Standing up for the teaching profession, and the complicity of silence.

"J*** wrote on your blog that you are 'dangerous'. I say you are a neurotic loose canon and a liability for a school, working with children." ---- From an email sent to me by a former colleague.

I have received many such emails from foreign English teachers over the years. "I know where you live", writes one foreigner. "And if you publish one more stupid article, it is time for broken bones": So much for debate and intellectual discussion. I have been accused of everything under the sun from foreign English teachers since starting this blog on ajarn.com in 2004 and writing opinion pieces for the Korea Times from 2006 to 2008. Not much from Korean teachers; nothing from Thai teachers. But a whole lot of criticism, threats, and spineless accusations from western English teachers.

I have been accused of sleeping with all sorts of people from prostitutes to ladyboys. I have been accused of being a drug addict. I have been accused of being an alcoholic. I have been accused of watching child pornography. And I think one English teacher accused me of eating a baby, although I can't seem to find that email in one of my folders. All from western English teachers; most of them anonymously on the Internet with such menacing names like "Shirley temper", "Superstar1", "Spank the monkey", and "Big boy English teacher." No wonder why I'm so scared: And all because I dare to speak out; all because I dare to speak the truth.

I have many questions, but the number one question I have is "Why?" Not why do these anonymous losers send me email? I don't care about that. Keep those emails and comments coming. But why can't I speak out? Why can't I tell the truth?

There are three things which cannot be hidden: The sun, the moon, and the truth.

There are schools that don't care about the children they claim to educate. I've been to some of them. They are everywhere, in every country. There are teachers who don't care about the students they claim to teach. I've taught with some of them. There are school administrators who care only about money and not a wit about real education. I have worked with some of them. I have also worked with great teachers, good schools, and dedicated administrators.

So why can't I speak out? Why can't I tell the truth? What is everyone afraid of? Losing their jobs? Is that it? Losing a 30,000 baht a month, 1,000 U.S dollars a month teaching job?

There are schools in Thailand--- any school, all schools--- that don't allow a student to fail, any student; all students. And the foreign teachers blindly follow. You don't want any student to fail? No problem, I'll make the final exam so easy that a blind monkey can pass. Little Somchai can't speak a word of English? No problem, I'll make sure he gets 90 percent on his speaking test. In fact, I'll ask Little Somchai his name and if he says "Somchai" that's four out of ten right there! If he says "Little Somchai", well that's five out of ten.

WHY!?! Why can't I scream bloody murder at this crap? I realize that we all have a price. But when it comes to maintaining the status quo, I'm going to need a lot more than a thousand dollars a month. That's fine for showing up everyday to teach reading, writing, listening, and speaking. I have no problem with earning a thousand dollars a month in a developing country like Thailand if I am allowed to be a real English teacher. But there are two problems here:

1) When it comes to education, Thailand is not a developing country; and
2) Most TEFL teachers are not allowed to be real English teachers.

In most schools in Thailand it is enough for a white man to wear a white shirt, show all his white teeth in a wide smile while standing outside the gate and say "Good morning" 4,000 times. To many Thais, that's a good foreign English teacher; that, and maintaining the status quo by endlessly playing games in and out of the classroom. This from a teacher in the letters to the editor section of the Bangkok Post:

Real education reform
• Published: 30/12/2010 at 12:00 AM
• Newspaper section: News

There have been many editorials and letters criticizing the Thai education system lately, with everyone putting in their two cents' worth. As a teacher here for the last 8 years, the problems with the Thai school system, that directly affect the way students are taught, have become quite obvious.

Firstly, there are too many students per class. It is quite normal to have 50 students in a class. In other countries, the maximum is 35-40. Fifty is way too many for teachers to handle _ classrooms are crowded with desks, making fun teaching activities impossible, and teachers cannot give individual attention to problem students. In this atmosphere, rote learning is easiest for the teacher and the student.

