My experiences of working in a college in Bangkok (part 6)
Getting to school on the first day of term proves to be troublesome.
“What? Are you serious? There’s no book?” I asked Terry Mumbles, while him, me, and the Crazy Canuck waited outside our apartment building in the searing sun for the school van, which was running 15 minutes late. The Canuck was pacing back and forth by the laundry machines, squeezing a vise-gripper.
It was the first day of the semester. Mumbles muttered something about how the school didn’t give teachers a copy of the book. We needed to go to the library and check out a copy. As did the students. And the students’ versions had been previously used and most of the copies had the answers to assignment and activity questions already written in them.
None of us yet had been given a semester schedule or told when we’d have exams. Mumbles mumbled something about how the first week of class, hardly any students would be there anyway.
The Crazy Canuck went into a diatribe about the TQF reports, labelling them, as well as almost everything else he disliked, “retarded,” and saying how we’d need to go into those to find which book we needed, but that the library often didn’t have copies so we’d have to download the book ourselves or buy it online.
He ranted about how he’d spent hours last term writing and rewriting his TQF evaluations, because there were students from five different majors in his English 2 class and he’d been made to write separate sets of reports for each major, even though they’d all been in the same class. He wasn’t sure what to write because most of them didn’t come to class. Most of the students didn’t speak English either. Not a word.
Mumbles interjected, grumbling about how it wouldn’t matter the grades we gave them because they’d be changed anyway. One class he taught last term was excellent and he gave most of them A’s, but the school had changed the scores, changed many to B’s, C’s, at random, and the students were pissed off about it. As was he. Mumbles mumbled something about the grades being on a curve distribution.
The van arrived in a stinky black mist of dust and diesel fumes. It wasn’t the shuttle bus I expected either. The beaten-up minivan was probably 20 years old. The school's name was embossed on its sliding door but with a couple of letters missing.
Inside was worse. Parts of the flooring looked like they’d cave in and the seats were torn. The AC didn’t work so we kept the windows open, letting in all the exhaust fumes and heat from the road.
The van’s driver, an angry, jowls of fire, middle-aged Thai man, appeared to be nursing a hangover. He reeked of booze and drove at breakneck speed, weaving furiously through traffic and nearly forgot two or three of the stops.
Along the way we picked up a young Bangladeshi couple who worked as teachers/admins. And two African girls in their early 20's, one skinny and one plump. The girls were doing an MBA program and part-time (possibly illegal) admin work at the school.
Towards the end of our journey, on that first day, the school van unsurprisingly broke down, sputtered and stalled and the men got out and pushed it to the side of the road and had to wait in the hot sun for 20 minutes or so for the school to send another van. But it was no van they dispatched. It was a pick-up truck. A very humble one at that. And we all dressed in suits, ties, formal dresses, the Bangladeshi lady in a floral-patterned hijab, all piled into the bed of the pick-up truck and rode in silence, sun and sweat for that last five kilometres of our commute.
The teachers room
Being the first day, maybe there’d be a party or a welcoming ceremony but there was nothing. We didn’t have schedules until 7:45 am that morning. When we arrived, the school seemed half-abandoned and the office was still rocking and rattling through its last trimester of renovation.
The shifty-eyed IT guy, this time in a button-down blue shirt, khaki slacks and black Adidas sneakers, was handing schedules out to teachers as we entered the office to scan in via fingerprint. (He’d cut his hair like Ronaldo, smelled of pineapples, and gave me an enthusiastic handshake, his clammy right hand having slightly too firm a grip)
I saw the accounting lady who’d driven me home and who’d been friendly, but she didn’t offer much of a hello, only a gruff, “Good morning, Ajarn.” (I’d later discover a cold formality at the school. The admins never called any teachers by name, simply referring to us as “Ajarn,” the Thai word for “professor,” completing nearly every sentence with it.)
I sat down for a minute at a vacant desk, next to Mumbles and a cagey Brit. The Brit admonished me, saying how that wasn’t my desk and how I should be careful, because if “they” caught me sitting at a desk that wasn’t mine, or if I purposely switched desks without asking permission, I’d be in “big trouble.”
I’d not been assigned a desk or told I was required to be at one or be required to request to change seats like a kindergartener. There was nothing in the orientation or contract about that. He was right though. This incident - the mere sitting down at a desk that wasn’t mine even though I was never assigned a desk, would come back to haunt me later.
The office was in a shabby condition. I’d have thought with the renovation that they’d have fixed it up. But not so or perhaps not yet. The place was crumbling, had grimy walls and stanchions, rutted floors, and part of the AC casing was missing, exposing the inner pipes, and nearby the junky AC, the ceiling was rotting and leaking. I’d come to find there were occasional cockroaches, huge flying cockroaches and micro-ants.
And there were wasps which would sporadically fly into the office, meetings and classrooms, and the Indian phone-zombie guy once saw and snapped a photo of a cobra slithering into a field nearby the school.
