When writing about the ESL industry and Western English teachers in Thailand or other Asian countries, it should be kept in mind the industry is extremely fragmented, unregulated and there is a startling lack of reliable statistics or data about the industry and the teachers working in the industry.
One could think of this as a handicap in writing about the industry, but on the other hand it allows for a variety of opinions and speculation with little chance of the writer being "proven" wrong. In other words, one could say it gives the writer a license to make stuff up.
So one can think of this piece as adding to the opinion and speculation of the industry and teachers based on personal experience being in and around the industry for well over a decade, but not really having any solid statistical evidence as a basis for the speculation.
In doing research for some of my writings on expatriates, a common opinion was found about the importance of training in working across cultures in preparing workers to function well and adjust to working in a different cultural environment.
Yet few ESL teachers have any real cross-cultural training or preparation for working in a different cultural environment. A personal observation is it appears on average ESL teachers have more difficulties adapting to working across cultures than do expatriates in other industries who go through more preparation for working cross-culturally.
Therefore it is speculated that most ESL teachers would benefit from additional education on and exposure to some of the concepts and ideas used in cross-cultural training programs.
While experience is important and there is nothing that can replace experience in gaining cross-cultural work skills, so is education important, as our education often sets the frameworks in which we use to categorize our experiences in order to make sense of them and learn from them. As educators, it is assumed most of us appreciate the importance of education and the positive effect it has had on our own ability to use our experiences wisely and learn from them.
It is suggested many problems ESL teachers have in adjusting to their new environment could be lessened by understanding some of the underlying assumptions of the different cultures and the differences in these assumptions. For example, many Western teachers in Thailand have a problem with the "no-fail" policy in Thai schools and fight against it. Yet if one puts this policy in the cultural context of Thailand being, using Hofstede's framework, a more feminine culture, or if one prefers the GLOBE studies categories, a low performance oriented society that places more emphasis on family and harmony in society than Western societies which are high performance oriented cultures which place more emphasis on competitiveness, individualism and materialism, it starts to make sense.
Another example, it is not uncommon for Western English teachers to experience many problems with the Thai managers and administrators of the schools they work in. It is speculated a basic understanding of the difference in "power distance" in Thai society as opposed to Western societies, and using this understanding when approaching one's bosses could limit the severity of most the problems many teachers have in this area.
One of the keys to working across cultures is not only to understand the uniqueness of the "foreign" culture one is working in, but also the uniqueness of the culture one comes from. Western cultures, and particularly Anglo-American cultures, are much farther from the world's norm than is the culture of Thailand or other Asian countries in many areas that have been measured by researchers. It is not only "they" who act strangely and believe in ways influenced by culture, so do "we." Understanding the uniqueness of one's own cultural values can be a good starting point in developing an understanding of other worldviews.
Understanding and appreciating other cultural values does not require one to embrace the new culture and completely abandon the values one has grown up with. However successfully working in a country with a very different culture from one's own usually comes from suppressing the desire to attempt to change the values of the foreign culture to match the values of the culture found in one's homeland.
Experience and research seems to indicate the most successful expatriates are those who adapt their behavior to their new environment, take a non-judgmental attitude towards cultural difference yet at the same time hold on to the core values they have grown up with.
Therefore it is believed some cross-cultural education could benefit most ESL teachers. Of course being an individual who often teaches cross-cultural management, I might be biased in this opinion.
Education does not always have to be formal education. While it is doubtful most ESL teacher would feel it important enough to pay for a formal cross-cultural training session before (or after) starting an ESL career, there is plenty of good information on the internet or in books which might be helpful.
Most people read up on the country and culture they are going to, which is obviously a good idea, but also studying some of the frameworks, such as the dimensions of cultures from Hofstede or the more recent GLOBE studies might provide some mental frameworks teachers can use to help them initially in overcoming the culture shock nearly every ESL teacher goes through and also to frame later experiences in a less judgmental and more informed manner.
Gaining some specific education, either through formal courses or informal self-study on how to work cross-culturally might help in some small way both new and more experienced ESL teachers be more successful in their work and have a more fulfilling experience while working in Thailand or other foreign country.
As far as education and knowledge goes, more is almost always better than less.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,
as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics. One of his latest works can be found at this link.