Steve Schertzer

Happy hour at the ESL bar and grill

Amusing the students to death

One of the things I like to do during the first week of a new course is have the students write a letter to me. I say to them that you are not just students, you are people; and as people I want to get to know you better. So I draw a blank letter page on the board and write the following:

Tell me about yourself:

Future/present job
Plans for the future
Why are you studying English?
What do you expect from this class?

Obviously there are variations of this exercise depending on the age of the students. While all of these aspects of one's life are important, I like to focus on the last two for adults, and the last three for children and adolescents. Education, especially ESL, is primarily about the future, and there should be specific reasons why each student is taking an English class. "I'm here because my mommy and daddy told me to" is fine for the boy or girl who writes this, but as a teacher I need to know exactly what they will do with the English they are taught. I've said this before: An effective teacher teaches today, but does not teach for today.

So when writing their letter to me, I tell my students to be specific. I tell them to focus on what they need, not on what they want. I am not concerned with what they want; I am, however, very concerned about what they need. They may want more fun and games; they may want me to spoon feed them by writing all the grammar rules on the board even though it's in the book; they may want more listening and grammar; but, in the end, an effective teacher must give the students what they need. A student who says "I need to improve my English speaking ability because sometimes I travel overseas to meet with clients" is being very specific and has a good reason to be in my class. I can certainly help that person.

Now I do admit that this letter writing exercise is a "fancy-ass" way of assessing the needs of the students. Fair enough. And the truth be known, it does cover the teacher's bottom especially during the last week of class when I hand out another sheet of paper and ask the students two questions:

1) Did this class meet your expectations?
2) What did you learn from taking this class? Be specific by giving examples.

Notice I used the term "this class"? Not, did I meet your expectations? Not, what did you learn from me? The focus is on the class; not the teacher.

What I find absolutely maddening are school directors, school owners, principals, vice-principals, education consultants, and ESL trainers who tell teachers that we need more "student-centered" classes where students take responsibility for their English language learning. "Don't focus on your teaching", these education trainers say at TESOL conferences; "focus on the students' learning. Don't tell me what you taught; tell me what the students learned."

Great! Fantastic! I love it! More, more! The thing is when a student complains for whatever reason, (the class is too difficult; grammar is boring; the people on the CD speak too fast, the teacher is too strict, the teacher is not fun...), BANG! The teacher gets called into the office and has the spotlight on him. All of a sudden the students are not responsible for their learning. All of a sudden we're focusing on teaching, not learning.

I have seen this happen time and again at different schools and in different countries. The reason this happens is simple: No leadership at the top. This lack of leadership by ESL trainers or education consultants coupled with a fundamental incompetence of those above them is a recipe for disaster. It makes for paranoid and frustrated teachers and disappointed students. Those running the daily operations of the school and the owners above them seem to think only for today, or at most, term to term. How do we make and keep the students happy so that they will sign up for the next level? This short-term thinking is one of the things that is killing education and ruining the lives of so many students. I would think that those students who are serious about learning would become very happy once they realize how much they are learning. If we are going to take their money, then the least we can do for them is provide a service from educators who are capable of looking beyond today.

I left Cambodia in July 2012 after living there for a year and a half and teaching at an English language school for 15 months. It didn't take me very long to realize that Cambodia has a very long way to go before its educational establishment reaches anything resembling the 21st century. The same can be said for Thailand.
I'm not speaking specifically here about government corruption or stifling poverty or child prostitution, although they are huge problems that must be overcome before Cambodia becomes economically prosperous. I speak specifically about those in the educational establishment (both Khmer and foreigners) who, for reasons of their own, are sabotaging all efforts to improve the system by ignoring the obvious.

Two recent examples from interviews come to mind, though there have been countless similar examples in my teaching career. My first interview was at an "international" school. Those who have spent any quality time in Phnom Penh know that there are only two, maybe three real international schools in Cambodia. The rest simply love to use the word "international" in the company name. The assistant director at this school, a Khmer, was looking for a foreigner to create curricula for K-12. It sounded like a new challenge and was something I had been looking for.

