I should have waited a month before writing my last blog. In my last blog I wrote about the complicity of silence surrounding the foreign teachers in Thailand; an insidious silence that is robbing tens of thousands of students of their God given right of a decent education. It is the same complicity of silence that sees many of the foreign teachers working hand-in-glove with a Thai administration that cares only about money and maintaining an educational system mired in cultural backwardness and social repression.
Yes I should have waited a month before writing my last blog. In it I quoted an ex-colleague who called me ‘dangerous' and a ‘loose cannon.' He is not the only one to call me dangerous. I've been called dangerous in the comment section of other blogs too. You mean dangerous like this guy? This from a Canadian newspaper, the National Post, under the headline "Calgary man, 64, ran Thai brothel for pedophiles":
Okay I know; only a moron would think I'm as dangerous as this guy. Just thought I'd ask. But since many other teachers out there throw the word ‘dangerous' around so easily, especially when it comes to my blogs, I have to wonder just how dangerous I am in relation to people like John Wrenshall.
Why do I bring up John Wrenshall some may wonder? Why do I want to dig up old bones? A few reasons: Besides making a point about what ‘dangerous' really means, I knew John Wrenshall. It's public knowledge. I worked with him for 18 months at a Bangkok language school in 2004-2005. He was my supervisor and mentor. He taught me a lot about teaching. I also wrote a blog about him for ajarn.com in January 2009 when I first found out about his heinous crimes. I titled that blog "The TEFL Industry: A Rotting, Putrid, Stinking Corpse." A tad strong, perhaps, but given the story and the circumstances, that's how I felt at the time.
Although the intense shock of these horrific crimes by my ex-supervisor has worn off, the disillusionment that I feel towards this industry has not. I am still angry at times about how little is really being done to help students. I am disheartened by the fact that so little thought and planning has gone into the education of children by those who should know better. I am disappointed by so many of the foreign teachers who seem to show so little interest in the teaching profession. I am frustrated by the lack of progress I see just about everywhere in the world of education. I am sickened by school administrators who seem more interested in seizing power and maintaining control over the students rather than provide them with a decent education.
Foreign teachers, especially in many Asian countries, are hired mainly for cosmetic reasons. We look good in a clean white shirt and tie standing outside greeting parents. But in the classroom we are seen, by the Thai administration, as useless: A bunch of bumbling fools who couldn't teach a dog to urinate on a patch of daisies. And some of us can't. But it's not as if the Thai administration has done their homework. It's not as if they have done their research on who is and who is not a caring and capable foreign teacher. That would be too much work; too much responsibility, and take too much effort.
In my last blog I talked about the complicity of silence between many of the foreign English teachers and the Thai administration; a complicity of silence that has seen countless students continually being shortchanged in their education. What I didn't realize, and what is most frightening to me, is just how far into Thai society this complicity of silence runs. John Wrenshall lived in Bangkok and worked at the same language school for over eight years. In those eight plus years he spent his free time molesting young boys and setting up excursions for other sex tourists to do the same. And in those eight plus years, nobody outside of those being molested knew about this?
Please don't misunderstand me here. I am not accusing anyone of anything. And I am certainly not accusing the language school that I and John Wrenshall worked for of knowing what was going on. I certainly didn't know and neither did any of my colleagues at the time. But I find it absolutely frightening that in eight plus years, not one little boy, of the countless boys that Wrenshall and his buddies molested, came forward. Not one? Or maybe one did. Maybe two did: Eight plus years; countless little boys. People must have known; and if some people knew then some people were silent. Does the complicity of silence run this deep in Thai society? Does money buy anything or anyone? I'm just asking. But it does seem strange.
After writing my first blog on John Wrenshall in January 2009, I received a few emails from English teachers in Thailand claiming that there are indeed schools that know about this kind of thing with a teacher on staff, but it is ignored for financial reasons. Only when the pressure from outside gets too strong to ignore does anyone actually do anything about it. At the time I received the emails I found that hard to believe, but now, I'm not so sure.
John Wrenshall was not the only man in Thailand with a penchant for young children. Other high profile cases include John Mark Carr and Christopher Paul Neil (AKA "Mr. Swirl face" because of his Interpol computer image.) Both, by the way, were English teachers. But Wrenshall was the most vile and evil one of them by far.
