…And Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out!
I’ve dithered about whether or not I should bother to write this submission for over six months now. After Stick wrote a piece for his weekly column entitled Somchai Pulls the Trigger, more than a few astute readers wrote to ask if by any chance that piece referred at all to me. The short answer was that yes it did indeed, but I wasn’t quite ready yet to sit down and write about it. For one thing, I didn’t want to sound whinny. Putting some time between me and the events that occurred wasn’t a bad idea. It also didn’t seem too bad idea to wait until I was already in a foul mood, as relating this story wasn’t going to put a big smile on my face. Since today I already have a splitting headache, it seems like as good a time as ever tell my tale.There were a few alternate titles I mulled over for this piece. I considered, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished…Yet Again! I toyed with, “…And Never Darken Our Doorway Again!” In the end though, I simply went with the first idea to pop into my head. In any case, the sentiment was the same in each title. Just go away…far, far away…and the quicker the better!Sigh, I suppose it’s my fault for still being so impossibly naïve. I was silly enough to believe that hard work, devotion, and most importantly, results, mean anything here in the Land of Smiles. Having reached a certain age, I should have known better than to expect gratitude for a job well done. Appreciation for anything well done in Thailand has the shelf life of a container of milk left out in the hot sun. Still the news, coming out of seemingly thin air was like a well placed kick in the stomach. It took a while for the reality to reach the innermost cortex of my brain. I was, for the first time in my entire life getting sacked from a job.It happened like this. I had finished entering all my test and grade data for the second term at the school where I had been teaching for the past three years. As the current academic year was winding down, it was time once again to begin planning for the upcoming summer session and the first term of the new school year. Before I could begin the process of drafting a course outline and writing lesson plans, I needed to know if there were going to be any changes to the curriculum, and the important dates of the new academic year. To find out this critical information I casually strolled over to my immediate superior’s desk and inquired about when I would be getting an update. In the convoluted flow chart my school had, Miss P. was the person who gave me my marching orders within Anuban.“When can we sit down to discuss the summer course and next year?” I asked.Turning her head to assiduously avoid making eye contact, she said coldly, “It hasn’t been decided whether you are going to be rehired for next year.”(WTF?) “What do you mean by that? Why in the world wouldn’t I be rehired? Please tell me, am I or am I not going to be teaching here?”Still not looking at me she simply said, “I can’t tell you anything until the end of the month.” Then she pretended to study a few papers in front of her face and did her best to pretend I wasn’t standing in front of her desk.I had suddenly…and inexplicably become a non-person.As you might expect I was completely bowled over. What could I have possibly done to deserve suddenly being treated like a pariah? What high crimes and misdemeanors was I guilty of? Hadn’t I done everything that was expected of me, and in fact much more?I need not have cast doubt on my abilities as a teacher, or flagellated myself with a cat o’ nine tails wondering if I had failed to fulfill my professional responsibilities. The fact was, if I may say without tooting my own horn too loudly, that during the past three years I had done an absolutely brilliant job in teaching English to my Anuban students. To any of you rolling your eyes at what seems nothing less than brazen conceit, I confess that I may have my share of have human failings, but neither braggadocio, nor false modesty is among them. I freely admit my failures, and I take full credit for my successes. It is then with some considerable satisfaction that I could look back at my achievements here during my tenure at this school.Looking at the state of English language instruction before I began teaching here, I remember that the overwhelming majority of students could not answer the question, “What is your name?” These children could in fact hardly open their mouths to utter a single sound, and when they did, what came out was usually not much more than a muffled whisper. The first thing I set out to do is to get everyone speaking. During our morning assembly I began asking a series of simple questions.
How are you today?
“I’m fine thank you, and you?”
What day is it today?
What is your name?
“My name is…”
How old are you?
“I am … years old.”
Where do you live?
“I live in Lampang.”
What is the name of your school?