Secondly, there seems to be an unwritten rule that no student, no matter how bad or intellectually behind his/her classmates, will be held back to repeat a year. Again, this does not apply in other countries. This helps to ensure no loss of face by parents, and also ensures that next year there is room for the 50 kids who will go up to the next grade.
Sadly, many Thai students are aware of this and it totally does away with any motivation to do well at school. One colleague who tried to motivate a student by saying he needs better grades to pass was shocked when the boy calmly responded that his father told him not to worry because everyone passes.

I don't think it's fair to blame exhausted and overworked teachers for the burden placed on them, nor is it easy to motivate lazy students who are simply made to re-sit tests until they pass them. I believe that changing these two root causes would point us in the direction of real educational reform.

Chiang Rai

There are three things which cannot be hidden: The sun, the moon, and the truth.

Let me make something very clear. That most TEFL'ers are not allowed by many schools to be real English teachers is neither an excuse nor a reason for not behaving like a real English teacher. It is not a reason to kiss ass. It is not a reason to maintain the status quo. It is not a reason to degrade or malign the teaching profession by acquiescing to outdated teaching methods or administrators who take a perverse pleasure in keeping the students under their care ignorant. It is, however, a reason to stand up for the teaching profession. It is an opportunity to teach in a way real teachers should be teaching.

That there are schools in Thailand--- it could be any school--- that pays qualified Filipino teachers the pittance of 15,000 baht a month should have all of us scream. That there was a school recently, I cannot say the name of the school since there is a no name-and-shame policy on this website, that reduced a teacher's agreed-upon monthly salary of 30,000 baht to 12,000 baht should have all of us in a rage. Why was her salary reduced? She was a Chinese national. She spoke English as well as any native speaker and her qualifications were top-notch, having graduated from a top university in Hong Kong. But because her face wasn't white and her eyes weren't blue, this school forced out an excellent teacher.

WHY!?! Why shouldn't I be angry at this? Why shouldn't I speak out? Why shouldn't everyone speak out? A thousand dollars a month! That's what it takes in Thailand to buy the silence of 10 other western teachers? The shame of it all as the band plays on.

That there are schools in Thailand--- it could be any school--- that fines its Thai teachers half their monthly salary if they dare to turn in the final draft of their exams one day late should be an outrage to any of us whose obedience and acquiescence hasn't already been bought. It's tough enough to live on 10,000 baht a month. Now chop that in half for every "infraction", never mind that the school's computers were on the fritz preventing this teacher from turning in the finished product on time, and maybe some people can see how far this society has to go before it can be considered compassionate.

WHY!?! Why shouldn't I be angry at this? Why shouldn't I speak out? Why shouldn't everyone scream at this injustice? The shame of it all as the foreign teachers stay silent.... And the band plays on.

There are schools in Thailand--- any schools, all schools--- where some of the Thai teachers stand behind the students during an exam and whisper the answers to the questions into the students' ears. Never mind that many of them are the wrong answers. Most of the Thai teachers cannot pass the same exams that they give to their students. Here is the evidence from a column in the Bangkok Post under the headline, "Education woes."

Friday, December 17, 2010
Posted by Sanitsuda Ekachai

"Earlier this year, the Office of the Basic Education Commission made high school teachers sit the same subjects they teach: The result? In computer sciences, 88% of the teachers failed the test. In biology, 86% flunked. In math, the failure rate was 84%. In physics, the failure rate was 71% while in chemistry it was 64%. Astronomy and earth sciences did not fare much better with a failure rate of 63% each. The school directors did not fare any better. According to OBEC, 95% of them failed the exams in English and information and computer technology."

And I'm dangerous? I'm the enemy? Me? For asking my teenage students what they thought of foreign men dating Thai women? Thank God I didn't ask my students how they would tackle political corruption. I might have been shot in the head for that.