The most troublesome however, had to be the rats. Big bamboo rats the size of little dogs. Mumbles mumbled about rats in the office last term because the Filipino teachers had been eating in the break-room behind the office, leaving half-eaten food out, which had attracted the gargantuan rats of the rice fields and the rats had been running amok, dropping pellet-shaped rat turds everywhere.
One of the teachers, a farang, one of the 6 or 7 who’d resigned after only a month or two in the last year, had gotten into a heated argument with the Filipino teachers about not eating in the office. There was even a sign posted in the stairwell, in English and Thai, warning us not to eat or bring food above the first floor, and that violators WILL BE FINED. But that hadn’t dissuaded this set of Filipinos from munching on their morning chicken and rice.
In the classroom
I’d only minutes prior received my schedule so I hadn’t much time to prepare and drew up a quick lesson plan for introductions, class rules, and a “what you did over the vacation” class discussion activity.
When I got to the classroom, the reality of my situation became further apparent. First off there was nobody there. It was 7:58 am, and the class was to begin at 8:15 am.
“Thai Time,” I guessed applied to students too, as it did to most everything.
At my previous school, the students would be there well before class began. There’d be students studying, reading aloud from books and practicing their English. At this school, the classroom was full of ghosts.
Humans eventually arrived - in body if not in mind. About half the class turned up, filing in anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes late. To my dismay, despite the school touting itself as a top international school in Thailand, out of the nearly 30 students who came, only 2 or 3 could really have a conversation in English. Maybe 10 could speak some English, low to low-intermediate levels. The rest - around 17 or 18 of them - couldn’t speak a word. Not a word. They couldn’t answer simple questions like “How are you?” or tell you their name or introduce themselves.
It was disheartening. Many of my previous students in Korea, were shy but spoke quite well and were motivated to study. This was a much different situation. These were second year students too. They’d in theory passed three semesters of English courses and been through 10 years or so of English study in primary, middle and high school. How did they get this far not being able to speak a single word?
In Korea I had occasional situations where a student had squeaked by, not able to string together a sentence or say more than a few words, but usually they could read and write. I’d never had a single student that couldn’t read nor write. But many of these students could barely read or write. Or do anything.
They were poorly behaved as well. They wouldn’t be quiet. Most would ignore me as I spoke, speaking over me in Thai and chatting away with each other or playing on phones.
I was beginning to understand why they couldn’t speak English. They had no interest in learning.
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I would say this is much of generalization of students, education system, and lecturers being 80% in a negative light. Please read Beliefs About Language Learning Inventory or BALLI 2.0 (Horwitz, 2012) This might help you understand how to teach EFL in Thailand. There is also what teachers called KWL strategy (Ogle, 1986) to prevent you from committing too many missteps while teaching. Be a responsible professional and do some research about the country. You can't always have what you wanted here. Regardless of how Thai students perform in learning language, any mistakes won't make them less of a human being and be subjected to being shamed and ridiculed on any website.
By James, Bangkok (5th March 2020)
"Suspension of disbelief"
"The temporary acceptance as believable of events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. This is usually to allow an audience to appreciate works of literature or drama that are exploring unusual ideas."
This is a common phrase in English and is used extensively by individuals involved in literature and other forms of entertainment.
My mistake, I thought most English teachers would have been familiar with it.
By Jack, South of where I was (6th February 2020)
It sounds like zero preparation, zero interest, zero motivation and complete failure in the classroom.
If you wish to rise above it. then you would have to do some prep work, try harder, complain less, overlook the mistakes and shortcomings or find another job.
Most jobs in Thailand are about looking good and it looks like I know the school in question which was offering expensive courses to foreigners to do this teaching degree or that one. The longer I stay you either have to fit in or try to, or just get out. In the end that is the best choice you have.
By Peter Pan, Bangkok (6th February 2020)
Whilst agreeing people can be polarised based on pre-existing beliefs, if this about 1 school I don't see how the writer can know what the rest of Thailand is like. That it is not like the brochure is annoying in all areas of life but generalizing all Thai schools like this helps no-one IMO as it is 1 persons experience at 1 school. Adding in hyperbole that paints normal Thai and westerners in a bad light is also unhelpful. Yes it was poor for him but I worked at schools that other people hated where I thought the management was ok, and vice versa.
The school in question is becoming extremely close to being named on here but probably cant be for defamation laws. I have never worked there nor know anyone who has but maybe a "glassdoor" type section of the website would be helpful so teachers could know what a particular school is like before signing up. How that would work legally I don't know but it would have helped this person.
Personally I think this story is unsuitable as this site is publicly accessible and should Thai readers discover it they might think all western teachers think like this. It is pub talk that paints a negative picture for people considering moving and teaching. Yes there are some badly run schools and some people are unsuited to living in Thailand but its not like this everywhere. It does however highlight the fact you need to do some research, be flexible and know that Thailand is hot.
By Rob, Bangkok (6th February 2020)
" To enjoy fiction one needs to be able to suspend disbelief."
