Mark Newman

Investing in people or rolling out policies?

Let's evaluate what happens here in Thailand as something we can learn from rather than condemn.

The idea of 'investing in people' is one of those pretentious catchphrases that big companies use to create an image for themselves. And when you have to broadcast that as a part of your mission statement, it quickly gets seen, quite rightly, as rather trite. But outside of the corporate world, this ethos has great value.

The idea of ‘policy’ is one of those ambitions of determined governments to control our lives. Government ‘policies’ are rolled out to hector us into thinking and acting in a certain way. It’s often a battle between those government ‘policies’ and our own instincts… which is one reason why people don’t much like governments!

In ‘The West’, governments bombard us with their policies on everything from the important subjects (like education) to the absurdly inconsequential matters, like the appropriate shape of a banana! We might approve of these ideas, but they don’t come from us and we are given fewer options to choose for ourselves how these ideas are enacted, enforced and determined by law.

East v West

When we move abroad from The West to different cultures, we export these ideas of people and policy with us. We can’t help it, it’s part of our psyche. So, it comes as a frustrating shock to find that Eastern countries like Thailand have a completely different set of ideological ‘policies’, or that the ones that we do identify with, are routinely poorly enforced. 

Instead of changing our instinctive (and learned) behaviors to adapt to our surroundings, too often our mood changes to one of contempt. The expat internet forums are littered with comments about how Thailand has got it all wrong. “The education system is… blah blah blah!” Too many people come here with the ‘correct’ view of the world and either end up hating Thailand and leaving, or, worse, making fun of Thailand and staying.

Maybe it’s time to suspend that ridicule and take a look at what Thailand does right and evaluate what happens here as something we can learn from rather than condemn.

Who's listening?

For almost all Thais, their daily lives and their ‘quality of life’ are mostly unaffected by what the government does or thinks. Government policies are inconsistently enforced and if people don’t like the rules, they’ll just ignore them. Not only that, the priority of the existing rules changes almost daily, so, nobody is listening anyway.

For expats who teach English in Thailand, it’s too easy to point out all the ways where Thais have gone wrong. Our opinions are formulated based on Western government policies on education, and our own experiences of going through an entirely different system of learning. A system where qualifications are key and the end goal of ‘primary’ education is usually ‘further’ education.

We see time spent at Thai schools as mostly mucking about and focusing on the wrong things. And all the academic evidence would be on this side, too. If the yardstick of Thai schools was based on academic results (and to a certain extent, it is) we’re just not doing very well.

But let’s take a seat up in the rafters for a moment. Take yourself out of the classroom and look at the lives that Thais have outside of your classroom. There’s something going on in Thailand that we’re missing out on in The West. There are more solid family structures. There’s a lot less anger, hopelessness, and intolerance. (Okay, there’s less ambition and motivation, too. It’s not a perfect society.)

'Rewarding lives'

Although most Thais probably can’t articulate the rhyme or reason how they do it, compared to The West, they are living highly rewarding lives. They most likely can’t explain it in words, but Thai people have a (mostly) structured and enjoyable path through life from cradle to grave.

It is this peculiar measure of ‘success’ that is very hard for us to embrace and reconcile ourselves with. There’s no passing grade for everyday life. No certificate of achievement for a contented life well lived.

Maybe a part of the ‘education’ you can share with your students is sharing your culture as one of equal status… you know, ‘same same, but different’!  Maybe a part of your education could be to take on board the things that Thai society does really well.

I don’t believe the ‘policies’ of education are working in The West OR Thailand! But, I also firmly believe that we can look at Thailand and learn a lot about how we prepare our kids to enter society and live rewarding lives with the resources they have and priorities they live by.

So… people or policy? Maybe better people obviates the need for more policy!


We can learn many things from Thailand, sure. Can we learn many things from their education system and TEFL teachers? Don't be silly. It's broken for a reason.

I mean no offence, I used to be a TEFL teacher. I got out of the game quickly and got properly qualified. I used to think I was a good teacher when I started. The kids loved me and and I thought I was good at what I was doing as it was feeding my ego. I wasn't good. I went out and got properly qualified. It really opened my eyes. As teachers we are here to educate and develop minds, not just have them laughing and screaming while they run towards a flashcard of a fridge with a fly swatter in their hands. I'd have loved do that to as a kid too. Only looking back as an adult and thinking of my teacher, "What a useless cunt".