I am not blaming only the teachers for this mess. Although teachers are a part of the problem, there is plenty of blame to go around in a society that knows nothing about how to take responsibility for anything. It is an educational system in a society devoid of vision, leadership, and effective strategies on how to deal with a very old and longstanding problem.

There are schools in Thailand--- any school, all schools--- who rip the tongues out of the mouths of students. Better not to say anything, my dear. Foreign English teachers, who cry that there is no freedom of thought in Asia, go about their daily life spouting western slogans like "We must teach our students to think outside the box", and "We must teach them to be creative", and "We must give our students a voice", and "We must encourage our students to find their voice", and so on and so on and so on.

Yet when a few of my students wrote that they don't like the fact that foreigners are dating Thai women; that many foreign men think that Thai women are "poor and stupid", these ‘enlightened' and ‘open minded' foreign teachers jump down my throat, calling me unethical and a loose canon: So much for encouraging students to think outside the box; so much for allowing our students the time and space to find their own voice; so much for attempting to follow the Thai national curriculum which clearly states that grade 12 graduates should, among other things,

* "Converse and write to exchange data about themselves, various matters around them, experiences, situations, news/incidents, issues of interest, and communicate them continuously and appropriately."

* "Explain/discuss about lifestyles, thoughts, believes, and origins of customs and traditions of native speakers."

* "Conduct research/search for, make records, conclude and express opinions about the data related to the learning areas of various sources, and presents them for speaking and writing."

(The Thai National Curriculum: Learning Area of Foreign Languages, pages 257-58)

Not that I expect most of the foreign English teachers in Thailand to be familiar with the Thai national curriculum, it is imperative that secondary school students in Thailand learning English be given time and ample opportunity to discuss, read about, and write about cultural and social issues, issues relevant to their society, and issues related to the rest of the world: Those teachers who are not doing this are derelict in their duties.

What's that, Khun Thai administration? You don't like the assignment I have given the students? It's too western, you say? You don't like the textbook? Too western, you say? You don't like the way we test and grade the students? Too western, you say?

Hey, I'm all for keeping one's traditions. I'm a political and fiscal conservative and consider myself a traditionalist. I find many of the traditions in Asia quite lovely and quaint. I would love to see many of them continue. But the way the human mind works is fascinating; too either/or, too much of a zero-sum game. Keeping one's traditions and becoming economically prosperous is not mutually exclusive; unless your traditions are antithetical to economic prosperity, and my time in Thailand tells me that this is not the case. So you can have both, Khun Thailand. Japan has done it; South Korea has done it; Hong Kong has done it; Singapore has done it; and China is now doing it. They are all economic powerhouses AND have managed to keep many of their traditions. You can do it too. But that's up to you. It's up to you, Khun Thailand what traditions you want to keep and which ones you want to put away for the sake of your citizens taking their rightful place in the world of economic prosperity. It's like that old silly joke: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb really has to want to change.

So if you're content with making 10,000 baht a month, if you are happy living in a wooden shack with a sack of rice in the corner, a scrawny chicken on the stove, and a buffalo named ‘Boonlert' tied to a wooden stilt outside, then who am I to change that? If you are truly content with that kind of life, Khun Thailand, then please let me know so that I don't have to waste my time and effort trying to teach English to those who are happy with the status quo.

But I remember talking to my teenaged students about their hopes and dreams. And I remember the sparkle in their eyes when they talked about wanting to be doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, and business people. And I remember the beautiful pictures they drew of their future hopes and plans. So maintaining the status quo doesn't seem to be something my teenaged students wanted to do. It seems that the Thai administration and the powers-that-be want to keep these students from achieving their dreams. They want to keep them down. They want to keep them from becoming ‘too western.' And many of the foreign teachers play along.

