Think about the job you do now. There’s a good chance that the people in your office aren’t all that different from yourself (even if you don’t like to admit it).
If you’re in PR then you’re probably in a room full of outgoing, creative and media-savvy. If you’re a journalist your colleagues may have a dry sense of humour, a sense of justice and neat turn of phrase. If you’re a car mechanic you probably like football, a laugh and Formula 1. OK, we’re perilously close to cliché here, but you get the point. Similar jobs tend to attract similar people.
This theory goes out the window when it comes to ESL. People become ESL teachers for all kinds of reasons. Nowhere else will you find such a mélange of backgrounds, attitudes and beliefs, which is what makes the ESL staffroom like no other you’ll ever work in.
People teach English for all kinds of reasons but most seem to fit into one of the following categories:
Straight out of uni on a gap year, they plan to fit in a bit of teaching in between weekend breaks to the islands and bars. Those that focus on teaching can make great ESL teachers as they’re young, enthusiastic and can relate to students – after all, they were one a few months ago. Their one drawback is that as they are young, some students don’t see them as adult figures and so they need to work harder to gain respect.
The idea of living abroad and starting again attracts many newly-single, middle-aged men, and sometimes women. Given their one common denominator is the lack of a wedding ring, this group can vary wildly in terms of quality.
The change-of-scenery teacher
That two-week break last summer was so memorable they simply couldn’t stay away. So following a TEFL course they’re now ready for anything.
During my career I’ve witnessed an incredible array of characters, some of whom will remain friends for life, while others I’d cross the street to avoid.
Living abroad can be a lonely experience too, so you tend to socialize with people you wouldn’t normally hang out with, which lets you experience the full spectrum of human behavior.
Here are some of the most memorable teachers.
The good, the bad and the unlucky
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says ‘A teacher opens the door. You have to walk through by yourself’. Some teachers seem to have a natural gift for opening the door and persuading students that what’s on the other side is worth pursuing.
A few teachers just make that extra effort to go beyond what’s in the book. They engage, they enthuse and energise students simply by knowing what they are talking about.
There are times when being a teacher feels like you’re a Sesame Street presenter. Sticky-back plastic, coloured paper and 3-D posters suddenly become the norm. Some teachers spend an hour or more creating artwork for their classroom and cutting out fancy fonts to highlight students’ work on a regular basis.
Other teachers have such a presence that you can’t help but listen, whatever the subject. It isn't always the best-qualified or most-experienced teachers that get the greatest results; some have simply embarked on a new career and want to make the most of it.
Teaching is incredibly rewarding when it goes well, and whether it goes well often depends on a teacher’s approach to their job.
One of the first teachers I encountered was a large American who had a clear aversion to living everywhere other than America.
He’d taught in South Korea and Europe, and hated both, and so was hoping to find Thailand more to his liking. On his first day he complained that it was too hot and it went downhill from there. He lurched between mood swings like a man who had won the lottery and been given two days to live.
During my first months at school Ron and I shared the same apartment block. I had a car and so gave him lifts into work every morning. Every morning he would come down late and then on the way to work roll down my window and launch a huge, and noisy, gob of phlegm out of my car window.
On a Monday morning his mood depended on whether he’d spent the weekend in Bangkok smoking weed. If he had, all would be well with the world and the smell of tuk-tuk fumes would seem like the scent of freshly-cut daisies. If he hadn’t, then Thais were blood-sucking parasites who were out to get him.
Working in Asian schools means being presented with situations that often don’t seem logical, but having to deal with them regardless. Ron didn’t deal with anything well. At school he would swear and stomp around for no good reason.
The rainy season was particularly distressing for him.
During one storm he tried to cross the road and, when a motorbike inadvertently splashed him, he delivered some of his phlegm in its direction. During another rainy day a tuk-tuk driver refused to give him a lift into work. By the time a sodden Ron reached the office he spent the first five minutes cursing all tuk-tuk drivers.
