Jason Alavi

The rules of behaviour

How to conduct yourself as a teacher

After reading Phil's hilarious "Crazy Interviewees" article last month, I got to thinking about some of my past employees, good and bad. Instead of telling you about of some of the more "interesting" interviews I have conducted, I thought I would write about what types of behavior and teachers schools and agencies here want and do NOT want.
The following illustrations are based upon actual past employees. I will not use any names or personal details because us Westerners like to sue at the drop of a hat and I have better things to do with my time and money.
Rules of what NOT to do and how NOT to behave:

1) Do not be late to work every single day or often.
I had one gentleman from a certain Northern European nation who was late to work every single day for the 3 months of his probationary period. He had rented an apartment a 5-minute walk away from the school and he was STILL late. When I gave him a letter telling him he had not passed his probationary period, he was flabbergasted. I don't know why.

2) Realize who you do and do not work for.
Some teachers I have had (almost always the ones who have been here a few years or Thai employees) like to play political games. By this I mean they ingratiate themselves with the Thai Department Head, Vice Principal, Principal etc. Then, when I tell them something like "We all have to wear black next Tuesday because Victor Borgia's granddaughter passed away" they usually respond with something like "Well, Ajarn so-and-so said we don't have to." They may be right. So I check with Ajarn so-and-so and they (usually) tell me that either they never said that or that they would really prefer that everyone wear black but they were "just being nice" when they told that teacher he didn't have to. If Ajarn so-and-so actually said that, no problem, don't wear black. Believe it or not, SOMETIMES a Thai person will look you in the eye, tell you that something is o.k., then complain and criticize behind your back when you do what they said was o.k. to do! I know, it's hard to believe (tongue in cheek smirk now which you can't see) but it CAN happen.

When I go back and tell them this, the immature, unprofessional whining begins. I tell them that they work for me, NOT Ajarn so-and-so and then I usually issue a memorandum to all of my teachers, which they must sign. Then, if that teacher comes to work on Tuesday wearing anything but black, I give that teacher a written warning. Some people might think that makes me a cruel, heartless boss. I think it makes me an adult who expects all of my employees to act like adults, not silly little children. (But I don't waaaaaant to!!)

3) NEVER criticize or complain about ANYTHING Thai within earshot of any Thai coworkers.
I've been working with Thais since 1986. I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of Thai people I have known who can accept constructive criticism or even well-intentioned advice, even when they know the advice is good advice. There is NO more surefire way to get terminated than to start a "Thai people this" and "Thai people that" bitchfest. Even if you're right, they don't want to hear it. One lady, just off the boat from Massachusetts, who I terminated for this reason just couldn't understand what the big deal was. I asked her "If a Thai teacher moved to Massachusetts, started working in a public school, and started saying things like "Well, in Thailand we would NEVER do things THIS way" or "American people are SOOO stupid when it comes to..." or other such heartfelt, endearing sentiments, how do you think that Thai teacher's American co-workers would react?"
Common sense can be a good friend.

4) When you are asked to do something, no matter HOW much you disagree with it, be an adult and just do it.
In my experience, somewhere between 90 to 100 percent of all of the boneheaded orders we receive come from The MOE to The District Ed. Office, to The Principal, to the Department Head, to you. I can't remember how many times I've been asked to do something I thought was silly, pointless and often counterproductive. But I smile and say "O.k., no problem." This is Thailand. It belongs to the Thais. Whether they want to improve it or screw it up is up to them, not you. You are not here to change Thai society, culture or traditions. Even if you were, you couldn't do it. Complaining incessantly about some work you have to do or refusing to do it because you don't think it makes any sense may make you look like James Dean for five minutes to your Western co-workers but remember...James Dean died. In The U.K., The U.S.A. and every other country I'm familiar with, orders are orders are orders, no matter HOW we feel about them. Just grin and bear it and do what you're asked to do.

