ThaiTESOL: What's in it for you?

ThaiTESOL: What's in it for you?

Khon Kaen 2004

I can almost hear it now: “Do I need ThaiTESOL to get a job in Thailand? Wouldn’t my TEFL cert be enough?” The answer is: ThaiTESOL is not a teaching course – it’s an annual conference. Gotcha. “Why have I never heard of it?” Good question. If you are thinking about teaching in Thailand and have done some research on the Internet – checked out a few popular websites, read the discussion boards – you may think that you know it all - except ThaiTESOL, ha ha! The interesting phenomenon is that apparently none of those thousands of people who post on local teaching boards made it into the thousand plus participants in the biggest teacher conference in the country. Strange, isn’t it? The Internet crowd is not very representative in this case. The annual ThaiTESOL conference has just finished and I have just returned from Khon Kaen and I can’t find any references to it on the message boards. So what is it and what’s in it for you?

ThaiTESOL is a non-profit organisation with a core of ten to twenty people from highly respected Thai universities who are active throughout the year; but who really come to shine with their annual conference held alternately in Bangkok and a city of choice upcountry - Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, or Khon Kaen. Usually it happens in January and truly is the largest gathering of English teachers in Thailand. Dedicated teachers, I should add.

You’d be pleasantly surprised that there are hundreds and hundreds of people who value teaching as a profession and care about their own development and who are eager to share their experience. There are so many farangs that you really might forget that the conference is actually for Thais - about half of the participants are Thai. Most are university teachers but next year the organizers hope to attract primary and high school teachers and even hold some sessions in the Thai language.

Not all attend just to listen - this year there were about 170 speakers who came from all over the world and the organisers had to reject some applicants due to limited time and space. There was the usual large contingent of teachers from Japan – the conference is held right during the university break and teachers come down to Thailand for holidays. We had people from Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia and even South Africa along with the good mix of Americans, Brits, and Australians of all teaching creeds. Local farang teachers also contributed a lot – ABAC and Bell, as usual, sent quite a few people. All publishing companies were talking about their stuff too – working for a publisher is one of the options for ex-teachers here.

The conference has almost two hundred workshops and presentations on various topics so anyone can find what he or she’s interested in. Standing high above the crowd there are a dozen or so “plenary” and “featured” speakers with credentials and CVs so long that you have to cut a very tall tree to print them out. Most of them are profoundly boring, in my experience, but sometimes they say very important things to “reflect” upon (“reflect” is currently the preferred word instead of “think”). This year the star was Jeremy Harmer – the general editor of Longman Methodology Series who turned out to be one of the most amazing, passionate, and knowledgeable individuals you could ever meet in your teaching life. He really set a new standard for plenary speakers with his articulate and engaging presentation. Poor chap who had to do it on the next day was doomed.

There are, of course, other interesting people who you should try to talk to – everyone who is anyone in Asia is there. Even Thailand – you wouldn’t believe how many intelligent individuals are teaching here who you’d never meet otherwise. Though some people felt “intellectually inferior” at the end of the first day, no one felt excluded but rather inspired. No matter how gigantic your teaching role models might be, they are all very helpful and approachable. If not in the conference hall, there’s always a hotel coffee shop in the evening.

Warning: don’t think that ordinary looking teachers are plain and uninteresting. Once, during the presentation, a young Australian woman (who is working on her PhD, as I found out later) asked a few tough and powerful questions – big ideas started flying around the room and bouncing off the less gifted people’s heads. The atmosphere grew so charged with intellectualism that common folks started losing the plot. Then a little - a very little - shy and gentle Indonesian woman stood up and quietly told us about her own research on the subject and it left all, including the presenter, dumbstruck, even though she actually supported him.

Some of those PhDs can actually be a source of great pain; one of them was constantly interrupting the workshop on teaching techniques with highbrow remarks that such and such in his work on this and that in 1977 and 1988 said that blah, blah, blah and that when he used the word “learn” he meant it as a process that.... You get the point. Good thing is that no matter how irritating it can be, it just shows that there’s a lot more to teaching than “page 27 today, page 28 for homework” - like knowledge of applied linguistics and the ability to be nice to people (which don’t always come together).

Perhaps linguists shouldn’t go to workshops on using flashcards. The point is that the conference attracts aspiring teachers, including the very beginners, and that desire, heart, and passion is what attracts people and inspires them. It’s contagious. It transmits positive energy in all directions. It keeps you going until the next ThaiTESOL comes along. It plants a dream in your heart – a dream about a bright and happy teaching world that actually exists. That it is somewhere out there – beyond your school texts and tests, and boring course books, and the lack of markers, and squabbling mates, and discipline problems, and all that stress. The burnout rate for teachers is actually quite high all over the world – it’s a part of the deal - so three days of inspiration is a time well spent.

Talking about spending, the conference does cost some money and you will need three days off work. You might try to convince your school to support you but don’t count on it – be ready to invest in your own professional development. You won’t be alone – the Australian PhD woman I mentioned earlier flew in all on by herself just as many teachers from Japan do. Next January the conference will be in Bangkok so expect more teachers who can escape for only a day or two (there is a “one day guest” option).

What else is it good for? Ask yourself. How often do you pick up a book and learn about new teaching theories? Seldom? Almost never? Even if you regularly do, you should go out and meet people and learn about their experiences: trying new methods – both successes and failures - that you’ll never find in any book. Besides, most of the teachers in Thailand have only a four-week certificate for education and so the conference is really an eye-opener for those who think that they know everything already. Perhaps a new teaching trick or game, or a new idea on reading, perhaps a totally new angle on what you’ve been doing for years – everyone finds something to discover. Not to mention prospects of getting a better job through new acquaintances.

Someone said once that ThaiTESOL is an “old boys’ network” that benefits members only. Don’t believe it: first of all, it isn’t; second – even if it is - you’ll have a chance to get in. Publishers, school managers, administrators, TEFL course providers – all are there to do “networking” and they even have their own private cocktail party. So, if you have your own idea or program to sell or a book to publish – that’s the place to be.

For real enthusiasts there will be a few other regional conferences later this year – Korean, Japanese and Asia Pacific TESOL; the world of corporate travelling for teachers if you wish. But only for high-flying TEFL gurus whose wisdom is sought on all continents and whose jokes are met with bouts of laughter and whose names are mentioned with a heavy doze of respect. I know you’d like it yourself, you silly fool. Get back to class until next January.