Sunday Summary #37

Welcome to Sunday Summary, the meme in which I attempt to summarize the week that came before.

Last week’s update was posted on Tuesday, somewhat late. The remainder of the week was extremely eventful although I rarely left my new apartment. I spent a couple of days rebuilding furniture and unpacking. The things in my home are probably more organized than they have ever been and I can probably actually find whatever I happen to be looking for with relative ease.

I had been looking forward to a calm week getting caught up on my blog over at Philatelic Pursuits and posting one or two “Teaching Thailand” installments to this site.

Philatelic corner
Kitchen area
Unfinished corner — flashcards and work supplies storage at this stage

Tuesday night, those plans evaporated (and not only from our continuing heat wave).

Within the schools and agencies for which I have worked here, most communication is done via the LINE app. Nobody actually telephones to talk to anyone. I actually prefer that as I hate talking on the telephone (can never hear well) and I like to be able to have the messages in text form so I can refer back to them if needed. I will use screenshots of the app today to tell part of the story.

Now the most annoying thing about LINE is that most school officials will send multiple short messages in a succession rather than one long one. This is used in just simple greetings as well so you get multiple “dings” as you are attempting to locate your phone! The multiple dings usually (in my experience anyway) signal that “bad news” is coming in…

It was nearing 8:00pm Tuesday evening and I had just returned from buying dinner at 7-Eleven up the street when my phone dinged eight times. They came from the owner of the agency that hired me last October. By the time I got to the phone, I could only see the last message in the notification display reading “Anubaan Nakhon Phuket”. I knew this to be a kindergarten school in the southeastern portion of Phuket Town and thought they needed me to substitute there until my regular school in Kata started on 1 June. I had been informed a week or so ago that that contract had been confirmed but only through 30 June.

The second and third short messages hit me like a blow to the gut. Amongst Thai government schools, contracts with the agencies that staff the schools with foreign teachers, are generally for only a single school term. Each term, during the holidays, agencies are required to submit bids in order for their teachers to continue working at the same school.

It used to be that schools were loyal to particular agencies and rarely would look at bids from others. There weren’t very many players anyway and the smaller agencies didn’t usually bid for the schools held by the larger agencies, opting for smaller schools with less headaches (the more foreign teachers in a school the more problems the agency has to deal with).

Prior to the pandemic, there were two main agencies on the island of Phuket — the one for which I worked since 2011 and one which had been started when my agency’s branch manager and head teacher at the time left to start their own. My old agency had some problems in recent years — losing a number of valued staff members to COVID and eventually changing location. I guess none of the remaining staff realized that our new location was properly registered with the education department. As a result of that, the agency was not allowed to bid on any contracts for Term 2 last year and so far remains unable to staff most schools with teachers. As the largest agency in Phuket, they no longer had any work for a significant number of teachers. I am still contracted to them for occasional in-house and business courses (should any materialize) but I left to join “the enemy”.

The “new” agency is very similar to the old one both in paperwork and methodology. I was assigned to a temple school in Kata Beach which proved to be a nightmare commuting from Phuket Town. It took the entire term but I slowly moved things over to an apartment I rented very near to my new school. It wasn’t until that aforementioned contract starting in June was “confirmed” that I finally moved the majority of clothes, books, and furniture across the island. I closed out my old apartment, handing over the keys and security fob just one week ago today.

So, I was understandably upset when I read that despite my contract being “confirmed”, the agency lost the contract due to somebody else coming in and offering a much lower amount. I have since discovered who this was and am now even more worried about my former students and colleagues. They tend to hire non-native English speakers from a handful of African countries as they pay extremely low wages.

I worked in the same room with two teachers from this agency when we were teaching online during the height of the pandemic. One was from Tunisia and the other from Nigeria. The former had such a thick accent and spoke a combination of English, French and Thai all at the same time that nobody could understand. He was also extremely loud and so my students heard him more than they heard me! And they always asked, “Teacher, what language is that man speaking?” He had so many complaints that he was eventually forced out. The Nigerian teacher was a bit easier to understand but had no idea of how to teach anything, let alone English. The parental complaints about him soon reached the director’s ears as well and he, too, was let go. Their replacements from the same agency never showed up and I was asked to mark their final exams as a favor for the school. Most of the students failed spectacularly.

