Taking back the profession

getting rid of the EFL riff-raff

One needs only to peruse the ajarn.com forum, or any of the other teacher's websites from Dave's ESL Cafe to pusanweb.com in Korea, to come face-to-face, or computer terminal to computer terminal with the biggest and loudest bunch of educational buffoons, social losers, sexual creeps, and degenerate drunks in all of cyberspace. These whining weasels, who have the audacity to pass themselves off as English teachers, possess not an ounce of responsibility as they take it upon themselves to endlessly pontificate about the integrity of the educational system.

Their mindless pieces of garbage, in response to the MoE's attempt at improving the system of teaching ESL in Thailand, meant to spark discussion and debate, but it also pointed out the deep division within the ESL community, (if, indeed, there is such a thing as an ESL community). More importantly, a great many of the messages posted on the ajarn.com forum exhibited a woeful lack of intelligence and low standards of a great many of those who are, or think they are, ESL teachers.

It pains me to say this. Anyone who has read my columns over the last two plus years knows that I am very much pro-teacher. The garbage that many of us ESL teachers go through, and the hundreds of horror stories posted all over the Internet by teachers world over is, and continues to be, a living testament to our courage, dedication, and resilience. We continually go against near impossible odds in our attempts to make the slightest positive difference in the lives of those we teach. For those dedicated and committed teachers who continue to slog through the muddy and dangerous waters of the ESL world, a million thank yous would still not be enough.

I do not consider myself a good teacher. In my opinion I'm one of the poorest. I lack a very essential quality in life: Patience. And my lack of patience makes me a not so nice person to be around. Having said that, what I lack in patience I more than make up for in passion. My passion for teaching, my passion for getting things right, and my passion for making a difference has often been interpreted, or misinterpreted, as impatience. I may not be a good teacher, but I am a dedicated and committed one. I better be if I want to last a long time in this profession.

I have been very lucky over the years. I have worked with dozens of great teachers in Thailand and Korea. Teachers who have taught me more by allowing me to observe them in the classroom. I have learned more from them than I could have ever learned by listening to some arrogant, pompous jerk pontificating about the latest pedagogical theories.

There are many problems with what is referred to as the ESL world; far too many problems to list here. Greedy school directors; a lack of leadership; a lack of vision and direction; outdated curriculum and teaching methods; a lack of proper training for teachers, or no training at all; very few professional development programs; and a lack of cooperation between people and departments, just to name a few. Now let's add drunks, perverts, and drug addicts who pass themselves off as English teachers and we got ourselves a pretty big mess on our hands. This is what the MoE is trying to fix. An impossible task? No, but a very difficult and complex project indeed.

It is not helpful that ESL teachers, however good or bad they happen to be, are against these attempts by the MoE to improve a very poor system. And it is not helpful that many schools are also fighting these attempts by the MoE. A blaring and biased headline on ajarn.com bears this out: "Phuket Schools Flying Flag For Teachers."

In a recent article in the Phuket Gazette, schools on the Island will ask the Phuket Governor to drop the new regulations which require "all new teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree and to pass an extensive background check before they can begin work."

The article continues,

"The new policy requires that all foreign teachers possess at least a bachelor's degree, a certified copy of which must be presented to the local MoE office along with a certified copy of the applicant's transcript (academic record).

Before hiring a new teacher, schools must wait for approval from the MoE's International Education Promotion Division, which must check the authenticity of the teacher's credentials by seeking a confirmation letter from the university the applicant claims to be a graduate of."

Does this mean that 22 year old Johnny English, that backpacker high-school dropout who can "like barely speak English dude" let alone teach it, is not allowed in a Thai classroom anymore? Does this mean that Fat Frank Flanagan, that late 40 something Viagra popper who almost graduated from university, can't pass himself off as an English teacher anymore? Does this mean that Michael McGoo, who just wants to spend six months in Thailand soaking up the sun, can't finance his sojourn in the land of smiles with a Khao San Road bachelor's degree and a little teaching on the side? Excuse me while I cry a river.

Who are these schools that are flying the flag? Who are these teachers for whom the flag is being flown for? I certainly hope it's not for people like Johnny English, Fat Frank Flanagan, and Michael McGoo.

