Readers' Submissions

Thoughts On Teaching

  • Written by Anonymous
  • June 19th, 2009
  • 18 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok


Just some random thoughts that popped into my head after reading through "Teaching English in Thailand". The following perspective may be of some use.

I'm now an early 30's Australian male but spent 7 years abroad starting from the age of 21. I left Australia with about $500 in my pocket, and very little idea of anything. 5 years of this was spent in Korea, with the remainder spent in Japan, Indonesia and Russia. When I first landed in the land of the morning calm, I had no formal education other than to have graduated from the school of hard knocks. Reading through your page, most of the information re: type of schools and jobs, privates vs. legit, visas and payment etc. rings as true for Korea as it does for Thailand. Most of the quotes from people strike a chord in me at the same time, echoing sentiments I had felt during my first couple of years on the peninsula.

I came to Korea as a long term traveller, my first overseas experience. A buddy and I had plans of riding motorbikes around the world, after having ridden across Australia (no small feat!). We arrived and rode the peninsula, then Japan, then back to Korea again. The tale takes a not uncommon twist at the site of a bookstore where two young men are daring each other to approach the beautiful girl working there and as for her number. As a result of what happened immediately afterward, a few months later my buddy was riding across Russia, while I was enduring an equally challenging task; going through my wedding vows in Korean!

So there I was, landed in a new country, with a young bride and in need of a job. Teaching English seemed the way, and through some skill and some dumb luck I managed to swing a job lecturing part time at the university. I was 22 and without a degree, fortunate enough to look much older than my age. Nobody asked my age or credentials to be teaching, and I didn’t tell. People assumed I was somewhere nearer 30, and experienced. I got the job through knowing people, not from applications.

At the start I had no idea what I was doing, obviously…. but thankfully neither did anyone else. The nervousness wore off pretty quickly, and I started to think about how I could say something that was going to be meaningful and useful. Like a lot of people in the situation, I felt pretty guilty about how much I was earning compared to what I was providing (about US$40/hour at the time). For most people, this feeling of guilt wears off pretty quick to the point where they feel they deserve it, or even more. Before too long you find the foreigners believing that they are God’s gift, and wouldn’t consider getting out of bed for less than $50/hour!

My experiences reflect your sentiments that peer review is important at early stages…. and I was lucky enough to meet some good old timers where I was. These guys were way overqualified and experienced to be doing what they were, and had been teaching at the tertiary level in their own countries for some years. They gave me tips and advice, but the most valuable information I got from them was good materials. One guy in particular hooked me up with actual curriculums from universities in the US, which were meaningful and useful to students. I quickly ditched my off the shelf textbooks in favour of these, and through teaching them repeatedly and using their models for testing got better at my delivery. Students who weren’t enrolled in my courses even came to sit in. To say I was fortunate would be an understatement.

In my second year, luck smiled on me again, and I was asked to teach some classes at Hyundai Heavy Industries – the ship building company. This was on the side to my Uni work, and lucrative indeed. Going into this sort of work I had no idea what I ought to be charging, but kept my mouth shut and never quantified anything when people asked me questions.

Mr Kim: So how much is it going to cost us to have your expertise at our company?

me: It won’t be cheap Mr Kim

Mr Kim: yes, it's as I expected, foreign expert services don’t come cheap. I imagine you will be seeking a similar rate to our ship building experts from German and England.

With (non)negotiation tactics like that I managed to secure for myself the almost obscene hourly rate of US$100/hour. The work was extremely seasonal though – my best month in 5 years saw me take home just a hair over US$10k, the biggest paycheck I had received in my life at the time. The worst month saw me take home around US$200. But I saved my money (or, my wife did since all the money went into her account) and in the off months, I went rock climbing, rode motorbikes and built custom jeeps with my buddies.

For this sort of money, I went the extra mile. The curriculums I had access to from the US were excellent. I wasn’t really teaching English directly, students had the opportunity to study subjects like business presentation, negotiation skills, the anatomy of small talk, closing deals. We even dipped into behavioural psychology. My Korean was getting better by this stage (but I never did let on I understood the language) and I knew enough to adapt the materials to suit the knowledge that the students needed to learn to bridge the communication gap with western people. While it wasn’t exactly cutting edge, we were delving into areas of social values and questioning what makes certain vocabulary more important in one culture than another. We were definitely going well beyond the standard 'read and repeat' dialogues and challenging students not simply to translate their own language into English and speak as normal, but to understand the values in another culture and to speak in a way that was meaningful to the other person.

At the end of the second year, I got sick very suddenly and was hospitalised. For a short time, I went into a coma. I had bacterial pneumonia, from the city's incredibly dirty air. The doctor's prognosis was sobering; leave this city, or you will die within 3 months! I was a 22-year old rock climber! We spent a few months in the mountains, recovering in the clean air and natural hot springs. I had been healthy my entire life with never a day in hospital and this was a serious blow to my ego. Of more concern emotionally, was the pressure from my wife to return to work. The medical bills had come out of our savings, and we had bought an apartment we were paying off. Money was short, but was she really not concerned about my health? We moved to a new and cleaner city and I started working again.

