I was away from work when the news was delivered, but of course I was already aware of all the rumours. Still, I told everyone: "This is Thailand, don't listen to rumours, believe things when they happen".
But when I received the phone call telling me: " The Teachers Council of Thailand has decided all foreign teachers are required to attend a course in Thai culture, and you will pay for it yourself", I knew I was wrong this time.
Naturally, the news went down like a lead balloon amongst my teaching colleagues. I think the administration at our school knew that, which is why they broke further details into little pieces and fed us day by day rather than in one big hit. The details kept on coming.....the course is eleven thousand bhat, you won't get your work permit renewed if you don't attend, and you'll be doing the course in your free time.
Like everyone else, I protested. I have lived and worked in Thailand for nearly five years. I have a Thai wife and son, I am a member of the Tourist Police and I own property here, surely I must be exempt from the course? Other teachers raised similar protests.
The responding message was delivered in a Thai style but it was clear: shut up and take the course (PDF link). We (The Teachers Council) don't care how long you've lived here. We don't care what qualifications you have. Hell, we don't care if you can speak fluent Thai, drive a tuk tuk, eat som tam and sing Bird Tongchai all at the same time. You will come to the Thai culture course, you will do so in your free time, and you will pay for the privilege. You don't like it? Get out of Thailand.
Oh and by the way, that thousand bhat you paid for your teacher's licence two months ago is now invalid. No refunds.
We tried to keep our spirits up. We planned some pranks and organised a social event after the course. After all, at least our employer said we could wear what we liked. Or at least they did until three days later, when the announcement came: "Actually a phu yai is attending the course so everyone must be dressed in business atire". Like my colleagues up and down the nation, I gave up protesting and accepted the inevitable. I would miss two days of weekend work, take the darn course and forget about it. At least my school was good enough to cover some of the cost.
Day one of the course began with the typical smiles and greetings. The venue laid on a nice little breakfast pack for each of us and well wishers waited at the doors to greet us with: "Hello, thank you for coming!". (Like we had a f***ing choice!)
Included in the impressive bundle of worthless documents we were handed was a collection of CV's for those who would be speaking in the course. It was certainly impressive. Today's speakers included two lecturers from a well known university, tomorrow featured a Thai graduate from Harvard. At least these guys should be red-hot teachers.
So first up on the agenda for day one was "Thai language". Now, I must confess I was feeling optimistic for this. My spoken Thai is below par and I cannot read Thai atall. At least I might get something useful out of this morning.
On comes the lecturer, but her assistant takes the microphone, greets us in Thai and then announces "This is (professor's name) but I will be doing the speaking today". Our "professor of languages" is obviously so unsure of her English that she doesn't want to speak.
The course begins, the first few minutes goes quite well as we run through the different Thai tones and learn how they are expressed in written form. I desperately try to take in and store this complex information. We are fifteen minutes into the class.
The teacher (or rather her assistant) moves on to consonants. We orally repeat every consonant (yes, every last one) three times each. My mind is swimming.
Then we move on to "special cases" (I forget the exact classification). We go over each and every one of them, too. Three times each. My head is hurting. We have now gone at least ten times over the daily quota of new information for the adult language student.
But the professor is far from done. She moves on to different letters of the Thai alphabet that produce the same sounds. You guessed it, we have to repeat them three times each. My spirit is broken, I am prepared to tell my captors any secrets they want to make this torture stop as I mindlessly repeat the alien sounds. I have a magazine in my bag, but all the while our boss is walking up and down the hall, checking we are obedient.
For the next hour I fix my eyes on the statue of the Virgin Mary at the end of the hall, reminding myself that this isn't really Hell. Mary finally answers my prayers an hour later as we break for lunch. That was the end of the language session. We had "learned" the entire Thai alphabet and all its idiosyncrasies in one morning.
The afternoon was a little easier. We were handed a leaflet published by the TAT (yes the Tourist board, not the Teacher's board) about Thai food. We had a seminar on Thai cooking, its history and ingredients. I was missing my Saturday job (which helps to pay my many bills) to learn about the ingredients of pad thai. How was this going to make me a better teacher?
Day one ended at four PM. Too deflated to go out, I went home and dreamed of halls full of zombies, repeating letters from the Thai alphabet.
Day two could only get better. Our lecturer (the Harvard grad) was going to use this extortion of our money and time by the Teacher's Council to teach us "professional ethics". A bit like Ronald McDonald teaching healthy eating, I guess.
In fact our lecturer was a nice guy, though I noticed on his CV he was working for the Education Ministry which struck me as a coincidence (we can only guess how much these lecturers were being paid). We started off by being introduced to the Council's code of ethics, highlights of which included "Do not form mafia style groups in school" and "Do not gossip".
