Steve Schertzer

Sticking up for passionate teachers

Are we sore thumbs fighting the good fight?

As someone lucky enough to write a column (or a blog entry) for I receive some letters every now and then from people all over the world. Fortunately, most of the emails are positive. I do get the odd letter calling me all sorts of names. But I love them all, so please keep them coming.

This is a column (or a blog entry) that I should have written long ago. It is to thank those who have taken the time to email me. I do appreciate it and learn from all your letters. I say blog entry because a poster on a popular South Korean website, and a teacher in the EPIK program whom I've met, keeps telling me that it's not a column; it's a blog entry. Okay, johnhenry, whatever you say. You're much smarter than I.

Last month I wrote a column (or a blog entry) about Jane Doe, a pregnant 16 year old that I met on the streets of a central Thailand city. I received a few interesting letters about that and I would like to share a bit of them with you. This from C.W. in Thailand.

Dear Steve,

I want to say thank you so much for the article you wrote on Jane Doe. I have only been in the ESL industry two years and alarmed at some of the characters that are allowed through the doors of a school let alone have contact with students. However, you have installed confidence in me that there are genuine teachers out there who do the job as a vocation rather than a means to buy beer and prostitutes. My conclusion is that because Thailand is still a poor country they cannot afford to pay good teachers a decent wage for their work. Do you think that's the reason?

I was starting to get very cynical over the whole situation out here (especially because I work with a bunch of people who clearly do NOT have the children's needs at the forefront of their minds.)

Just about all countries and schools do not pay good, dedicated, and caring teachers what they are truly worth. They simply can't afford to. Most caring teachers go into the profession because they they care. They care about the lives of children who are the future of any nation. Although money is important in all our lives, it usually isn't a major factor in why dedicated teachers, who are committed to the profession, choose to remain teachers.

You are right, C.W. when you say that "many of them are here just to go with prostitutes and drink beer." They give us all a bad name. Language schools should be judged not only by how much they are willing to pay competent teachers, but also on how often they are willing to hire them, keep them, and offer them benefits such as health care and a legitimate work visa. I'm sick of people telling me to just "cross the border every few months." That's illegal and schools who do that should be reported to the proper authorities.

S.H. writes,
Hello Steve,
I couldn't agree more with you about the sad reality that Jane Doe calls a life. This is a human being and a young girl at that. It's not about her. It's about the rest of humanity--- the ones who didn't question, didn't fight vigorously enough, didn't apply ourselves to the right goals for the right reasons, the ones who didn't care.

From America I went to Bangladesh to try to make a difference, and was spat upon, assaulted, lied to, cheated, and threatened. After 3 years of frustration (and I had some darn good jobs too), I finally bought a plane ticket to Thailand. After 2 years in Bangkok, I am dismayed to discover that it is mostly a veneer. There are so many underlying problems in this society which Thais simply refuse to acknowledge. This is not cultural arrogance on my part. They cannot live in isolation anymore and they know that. But they are so ill-equipped to deal with this inter-related world.

I am also aghast at the lack of appreciation by Thais of the differences between the typical sex tourist farangs and folks like me who want to live here peacefully, contribute to this nation, and help foster greater understanding and respect between Thais and foreigners. A salient point is the teaching and learning of English. What a scam it has turned out to be.

I have been trying to get a teaching job here in Thailand and have encountered all sorts of hurtles. Frankly, I don't know what schools want. Do they want your short-stay hippies or do they want to trust their children's future with folks like you and me who want to actually teach, show by example, and educate through experience? I am not in Thailand for the sunshine and the cheap women. Hell, I don't even drink alcohol. I like Thai food, the people, the smiles from the street vendors, and the shopping. Why can't I find a good teaching job where it really matters?

What do schools want from foreigners? In a word, S.H., they want everything. They want to make money off our fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed look without having to pay us much or, more importantly, without having to respect the work that you and I do. I wrote about this extensively for while teaching in Korea.

You said in your letter to me that "Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that was never colonized by western powers."

True. Now think about this. Maybe it is this fact which scares Thailand the most. Maybe it is the fact that Thailand has never been colonized by the West that prevents them from allowing foreign teachers to reach their full potential in the classroom. The same fact (and fear) which also does not allow foreigners to own land. To the Thai mind--- "unprepared to deal with our modern, economically-interdependent world"--- foreign ownership of land and the shaping of young Thai minds in the classroom by foreign teachers, at the very least, smacks of western interference in domestic affairs. For those Thais who are ultra-nationalistic, it is little more than western imperialism and perhaps a precursor to colonization.

There are some good schools out there. It's tough searching for them, but we do need to seek them out just as the good schools need to do a little more digging when it comes to finding and hiring dedicated professionals.

An interesting point was made by Dale when he wrote,

Hello Steve,
I am a teacher in Thailand who is losing his job this month because of some of the things that you talk about. They [the school] had two teachers (Native English speaking) tell me to lighten up on my students. I was making them learn English with Economics, Literature, Social Studies, and Current Events/Politics. The Thai teachers at the school told me to be easier to the students till the grades came out from the tests which showed a major improvement in their ability.

Congratulations for the article and keep up the good fight.