Don't get stuck in a rut here as a TEFL teacher. It's very easy to develop an 'us vs them' kind of mentality. Blindly siding with all the things and people who agree with you, while hurling a lot of misplaced anger towards the things and people who challenge your ideas and level of comfort. TEFL is a young man's game. Don't let it turn you into a moody old bastard. I've seen too many older TEFL teachers go down this path. It's sad.

TEFL, take a shit or get off the pot. Really.

By David, Bangkok (6th September 2019)


"But NESs are often influenced by the belief they come from a superior culture and much like the British Raj are coming to civilize the locals"

Jesus wept! Do you overthink everything when it comes to 'culture'? Most NESs I met while working as an unqualified TEFL teacher were here for the booze and pussy. They certainly didn't come here to change anything. Just wanted to have fun and be able to keep a job where in most other countries they wouldn't have been allowed anywhere near a school. Thailand provides the atmosphere for that.


"Although most Thais probably can’t articulate the rhyme or reason how they do it, compared to The West, they are living highly rewarding lives. They most likely can’t explain it in words, but Thai people have a (mostly) structured and enjoyable path through life from cradle to grave"

Yes, most are living hand to mouth. Humans are animals who can adapt well to their environments. It's kind of important to our survival. Most have very little choice in how they live their lives as the opportunities just aren't available to many.

Would I rather be poor but be happy living the simple life, or would I prefer to be financially comfortable but have more complications in my life? Well, I am very happy. Big part of the reason I'm so happy is because I really do have that choice. I wish we all did. I'd be a huge hypocrite if I didn't.

By Craig, Bangkok (15th May 2019)

This really is a confusing article.

Having had the misfortune of having read some of the writer's desperately vaccuous, angry and vitriolic messages on Facebook (the reason I only follow Ajarn on Twitter) the writer then produces this.

As I said to my friend in his late 50s who thought he had a job for life at the school he worked at for 16 years, "You don't". Make sure you have saved a nice nest egg and you have other forms of income. Not preparing for an uncertain future where your prospects can change at the drop of a hat is lunacy.

Thailand is like anywhere else in the world; you ain't got no money then you're persona non grata. Doesn't matter how you dress it up or how much of a shift you put in. "But I'm not in it for the money!" - that's nice, but nice doesn't put food on the table, a roof over your head and an insurance card in your wallet.

"For almost all Thais, their daily lives and their ‘quality of life’ are mostly unaffected by what the government does or thinks"

It must be great to be able to speak on behalf of 60+ million Thais. You should tell some of the university students who are asking where their vote has gone that it wouldn't have mattered anyway. They'll love you for it.

By David, Thailand (14th May 2019)

I would encourage you, Mark, to persist with the topic. One approach you could consider is to recall how your own values have changed since you became a teacher in Thailand. Another is to work with the kind of comments you hear from the thai students you teach and/or their parents about the purpose or importance of the elt education they are getting. For example, I once spoke with an MP- minister for education, at the time- about education policy in the UK and he was admirably clear that, for him, the main driver was to ensure that UK students held their own, or better, in the international league table of attainment. He was concerned that our students might be eclipsed by, say, the Chinese and our economy worse off in consequence. When I asked how important, if at all, 'emotional intelligence' was in his policy objectives he was somewhat less clear or engaged. Two very different values emerged in this discussion.

By David B, UK (13th May 2019)

Good comments, esp. David who recognizes that the length of a pithy blog article isn't nearly enough space and time to discuss this (any) topic in depth.

I'm tempted to write some follow-ups which would clarify the use of descriptors and break down the values of each one as I see them and how I differentiate them between 'The West' and where I live now.

It really is a massive topic which I would like to turn into a lecture, but for now, will attempt to convey my thoughts through this website in short 'bite-sized' articles.

By Mark Newman, The Land of Barely Concealed Rage. (9th May 2019)

I would second most of Danny B's comments in respect of Mark's article.

Mark is well-placed to write on this topic, being an educated westerner with lots of experience of Thailand and its educational system.

I think the topic is a deep one and I'd like Mark or someone else to elaborate on it. The first challenge is to be clear about what is being looked at: for example, when Mark writes of thais' 'rewarding lives' what descriptors might he have in mind, other than 'structured' and 'enjoyable' lives from 'cradle to grave'? One person might read 'structured' as 'restricted' whereas another might associate it positively with security/predictability. Similarly, 'enjoyable' might evoke pleasant feelings for a person who values leisure and a better work-life balance, but 'frivolousness' for one who sought a deeper meaning from their professional commitments.