Also, there's no point in any of us constantly comparing Thailand with The U.S., The U.K., The Phillipines or wherever else it is we're from. You're not back there, you're in Thailand. You're only going to make yourself and anyone who has to listen to you miserable and stressed out. There is a clause in current Thai Labor Law that says (I'm paraphrasing here) "An employee must comply with any reasonable, work related request. If employee refuses to comply in a well documented manner, said refusal is adequate grounds for termination." Makes sense in any country, you ask me. If your boss asks you to wash his car at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, you can obviously refuse, but good luck convincing a Labor Court Judge that you have the legal right to refuse to hand in your grades, in an organized manner, in a timely fashion. Again, common sense can be a good friend.

5) Do not come to work smelling of alcohol, Marijuana or any other controlled, mind altering substances.
DUH! I had one young British guy who was fond of cannabis. I really don't care what anyone does when they're not at work. It's none of my business. The second you walk through the school gate though, it's your boss' business. The school he was at had set up a smoking area in the back of the school for the smokers. I told him on his first day on the job that the window above this area was The Principal's office and it was usually open because The Principal didn't like A.C. and was a smoker himself. So what did this guy do? He sat at the table, under the window to The Principal's office and burned a fatty! Wow!! He was terminated that day and had the stupidity to hire a lawyer to sue me for wrongful termination. The guys contention was "Jason told me that The Principal was a smoker." He actually thought I meant that The Principal was a pot smoker and that that would The Principal wouldn't care! When his lawyer heard all the details, he told his client to forget about it and walk away, lest he end up in Bang Kwang. Good advice.

6) Do not have intimate relations with any of your students.
DUH again!! I had another young Brit (I don't mean to imply here that there are any problems with Brits. There aren't, it's just the luck of the draw. I'll get to some bad Americans soon enough, don't fret) This young, very handsome teacher was spotted by no less than 7 Thai teachers and 15 Thai students walking hand-in-hand with a Mattayom 5 girl from the school he worked at. She was still in her school uniform! Instant termination. There's another clause in current Thai Labor Law that says "If any employee acts in a manner that causes serious damage to the reputation or property of their employer, said employee may be terminated immediately, with no legal penalty to the employer." A perfect example of the truth of this is a case that my labor lawyer was working on when I first met him. He was representing a man who had been a Senior Vice President for Siam Commercial Bank for 12 years. He, apparently, had a fondness for after hours gambling. One night he was in a gambling den in Chinatown which was raided by the police. He made the front page of several newspapers, both Thai and English, with his name and his position at Siam Commercial Bank clearly printed. He was fired the next day. When the case went to court, the Judge awarded nothing to him and found in favor of Siam Commercial Bank. This was because he "caused serious damage to the reputation" of his employer. I'm not sure if I agree with that decision or not, but (according to my lawyer) that's the way that most of these cases go.

7) Don't beat, physically assault or throw things at your students.
Common sense? I had one Physical Education teacher who forced his students to run around the football pitch and do push-ups until they vomited. Then he poured water on their heads and made them run again! He would shoot spitballs at the student he didn't like. He was proud of this. He said "When I went to school, the teachers would beat me incessantly and it turned me into the strong man I am today. I'm grateful to them!" (I'll give you one guess which nation he was from) I told him "Well, thanks for that insightful statement. Now I understand why you are the way you are BUT it is illegal to do things like that in Thailand."

8) Don't do just the absolute minimum. Don't be lazy.
Just because you've been given a detailed job description doesn't mean that you ONLY have to do what's on the list. If you see that someone needs help or that something needs done, do it. It will help build up goodwill with your coworkers, your boss and everyone else who sees it. Which leads me to...

