Hubris vs humility at the helm

Why I decided that enough was enough

Hi folks. I have been unable to submit a regular career counseling column for the last 3 months, due to major changes at my school. As head of the English Programs, managing 24 full-time foreign and 5 part-time Thai teachers, work can take control of one's life quite easily. I apologize for not writing more frequently, especially since my last column was entitled "The Teacher-Applicant Screening Process, Part I."

Several people have written to ask when I will be writing the second installment of that column, but it will have to wait a bit longer. For this month, I am taking a detour to discuss my recent resignation from my past employer, where I was Senior Coordinator of the English Programs for nearly 3 years. I have read and heard several unsubstantiated rumors, so I will try to use my space on to set the record straight.

I started this column to give people career advice, as I came to Thailand with more than a decade of career counseling experience at New York University School of Law and American University Washington College of Law. Given this purpose, I will attempt to keep my comments regarding my school and my decision to leave on topic. My goal in writing about this experience is to give people a framework for making career decisions, and to raise some issues folks should be on the lookout for when deciding where to sign their next contract.

I write, of course, about my decision-making framework and no one else's. I do not pretend that everyone has the same goals or ethics that I do, nor does everyone have the financial freedom allowed by being a single male who had a solid professional career before coming to Thailand. Everyone needs to evaluate career decisions based upon the entirety of the circumstances they face. My overriding concern when looking at my career options is whether a given workplace allows me to make a valuable and constructive contribution to the teachers I work most closely with and the students I am responsible for.

For nearly 2 ½ years, the school afforded me the incredible and rare opportunity to do just that - on a daily basis. I went to school every day with energy in my step, and on a natural serotonin high because I could literally feel the progress we made every day. In just 30 months, I saw a program that was in shambles, poorly organized, and frankly doing a disservice to our students feebly stand, gradually gain its footing, begin to walk forward, and then to run at a steady pace.

To put the turnaround in perspective, we went from a 250% turnover rate in my first term at the school, while using agencies, to a less than 20% turnover rate by the last full term I was at the school. Students enrolling in the program were more and more qualified. Resources, from the library to the technology available to us, were plentiful and well-chosen. The annual budget went from 4 million THB to more than 40 Million THB per year. Foreign teachers, including myself and my two assistant coordinators, were respected and TRUSTED. The quality of the teaching staff got better and better as salaries and benefits improved, and as we all took it upon ourselves to make decisions to improve the program rather than just to win an argument, save some money, or get out of work as early as possible. Most importantly, senior level Thai administration at the school made an effort to understand the cultural differences between us and use these differences as opportunities to learn and grow, and we all worked to compromise. These are the main factors, I believe, that set us apart from other schools.

So, with such a wonderful experience over 2.5 years, why did I decide to leave? First and foremost, because of the nonsensical policies of the Thai Ministry of Education. For example, in May and June of 2005, the school lost not one, not two, not three, but all four of its deputy directors. 6 months later, the school's director was replaced. All five of these people were given two weeks to pack up and report to new schools.

These were four deputy directors and a director who worked together to start the English Programs and supported our work over time. Together they developed a plan for an English program, and worked with me to adapt and strengthen it as we gained knowledge and wisdom. Together, our team of six, plus a number of talented and committed Thai and foreign teachers, built what I believe to have been the most unique and progressive English program in Thailand. We developed a Visiting Scholars program, a peer observation program, a professional development program, a global studies program, a curriculum that was supported by a well-researched and painstakingly developed understanding of the differences in Thai and Western teaching styles and educational goals, honors and foundations courses to assist the weakest and build the strengths of the strongest students, special classes in Study Skills, Drama & Music and Debate, and much, much more. Together, we accomplished more in two years than I every dreamed possible in any country, let alone in a bureaucratic environment of a government school.

Most importantly, these were four deputy directors and a director who understood -- because of experience over time -- how to work with foreign teachers and a foreign managed department. These were four deputy directors and a director who had made mistakes and learned from them. These were four deputy directors and a director who TRUSTED foreign staff as if they were Thai nationals, and treated us as equals in terms of respect and courtesy.

When the senior administration changed wholesale (not a single member of the senior team that started the English program was allowed to stay), things began to slow down again. Gradually, our run became a slow walk. Then we knelt down to crawl again. Soon, I felt even the pace of the crawl slowing, and often we seemed to be standing still. Sometimes, decisions were made due to lack of insight and experience that headed us backwards rather than forwards. Decision-making authority was transferred to people who did not speak English, who did not trust foreigners, who did not have experience managing English programs. Decision-making authority was wrested away, for all practical purposes, from the foreign teachers, and handed to Thai staff with little or no experience in such endeavors, let alone the ability to communicate with us about what was happening and why, or ask our opinions and understand what we had to offer. In short, we became a rather typical Thai school trying to manage an English program in a very, very short time.

