Steve Schertzer

Show me that you love me

The Bangkok freak show, and my response to John Wilson.


I should say from the start that I have absolutely nothing against looking good. I have nothing against smelling good either. I can apply aftershave and deodorant along with the best of them. But if I see another article from a director of an institute lecturing English teachers on how to dress, talk, walk, and smell, I'm going to burst a blood vessel.

I have been writing articles, columns, and blog entries for ajarn.com since 2004. I have received countless letters from well qualified, caring, and dedicated teachers who have spent weeks, sometimes months in Bangkok looking for a good job. Did I mention that they dress well? Maybe not Armani suits, but hey, what can you expect when you're jobless in Bangkok?

Appearances to Thais are more important than qualifications? Really? I don't know about that. Important, yes. Very important? Yes. More important than qualifications? That's like so third world. So Hollywood come Oscar night. Once school directors start putting looking good above doing good, then schools deserve the teachers they get.

A man wearing a Dire Straits T-shirt with crumbs on his mustache. A seedy-looking woman wearing a faded cotton dress. Teachers with body-piercings and tattoos showing up at job interviews. American high-schools and colleges are full of teachers who spend their lunch periods picking fleas out of their beards. (And the men are even worse!) I'm not making excuses for these people. It's impossible to defend the antics of many so-called English teachers in this part of the world. Many are just young kids who just want to experience Southeast Asia while others are post-60's hippies who pine for a return of the "good old days", or perhaps missed them altogether.

Here's a thought, Mr. Wilson: Don't hire them. We all know that Bangkok is a freak show. That's not news. Enjoy your interview with the bearded lady or the three-legged teacher, then boot them out of your air-conditioned office if that pleases you.

Here's another thought, Mr. Wilson: If you don't hire them, somebody else will. There's always some nut bag or fruitcake in this industry who salivates at the thought of some foreign freak with three eyes or two noses to place in front of a class. The classroom could be in Thailand, Korea, China, or Timbuktu. That's the nature of this industry. There's a whole other side to your "First Impressions Count" philosophy, and this is it.

Charles Manson can step off an American Airlines flight tomorrow, take a taxi from Suvarnabhumi to just about any language school and land a teaching gig faster than you can say "Helter Skelter." That's another truth of this industry. Somebody is hiring these people or else they wouldn't be here. And there wouldn't be so many of them. You see, looking like a bohemian does have its advantages in the Bangkok freak show.

Looking good is very important, but it's not the be all and end all of one's work experience here. Remember John Mark Karr, the weirdo who confessed to killing Jon Benet Ramsey? He taught at a school in Bangkok too. He dressed well too, better than most of the other English teachers. Thailand is full of impeccably dressed pedophiles.

You can show up to the interview in an Armani suit, a silk tie, cuff links, and alligator shoes. You can speak with all the authority of the leader of the free world. You can smell like a pine forest on a hot Bangkok afternoon. But at the end of the day, you're still nothing more than a foreign freak with three eyes or two noses. That's what Thais, Koreans, the Chinese, the Japanese, and just about everyone else sees when we go to an interview. That's what "appearances are more important than qualifications" really means in this industry.

Speaking of interviews, I was at one last month. In his email, Mr. Tony promised me 45,363.64 baht a month net to teach all subjects at a private school. I go to his office. By the way, I was wearing gray trousers, a plain white shirt, and a conservative tie, along with nice loafers to match my pants. Very chic! I filled out an application and waited for five minutes. Mr. Tony comes out to meet me. We small talk. He tells me a bit about the school. Then he shows me an agreement that he wants me to sign. I read it over. It says that I will make 37,000 baht net per month. I ask about the 45,000 baht and change he mentioned in his email. He says, "Oh, I pay you for your vacation. That is 3,000 baht more per month. Then you get two free meals in the school canteen every day. That is 5,000 baht per month that you don't pay. So that's 45,363.64."

You see where I'm going with this. Let's call this Thai math. Actually, Mr. Tony was Chinese but that doesn't matter. That's the nature of the industry, remember? The other side.

Five thousand baht for meals in the school canteen? What in the world is for lunch, steak tartar? Lobster in a creamy white wine sauce? I've seen Thai lunches for 20 baht. With a fried egg on top! I asked Mr. Tony about a non-immigrant B visa and the documents he would need to give me to apply for one. He had no idea how to go about applying for this visa.

I asked when he would take me to see the school. After you sign an agreement with me, he answered. I asked if I could speak with teachers at he school. After you sign an agreement with me, he replied. You see a pattern here? You gotta love the Bangkok freak show.

(You can read our exchange of emails also posted on ajarn.com this month. It's called "My Tango With Tony the Tarantula: Pimps and Whores in the TEFL-A-Go-go." Fascinating stuff.) Read article.