Even if we could agree on describing the values, I don't feel that we can set aside our own and our long-held attitudes and conditioning. (Although he tries valiantly to be open-minded in the article Mark betrays his own values by implying that there should be more 'ambition' and 'motivation' in Thailand).

Unless you are one of those people who enjoys being a 'miserable sod' and are not willing to work at change, then you owe it to yourself not least to focus more on the positives in your life/environment (whether in Thailand or elsewhere) than to remain stuck where you are and expect things to improve. Being in Thailand as an efl teacher for a short but intense 7 months really forced me 'to wake up and smell the coffee' about certain things, and for that I'm grateful. I chose to leave Thailand, in consequence, but have nothing but respect and fondness for almost all the Thai people I met and the privilege of being able to live and work abroad. The experience has broadened my horizons.

PS I won't ever place myself in a classroom with more than 20 (or 40) teenagers again with the idea that what I regard as 'teaching' can occur there...(:

By David B, UK (3rd May 2019)

I think you make some good points in this article, but overall the message is confusing, because you seem to be conflating Thai culture with the Thai education system

Most Thai people are (justifiably) proud of their culture, and as you have pointed out, there are many valuable aspects of Thai culture - I think we can all agree on this without having to elaborate in length

On the other hand, most people (Thai and foreigners) would also agree that the Thai government education system, on a whole, is quite poor. This isn't a reflection of Thai culture, but of poor management. To begin with, class sizes are ridiculously large, teachers are underpaid, and schools are under-resourced (many schools in the province still lack air conditioning, for instance)

You don't need to ask Thais what their opinion of the education system is, just look at where they send their kids - most Thai families with money will send their children to private schools or international schools, or at the very least, pay for substantial amounts of after school tuition.

All of this serves to perpetuate the astounding degree of economic inequality in Thailand, in which poor kids receive a poor education and are almost certain to stay poor, whereas rich kids get a world class education in the top international schools

This is not something that we as foreigners will change, because this is exactly how the entrenched upper class in Thailand wants things to be - their kids get the best opportunities, while taxes and wages for working class employees stay low

By Danny, Bangkok (29th April 2019)

Maybe Phil will invite Mark to give us an update on his attempts to change the educational system in Thailand. I was pretty skeptical of his chances of making an impact, but maybe be will return and update us on how his ideas have been implemented nation-wide thus proving me wrong.

By Jack, LOS (27th April 2019)

Nothing worse than the neocolonial Westerner who comes here thinking it's their job to 'save' everyone he/she comes into contact with. These are usually the same pretentious types who don't like Thai food, can't speak more than 5 words of Thai and want to continuously lecture everyone how Thailand lacks in social welfare programs blah blah blah.

By Bart, Udon Thani (27th April 2019)

Well said, Jack...
Yeah, what DID happen to that 'missionary' teacher? I'd forgotten about him.

By Mark Newman, The Land of Barely Concealed Rage. (27th April 2019)

An interesting take in which it seems to contain some pretty useful advice.

Missionaries take a very ethnocentric view that "their" values and beliefs are not only better than the values and beliefs of other, but it is their duty to convert the heathens to the one truth. While religious missionaries seem fewer in number than in the past, they seem to have been replaced by cultural and educational missionaries. While the values and beliefs which are attempting to be implemented are different, the underlying ethnocentric viewpoint remains.

If you are hired to teach English in a Thai school, you are expected to do the best job possible within the system you were hired to work in. Do not be surprised if your missionary activities in which you judge the locals negatively and you try to change the culture of the country you are working in is not appreciated and is unsuccessful (I wonder what happened to Mark Brown's attempt on this site to change the educational system in Thailand which began with his list of deficiencies he found in the Thai educational system and the country's culture?)

As an employee, this is not much difference than accepting employment at home. Unless hired into top management, one is hired to do a job in the best way possible within the existing system, strategy and organizational culture.

But NESs are often influenced by the belief they come from a superior culture and much like the British Raj are coming to civilize the locals.

Those days are long gone.

If your working style and attitudes do not fit into Thai culture, don't work here.

If you decide you want to work here, you do not need to accept all local beliefs but should avoid the desire to try to change Thailand into an idealized version of home.

By Jack, LOS (27th April 2019)

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