By the 3rd year, I had given up uni teaching entirely, though in the first and second year I had done my share of teaching kids at institutes, and privately, and the occasional deal at a government high school. I had managed something that was near impossible in Korea at the time; A permanent spouse visa! I concentrated my efforts on the corporate scene; It was what I loved, and I felt I was good at it. If only my students (sometimes in their 40's and 50's) knew my age! I always declined to reveal my age, and my students invariably guessed it much higher than the truth. Some even guessed into the mid 30's. For a culture where language is based almost entirely on age, I sidestepped the issue neatly, because I spoke only English. I started offering more specifically targeted classes like IELTS preparation (required for visas in Aus) and offered them for free to underprivileged students. Some of these students had gotten entry to prestigious prep schools through scholarships but were living well below the poverty line. I had tried teaching at orphanages but found it had little direct benefit for the kids involved.

The corporate scene was lucrative, to be sure…. but it was very spasmodic. You had to take what you were offered a lot of the time, an hour here, an hour there. To pass something up was to be out of the game. Travel sucked up a lot of the day, plus you have to provide your own materials. By this stage I was modifying most of the materials to make them more suitable for Koreans, and writing some of my own. Every now and then, you would hit the jackpot; a 3 day straight class of 8 hours a day, or better yet, a week! A week was worth US$5k, huge money to me. You would stumble on this once or twice in a year if you were lucky, and it most often involved endless coffees, doughnuts and silly jokes with secretaries. I had learnt well enough though, for secretaries knew more than managers. A secretary could tell you exactly how much the company's educational budget was, how many students they had, the requirements for the course, and give you copies of the competitor’s submissions. None of this information was directly available. Why did people always treat the secretaries so badly? I never once asked a secretary to bring me coffee – I brought *them* coffee.

The 4th and 5th years bought career highs, and personal lows…. I continued bringing in and modifying new materials and writing more of my own materials. My Korean was fluent conversationally, but weak in writing and reading. With a partner, we adapted the 'challenge leadership' course so popular overseas and began teaching it. Relations with my wife were seriously starting to sour. On the plus side, I had built up quite an impressive CV. The logos of big ticket companies like various branches of Samsung and Hyundai as well as prominent government departments were all over the place. The struggle never ended though; you still had to do your bit with the occasional camp, language school or elementary school class, and private teaching. The money that this brought in had gone about half way to paying off our apartment. I kept up with the free IELTS classes and these were the most satisfying classes for me to teach. I had very exacting standards for the free classes, so the level of the students was high with most being able to score well up into the 900's. I once had a perfect score, by a high school student. This only increased the desire of parents to get their kids into the free class. My time with these incredibly bright and sharp-minded students left me feeling very positive about Korea's future. Teaching the brightest students is always the most rewarding, and to some extent I felt like setting up a sliding scale with the hardest working brightest students paying nothing, and the lazy little ignorant snots whose parents are trying to buy their way through society being made to pay triple price.

In the last year, things turned bad for me. This isn’t really relevant to teaching overseas except in the sense of what sort of career path you lay out for yourself. I broke up with my wife, and in the divorce she got the house. I wasn’t bitter and was quite happy for her to have it; life for a divorcee who has married a foreigner is a lot tougher in Korea than in Thailand and I always feel glad when I think that it might help her. I had very little money left, but still had my bike and jeep. The most drastic blow was the loss of my visa. I returned to the tourist visa. I moved into the only place I could afford; it was bare concrete floors, no heating or hot water, an outhouse which was just a pit dug in the ground, and on one side was a prostitute and the other a university student who sang only one line of a song in English, 23.5 hours a day! The month before I had been living the high life. Christmas came, and with it the snow and the quietest part of the year for corporate teachers as things scaled down. I had very few classes, and this year seemed to be bad for Korea all round! There was very little money to be had anywhere, and some companies even failed to pay.

On the way out to dinner with a girl I had met I was scooting up the centre of the parked traffic very carefully – ice everywhere – when all of a sudden a parked car opened his door. I hit the brakes, but there was no stopping. I slipped along the ice and broke my leg very badly on the thin sharp steel of the door. After a few days in hospital which depleted what little money I had left I went home. 3 months to heal was what I was told. I lapsed into a period of severe depression and sickness, getting drunk in my sub zero hovel and more and more paranoid. I was reading classics – the only English books available in Korea at a reasonable price – and had gotten to crime and punishment. It was made worse by the sounds of the prostitute with her clients on the one side, and the crazy student singing repetitively for weeks on end the same one line out of the song which I couldn’t make out. My pneumonia relapsed, and I became quite delirious… I was certain that I had killed my own landlady, and wouldn’t go outside or answer the phone. The toilet was outside, and I was too scared to open the door, on top of which I couldn’t squat with my broken leg, so I became constipated and subsisted on a diet of chocolate and beer for days on end. To top this off, someone stole my bike. At the height of this, I had a crazy fever… caught up in the midst of my Dostoyevsky delusions I had fallen asleep, freezing cold at -10 degrees, but sweating madly… drunk I had passed out with a beer in one hand and a block of chocolate in the other. I woke up in a version of Dante's hell; a rat had eaten the chocolate and crawled onto my head. I woke up with this rat biting my ear, and still in the sweat of cold fever I sat bolt upright with the prostitute being fxxxed to the left of me and the student singing to the right I screamed and screamed.

