better"

Some teachers take part in a drinking and smoking mafia on Friday nights after work.

Why is it a ‘mafia'?  I'm sure many teachers would welcome the opportunity to get together with colleagues and socialize. Or is this a small cluster of teachers with nicotine-stained fingers all plotting on how to slip a horse's head into the academic director's bed.

I'm convinced that the Thailand TEFL watchdog site idea will never take off. There are always too many gray areas. It‘s a crying shame because believe it or not, I think there is a real call for a well-run site where teachers and school administration can meet in cyberspace and discuss school policies calmly and sensibly. And if England puts me in the international team I think we have every chance of winning the next World Cup.


Phil addresses the issue squarely and has his own way of handling it, non-confrontationally or not- that is his right as ajarn's owner, and I feel he's fair and will help when there are real problems with getting paid, etc. Unfortunately lack of integrity,unprofessional/bad behavior, lying ,etc isn't illegal usually, and most Thais are in stronger positions, have more experience than the free floating farang teacher without a lot in terms of resources, connections, and legal protection, + the all famous corruption factor of what a few thousand baht can do in the right palms....He also will notify his advertising schools/agents etc if they have broken serious promises (such as non- payment) that they may be blacklisted until they offer fair compensation ....that's powerful for without posting adverts for teachers, they're stuck up the creek.

By Niels Jeffreys, Bangkok (7th February 2011)

Yea, I don't plan on pursuing this any further.. I have been offended with rude language by someone, denied pay, cursed at, and threatened with arrest and deportation in the last 24 hours. The offense was leaving a job after 3 days.

For some reason the recruiter is taking his frustrations in life out of me, and is not acting with the least sense of self-respect or decent business sense. I have been in Asia for 5 years, and on this earth for 27. Never have I been treated so poorly in my life.

As you can imagine, I only think it is fair that others do not suffer by this man's hands. I have respect for ajarn.com, so I will not say who this recruiter/advertiser is here.

By Ben Arlo, Bangkok (8th November 2010)

Hi Ben. Well, I've never ever denied that ajarn.com is a business. So shall we call it a combination of business decision and a decision for common sense? If you feel strongly that a website should be set up to name and shame employers, there's absolutely nothing stopping you setting one up yourself is there? But being as you have a Thailand-based business and potentially everything to lose, I would approach things with a certain degree of caution.

By philip, (8th November 2010)

I see this as a business decision as much as anything. Why would a website that does business with agencies post something negative (even if it is true and verifiable) about these same agencies? They won't. Bad for business...and of course, this is a business...

Yet, some type of tripadvisor.com style site should be set up for schools/recruiters....Scams do exist. People need to know. Anyone know a good place I can tell people to avoid a recruiter?

By Ben Arlo, Bangkok (8th November 2010)

What I see written here is perpetuation of "non-confrontation" a.k.a., ignoring reality when it comes to problems. Though, the only realistic example given was about a farang making a mistake. I guess that is the only reality we are able to mention in Thailand. Let's just ignore reality and all will be well..

By PM, ISSAAN (20th October 2010)

I used to complain about my teaching situation, and while I know I had real grievances, I also recognized that I began to complain about everything to anyone who would listen. Negativity breeds negativity, find the positive and recognize that when you are teaching a class you have more freedom than 95% of 9 to 5 jobs.

By bill, bangkok (2nd August 2010)

I remember the Teflwatch site well. A school I'd worked for ended up in the 'Hall of Shame'. The site was hilarious because you can recognise the writing styles of people you've worked with as colleagues and they'd join Teflwatch using multiple user names, as if to disguise themselves, and then have discussions and arguments with themselves. The mods seemingly never tracked the IP addresses.
Certain phrases or idioms are highly recognisable. For example, if you'd worked with an older American and then 'Younglover' started posting on Teflwatch about how their school took the curriculum and 'nickel and dimed it to death' - it hardly took peerless detective work to see through it.

By James, Bangkok, Thailand (20th July 2010)

The problem is that the law in Thailand provides a penalty for the site owner if anything, even a forum post, is deemed slander. Even if there is only a charge brought the site owner could find the police going through their things and taking away anything electronic as "evidence."
It's medieval, but I think it's to stop Thais from constantly bad mouthing each other and then passing the blame to some other party.
Since the Thais are so in love with shared responsibility, the best thing to do is condemn them as an entire culture rather than just one school or another.

By Ryan, Bangkok (19th July 2010)

I had a very encouraging experience after doing just what the article suggests and Phil echoes.I contacted him and was responded to very promptly when I couldn't get paid on time by a curricular activity academy due to no fault of my own- in fact had gone well beyond the extra mile and put up with a very demanding , low paying employer who would require unreasonable amounts of work at very short notice -for free.I contacted Phil/ ajarn.com about my situation and he said sometimes he would contact the advertiser. I don't know if he did or not, but I got a message within a couple of hours and recieved my much needed pay.. Thanks for the support Phil . Reasonable requests will be taken and considered, if schools are lacking in fair play, they will be found out and Ajarn doesn't have to list them if they deem it's better not to. Ajarn can't take more than a reasonable amount of responsibility and I found his replies helpful and he may have intervened on my behalf, but the owner of the academy seemed serious and paid me with a waiver not to compete or complain to the schools or students we went to.

