Like many others I kind of ‘fell into' English language teaching. I never ever envisaged working for ‘someone else'. All through my twenties I'd been something of a wheeler-dealer. I had a mail order vinyl record business (which I started when I was in secondary school). I was a partner in a very successful high-class catering firm. And I still found time to help out in a friend's antique/second-hand business, accompanying him on house clearances all over the Midlands and doing car-boot sales, where we'd stand ankle deep in cow-shit all day trying to shift a job lot of Japanese radios that we'd mysteriously acquired from blokes like ‘Jewish Mickey'. In fact, training the staff at one of the world's leading car rental companies on how to rent cars to walk-in customers was the only ‘normal' job I ever did in the UK. It wasn't that I couldn't get a nine-to-five job; it was more that I didn't want one.
Slowly but surely I started to become disillusioned with modern day England. I think it was a combination of many reasons. I was always comfortable money-wise - there was always money for clothes and foreign holidays twice a year, but I was tired of living with Mom and Dad in the ‘second bedroom' and driving a succession of borderline MOT failures. I was a man desperate for change.
I was in love with the idea of living in a foreign country. I can't explain why but I was. I remember buying a book called ‘Work your way around the world' and while the book was aimed at reckless individuals who land at foreign airports with barely ten dollars to their name, it did give me some ideas. For many a day I mulled over the ridiculous notion of becoming a coach driver in Belgium, or perhaps moving to Canada, arriving on a relative's doorstep and seeing what fate had in store. Europe? Canada? The USA? - I decided to move to The Far East.
I narrowed down my choice to three countries - Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand. Japan and Korea have never appealed to me for some reason. Even though I had an old friend living in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay and I'd splashed out six quid on the Lonely Planet guide to Taiwan, HK and Taiwan were both unknown quantities. I'd spent three weeks in Thailand the year before so I knew what to expect. I hadn't explored many options but work for foreigners seemed desperately thin on the ground in Thailand. I knew though that English teachers were always in demand and whether I chose Taiwan, Hong Kong or Thailand didn't really matter. ELT was always something to fall back on. I did a very generously discounted full-time TEFL course thanks to the local barmy left-wing Labour council, and I got a few teaching hours under my belt at the Brasshouse Center in Birmingham, a school which caters for EFL students from mainly Spain and France. Even though I enjoyed the teaching and felt I was relatively good at it, I wasn't moving abroad with teaching as my primary goal. I wanted to see what other doors opened or if they were going to be continually slammed in my face.
So in 1989, I arrived at Don Muang airport with Tony the Milkman. He'd just got 15,000 quid in redundancy money from the Unigate Dairy, and I was carrying a fairly fat wallet myself. After a few days in Bangkok, we moved down to Hua Hin to extend our ‘holiday period'. We ended up staying there three months. In those days Hua Hin truly was the sleepy fishing village it still claims to be in certain guidebooks - but most definitely isn't. There were three hotels, six farang-friendly restaurants and your night-time entertainment consisted of three bars. You also quickly got to know the other twelve foreigners who lived there on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. Tony the Milkman ended up buying a 50% share in a guest house/restaurant and I sat on the beach with a ‘Teach Yourself Mandarin' course just in case Hong Kong came back into the equation. It didn't. I sat there looking out to sea, being waited on hand and foot with soft drinks and seafood, pausing to chat with a friendly local, and thought there was no way I could leave this place. I felt as if I could have stayed in Hua Hin forever. Reality kicked me up the arse the following day however and I knew that I would have to return to Bangkok if there was going to be any chance of finding work. There was nothing for me in Hua Hin. I was stagnating by the hour and it was time to move on. I hugged Tony the Milkman at Hua Hin station and caught the train back to Hualampong.
(Incidentally, Tony left Thailand in 1998 and went back to the UK penniless)
The Gemstone Years
I checked into a cheap guest house in the lower Sukhumwit area and the following day I went down to the Bangkok Post offices to place an ad in their ‘employment wanted' classified section. I can't remember the exact wording but "Englishman 26 years old - anything considered" might not be far off the mark. You tend to be brief when you pay by the word.
