Ajarn Street

The negative interview mindset

Is it sometimes too easy to get a teaching job in Thailand?

Very recently a university in the Siam Square area of Bangkok advertised a vacant teaching position. Now listen to this for a package. The university offered a 70,000 baht salary for starters, usually going up in 10,000 baht increments for every year of service. On top of that came three months paid holiday, an extensive health insurance package, and unlimited internet usage. And if that were not enough you got subsidized meals in the uni canteen and every classroom came with air-conditioning. There may have been assistance with accommodation as well but for someone with a B.A and a TEFL certificate (and that's all the university required) it was a package to die for.

I was fortunate to find out from the foreign hirer and interviewer himself exactly how the interviewing went. As one would expect, the applications arrived by the sack-load, but once he'd weeded out the degree-less, the people who liked Bangkok because they'd once enjoyed a two-day stopover en route to Melbourne, and those growing number of applicants who feel the need to write to every single email address they can find, he was left with a shortlist of ten potential candidates.

Cometh the day, cometh the hour, and the interview panel (one farang and three Thais) is sat behind a polished wooden table with fresh notepads and sharpened pencils. The clock strikes nine and it's time for the ten applicants to file into the room one by one and toot their horns. Except there's no-one there. Well, actually there's one. And to do himself justice he's arrived with his rent-a-night girlfriend tutting and frowning because she's not used to being dragged out of bed at such an ungodly hour. Worse still, she's been ordered to wait in the reception area outside. She obviously considers this the ultimate liberty. I mean who wants to leaf through dog-eared car magazines when there are gold shops to be plundered? However, all is not lost. The dividing wall between the interview room and the reception is sheer plate-glass, so the candidate can pause between answers and give playful little waves to his fidgety companion and mouth that re-assuring "just another five more minutes" in her direction. It's not known however if at any stage he actually blew kisses.

As the farang interviewer cheekily admitted to me - "when it comes to interviewing for jobs, never go with your ho in tow"

As the first interview wore on and ‘sexy hotpants' became more and more antsy, phone calls started to come in from several of the other nine job applicants.

"Where did you say the university was?"

"My taxi driver didn't know it and I'm currently in Muang Thong Thani - 27 kilometres away"

"I don't think I'm going to be able to make it"

"After careful consideration, I've decided not to take the job"

And those excuses came from the four people that could be bothered to call. Five of the ten couldn't be arsed to show up at all. No phone call. Nothing.

The second applicant arrived over an hour late. Dressed from head to toe in black and with more facial hair than Robinson Crusoe, he made fairly steady progress through the first twenty minutes of quick-fire questions and answers, and despite his rather off-putting appearance, the Thai staff began to warm to him and you might be forgiven for thinking that they had finally found their man. Then it all went horribly wrong. It went tits up in quite spectacular fashion. Someone on the interview panel said something about Thai students needing to be a little more active in the classroom and Robinson Crusoe felt that this was a slight on his unquestionably perfect teaching ability. He got out of his chair, rose to his full height and started banging a hairy fist on the table. "The sooner Thai students realize how lazy they are, the better off we'll all be" he bellowed.

The foreign interviewer can't remember what else was said because he was too busy assuring his Thai colleagues that they weren't about to be murdered. "I'll never forget the look on their faces" he told me "It was a look of sheer terror"

What is it with this interviewing mindset that many foreigners (particularly male) seem to have here? As something of a social observer, oh man I'm intrigued. This behavior has been going on for years. It doesn't matter a jot whether salaries have gone up or down, or the availability of jobs has increased or decreased. There has never been any feasible correlation between a damn good job opening and the steady flow of nutcases who apply for it.

Now call me old-fashioned but I'm one of those people who always prepares for an interview like a military campaign. And I know thankfully that there are many more like me. I can remember interviewing for jobs in my twenties and going through an almost ritualistic list of pre-interview ‘tasks'. Firstly I'd have my suit dry-cleaned or at least make sure it was ‘sponged and pressed'. Then I'd spend half an hour sitting on the front step polishing my black interview lace-ups until you could literally see your face in ‘em. And here's the best bit - I'd sometimes do a trial run care of Birmingham public transportation just to make sure that on the day I'd arrive in good time for the appointment. Now how's that for planning!

You just don't get that kind of dedication to duty here do you? Ok we don't wear suits and we don't have front steps to polish our boots on but we can at least make sure that our journey preparation is a bit more carefully thought out than asking the apartment receptionist how long it takes to get to Din Daeng and then hoping for the best.

