LiBeL Column

Out and Proud

Columns from The Nation newspaper

Whatever will Mom and Dad say?

Proclaiming loudly from the rooftops that ” I’m a TEFL teacher.” is likely to draw a variety of responses from those within earshot. From parents ” That’s nice dear, now when are you going to get a proper job?” From significant others ” Shhhh!. I told my friends you were in finance.”. From colleagues ” Run! People will think we’re with him.”

The question of the worth or value of a TEFL teacher is a delicate issue that appears to have only one answer – Bugger all. The assumption for this reply is based on the fact that on the whole the whole field of TEFL is held in pretty low esteem all around the world. English is, without doubt, the world’s lingua franca. It’s the language of Bill Gates, so until a Slovakian programmer comes up with something bigger & better than anything Microsoft can produce it will continue to be so. Therefore you’d expect English teachers to be valued accordingly. In Thailand your standing in the social hierarchy is somewhere between the Yakult delivery woman and the “lucky” one-armed lottery ticket vendor you pass on the way home.

A teacher’s should increase – as with any commodity – with their availability. A farang teacher stationed anywhere known simply to Bangkokians as ‘upcountry’ will have an infinitely higher novelty and curiosity value than one plying their trade in Bangkok. The novelty value can be converted into being elevated to the level of status symbol. Anyone with enough money or political clout to obtain lessons from the only farang within a 50km radius must be someone worth knowing. And the farang, with access to these rice and somtam barons must be someone worth getting matey with.

If you live in the Isaan equivalent of Slough and happen to teach the kids of the guy who runs the local Thai Rak Thai / Beer Chang / pirate UBC monopoly then you’re pretty much sorted when it comes to getting a few favours.

However, this is an exception. Often TEFL teachers are looked down on by ‘real’ teachers. International schools are a prime example of this. They are happy to pay huge salaries, provide free luxury condos and return airfares for fresh faced graduates with a 1 year PGCE course behind them. A locally hired TEFL teacher with a Bachelor’s in English, Master’s in Linguistics, TEFL Diploma and years of experience teaching locally will be on a lower salary and far fewer perks than one of the Western recruited golden boys n’ girls.

Whilst not being open about it TEFL teachers are often labeled as the ‘necessary evil’ among staff. They come and go willy-nilly, are part-timers and aren’t faithful to the classical educational teacherly roles that ‘real’ teachers have come to know and love. Part of this is justified – you won’t find many good TEFL teachers hanging around a school working for half the salary of a fresh faced graduate if there’s a chance of a better job elsewhere. Is that the teacher’s fault? If you are the Headmaster, then the answer is a simple “Yes”.

Been pretty negative up to now, but being English I prefer to call it ‘realistic’. Far be it from me to point out that the average English teacher in Thailand is just a tourist who didn’t want to ( or couldn’t afford to) leave. Just because I don’t jump around in an uncontrollable fit at the very mention of my better-than-average nation doesn’t mean that I can’t be Mr Positive if I put my mind to it.

There are, I’m sure, an infinite number of good points vis-à-vis what a career in TEFLing can offer the dedicated tutor – unfortunately I can only think of three at present :

English is a popular subject and students are ( or at least should be if they don’t want to ‘Rice Mill operative’ or ‘Exotic Dancer’ to appear anywhere on their resume ) motivated to learn it.
Indeed, in many places TEFL teachers have far better opportunities to travel, develop their professional expertise and earn better salaries (even if this involves having to take on second and third jobs and work 7 days a week.).
When it comes to personality the average TEFL teacher kicks your average Homeroom teacher’s ass. When questioned 9/10 respondents reported that your selfless dedicated TEFL’er is streetwise, flexible and easy-going, has a flair for networking in general and establishing interpersonal (but not too personal) relationships with learners and is open to innovative ideas.
One of Bangkok’s finest accurately summed up what it means to be a TEFL’er in 2001 with the poignant phrase “Like, a kind of ‘citizen of the world’ sort of stereotype thing. You know.”

But until the notion that good, well qualified TEFL teachers should be on a par with their peers, who chose to don the brown corduroy of academia rather than get out and see the world the plight of the dedicated TEFL teacher will be lost on the populace.