Speaking of too western, what is it with putting 10 or 12 foreign English teachers from various places like Canada, the U.S., England, Australia, and New Zealand in a small room with no partitions and expect them to get along and love each other like the lost tribes of Samara? These 10 or 12 people have almost nothing in common and would probably cross the street to avoid each other if they had the misfortune of meeting one another for the first time. In fact, put these 10 or 12 people in ‘Fat Boy's Subs and Pizzas at lunch time and they would avoid eye contact as they sit there and scoff down their 12 inch meatball subs. Put them in a bar at 5:00 with peanuts and a pint in front of them, and they may give one another a perfunctory glance while hoisting their brew. They may even find the courage to swap war stories about how much money their ex-wives got from them. Yet we put these 10 or 12 people in a teacher's room and expect them to perform miracles in a country that doesn't believe in miracles. Now THAT'S too western! It's also absurd.

Of these 10 or 12 people, many of whom should never be in a teacher's room, you will usually find a fat man who thinks he's Napoleon trying to conquer Russia; you'll have at least one guy who loves to tell dirty jokes; you'll find at least a couple of young punks who can't stop talking about all the babes in Thailand; you'll find a couple of older chaps who don't really like working in Thailand, but hate the country of their birth even more; you'll have a couple of serious teachers who seem not to get along with anyone else except for the other serious teacher; you'll have at least two newbies fresh out of their 120 hour TESOL course who just want to be liked. "I'm teacher Peter", he tells his grade 4 class on the first day, "but you can call me P-dog!" And you may have a lone token western woman who sits there day after day and wonders, "What the hell am I doing here?"

That's the typical foreign teacher's room in Thailand. You would think it would be so much fun and a laugh a minute just being there. But it's just the opposite. Most of these foreign teachers really don't want to be there. They're not really sure what their doing, or are supposed to be doing there. No mission was laid out for them; no educational vision for them to follow. There may be a curriculum or a syllabus, but very few follow it and no one can accurately explain it. So these teachers are lost. They walk around with the textbook under their arm; after all, it does look good to carry something. But they are like a militia with no leader; just a bunch of followers; sycophants for the administration; the blind following the blind. Nothing gets done; people still copy and cheat; students don't really learn what they need to know; foreign teachers, terrified of the Thai administration, bicker among themselves and begin to eat their own; many of them give up or give in, their obedience bought and paid for, the status quo is maintained, and the band plays on; and all for 30,000 baht a month. Now that's quite a bargain!

There are three things which cannot remain hidden: The sun, the moon, and the truth.

And this is the truth, at least one of them: If Thai parents actually knew who many of the foreign English teachers truly were, they would pull their kids out of school so fast that dust would still be floating in the air hours later.

Before I conclude, here is a personal judgment from a reader found in the comment section of my December 2010 blog.

"I am incredulous that such a bigoted, narrow minded individual is allowed to write on what is ostensibly an educational text. I am further stunned that this person is a teacher. The diatribe is full of personal judgments."

Oh my God, personal judgments! We can't have that now, can we? Next thing you know, you'll have lawyers speaking out about all of the unscrupulous lawyers out there. And doctors will want to speak out about frivolous lawsuits. And teachers will want to rant and rave about all the unfairness out there. No, we can't allow that; unless your handle on Dave's ESL Café is ‘backpacker English teacher' and it's 11:00 p.m. and you are sitting alone in your room in your underpants munching on a bag of cheese balls and drinking your fifth or sixth beer. Then it's personal judgment time. And did I mention that the sentence "The diatribe is full of personal judgments" is itself a personal judgment?

There are some great and dedicated foreign teachers out there, teachers who truly want to make a positive difference in the lives of the students; teachers who battle day in and day out for their students to have a voice; teachers who don't back down from the nonsense spewed forth from the oppressive and educational smallness of mind of the Thai administration. One of these teachers was my former boss in Khon Kaen, and I want to take this opportunity to thank him for his effort and hard work. It was truly a pleasure and an honor to work with such a person who put his heart and soul into his work. Thank you, John. And thank you to all the other teachers out there, real teachers, who don't put up with so much of the nonsense from a Thai administration that is so out of touch with current reality.