I really didn't want this blog to be about John Wrenshall. He committed the hideous crimes, stood trial, found guilty by a jury of his peers, and will now live out his days and nights behind bars. And knowing what pedophiles face in prison, he will be forced to live the nightmares of his victims on a regular basis when "Fat Louie", along with many of his buddies, has their way with Mr. Wrenshall. I shudder at the thought.
What I did want this blog to be about was basically a continuation of my last one, which in a way it is, by responding to a comment made by PJ in Khon Kaen. The verdict on John Wrenshall was finally announced after two long years of waiting and I had to comment. So here are the salient points in PJ's response to my January 10th blog titled "Why? Standing Up For the Teaching Profession and the Complicity of Silence":
"But, onto your main points, yes the system DOES suck. It is frustrating to have to work in an "all must pass" culture. Most of us would like to take the idealist approach but have learnt to be pragmatic. We can't change the system. Not as individuals or even collectively. So, I'm not going to fight it and lose. What I'm doing and will continue to do is focus on the one small place I do control. The place I can make a difference. The place where education actually happens whatever numbers are written in a book somewhere. What I do is spend a little time to get that lad to say "My name is little Somchai." There I've got Little Somchai to take a step forward. The next step could well be "......and I am X years old."
Now, if the Thai administration put pressure to put an inflated number in a book. I don't really care. There, Steve, that's making a difference where it matters means. Though I'm certain you think failing Somchai and destroying his confidence to protect your integrity is more important."
By PJ, Khon Kaen on 2011-01-13
Before responding to PJ's points, I want to make something very clear: I am not in any way making a connection between the horrific crimes committed by John Wrenshall and anything else that follows. Wrenshall and his ilk represent the evil side of the TEFL industry while EFL teachers who simply don't care about an inflated number in a book is symptomatic of a cancer within the TEFL corpus for which we have yet to find a cure.
I am not accusing you, PJ, of not caring about education. If you are who I think you are, (remember, you said that I sat in the teacher's room as quiet as a mouse so we must know each other), then you are a dedicated and caring teacher. My point here is that we must care about what kind of numbers are written in books because it is these numbers that parents rely upon to measure how much their child has learned. More importantly, billions of dollars are pored into education and all we can do with that kind of money at the end of the year is to inflate a number in a book so as not to have any parent lose face? That's the best we can do?
It's not the system that sucks; it's people. People suck. More accurately, it's the people who run the schools who suck. Many are devoid of any pedagogical acumen and are more interested in maintaining power and the status quo.
As far as the "everyone must pass culture", I know that you are frustrated with that as well; any true educator would be. Once an administrator tells you that everyone must pass, then it's time to move on since you are no longer an educator. But here's a truth that Thai school administrators don't seem to understand: Failure must be a part of school life because failure is a part of life. In other words, that's life. Now deal with it. Here is another truth: Sometimes the only way to succeed in life is to fail. Let me say that again because this is important.
To fail, and to sometimes fail repeatedly, is the first step towards success.
Wow! Think about that. How many novelists have you seen interviewed who said that their first manuscript was rejected a hundred times before their first book was published? How many inventors throughout history were ridiculed and laughed out of town before their inventions took hold and made them a fortune? And how many students had to fail before they realized that they had to roll up their sleeves and get to work or else they would end up as Tuk-Tuk drivers or bargirls?
Most teachers, (most good and knowledgeable teachers anyway), will tell you that about 25 to 30 percent of students in any one class will fail. Why? It's the natural order of things. Three out of every ten students in any given class do not belong there. For whatever reason, and there are many, 30 percent of the students are either in the wrong class, or do not want to be there, or do not care at all about learning, or hate the teacher, or hate their parents, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Another 30 percent love to be there and wouldn't have it any other way. The remaining 40 percent are at various places in the middle. Its okay being at school; they can talk to their friends and they get along with their teachers sufficiently enough to learn a few things and pass the exams. But the 30 percent of the students who, for whatever reason, really and truly don't want to be there, if given the chance will inevitably fail their exams and their year.
