Teach the children well

Teach the children well

But give their instructors lessons in ethics first

I am a man constantly on the lookout for good teachers.

I know that sounds stalker-ish, but it's not. I run a language institute, and an important part of my job entails finding great instructors.

This is a constant process not unlike a migraine -- once you have conquered it, it slowly, slowly creeps back to play havoc with your senses.

This week I am questioning my ability to select good teachers after one of my prime choices did a runner.

Yes, dear reader, I had a teacher do a runner on me! He ticked all the boxes in terms of qualifications, experience, classroom manner and even physical appearance, albeit a little oily, which we'll discuss in a minute.

The interview went well, he took the job, signed a 12-month contract, started to teach -- two months later he was gone. Overnight.

This is not just irritating. It's a terrible confidence killer for B-list celebrities like myself.

Finding honest, reliable staff -- now there's a topic we can write an encyclopaedia about.

At my language institute I am blessed with a stable of excellent teachers, though they may object to my using the word "stable", but I use it with love. They are great stallions of education -- I know, I'm digging myself into a hole.

You have to understand that here in Thailand, finding good teachers is extremely difficult.

There are what I call "drag and drop" agencies here that pluck backpackers out of Khao San Road, hose them down, give them a razor and prop them up in front of classrooms of 50 Thai kids. God help the students whose classes begin at 8.30am -- the stench of last night's alcohol and drug-infested rave is still on ajarn's breath. No wonder English levels are low.

No, no, I have none of that. My mission in life is to find qualified, reliable instructors who haven't jumped out of the pages of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. We check references, criminal references, monitor them and give them support when needed.

And still they do a runner.

What constitutes a good, employable English teacher in Thailand? Well first they have to have a degree, and not just one from places like Online University of The Savior Jesus Christ And The Holy Trinity (OUSJCHT for short), Savannah, Georgia. How many potential candidates have mysteriously disappeared when we tell them we must check their educational qualifications? Seriously.

Then there is the interview process.

A few months ago I interviewed a guy who wore a long-sleeved shirt, not-so-cleverly concealing a large unsightly tattoo on his left arm. I'm not an expert on tattoos, but luckily I have a friend who is a tattooist.

"Was it coloured in or just an outline?" he asked me.

"Coloured in," I said.

"Hire him."

"It had an anchor on it."

"Oooh, that's not so good."

You see? How would I have known that an anchor was a portent of bad teaching? I had another recent interview with a man who had great references, but would never look me in the eye. Does that mean I shouldn't hire him? Luckily I have a friend who is an optometrist and so I called him asking about that, but he only hung up on me.

But I ask you -- would you hire someone who had excellent qualifications and experience, but didn't look you in the eye? It seems such a small thing. I did … and paid the price.

The job interview process is so unnatural and stylised, I am beginning to think it doesn't help me in my quest to find good teachers. Even if they pass this hurdle, and start teaching, my next worry is -- will they stay?

I hired two guys to run a school's English department in the South. They committed to 12 months. For the sake of this column, let's call them Tim and Brent.

Tim was the loud one and clearly the leader. His partner Brent nodded a lot and stared at his dominant other half. Brent looked like he was coated in oil -- hair a little greasy, and skin that would reflect in your headlights if you encountered him along a lonely rural road at midnight. But I am being picky.

Suffice to say, Tim and Brent were qualified and had demonstrated in this, their second month, that they were running a smooth ship. We had just wrapped up a meeting when Tim hit me with this:

"My grandmother has pancreatic cancer. My mother says I've got to return to the UK at the end of next month, to be with her for two months."

Life sometimes deals us cruel cards at the worst possible times, throwing our lives into temporary tailspins. And yet I smelt a rat. Without any conscious thought, Ellery Queen started to seep out of my pores.

"Your mother ordered you home in a month-and-a-half?" I asked.

"Yes, that's right."

"And you're home for two months?"

"That's what Mum said, yes."

"And your grandmother has pancreatic cancer?"

"Yeah," he said, looking very forlorn, pointing to his crotch, which I assumed was for me to understand where pancreatic cancer hit you the worst. At this moment Brent finally took his gaze off Tim and turned to me, nodding with a solemn, shiny forehead.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the more vicious forms of cancer. It felt a little strange to hear a mother ordering her son to get home "in a month and a half's time". Plus there was the fact Tim was asking for two months off, after which he would return to work. I ask anyone who has ever stood by helplessly as a loved one faded away from cancer -- have you ever been able to set an exact time limit on the process?

Had Tim found another job? This is a very Thai way of leaving one's employment. Thais almost always attribute their departure to some vague family problem, or the ubiquitous "helping out my family business". Having been here so long, I know exactly what they are about to do. On their last day they say goodbye, receive a farewell basket of bird nest saliva, walk out of the building -- then start work with your direct competitor the following day.

But Tim is not Thai. It is not the culture of the West to do that. Why not just say, "Hey, I found another job"? And here it comes, creeping up, that migraine that constitutes the interview process all over again.

One cannot voice one's suspicions too vocally. He may have been telling the truth. Was I just being cynical and uncaring? It certainly wouldn't be the first time those allegations were levelled at me.

I thanked Tim for letting me know. He would finish up Aug 1. Brent smiled with glistening lips. They left and returned to their school, Brent assuring me he would keep the ship on an even keel even after his partner left.

On Aug 1, Tim was gone … and so was Brent.

Brent did a runner, dear reader! Sometime between picking up his pay July 31, and the early pre-school hours of Aug 1, the man slipped away.

I won't waste words on how I feel about the morality of teachers who leave classes of students in the lurch. I will expend words, however, on my own shortcomings when it comes to finding good teachers.

How does one hire good people?

Luckily I have a friend who is a fortune teller. I'm beginning to think his guess is as good as mine.

Andrew Biggs

Regular Freelance Writer

Email : info@andrewbiggs.com


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