The Thai members of staff to whom I regularly voiced my concerns about the very visible slowing, sometimes even reverse pace, of the program's progress, always said give it time. So I did. For a year, from the time our four deputies were very ceremoniously replaced, I waited and hoped something good would happen. When the director was replaced 6 months later, I waited and hoped the new director would bring a clear, progressive vision to the school. For a short time, I was heartened by his words - he told me he would continue the programs management as the prior director had with no major changes, time and time again. Gradually though, everything changed. The management of the program expanded to include more and more non-English speaking Thai teachers. Decisions were shifted to committees, making it easy not to take responsibility for mistakes or bad decisions.

Regularly, cultural differences were blamed for the problems that began to swallow my energy and passion for my job. At more than half a dozen meetings with the director, I asked him to stop blaming cultural differences for poor management. He promised things would get better. Perhaps they will during his tenure, but as long as people look for excuses and shift blame nothing will improve, at this school or in any environment where there are problems. And that is just about everywhere, right? People must accept responsibility for their errors, and learn from their mistakes.

Certainly, I made more than my fair share of mistakes while at the school. One thing I took way too long to learn was that direct confrontation in this society has a very limited role -- if it is going to be constructive. I am, after all, a lawyer trained in NYC. So some of it has become almost innate to me. And, I still believe directly addressing and dealing with issues and problems is the best way to handle serious concerns, but I probably wasted far too much energy on small issues in a confrontational way than I needed to, and burned bridges with Thai staff as a result. If I were to do things over again, this is the primary change I would make in how I handled most day-to-day problems. I would have let more small things go, and focused my energies on the larger issues

I would urge foreign folks teaching and managing at schools in Thailand to do the same. Remember your ultimate goals, and keep small problems and disagreements in perspective. Don't let the energy you spend on things that ultimately don't make a huge difference engulf you and leave you unprepared for the real important battles. Having said that, I would still and will still fight those significant battles in a direct and honest way - I would just be more careful about how I chose the battles to engage in.

In closing, I left the school because I lost passion for what I was doing. I did not have the energy to re-educate 5 senior staff members, or sit patiently and learn enough about each of them and their motivations and styles to mold my own strategies to be more effective under their administration. External circumstances, largely related to bureaucratic decisions beyond my control about who would lead the school for the next few years, created a vacuum in experience at the helm.

Rather than humility, and an eagerness to learn from one another, all of us at the helm, including every one of the new senior staff members (and myself in many regards) decided to dig themselves into a bunker and do things the way they did before. Not a single senior staff member sincerely took the time and energy to try new approaches to new problems - they simply tried to solve things in a cookie cutter fashion that won't work with a new and progressive environment that has been moving forward at a remarkable pace for several years. Hubris took hold at the top, and people decided it would be done their way or not at all.

The real moral of the story here is that you cannot teach a child to run, supporting him as he first stands then walks then begins to sprint, and then tell him to crawl backwards for miles and expect him to do so willingly and happily. When the Ministry of Education changes all five of the top decision-makers at a school in a compact period of time, and replaces them with people who have no experience rearing this type of child or training in coaching track and field in an international environment, things are bound to come apart. I sincerely question the motives of a wholesale change in power structure and leadership at a place where things are going so well. It's as if people somewhere were afraid of an up-and-comer, a new way of doing things, and it was time to throw some severe road blocks in the way.

I asked a close Thai friend, a Yale-educated professor now teaching at a top Thai university, 3 years ago if he thought the power structure in leadership in certain areas of government were consciously making decisions to hold people back, because it so often appears to me that is what happening. I won't report his specific answer to that question, but I will tell you when that same friend was asked his opinion of Thai education at a cultural awareness program I conducted for teachers at the school just 3 months ago, he very bluntly said the system is ill. I would argue that the story of what happened at the school in the last year is a sure sign that the system is ill due to sabotage, not natural causes.

Let me clearly say that I do not personally blame any one of the new administrators at the school for the problems the school is having. They are simply doing what they know how - forging ahead with their duties as required by their civil service commitments. They are but pawns, who just keep things moving around (largely in circles it seems) while someone somewhere else makes the decisions that keep lasting progress at bay.

In fact, I hold no personal grudge against any one of the staff members at my old school - current or past. For at least 2 years, it was the most remarkable and rewarding job I have ever had, and that is pretty good!