Besides being the natural order of things, a failure rate of around 20 to 25 percent is the only way to maintain any integrity that the teaching profession and the testing process may have. So one in four students must fail, and will fail, if we allow them to. And we must allow them to. It is the only way any of these students have to show us if they are serious about their studies. It is the only way any of these students have to show us if they are ready for the vigor's of the educational process, if they have what it takes inside to succeed. As teachers, we must give our students the opportunity to fail. Some students must be left behind--- and here's the trick--- for now. Some students must be left behind for now. As much as that sometimes hurts both the teacher and the student, it is the only way to measure progress: The progress of the student's learning and the progress of our teaching. If everyone passes then everyone fails. Everyone fails because as teachers we have effectively robbed our students of life's most important lesson:
Through failure comes disappointment, hurt and pain; through disappointment, hurt and pain comes reflection; through reflection comes hard work, study, and planning; through hard work, study, and planning comes eventual success.
In other words, failure is the first step on the long road towards success. Any teacher who does not allow his students to experience this has failed in his teaching.
So yes, PJ, focus on that one small place where you can make a difference; the classroom. It's a great place to start. But there is a bigger picture here and the bigger picture is society. We educate not only the individual, we educate the individual so that he or she will take their rightful place in a society that is continuously in flux; a society that, hopefully, is evolving and bettering itself in some way.
As for your last sentence, PJ, no I don't think destroying Somchai's confidence to protect my integrity is more important. Again, this is not about me or my integrity; it's about protecting the integrity of the teaching profession, or any integrity it may have left; especially in Thailand. You, as well as many others, seem to be forgetting why we educate. There are many reasons why we educate children, but here are two important factors:
1) We may educate children today, but we never educate them FOR today. We educate them for tomorrow and everyday thereafter.
2) We educate the current generation of Thai children so that they won't end up as immoral, unethical, and corrupt as many in the previous generation.
With this in mind, I hope you can see why it's very important to care about numbers on a page. This from the Bangkok Post under the headline: "Our National Teachers Day is a celebration of failure":
So it's not just me. There are others out there in far more powerful positions that also see a problem with education. And it's not the system; it's the people who run the system and the teachers, both domestic and foreign, who blindly follow a backwards syllabus like lemmings.
Here is part of another comment from JD in Chiang Mai in the comment section of my January blog:
"The details in the end are minor-a number in a book who cares, as long as each kid got something out of the time spent with you, even if its just Little Somchai that young lad would remember that and maybe he would work a little harder at English in the future, it doesn't really matter anyway because its a Class System society and therefore only the rich and powerful go to school SO WHO CARES IF YOU PASS THE KID." (Emphasis mine)
Who cares if you pass the kid? Give this guy a teaching contract at 40,000 baht a month! We have a real winner here! But wait there's more.
"All you people who don't like it too bad! Go back to your own shit hole of westernized industrial, chemical treated country that you came from. For me its such a different planet, I mean it was one of the only countries in the world that was never invaded and occupied especially by colonial powers (England, France and Spain) and because of this they don't particularly care to learn your western trash language that has pieces of different languages mixed into it and is pretty much a contaminated language."
I include JD's comments partly for comic relief, but he and so many others like him in Thailand, are a big part of the TEFL and ex-pat problem, or what I like to call the enemy within. Just one more quote from JD Einstein and I promise I'll stop.
"Anyway you're all missing the most key ingredient in to what makes Thai people "lazy" and "non-developing" educationally according to western standards. This of course is due to the Theravada form of Buddhism that 96% of the country practices and believes in. They believe that our souls are reincarnated many hundreds of times until we can reach Nirvana (an enlightened state) and finally ‘get it right'".
I wonder how many gin and tonics our buddy JD had to consume before he reached his "enlightened" state. No JD. No PJ. No JR or any other combination of initials English teachers in Thailand now prefer to refer to themselves. The reason why Thailand is falling behind even third-world countries educationally is this: They are terrified of competing against non-Thais, especially those from the West. This from Khun Fa Poonvoralak, a Thai novelist and the author of "The Most Silent School in the World":
"The most silent classroom in the world! The title is beautiful and true. Most of the students drop out because, when they are in school, they feel like they aren't. There's no future waiting for them after graduation. We may not be able to compete with others. But it seems that this is the school's policy, this not wanting us to go out and compete. Also, the teacher simply told us that the school's policy is not to let us have a future, not to let us be educated." (Fa Poonvoralak, "The Most Silent School in the World"; Kodji Publisher, Bangkok, Thailand, page 19)
Reading Thai authors is a great way of knowing the culture. I also highly recommend the novels of Khun Chart Korbjitti, a wonderful but dark writer who gets into the heart and soul of his fellow countrymen. For those who crave reading historical family sagas from a Thai perspective, the works of Khun Pensri Kiengsiri are also highly recommended.