At any rate, the owner of my agency immediately offered me another school, this one on the other side of the island — a single road south from my old apartment (15 minutes on a motorbike or perhaps a 30-minute walk). Too bad that I didn’t hold on to that apartment just a short while longer! Although getting to this new school would involve a 45-minute ride on the local (open-air) bus followed by 10 or 15 minutes on a motorbike taxi (with rainy season coming very soon!), I accepted the offer mainly due to it starting the following week. I cannot afford another full month without a salary. I was looking forward to a 3/4 salary paid into my account in mid-June.

I asked a few more questions and began checking to make sure I was ready to start work on the following Monday. I spent much of Wednesday morning printing and laminating the last of my flashcards that I would need at the beginning of the school year. I couldn’t get any information about the syllabus but hoped it wouldn’t be TOO different. The first week or two of a new school year is mainly Greetings and Introductions anyway as well as the establishment of classroom rules and routines.

Laminating some of the flashcards I designed since the last school term ended. The new laminator cost just over USD $10 on Lazada.
My kitchen counter doubles as an extra materials creation workspace. I can now cut at the same time as I laminate!

Wednesday afternoon, the agent that coordinates between the teachers and the school sent me a request to join their specific LINE group. I had previously sent her a message asking about the schedule, length of classes, curriculum, and if somebody from the agency would meet me at the school before or on the first day of school to show me around and introduce me to the Thai staff. This was done when I started my school last term and my old agency routinely did this whenever they changed “permanent” teachers. No response other than the message to join the group.

Around 4:30 that afternoon, the agent sent a series of medium-length messages (dinging every couple of minutes rather than every second) giving some information. I found out from the list of group members that there are eight foreign teachers at this particular school — all teaching kindergarten. Judging from later responses by the other teachers, I seemed to be the only one who previously knew that classes were to resume on the following Monday, 8 May. I now knew that the term would end on 29 September and that we were to be at the school everyday from 7:30 (I may be a little late due to my lengthy transport over from Kata — the agency’s owner is well aware of this and I did inform the agent as well) until 15:30.

I also learned that the syllabus and class schedules are not yet ready (typical) but that we would introduce ourselves at a meeting with the parents on the first day. In most of her messages, the agent says to ask our Thai classroom teachers for more information. I probably won’t meet them until some point on that first day — hopefully before I need to know anything (like where my classrooms are).

One of the messages (not included here) listed my assigned classes — all in K3. Thus, I immediately felt better when I saw the message informing us that only K1 and K2 students would start classes on Monday and that K3 would begin the following week. Since most (if not all) of my prep is finished for at least the first month of classes, this would give me time to explore the school, find out the location of classrooms, introduce myself around to the Thai teachers and other staff, and take a look at the curriculum if it is ready by then. Later, I was informed that I would have to fill-in for a K2 class for three days during Week 1 but that would still give me time to ease into the new school a bit better.

I was ready and starting to look forward to the new school. I still dread the commute during the guaranteed rain showers but those don’t start in earnest until around August or September. It won’t rain every morning and, hopefully when it does, I will have enough money in the bank where I can feel comfortable taking an occasional for-hire taxi (i.e., Bolt, InDrive, Grab — these are now illegal in Phuket although the apps still work).

Friday afternoon was another crap ding-ding-ding on LINE.

First, I got a class cancellation notice from my old agency. I had been waiting for several months for a Saturday afternoon business course to start. They already paid in full for the lessons but had kept cancelling for a variety of reasons. I finally taught my first class at the location (far northeast portion of the island) last week and quite enjoyed it. The other teacher had to teach in a small warehouse in the boatyard but I was in the air-conditioned sales office. But they cancelled this week due to “not having a place for the class”. Since I was ready for school to start on Monday, I figured this would give me a nice day to relax and perhaps get caught up on some blogging.

Just a few minutes after that cancellation from my old agency, a new series started coming in. Just before 5pm on a Friday afternoon…

Oh, my! The start of the school term — lately scheduled to begin in three days’ time — had been pushed back to 29 May! The reason? The local municipal government needs the school buildings to support a sporting event!! I think you can discern some reasons as to why Thai students are so lowly ranked amongst other countries in ASEAN. Education is such a low priority in Thailand that nobody really bats an eye if school is delayed or cancelled for whatever reason. I thought they had learned something during the COVID-19 pandemic and the delays in trying distance learning.