He then placed his wet shoes up on his desk to let them dry, and put his bare feet the desk, soles pointing directly at the door. In Asian culture the soles of your feet are the dirtiest part of the body – physically and spiritually - and are not shown to anybody. You don’t point with your feet, you don’t touch people with them, you just leave them on the floor. Pointing the soles of your feet towards a door is just about the most offensive sign you could make to a Thai. It’s like flicking someone the finger the second they walk in to the room.
Ron tended to take out his frustrations on anyone who would listen, but once he extended this to his students. As the Christmas break approached classes were more lethargic than usual and he was keen for school to be over. In one class Ron was trying to persuade students to open their books (a task that can take 2 minutes even on a good day). One student wasn’t listening. Ron called his name a couple of times and found no response. He asked another student to prod him but this also failed to provoke a reaction. Exasperated, Ron picked up the nearest object, which happened to be a miniature Christmas tree, and launched it in the student’s direction. The tree hit the student plum on the forehead. A small trickle of blood started to appear.
Sensing he’d finally gone too far, Ron couldn’t apologise enough, although the student didn’t seem bothered. All the same, Ron took the next day off sick in case an irate parent called in. If there is a lesson to be learned from Ron, it was that living abroad isn’t supposed to be like home and if you can’t accept that, perhaps you’d be better off staying where you are.
And then there's Pete....
Pete, on the other hand, was the most ebullient chap you’re ever likely to meet. A former Marine with a story for every occasion, he could talk for hours without drawing breath and was highly entertaining, even if the local female staff rarely had a clue whether he was hitting on them or laughing at them (it was usually the former).
During his first week we took him and some other new teachers to the local bank to open an account. Pete’s incessant chatter soon earned him a stern stare from the matriarch-like manager. The bank was more like a library with its hushed voices and so this talking tornado wasn’t appreciated.
The manager was doing her best though and using her limited English to ask questions. Eventually she got round to Pete.
“So where you from?”
“Ah, you cowboy yes?”
“Yes, ma’am, a true cowboy, yeee-har.”
Unfortunately for Pete, ‘eeee-har’ roughly translates to the F-word in Thai. He’d shattered the silence in the bank by punching the air as he yelled ‘yeeee-har’, and all of a sudden the manager wasn’t quite so keen to chat. She muttered something to her colleagues and handed us over to an underling.
Pete apparently had a child somewhere in the south but there didn’t seem any rush towards a reunion. Instead Pete focused much of his time on finding a LBFB (little brown f*** buddy), as he put it.
When it came to schoolwork, Pete taught science, and taught it rather well (he’d been in the Marines’ medical corps). When it came to teaching biology, Pete hit upon the idea of bringing in four baby pigs for the students to dissect. Having found a pig market near the school he secured four live pigs for 200 baht each, and then set about trying to kill them in his small apartment.
In the staffroom the following morning he described the carnage.
‘Man, that was brutal. I got hold of some ether to knock them out, but it didn’t work so well. I covered one of them pigs with the ether and it passed out. Then as soon as I start dealing with the second one, the first one perks up and starts struggling.
“Eventually I had to cut its throat, but the damn thing still struggled. I should have had a giant hammer. Apartment looks like a damned George Romero movie set.”
In between slaughtering pigs and offending bank staff, Pete was entertaining, though he had a remarkable knack for finding trouble.
Every Monday morning he would tell us of a scrap he had got into at the weekend. This was even more remarkable given that after nearly a year in Thailand, I’d yet to notice a raised eyebrow. You have to really make an effort to rile a Thai, but once you do you’d best stand back.
Pete discovered this after talking to four girls outside a club. When their boyfriends showed up, Pete wasn’t keen to admit defeat, and before long a scuffle broke out. Despite being outnumbered Pete could handle himself, and it was only when his bike toppled over on top of him that he succumbed. The resultant broken ankle meant he couldn’t walk upstairs to classrooms, and the school soon decided it would be better off without him.
Some teachers weren’t annoying or rude; they just weren’t very good. Bob from Britain is a great example.
Bob worked at a time when the powers that be were getting keen to inspect everyone’s credentials. As Bob didn’t have any, this was a problem. To get around any suspicion, Bob invented a glorious past with a stellar education. If he had only done some more research, he might have got away with it.
