If you're not a handsome, beautiful-looking teacher, you may want to look away now. The latest Twitter craze among Asian academic students is to share photos of their gorgeous new English teacher on-line and show the rest of the English-studying world how lucky they are.
Unfortunately, teaching ability doesn't come into it - you simply have to look good. If you're the kind of teacher who stands there in a crisp, white shirt and makes impressionable teenagers go gooey-eyed and weak at the knees, then frankly, you'd better watch out for those clandestine smartphone images that could turn you into the next internet phenomenon.
A favourite tale
Reading about this new craze made me chuckle because it reminded me of one of the funniest stories from my 15-year teaching career in Thailand, and I'd like to share it with you if I may. I think you'll enjoy this story even more if you're perhaps one of those teachers whose ‘best years' - at least when it comes to turning heads - are behind them.
And so to the story. It was the mid-1990s and almost by default (no one else wanted the job) I found myself in the position of academic director at a private language school. The school had two branches and employed about twenty foreign teachers as well as a too large number of Thai administration staff (I have no idea to this day what half of them did all day long)
Among my numerous responsibilities was the hiring and firing of teaching staff and it's fair to say that it was easily the most difficult part of the job. The school paid the princely sum of 220 baht an hour with no guarantee of a minimum number of contact hours. So little wonder that teachers came and went through a perpetual revolving door.
Young teachers only!
During my tenure, the school also went through a drastic change of image in an effort to appeal to the younger, trendier student-about-town. Just as I was about to oversee yet another teacher recruitment drive, the Thai head of operations came to see me and spelled things out very clearly - the school wanted young, good-looking teachers and that was final. If the teacher was qualified and experienced, then we'd look on that as a bonus.
There was no point arguing.
So I plowed through piles of teacher applications and based my short-list selection on little else but a photograph. Then I set about calling around and making interview appointments.
Twenty years ago, the TEFL profession in Thailand was nothing like it is now. There were virtually no teacher agencies supplying foreign teachers to Thai schools. However, the private language school I worked for had just started to get requests from local institutes to provide them with a full-time ‘farang' teacher - so you could say that this was the beginning of the teacher agency era.
With dollar signs in his eyes, my Thai boss decided that supplying foreign teachers to third-party schools was definitely a business route we had to explore further and in no time at all, we had taken on a new client - a large Thai secondary school in Central Bangkok. All we needed to do now was find half a dozen full-time teachers to work there for 28,000 baht a month. Oh, and they all needed to be young and good-looking of course.
And then in walked Howard.
Barely twenty summers and recently graduated from The University of Khao San Road, Howard sauntered through the reception. You could hear a pin drop as the Thai admin staff all immediately stopped what they were doing and stared open-mouthed at this vison before them. Besides being immaculately dressed, Howard was everything a school like mine looked for in a foreign teacher. Short, fashionably-cut blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and a flawless complexion, he looked like he'd just stepped out of a boy band.
The job is yours
As Howard sat down with me to start the interview, the Thai boss's door opened a couple of inches and I got the all-important thumbs up. It didn't matter that what Howard knew about subject-verb agreement or adjective word order, you could write on the back of a penny black without devaluing it - here was one guy who was most definitely going to start on Monday.
I'm sure to this day it's still the easiest job interview that Howard has ever had to sail through.
The following week, our ‘client school' called us mid-way through Howard's first morning at work.
"Oh thank you so much for sending us such a fantastic teacher"
"Er.....has he taught any lessons yet?"
"Well, no.....but he looks fantastic and all the students are really excited.
Actually, that last sentence didn't quite do things justice. Howard had caused a stir of epic proportions. From the moment he walked through the campus, he was the name on everyone's painted lips.
Things went into overdrive when Howard finally received his teaching schedule and actually started conducting classes. English classes that had previously been lucky to see half a dozen sleepy students suddenly became an event.
Forty, sometimes fifty students, fought over chairs so they could sit near the front of the room and spend an hour just staring dreamily at the new teacher. The girls were bad, the boys were worse. At one stage the school had to deploy a Thai assistant, not to help Howard with teaching the target language, but to prevent students coming to class when their names were not even on the register. Rumor had it that some students even climbed through windows - just to catch a glimpse of Howard before the Thai assistant grabbed them by the scruff of the neck and booted their arses out of the door.
It was like Beatle-mania all over again.
The teenage hysteria continued for several weeks until the strangest thing happened. In several of Howard's classes, there was a small, hardcore group of female students who actually attended class in order to improve their English. Sat near the whiteboard, probably wearing glasses and braces, they would raise their hands and dare to ask questions if they weren't sure of a grammar point. And it slowly dawned on them that Howard didn't have the first idea what he was talking about.
"But teacher, we don't think that's right"
The beginning of the end
As those words got uttered more and more, you could see Howard's confidence and flamboyance start to crumble. By the end of the first month, he was a visible wreck.
To make matters worse, the novelty of the young, handsome new-kid-in-town had well and truly worn off. Class numbers started to dwindle and the girly female students all found better things to do. Even the ‘ladyboys' - up to then Howard's biggest admirers - decided they would rather be in the bathroom, preening themselves in front of a mirror.
Eventually, I got the phone call from the school director that I knew was coming. It was just a case of when.
"Mr Philip. Is it possible we could change the teacher? Howard is a nice guy but he doesn't know anything about teaching English. Could we request someone a bit older and more experienced?"
"No problem" I said. "I'll sort out a new teacher for you as soon as I can"
I don't think I quite punched the air after I put the phone down, but I enjoyed a moment of quiet reflection with a smug grin on my face. I couldn't wait to tell my Thai boss.
But he'd got wind of the news already and gone off to play golf.