Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog June 11th, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Whacked Out

You can’t argue with a cliché, so let’s start out with one today, shall we?

You get out of teaching in Thailand exactly what you put into it.

I wish that were all I had to write; I could then end this blog and go down to the local somtum joint for some savory heartburn and a nap.

But no, I can hear the multitude clamoring: “Tell us more, Teacher Tim!”

Very well, children.

Over the years I have rubbed elbows with dozens, if not hundreds, of English teachers here in Thailand. Broadly speaking, they can be broken down into two distinct groups (or, I can call them all broken down, and we can go home to watch CSI reruns):

1. Those who act as if their teaching career were penance for some previous sin, or a sentence of penal servitude.

2. Those who enjoy the role of teacher and prosper in it.

What is it, exactly, that separates the successful ESL teacher from the cynical hack?

Attitude is part of it.

So is preparation.

And so is luck.

I have known people with a Master’s Degree in Education come to Thailand to teach, and then leave in the middle of the night on the first available flight, cursing the day they set foot in a Thai school. I have also known ne’er-do-wells who just seemed to wash up on the beach in Koh Samet one day, take a TESOL certification class, and then gradually become beloved and respected ESL teachers.

How to explain this conundrum?

Well, I’ll just tell you the stories of two different people who came to Thailand to teach English, and what happened to them. You can take whatever answer you like from their stories.

Maggie had a year of college in Australia, then decided to chuck it and come to Thailand for the TESOL certification course; she’d heard that the party never ends when you’re on the beach here. And that’s how she acted while taking her certification course. Bleary-eyed every morning, slugging down the black coffee, and then the minute the day’s classes were over heading to the bars and the beach parties to make her heroic contribution to the balance sheet of the Chang Beer Company. She barely passed the course, and heads were wagging in the higher echelons of TEFL International about her viability as an English teacher anywhere except in an accommodating pub. But she had a bit of luck. A school in Bangkok wanted a kindergarten teacher, and they wanted one that was female and blonde. Maggie was as blonde as a sun-bleached haystack, so when she interviewed for the job she got it.

She continued her love affair with Chang for the first few months of her new teaching job, which did not surprise the wise heads back at her alma mater, who predicted her swift demise with grave certainty.

However, as she told me later, she woke up one morning with a splitting headache, having only fifteen minutes to get ready to catch the skytrain to her kids at school, when she realized that she really cared for those kindergartners as much, in fact more, than she cared for her boisterous nights out on the town. She felt a sudden burst of shame at giving them less than the best that she had. She did not become a teetotaler by any means, but she cut back on her ‘socializing’ during the week so she could concentrate more on her lesson plans and prepping for the innumerable art projects and sing-alongs that Kindergarten teaching demands. Her little charges fell in love with her; she fell in love with them; and at the end of the school year she was offered a new contract, with a substantial raise in salary. She is now in her third year of teaching in Bangkok, and plans to go back to Australia in another year or two to get her degree in Education. She has found her life’s vocation, and, much to her surprise, it is not test-piloting beer bongs.

Thomas held a Doctorate in Education Philosophy from a university in Missouri. He had hosted innumerable colloquiums on the Philosophy of Education throughout the Midwest of America, but, finding it difficult to obtain a position teaching at the college level, he decided, after prudent inquiries, to take his TESOL certification course in Thailand and seek a position overseas.

He passed his course with flying colors, naturally, and was offered a teaching position at a prestigious college in the northern suburbs of Bangkok. It included free room and board, so the fact that his salary was on the meager side did not trouble him unduly. As most college teachers do in Thailand, he expected to pick up some extra income by tutoring on the side. And he’d have the time to do it, too; he was only expected to teach a total of three hours each week. The rest of the time he could devote to whatever professorial pursuits he wanted. He indicated to us lesser mortals back at TEFL International that he was already doing some desultory research into how Hanuman, the trickster of Thai mythology, might be interdicted on the subliminal level in Thai education. Sounded pretty deep to me, anyway.

We were mighty proud of him here at TEFL International. Here was a scholar, an erudite alumni that was sure to bring honor and glory to our establishment with his pedagogical prowess.

He lasted all of six weeks.

Early one morning as I was in the midst of my overnight shift (taking calls from those pesky American chaps who insist on being awake when I want to be asleep) Thomas came into the office, wild-eyed, unshaven, and as disheveled as a scarecrow. He had ridden down on an overnight bus to filibuster to anyone who would listen to him about the heart-rending injustices, inconsistencies, and lunacies, of the Thai educational system at the college level.

I heard him out for nearly an hour. As far as I could make out, his main complaint was that he was promised hot water in his bathroom and never got it.

Plus his students were occasionally late, didn’t pay very much attention to him in class, and weren’t paying very much for their private tutoring. The wicked college administration, he made me to understand, had undercut his standing as a scholar by insisting he bus his own dishes when he was done with the free lunch he got every day.

Then he was gone, in a cloud of four-syllable words.

No one here has heard from him since. I can only assume he is now cleaning blackboards and clapping erasers somewhere in the wilds of Missouri while he carefully works out in his head the next Letter to the Editor bombshell he will let loose on some unsuspecting educational journal.

Maggie and Thomas. One succeeded in Thailand, the other failed.

If you think you know why, come tell me – I’ll be down at the somtum joint, waiting for a few skewers of grilled chicken livers to go.