But the bombshell was about to come. We were about to be introduced to the new qualification requirements of the teaching council. To the lecturer's credit, he did it wisely. He broke the news ambiguously and slowly so it took us a while to work out was happening, allowing the shock to dissipate.
We were told we had two years to pass a one year course. The course would be done in our free time and cost at least sixty thousand bhat. The only other option was to pass four teaching exams, at two thousand bhat each. The only problem was, from the first batch of people that took the exams, less than five percent had passed.
"This is the rule for all teachers"; said our lecturer, "The Thai teachers must do the same". He neglected to mention how much the Thai teachers had to pay. And what was this one year course? A PGCE? A master's degree? No, it was brand new course dreamt up by the TCT and totally unheard of outside the nation.
I sat in disbelief. As we broke for lunch, my colleague held a piece of paper up to my face. It simply said: "BS".
The afternoon was actually quite interesting, we were given some case studies about ethics and had to offer our own opinions. Still, many people found it hard to concentrate. That was all for day two, our weekend was over, and we had one day still to go.
So after another week at work (guess what the main topic of conversation was?) it was time for the final day, and many of us predicted it would be the worst: Thai dance and music.
Yup, you guessed it, they made us dance. They made all of us wear long golden fingernails and dance around the hall whilst singing the 'Loy Khatong' song. If I were on a drunken night out with Thai friends, or if I were at least making a fool of myself by choice, I would have laughed. But as I looked around the hall during our dance, I realised this folly was part of the plan. By getting us to dance around and act stupid, these people wanted us to forget we were being scammed. In a building with at least two hundred people paying eleven thousand bhat each to take a compulsory course to improve us as teachers, we were dancing around in fake fingernails. It was truly surreal.
As three o'clock came and the dancing stopped, my colleague turned to me and said: "Now they are done humiliating us, they're going to let us go home". And they did, after mentioning that the certificates we had been promised - and which were the entire point of the course - were not actually ready yet, and they couldn't say when they would be available. Thanks and goodbye. I went home feeling violated.
The next week at work more news came out. It seems highly likely that the four exams we had been told about were .....ahem...."purposely difficult" to the point where it seems that the only real "choice" is to take the 60k+ course. Yes, Thai teachers had to do the same course, but at a tiny fraction of the price we were given. Thailand's foreign teachers are in a fix.
Now, I want to make something very clear. I've said before many times that Thailand's foreign teachers are, on the whole, a very imperfect bunch. Any attempt to improve them is most welcome and if I were given a test of my teaching ability and knowledge, I would tackle it with relish.
But I hope I've made clear that I am certain this latest set of events has nothing whatsoever to do with improving foreign teachers. The way the news was broken to us and the incredibly quick set of agreements that have been made between the Teacher's Council and various educational institutions were not hard to figure out. The staff involved in the courses, the dual pricing system and the fact that every teacher had to pay for his/her licence only to have it invalidated without refund by the new rules told its own tale. The ninety five percent failure rate of foreign teachers in the four new exams - in a nation where every student in my school passed a university entrance exam (even the students who cannot understand "Good morning, how are you?") after paying the exam fee - fills me with resentment.
If this was about improving teachers, give us a break. Allow us to take the course of our choice, charge us the same prices as the Thai teachers, don't insult our intelligence with compulsory courses in dancing, take experience and prior qualifications into account, make the exams fair so more than two people out of seventy can pass them and refund the money that every teachers paid for their licence about one month before the new requirements were announced by the same people.
I have to pay tribute to the Filipino teachers. They are paid less than half of the salary we get and nearly all of them send it home to their family in the Philippines as soon as they get it. If the new "requirements" were a kick in the teeth for us, it was a bombshell for them. Yet they handled the course and the further shocks far better than we did, and unlike us Englishmen, they spent a damn site less time complaining about it!
Still, the morale of the teachers has been hit hard and those of us with families are in a very tough position. We either allow ourselves to be blackmailed or we leave.
That said, I can't see how this will work out for the Teacher's Council. There is no doubt that a huge proportion of teachers will leave rather than be pushed into taking the new course and who will replace them? Better qualified teachers? Why would they want to pay for a totally unrecognised course to work in Thailand when other countries will pay them? Travellers and loose cannons? Not likely, and the few that do will be unqualified and untrustworthy.
The only people that are going to feel the squeeze are those with roots here. Most if us work weekends to help with those extra bills and forcing us to give up our free time is impossible.
My message to the Teacher's Council is this: you've had your little money spinner with the "Culture" course, but don't push your luck too far. This game of "Who needs who?" works both ways. We will allow you to toy with us to a point because we love Thailand and want to stay, but as much as you hate to admit it, you need us too. If you insult our intelligence and continually try to milk us like this, it might be you that ends up losing face, families that suffer and the student youth of Thailand that pays the cost of your greed.