Okay so I went against my better judgment and saw a recruiter. I know I have to stop doing that, but I was bored sitting in my room watching CNN. Unlike Korea where recruiters take a one-time lump sum from the school, here at the Bangkok freak show recruiters have been known to skim money every month from teacher's paychecks. About twenty percent of a teacher's monthly salary can end up in a recruiter's pocket. Or in somebody's pocket. Certainly not mine.

Many language schools are not much better, Mr. Wilson. I'm sure you know that. I recently applied for a full-time EFL teacher's position at a well-known Bangkok institution. They boast five branches in the Greater Metropolitan Area. Let's see if we can guess which school I'm talking about. (Hint: It's where the New York Stock Exchange is located. Got it? Okay, let's try another hint. It's the title of an Academy Award winning movie staring Michael Douglas. Oh I love this game! I wish I could play it all day!)

Anyway, the interview was fine. I dressed well. The salary was 47,500 for five days a week. I wanted this job. I could see myself working there. Thing is, those five days a week could include, (and usually does), Saturday and Sunday. I wanted at least one of those days free to pursue some part-time work. They could not guarantee either a Saturday or a Sunday off. So I went back to my room to think about it.

I emailed the title of the Michael Douglas movie school some time later to request a compromise. I will give you my weekends, I said, if you will let me work six days a week for 62,000-63,000 baht a month. I can teach seven days a week for more, if you like. Their response. Maybe the New York Stock Exchange location school is not for you. But we will keep you on file if anything comes up.

Ah-ha! So they take the teacher's evenings and weekends, offer a limited salary with no chance of overtime or extra classes to earn more money, and expect the teachers to kiss their ring. I'm not maligning this school. During the interview it did seem that they were serving the students well. But I am ambitious and I should never feel that I should apologize for wanting to work extra hours for more money. I hope you are not one of those schools, Mr. Wilson. One of those schools that play God with teacher's hours and pay. "We only have eight hours a week for you this term, Ricky. Sorry about that. But hey, you sure look good in that suit. And that silk tie really brings out the colour of your eyes."

English teachers are not the only buffoons in the TEFL industry. I've been to interviews which would make a Marx Brothers movie look absolutely normal by comparison. So here I am, dressed in my Sunday best, (and it's only Wednesday!) I step into Miss Wonsipoon's office and sit down on a nice padded chair. "How are you, Jason?", she asks.

"I'm fine, but I have no idea who Jason is. My name is Steve."

She looks down at a resume. "Oh, so did you major in Psychology in America?"

Obviously not my resume.

"No. I majored in Philosophy in Canada." Nice to see she was prepared. When Michael Jackson's life starts to make more sense than the Bangkok freak show, it may be wise to ask yourself some very serious questions. For instance, "What the f**k am I doing here?!?!"

I've been offered jobs here, Mr. Wilson. Jobs that sound like something you'd read about in "The Great Gatsby" and other novels coming out of the Great Depression.

"We'll give you $900.00 a month, Mr. Steve. But we can only pay you for 10 months. So you can have a nice two month vacation with no pay. And because the school is poor, we have no health insurance for our workers. And no dental plan either, so I hope you have strong teeth. And we can't give you a work permit, so you'll have to hop the border every 90 days. Enjoy your stay in Thailand."

No thank you. I have worked very hard over the years and know exactly what I deserve. These 30,000 baht a month jobs in Bangkok are fine for 25 year olds or 65 year olds. I must admit that between 25 and 65, the money is nice and certainly comes in handy. Personally, I don't think that 60,000 baht a month for a full six days a week is asking too much.

I put most language school directors, recruiters, and supervisors in the same category with pimps, tuk-tuk drivers and Patpong hookers. They're all after the same thing: Money. This industry is so obsessed with money as to make Bernie Madoff green with envy. So let's get that out into the open. In our part of the world, money talks. Here it screams.

Many of the emails I've received from disgruntled but dedicated teachers over the years, say that most Thais, (or Koreans or the Chinese, Japanese, etc.), can't tell the difference between a real teacher and a sex tourist. You know what? Neither can foreigners. Not until it's too late. That's another thing we lie about.

I know that expats (farangs) don't like to be pimped out by their Thai employers to interview other expats (farangs.) That point is painfully obvious to anyone who has had the misfortune to interview with one of these lackies. Sorry for the brutal language here, but I'm getting sick and tired of being in the same room with farang interviewers 15-20 years my junior who have shown me little more than mistrust and disdain because I want to work hard to help the students succeed. I am made to feel like I am trying to hone in on their job, whatever the hell that is. The assistant to the assistant's assistant. The only white boy on staff who can ask with a straight face, "So, what is your teaching philosophy?"

At a recent interview at a Bangkok Christian school, the farang assistant to the assistant's assistant had no idea who I was. He had not read my resume prior to the interview and had not read my introduction letter which accompanied it. Perhaps I didn't get the job because I was not qualified enough for the grade 2 homeroom teacher's job for which I was interviewing. Fair enough. But at least the farang interviewer could have prepared himself. And he could have regarded me as more than an annoyance; a scheduled interruption in an otherwise spectacular day in the Land of Smiles.

