Jason Alavi

The lowdown on teacher agencies

Why do teacher agencies have such a negative image?

The reasons I started writing this article were to, hopefully, try to improve the overall image of teacher agencies a bit and to disseminate helpful information for teachers. I realize that the overall image of teacher agencies in Thailand is somewhere slightly above personal accident attorneys, whether deservedly or not. I understand why this is and I don't blame many foreign teachers in Thailand for having these negative opinions. I just want people to know that not all teacher agencies are run by inept, uncaring, money grabbing people who don't know what they are doing. There are good agencies out there, run by good people. They, unfortunately, usually don't get any good press or publicity. Anyway, what are the reasons for this poor image? The following reasons are (of course) only my personal opinions, based upon experience from when I used to work for teacher agencies, before I opened up my own school/teacher agency:

1) Most agencies just drop foreign teachers off at a school and leave them to fend for themselves. They give teachers no curriculum, lesson plans, grading rubrics, textbooks, workbooks, realia or anything else to help them. The foreign teacher is left to deal with all of the linguistic and cultural misunderstandings that will inevitably arise, on their own. Of course, there are misunderstandings, bad feelings and disagreements between the foreign and Thai staff. With no one there to mediate and help each side (hopefully) see the other sides' point of view, things often deteriorate into a work environment that no one wants to be in. Then the rep from the agency comes around, at the end of the month, with their hand out for their monthly fee.
Some agencies have a site manager at all of their client schools who coordinates with the teachers, the Head of The Foreign Language Department, Head of E.P. and/or The Vice Principal for Academic Affairs. They all, together, come up with all of the necessary support documentation, books, realia and anything else that is needed for the teachers to do their jobs. It's not a perfect system, but at least the teachers who work with them have someone there to run interference for them and try to give them all the support they need.

Off the top of my head, I can only think of two or three teacher agencies who do this. I'm sure there are probably more, but I don't know of them. I often find it crazy that anyone would think that they could offer a quality service by just hiring any farang who comes their way, performing no reference or background checks, dropping them off at a school and then coming back once a month to collect their fee. Those same agency reps are usually surprised when the school does not renew their contracts.

2) Most agencies are concerned with only one thing, keeping the contract with the school. They will pander to the school, no matter how unfair, illegal or ridiculous a request the school makes of the foreign teachers. They tend to hire and fire at their whim.

When I was still working for an agency, one of the Thai teachers asked my boss to tell me to wear only blue shirts from now on, because she thought blue was "the best color for farangs to wear". I refused to do this and the agency fired me. I didn't bother to sue, even though I could have, as that was blatantly illegal. It would have cost me more in legal fees than I could have won.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no saint. I run a business and I am also interested in keeping the contract with my client schools. But never at the expense of the teachers who work with me. I have told client schools many times that I would not even try to force my teachers to do something which I thought was unfair, illegal or demeaning. I even lost a very lucrative contract with one of the schools because I refused to budge on an issue that I felt was ridiculous. I just transferred those teachers to another client school which was much more reasonable in its' requests.

I think that that most Thais who run teacher agencies either don't know what is considered acceptable business and interpersonal behavior in Western culture or just don't care. They usually are ignorant to the detriment of the agencies they work for. After the teachers, the site manager is the second most important person in this situation. If the agency has a competent, smart, culturally aware, diplomatic and responsible site manager, they will stay at a school for a long time. If the site manager is someone that no one wants to work with and/or doesn't know what they are doing, everything falls apart. There are, however, many very decent, fair and professional Thais running teacher agencies that I've met.

3) Most teacher agencies refuse to assist teachers with getting visas and/or work permits, forcing them to work illegally. This is, I think, because the Thai government changes the rules and regs every time we turn around. I have lived in 3 countries and visited many more and I have never seen anywhere else on Earth that has such nonsensical, convoluted, strange immigration and labor laws as this place. I don't blame agencies for not wanting to do it. Hell, my wife and I don't WANT to do it! Who would? But we do it and so should all other agencies. Nobody I know wants to work illegally, never knowing if they're going to be caught up in some snap Labor Department raid or something equally dramatic. It makes for a very stressful work environment.

4) Most teacher agencies have histories of paying late very often. No one likes this. I remember a few times that I was paid late and I always raised hell and annoyed my bosses at the agencies. We all have bills to pay. It is, in my opinion, the height of unproffessionalism to pay your employees late. There's no excuse.

5) Most teacher agencies make a lot of false promises and give wrong or incorrect information from the very beginning to potential hires. "You don't need a visa to work for us", "You will need to pay 20 percent taxes on your salary", "All the class rooms have air conditioning", "You DON'T have to stand at the front gate or do the morning flag ceremony", etc, etc, etc. are a few that come readily to mind.

Most potential hires I've met have told me that they appreciate being told everything "warts and all" up front and find it refreshingly different from other agencies when they are told. It's not smart to lie in the beginning anyway. The teacher is going to find out sooner or later what the reality is. But if they know up front what they should and should not expect, they'll probably stay longer and we all know it's easier to help a long time employee adjust/adapt/improve than to train a new employee. Also, most teachers I know would rather find a place they like to work and stay there a long time than to have to move around a lot.

That's it for this month. If any of you readers have any other reasons that I missed, please let me know! Thanks and have fun teaching.



This seems to be a bad business to be in. Demands for kickbacks are said to be the norm. And many applicants are fibbing about their degrees...
Truth be told, there is only so much an agency can do. We were told there would be Thai assistants - I have yet to see one and doubt my school has them. When asked about the curriculum, I was told "it's up to you". Only to have the Department Head come in to a lesson and then humiliate me coram publico as I was supposed to follow some book. Life happens at the schools and what is an agent gonna do about the myriads of issues foreign employees may encounter? Should they advance cash? Should they offer 1 on 1 counseling sessions? Yours truly is grateful for getting a job through an agency.

By Chris, Northern Thailand (18th June 2011)

90% of employment agents are not worth sending an email too. Sad but true

By Kanadian, Jiangxi China (24th May 2011)

I am currently travelling in Thailand. I have contemplated the possibility of teaching in Thailand. I am a certified teacher from Canada with a BA. Reading your story about the variability of competence and honesty among hiring agencies, i find myself strogly dissuaded. How am I to know which agengy is trustworthy and which is not?

By Germain Daoust, Chiang Mai (3rd April 2011)

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