The ad duly appeared the following morning and the phone in my dingy guesthouse room literally rang off the wall. I got all sorts of offers from managing a hotel in Pattaya to selling timeshare to rich expats (as you'd expect). One job offer came from an Indian gemstone company on Silom Road who were looking for a sales manager. I went down to see them the same afternoon, liked what I saw, liked what I heard, and we shook hands on a deal - 15,000 baht a month plus lunch plus commission. I threw myself into the work and learned all I could about semi-precious gemstones. Now I was a bit more settled I also moved into a cheap apartment in Sukhumwit 22.
The job itself involved calling up jewelry manufacturers and trying to make an appointment with the gemstone buyer. Then came the hard work of trying to sell them a bagful of loose amethyst. Because it was a trade largely undertaken by Indians, I was something of a novelty and found it easy to get appointments. I also became well-known within the Indian community and have kept many friends to this day. As I became more of an expert on the gemstones themselves the company paid for me to go on buying trips to India and I was able to travel back to England twice to show the stones around the Birmingham jewelry quarter and the Hatton Garden area of London. The first time I went back, I arrived unannounced on Mom's doorstep as she was cooking the Sunday lunch. I'll never forget the look on her face.
The trips to India were out of this world - a dream come true!. I would stay at the house of the biggest gemstone dealer in Jaiphur and have my own servant to take care of me. I also stayed in the Walkeshwar area of Bombay - the millionaire's playground as it's often called. I realize now that I would never have gotten to see India if it wasn't for that ad in the Bangkok Post.
The Berlitz Years
Although I was making decent money at the Indian gemstone company, I craved a better lifestyle. I was living in a pokey 2,500 baht a month apartment in one of Bangkok's more undesirable areas and I was constantly dipping into my own savings to feed both my fast food restaurant and tailor's shop addictions. I would have to supplement my income and teaching seemed like the most obvious way. These however were the days before the internet and if you wanted a teaching job you either looked through the Yellow Pages or you scanned the Bangkok Post classifieds. I happened upon the Berlitz logo in the telephone book and gave them a call. Surprisingly the Academic Director at the Silom Road branch was bursting with enthusiasm on the other end of the line and begged me to go and see him that very evening. He offered me a job on the spot - three hours a night, two nights a week. Although it only paid 150 baht an hour (Berlitz actually teach 40-minute periods) it put a very welcome extra three or four thousand baht a month in my pocket.
After doing part-time teaching for less than three weeks, I was getting excellent reviews from the students and Berlitz asked me if I would be interested in teaching all day Saturdays at the Sukhumwit branch. I said that I would be happy to. The first Saturday I remember as if it was yesterday - a real baptism of fire - ten periods with a 40-minute break for lunch. I crawled home knackered. But I'd never had a job that was so fulfilling. The following Monday I asked Berlitz if I could join them full-time and they couldn't put the contract in front of me quickly enough. I was now going to be earning double what I was making at the gemstone company, I went to see Nalin, Nita and Asit in the afternoon and told them that I was moving on (they knew nothing about the part-time teaching) They were sad to see me go but fully understood.
I'm going to summarize the Berlitz experience in one paragraph. I stayed there for two years. In retrospect it was one year too long. I worked alongside some great people, none more so than David Siutyk, the A.D of the Sukhumwit branch, who has played such an important part in my TEFL career and who has become a lifelong friend. You'll be hearing his name pop up again for sure. I developed confidence teaching and standing up in front of small groups of students. And I consistently scored highly on student surveys and earned the right to call myself a competent teacher. I rose to the position of assistant academic director at the start of the second year. Everyone has to cut their teeth at some place - Berlitz was as good a school as any to do your apprenticeship. However, the hours were long (twelve hour days were not uncommon) and the Berlitz method of teaching was mind-numbingly dull. In addition Japanese housewives (who made up a large percentage of the Sukhumwit clientele) are simply too boring for words.
I started to suffer from teacher burnout and became irritable and unpleasant to be around. Although I've never liked the ordeal of changing jobs, it seemed like the only way out of the ‘blackness' I'd descended into. In the end the decision to leave was made for me. The old Berlitz manager, who had been so good to me for two years, was called back to Japan and a new guy took over the everyday running of the operation. His style of management was radically different to mine and Dave's and we both knew it was time to abandon ship.
