Ajarn Street

Who are the real TEFL heroes?

My vote and support goes to the Thai English teachers

Hey, teachers... You ain't 'heroes', okay?

Well, Steve Schertzer has written a well thought out, intelligent and compelling argument, lauding the sacrifices made by teachers in Asia. He certainly has the experience to make these assertions, having taught for many years in five Asian countries. So his article deserves a well thought out, intelligent and compelling answer...

Unfortunately, he's got mine, instead!

I've only taught in Thailand so my opinion comes from here. But I have taught here for a long time and I have taught at every level with a degree of accomplishment and time 'served', so I do have reliable pedigree.

I've never heard the 'old joke' about the brain surgeon... but it certainly does sound old! I'm certainly in agreement with Steve, that there is an army of professional wankers in the English teaching business who create pretentious re-workings of liberal education theories and somehow think that if these idiotic missives are deployed, they will somehow make teachers in Thailand better or more efficient in the classroom.

There's a regular poster on one of the teaching forums who has regular 'webinars' (how I hate that word) on teaching and how great new ideas are, and how they'll change the world of TEFLing in Thailand. He seems like a nice enough fellow but he's a dreamy-eyed, pseudo-academic who can theorize about anything and do (practically) nothing with any degree of efficacy.

And he's certainly not alone. Thailand has a whole pack (yes, I chose that collective noun with care) of pompous Expat educators who have somehow muscled their way into positions of influence and have since declared themselves 'experts'. This probably happens in most places in most professions but I don't know about them.

The writer has quite rightly exposed them for the frauds and ineffective spivs that they are. But from then on, Steve loses his way a little bit...

Using 'Mr. Li' as a compendium of teachers who are NOT native English speakers, the writer tries his best to drum up the sympathy vote for expat teachers who are faced with the torturous and backbreaking work of teaching English for little money, little support and even less recognition.

Using anecdotal evidence about the various misfortunes some 'foot soldiers' have had to endure, he has elevated us to 'hero' status. I don't know about you, but I saw beyond the well written article and came away feeling a bit guilty. Do we really deserve this honor?

We can be heroes... just for one day!

Now, I work hard and go beyond what is required of me every day. But it's no sacrifice. I like doing it.

I'm no hero. In fact, if I want to, I can quit and bugger off home at any time. Or I can just change schools if this one falls out of favor with me. I can work more or less in my job and I still get paid the same. I'm a 'foot soldier'... but I like it that way. I'm way down on the list of my employer's priorities. I show up for work and I get paid when it's done.

If I get sick, I'll deal with it. If my family get old and die, then I'll deal with it. If I miss my family, my friends and my custard creams then I'll deal with it. Nobody owes me anything for being a teacher in Thailand. And another thing - nobody wants to hear about my problems, either. That's not why I was hired. Like I said... I show up and get paid when I'm done.

And teaching English isn't as 'vital' to the Thai economic engine as some people seem to think. I'm about up to here (I have my hand under my nose) with teachers crowing about how 'valuable' and 'important' they are and how much they are 'needed.' We aren't any more important than factory workers. We most certainly are NOT 'heroes!'

Ninety-nine percent of Thailand's sixty million citizens can get by quite nicely without learning a lick of English. When they figure this out I'm doomed! Hopefully we'll keep the gravy train moving for the next few years, though. I have a mortgage and I don't think blogging from a coffee shop in Chiang Mai is gonna pay it!

The real heroes... year after year!

But there are heroes... and in my fifteen years in this crazy business I'm qualified to lend my support for that honor, and it goes to the Thai teachers who teach English. Thai English teachers are often not equipped to teach English. they are badly trained, badly resourced and badly paid.

But they can't simply go 'home', switch country or get another job in the space of a week. They can't/don't call in sick with a hangover every Monday. They can't complain about stuff to their employers and they don't strut around like petulant queens when things don't go their way.

Instead, they hang in there year after year doing the best they can with their abilities and tools that they have. They show up and do extra duties without a word. They work within a system that is working against them. And they certainly aren't looking for recognition as 'heroes.' But in my mind, almost all of them are.