During the interview he took me to a group of computers and told me to create curricula for grades 7-12. I looked at him a bit puzzled. "This could take a while," I said.

"It's okay," he replied. "I give you 20 minutes."

"Twenty minutes to create curricula for six grades?" He nodded yes. "You don't mean a lesson plan, do you, because that's different? You mean curricula for six grades complete with teaching methodology, scheduling, testing strategy, teaching and learning objectives..."

"Yes," he said.

"I'll do it at home," I told him. "I have a computer in my room so I'm more comfortable doing this at home." That was my way of telling him to piss off.

This Khmer assistant director gave me his email address and told me to create curricula from K-12, (13 grades), and told me to email to him by 4:00 that afternoon. I said, yes no problem, and then walked out. I put this ridiculous experience on my Facebook page much to the consternation of a couple of Khmer teachers who took issue with it. However, a Canadian teacher and author, and someone who helped to create curricula for the Ontario public schools herself, left a message on my Facebook page saying how absurd it all was. Creating curricula is done in groups, she said, and it takes months of writing and revising.

The second example was far more disturbing since the "expert-in-charge" was a Westerner. Let's call him Mr. Education Consultant since that's what he called himself when we met. (Not the "Mr." Just the "Education Consultant" part). While sitting in Mr. Education Consultant's office in a nice suburb of Phnom Penh, I talked about my educational philosophy. I consider myself a serious teacher, I began; education first and foremost. I give students what they need.

We give students what they need too, Mr. Education Consultant replied, but we wrap it in what they want. The main thing is to keep them happy.

Ah, here we go. Keep them happy. That's what I was waiting to hear. I hope that this school is not like most of the others, I said, where something called "edutainment" is elevated above any attempt at genuine teaching and learning.

Anyone in the room at the time would have thought that I had just called Mr. Education Consultant the vilest of names. He put his hand on his hip and leaned over as if to scold me for questioning his expertise. It was quite a sight and at that moment I knew I would not last very long at this ESL Bar and Grill.

In one of my classes was a nurse in her 20's. She couldn't have been making much money, I reminded Mr. Education Consultant. In fact, in her letter to me she wrote that her dream was to help her aging and financially poor parents by learning English. That way, she could earn more money and buy a house for them. That's a wonderful goal and one well worth pursuing. These are the students I will go to the end of the earth for. This is why it is vitally important to put the games aside and focus on education. But Mr. Education Consultant would have none of my educational philosophy. Keep the students happy and act like a more dynamic teacher is what he and so many others are looking for.

It is easy to see why this dumb educational philosophy has taken such a strong stranglehold over the whole TEFL industry. For starters, in Asia foreigners like Mr. Education Consultant are scared. For the most part, they are male, middle-age, maybe experiencing a mid-life crisis, sick of living in the country of their birth, mostly married or involved with a local and her family, and living out a fantasy they cannot get at home. These men want to remain in Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam where the living is cheap and easy. And hey, if bamboozling the locals into thinking they are actually learning English keeps them there, all the better. The educational incompetence of many of the locals like the assistant director in my first example simply paves the way for educational charlatans like Mr. Education Consultant who just deign to keep the students happy.

Also, this mindless educational philosophy of keeping the students happy is an extension of contemporary society where Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter rule the day. It's easy to turn the daylight hours of student life into a circus when at 5:00 most of those very same students (and teachers and ESL trainers and education consultants) go home to amuse themselves to death on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. The need for ESL trainers and education consultants to train teachers properly, to work with their students so that they focus, concentrate, and study for exams becomes, for them, a useless exercise in a society where people are too busy watching cats dance on Youtube and downloading lesbian porn. Who has time for the rigors of education when there are 72 pictures of what you had for lunch to upload to your Facebook page? I am not blaming Facebook and Youtube for the decline of education; I am blaming everyone involved in education that have simply thrown up their hands and have given in to any pressure to join the lowest common denominator.