9) Never forget that image is, perhaps, THE most important thing in Thailand.
See numbers 1 thru 8. I once knew an American guy who was going around passing himself off as a holder of a PhD, calling himself "Doctor". He walked the walk and he talked the talk. He came into work dressed in a suit and tie, his paperwork was fastidious, he got along with everyone and even remembered to buy cookies, cakes and other nonesuch for all of the Thai teachers in The Foreign Language Department. If you look respectable you will receive respect. If your clothes look like you bought them second hand in 'Indiatown' and they have stains and rips, you will receive no respect. When it was discovered that he did not even possess a Bachelor Degree, the school decided to keep him. Why? Because they liked him, plain and simple. He was nice, he got along with everyone, so they let him stay. The fact that he was a good teacher helped, but wasn't (necessarily) the main point. I don't care if you have a (legitimate) PhD from Harvard, if you have a bad image, you won't last.

10) If you get caught doing something wrong, don't fight or hem and haw, just take it like a grown-up and move on.
I knew another American guy who also was passing himself off with a fake degree, this time from one of those well-known, online diploma mills; however I didn't realise it was an online diploma mill at the time. After I told him I discovered this fact, instead of just saying "Oh well, you got me. Thanks for the opportunity and I'll be going now" he made a huge scene, stormed into the Principal's office and generally threatened to sue everybody but Santa Claus. In the end, of course, he went. However, if he would have just gone quietly, he could have gotten more jobs. By acting in such an unprofessional manner, he angered the Principal - and the Principal sent his name to The Central Region English Program Center, where he was officially listed as an "undesirable hire". Since then I haven't heard anything about him in teaching circles.

11) Don't deviate from the lesson plan.
If you've been given a lesson plan, stick to it. There are usually many reasons that an existing lesson plan is in place. Some are academic, some may be political, some may be financial. Whether you agree with them or not is, for the most part, irrelevant. In subjects where you meet the students many times per week (E.P. English, for example, meets 4-6 times a week, depending on the school.) it's easier to improvise. As long as you cover the basic material in the lesson plan, and you have extra time left, add supplemental material. No problem. However, I am sooooo tired of teachers not teaching anything in the lesson plan they are given and then acting like I am The Son of Satan when I ask them why not or DARE to give them a written warning. Their typical responses are along the lines of "I just don't like it, man", "It's a horrible lesson plan" or some other such pearl of wisdom. Cry me a river. Just do your job.

12) Don't forget that most of the Thai people you work with are (probably) jealous of your higher salary and lighter work load from day one and act accordingly.
The average Thai teacher, working in a government school, teaches 18 to 20 periods per week, has to take care of all homeroom responsibilities for one homeroom, maybe two, do the morning flag ceremony, stand at the front gate at least once a week, stay overnight in the school at least once a month as free security and usually has to do extra administrative function(s) as well. The Head of the Foreign Language Department at one school I know has been there 12 years, has a Master's in English and makes 25,000 Baht a month. That's pretty typical. So when (some) foreigners come breezing in with no or little qualifications (comparatively), teach much less, have almost no extra responsibilities and STILL piss and moan all day, believe me, none of the Thai teachers feel any sympathy. Emotional reactions to this statement aside, an intelligent foreigner understands this and can use it to their advantage by NOT being one of those complaining foreigners. I'm sure I'll get some negative comments for number 12 but that's o.k. It's still true. Any foreigner who has lived here a while knows this - if they're smart. Like it or hate it, this salary jealousy, as petty as it is, isn't going away anytime soon. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you get to work with open-minded, well-traveled, understanding Thai co-workers who get that our lives aren't all wine and roses...sometimes.

Neither I nor any administrator I know wants to fire a good teacher! Good teachers are so incredibly difficult to find these days. The only reason I would ever fire a good teacher is if they were so seriously deficient in some other area of their professional responsibility that I just didn't dare keep them anymore. Thailand CAN be a wonderful place to live and work, if you adjust to it. No matter where you are in the world and no matter what you do, those who don't bend usually break...laws of physics and whatnot. You can't expect everyone to be tolerant and keep an open mind, but you can do it.

So, if you're a good teacher, you dress well, you get along with your coworkers and you're not lazy, you can have a job forever in Thailand. How YOU adjust to Thailand is up to YOU. If, after reading this month's article, you haven't yet booked your flight out of the country -good luck and have fun teaching!


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