Kathy Willis from the USA contacted me to say that she was going to spend a whole week interviewing for teaching jobs in Bangkok. Yes sir, she was going to run a finger down all those banner ads on the ajarn.com homepage and hit the mean streets in search of suitable employment.
"Yeah what's so special about that?" I remarked.
"Well" said Kathy, "I've got a bachelor's degree but I'm still waiting for my TEFL certificate. I'm also quite fussy about the kind of teaching work I want to do. I refuse to do weekends and there's no way I'm teaching kids. Come to think of it - working evenings doesn't appeal to me that much either. Would you like me to send you a blow-by-blow account of how I faired?"
I thought about it for a second. Probably less. Kathy, I'm all over this story like a rash.
Hi. My name's Kathy Willis and I'm from the American Midwest. Now in my early thirties, I've spent the last two years living and working in the North of Thailand. Khon Kaen to be exact. Alas, working mainly for the peace corps and then one or two US-Thailand joint ventures had left me virtually broke. As much as I hated the idea, it was time to head for the big bad city and seek a proper teacher's wage. Thirty thousand? forty thousand? - financial luxury compared to the fifteen to twenty thousand I'd been scraping by on over the previous 24 months. Oh the joy of being able to afford a latte in Starbucks. Oh the joy of seeing a Starbucks.
So here I go. A professional-looking briefcase, a tidy sheaf of well-photocopied resumes, a neatly-pressed business suit made by a man in a turban, and a list of schools and addresses gleaned from websites linked to the ajarn.com homepage. The only thing worrying me a tad was my list of personal requirements - strictly no kids (I won't teach children at any price), positively no weekends (weekends are for shopping and socializing) and definitely no evenings (I hate that whole getting home late thing and cooking meals at midnight) Oh....and I'm still waiting for my TEFL certificate.
Don't ask me why but a well-known school at Victory Monument was the first school on my list (as they are on many teachers' I guess). Summoned to an interview at the Victory Monument headquarters (sadly not with the legendary Mr Michael), I stood on that crazy network of bridges that links the four corners of 'Anusawaree' and thankfully spotted the Siam Computer logo. Just like they said in the adverts, the school was a five-minute walk from the BTS.
I was truly blown away by the honesty of the Siam Computer interviewer. He told me that Siam had numerous positions with Thai secondary schools but the turnover rate for teaching staff was incredible. I would repeat the figure here but you wouldn't believe me anyway, so what's the point. Even though I'd had considerable experience of working 'in the sticks' the interviewer said I would truly hate it out there. "Most teachers don't last more than three months" he said.
I asked if there was internal work available at any of the branches. There was, but it meant working six days a week, from two in the afternoon until ten at night. Who studies English at ten 'o' clock at night for fuck's sake? Also, most if not all of the students would be in the 7-14 age bracket. Noisy, uncooperative and moody were three adjectives that sprang to mind. And for all this I would be paid the princely sum of 32,000 baht a month. I thought of the journey home each night on the BTS. Lessons finish at ten so it might be 10.15 by the time you leave. Five minutes to the BTS, purchase ticket, walk up stairs, stand on platform, train arrives - it's almost 10.30. You'd be arriving home at gone 11pm clutching your little plastic bag of 'khaw man khai' and your eyes like piss-holes in the snow. I didn't fancy doing that one day a week - let alone six!
And so to AUA, The American University of something or other. This is what I think is referred to as a speculative job interview - i.e I was just walking past and decided nothing ventured, nothing gained. Besides, everyone has to interview with AUA once in their life. Credit where it's due but gone are the days when AUA took in any old waif and stray (if that was ever the case). The interviewer (nearest bloke available) insisted that without a full-time TEFL certificate (120 hours of classroom study and 8 hours of observed teaching practice) I was wasting my time coming to AUA. All positions now required a BA plus a recognized TEFL certificate. He repeated it three times in fact. He then spent thirty minutes trying to smooth-talk me into taking the AUA TEFL course, which it goes without saying, is also acceptable for teaching jobs at AUA.
A small independent school in Siam Square was advertising on ajarn.com for 'corporate teachers at top rates'. Having amassed over fifteen years of customer service training and experience in a multi-national corporate environment, you'll forgive me for being 'quietly confident'
I eventually found the school (it wasn't small, it was tiny) and was greeted by four Thai receptionists with their heads bobbing up and down into blue plastic lunch bowls and the sickly smell of stale tobacco. It seemed an age before one of them took pity on me but through a mouthful of wheat-noodles and coriander, she managed to direct me into a room even smaller than the reception. It was a little bit like 'Alice in Wonderland'.
After a few minutes, the proprietor, head teacher and marketing manager all showed up in the form of one man - and what a piece of work he was. He took up half the afternoon with stories of why he was the most respected man in the Bangkok TEFL industry, and just when I was wondering if I could survive a jump from a second floor window, he told me that his foreign employees earn more than any other teachers in the city. So would I be interested in any test preparation courses or writing classes? No I wouldn't. I could have stayed and argued the toss about the distinct absence of corporate jobs at top rates of pay but the smell of tobacco and the general griminess of the surroundings was about to make me gag.
English First has a nice modern office in Siam Square, just around the corner from MBK shopping center. I decided to head here next. I had no appointment but at least I'd get a feel for the place and an idea of what they offered. The very professional Thai desk staff gave me a smiling welcome. I couldn't help feel they were somehow used to desperate farangs dropping by looking for teaching work (not that I was in the desperate category just yet) They told me about the standard full-time EF contract, which was basically 24 contact hours a week at 300 baht an hour. My back-of-the-napkin calculations got that to a spectacularly average 35K a month. I asked about the possibilities of part-time work but was told that EF did not supply documentation or work permits to part-time staff. Then the strangest thing happened. Two of the Thai staff became involved in a whispered but obviously crucial conversation. After a period, the older girl turned to me and asked if I would consider doing a class that afternoon.