Say what you want about people like Mr. Education Consultant, but he has certainly read his Huxley. These education consultants and ESL trainers may not be deep thinkers, but they are fully aware that, in the words of British novelist J.D. Ballard, "Brave New World is a far shrewder guess at the likely shape of a future tyranny than Orwell's vision of Stalinist terror in Nineteen Eighty-Four.... Nineteen Eighty-Four has never really arrived, but Brave New World is around us everywhere."

Huxley knew of "man's almost infinite appetite for distractions" and so do ESL trainers and education consultants. As Neil Postman describes in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, "Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us." So give the students what they love, keep them happy, and fool them into thinking that they are learning. Turn the classroom into a Huxlean version of a hedonistic circus and ruin the futures of thousands of students so that you can continue to live on the cheap in Southeast Asia. To think that one can change the lives of financially poor students by keeping them happy in the classroom is tantamount to believing that a small group of dissidents can overthrow dictatorial regimes by simply cracking jokes about Fidel Castro and playing "Pin the Tail on Kim Jong-Il." Education is far too important to leave to these amateur trainers who spend most of their time fooling people in the light of day and fumbling around in the dark of night desperately searching for the light switch to educational leadership.

It has become platitude to suggest that there is no substitute for hard work. It has now become old-fashioned to advise students to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Traditional teachers are now seen as suspect and out-of-place if they dare try to teach their students what they need to know to compete in an ever increasing competitive work environment. Notions like hard-work, determination, and loyalty to a craft are now seen as quaint. The truth is ESL trainers and people like Mr. Education Consultant have no inkling as to how to improve education, or an innovative idea in their head. They are willing to tell students anything to get their business--- anything but an inconvenient truth. Here is one such inconvenient truth:

In his book The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims that it takes the average person around 10,000 hours to become proficient at anything; whether learning to play a musical instrument or learning to speak a second language, people must spend large amounts of their time and put in tremendous effort to master a specific skill. Gladwell calls this the 10,000 Hour Rule. Whether or not we agree (perhaps for some people it may take around 8,000 hours to learn to speak English proficiently, while for others it may take 12,000 hours), the truth is, the vast majority of students must work very hard, both in school and at home, at learning to listen, speak, read, and write English if they hope to master the language with any proficiency. Now let's do some math.

Say that student 'A' is studying for five hours a week at the Happy-Go-Lucky English Language Institute (where all the students are happy and lucky!) To reach Gladwell's 10,000 hours, student 'A' would have to study English for 2,000 weeks or 500 months or 41.66 years.

Now I am not suggesting that teachers walk into class and tell their students that it will take most of them 40 years to learn English. But it's easy to see why this industry is in the state that it's in. It's easy to understand why ESL trainers and education consultants tell prospective teachers to play it safe, give the students what they want, and, above all, keep them happy. It's easy to see why this industry is full of charlatans and liars. They are like Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men" who angrily shouted at Tom Cruise's character in the courtroom, "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!" They truly believe that if they coddle the students, spoon-feed them, and treat them like children, the educational establishment would improve. And who knows, the students might even like us more.

That's as insulting as it is stupid. It says much more about the insecurity of those foreigners involved in this industry than it can ever say about the students these foreign "experts" claim to be teaching. To think that students can't handle a simple universal truth like study hard to get good grades is the epitome of ignorance and the height of arrogance. It's to assume that the students are too stupid to appreciate the truth; it's to give the students far less credit than they deserve. And what students deserve is the truth. THE STUDENTS CAN HANDLE THE TRUTH! The students need to know that their English teachers are in the room working for a better future for the students, not just their own paycheck. The students deserve leaders in the classroom with big, bold ideas; educational ideas based on universal values that first and foremost will improve their lives.

With that in mind, I have come up with eight objectives or habits, an eight point plan, (call them what you will), that each English language school must have and practice.