You mean non-fiction? If fiction had to be believable, why call it fiction? One might just as well call it fiction and many a fool would think it's non-fiction. (your use of English here is contagious).
"But I realize a number of regular Ajarn readers seem to enjoy anything written, not matter how poorly, as long as it shows Thailand and its people in a negative light."
Your words. Perhaps true. These people exist. But as far as I know they haven't taken over ajarn,com, have they?
"Poorly written?" That is, and will always be, subjective. Chances are you don't like Charles Bukowski. I do. He still gets quoted all over the world. You don't.
Jack, for fuck sake, loosen up a little, will you?
By cor, Bangkok (5th February 2020)
To enjoy fiction one needs to be able to suspend disbelief.
I have a hard time suspending disbelief when reading of Kink's adventure.
I have a hard time believing there is anyone in 2020 with such an ethnocentric and intolerant view of everything and everyone (local or foreign) in Thailand who would accept a job teaching at St. ?, which is a known as a fourth-rate college (did it ever receive any form of accreditation?) and expect royal treatment.
Just not believable.
But I realize a number of regular Ajarn readers seem to enjoy anything written, not matter how poorly, as long as it shows Thailand and its people in a negative light.
Promoting tolerance across cultures and encouraging people to be responsible for the choices are some of my core values, sorry if these values are found to be offensive by some readers.
I am pretty sure I know the school in question, if I had worked there for a short time a long time ago much earlier in my career while looking for a better spot you would not find that fact listed on my CV :). If I had worked there (I am not admitting to anything here) I would not want the fact to be widely known.
By Jack, LOS (5th February 2020)
the school where Kink has the misfortune of working at, is a school straight out of the Fifth Circle of Hell. After reading part 3 I thought Kink, drop everything and run! For some reason the protagonist feels he's bound by his contract and stays where he is, -what happened to the 90-day probation?- and therefore we can, thanks to Kink's sense of duty, witness madcap adventures that you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy.
As for stereotypes and painting an entire population with the same brush; stereotypes exist. Stereotypical characters didn't come out of nowhere and they are, to me, great sources of humour. If you disapprove of stereotypes, you must surely hate the Asterix and Obelix cartoon books. They exist because of stereotypes.
You mention the blogger paints a negative picture of an entire population. I didn't read that anywhere to be honest. And you say he hates everything. Wouldn t you, in a place like that?
By cor, Bangkok (5th February 2020)
I think you've added a negative comment to virtually every instalment of this 'blog'.
Here's how I see it. The story clearly isn't up your soi. When I add part 7, could I make a serious recommendation? - don't read it.
By Phil, Samut Prakan (5th February 2020)
Debating whether teaching ESL in Thailand is “good” or not is as useful as debating whether eating instant noodles or listening to hip-hop is pleasurable or painful.
It all depends on personal preferences and alternative opportunities.
I assume this “story” is primarily fiction and the author is trying to entertain.
But I don’t find insults towards an entire country and overuse of negative stereotypes entertaining. Do you?
Ok, Kink went to a country he does not like and accepted a job at a fourth-rate college with a terrible reputation in an out of the way place, but Kink was expecting an Ivy league environment and to be treated like visiting royalty. Kink was disappointed. Ok, no surprise here.
Is he trying to tell us to not take jobs in countries we don’t like and at schools where the way things are done are below our expectations? Ok, I won’t (and have never thought of doing so).
Is the “problem” Thailand is Thailand and this school out past Rangsit is what it is? Or is the problem that Kink took a job that did not fit him?
What is the solution? Will Kink be able to change Thailand and this school to fit his desires and then he will be happy? Or should Kink find employment which is better aligned with his expectations?
The message seems to be, don’t be a Kink.
By Jack, Not in a classroom (5th February 2020)
Jack LOS, I partially agree with you that the writer paints a very depressing picture of the school, the Thais in general and the Thai students in particular. On the other hand, had it been a story where everything was hunky dory, brilliant students, lovable co-workers and a utopian work environment, it would be a boring read, wouldn't it?
By cor, Bangkok (5th February 2020)
Plot Summary: Kink takes a job in a country he does not like and at a school which does not meet his expectations. Kink is not happy and blames the country and the school for not being up to his standards.
As a piece of fiction, this story has some holes. First the protagonist is neither believable nor sympathetic. He comes across as a caricature of the stereotypical ethnocentric and intolerance farang. And as he hates most everyone and everything, the reader has a hard time feeling sorry for his plight or hoping he succeeds in this job.
The story also lacks any form of tension. For the very beginning, how this was going to end seemed obvious.
As satire, it is probably a little bit too over the top and mean-spirited to be funny.
My predictions for the future installments, Kink will try to change Thailand and the school, and he will fail and leave. Kink will then issue a dire warning to others to not follow Kink’s path.
But maybe the writer has a surprise ending in store.
If “Kink” wants to make a living as a writer of fiction I think he needs to work on his writing craftsmanship and better not just yet quit his day job.
By Jack, LOS or close by. (4th February 2020)