One last personal judgment, or as I like to call it, the truth: The dark side of the TFFL industry is the complicity of silence between the local school administrators and the foreign teachers. Far too many foreign English teachers in Thailand have allowed their silence and obedience to be bought and paid for, like a commodity on the open market. Far too many foreign English teachers stand by and say nothing as their students are robbed of a true education. Far too many foreign English teachers cower in fear of Thai administrators instead of standing up for the teaching profession. Far too many foreign English teachers prefer to ‘play the game' than to fight to ensure the educational success of their students. Far too many foreign English teachers ‘sell out' rather than put in the hard work and effort it takes to save any dignity or integrity the teaching profession may still have. Far too many foreign English teachers are working hand-in-glove with the Thais to ensure that students don't have a future.

And I'm the dangerous one? I'm the enemy? WHY!?! Why can't I speak out over this? Why can't I raise hell? Thirty-four thousand baht a month has never been enough to buy my silence and it never will be. Unlike many other foreign English teachers, my silence cannot be bought.

There are three things which can never remain hidden: The sun, the moon, and the truth.

Now if you'll excuse me, it is 11:00 p.m. and I still haven't finished my bag of cheese balls.


Absolutely right Steve, shouldn't many of the inequalities you mention be termed 'child abuse' along with the complicity of the foreign teacher's who promote them?! Carry on Steve, not all are against you and it's refreshing to know that I'm not the only one. It's certainly how you feel in a staff room when you are told to your face it's just about the money. Well done.

By James, Thailand (6 years ago)

Right on PJ you are awesome!!

Everyone makes valid points but PJ wins the cake. 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 doesnt 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.

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". The Thai people believe that if you don't get it right in this lifetime you'll get in the next just like the famous western saying "why do today what you can put off until tomorrow"

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. You go to Thailand and try to change it and "get it up to international standards" who the :::: are you (in plain English) The Thai people have lineage older than most countries with sophisticated bronze works and Ban Chiang pottery with elaborate designs.

Think deep into your hearts, you love Thailand because Tahm Mai (why)? 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.

So just remember sometimes Not Losing Face is a smart confidence builder, if you fail the kid even on a test the kid is not going to like you or English and will probably never learn very much of it. So reenforce the fun of learning not whether or not the kid is up to par thats western thinking.

Thai people want to have professionals but only the upper class is allowed to have those opportunities and from those people the most intelligent and gifted rise to the top and go work in BKK. Thai people will never speak like other countries because they are Thai and the weird things they do and certain ways their society is constructed is the reason we all love Thailand. So in closing please be observing anthropologists and remember everything in Thailand is done for a reason you just probably don't have a clue what it is, so take your time

And Live The Thai Way or Hit The Highway!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

By JD, Chiang Mai (7 years ago)

I seen and personally know what you are talking about and don’t like it one bit, but this is Thailand and they want their children to grow up and be stupid mindless idiots. Never to be able to study abroad, never to be able to rise above their peers into a successful career, never to be a doctor, scientists. To settle on being a waiter, cook housekeeper, a video game player or designer, a male or female prostitute.

Yet, foreigner teachers are pushing for change, and it comes in small steps. It is when Thai teachers and their administrators stand up to their higher up’s and tell them to stick their curriculum and study habits up their butts and seek to design a program that works. Yet, I see very few, but they are growing, even well name International schools also do the same as described in the original post. The parents ‘pay’ for their child education, but tell the school. Pass them or you don’t get any money. Ask any student whose graduated from a prestigious International school a question in English, either they answer you correctly using a system of vocabulary and style some Thais are not able to use or comprehend.

By Abdul Jabaar, Bangkok (7 years ago)


To be fair he's correct on a lot of things.

Maybe I'm lucky but the admin at my school are pretty good. They actually want us to get the kids to speak English! The result is my P1 class (now P2) speak better English than the P6 class ( hope that didn't sound arrogant).