--- Leadership at the top and at all levels
--- An organized, well balanced, and structured curriculum
--- Clear and concise objectives for the teachers and students
--- And effective and efficient pedagogy
--- An effective strategy for the success of the teachers and students
--- Various learning exercises to facilitate understanding
--- Dedicated educators who are process driven and results oriented
--- An endgame

Let me make one thing crystal clear. Everyone associated with the school, from the owner and director of studies, to the education consultants and trainers, to the administrators, to the teachers and students, to the janitor who cleans the toilets; EVERYONE must agree that the school have these eight objectives and work together to implement them as smoothly and effectively as possible. And most important, the principal or director of studies must stand by their serious and dedicated teachers while the curriculum and pedagogy is being implemented.

Each course, whether it's a 10 week 60 hour part-time course or a 20 week 120 hour full-time course, must have an endgame. By an endgame I mean something that allows each student to achieve results. This could be in the form of traditional endgames, a mid-term test and a final exam; in the form of a non-traditional endgame, class presentations, role-play exercises, or speeches; or a creative combination of both. The fact is that students need an endgame. They have a right to know how well (or poorly) they are doing. This is primarily how they will be evaluated. Courses without an endgame will be seen by the students and teacher as a joke, and will end up being treated as such.

In my eight point plan to improve the quality of English language education I use the term 'effective' in relation to developing curricula, implementing pedagogy, and creating a strategy for success. There is a reason for that. First, here are four definitions of the word 'efficient' from

1. adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing the intended or expected result: effective teaching methods; effective steps toward peace.
2. actually in operation or in force; functioning: The law becomes effective at midnight.
3. Producing a deep or vivid impression; striking: an effective photograph.
4. Prepared and available for service, especially military service.

Notice the fourth definition. That's because the word 'effective' originates from the Latin 'effectivus' which has a military connotation. Teachers, who are effective, know exactly what they are doing and implement their strategy for success with pin-point accuracy and precision.
Strategy is another word I like to use when it comes to education and effective teaching. The word 'strategy' also has a military connotation as in this definition from "STRATEGY IS the utilization, during both peace and war, of all of a nation's forces, through large-scale, long-range planning and development, to ensure security or victory."

And this definition from the same website:

"A plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result: a strategy for getting ahead in the world."

Lest those who lack reading comprehension skills conclude that I walk into class in full military sartorial splendor barking out orders like a drill sergeant, they would be wrong. But I am prepared. And I walk into each class with a plan: A lesson plan, a weekly plan, and a monthly plan. Let's look at the words that accompany these definitions: 'Accomplish', 'Purpose', 'Effective', 'Prepared', 'Plan', 'Strategy', 'Result.' These words seem foreign to those Western ESL trainers and education consultants who have no other purpose but to keep the students happy. Having an effective strategy means knowing where your students should be at every moment of the school term.

The subtitle of this blog is "Amusing the Students to Death." I chose that for a reason. Asymmetrical means without symmetry. Amoral means without morals. Amuse means without muse. What is muse? To muse is to think; more than that, to muse is to ponder, to think deeply. When we focus on amusing our students we are telling them not to think. We are telling them its okay not to ponder, not to deeply think about life and its attendant problems. This is as unacceptable as it is unforgivable. To tacitly tell students to forego their right to develop their rational faculties in exchange for fun and games is anathema to the whole concept and importance of education. It is to fail the students miserably. It is to rob the students of their future. Foreign ESL trainers and education consultants living the good life in Southeast Asia: English education is about the student's future, not yours.

It is worth noting that this school where Mr. Education Consultant reigned was only six months old; a brand new ESL establishment in a swanky new building complete with air-conditioned classrooms and young smiling receptionists. It is also worth noting that after the first six months, this school went from having 120 students to retaining but 60 of them. Many of the ESL teachers that were there for the first six months were also gone. I was told by the former principal of that school, (she was let go after six months), that some of the teachers came to class drunk, stoned, or hung-over; if they bothered to show up to class at all. This is what happens when you don't focus on education. This is what happens when the locals are so educationally incompetent that they can't tell the difference between serious educators who have the best interest of the students at heart, and educational charlatans whose main concern is to keep the students happy. This is what happens when tried and true educational characteristics such as hard work, dedication, commitment, and teaching students to take responsibility for their own destiny are replaced with foreign ESL trainers and education consultants who worship at the altar of Bozo the Clown.