For the last year, I guess, I simply was in the process of learning again, for the umpteenth time, that powers greater than I and forces often unknown to me can very quickly change things for those of us who are just contracted employees in a foreign land. Even that knowledge I appreciate, as it will equip me to more effectively build structures, forge relationships, and make decisions to ensure that at some of the good I try to do in the world lasts beyond my tenure in any given place. At this school, I am confident I and the teachers I worked closely with did make a positive change, though the progress we made had far less profound reach than I wish it could have. Now, with more experience, I am poised to do things better next time - with more humility and less hubris. I hope that those at the helm of my former school can also be a bit introspective and do the same, in the interests of the nearly 30 colleagues and more than 1200 students I left behind when I resigned.

Now I am comfortably settling back into the role of just teacher, with only the small added responsibility of managing the Gifted English Program, at a small Issan school. It is exactly the kind of change I needed for a while. I am quite pleased to be able to focus on making my difference in the world on a person-to-person level with my students, and not engaged in battles over culture and resources on a managerial level. I am also heartened to see at my new school a young and vibrant Thai teaching staff who seem eager to learn, ready to try new things, and disinclined to sit at the desk at the front of the room and ramble into a microphone.

As much as I am concerned for the educational system here in Thailand, and the future of its youth, I am also regularly heartened by frequent experiences of great hope and promise for the system - both at my former school and here in Issan. Of course, I am now at a demonstration school that is highly selective in admitting students, but the dedication and passion of the students for learning here despite large classes and other concerns is amazing.

What can job seekers take from my experience? Perhaps you can read through the lines above and begin to see some of the issues you should look for in your work environment or with an employer you are considering working for. Perhaps asking about the vision and experience of senior staff and where and how decisions are made would be useful, especially if you seek a managerial role. Of course, finding out about budgetary discretion and authority is paramount. Perhaps just hearing how someone goes from a job that is rewarding every day to a situation of frustration and dismay will provide some insight into building your own career and keeping things in perspective. Also, my ability to find new experiences that are challenging and help me re-dedicate myself to my goals should provide comfort to those who currently face frustrating employment situations. There are places out there that meet our needs and reward our perseverance, if we keep looking and know what questions to ask.

Regardless, I hope that everyone takes from my story both a dose of hope and a pinch of reality as well. We can, as teachers and participants in this educational system, even if it is terribly ill, make a difference. We can make more of a lasting difference if we open our minds and set our sights on the attainable, and put the smaller nuisances aside whenever possible. And we can benefit greatly from being aware of our limited capacity to effectuate change in a world where so many people operate around us, with contrary agendas, personal vendettas, irrational fears, and shifting priorities. And this is not a story about Thailand, but of humanity at large.

P.S. I have been made aware by some of my former colleagues of concerns that my remarks about my experience at this school will adversely affect them. I say here with all sincerity, that is not my goal nor do I believe that this article will have said effect. If it does, it is even further evidence of the danger of hubris that I refer to. To ameliorate the concerns, I have removed the name of the school from the article, though I doubt this will have much effect in concealing the identity of the school or those I refer to by position above.

Let me state in closing that for anyone who works at this school, and for anyone who considers the possibility of doing so in the future, I am hopeful that the work we did over three years, and the remarkable talents of the foreign teachers we hired that are still there, will enable the program to continue to progress. I am sure that were the progress not so remarkable the first couple of years, I would not have felt the impact of the change in administration so profoundly. Perhaps it was that we were on such a steady course towards success that made the changes so obvious.

Those who remain on or join the foreign staff at the school in the future may very well continue to find it a remarkable and progressive place to teach. It could be all a matter of perspective, and I will be the first to say my perspective is colored by my rather intense and unique experience. Others will certainly see things differently, and should always evaluate any and every career decision on the basis of their own priorities and experiences. Good luck to all.

I will return to my column's specific focus on career counseling tips and techniques next month! Now that I am here in Issan, I should even have time to submit a regular monthly column


I have a sneaky suspicion that I worked for this very school, if not the similarities are spooky. Too much information fits. The nail was hit on the head.

By Ronald, Rangsit (2 years ago)

Thanks for the article but why would any teacher stay in Thailand to teach?
I spent 2 years there in the north and the Thais are trouble.......believe me.
Over crowded classrooms....bored teachers.
You need to get a life and go somewhere.
The education system is a joke and Thai English teachers are a joke.
This fixation with Thailand.......where does itcome from?
Any south Asian country will pay you better.
It's only a country for a holiday.

By John Bligh, Vietnam (2 years ago)

"Regardless, I hope that everyone takes from my story both a dose of hope and a pinch of reality as well."

Thanks for the reality check. I needed this today as yesterday was a day where everything seemed to go wrong. I felt that the "illness" was almost life threatening. I hope I can go back to work on Monday and move forward. Thanks again.

By Ron, Bangkok (5 years ago)

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