Phil Roeland

The Growing Pains of the TEFL Industry

My take on another ajarn.com writer's column


English is a world language. Correction, English is the world language. Although there might be more native speakers of Mandarin Chinese, Hindu, Arabic or Spanish, it should be obvious that English is the most important language of international business, tourism and the Internet. Just look around you: Japanese businessmen speak English with their Thai counterparts; Swiss tourists speak English in Mexico; Cambodian students chat in English with Brazilian cyberfriends. Whether you like it or not, being able to communicate in English has become quite important in our ever more globalised world, unless you work in an area of your country where contact with English-speaking foreigners is virtually unheard of (a remote village in central China perhaps) or are do a menial job that doesn't require any contact with foreign barbarians.

Keeping this in mind, it is no wonder that demand for English lessons and capable English teachers has exploded, especially with vast countries such as China opening their doors to the world. Of course, English as a school subject has been around for decades in many countries, with most of the lessons being taught by local teachers with a decent working knowledge of the language. More often than not, this approach has been quite successful, proof whereof can be found in an interesting statistic: when taken into account the number of people capable of speaking English not only as a first, but also as a second or even third language, there are more speakers of English than any other language in the world.

In some parts of the world, especially Europe and former British colonies, learning English in school and becoming semi-fluent in the language of Shakespeare has been around for more than half a century. Local qualified teachers who have relevant degrees and are fairly fluent in English are usually in charge of conducting lessons and teaching pupils the four skills, with an emphasis on speaking and listening needed for oral communication. As modern course books are quite encompassing, reading and writing aren't forgotten either, with many curricula providing for essential contemporary skills such as email writing or skim reading. It might be important to add that most western or westernised schools adhere to the student-centred learning methodology, in which student needs and active learning are given high importance. Classroom sizes are usually manageable.

In other parts of the world, especially major parts of Asia but also swaths of South America, local qualified English teachers are not as abundant. Their skills are also different: many excel at teaching grammar and reading and they often use L1 abundantly in the classroom. Let's not forget that many Asian schools still use the teacher-centred approach, in which the teacher acts as a lecturer and students are not supposed to participate or even ask questions. Rote learning still rules and critical thinking is not encouraged, sometimes even suppressed. Although most curricula have been rewritten to focus on communicative skills, many teachers haven't changed their old ways. This is because they either lack the abilities or due to other factors such as resistance to change in general (not to be underestimated), supersized classrooms and lack of support and teacher development.

As a consequence, many schools have resorted to hiring foreign English teachers in order to improve students' skills. Said teachers are often given the task of teaching conversation, something they are normally best at. Also, the fact that many students don't learn the necessary skills to communicate in the real world by just going to regular school has fuelled the demand for ever more tutoring schools where students study English at the weekend or after hours on weekdays. Needless to say that the whole EFL industry, comprising public schools as well as private language institutes is big business as affluent parents are willing to shell out a small fortune to make sure their offspring get a head start in their professional lives.

Do customers get their money's worth and is this approach working? Absolutely. It is a given that most foreign English teachers - the majority of which are native or near-native speakers - are much better at teaching English (esp. conversation) than many of the local teachers. That students are exposed to different accents and real-world English is an added bonus, although I think this should not be overestimated as most English speakers worldwide are now non-native speakers; many of my Thai business students used to complain that they found it very hard to understand the Japanese speaking English (talk about the pot calling the kettle black).

Moreover, let's not forget that in Asian societies, 'face' is hugely important; especially parents will gain lots of face if they can boast to friends and family that their loved one is being taught by a handsome westerner. This might be the reason why customers or parents often tend to place appearance before substance: it is a fact that skin colour, age and number of teeth remaining are often more important than teaching skills or academic qualifications when looking for a teaching job. But then again, isn't the customer always right?

Let me ask it again. Do customers get their money's worth and is this approach working? Absolutely not. As demand often exceeds offer, recruiters sometimes revert to hiring unqualified and unsuitable individuals posing as teachers. Background checks are non-existent or perfunctory at best. Private and public schools alike shamelessly take parents' money and promise them English skills on a silver platter only to never materialise after. Moreover, students and parents alike often expect foreign teachers to perform miracles. They think that being in the presence of a foreigner will trigger a magical osmosis transferring the teacher's skills to students without the latter having to make any real effort. Schools are guilty as well when they assign huge classes and then expect fluency in return.

