Foreign teachers in Thailand hope for stability amid education overhaul
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Foreign teachers in Thailand hope for stability amid education overhaul

ON April 17, a number of senior civil servants at the Teachers’ Council of Thailand (TCT) were removed in a dramatic move by Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to kick start the nation’s desperately needed education reforms. The TCT had been responsible for professional development, academic standards and the issuing of teaching licenses. With Thailand’s education system showing few signs of improvement over the past decade, the reaction to this bold move was largely positive.

And it wasn’t just parents that accepted this news with little objection, many foreign teachers were relieved to hear that the current leadership of the TCT had been shown the door. For many the TCT has been a thorn in the side with their ever-changing policies which had teachers jumping through hoops on a regular basis.

Ensuring the quality and appropriateness of individuals who are entrusted with educating Thailand’s youth is clearly an essential task that cannot be neglected. Most people would agree that background checks and monitoring individuals who work in schools is essential – teachers and language instructors need the appropriate knowledge, skills and temperament to work in schools. But what had frustrated and often infuriated foreign teachers was the inconsistent and rapidly changing manner in which these measures had been introduced and enforced.

Over the years, the policies from the TCT have complicated the hiring of foreign language instructors. This has been at odds with the Ministry of Education’s policy of encouraging schools to employ native English speaking teachers to support a communicative approach to foreign language learning. It sometimes appeared that the education departments were working against each another with one department encouraging foreign teachers while the other department was restricting their ability to work legally.

The Thai Ministry of Education has sought to increase the numbers of native English speaking instructors to facilitate language learning since a push to improve English language standards was initiated with the National Education Act 1999. The exact number of foreign teachers working in Thailand is difficult to accurately answer as explained in a rather amusing post on this teaching forum. It’s unlikely that any agency has a truly accurate figure for the number of foreign teachers in Thailand but estimates exist and the numbers are significant.

On Thailand’s leading TEFL website www.Ajarn.com there were 3,494 job ads in 2014 – with the average advertisement offering three positions that put the number of teaching vacancies on Ajarn.com alone at over 10,000 positions last year. Add this to the number of teachers recruited by agencies and organization such as CIEE who alone send as many as 1,000 American graduates to Thailand each year to teach English as a second language. Then take into account the number of teachers allocated positions as part of their TEFL/TESOL course and let’s not forget the international school sector which educates over 60,000 students and employs over 5,000 teachers. Finally, remembering that there are thousands of teachers who actually remain in their positions year after year and it’s no surprise that estimates for the number of foreign teachers working in Thailand lie between 30,000 and 50,000. All these foreign teachers are entirely dependant on the TCT’s approval before they can apply for work permits and annual visa extensions. With so many foreign nationals at the mercy of the TCT’s fickle decision making, it’s hardly surprising it has been seen as a thorn in the side.

The demands of the TCT have varied from year to year ranging from the sensible and idealistic to the downright unrealistic. Their two most debated policies have been the TCT Thai Culture, Ethics and Language Course and the TCT Professional Knowledge Test.

TCT Thai Culture Ethics and Language Course

The actual thinking behind the Thai Culture Course is solid – all foreign teachers working in Thailand should have a fundamental understanding of Thai culture – that makes perfect sense. However, as has often been case, the manner in which the policy was implemented and enforced, displayed a lack of planning and common sense.

The TCT Thai Culture course could only be provided by a small number of institutions that had gained permission from the TCT to administer the Culture Course. It is interesting that the welfare, education and assessment of thousands of Thai students is entrusted to schools across the country, but these same institutions were not trusted with the delivery of a simple 20-hour introductory course to Thai culture. Institutions wishing to administer this course required ‘special approval’, something that led some online teacher discussions to label the culture course as another strategy for increasing the coffers in the tea fund.

Furthermore, many of the teachers who completed this course came away complaining that they had not actually learned anything new about Thai culture, although it may be useful for teachers fresh off the plane. The experiences of one teacher in a blog entry from 2008 make for good reading and provide an interesting insight to what the actual course covered.

The Thai Culture course, which was first introduced in 2006, has been suspended and restarted almost as many times as Britney Spears’ pop career. It was last suspended in 2013 amid  romours of irregularities among some of the course providers.

TCT Professional Knowledge (PK) Test

The TCT PK test was introduced as a route for teachers without internationally recognized teaching qualifications, such as B.Ed., M.Ed., PGCE etc., to demonstrate their capability as foreign language instructors and gain that illusive teachers’ license – again a good idea, in principal.

The assessment consisted of five tests which were offered on an annual basis. The tests were in fact an English translation of the multiple choice assessments that Thai teachers are required to take and included a number of questions not necessarily relevant to foreign teacher such as – ‘which offences can disqualify you from your pension?’

These annual assessments were seen by many as further hurdles to job security and not actual achievable realities. This view is reinforced by an interesting account of a teacher that actually completed and passed the entire series of assessments – much to the fascination of the TCT officials who had never encountered a successful examinee.

Another teacher who successfully completed these tests was rewarded with a 3-year license to continue teaching at her present school – a lot of time and effort for a reward that could have been achieved by simply getting a couple of waiver letters.

The TCT’s Culture Courses and Professional Knowledge tests are now both on hold – there is uncertainty as to whether they will be restarted or whether these qualifications will even remain valid, leaving the teachers who have spent time and money on obtaining these ‘qualifications’ with further uncertainty.

There have been countless other innovations from the TCT over the years and even within the last 6 months there were two new policies which further infuriated teachers hoping to work legally in Thailand.

University Degree Verification Letters

In September last year it was announced that foreign teachers would require an additional document from their university to authenticate their university degree. This letter needed to be sent directly from the university to TCT offices. It’s hardly surprising that most teachers were unhappy about having to spend more time (and money) recertifying their university documents and few had faith that the TCT would be able to successfully process verification letters from tens of thousands of teachers arriving directly from foreign universities.

The Thainess Course

No sooner had the dust begin to settle from the verification letter policy than there was news of a new 40-hour course to ensure that teachers correctly understood the concept of Thainess. This new course would supersede the TCT’s previous Thai Culture Course, meaning all foreign teachers would need to spend more hard earned money and an entire week on a training course to learn about Thainess.

Amusing as this merry-go-round of policy changes may be for onlookers it has become stressful and disconcerting for individuals whose livelihoods stand at the beck and call of civil servants at the TCT. One teacher working at Catholic school in Bangkok’s suburbs summarized these realities:

“I have a family here and I feel really insecure with the ever-changing demands from the Teachers Council. I’ve taken the Culture Course and some of the PK tests but they’ve been suspended now and just the other month there was talk of a new course we all need to take. It’s so frustrating. I know teachers who have left Thailand because of all this nonsense but I don’t want to do that so I have keeping jumping through the TCT’s hoops ….I’m really hoping for greater stability in the future.”