The ELS/ELC Years
The next stop was ELS on Ramkhamhaeng Rd. It's probably unfair to label it as a ‘stop' because I was there for five years - five generally very happy years. My old buddy Dave became the Academic Director and I was given the position of senior teacher. ELS is an American franchise and specialized in preparing Thai students for study in America. I'll always be grateful to ELS because it was here that I truly developed as a teacher. Students would come for an intensive one-month program (120 hours) and we had nine levels of study. Some students went from level one to nine in nine months.
This was very serious stuff. I taught conversation and grammar skills and reading techniques, but it was academic writing and TOEFL preparation that became my forte. Students refused to study another level if they couldn't have Phil as the academic writing teacher. I worked long and hard developing ideas to make academic writing and TOEFL Prep more interactive and it seemed to pay off handsomely. I had more work than I could cope with, easily pulling in 35-40,000 baht a month (and this was the mid 90s) I moved to a much better apartment on Petchburi Road with luxuries such as a separate bedroom and cable TV.
An elderly teacher, who we referred to as Uncle John, joined the ELS teaching staff. John had been in Thailand for about 20 years and rented a large house on a Thai moobarn (housing estate) He told me about the days when he opened his home to private students and earned himself 500 baht an hour teaching them (I was earning about 300 baht an hour at the time). "You could easily earn another 10,000 baht a month by doing a few hours at the weekend" he said. I don't want to say I was driven by the thought of money but my brain cells suddenly went into overdrive. After three months of house-hunting I finally found the place I was looking for - a three-bedroom house on a quiet residential soi - 9,000 baht a month. Now it was time to start earning some real money.
Within a month or so of setting myself up as a private teacher in my own home to supplement my ELS income, ELS underwent a major change. The ELS franchise was given up by the Thai franchisees and overnight the school became ELC. It was to become 100% Thai-owned and run. The walls were painted yellow and blue, the receptionists got brand new uniforms, and the school took on a completely different identity. The ELC (formerly ELS) schools at both Ramkhamhaeng and Victory Monument were now under the watchful eye of a Thai advertising and marketing whiz-kid, who was brought in to take ELC into the new millennium. He made sweeping changes and at least 50% of the Thai staff was fired or gently helped out of the door. I was definitely part of his future plans though and within a month I was made Head Teacher of Ramkhamhaeng and Dave S remained as Academic Director, but with Victory Monument continuing to be far busier than the Ram branch, I moved ‘sideways within the triangle' to take over at Victory.
There then probably came the biggest ‘twist' of my whole TEFL career as Dave S dropped a bombshell and handed in his resignation. He had been head-hunted by a brand-new international school on Sukhumwit Rd and been made an offer he couldn't refuse. The path was now clear for me to take over as Academic Director of both ELC branches. I was formally offered the position and asked to name my price. I foolishly settled for the ridiculously low salary of 35,000 baht a month. I was just looking forward to the challenge. There was now a real buzz about the place.
I lasted six months as an Academic Director. I didn't fail. I just hated it. Anyone who wants to be an Academic Director wants their bumps feeling. It is the most thankless of tasks. You're trying to keep both the Thai owners and the farang teaching staff happy and you find yourself failing on both counts. The workload was enormous. I was crawling home at midnight and getting on a bus to Victory Monument at 7am. I barely had time to call my girlfriend (now my wife) on the telephone and when I did all she got were moans.
Two incidents clearly mark the end of my time at ELC. Firstly when I broke down in tears outside 7-11 one Friday lunchtime because I was so exhausted. I'm a great fan of the Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephania. In one of his poems he warns against the dangers of working too hard and not having time to relate to anything else. This was me all over. Secondly I had a nasty and heated argument with the advertising whiz-kid and an irremovable wedge was driven between us. The honeymoon period was well and truly over - but he could stick his midnight finishes where the sun doesn't shine.