According to the article in the Phuket Gazette, these requirements came into effect on September 29th of this year. Owners of small private schools complain that these requirements are "too restrictive and time-consuming, taking months to complete before a new teacher can be hired." Again, excuse me while, this time, I cry an ocean.

It's not just small private schools that have the gall to complain. The bigger schools too are complaining, especially those in Bangkok. Who's next? The International schools who employ foreign teachers? Government public schools? The Sarasas schools and Bangkok Christian College are infamous for hiring under-qualified native teachers who don't meet the MoE's requirements, and those with, shall I say, less than stellar backgrounds. Can anyone say, John Mark Karr?

Japan has had these restrictions in place for years. People accept that as part of the system and hiring process. Try just showing up in Japan without a work visa and a lack of proper documentation and see what happens. In Japan every foreign English teacher must be sponsored by the school or the company. The process can take up to two or three months, but it's professional and efficient. What the teacher does while waiting for the sponsorship is the teacher's business, but the work visa is not school specific. This is something every country, including Thailand, can learn from.

Even here in South Korea, where I happen to be currently teaching in a public middle school, notarized copies of my undergraduate degree, (either by a notary or a commissioner of oaths), and original sealed and signed transcripts from my university was a must when I applied for my job. And this was before I had to get two reference letters, written confirmation from at least two previous schools that I did indeed work there, proof of my TESOL certificate, and a criminal background check from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, RCMP. I said this before and I'll say it again: This should be the absolute minimum that every foreign ESL teacher should do. If any teacher, for whatever reason, refuses to do this, then they do not get the job.

It sickens me that many schools are flying the flag for teachers for whom they have absolutely no business doing so. While I congratulate those schools who are not applying the "warm body" principle, (anybody in the classroom is better than nobody), too many other schools have gotten away with this nonsense for far too long. Their lack of personal ethics, professional standards, and responsibility towards their students is nothing short of astounding. From an article posted an ajarn.com titled, "What's going on at the Ministry", Mr Barry, the Head of Pittwater House Schools, has this to say:

"It's never been easy to obtain teaching licences. We've had the usual problems in the past with teachers presenting fake documents but if the teacher was a good teacher and he or she was well-liked then we could always find a way of accommodating them in our program--- basically because the situation wasn't policed. We could exercise some discretion and be a lot more flexible compared to now. Now we're entering a whole new era and we can't even think about hiring unqualified teachers."

Wow. There you have it. Straight from the horse's mouth. "We can't even think of hiring unqualified teachers."

The question is, outside of pure financial greed and an attempt to apply the "warm body" principle, why in the world would anyone think of hiring an unqualified or under-qualified teacher to begin with? Besides any money gained from such a decision, why would any school even consider employing a teacher who does not meet the professional and objective standards of the teaching profession?

On November 5th, I wrote this on the ajarn teacher's forum:

"Isn't it interesting that the most vociferous critics of MoE's new restrictions are greedy language school owners/directors and teachers who view Thailand as their own personal playground. Strange bedfellows, indeed."

Here's one response from someone who calls himself Jonny Danger. Mr. Danger admits to having a criminal past and does his best to hide it. He has also taught in Thai classrooms.

"If Steve Shitzer is your workmate, please ask him this: What about the kids? They need a teacher. Do they care if their teacher doesn't have 400,000,000,000 B in the bank? Does it matter to them he needs to cross the border every month in order to remain teaching them? If they like their teacher, if they're learning some English from him, if they are in contact with a good-hearted person of whom they admire, do they want an immigration soldier to come to their school and yank him out and wait months for his replacement to arrive?"

And this from Mr. Danger on the ajarn teacher's forum as well:

"Sitting in a drawer across from me at this moment is a copy of an FBI background check done a year ago. If I were to hand this original over to the Thai authorities, would my process of proof be finished? In having this receipt, does it prove I'd never yearn for deep tongue injection with children, or would it mean I have yet to be busted for it?"

And one more from Mr. Danger. Commenting on the John Mark Karr controversy,

"All the time Thai teachers are doing all John Karr dreamed of, and more."

This is from a thread on the ajarn forum titled, "Phuket Schools Fighting Teacher's Regulations." To this day it has 283 replies and over 4,200 hits. Now let's take some of his points, however ludicrous one thinks they are.