Eventually I got over the fever. The girl I had met got very concerned and came round every day until I answered the door. She took good care of me until I recovered, cooking for me, feeding me, washing my clothes by hand in the freezing winter waters. She was a good basic girl. I'm not sure what would have happened if she hadn't come around…. I was down to my last few dollars, not even enough to buy more beer. I was destitute, starving and sick. I stood a real chance of dying. A few months later, I left Korea, with less than I had arrived with. After selling what few meagre possessions I had left it didn’t quite come up to enough for a plane ticket, but the girl lent me the money. I was in love, and once I had enough money saved, I asked her to come over. I'd like to say that she was my perfect match, but after living with her for 3 years, scared of marrying again, I married her. A month later, we got divorced. I’m glad to say I gave her back the money, and bought her a plane ticket. She was a perfect girl, just not perfect for me. She hated Australia and only wanted to go home back to her simple life and the respect that she had there.

The lesson here is not really an obvious one…. yeah it's true that teaching English is rewarding, but probably not in the financial sense, even if you are at the top. I knew nobody clearing more bills than I was. Most English teachers were making about US$2k/month in their language schools. I was averaging about double that even in my worst year. It still didn’t stop me ending up in hell. Reading most of the comments about 'professionalism', about how the Thais seek to keep people happy rather than achieve objectives…. these sound like the comments of young people to me. And I say that as a young person. What would we say of someone who came into our own countries and presumed to use methodologies which are alien to us? Imagine the Buddhist monk, forcing our kids to memorise vast passages by rote backed up with the cane, or the militant Islamic? I'm not strong on cultural sensitivity, but where do you draw the line? If you sent your kids to take Thai lessons, would you expect them to also take on all the associated Thai 'culture' that you have witnessed in your time in Thailand; the gestures, body language, cultural values, etc? Would you expect the Thai teacher to change your kids values, or would you want them to just learn a language? Can you do one with at least understanding the other?

William Arthur Ward once said; "The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires." And he should know, he's one of America's most quoted authors. Take a minute to think about that statement, and I think you'll start to agree with the fundamental truth of it. Being a great teacher has very little to do with qualifications or education…. you may not even have a great deal of knowledge. The miracle of teaching is inspiring others. I’m sure if we all think back to our childhood we've been lucky enough to experience this wonder. Putting it into practice is everything but easy. But a good step forward would be not insisting on things being as they are in your own country. Most of the best lessons I ever gave came after I had learnt the language fluently, understood the culture and values of the people, and then could speak in their *language* (in English!) in a way that inspired. You don’t need to pretty things up, or cut them out. You don’t need to make it *fun* (though that can help!). What you need to do, is tell the truth, in a way that will inspire people. Or even better, give them a lesson that lets them realise that truth themselves (people always value their own knowledge best).

During my 5 Years in Korea, I taught nearly 6,000 students. Some of these I had taught only briefly in large lecture halls with hundreds in attendance, some I had spent many hours with in one on one sessions. When news got out that I was leaving, I received emails from quite a few, saying how my unusual teaching methods and observations on life had touched them and changed the way they live. Apart from being quite gratifying and bringing forth a few tears, these messages made me think about whether I had made any difference in my time there. Compared to most of the teachers I knew, I put a lot of time, effort and money into my job…. far in advance of what was probably smart. If I had kept all the money and invested it rather than pouring it into my marriage… would I have done better financially? I don’t know. I probably would have pissed it all away on beer and girls and faster motorbikes anyway. When I look back though, I know that certain lectures I gave had clear and definite connections with students. You can see it from the look in their eyes. The ring of truth rings clear in the ears of anyone who has the intelligence to understand it. When you think back on people you have taught and know the difference that the teaching you gave them made in their life in terms of education, personal development, career advancement, it's easy to get a little uppity. It's very inspiring when you make that connection and see the light of understanding in their eyes, to think that you have given them that. I'm not so arrogant to presume that those few bright sparks wouldn’t have gone on ahead without me there to light the fire, but to have been involved and facilitated it was an honour, and a pleasure that is not easily forgotten.

Maybe that is the real paradox of teaching, a koan worthy of a Zen Buddhist’s contemplation; How can you come out ahead when you are investing everything you have into others? When you work that one out, you will know whether teaching is right for you, and also why it is a respected profession.

Stickman's thoughts:

Brilliant. For someone so young you have much wisdom and I can see that the students who studied with you would have been very lucky indeed.

It's a shame you specifically stated a preference for no email address inclusion and I feel you're someone who many interested in or currently teaching would enjoy corresponding with.