The Onnud Years
Unemployment didn't last long. In fact it lasted less than 24 hours. My old mate Dave S came to the rescue again. He put in a good word for me at the International School on Sukhumwit (I knew the owner very well anyway) and I was hired on the spot as senior teacher. Some would say it was a demotion but I never looked at it that way. I was just happy to get away from ELC and to be managing 7-8 hours sleep again.
The international school on Sukhumwit had just been built at a cost of about five million baht. I've never seen a school as beautiful as this one and neither had any of the few teachers that ever worked there. There was a sound-lab with new Sony TVs and computers - all with internet access. There were about a dozen classrooms tastefully decorated in soothing pastel colors and furnished with expensive wall-hangings. There was also a swimming pool and restaurant. The only problem was that no budget had been allocated to marketing and promotion. Once Dave and I had put the curriculum in place, we sat there and waited for the students to come. And then we sat and waited some more. We sat and waited for eighteen months. And then on a fine, sunny day in October, the owner took me to one side and told me that the school could no longer afford to pay my salary. I was just surprised I'd lasted as long as I had. I have never to this day seen such a colossal amount of money go to waste. Dave married an Australian-Thai girl and moved to live in Sydney and I was unemployed once again.
It would be unjust to ignore the fact that while I was working at the international school was when I first met Ian of ajarn.com fame and got involved with the Wednesday teachers nights at the Londoner. I had ridiculous amounts of time on my hands and offered to do a teacher's tales section for the website. You'll find them buried here somewhere.
During the last few months at the international school and in a desperate attempt to hang onto my teaching skills, I'd got in touch with my pals at Inlingua (Al Lock and John C) and offered to do some corporate teaching for them. Fortunately I still had a good name for professionalism despite slipping out of the game a little and I did some good programs for them at Philips Electronics and also a couple of finance companies. It seemed like a logical step to approach Inlingua and ask them for full-time work. I mean everyone goes through Inlingua at some stage. My time had finally come.
My duties at Inlingua were two-fold. Firstly to run a Thai language program for beginners that I had designed with a Mr James Neal (sadly no longer with us) and secondly to teach corporate clients. My six months at Inlingua was probably the lowest period of my EFL career. It wasn't Inlingua's fault. They tried very hard to make me happy but my employment period coincided with the worst teaching slump in living memory. No one wanted English language training. Companies just couldn't be bothered with it anymore. The full-time teachers fought for scraps and the part-timers got nothing. The Thai course flopped and my bank balance was reaching alarmingly low levels. I was down but not quite out.
I lay on the bed at home and stared at the ceiling. I'd worked for ten years in Thailand's TEFL industry. I'd missed something like four days due to sickness. I'd been late for work twice. I'd consistently got top marks on student surveys. I knew my stuff. I'd worked hard and always given 100%. And yet I had nothing to show for it all.
And then, as the old cliché goes, it came to me in a vision, I realized that the key word was ‘ruthlessness'. I'd never looked after number one. I'd spent far too long trying to please everyone else. That was where the whole root of the problem lay. From now on (and I realize I'm going to sound like one of those dreary self-help books) I was going to shift the focus. I cleaned up the ‘classroom' at my home - the first thing I was going to do was get the private teaching back on track. It had been two years since a private student had knocked on my door. Now I was more determined than ever to make a real go of it.
As I was flicking cobwebs from the room's darkest corners, my mobile phone rang. It was Ian. Sony Vektor were looking for a sales and marketing director to take care of the Thailand and Malaysia markets. They were looking for someone to call up companies and sell a unique brand of self-study e-learning. They wanted me to be that man. My Dad always says that if I fell off a department store roof, I'd land in a new suit, but I think you make things happen. Or perhaps it was Ian's way of thanking me for doing the teacher's tales section.
I was at Sony Vektor for eighteen months and enjoyed it immensely. I also made some decent money out of it. I also took over ajarn.com from Ian when he moved to work in China. But sales jobs are always stressful and coupled with the long commute to and from work, I jumped at the chance to join a new training consultancy that was setting up in the Sukhumwit area. I've moved on from being a teacher to being a consultant. I work with great people. I conduct serious on-site training programs. I'm well-paid and hopefully respected as a hard-working professional. "Phil was the epitome of professionalism" is how I most want to be remembered.