The fact that we are unable to use the school for its intended purpose during a large muti-sport event is not without precedence here. Around ten years ago, we actually started a school year on time in May and classes were held for about two weeks before the start of the Phuket Games — which, I believe was a regional qualifier for the National Games. Someone had decided that it was less expensive to house the athletes in school classrooms rather than having them stay in hotels. Some of the schools were also used for event venues. The 100-year old school that I worked in at the time was not only an accommodation facility but they hosted some rounds for the sepak takraw tournament.

The text mentions the 48th Thailand National Games (กีฬาแห่งชาติ). According to Wikipedia, this is a national multi-sport event held every two years among athletes from all over Thailand. The Games were regulated by the Organization of the Sport of Thailand (OST) from the first games in Bangkok, Thailand, from the 1967 games until the 1984 games. Since the 1985 games, they have been organized by the Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT), after the breakup of the Organization of the Sport of Thailand. The games are recognized by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports are described as the largest multi-sport event in Thailand. Phuket was the sole host for the 1982 games and even issued a stamp in commemoration.

The Wikipedia page goes on to state, “The last games was held in Chiang Rai, Thailand in 2018,” but the 47th version was held in Sisaket in 2022 with over 13,000 athletes participating (Bangkok winning the top ranking). Kanchanaburi (of Bridge Over the River Kwai fame) is listed as the host for 2023 so maybe Phuket is hosting regional qualifying rounds again. I cannot find ANY information online other than the single Wikipedia overview page. I remember there being A LOT of advertising for the Phuket Games I mentioned and I still have a few souvenirs tucked away in a box of buttons and pins.

In all of this, I don’t place any blame at all on the agency. They are just the bearers of bad news and the communications illustrated above highlights their usefulness. I cannot imagine what it would be like if our only contact was with the school directly. At my last school, there were only one or two Thai teachers who had any sort of skills at communicating in English (and those were very basic at best). Neither were in a position of power, either. Some schools are better off in terms of being able to disseminate information but most treat the foreign teachers as an after-thought. I wish the term-renewal contract system didn’t exist — even schools in places like Costa Rica and Panama typically offer one-year contracts if you can convince them to go the “legal” route — but we are stuck with it here.

Here, I am putting together my alphabet letters matching activity. Students will select a lower-case letter and attach it to a card with the matching upper-case letter. The Velcro dots were also ordered from Lazada but MUCH smaller than I anticipated.
I prefer to use my laptop on a Japanese tray table while sitting on my bed but could also use it at my dressing table or the kitchen counter. I still have many file folders from my old agency; I wonder if the new one has any folders with their logos?

It is difficult to make advance plans, particularly in terms of budget or travel, as the situation changes so often at the beginning of a school year (and most recent terms as well). It can be very frustrating but one does become a bit accustomed to last minute changes. My sister says that she just couldn’t deal with the headaches. I still get them but I mask them most of the time; they might bother me for a short period of time but I just change my To Do List and try to look for the positive. There is always a positive aspect even if everything seems overwhelmingly negative.

My advice for new teachers is always be prepared — have materials ready for the first week or two well in advance. As soon as you know what grade level you will be assigned to teach (although that can change as well), design some appropriate lessons covering Greetings and Introductions. Have a good game or several that reinforces those early lessons. Make it age appropriate but also be able to adapt it up or down depending on what your on-the-ground assessment of the kids is on the first day. Be ready for last minute changes as these are the norm rather than the exception. I have sort of a kit of things I can do in ANY CLASS, derived from years of unscheduled fill-in lessons.

Still, we do lose many teachers every term as they get fed up with the system, last-minute changes, and so much more.

I have wanted to flee this country at many points in the past for a variety of reasons, even before the pandemic. I still wish I had left around April of 2020 but I had no clear plan of where to go and what to do. I am 57 years old and have no desire to change careers at this late stage (although I did give some thought to taking the Postal Carrier Exam in the U.S.). I love teaching (and all the prep work as well). Thailand has been my home for nearly 20 years and the frustrations don’t bother me so much.

