Mark Newman

Good teachers or warm bodies?

What do we deserve?

Have you heard the news, both about the shortage of qualified teachers and about the distinct possibility that the shortage will get more severe in the coming years? Well, it's not news really is it? Any recruiter in Thailand has been struggling with this quandry for years and there is nothing to indicate that this situation will get better during our tenures as teachers!

And, as in the past, there are significantly worse problems for schools and students the further outside of the big Mango you go. In the high-income schools in and around the center of Bangkok there are more qualified and prepared teachers, but there is still a dreadful shortage in Thailand's state schools generally.

I'm guessing that at least one third of all TEFL teachers are underprepared, underqualified or lack any kind of training in their subject. Compounding the problem is the fact that government funding for teacher training/re-training is non-existent. In addition the enforcement of regulations controlling who can teach what and where is not upheld.

But probably worst of all is the lack of any clear direction from the Ministry of Education to get things moving in the right direction and to enable Thai students to become educated and compete globally in the next 10, 20 or even 30 years.

And there's more. The teachers that are here and are qualified and are willing are demanding much much more than they did a few short years back. It wasn't that long ago when you could secure the services of a reasonably competent and enthusiastic teacher for less than 30,000 Baht a month with an oral contract about as legally effective as the instructions on a shampoo bottle! With the explosion of expensive private schools, dual-language schools and demands for private tutors the rates of pay have risen dramatically. The contracts are iron clad and there are bonuses for attendance, achievement and completing the year sane! Rates are hovering around 100K for full time teachers and 1K an hour for the ‘private' instructors.

If you think that this is a tad high in your experience then you are asleep at the wheel. If you think that you'll never be making this kind of money then you probably won't be! But people are. So what of the rest of the teachers who are happy with 40K a month or sometimes a lot less? Well here's what I think. If we gradually reduce teacher standards to keep classes staffed, the numbers can look good even as the quality of teaching sinks ever lower. So that is what is happening.

What is our definition these days of a ‘qualified' teacher anyway? Is it that of a qualified degreed teacher - a teacher who has earned "full teaching credentials", which usually means completing several years of course work and student teaching and passing key tests? But if this is the case then we are still being too generous (and why would anyone like this come here to our friendly and sunny climes?)

Licensure doesn't guarantee quality.

The education authorities in Thailand (and the rest of Asia probably) could do a lot more to upgrade curricular requirements and start to implement testing and accountability programs. Is it not, after all, the function of an educational authority to ensure that their ‘educators' can educate to a certain degree of proficiency? Well, you would think so, but any new initiative by the MofE department is a glacial process. And usually a process that focuses on secondary initiatives, such as discipline and holidays, etc.

Getting the best teachers may also mean offering well-qualified candidates more than just a fist full of travellers' checks and round trip tickets home. Many of the ongoing concerns that teachers have are not in the classroom. It's the tedious Thai attention to irrelevent detail that bogs down teachers. The lack of goodwill to foreign staff and a lack of understanding of how they see things. Classroom sizes, teaching aids and assistant support are also concerns.

English teachers teaching English should be teaching English the English way!

In another sign that we're settling for too little, the school's grading systems seem to be built around the ‘nobody fails' method. This in effect means that the teacher is really not accountable for his performance anyway because at the end of the school year all the students are going to pass. So why put stops and checks in place at all?

Make the class sizes smaller! That doesn't necessarily mean reducing class sizes across the board, but it ought to call for an examination of just where very small classes work and under what circumstances, and also where they don't.
Almost certainly, adequate resources, particularly in low performing schools, require better staffing levels - more help (and training) for principals, more counselors, librarians, reading specialists and yes of course the English teachers.

These issues don't seem to be a popular talking point with fellow Thai colleagues, but it has to be in the picture for teaching to improve. Thais don't like being told how they can improve do they! Well, who does?
Anyway - to summarise; it is imperative that the Thai Ministry of Education figure out a way of getting genuinely good teachers into their schools and keeping them there.

That can't be done just by increasing the supply of teachers and lowering the standards. It can't only be made to happen by handing out more money either. It has to be done by increasing the incentives teachers are increasingly demanding of their employers especially in the more needy schools outside of Bangkok - things like differential and overtime pay, better working conditions, smaller classes, better living accomodation, more support for teachers, more prep time, etc.

But what may make the most difference in teacher quality (and we are a long long ways away from this!) is when principals in all schools can choose amongst five or six candidates for each teacher vacancy, and not be forced to accept the first warm body that floats into the interview office from Don Muang airport



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