"Surround yourself with great people."
-- Rudy Guliani,
Former Mayor of New York City.
"Would you like to know how smart you are?", asked Professor Joos to his first year Philosophy students.
"Sure", replied one student confidently.
"Okay", said another almost hesitantly.
I was sitting in the back of the room along with a dozen other students eagerly awaiting the Professor's response. This was about ten years ago when I was still young and naive enough to think that a philosophical mind can change the world.
"If you want to know how smart you are", Professor Joos continued, "just compare yourself to an idiot!"
The class laughed. Who would have thought that Philosophy 101 could have been that much fun? But underneath all that laughter there was something more serious, something more meaningful. And it is only now, ten years later, that I think I understand what my old, venerable Professor was really trying to say.
I am now a 45 year old English teacher in Bangkok. I have also spent four years trying to teach English in Korea, so I know what it's like to be surrounded by idiots. I arrived in Thailand the beginning of June of this year. I've spent two months going to countless job interviews in Bangkok. Some good, some bad. I am now teaching full time at a reputable language school in the heart of Bangkok. (More on that a bit later.) During that time I searched the internet for advice, including ajarn.com. Anything that I can take with me to the interview. Again, some good advice, some bad.
Having been warned-- or advised-- that appearance is very important here in Thailand, (just as important as Japan, Korea, or Taiwan I suppose), I set out on these interviews. Personally I couldn't care less if my socks didn't match my pants, or what my interviewer thought of my Bart Simpson tie. (My flashy ties are conversation starters. My students like them, and that's just fine with me.)
Most of the advice for teachers on the Thailand websites struck me as either superficial or downright absurd.
--- Wear only long sleeve plain white shirts.
--- Make sure your shoes are dark and have laces.
--- No facial hair. You don't want to look like a monster.
--- Apply a superfluous amount of deodorant. There are plenty of people on the skytrain.
--- Make sure your teeth are pearly white.
--- Pop copious amounts of mints. Get rid of that chronic Western halitosis.
--- No flashy Bart Simpson ties.
--- No periwinkle blue socks with a cow brown belt.
--- Boxers, not briefs.
--- Briefs, not boxers.
And on and on and on. Okay, so I'm getting a bit carried away. But you get the point. Now I have nothing against looking good. And even less against smelling good. But what are these people thinking? Some of this advice is good. No one wants to walk into class with bad breath and pit stains. But let's not get carried away. A little common sense does go a long way. In my first two months in Bangkok, I actually followed some of this advice. Come to think of it, maybe that's why I got absolutely nowhere.
That's why I have come up with some of my own advice. Actually, it's not really my own. I wish it were. I think it's brilliant. I wish I would have followed this advice three months ago. I'm glad to share it with you. It's practical, pragmatic advice. I call it, Advice You Can Truly Use. It's in no particular order, but each one, I believe, is important.
So, you're a qualified ESL teacher seeking a job in Bangkok. What to do? Where to go? When to go? Who to see? Why even bother? How to get there?
1) Before finding a job, find a friend.
Don't make the same mistake I did and try to do everything by yourself. Find the support
and encouragement in the ESL community that you will need to get started. And you will
need a lot of support and encouragement.
2) Trust if you must, but verify to clarify.
This is a variation of Ronald Reagan's principle of "trust but verify" when he dealt with the
former Soviet Union. Obviously, we must begin to trust at some point during the interview
process. But it's important to remember some common sense rules. The old expression
"don't take no for an answer" may work in certain situations, but there are times when we
shouldn't take 'yes' for an answer either. Remember, an interview is a two-way street. Do
some research. Talk to people. Ask questions-- lots of questions. And don't take yes for an answer. It's not what people say that matters, it's what they DO.
3) Separate the wheat from the chaff.
You do this by asking one question, and one question alone: "What support systems and
mentorship programs do you have in place to ensure the success and continued improve-
ment of your teachers?" If there is no such system in place, don't walk, RUN to the nearest
Schools and agencies also separate the wheat from the chaff. We all do it, so let's not
pretend it doesn't happen. I've been to agencies advertising for corporate ESL teachers
where I had to take a grammar test. That was their foolish and inept way of attempting
to know the good from the bad teachers. These agencies were run by other Westerners
who should have known better. A far better way would be to actually observe us teaching.
But they would be forced to leave the comfort of their offices. So instead they continue to
choose the lazy approach. It is also interesting to note that a lot of these same agencies advertise for teachers every two or three weeks!
