Bangkok Phil

Beauty's only skin deep

Young, good-looking teachers don't always have the upper hand you know

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.

Teenage hysteria

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.


To Bob, who doesn't know what a gerund is, but is a licensed educator. Question: Why not?

By Joe, BKK (25th June 2015)

Perhaps, those Asians should not be in the classroom at all.

Perhaps, there would come a day, when foreigners would be no longer interested with all the nonsense that comes with teaching in Asia.

Perhaps, those Asians have this erroneous attitude that foreign teachers are somehow their slaves and see fit to shove their horrendous Asians typical mentality that tend to prefer young foreign slaves or exploit young foreign slaves.

Hopefully, their Asians attitude would change for the better even though their Asians mentality may never change for the better.

By WA, Asia (27th January 2015)

"The school wanted to keep him though, but he couldn't handle P6 kids asking him about gerunds or present continuous. He even said he had no
knowledge of grammar and found it stressful when a kid asked for his help."

I'm a licensed educator and I didn't even know what gerunds were. I had to look that up.

By Bob, USA (4th September 2014)

This is why there is such an unfriednly atmosphere in most schools between the young good looking teachers who most do very little besides playing on facebook all day, and walk around Sabai Sabai doing the least amount of work they can find, and then 5 minutes before the lesson come to you and ask to share materials because "that is what the Director said". I refuse to help anyone until experience and hard work is recognised which it is not in Thailand in most cases. There is no security of employment and when the stars fade which they eventually do, the older teachers are there to pick up the pieces.

By Marvin, Bangkok (2nd September 2014)

In reply to "AjarnFarang" -- As a professional educator I completely understnad where you are coming from on this. I think when our professional ethics come into conflict with cultural norms it presents a challenge, it's something I grapple with often (albeit mine is more in how I have been trained to deliver a lesson vs. what expecatations are here in LoS).

I assume however, that Phil may have cautioned his boss on how he felt about hiring young handsome non-teachers and that it may come at the expense of stability (please correct me if I'm wrong!). However, I think when push comes to shove if the owner really wants that then you do it, and in your role as a professional you must do so. Now, of course you have to follow proper laws and proceedures of the country.

I come back to this idea of using photos with applications. In America we would never dream of this, and yet it's par for the course in Asia. I know I would feel uncomfortable asking it of applicants but I suppose when in Rome...

By Aaron, Bangkok (2nd September 2014)

Your "boss"... a greedy superficial person whom you've have made lots of money for all these years at the expense of any value for students. Where's your self respect? Don't you know there's better roads in life? So many spineless farang in Thailand keeping the zombie system alive... What is it that keeps them here, "boys town"?

By AjarnFarang, Bangkok (1st September 2014)

A few years ago I wrote an essay illustrating precisely the superficiality of teacher qualification requirements and the actual school expectations. It is still valid today and in most likelihood not going to be outdated anytime soon. You can find this essay right here at under the “Reading” -> “Ajarn Guests” section and it’s titled “Of teachers and emperors without clothes”:
Enjoy reading.

By Jorge, Saudi Arabia (31st August 2014)

The university where I work at, actually, had a few "hansum" teachers come and go, since they were obviously not interested in really teaching, and just wanted a teaching gig for a short while to make some money. Apparently the staff still didn't get it, until one of these "teachers" broke into an ATM, drunk, and was caught by the police. Apparently he had a bit of a psychological issue and was on drugs. The Thais still didn't really get it, that they needed to do a proper background check before hiring someone ;-)

By Jasmine, Chiang Rai (30th August 2014)

Most of these "young good looking guys" are NOT teachers. Students who are gaining some experience.But in many schools in Thailand clearly you can get away with any old nonsense if you "look good" to a Thai.

By sam, Chonburi (29th August 2014)

Eh I see this behaviour pretty often, though I can't honestly say that it's held me back (that I know of). I work at a good gig here and I'm certainly no poster boy. Having said that, I've heard the stories enough to certainly believe it. I've already decided that staying here to teach long term isn't for me, and this is just one of the reasons. Seems the older and (hopefully) better we get at the job the less valuable we would be in Thailand.