By niels, Bangkok (4th July 2010)

My sister works as a teacher there in Bangkok and her concern is about how discriminating the administrators can be - if a teacher is not "white" or "a native english speaker" , they become of secondary preference regardless of how well-equipped and qualified a non-native teacher is. As a teacher myself, I am proud to say that our training here in the Philippines is for one to have the heart and skill of what a teacher really is. Our teachers in the schools, though, non-native speakers, can teach very well how to talk, read, write, comprehend English competently. It doesn't always take a native speaker to be able to teach well especially if they really don't have degrees in education. Thailand is a beautiful country. I hope that its citizens, specially those who are in the academic profession, do not put too much discrimination on foreign teachers who are not coming from US, Canada, Australia, UK or Kiwiland. There are a lot of qualified teachers around the world, it's just a matter of choosing well - those who really have the heart and passion for teaching. Remember, Thailand is still part of Asia, so please do not be discriminating towards your neighboring countries who would also want to teach in your good country.

By jee, Philippines (4th July 2010)

The idea that ajarn.com must first verify the legitimacy of every potentially negative comment about a school is utter nonsense. Does ajarn.com, prior to publication on its site, go this extra mile to verify all advertisement and teacher recruitment claims made by schools?

If it does,examples would seem to be in order. Otherwise, it appears that the schools can do no wrong while the teachers are being held to a much higher standard when it comes to who is and who is not permitted to have their story told on ajarn.com.

By Mark Timmings, UK (29th June 2010)

You've totally missed the point Ricardo. Yes, you can post negative comments about schools on the discussion forums of other sites, but with due respect, those other sites don't then go out and verify whether the stories are true or false. And this is something a website MUST do in my book. But checking up is VERY time-consuming and brings no rewards. So in the end, the accusations go unchecked and it creates a situation where a teacher reads a negative account and decides not to work there - when actually it might be a very decent school to work for.

By philip, (28th June 2010)

Just post such comments on another site that permits them. Ajarn.com's policy needs to be changed sooner rather than later.

By Ricardo, Vietnam (28th June 2010)

This is absolute nonsense.

The real reason TEFL watch closed down, and there aren't any new websites and furthermore why Ajarn won't list bad schools is simply that the schools are too powerful and will shut any website down. We are talking powerful people here.

This whole article is just trying to shift the blame solely onto teachers and to not question the status quo of Thailand. All to justify a lie of why Ajarn.com won't shame schools.

By Wayne, BKK (27th June 2010)

Honestly Phil, it's a good writeup but your reaction to the "well-written critique" at the end of your article shows you have a low sense of compassion towards the teachers. Even though his critique against his school indeed had holes in it, we can see through the fog his feelings of frustration that we teachers regularly and somewhat rightfully do experience.

I also felt you lack compassion in your previous article with the guy from England who openly critized your site -- it was great of you to share the story and you've written well and put a lot into it, but it seems you are only taking sympathy with one side. Darned shame, really. The "first half" of your above article is quite a good read, though.

By mike, Bangkok (27th June 2010)

Actually.....I have worked in 3 continents, 7 countries and with students for over 20 years....
Without naming any schools, IMHO Thailand is by FAR the worst place to work! (but a very nice place to live.....)
I feel that we should balance our (often justified) criticisms of many "farang" (teachers or not) that do complain about their employers, with some of the quite outrageous, disrespectful and blatantly racist/ignorant policies and methods that many of these "Foreign employees" are exposed to on a daily basis (regardless of whether they deserve it or not).
For sure, many Thai teachers suffer the same disrespect and "abuse" from their employers....and their salaries are also crap to boot.
To put that problem in very clear perspective - try asking the Employer/Headmaster/Crooked Nun/Cowboy owner what his/her personal salary is, and how much money the school siphons away each year - then ask them if they feel that they reward their Thai teachers adequately.

No, 85 wrongs do not make a right...and regardless of how Thai teachers allow themselves to be treated, any person (Thai or foreign) has a right to be treated respectfully, within the law and hopefully as a "professional" employee....
In my time in Thailand/(Asia) this is genuinely not often the case - anyone who thinks it is, is seriously deluding themselves and deserves most of the "abuse" they receive (open or passive-aggressive as is more common!)

The more we collectively put our heads in the sand....and allow schools to threaten teachers/foreigners/web-sites with law-suits, without the employers themselves ever being at risk of being on the end of any one of the possibly hundreds of potential teacher v school lawsuits.....the longer the foreign workforce will be exploited - which is great for the schools and some of the farang who work in the schools and seem to think they have pulled themselves up and are now "Thai" and therefore need to shit on lesser "farang" too.......

Long and boring - but an accurate reflection of many individuals' daily working dilemma.If you dont see it - good for you, if you do understand..do something about it.
Non-communist/socialist/capitalist or anything-ist except concerned "Guava".

By Stevie G, Korea (23rd June 2010)

Phil, England only tied the USA 1 to 1. And we don't even like soccer. Maybe you should go to S. Africa and give them a hand.
You are so right about farang teachers bitching about Thai administrators. I have my own list of stories, over 6 years here. Now I have my own school and I make the rules. I love ajarn.com and you do a very wonderful job. All the best, mate!

By Kevin, Bkk (23rd June 2010)

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