‘Yes, I remember going to grammar school when I was younger’ he would say assuredly to anyone who would listen. ‘Grammar schools aren’t what you’d expect though; they don’t just do grammar.’
After grammar school, it seems Bob went to a respectable university, where he gained a BA in Zoology. Given that zoology is traditionally a science-based qualification, you may well expect it to be a BSc, but minor details like this simply didn’t bother Bob.
Strangely, after achieving such academic heights, he ended up working as a baggage handler at an international airport before opting for a career in education. Bob also had a tendency to whine and moan about local people in a staffroom full of local people. He assumed they didn’t understand, but they got the gist of things, and he was soon out.
Other folk are able to teach perfectly well, they just can’t get along with anyone.
A science teacher once fell out with a colleague with peculiar consequences. Every morning this teacher would sit in the staff room and studiously pour two Red Bulls into a bottle of Coke, so it was hardly surprising that he was highly-strung. This tension finally snapped after one petty row.
I entered the staff room after one lesson and found that this teacher’s desk was missing. The teacher had decamped into the adjacent library and was planning to work from here. It took a few minutes to persuade him that the library was a little too large for one teacher and he needed to move his table back.
Sex is another reason that some Westerns move to other countries. Developing countries often have a reputation for more hedonistic principles, and so holiday-makers sometimes like the place so much they decide to come and work there.
One such teacher was in his 60s and rather rotund. Not that this stopped him making weekly trips down the road to a strip of bars where he could indulge in the pleasures of the flesh.
Schools will generally turn a blind eye to such behaviour, but this guy went out of his way to boast of his exploits. During one seminar we had some invited guests come to tell us about classroom management. As a warmer, they asked this chap and another to stand and run through a brief conversation.
‘So, John, how are you today?’
‘I’m grand, thank you.’
‘And what are you going to do this weekend?’
John didn’t miss a beat and replied in a booming voice: ‘I’m going down the road to commit sin.’
Our stony-faced Head of Department put her head in her hands and within three months, he was out.
You’ll have noted that the list of bad teachers is considerably longer than that of the good ones. It isn’t that there are more hopeless ESL teachers than proficient ones; it’s just that the bad ones are more interesting to read about.
As well as good and bad, there are simply those that fall victim to the idiosyncrasies of life in a foreign country. Sometimes you can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jason was a qualified football coach, and a decent teacher. When his daughter fell seriously ill, he rushed back home to England to be with her. Jason made a point of telling his school where he was and how long he’d be away. When his daughter started to recover, Jason changed his flights so he could return to work a few days earlier than planned.
Once back, he rang the Head of Department to let her know – and was told he’d been sacked and didn’t need to come in on Monday.
Somewhat taken aback, Jason tried to ask why but the phone had gone dead. It turned out that he had told his travel plans to another foreign teacher, not the Head of Department. That might not seem a particularly heinous act, but said teacher and the Head didn’t get along, so the Head felt she’d lost face by not being told directly of Jason’s plans.
All rather silly, you might think, but it does illustrate the importance of the hierarchy in some foreign cultures. Don’t assume messages will be passed on and everyone kept informed. If you want somebody to know something, tell them yourself. As well as crossing ‘t’s and dotting ‘i’s, you’ll also need to cover your back.
Matthew was another to be caught up in such a mess. He claimed to have a degree, one of the prerequisites for teaching in Thailand. Having gained a job, he made no secret of the fact that his qualification was bogus.
When another teacher fell out of favour and was sacked, he felt pretty piqued by the manner of his dismissal. So much so that he decided to make life hard for his Head of Department. The best way of doing this seemed to be to raise as many red flags as he could about his former colleagues. He e-mailed his former school, threatening to pay a visit to immigration if certain degree-less teachers weren’t dismissed. Soon after, Matthew was looking for another job.
If you play things straight, you’ll rarely have problems teaching. If you don’t play things straight you will often get away with it, but when things do start crashing down, they tend to collapse in one almighty heap.
Wherever you end up teaching, the chances are that you are going to be alongside people you'd never normally work with, which can make the whole experience more memorable, one way or another.
- Above blog adapted from 'Teaching English' (How to Teach English as a Second Language)
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