Other reasons why Thais are falling so far behind in education is, in no particular order, their lack of introspection, especially in asking the essential questions like "How did I get here?" and "Where am I going?"; their insistence on seeing themselves as little more than cogs in a bigger machine rather than as individuals in charge of their own destiny; their reliance on foreign revenue, especially through mass tourism, rather than generating their own revenue through innovation and entrepreneurship; their gullibility and susceptibility in believing just about everything their hear; their insistence on seeing their children, especially those in the lower and working classes, as a means to an end and not an end in themselves; a society that places fun and games above hard work; graft and corruption at all levels of society; and, as mentioned above, their irrational fear of competition with the outside world.
Religion may play a part in this but it has become such a miniscule part in the 21st century in my opinion, as not to have any effect at all. There are other Buddhist countries with adequate educational systems, a highly skilled workforce with a strong work ethic, and a high per capita GDP. China, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea come to mind. These countries consistently rank in the top 10 when it comes to reading, math, and science scores, according to an Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on education with China at number one, South Korea second and Hong Kong fourth. Where is Thailand? It barely makes the top 50, and it is well below the OECD average. Check out the 2010 survey here
At the language school where John Wrenshall and I taught, there were other supervisors who were fond of saying that "good teachers are reflective teachers." Reflective teachers continually ask themselves, how can I continue to improve myself as a teacher? How can the next class be better than the last one? Good questions and well worth asking. I ask myself these questions, and others, every day. And I try to seek appropriate answers. But teachers can only become reflective and hope to better themselves in a culture that is reflective and inspires to better itself. Teachers who attempt to better themselves through reflection and introspection will hit a brick wall against an administration that wants nothing to do with change and is content with the way things are.
"Good teachers are reflective teachers" becomes nothing but empty words if principals, vice-principals, supervisors, administrators, directors, and governments themselves don't reflect along with the teachers. Given what is happening at many schools in Thailand at the moment and where Thailand ranks educationally vis-à-vis other nations, perhaps it is time for everyone in Thailand to reflect; especially the Thais since it is their nation and their children's future that is at stake. If John Wrenshall and his ilk have taught us anything, it is this:
There is an enemy within the TEFL and TESOL industry, and the enemy is us. Each and every one of us in one way or another is preventing this industry from moving forward. By keeping silent, by not speaking out against those who do harm to children, either by molesting them or by not teaching them properly, each and every one of us in one way or another is preventing this industry from taking its rightful place among the league of professions. This silence is what is causing evil to thrive not only in this industry, but in life.
This industry ignores the real educational needs of children. We lock them up in schools all day but we have no idea what to do with them. We ignore them, we berate them, we ridicule them, we call them stupid, we beat them and we scold them. Now here is one thing we don't do with children: Educate them. We don't properly educate them. We give them easy tests so that everyone passes and we don't look bad. Then we wonder why the kids aren't learning. A smart bunch we teachers are. I would even go as far as to call what we are doing to students "an educational holocaust", but that's for another blog.
Not caring about numbers on a page? Not caring about whether little Somchai passes or fails? I would contend that not caring about the students in Thailand is a prerequisite for the job. That thousands of TEFL teachers in Thailand simply don't care is a testament to the stupidity of those who hire them. John Wrenshall wasn't fired from the language school where we both worked; I was for speaking out like I am now. Teachers like PJ and JD won't be fired from their schools; teachers like me will be fired for challenging the students with reading and writing assignments that the administration, and some foreign teachers who fear making waves and deign to maintain the status quo, find controversial. One of the things that I find interesting (and frustrating) about this is that some of the very same schools who claim not to like my outspokenness have instituted and implemented the very same ideas that they rejected when I was employed there! Yes I know; nobody likes a smartass.
So PJ and others: Somebody better start caring; somebody better start doing right by this industry. Somebody better stand up and shout at the top of their lungs that "YES, WE CAN DO BETTER, MUCH BETTER! Because the Asian TEFL industry, and Thai TEFL in particular, with its incompetent Thai teachers, foreign classroom clowns, uncaring management, clueless administrators, and various drunks, perverts, and pedophiles makes this industry the real danger. It has become a joke, a laughing stock, and an embarrassment, a danger to students, a waste of time and money, and thus impossible to defend.