Schools should not be pimping out their responsibility for finding good quality teachers to other foreign teachers who don't give a crap. Or to some slimy recruiting agency who obviously does not have the best interests of the students at heart. It's stupid and dangerous, and perpetuates the third-world backwards thought that this society, and many others, has been mired in for centuries.

In your short article, Mr. Wilson, a lot was said about the sartorial obligation of teachers, but nary a word was mentioned about actual teaching. Nothing was said about pedagogy or methodology. (Perhaps that would have made you sound pompous but hey, that's why we're here, right? To teach.) Nothing was said about dedication and personal commitment to the teaching profession. Nothing was said about a teacher's obligation to establish a rapport with his students. Nothing was said about the love a teacher should feel, (for his students and the teaching profession), whenever he steps into the classroom. I'm sure you meant well, but teaching is a lot more than looking the part.

So here's my message to you as a language school director, Mr. Wilson. It's the same message that I have for every school who seeks to hire good quality teachers. Show me that you love me. Show me that you care. Show me that you really, really, really want good quality teachers in your school. Dedicated teachers who put the interests of the students first. Ambitious teachers who want to work. Kind teachers who love what they do. Show me the respect that teachers like this deserve. Show me that you value them. And then--- show me the money. Show me the moneeeeeeeeey! SHOW ME THE MONNNNEEEEEYYYYY!!!!!! Because good quality teachers deserve to be well compensated for their hard work and dedication.

Learn to distinguish between good quality teachers and sex tourists. It's not that difficult. Do some research. Do a background check. Prepare yourself for the interview. Ask the right questions. Ask for demo lessons. As many as you want until you are satisfied. Put surveillance cameras in the classrooms. I don't care how expensive they are. Observe the teachers in action. We all have a responsibility for the children under our care.

Here's something else especially for those in Thailand. Have the documents for a non-immigrant B visa ready from the get-go. Hand out work visas for good quality dedicated teachers like candy. I know this is an Immigration thing. So work closely, like teeth and gums, with the Immigration Department to ensure that ALL good quality teachers possess the proper and required documentation so that they can be legally employed.

These are the obligations and responsibilities that everyone in this profession has. It goes well beyond wearing the right clothes or sounding like James Earl Jones in a cave. It goes straight to the heart of taking your responsibilities seriously, never passing the buck, and consistently doing the right thing. First impressions may count. But it is every other impression and action after that that will either make you or break you.

I don't care how much teachers pay for their clothes. I don't care how many silk ties Johnny has. Or how many pairs of leather pumps Miss Farangteacher owns. It doesn't matter what anyone's father does for a living, or whether their mother is a housewife or a CEO. If you're a good, caring, qualified, and dedicated teacher, you're hired. If you stink on ice and make no effort to teach well, you're history. That's the way the real world works.

I don't mean to sound rough, Mr. Wilson. I know that there are some capable and competent language school directors who do look out for the best interests of the students in their school. It seems like you're one of them. If that's the case, then I thank you for that. My objective here was to present a small part of the other side. A side with so many seedy and dodgy characters, that I feel sick to my stomach whenever I have to meet someone from this industry.

This industry need a lot of fixing, Mr. Wilson. I'm sure you'll agree with that. First and foremost this industry needs teachers who care about the lives of students. Second, it needs school principals, vice-principals, and administrators who care about the lives of students. Third, it needs language school directors and legitimate recruiters who care about the lives of students. Forth, okay I'm beginning to see a pattern here.

Let's focus on what is really important.




Comments

Good note! And yes this email / letter does show several key factors RE Thai schools. Don't waste your energy! I have taught in Thailand for several years, after the 4th year I saw the true meaning of Thai schools. Thai teachers who can't speak English. DESPITE the fact they are in the MEP program. Others just want to " show off " yes ! Thai's love to boast ! Now I have extended my contract at a college in China, Gary a friend of mine is coming in Aug, Rob another guy ( who taught in Thailand for 10 years) - is now doing his 3rd year in China. Another friend just went back to the UK last week. They say in Thai “ coun thai tum ang “ or Thai’s do it themselves.

By Kanadian, (8th June 2010)

Your essays are really entertaining and i like the messages you are sending. However they are making me change my mind about going to thailand to teach.

By corey, seattle, wa (21st January 2010)

I am standing and clapping.

The dollar (or lack of) is driving the poor quality of teachers and causing so much damage to those who are qualified and who genuinely GET the joy of teaching. How much long term money would a language school make if it built a reputation of pure professionalism...and this includes appearance.

Hire correctly, monitor correctly, pay correctly. Everyone is a winner.

By Matt, Myanmar (18th January 2010)

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