They are either for the teachers, or they are against them.
4) Plan and prepare constantly, and teach in accordance with what matters most.
It is important not only to prepare for the job interview, it is also essential to plan and
prepare for the lessons we're going to teach. This shows professionalism and pride in
our work. To not prepare is to not care. And our students deserve the best that we have
to offer. I once had an interview at a well known Bangkok language school where the interviewer, a middle-aged Thai woman, looked up from her paper and asked me, "So Michael, are you the one with the Engineering degree?" For the record, my name is Steve and my degree is in Philosophy. Just because some of your interviewers are unprofessional and unprepared, doesn't mean that you should be too. (It is also interesting to note that she didn't much care for my Marilyn Monroe tie.)
Is is very important to ask yourself two essential questions that will help you to become a
--- What are the three most important values in my life?
--- What are the top three things that I look for in a school?
In my case it is this: The three most important values in my life are honesty, trust, and co-operation. I'll throw respect in there as well. The three top things that I look for in a school are a limited stress environment which contributes to a healthy atmosphere and ensures the continued good health, physical and emotional, of its teachers; a sense of fun and play in the classroom where students and teachers want to be there and look forward to coming back; and teacher support, encouragement and mentorship which will contribute and ensure the teacher's continued success within the organization.
That's what's important to me, and I look for schools that incorporate each and every one of these values. Different teachers, like different schools, have different values. It's important to match teachers and schools based on values. I was once asked why I teach according to my values. I teach according to my values because I LIVE according to my values. Consistency means something. It's that simple.
5) Surround yourself with great people.
This is not just a five word sentence. These five words are a way of life, and they can change your life forever. I know, because these five words have changed mine. In his book "Leadership", former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani advises everyone to do this. Teachers are leaders-in-the-making, and leaders are also great teachers. All good teachers and great leaders recognize and accept their limitations. By surrounding yourself with great people-- by purposely seeking out the company of others greater and better than yourself-- you are helping to make yourself greater and better in the process.
I am extremely fortunate. I just started to teach full time at AUA Rajadamri. I am constantly surrounded by great people-- great teachers, far better than I will ever be. People like Dee Parker, Phil Chappell, Jefferey Taschner, John Wrenshall, Steve Tait, Khun Pao Dabbaransi, and great teachers like Andy Harris, Sean O'Malley, James McBride, and my mentor Patrick Joyce. (If I've neglected to mention others, I apologize.) Most of these people have taken the time to teach me-- and others-- how to become a better teacher. I am eternally greatful for this, and I look forward to learning more from these great teachers and leaders.
Training teachers has the ancillary effect of turning good teachers into better people. The support and encouragement that teachers receive at AUA does just that. I'm not sure if the staff at AUA realizes this, but they should. Schools must support their teachers by training them properly and encouraging their need to grow and improve. Not only as teachers, but as people.
6) Put people into two distinct categories: Those who are contributors to your success, and
those who are impediments to it.
This is another way of separating the wheat from the chaff, but it also serves another important function. It forces people to take their responsibilities seriously, especially when a large part of their responsibility involves looking out for you and ensuring your safety and well being. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people here-- and elsewhere in the ESL world-- who want to see foreigners fail. These are the people who don't want to see foreigners succeed where they haven't-- or feel they haven't-- and who will continually put obstacles in our way. These people are not only a nuisance, they are dangerous, and should be avoided at all costs.
Those who take the time and put in the effort to contribute to another's success are a rare breed. They fully understand the immense importance of this endeavor. Success breeds success. It's a win-win situation. By ensuring the continued success of our fellow teachers, we ensure the continued success of us all, students and teachers alike.
Of course there is a lot more advice out there, and I welcome more of it from others. By surrounding myself with great people I now finally realize what Professor Joos really meant all those years ago. You may feel comfortable being in the company of a room full of idiots. You may even feel superior. But odds are you'll never really learn anything. And you'll never become greater or better than you are at that moment.
By surrounding yourself with great people, you have a wonderful opportunity. The opportunity to change. The opportunity to learn. The opportunity to improve. The opportunity to grow. Schools who do not allow their teachers to change, learn, improve, and grow-- or schools who do not, for whatever reason, give their teachers this opportunity, are not worth our time, effort, and energy. It's not that they're bad schools, although a lot of them are. If teachers are not given these opportunities, then how can the students change, learn, improve, and grow? And isn't that why we're all here?