Countless other schools all across Asia--- from Thailand and Cambodia to Korea and Japan--- constantly lose students due to a failed educational policy that would have students focus more on their feelings than on their future. Far too many foreigners in the TEFL industry, especially ESL trainers and education consultants, have become paralyzed by their overwhelming desire to be loved. Maybe it was something lacking in their childhood, I don't know. This paralysis has prevented many of them from developing the courage to lead and to turn their students into future leaders so that these students can eventually lead their nation into future prosperity. In the end, this whole industry should be about empowering individuals, strengthening families, and helping to build nations. The TEFL industry is failing at all three. These insecure ESL trainers and education consultants have set the bar so low that all teachers have to do is walk into the classroom and look authoritative in a white shirt and tie. They don't have to do well; they just have to look good.

Doing well, coming to class prepared, having an effective teaching strategy that will help the students succeed, this is what students need; this is what students deserve. Not to wrap their needs and present them as something they want; not to keep them happy. This kind of tomfoolery has no place in the classroom.

It is time that these foreign educational charlatans are called out for their trickery and hocus-pocus version of English language education. It is about time that the locals be made aware of what perfidious educational hacks many of them are.

Having taught in Khon Kaen, Thailand and Phnom Penh, Cambodia from March 2010 to July 2012, I was extremely fortunate. In Khon Kaen I was honored to work alongside a foreign English Department Director who truly cared about the education of students. The same could be said about the language school in Phnom Penh. The Khmer principal emphasized education above any form of entertainment in the classroom. He defended me whenever a student complained that my classes were too difficult or when a student felt "too challenged." He wanted the students to, in his word, 'struggle'; for in struggling, that is how we all learn. I am grateful to both men, not only for the chance that I was given, but more importantly, for the chance they gave their students to struggle and learn. This opportunity given to students to struggle for their learning is something that most ESL trainers and education consultants shy away from because they are afraid of any reaction from the students. These two men are extremely rare in the morally and educationally bankrupt TEFL industry.

I still think of many of my students and the letters they wrote to me describing their hopes and dreams and goals for their future. I think of the young nurse working at Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh for so little money. All this nurse dreams of is improving her English so that her meager salary is increased; all this nurse hopes for is that her elderly parents not live out the last few years of their lives in a third-world shack without indoor plumbing. Instead, this nurse, and so many others like her, is being scammed out of their money by an industry that is content to amuse the students to death by turning English language education into a perverted version of happy hour at Joe's Bar. Teachers and students deserve better than that.


Nice to see a new article by Steve, I think as I couldn;t really get past the first three paragraphs before losing interest. I was kind of hoping for more of a typical Steve rant.

By Jack, North of where I was last time (19th September 2012)

Great stuff, Steve.

You had me smiling from start to finish.

What always gets me about articles like this, is the number of people who (a) take the time to read and dislike them and then (b) subsequently take even more time in writing a negative reply to them, without offering any credible alternative solutions or ideas.

By Jeff, Thailand (14th September 2012)

After reading your lengthy article, I can only conclude that you take yourself and your profession a notch too serious. It seems to me that you don't understand the South East Asian culture and want to run your classes the American way: all professional and a kind of survival of the fittest atmosphere. This might benefit a handful, but the majority of Asians is sitting in your class to enjoy themselves and to have fun. Please step down from that high horse and try to appreciate Asia. Or go home.

By kireb, Bangkok (12th September 2012)

"sick of living in the country of their birth, mostly married or involved with a local and her family, and living out a fantasy they cannot get at home. These men want to remain in Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam where the living is cheap and easy"

Which begs the question, "Why are you here?"