“My school is Assumption College Lampang!”At the beginning the responses were hardly a deafening roar, but through dogged daily repetition, the decibel level rose steadily, until by the end of the year, the children’s chorus was quite impressive. Visitors to the school were often invited over to hear nearly eight hundred young voices belting out the answers in unison. The school’s director often escorted VIPs over to hear the Anuban students “Speaking English.” Oh what a “progressive school” we were to be introducing the English language at such a tender age!Every class I taught began with these six questions. Obviously the mere answering of these questions hardly qualifies as having “learned English”, but it was a wonderful way to build confidence and simply to get everyone speaking.Later on, once I had taught the words to describe the weather, I added the question,
What is the weather today?Today is (sunny, cloudy, rainy, hot or cold) After some practice the children were able to use more than one adjective in a sentence. For example they might say, “Today is sunny and cold.”My lessons were based pretty much what you might expect to be teaching to a class of kindergarteners back in Farangland. Topics included colors, items found in a classroom, animals, parts of the body, shapes etc. Aside from a brief consultation with the Anuban director who was in charge of the curriculum, I was pretty much free to do what I like, and the way I liked.Lessons were 20 minutes long, which is the approximate attention span of a 3-6 year old child. My lessons did not include too many vocabulary words. These kids were still learning basic vocabulary words in Thai, for crying out loud! Why try to overburden their poor little brains trying to make them remember an excessive number of unfamiliar words in a foreign language? My educational philosophy has always been to present a small amount of interesting material. Do it for a short time, and repeat it often enough that it eventually sinks in. I also thought it vital to break up the routine with songs, games and other fun activities. In my experience this formula has proven itself time after time. In the limited time I had available, I was able to make some significant headway. Many shy students who were afraid to say a word, eventually became regular little chatter boxes. Students might have learned more if their Thai teachers had been willing to practice with the children a few minutes a day. Alas, only one or two teachers were willing to speak even a word of English. This unfortunately is all too common in schools across Thailand.Aside from introducing general conversation into the classroom, I feel my most significant accomplishment was to teach the phonics of the English alphabet. You might think that in learning the ABC’s, students would learn the sound of each letter…but here in Thailand you would be wrong.In Thailand, children learn the name of each letter, and after some time, recognize the shape of each letter. Eventually they learn to write the letters, first capital and then lower case. What has been missing is to ability to reproduce the sound each letter makes. In Thai schools, every “alphabet word” has an associated picture; for example, A-ANT, B-BEAR, C-CAT. Through rote drilling, a fair number of children do learn to recite and write the English alphabet, but if you were to ask your average Thai student the sound of the letter A, or B, or C, you will more than likely be staring into a bewildered face. I should mention that I’m not only talking about children in Kindergarten. You are likely to receive the same blank look from students in Pratom (elementary school) and I’m sad to say from students in Mathyom (high school). No one ever taught them this obvious (or what might seem obvious to you and me) bit of information.I once wrote a submission about what I did to rectify this sorry state of affairs called; Professor Henry Higgins Ain’t Got Nothing on Me! I invite you to read it if you have the inclination. For the purpose of this piece, let it suffice for me to say that virtually every student I taught who went over to Pratom 1 knew enough to at least begin to master the mystery of reading.That, coupled with the ability of the students to speak English with confidence, should have convinced The Powers That Be that Old Sawadee did in fact know a thing or two about teaching. Yeah right! Should have, would have, could have aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit when talking about the so-called Thai “education system”. Just when I thought I was making some tangible progress in developing an effective English program, I was rudely reintroduced to the ill informed idiocy that occurs when ignorant administrators begin to meddle with the teaching process. I should mention that most of these same wiser-than thou-administrators have never actually taught in a classroom.
In Marching Boldly Backwards Into the Past! I described the “brilliant idea” of my school to attempt to “Improve the quality of English education” by introducing a series of books called My English Companion, which they imported from India. Who knew that the center of the English Speaking World was not in the UK, America, Australia, Canada or New Zealand, but in India.There is no need to reprise the critique I presented in that above mentioned piece. Suffice it to say; that the children’s ability to speak English took an immediate nose dive. Any respectful feedback I had about the problems with the material being presented was either ignored out of hand, or resulted in my being criticized for daring to question decisions made by my superiors. Why should the facts that I had a real degree in Education (as opposed to what passes for one in Thailand) and that I was a native English speaker mean that I was more qualified to design an ESL curriculum than some Thai teachers who could barely speak English?When I pointed out that the amount of vocabulary being presented was more than the children were able to learn, the response from the administration was… to teach twice as many units! The fact that the children could not even begin to learn so much vocabulary