By Aaron, Bangkok (29th August 2014)

Thanks for your comments so far guys. One thing I did admire (in a way) about the Thai boss in the story, was that he was totally honest and upfront about the fact he only wanted to employ young, handsome teachers. I think many hirers would not admit to a recruitment policy like this and 'go through the motions' of interviewing older teachers and generally be wasting everyone's time.

Sometimes the Thai boss would sit with me as I sifted through applications and he would pick up an application form from a teacher in his sixties, laugh, and then say "what position is this guy interviewing for? - the role of my grandfather"

This is what's going on out there.

By philip, Samut Prakarn (29th August 2014)

Great read! Enjoyed that.

I'm in my early forties and I've been here for about seven years. I can relate to it. My first ever school here was a bit like that. Sadly, I wasn't the 'hansum' one. The boss was a woman (even though the Head was a man). He was just a front it seemed. Anyhow, this woman had a thing for 'hansum farang'. She would give large pay rises (and promotions to EP from IEP) to the 'hansum' ones. Some deserved it, but many didn't. We had one guy come to visit his sister working out here. He was just on holiday. He was out having a meal with his sister and a few of us from the school when in came the boss. ''Oooooh. He hansum!''

This chap was 18 years old. He had just finished high school and not done well. She offered him a job. He took it! And after about two weeks he left after almost exactly the same scenario you're talking about. The school wanted to keep him though, but he couldn't handle P6 kids asking him about gerunds or present continuous. He even said he had no knowledge of grammar and found it stressful when a kid asked for his help. Luckily, he put the kids first and left saying it wasn't fair on the kids to have him out front.

We also had another dude steal money from a kids collection fund. He got promoted with a nice pay rise. He was 'hansum' too. A few teachers left at that point.

From what I gather, she hasn't changed a bit! And her school has become very successful. So, what do I know? Perhaps that image is more important than the actual education. Or that money is everything. 'Hansum' young teachers = more parents enrolling their kids = more money for the boss.

By Zico, Bangkok (29th August 2014)

Having lived in Thailand, and having taught English for several years now, I can totally relate to the article. I also support the comment made by jess about Thai students being way behind their Asian counterparts in academics. I have tried to be serious in my classes sometimes, but it just doesn't work. The students start screwing up their faces, if the class is not fun (sanook sanook as we all know it ;-) ). It's the same at both school and university level, at varying degrees. I sincerely don't think it'll ever change, which is why I'm thinking of moving on.

Apart from the students not being serious about academics, there is a lot of discrimination around in terms of nationality and skin color. Not being a white Westerner myself, I sometimes have to try harder to reach out to the students. If the schools and universities, and even the goverment don't change their attitude towards hiring policies, they're going to lose out on what all the valuable teachers from different countries can contribute to theThai education system, and eventually not be able to cope up with the ASEAN community. I probably won't be here, and I really feel sorry for the Thai students.

Every thing in Thailand is superficial, and I don't see very many REAL people around.

By Jasmine, Chiang Rai (28th August 2014)

It's sad to think how Thai people value beauty that much over experience and intelligence, but we cannot blame them for it has been part of their culture. Everything must be superficially beautiful the content is not as important. No wonder until now Thai education sucks and is way behind other Asian nations. When will they learn? What can we do to change their perspective in this matter?

By jess, Bangbon (28th August 2014)

Great article as more and more schools in Thailand refuse to hire or even interview what they consider to be older teachers, even if they are more experienced and better teachers then the younger ones. I recently started a new teaching job at a very large and well established private school and found out that they had never hired a teacher as old as me, I am 55, so they were a little concerned about my age. But so far the students and everyone else seems to be very happy and pleased with me despite my age, which I tell them is just a number. Also when people actually meet me they realize my age is not an issue after all but a plus and their idea about what an older teacher is like is just an idea not reality. Anyhow good luck to all the older teachers in Thailand do not allow the age discrimination that goes on here to get you down as there is always a job just waiting for you if you persist.

By Thomas, Bangkok (28th August 2014)

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