"Oh you want me to do a demo lesson" I said
"Actually no" replied the Thai girl, "we have what we call (and you're going to like this) an immediate emergency opening"
It actually translates as 'the teacher we hired last week has not turned up because he's pissed, stoned, homeless or a combination of all three, and his students are sitting upstairs waiting for him'
It must have been like a gift from God when I walked in to English First on that hot Wednesday afternoon. I was foreign. I had two legs and two arms. I was a teacher. I was available. Except I wasn't. I had a friend to meet at five and difficult though it was to resist the lure of 450 baht for 90 minute class, I did resist.
Wall Street on Silom Road were the first people to say that they didn't care about a TEFL certificate. I had a degree and I had plenty of corporate experience - that was more than enough to satisfy the interviewer. He offered me 35,000 baht a month for 22 contact hours a week (not radically different to English First's contract) and they were willing to 'work with me' until I obtained my teaching certificate. The words 'work with you' were said in rather hushed tones, a bit reminiscent of two art thieves standing outside the Louvre and discussing the day's activities ahead. I left Wall Street not actually accepting the offer but not refusing it either. I wanted to leave my options open as we career girls like to say.
I took a welcome break from trawling the private language schools and journeyed to the Dusit suburb of Bangkok for an interview with the local Rajabhat university. The job on offer was in their new language and cultural center and carried a salary of 32,000 baht a month - very decent by Rajabhat standards.
I'd been asked on the phone to prepare a thirty minute demo lesson for four students. When I asked the Rajabhat spokeswoman about the levels of the students, I was told that they were 'office staff'. Thinking that the woman on the other end of the phone had either misunderstood me or was remarkably dim, I repeated the question. "What level are the four students?"
"They are people from the office" she replied. At least I had my answer. She was dim.
I didn't stay up half the night preparing my demo lesson but I would like to think my 'comparison and contrast of Thai and American Holidays' would get nods of approval from any TEFL buff or academic slap-head. I arrived at the college thirty minutes early, I was shown into the demo lesson room, and what followed was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life.
My four 'students' shuffled into the room with all the enthusiasm of a turkey on Christmas Eve and they were followed by both the director and manager of the center who would act as the observers. The room they had chosen was in fact a language lab, so my four students sat in individual cubicles with partitions between them. Imagine a shooting gallery but deathly quiet. I started to prattle on about Guy Fawkes Day, Songkran and Loy Krathong and did the best I could when one of your students is advanced, two are pre-intermediate and one is an absolute beginner.
After the demo was over, the four students scurried out of the room with barely a glance in my direction. I wondered if the four of them got put into little metal closets marked 'no personality - use only in emergencies' The two observers (the center manager and director) shook my hand, thanked me for coming and told me they wouldn't be offering me a job. When I asked them why they told me that they had seen another demo lesson that morning - and it had been better than mine. I was speechless. I don't really know why but I just was.
And so to ECC in Siam Square. I'm back on the private language school trail. The lady who I assumed in charge of recruitment offered me 30,000 baht a month for 115 contact hours and still managed to keep a straight face. What's more the vast majority of the 115 contact hours would be spent teaching tiny adults. When she wasn't trying to sell me a place on the ECC CELTA course, she was banging on about how stupid the Thais were. If this wasn't enough she was also one of those immensely irritating multi-taskers. Our brief interview must have been interrupted at least half a dozen times by staff wanting to know which drawer the sugar spoon was kept in and on each occasion Miss Multi-tasker 2006 would get sucked into some tedious exchange. I couldn't wait to leave.
I didn't have very high expectations where Inlingua, Silom Road was concerned. We had exchanged several emails prior to the interview but all the emails had bordered on terse and unfriendly. The interview itself went little better and I was in and out within quarter of an hour. In time-honored fashion I was told that I would be contacted if a suitable vacancy arose. Needless to say I'm still waiting, so I've filed the interview under 'waste of a clean blouse'
On the sky-train journey back to my apartment or rather standing on a windswept platform looking rather sorry for myself, I was approached by a teacher from Webster University in Hua Hin. He was in Bangkok for a few days apparently visiting his Thai girlfriend. He asked if I was a teacher (was it really that obvious?) and after confessing that I was in the middle of a job hunt, he gave me some advice.
'You'll be in great demand as a kid's teacher because schools really want female teachers - it's a sort of 'mother figure' ideology. However you've got no chance of getting a job teaching adults. It's a man's domain. The females that enroll on these courses aren't interested in studying English. They're just looking for a farang husband!'
Is this the kind of guy I might one day be sharing a teacher's room with?
To finish off let me mention several schools where I didn't even get as far as the interview stage. Berlitz I never bothered with because so many teachers told me that this institute can never get you a work permit. This is because many moons ago the then Berlitz director pissed someone off at the Ministry of Education and the MOE has never forgotten it. No doubt one of the readers out there will put the record straight.
I called Vektor English after seeing their ad on ajarn.com and after being passed from pillar to post and talking to everyone except the office cat, a Thai lady told me that they weren't looking for female teachers. I thought about calling them again, putting on a deep voice and asking to speak to a hiring manager but I didn't. I couldn't be arsed. Ditto RMIT.
My best chance of a job had to come with KMUTT (King Mongkut Institute of Technology) I already had both feet in the door thanks to being very good friends with two Thai teachers there. All I had to do cometh the day of the interview was turn up looking like a teacher. Two weeks later I'm still waiting to hear from them. Even my two Thai friends can't tell me what's happened and isn't it strange how their mobile phones are now constantly switched off.
I did eventually land a decent job but that's another story.