was irrelevant. As long as each page of the English books were stamped, signed and dated, the new program was a “success”. Phonics? We don’t need to teach no stinking phonics! For years we’ve not bothered with any such thing. Why start now? You say the test results are terrible? That’s no problem! Just fiddle with the results until they give the illusion that everything is perfect. And so things go here in the Land of Smiles. All this delusion eventually catches up with reality. My friend who teaches future English teachers at the local campus of Rajapat University has shared some stories illustrating the inability of many of his students to speak or write English at the elementary school level. These brilliant linguists will soon be “sharing” what they have supposedly learned with yet another generation of young students who presumably will shine under their tutelage.Ironically, while my hands were largely tied when it came to what I taught in most of my classes, I was given complete freedom to do what ever I wanted with one K-3 class. This was the so-called Intensive English Program class, whose parents were paying a large sum of additional money for their children to actually learn English. Left alone for me to help them, this class succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. By the end of the year, most of these 5-6 year old children could speak more English, better English than many students in Mathayom! The children, having the confidence to converse, amazed their parents with their fluency and pronunciation.The administration seemed pleased with the first year of this program, so much so that they had me put together a multimedia extravaganza to show off the student’s new found abilities. This “dog and pony show” was to convince prospective parents to enroll their children in next year’s class. Using pictures from a PowerPoint presentation projected on a large screen I asked students a series of questions such as:Q. How are you today?A. I’m not feeling well. I have a…stomach ache, headache, etc.Q. Where are you going?A. I’m going to Big C, MK, 7-11, etc.Q. What are you doing?A. I’m reading a book, listening to music etc.Q. May I have (some Kit Kat, KFC, Fanta etc?)A. Here you are. Thank you. You’re welcome.Q. Do you like ice cream?A Yes I like ice cream.Q. Do you like medicine?A. No I don’t like medicine.Q. Which fruit would you like?A. I want strawberries please.Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?A. When I grow up I want to be a doctor.I could have used dozens of examples for them to choose from. They weren’t merely regurgitating a single answer. They actually understood the speech patterns of the questions and knew how to frame the correct response. They didn’t need to know the grammar involved. They only needed to know what the questions meant and what phrases they needed to use to answer them. Isn’t that the way all of us acquire language from out parents? Isn’t that the way all of us learned to speak English? This isn’t exactly rocket science folks. All that was needed was to make learning fun, not to present too much material at one time, and of course to practice, practice practice!You might be tempted to think that my success with this class would translate into respect from the administration. Hell, I certainly was. The bitter reality was they were already preparing to get rid “the trouble maker” who dared to question their English program. The fact that they were trotting me out to “perform” in public like a trained monkey didn’t mean they wanted this foreign gadfly buzzing around their school. Although there was another month of school before the end of the term, I was already being sent some not so subtle signals about my status.You may find it difficult to believe the pathetic story I’m going to relate to you now, but it is true nonetheless. Now, when I first began teaching at this school, there were no English children’s books in the library. Now after three years, due to my unceasing efforts, the library shelves now contained hundreds and hundreds of books. Many of you, my friends, through your book donations helped make this possible. I don’t have words eloquent enough to thank you.One kind reader wrote to me from America telling me that he was inspired by my project, and to please send him a list of children’s books I would like to have. I was free to choose anything my heart desired. Cost was not an issue. He thought what I was doing was worthwhile, and simply wanted to help in any way he could. I quickly did some research online and came up with a set of real classics, which any children’s library would be proud to possess. I sent my little wish list to my benefactor, expecting my books to arrive a few months later via surface mail. To my astonishment a short time later everything arrived via airmail. The cost of the books was considerable enough as it was, but the airmail shipping was huge. Let me tell you folks, I was speechless that a total stranger would do this to benefit a bunch of Thai children he would probably never meet.My benefactor had only one small request. Recently his Thai wife’s teenage son had been killed in a motor vehicle accident in Thailand. As you might expect, she was deep in the depths of grief. My new friend wanted to donate these books in his wife’s son’s memory. What he asked me to do is to have the school write a short letter, written in Thai, expressing its gratitude for their donation. What could be easier or more appropriate I wrote back saying I would take care of that immediately. I also said I would design and print a set of book plates, so that every child who picked up one of these books would know in whose honor they had been donated. I fully expected that I would have an official letter of thanks ready to send off in a day or two. Unfortunately, as it turned out I might as well have asked Tinkerbelle to come down and sprinkle pixie dust around.I first told my immediate supervisor about this book donation and my need for a letter from to school. She wanted nothing to do with my request, telling me to speak to the head of Anuban. She in turn blew me off saying that any