I asked the foreign university interviewer why this blasé attitude exists among so many and he felt that it's because there is simply always an escape route where Thailand TEFL jobs are concerned. Contracts don't mean anything here; handshakes don't amount to much either. If you don't like a job you just move on - leaving the employer screaming hollow threats of deportation and concrete boots behind you. Teachers know they can clear out their teacher's room locker and ride off into the sunset whenever they want. So in reality, job applicants are doing the interviewer a massive favor by just turning up for the interview. If they arrive on time then the school should consider that a bonus.

I've done my fair share of interviewing for teachers in the past. I won't mention names but here are a few of my own personal favorite stories.

I remember a Canadian guy I interviewed at a time when the school I worked for was simply desperate for teachers (sound familiar?). It wasn't a case of taking on the first western face through the door but it was pretty damn close. I took this Canadian guy to a small classroom where we could chat in private and we went through the preliminary getting to know you stuff. It became obvious very early on that this teacher was in it ‘purely for the money'. I've got nothing against that per se provided that a) you still do a decent job in the classroom, and b) you don't make it blatantly obvious during an interview. After a while, I told him to have a quick look through some of the text-books the school used and to familiarize himself with what he'd be teaching. I put a small pile of books in front of him and disappeared for a coffee. When I returned five minutes later, he'd pushed the text-books to one side and taken a thick Wilbur Smith novel out of his back-pack to read. What do you say in situations like that? Believe it or not I employed him. I was desperate. And he turned out to be the worst teacher I've ever worked with for more reasons than I care to go into. It was only after he threatened to throw a student out of a third-floor window that we finally fired him, but his employment period had been nothing short of a nightmare from day one.

I remember an American female teacher telling me what the equivalent salary in New York would be when I offered her a 40,000 baht a month position in Bangkok and that no one in the Big Apple would ever consider working for such a pitiful wage. And she honestly thought I gave a fuck.

I had a teacher arrive once with no resume, no degree, no TEFL certificate - just the shoes he stood up in. When I asked where his documentation was, he replied "I didn't think it was going to be that kind of interview" The question of how many kinds of interview there are still baffles me to this day.

Any head teacher or AD who has interviewed teachers has a story of the guy whose expectations are so wildly out of touch with reality that you wonder whether they just went to the airport and played lucky dip with the departures board. I interviewed such a guy in the mid-1990s and I still see him around from time to time. He'd just flown in from Hong Kong where apparently he'd enjoyed several successful years as a high-profile stockbroker. When I offered him the standard 250 baht an hour I could see by the expression on his face that it wasn't quite what he expected despite him having no teaching experience whatsoever. After concerted efforts on his part to try and nudge me towards a more realistic 800 baht an hour, he conceded that Thailand was all about making contacts, so he would take the job (at 250 an hour) and see if he could ‘connect' with any of his new students. He started on the Saturday and quit on the Monday. The fact that none of his eight teenage students in his first-day class had ever been out of the country had frankly come as a great disappointment to him.

But my favorite interview anecdote concerns the middle-aged man who turned up for our afternoon appointment laden down with three huge Tesco's carrier bags.

"I thought I'd get a bit of shopping in for the wife and kill two birds with one stone" he cheerily announced.

He plonked the shopping bags on the table (not on the floor as most normal people would do) and whipped out a dog-eared, coffee-stained resume. I forget at which point during my perusal of his resume it happened, but one of the bags suddenly collapsed under its own weight. We both watched as a succession of foodstuffs made their way across the table before dropping and bouncing on the concrete floor - an iceberg lettuce, a Spanish onion, two large baking potatoes, and one of those purple egg-plant things. It was like the conveyor belt on Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game. If you've never spent the first two minutes of an interview searching the room for wayward vegetables, well you haven't lived.

I can never understand the arguments that sometimes pop up on discussion forums regarding whether one should wear a necktie or not to an interview. How ridiculous can you get? Of course you wear a necktie - it's an interview for fuck's sake. Had there been an eleventh commandment, it would have been ‘and thou shalt always wear thy necktie at an interview'

What are we going to be debating next? Whether or not to give the receptionist a playful slap on the arse as she bends over the intercom?

"Ooooooh you can go through now...........cheeky"

As I always say to inexperienced interviewers, how do you know that come the first day of class the teacher even possesses a necktie to wear if you didn't catch sight of one at the interview. Joking apart, it shows a remarkable ignorance of Thai culture to turn up without a tie - in a country where ‘packaging' is so important and first appearances count for everything.

Suits never do it for me either. Yes, they do show that a person has made an effort with his appearance but you can go too far the other way in my opinion. I'm yet to meet a teacher who can arrive at an interview suited and booted and looking like part of the Versace Spring collection. Suits mean sweaty foreheads and clammy handshakes. Shaking hands and having it feel like you're trying to grab a rainbow trout is no way to begin a relationship.

Interviewing for jobs? Then shape up or ship out. Polish those shoes, buy a decent tie, ditch the chewing gum, and get there on time. It all sounds like common sense to me


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