Are you not qualified to teach EAL/ESL in your home country?

By Steve, Doha, Qatar (11th September 2012)

Thanks Steve - You really nailed the topic.

Rookies - You Have Been Warned:


By Frank Deville, Bangers (9th September 2012)

Very interesting article Steve I agree with your philosophy that as teachers we should be educators aiming to meet our students needs rather than entertainers put in a classroom for the benefit of the school in order that they can say the have 'native English speaking teachers' on their books. I agree with the need to find out what our student's needs are. I believe before we can teach anyone we must understand what are the 'drivers' that are motivating them to learn.

I often hear teachers saying that the students only want to have 'fun' and play games. I think what the teachers are really saying is that the 'challenge' of teaching the students is beyond them and it is easier to entertain them rather than educate them. However, I do feel that games do have a place in the classroom. I subscribe to the philosophy of participatory learning and believe any games that are played in a lesson should have a clear purpose and be an extention of the 'learning' not just a 'time filler'. I have a colleague who teachers younger students who uses games to enhance the students confidence the games are used to re enforce learning and his students are already starting to exhibit new found English speaking skills. In this situation I think games are very beneficial to the students and learning as a whole.

I was interested to read about your experiences while been interviewed. Although I have not shared your experiences I came to Thailand wanting to teach 'my way' underpinned by my experiences of working with young people for more than 23 years in a wide rande of both informal and formal educational environments. Therefore, I opened my own school and am loving every minute of it. If I believe what the students say about our courses and the school they are loving it too.

Kindest regards


By Andy, Udon Thani (7th September 2012)

Your impressions are what a lot of people encounter when they begin teaching in SE Asia, and are mostly correct. However, it is apparent from your writing that you haven't taken the time to really understand these cultures and societies at a deeper level.

As teachers from western countries, we often come here with overly self-important goals and expectations. Every one of us is going to "change the system" and "show these people how education is done," etc.. etc...

While I would not try to defend the current Thai educational system, I have certainly begun to understand it more in the context of Thai society.

What we have is a traditional system of western education and bureaucracy copied and pasted over top of a society that does not really, at any level, understand why things are this way. That includes students, their parents, teachers, and even administrators. Everyone plays their roles as well as they know how, but they are all acting, in a way.

We like to believe that we are here to improve things--to alleviate people from poverty, to help the country "develop," and so on, but in the end, the society is going to have to demand educational reform before it really has a chance of happening, and a few foreign faces are not going to be able to "force" it on anyone. In the end, we are only fooling ourselves.

By debate101, (5th September 2012)

Good observation about the TEFL industry being focused on sizzle rather than steak. You cant blame some enterprising (though completely unqualified) person for wanting to keep their business afloat once they've opened their doors. The blame for their lack of substance isn't just their fault, it's the consumer as well who is more concerned with turning up, and getting recognition no matter how little they put into the experience.

One thing that is sorely lacking in my opinion are establishments that don't adhere to a well-established cirriculum. Instead, you have some of the most piss-poor cirricula ever written all because someone figured they were as qualified as anyone to spit one out. Bad idea.

By Matt, (3rd September 2012)

'These men want to remain in Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam where the living is cheap and easy. And hey, if bamboozling the locals into thinking they are actually learning English keeps them there, all the better.'

Well done! Finally someone tells it how it really is. Hopefully it will shame a few TEFL jockeys into retirement or send them scurrying back to their home countries..... I won't hold my breath though

By Del, Thailand (3rd September 2012)

"Great! Fantastic! I love it! More, more! The thing is when a student complains for whatever reason, (the class is too difficult; grammar is boring; the people on the CD speak too fast, the teacher is too strict, the teacher is not fun...), BANG! The teacher gets called into the office and has the spotlight on him"

That certainly had me laughing out loud Steve. Thankfully I haven't been in that situation too often but you are absolutely spot on.

By philip, (3rd September 2012)

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