So what's the deal? Do customers really get their money's worth and is this approach working? The above should make it clear that this depends on how you look at it. Nothing in life is ever completely black or white. The EFL industry is far from perfect. Many of the English teachers making a living in it are far from perfect. Let's not forget that nothing in life is ever perfect. Are students learning anything at all? I think they are, although not nearly enough in many cases. In my opinion, we should not only take into account students' achievements when judging the efficiency of EFL lessons but also customer satisfaction - EFL is a business after all. Doing so, I think that overall, the scales are still tipping towards the positive.

Last month, fellow columnist Steve Schertzer wrote a column - or rather diatribe - crucifying the EFL industry and even questioned if it shouldn't be completely shut down. The reason for his scathing attack was the arrest of a Canadian teacher formerly working in Thailand, John Wrenshall, involved in an international paedophile ring. In a personal twist of fate, this nabbed pedophile used to be his boss, mentor and friend while Steve was working in Bangkok. Consequently, Steve felt betrayed and thought it necessary to vilify the whole EFL industry, calling it ad nauseam a stinking, putrid corpse, apparently forgetting he has been part of this rotting cadaver for years.

I can understand Steve's disillusion with someone he probably trusted and looked up to. I also think part of his criticism is justified; teachers, administrators, recruiters and policy-makers alike should question themselves and the industry they are in more regularly. I do not, however, agree with the overall image that Steve paints of the EFL industry. The big majority of English teachers are not unqualified backpackers, vicious child predators, chronic boozers or perverted sexaholics, as Steve claims. These do exist of course, but the generalisations made in Steve's column are downright insulting to a significant part of the EFL community.

By the way, I'm sure the face of the EFL industry depends on where you look. I guess there might be more pot-smoking Canadians working to pay off a student loan in South Korea. There are probably more backpacker teachers in Southeast Asia than the rest of the world combined. I also suppose that there are more horny teachers living and working in Bangkok than in any other major city of the world. The percentage of sex-addicted teachers in Bangkok probably skyrockets when marital status (single) and location (city centre) are taken into account.

Steve not only seems to target child abusers in his column. Every participant in the adult entertainment industry and cosmopolitan nightlife had better beware. In Steve's universe, the whole local cottage industry of erotic service providers caters solely to the likes of ill-paid EFL teachers commuting to the restricted pleasure zones by non-airconditioned buses. Our reborn moral crusader has even the deepest contempt of innocent netizens who indulge in the vile act of what he calls 'beating their meat' to Internet porn.

Well, I guess if we put good old Steve in charge, self-gratification in the privacy of one's own home would soon become punishable by castration. Why don't we just shut down the Internet while we're at it? Steve's approach might be a welcome solution to the problem of overpopulation though, with possibly half the male population worldwide in danger of losing their nuts.

In order to avoid gratuitous sneers, let me point out that I'm not on the defensive here as I don't even have the luxury of Internet at home. I'm just concerned about all those manufacturers of blister creams going under. Moreover, I never beat anything except for eggs and drums; and after reading Steve's column I wanted to beat my head against the wall. No, really, I guess I'm just sticking up for common sense. I mean, before you know it, Steve will have all sex toys banned worldwide and put the whole of Holland behind bars. Not to mention a possible ban on the sale of alcohol to all males suspected of being employed as English teachers.

I don't want to imply anything or point an accusing finger to Steve, but wasn't he himself a SWM living and working in downtown Bangkok? All I'm implying is that his perception of the typical EFL teacher might have been skewed and that the incidence of love hotel visits or child buggery is much lower among teachers who don't live in central Bangkok (or Pattaya); also, numbers continue to drop markedly when we include teachers who are either in a long-term relationship, married, live outside the city centre or upcountry.

During my time in Thailand as a teacher and head teacher I saw, met and worked with some dubious characters. They were a small minority, however, although I have to admit this was on the outskirts of Bangkok and in neighbouring provinces. When hiring teachers, I always tried to separate the wheat from the chaff. Checking teachers' degrees and credentials as well as schools insisting on a police background check are highly recommended, but can never rule out the possibility of unsavoury con men slipping through the net.

I don't think any of my teachers were deviants like John Wrenshall, although I realise I can never be sure until they eventually get arrested. As far as I am aware, the most serious charges that some of my teachers were ever guilty of were smelling of alcohol or cigarettes, sporting haircuts that suggested their barber had long died or was at least chronically ill, wearing ill-fitting trousers and wrinkled shirts, applying overdoses of deodorant, delivering the occasional sleep-inducing lesson and being seen drinking energy drinks at work.

Although I am fully in favour of employing the best teachers, I am not convinced that implementing ever more rigorous police checks and more stringent degree requirements are beneficial to the Thai EFL industry. If teachers, either in-country or would-be teachers, are asked to jump through ever more hoops, what was intended to keep out the riffraff might backfire and have the opposite effect. It may scare off decent teachers from making Thailand their home and drive out some of the better teachers who see this as the straw that broke the camel's back.