There is still some nonsense (all those bloody shows for one thing) but not all Thai admin are useless.

I would agree with your comments on the foreign teachers but not to the extent you claim. The school I work at I can honestly say 80 per cent of the teachers are dedicated and care about the kids.

There are a few 'favourites' who are usually useless but know how to kiss ass. They happen to be good looking young males with low IQs. They usually get big pay rises and work less hours. They also get offered ALL of the overtime etc.

Everyone else knows what is happening (comments like 'It's a young man's game. If they wanna give me more I'll take it'. 'I hate teaching kids but I like my whores and beer too much to leave').

Or shouting 'Hey retard' to a kid in the hallway and just laughing when the kid says 'Teacher XXXXXX'.

One dude even stole MONEY from the kids for a trip and got promoted soon after. I jest you not. Simply because the Thai boss thought the sun shone out of his proverbial. The fact he said 'sorry' after being found out was enough in their eyes! If anyone else had done that they would've been fired on the spot.

However, that's life. I get paid fairly well, love my job, love life out here with my family, get on well with most of my hard working colleagues and accept nothing is perfect.

Favouritism goes on everywhere in the world but to me it's the worst thing about working in Thailand.

By DD, BKK (7 years ago)

Spot on again. I try and fight the cause too with some success. I will not stand by and watch my kids get screwed because of the thats the way it is culture. keep up the challenge.

By dave, nongkhai (7 years ago)

Absolutely right, Steve. And as for those who criticize you for ranting, they're not worth listening to. Some things are worth speaking strongly about and this is definitely one of them.

By Paul, Bangkok (7 years ago)


So you are upset by "personal attacks"?

Why then, may I ask, are your blogs chock full of them?

Your defence that no names are mentioned is quite frankly laughable. If you can't take it don't dish it out.

I could now describe the overweight Canadian who writes a well known Internet blog. But I haven't used his/her name so no one is going to know who I mean, are they?

So, this Canadian sits in the teachers room, quiet as a mouse, never saying a word to anyone. Instead what he does is eavesdrop on everyone else's conversations. The Australians, the New Zealanders, the English and the Americans and even some of the Thai. All of whom get along well and share a laugh and a joke. All of these conversations are stored away by this "overweight Canadian" for later use in his blog.

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 (7 years ago)

Again Steve overgeneralizes and rants. Not every teachers room is a cesspool of hate and backstabbing. Not every single Thai administrator is bad to the core. Very few of the teachers I work with resemble the ones you portray.

It's clear Steve is a very troubled individual, unable to build on the positive. Although much of the negative he points out is true from a western point of view, shouldn't we westerners try to help and change Thailand for the better in a more eastern, Thai, cultured way. Ranting and slamming your fist on the table never gets anyone anywhere in the Land of Smiles.

Do get rid of your black-colored glasses and buy those rose-colored glasses Steve or try a meditation course. I wouldn't have you on my staff in your state of mind.

By Hippolite, (7 years ago)

You seem to have some interesting analysis and experience, but your writing style negates this by coming across as a personal rant. It also seems that there are many issues that others have with you that serve no purpose by being publicly aired other than a particularized squabble.

By Dan, Nevada (7 years ago)

I enjoyed reading your blog, hate to say it but its very true...it seems like you have seen it all Steve, keep up the good work with your blogs...

By David, Bangkok (7 years ago)

Steve's perspection of the world seems to be unique and his world does not appear to be a very pleasant place to live.

Steve, maybe trying on a pair of rose colored glasses might give you a different and more pleasant view of the world.

The world may not be perfect, but it ain't all bad either

By Jack, Asia (7 years ago)

There are four things which cannot remain hidden: The sun, the moon, the truth, and Steve Schertzer's blogs.

By Tom Tuohy, Saudia Arabia (7 years ago)

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