Lighten up on students. Don't push them too hard. Don't expect much from them. Funny, that's what I was told in the South Korean public schools while teaching in the EPIK program. Far too many students are not being given the education that they need and deserve. That's why we must, as Dale put it, keep up the good fight.

Why then are we hired as educators? Well, for the most part, we're not. Many schools simply want "edutainers." (God, how I hate that word.) Cases in point from two ads on a popular EFL job website.

Example One:
"We offer multiple level programs focusing on 'edutainment' for children," claims one ad. They stress bringing "enjoyment into the classroom."

Example Two:
A school "founded in 1996 by a group of professionals in the education circle who shared the same philosophy: 'Children learn best when learning is fun.' There is no textbook and students learn through participation in songs, games, and other fun activities."

Oh goodie! Are there cookies and ice-cream for the kiddies after all of that strenuous singing and playing? There are other examples of "edutainment" schools, of course.

The school in example two does offer 35,000 to 40,000 Baht a month based on qualifications and experience. I would love to know what qualifications and experience a man would need to work in a school like that. "Well, I have ears like Dumbo the Elephant and spent a summer dressed as a clown singing songs at birthday parties. And I was the 'Hamburglar' in a school play way back in '79." Great, you're hired.

Other fun activities? Like what? Throwing paper airplanes at the teacher? Playing BINGO? Dancing to Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse? And teachers sit in bars or bitch and moan on open forums and wonder why the students don't respect them. "But I sing them songs and give them cookies. And then we dance. But I'm not respected as a teacher. Boo-whoo!" Gee, I wonder why. I've been racking my brain trying to figure that one out.

Now before I get all sorts of emails telling me what a horribly serious teacher I am, I'm not against having fun in the classroom. And, believe it or not, I have been known to play the odd game every now and then. But there is a time and a place. These ads for "edutainment" teachers, (a dangerous oxymoron), compel me to ask two serious questions.

1) With all of the singing, dancing, and playing that these "edutainment" schools do, how much time is left over for actual teaching?

2) I realize and understand that children need active participation in the learning process.
However, how much of this "edutainment" philosophy is based on a genuine epistemological concern about how children learn best, and how much of it is based upon a perversity in the powers-that-be to see a foreign person dance?

These are important questions because the truth revealed in the answers of the powers-that-be and the lemming-like antics of sycophant "edutainers" says more about them and their lack of professionalism than it does about serious, caring, and dedicated EFL professionals. Edutainment teachers is a dangerous oxymoron and an even more dangerous reality given how many teachers in both the public and private sectors are verbally and physically attacked every year by students who simply cannot respect teachers that sing and dance instead of teach.

There are schools and governments that actually feel threatened by caring, competent, and dedicated foreign teachers. They make the locals look and feel incompetent by comparison and, understandably, no one wants to look and feel that way. No school feels threatened by a 24 year old hippie backpacker who spends his Bangkok nights drinking 40 baht bottles of Chang in Boom Booms Beer Bar. And just how threatening to the Thai educational system is a 55 year old fat bald guy nursing a gin and tonic in Spank Me A Go-Go? Let's face it, in the land of smiles these blokes blend.

Now a caring, competent, and dedicated EFL teacher, who truly desires to make a positive difference in the lives of students here, will stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Regardless to age, girth, or lack of hair. Many schools don't want sore thumbs. Sore thumbs rock the boat. Sore thumbs have a work ethic. Sore thumbs get results. Sore thumbs demand that things are done efficiently, effectively, and properly.

Until schools in this part of the world develop the courage to hire competent and professional foreign teachers, until the schools in this part of the world learn to respect these competent and professional foreign teachers and pay them what they are worth, then nothing will change. The powers-that-be know that. And so do competent and professional foreign teachers. There are some good schools out there that prize caring and competent foreign teachers, but unfortunately, they seem few and far between.

Finally this from G.A P. in England,
Dear Steve,
I have just read your moving account of the fictitious Jane Doe (or perhaps not so fictitious) and have to agree with everything that you have written. I have visited Thailand and Cambodia and saw examples of what you have described. Most of the girl prostitutes do live in squalid and abominable conditions and no one seems the slightest bit interested or concerned. Your paragraphs about the attitude of TEFL teachers and their employers are equally true. The aim of teaching MUST be more than just imparting knowledge (or lack of) it MUST be teaching for life.

Yes the aim of teaching MUST be more than just imparting knowledge. It MUST be teaching for life. Teaching respect, (respect for others and especially self-respect.) Honor, hard-work, patience, responsibility, sacrifice. These are universal values that make every society strong. Teachers have a responsibility to impart these values to their students wherever they are in the world. Caring, dedicated, and passionate teachers do this instinctively.

I use the word passionate to describe caring and dedicated teachers because the etymology of the word passionate is the Latin word Pati. Pati means to suffer. Caring and dedicated teachers suffer when they see students not being given the proper knowledge that they so desperately need. The world is so confusing today for them. And so dangerous. We teach in the 21st century with an early 20Th century educational system. Millions of teachers and students are stuck in a time warp. But we caring, dedicated, and passionate teachers must struggle on and keep up the good fight. For our students, for ourselves, and for the teaching profession.



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