Let's not forget that criminal background checks only verify the past, thus merely barring known and convicted criminals (By the way, does a conviction for shoplifting or juvenile delinquency carry the same weight as one for child molestation? It wouldn't surprise me). Also, what percentage of child molesters out there has ever been convicted is anyone's guess. It's just a gut feeling, but I suspect that the majority of abusers have escaped justice so far, thus rendering the important background checks somewhat ineffectual. I daresay it is partly the responsibility of head teachers and colleagues to expose bragging molesters; I, for one, wouldn't have any qualms about turning in a suspected child molester.

Another solution would be the introduction of palm readings and tarot sessions for weeding out the bad apples as these techniques are virtually foolproof for predicting someone's future. However, as it is still illegal to fire or refuse to hire people for acts committed in the future, this is a dead end. Firing teachers for the offence of looking like potential axe murderers is also impractical since at least half of all existing teachers would lose their jobs overnight.

As for the degree requirements, in a perfect world every teacher would have a Bachelor's Degree of Education or an MA in English (or any other required field) plus a teaching certificate (preferably PGCE or CELTA I suppose). I think it is evident that given the massive need for teachers in Asia, these requirements are not always met. In fact, in Thailand they are partly responsible - together with the criminal background checks and the massive amount of red tape - for the influx of not-so-qualified 'teachers' who usually end up working illegally, i.e. without a work permit. Schools that pay well can afford to be demanding; schools that offer peanuts normally end up with a fair amount of monkeys among applicants.

Finally, as I am a positive person, I prefer to gently point out possible defects and offer advice to remedy a situation rather than harshly criticise or condemn. This is true when dealing with students as well as teachers. Correcting a student too severely or too openly (especially in Asia) is counterproductive. I believe the same goes for observing teachers. One should point out a teacher's strengths first (e.g. great tie) and praise them before subtly offering some pointers on how to improve the aspects of their teaching that aren't perfect yet (e.g. bicycal isn't spelt that way). Unless they are so bad that they are beyond salvage (e.g. Elvis hairstyle) - in which case just firing them outright is the best option - I think repeated or harsh criticism doesn't work.

I think I've made my point. Although the EFL industry is still booming, it is sometimes going through rough times. However, I believe there still are many qualified and dedicated teachers who make a positive contribution to learning English around the world; they definitely outnumber the drunks and deviants found not only in the EFL industry but in all layers of society (Remember all those priests molesting altar boys? I don't recall any outcries for the abolition of the Catholic Church).

Finally, I personally know many capable and decent teachers who don't deserve the foul language and blatant generalisations used by Steve Schertzer in his personal requiem of the EFL industry. Maybe Steve is under severe stress and needs a break from teaching to put things in perspective. To his credit, he was brutally honest about his feelings and wasn't afraid of letting the world know. I doubt if it will change anything though as I've already stated that harsh criticism is usually just like water off a duck's back. What I find more disconcerting is that Steve seems to revel in making enemies. A professional like him should know that this won't get him anywhere, save a psychiatric ward.

Maybe he wrote the column while he was down and out. Fair enough. It wasn't the first time his somber mood was reflected in his writings. I felt personally embarrassed for him while reading his latest July column. His recount of how a Filipina predator took him for a ride had me seesaw between cringing and laughing out loud. At least he didn't start a campaign to have the Philippines nuked back to the Stone Age.

So please Steve, take a deep breath and get a grip. Stop acting like a hysterical housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown and quit dragging all of us through the mud. See a shrink, take up meditation or become a practising Buddhist, and at least try to comprehend that lashing out indiscriminately and being pessimistic and defeatist is not going to solve any problems. Be constructive, write some 'How to' columns rather than 'How not to' ones. Focus on the positive, rather than keep dwelling on the negative. If I want gloomy tidings or dreary forecasts, I'll just watch CNN or read the latest stock market update.

By the way, my column just reflects my personal opinion and was written while sober. I don't want to start a war of words or generate venomous discussions. In my view, the EFL industry is alive and kicking; it is definitely experiencing growing pains, but it is all but a putrid corpse although some teachers might look like living dead on a Monday morning after a heavy weekend. But then again, who notices when most of the students and co-workers behave like zombies anyway?

New sets of photos from Northern Laos, Northern and Northeastern Thailand (Isaan) are now available on www.flickr.com/photos/philiproeland.
The author of this article can be contacted at philiproeland@hotmail.co.uk.
1/2/2009




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