In the year and a half I spent teaching in Thailand, I've had a wide range of experiences with the co-teacher system.
Before beginning my experience as a TESOL teacher in Thailand, way back when I was a newbie farang taking my TESOL course on Phuket, I was repeatedly assured by indifferent agencies and instructors not to worry because you will always share classrooms with Thai teachers that are there to help you.
And when contemplating the task of controlling a classroom full of rowdy students that barely (Or don't at all) understand English, the idea of having a local teacher always there to help me was incredibly reassuring.
There are good and bad
Flash forward a year and a half, and I look back on the co-teaching situations that I have been in with a range of emotions from love and appreciation to resentment and shock at how some of them behave. I've had co-teachers that were godsends - patient, helpful, welcoming. And believe me, when you are teaching in Thailand it is damn near essential that you have a helpful co-teacher.
I find it important to stress that in 18 months, the majority of the time I've encountered lovely co-teachers - sweet, smiley, helpful. But there are those, and I had this problem in particular at my first school, that seem to be taking out some unnamed vengeance on you for some grand scoping hatred of farang, a farang that went before you, or the system of English teaching.
There is a palpable resentment coming from some of them, emanating and stifling the classroom from day one, for apparently no reason at all. Unsure of what you've done, and certainly without them ever telling you as is the Thai way, you will be the target of their resentment, and counterproductive obstruction to learning in the classroom for as long as you are there. Because that's what always happens when the Thai teacher and the farang teacher don't get along - everyone suffers, especially the children.
The Thai teacher suffers because, well, she's apparently miserable. The farang teacher will suffer because Thai teachers reign supreme, and so anything they tell the students will be done and what you tell them will not.
And that situation, where you tell the students one thing, and the Thai teacher will contradict or override your instruction happens often in cases with the nastier of the Thai teachers. I originally thought it was just me, or that it was just this one case, but as I befriended and encountered more farang teachers in Thailand (both while there and while teaching in other countries) I've found that the majority of us have had an experience of that sort.
You tell the students one thing, the Thai teacher tells them another, you try to get some sort of sovereignty in the classroom, and they override you, the class of six year olds is going crazy and you need help and they just sit smirking at you in the back. Though I suppose there could be some lost in translation bizarre reason for this behavior that we are too farang to understand, I don't think so. It feels more like spite, like some assertion of power or dignity, like revenge for wrongs done to them by other farang or the understandably frustrating system of English teachers receiving higher pay than they do.
Who's got the power?
Whilst teaching in Thailand I've shared a classroom with about seven different Thai teachers (In various situations as a homeroom teacher or as a floating teacher). And from that total I really had only one that behaved this way. But my god did she make a difference in that classroom. Pretty much nothing ever got done with those poor students because she was constantly contradicting or obstructing anything I tried to do. And I honestly have no idea why.
I even approached her once to ask what she wanted me to do differently, and how I could change whatever it was that upsetting her, and she just walked away with an angered look on her face - like she was mad I had brought it up to begin with. And then never answered my question, but continued to be miserable and visibly upset with me.
I had another friend who for the entire year she shared a classroom with a female teaching assistant - this woman refused to acknowledge her. My friend would bring her gifts, wai her every morning, go out of her way to try to amend whatever rift was placed between them - but to no avail. The most she ever got was a complacent smirk.
Cheated out of money
Another friend of mine was repeatedly asked to cover extra afternoon classes, and was routinely never paid for it, only to find out later that another Thai teacher- who had nothing to do with the extra class - had been receiving the money instead. When my friend inquired as to why this was happening, she was told: Because her brother is sick and she needs the money more than you do.
Another of my friends routinely had to herald students back into the classroom, because each time she showed up, the Thai teacher would stare her down and then turn on a film or send the children out to do something else. My friend would then have to say... "Um, no no, not movie time, not play time, everyone please come back"
With experiences like mine, and similar ones I've heard from so many of my friends and acquaintances I've met, what do you think? Are Thai teachers helpful or a hindrance?