Foreign Teachers (Not Printed)
While I was a weekly columnist at the Bangkok Post, it used to frustrate me how some stories never seemed to make it into print. A number of police crackdowns had taken place at various schools in Thailand, resulting in the arrest of several foreign teachers for fake degrees. With this article, I tried to explain the complexity of the situation and bring to light that Thai recruitment agencies were left untouched.
Unfortunately, my editor refused to print this article. His rationale was that there was already too many negative stereotype about foreign teachers, and he did not want to contribute any more to this perception. Should this article have been printed or not? You can read it and decide.
In the past few weeks, several crackdowns took place at a number of Thai schools. Immigration police were looking for English teachers who are working without valid credentials or work permits. The Bangkok Post also printed an article about two foreign nationals that were apprehended for having fake university certificates. The two foreign culprits were fully named and photographed; while the title of the school, the Thai owners, and any possible Thai recruitment agency remained curiously absent from the piece. Likewise, nobody asked for the original source of the forged documents in the first place. This type of information, perhaps, may have triggered an indigenous loss of face.
The fact that a few Thai agents may have been complacent in this case was a non-issue. The point was that the two foreign individuals were prosecuted for possessing false documents that somehow qualified them to teach (and even sentenced to jail time for this conduct). It was a warning to other foreign teachers who work off the books. The newspaper article also stated that 6,807 foreign nationals applied for teaching visas in Thailand last year and, based on 1,000 background checks, 65 individuals had obtained jobs with bogus documents.
My initial reaction to this report was to wonder why the numbers were so low. In all likelihood there could be as many as 10,000 foreign teachers in the Land of Smiles, and it is highly doubtful that only 65 of them are working illegitimately. My second response was that the two English teachers arrested didn’t exactly look like hardened criminals. One had a trace of facial stubble, but so do I sometimes on forgetful Monday morning. It seemed unfair to punish the teachers with prison time when they hadn’t done anything violent, stolen any money, fallen into the corruption of bribes, or pushed narcotics to little children on school ground property.
Their only crime was teaching with false certificates, but the reason behind this action was hardly to gain the reward of the standard Thai teaching salary. Their motive was to stay one year in Thailand on a teaching visa; not exactly the most malicious objective but still no excuse for illegal behavior. Nevertheless, the two foreigners arrested may or may not have grown into good teachers. Of course, we will never know now?
As I read more about the subsequent raiding of schools over the past week, I couldn’t help but think that Thai authorities are avoiding the truth behind the TEFL industry. The raw reality is that English teaching has grown into a very lucrative trade. English isn’t just for the purpose of education and communication anymore. It is big business. Recruitment agencies, private schools, book publishers, and a variety of other players derive enormous profits. In a developing country, such as Thailand, the supply of teachers is much lower than demand. It is very hard to bring in well qualified teaching candidates from overseas, especially when these professionals are given much better salaries in other countries, so many schools and businesses will compete to recruit from the limited pool of foreign visitors that have already arrived in Thailand.
Unfortunately, this also means that people will be hired from dubious backgrounds, or simply because they are wayward tourists who are low in funds. Even non-native English speakers can find work teaching English in Thailand when a school is short handed. The riddle is how to convert a tourist visa into a valid non-immigrant B visa that enables someone to reside and work in country for an entire year, and how to keep track of these teachers during their stay.
It should surprise no one that many English teachers and their Thai schools choose to bypass the confusing process of going legitimate. A large and significant number of English teachers in Thailand are never counted by Thai authorities. They can make use of visa runs until they decide they have had enough.
This is a symbiotic relationship. Schools obtain teachers for short informal contracts or brief English camps, while avoiding the complicated process of applying for work permits – a formality that many rural school administrations simply don’t understand. In turn, these travelers get some spending money before moving on. Thailand loses revenue in taxes and permit fees, but otherwise, no harm, no foul, as long as that person leaves as scheduled.
The fake documents are needed only when one of these individual decides to go legitimate to obtain a long visa. In this case, they must show the proper credentials to become an official teacher. If the person can not produce the required documents there are a number of unscrupulous places that can. The stereotype is that these forged documents are all produced on the foreigner-saturated Khao Sarn Road in Bangkok. Although it is quite true that custom-designed graduate degrees can be purchased on this street, and that Thai authorities in this district turn a blind eye while this transaction openly takes place, the reality is that the majority of forged documents are provided or arranged by the hiring schools themselves.
Some private schools provide this service to retain committed teachers. The school profits by supplying much needed English teachers, the teacher benefits from a more stable working environment for the lengthened duration, and ultimately many students also improve English skills as well. Although Thailand deserves better qualified teachers, these individuals do supply a valuable resource. Namely, they are native-speaking English teachers.
This educational issue can be solved with common sense. The crux of the problem is that Thailand is shrink wrapping teachers so one size fits all. All foreign teachers are lumped together regardless of academic credentials, teaching experience, and personal background. A teacher with a PhD in education and a Thai family is treated the same way as somebody who has only completed a 4-week teaching certificate course. A teacher at an esteemed international school is treated much like the novice at a private language institute. Every teacher endures an identical process at immigrations. However, what Thailand needs is to introduce a multi-tiered system for obtaining teaching visas and work permits. Thailand already has a multi-tiered system in place for its domestic teachers, why could it not do the same for foreign workers.
Here is how it would work: the teachers with the highest credentials would have their work permits and teaching permits processed on fast track, as would also the teacher who have lived in Thailand for years or started families locally. This benefit will allow them to continue their work with minimal red tape. Teachers with limited qualification could be given a legal opportunity to prove themselves for shorter time increments, since many private schools are willing to hire them. This would reduce the need to resort to falsified documents, and ultimately enable Thai authorities to keep track of who is teaching in Thailand. Ultimately, teacher could be matched to the appropriate school according to real qualifications.
The Thai schools that neglect to register teachers officially could be fined. Of course, this policy would create a new layer of bureaucracy, but it does deal with the reality that all English teachers aren’t cast in the same mold. Unfortunately, when the two teachers were photographed in the newspaper for having false documents it was a mirrored reflection of all English teachers struggling in the classrooms of Thailand.