I have been looking into teaching in other locations, however. This is still preliminary research as I need to save enough to cover travel expenses and several months of living expenses once I decided on a place to move. The past few years — the lack of income during many months of school lockdowns and poor luck since then — have depleted my savings so it’s going to take several years of regular income to build up the coffers once again. As I get older, I am less likely to have guaranteed work as most schools would rather hire young, inexperienced females rather than have an old man — no matter how experienced and how prepared — teach the kids. Or even the older students, apparently. Not a good situation but things could be worse, I suppose.

When (or even if) I get to that point, where would I go? My preferences all lie within Central or South America. My first thoughts were with Costa Rica as I had heard so many great things about living in that country. However, when you examine teaching there as a foreigner it sounds almost exactly like the worst problems with teaching in Phuket. At least here, now, almost every agency makes sure their teachers has the proper visa and work permits (assisting in obtaining these documents) while in Costa Rica many teachers work illegally. The salaries and living costs seem very similar across the board. I have since researched the foreign teacher situation in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. They all sound preferable to Costa Rica but none are without certain detractors. I can certainly handle speaking Spanish (and reading signs in that language!) better than Thai. I certainly have time so I might also research farther south as well. Chile and Argentina have always held a certain appeal for me. Time will tell if I actually leave Thailand but it’s nice to think about that possibility. At least I am starting to think about it. Hopefully, it’s not too late…

Yes, three extra weeks of free time. My funds are too low to actually do anything so this gives me time to really catch up on Philatelic Pursuits. I spent much of Saturday doing just that, interspersed with the weekly laundry and other mundane tasks. I added the last few Rolling Stones albums and singles into my music player (exactly 200, not counting a few compilations of bands doing Stones cover versions) and began work on my collections of John Mellencamp and Pat Benatar. Listening to music and doing a bit of work looking up newly released stamps, I completely forgot about the Coronation of King Charles and managed to tune into the BBC just as he and Queen Camilla left the Buckingham Palace balcony. Oh, well. I am sure I can watch a rerun on YouTube at some point (skipping through the boring bits); I already found a version of the RAF fly-past which I enjoyed.

I also read quite a few pages in a book I started reading a week ago — Thunderhead by the team of Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston, published in 1999. I don’t know how I missed reading this one before as I have read quite a few Child and Preston thrillers. This one concerns a search for the ruins of Quivira with the lead archaeologist (and main character) based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The details of the hike through rough country near Lake Powell and about Anasazi beliefs and sites made for fascinating reading (I moved to New Mexico from Kansas in the early 1990s solely because I fell in love with the region during an archaeological field trip to Chaco Canyon). In fact, I was so interested in the details of their (unfortunately, fictional) excavation that I was initially disappointed once the terror portion of the story began to take precedence! Still, it’s been a quick read and I will probably finish this novel in another night or two.

One of my favorite meals from 7-Eleven at the moment. Prior to eating, I shovel the white rice into the meat section so it soaks in the juices. I cut the sausage patties into small pieces and then mix everything together with a healthy dollop of Heinz ketchup.
My second favorite 7-Eleven meal but I buy this one more often as my first choice is often sold-out. Spicy but I cut that a bit by again mixing Heinz ketchup into the rice (this only works with Heinz, not Roza). Ketchup rice is actually served in some restaurants here.

That’s it. My entire week with a whole lot of extra commentary. While I am disappointed that I won’t be joining my colleagues at the temple school (just a four-minute walk from my apartment!), I am happy that I was offered another school so quickly. I am upset over the loss of three weeks of badly needed income, now I have some free time to work on other long-standing projects. Also, the Chinese teacher from my old school will be returning to Phuket later this week and I will serve as her tour guide as she is unfamiliar with the area around Kata (but has already rented an apartment here). I always like showing people around as it gives me a new appreciation of my environs.

Following the national elections a week from now, my lovely Kan also plans to return to Phuket. She is already back in Buriram, staying with her mom and planning to vote on the 14th. We attempted a video call yesterday but the connection was extremely poor. It turned into an audio-only call during which we mainly discussed how hot it remains.

Cheers, until next week.

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