LiBeL Column

Caught by the Privates

Columns from The Nation newspaper

The perils of freelance teaching

You live in a quiet area of town, keep yourself to yourself, never mention the fact that you’re a teacher but everyone knows it – there’s no other plausible explanation as to why a farang would be living in a sub-8,000 baht apartment. Looking around you notice a few Benzes and signs of wealth. “Why not teach a few private students?”, you think.

A friend, of an acquaintance of the receptionist at your apartment has friend who’s been trying for months to find a private teacher for her 8-year old daughter. Word reaches you and after brief negotiations you’re under the impression that you’ll be starting classes the following week. This is the first, and often fatal, hurdle that the would-be private teacher faces.

A phone call the day before your first class is the initial warning sign, the class is postponed due to a family visit up-country. Slowly the weeks pass, you begin to dread that now familiar phone call “Oh Mr Ian, Nong has to practice her piano”, “Oh Mr Ian, it’s yet another long weekend due to yet another public holiday”, then at last, “Oh Mr Ian, can you teach the class tomorrow?” and there it is, a bolt from the blue, you’re left speechless. The Thai version of ‘Endurance’ is over and you’ve been declared the winner.

This may be an extreme case but it’s never easy arranging to teach your own private students. Indeed, it can be a bit of a hit and miss affair. You have to decide how much to charge them, where to teach them and whether you can get away with attending classes wearing only your shorts and T-shirt.

Your first class. You arrive on time and are led into the living room and plonked down in front of a foot high coffee table, this seating arrangement may be comfortable for the under 10’s but should carry a government health warning for the over 25’s. A nervous, doe eyed 8-year old is summoned by Mum and proceeds to perch opposite you on a blue plastic stool.

Overcoming a student’s initial shyness is no problem for the well-prepared teacher. A few tried and tested quips in pigeon Thai, a smile, some goofy faces and a fun word game to kick things off – everything’s hunky dory. Half an hour into the lesson the ambience is shattered by coarse spluttering and hacking noises emanating from somewhere over your left shoulder. Glancing round, you notice a Chinese granny. She’d been silently scrutinizing your every move but now appears to having a minor seizure.

The only thing you can do is get accustomed to it, young Nong already is. Granny will be hovering over number one granddaughter for the rest of her life, monitoring her every move. It’s a one woman Truman Show. Granny was sitting in the corner for Nong’s birth, for her first steps, hell, Granny even observed her conception first hand. In fact Chinese granny’s last gasp will probably coincide with Nong’s first – on her wedding night.

If you do happen to teach kids privately, be choosy. A lot depends on the kid being cooperative and going along with the bizarre notion that they must spend a hour or so humouring a stranger, speaking a strange language, twice a week.

Teaching a bright, outgoing child can be a real pleasure. You can hold basic conversations and communicate with each other. The sense of actually enjoying your teaching is enhanced if the family doesn’t spoil Little-miss can’t-be-wrong rotten.

(At this point I have to say “Hello” to ‘Friend’, whom I teach every week. I told her I’d put her name in the paper, if she got Grade ‘A’ in her Prathom 2 English test, which she duly did.)

Friend’s a rare exception. I taught one girl who would only agree to pick up a book or play a game if her Mum bribed her with sweets. It reached the stage where Mum had to sit the chubby little madam on her on her lap and pop a sweet in her mouth every time I wanted to illicit any kind of verbal or physical response. In instances such as this, a one-hour class is more a case of suffering by ‘Chinese daughter torture’ than doing any actual teaching.

So I’m lucky, I’ve been teaching the same bunch of private students for well over two years. They seem to be happy with my work and that I can rely on them. There are never any problems with late payment or their being late for class. I think the toss up between teaching privately or for a school comes down to whether or not you want to be in control of what you do. Working at a language school you’ll have no hassle regarding cancellations, late payments or worries about finding a course book. It’ll all be taken care of for you.

But there again, you guys can’t go to lesson clad only in shorts and T-shirt, can you?