official letter, written on school stationary, had to be approved by the school director. I immediately went to the director’s office and tried to make an appointment to see him. I explained to his secretary the details of why I needed to speak with him, and said that wouldn’t need more than a few minutes of his time. I was told that he would get my message and to come back later that day. When I returned I was told that he was too busy to speak with me, and to try again the next day. After 3 days it was obvious even to someone as thick-headed at myself that I would perhaps get in to see him, oh, some time about when hell froze over!I didn’t know whether to be angry, or simply humiliated. If you were in a position of authority, and were told that someone wanted to make a very generous donation to your school’s library in memory of a beloved son who had just passed away, what would you do? I think that many of you would not only write a sincere letter of gratitude, but perhaps hold a small ceremony with photographs to send to the bereaved mother. I’m certain you wouldn’t simply ignore common courtesy. This guy had no problem doing just that. Can you imagine my embarrassment, having to write to my friend in America and say that my school couldn’t be bothered to write a thank you letter? Looking back on this now, I’m thankful that I didn’t wind up presenting these books to these ingrates, as they didn’t deserve a single one!Getting back to the main part of my narrative, once I was told that I “might” not be rehired, I didn’t sit around waiting for the axe to fall. I simply went out on my afternoon lunch break and found a new teaching position. Just a few minutes walk away, another school was not only looking for native English speakers, they wanted one to teach in their Anuban. As they say, one door closes and another door opens.After an interview and a teaching demo, I was hired for the upcoming school year. Note though that I pointedly did not resign from my old school. I would not quit. They would have to tell me that they had decided not to rehire me…which they did of course a short time later. The reason I did not quit was not based silly pride, but rather on Stick telling me to not jeoprodising something I was entitled to collect…namely severance pay. I will return to that topic in a while.It was time to clean out my desk, pack up all the teaching aids I had made over the years, and head out for new horizons. Later that afternoon while at home, my wife rushed up, obviously in a state of extreme agitation. She said that someone from the school had called and told her that I had “stolen school property” and if I did not return these items, they would send the police to my home to arrest me! WTF were they talking about? I looked into the cardboard boxes I had packed up. They contained the usual detritus you accumulate when working in any office. Everything was clearly mine, bought and paid for by me. Digging deeper I did come across half a box of staples, about a quarter of a box of paperclips, a few dried up whiteboard markers, and a tiny bit of scotch tape left on a roll. Was this the “school property” that I had “stolen”? Talk about sheer and unadulterated pettiness. I drove back to school and placed the “stolen” items on my vacant desk. I then walked next door to the library and methodically packed up all the English children’s books that were my property. When I left the shelves looked exactly the way they had three years earlier. I felt much better!Now it’s time to tell a little “tale within a tale”…sort of like the play Hamlet put on, but without all the ghosts. I was teaching the summer session at my new school, when I decided to pursue the matter of severance pay.The trouble is I didn’t have the faintest clue about what to do. Then one evening over dinner with some Farang friends of mine I casually mentioned my dilemma. Well, it just so happened, that one of my friends was an expert on the subject of Thai labor law. He not only told me precisely what I needed to do, but gave me a thick book, written in both Thai and English, which detailed all of the relevant statutes on severance pay.Now I know what some of you must be thinking out there. “Hey Sawadee, this is Thailand for God’s sake! Don’t you know that when it comes to the law of the land here in the Land of Smiles that the Farang is always wrong!” I can’t blame you for thinking that. Based on all my experiences since moving here, that seems axiomatic. Surprisingly though, in the world of labor contracts, we foreigners have the same rights under the law as any Thai. Really! It turned out that after three years of teaching I was entitled to six months severance pay…at the highest level of pay since I was hired. This was a pleasant surprise indeed!With my friend’s help I proceeded to write a letter to my school informing them of this fact. It was a loooong letter, which quoted every applicable statute by number and sub-section. I even graciously scanned and include all these in Thai as well as in English. I dropped this off at the school’s main office and waited for a reply.I didn’t have long to wait. Soon I received a call from a school official demanding I tell her “how I knew about all these laws!” She did not dispute that what I had quoted was indeed fact. All she wanted to know was how I had found out something, which I “shouldn’t know about”! I simply replied that the relevant facts were easily obtainable, even by a non-Thai if he was willing to do his homework. After a lot of sputtering, I was informed that the school would be getting back to me.This of course is precisely what they didn’t do. Instead “Somchai Pulled the Trigger!” Since I was clearly on the right side of the law, when this case went to the labor board the school would have no choice but to pay me in full. Their only hope is that I would decide to drop my claim…and the only way they could accomplish that was to go around the law and intimidate me. I soon found myself being called into my new supervisor’s office at my new school and learned precisely how I could indeed be threatened.Someone in the administration of my old school called someone