What about the kids? Yes they need a teacher. ESL students need a good teacher, a caring teacher, a dedicated and committed teacher. A teacher that does not have the proper credentials and has to cross the border every month must be replaced, at least until this teacher does have the proper credentials so he wouldn't have to cross the border every month. The students deserve at least that. Yes it's important that the students like their teacher, but it's more important--- much more important that they learn something from him. After all, students pay their money to learn what they need to learn.

The ESL teaching experience, Mr. Danger is not about liking the teacher as much as it's about trusting the teacher. Teaching is not, nor should it ever be, a popularity contest where ESL instructors dance around the classroom like a clown, or go out drinking and dancing with their students. There are no pageants, contests, or competitions to see which teacher can drink more, sing better, or look better. Language schools must become the professional organizations that so many of them profess to be, and ESL teachers must become the professional instructors that a profession like teaching expects them to be.

Now I don't mean to single out Mr. Barry or Jonny Danger. They are just two of many people who, for whatever reason, are fighting any attempt to improve the standards of ESL teaching and learning. I'm sure they would be fun to have a beer with, but there are some very important questions that beg to be asked: Where is the responsibility here, especially towards the students? Where is the ethics and professional standards that the students deserve from those in positions of power?

Before people start to say, "Yeah Steve, I know what you mean, but the reality is that there are good teachers without a degree and the proper documents, and there are bad teachers with degrees and the proper papers." To that, I say "Stop it!" There have always been, and always will be, exceptional people who, for whatever reason, do not meet any objective standards. It is unfortunate that a few good teachers will probably slip through the cracks of these new restrictions and guidelines. But they will be a very small minority, and the kinks of this system, like the kinks in any system will be worked out in due time.

Let's be very clear about something: We are talking about setting objective standards to a profession that is long overdue. And by setting these standards, we will be getting rid of a whole lot of really bad people; people that have absolutely no business stepping foot inside a classroom, in Thailand or anywhere else. This reality completely and unequivocally trumps any attempts by language school directors to put into their classrooms unqualified or under-qualified teachers simply because they like them, or because they can sing well in a karaoke bar, or can drink three bottles of Korean soju, or simply because this blonde babe from the U.K. looks damn good in a mini-skirt.

It may be a cheap shot to bring up John Mark Karr, the very same John Mark Karr who recently appeared on the Dr. Keith Ablow show in the United States and boldly declared that he saw nothing wrong with a six year old girl putting her tongue in his mouth; the very same John Mark Karr who compared himself to an ice-cream cone for little children; and the very same John Mark Karr who was found teaching English in a Thai classroom.

In my September column about the whole John Mark Karr controversy, I ruminated about how nice it would be if Karr became the impetus for some real positive changes within the whole ESL teaching industry not only in Thailand, but all over the world. Yes, wouldn't that be nice indeed? This is a perfect opportunity to use Karr, and others like him, as an example of what the ESL industry should not be. He is the reason that this industry needs to be fixed.

So what should every legitimate and professional ESL teacher possess? At the very least,

a) A valid passport
b) A real university degree with proof that the applicant graduated from there
c) A TESOL certificate
d) A valid work visa
e) A teacher's license, (where applicable)
f) Letters of reference
g) Sealed transcripts fro the applicant's university
h) A criminal and character background check.

These are, and should be, the absolute minimum requirements for any ESL teacher to work in a foreign country. They are certainly not too much to ask for.

As for those schools who continue to employ dodgy and unemployable ESL teachers, give them one final warning then close their doors permanently! As for those dodgy and unemployable ESL teachers, give them one final warning to clean up their act, or they get deported immediately. The teaching profession is just that: A profession. And any profession must have within it, people who are responsible, dependable, qualified, committed, and dedicated. I've said this before, and I'll say it again, inherent in the teaching profession is the responsibility and a deep desire within every teacher to improve the profession and the educational system; a system of which we are all a part.

The final word goes to an ajarn poster who goes by the name "Haltest." In the aforementioned thread "Phuket Schools fighting Teacher Regulations", he had this to say:

"Those who can't face or deal with the checks, you've got fair warning to get your paperwork up to speed. Don't complain when they do hit. It might not be today, tomorrow, but it will happen one day. And on that day foreign teachers perhaps can claim back some dignity for a profession that a small minority of unemployable and uneducated losers have maligned."

Wow! I couldn't have said it better myself.


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