So, please, if you're a 'foot soldier' reading this, thinking that you are playing an important role in the future and betterment of Thailand's future - You're not. You're an unnecessary and easily replaceable spare part in a massive machine that you are lucky to be a part of.

Sorry, Steve, I found your article to be patronizing and misleading. And to all you other expat teachers in Thailand...

Enjoy your work for what it is. Do what you are paid to do and be happy.

We may be 'foot soldiers' but we won't be getting awarded medals for our 'service' any time soon!

Mark Newman


Great initial article and fine reply. Lots of interesting points and issues were raised. If anything, I found the Steve article a bit puffed up and the Mark article a bit deprecating about the NES teacher abroad.

Both Thai and native English teachers should probably be shown more respect by their employers.

The ivory tower theoretical wankers were rightly lambasted in both articles. It's the foot soldiers who give Asian kids the nuts and bolts skills to advance themselves, one by one, in the English language.

By William, Australia (15th May 2016)


You just don't understand. I found Steve's arguments so much more compelling than yours.

Native English speakers who have financed overseas travel and living by leveraging the fact they were born in a country where English is the native language are victims of an evil society that forced them into these thankless jobs where they are exploited by the Asian version of the "man".

And forget about the approximately 1 billion people living on less than a dollar a day in the world's least developed countries, it is the working class Canadian men, and other people from the world's richest countries, who are in need of our pity and help.

And of course, as you are part of the international educational community, if you are not miserable, you are in denial. It is impossible to be teaching English in a developing country and be happy.

Steve knows, Steve understands the world, you don't.

By Jack, in from of my computer (11th May 2016)

Thank you for your input, Mark. I enjoyed reading it. The hero status was meant for teachers who do more than simply "show up for work." I have been very lucky over the years to work with professional teachers who have received almost no recognition or appreciation for their efforts. To see the stress and disappointment on their faces is heartbreaking to me.

As for "nobody owes me anything for being an English teacher", my blog was not about what is owed to us. It was more about what others should be seeing when working with these professional and dedicated foreign teachers, then responding appropriately. That's where understanding and gratitude comes in.

By Steve Schertzer, Montreal (10th May 2016)

Yep, My assistant teacher is always there. Always with the kids and the only time she is not she is taking her father to hospital. She always lets me know and between myself and the classroom teacher we make up for her. my assistant is open to new ideas (actually we have 4 classes for each grade level. All the assistants try new and interesting teaching methods).

The classroom teachers are very different. Textbook, Textbook and more textbook. I find those Native speaking English teachers that ponce around, looking right, with the classroom teachers and directors are actually doing less for education in this country. They are far more interested in themselves and how they are perceived. Weapons of mass consumption needing huge amounts of cash to pay off those university debts.

This is my 12th year in Thailand teaching and the experience has also taught me that many of the good Thai assistants and new breed of Thai teachers are having to leave the industry due to low wages and many of the bad ones are staying put due to the huge amount of interest free loans they are given to stay in education. If they leave the interest rate can get up to 20 percent)

The non productive management that see their role as marketers are gaining all the advantage while those that wish to educate are leaving. Those that just want a job and are debt slaves are the ones becoming more and more jaded.

This is nothing new.it has been going on in Thailand for decades.

If you want to enjoy teaching in Thailand look after your assistant teacher. Be creative and ignore the bosses. If you are doing interesting things the kids will tell mum and dad and you will be protected.

Enjoy what you learn as you develop your teaching skills. The new breed of Thai teachers have similar training to those teachers in Singapore and Australia (these are 2 systems i have been involved with through formal training) but are not allowed to use these skills due to the older teachers losing face. If we are creative with our assistants they enjoy being able to use their skills. So the teacher does not lose face as you the farlang will be given credit as the assistant can never show up the classroom teacher.

Have fun use less worksheets your stole off the internet and create, create create.

By T mark, Chantaburi (9th May 2016)

If you are going to comment and hurl all sorts of accusations at Thai teachers , I think the least you can do is put your name to it.

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (9th May 2016)

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