at my new school and informed them that if I did not immediately “cease and desist” from pursuing my severance pay claim, that parents of my new students would be receiving phone calls “denigrating my character”. I might be called anything including incompetent, irreverent, disrespectful, and dare I even say it…perhaps a child molester! My new supervisor, who is a fellow Farang, was sympathetic. He knew that none of these things were true. He knew in fact that these were scurrilous lies being used to in effect blackmail me. Unfortunately the fact that these were lies would not prevent a huge controversy at my new school. If this were to happen I would not be able to teach there. In fact I wouldn’t be able to teach anywhere!In the end it was Hobson’s choice for Old Sawadee. I could “win” my severance pay case, which would give me six months pay, but would effectively end my ability to teach. This, my friends, is a classic example of a Pyrrhic victory… that is to say, win the battle, but by doing so lose the war. The alternative, distasteful though it was, was to shut my big fat Farang mouth, accept the fact that there was nothing I could do to prevent myself from getting buggered, and try my best to get on with my life.In the end I was forced to do the later. For better or worse, Thailand is my home. Here I have a lovely home, a truck which is still in good condition, and all my worldly possessions. Barring an out and out civil war, where Farangs are being shot in the street, I’m not going anywhere. I am also presupposing that the current, or any future government, will allow me to be here at all! Who knows what the future has in store for us foreigners?Speculating about the future wasn’t going to help me in the here and now. Short of running away, my only option was to do whatever I needed to do to provide for myself and my family. That meant swallowing my pride, knuckling under, and walking away in order to collect another year’s wages. That is of course precisely what I did.Sometimes…occasionally, once in blue moon, some good comes out of a bad situation. While my new school is far from perfect, in some important ways it is much better for me personally, at least when it comes to teaching.My old classes had over 40 children per classroom. My new classes have 12 children! (Sam’s class in K-2 has a whopping 17 children!) That alone makes it much more likely that I can actually teach them some English.This year I am teaching K-1 exclusively, with children three and four years old. You might not think that such young children could actually learn a foreign language, but actually they are very well suited because the structure of their minds is very flexible. In addition to English and Thai, these little guys are also learning Chinese! How do they sort it all out? I think you’d need to consult a linguist or a neurologist to understand. All I know is that Sam has no problem switching forth between languages.What is best about my present situation is that the head of Anuban has given me complete freedom to do whatever I want. When I was hired, I was told to “get the children speaking English”. How I did so was entirely up to me. As we wind up the first term, everyone, including myself is pleased the results. I seem to have garnered respect from my fellow teachers and from the parents of my students. The children are certainly happy to see me, and most of them have learned quite a lot in a few short months. Not withstanding some health issues, I enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work. Hopefully things will continue to flow smoothly for me here.How has this whole ordeal affected me? After living here for over six years, and having experienced first hand how utterly unpredictable things can be, I was hardly a starry-eyed idealist when this debacle happened. I certainly have not suddenly started suffering under the delusion that something like this could not very well happen again. At the moment all is going well, but tomorrow this could all change in the blink of an eye.Make no mistake about it. It doesn’t matter how long and how hard you work here. It doesn’t matter how much you objectively achieve. It doesn’t matter how fine a fellow you are. It doesn’t matter if you are a productive member of Thai society. It doesn’t matter if your wife is Thai, or that your children were born in Thailand and are going to school here. It doesn’t matter if you do volunteer work or make contributions to charities. You are always no more than an instant away from being asked, to pull down your pants and bend over…actually many times no one bothers to even ask. I’ve been shaken down by the police with no other recourse but to submit and shut up. The capricious manner by which you can expect to be treated here hardly qualifies as a ringing endorsement to move here.
Despite all of this, my day to day life continues to have more positives to write about than negatives. I have many good Thai friends. With my limited language skills, I can’t say that the relationships are deep, but there are
without a doubt people who would not hesitate to help me if I needed their assistance. I’ve written extensively about the excellent care I’ve received from the local hospitals. I doubt I would be so well treated back in Farangland.
Out and about in Lampang I receive many warm and sincere smiles. Overall I can honestly say that I am very well treated indeed. Still…its unsettling to remember that somewhere out there, lurking in the bushes, is Somchai. He, in his many guises
and incarnations is always ready to gleefully step out and “pull the trigger”. Hopefully I can find a way to defend myself the next time. Wouldn’t it just shock the hell out of him if I could… just once, get the
drop on the bastard and deliver with a well placed…and well deserved kick to the testicles?
That is one sad tale and I cannot imagine the anger and frustration you must have felt. I remember when you first told me all about it, and I gave you my viewpoint and how I thought you should take legal action, but then when the futility of it all became obvious, it was extremely frustrating – and it wasn't even me involved!