Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bullying in the TEFL Workplace

TEFL bullies
Excellent article written by Kaithe Greene over at tefl.net about workplace bullying in the EFL industry. While the article is ostensibly about the EFL industry, I found it mainly provided some very good overall information about bullying.

However, it really got me thinking about the problem and specifically how people working as English teachers in foreign countries could be affected by bullying.

Whether in a public school, a private institution, a language centre or a university, bullying is something that could have an impact on all teachers at some point in their careers.

What is bullying?

The tefl.net article provided a definition of bullying and a list of behaviours that is quite thorough (though I will comment on that later in this post). Two items from the list especially struck me as the kind of deceitful actions that are very common and are things that people are able to get away with.

First, "withholding information which affects performance." The old "I forgot to tell you by accident on purpose" stunt. I find this is something that could very easily happen in the TEFL workplace. Especially because in some cultures there is often trepidation on behalf of the local teachers or staff to communicate with foreign teachers. They very often ask one foreign teacher to pass on information to others. Selective forgetfulness is a real possibility.

Second, "spreading gossip." One of the most vile and toxic behaviours in any workplace, it can be even more destructive for someone working as an English teacher in a foreign country. Because the possibility of feeling isolated is always present for the expat, knowing that there are shameless cowards spreading lies about you can be extremely frustrating.

The Intricacies of Gossip

It is important to qualify exactly what type of gossip I am referring to here. It's nearly impossible to never mention someone's name when they are not around. Perhaps you had a work-related interaction with another teacher and now you are passing that information on to someone else. Even in this type of situation, it is very easy for someone to throw in a negative comment and things can quickly turn nasty.

Far more insidious are dedicated back-stabbing sessions where two or more individuals get together and rip another teacher. I have been in a staff-room where one shameless individual announced that he had some gossip to share. It must have thrilled him when a few other like-minded people shot up from their seats and rushed over to hear the latest dirt. In this case, I remained where I was and indicated I had no desire to listen in.

The problem with gossip is that to counter it, you are almost obliged to engage in the same kind of behaviour. In a perfect world, you would hope that people who hear someone insulting another person behind his or her back would not respond and would only form a negative opinion about the creep spreading the gossip. You would also think that if a particular teacher is constantly belittling various people when they are not around, that the listeners would assume that perhaps they too are getting the knife from the little smear-artist.

But it rarely works out that way.

A gossiper will never have trouble finding like-minded people and targets. Maybe the gossiper even has some legitimate grievances against his targets. But instead of respectfully confronting the individual, he will go with the easier option of ripping the person behind his back. And of course, it will go beyond the initial grievance and will turn into a kind of addiction with plenty of positive reinforcement from other gutless weaklings.

Protect Yourself from Workplace Bullies

So what should you do if you find yourself the target of a gossiper and his little sycophants? First, the trouble is determining if you actually are the target. The only real way to know is if the gossip comes back to you in some way or if a teacher you know and respect informs you of the gossip. When you have confirmation and decide to counter the nastiness, inevitably you will be taking part in the same kind of behaviour you loathe.

You can also confront the individual who is the lead defamer. As the article I am riffing off mentions, you may want to tape-record such an interaction. That is fraught with its own perils as gossipers are often skilled manipulators and could turn such an action into something sneaky and underhanded in the eyes of his followers. However, when you feel threatened and feel your job and family could be affected, tape-recording a conversation with someone who has been maligning you is acceptable in my opinion.

It is even more acceptable because of the fact that gossip does influence people regardless of how baseless it may be. I wish people always formed their own opinion on others based only on their own one-on-one interactions and other direct observations, but that isn't always the way things happen.

Another thing you definitely should do is develop your own elevator pitch on gossiping and repeat it whenever you sense a gossip session developing in your presence. It could be something as simple as "Sorry, I think that gossip in the workplace is toxic and we should avoid it at all costs."

This can even be a way to get a discussion going on the destructive nature of gossip in the workplace. If you decide to do this, and I believe you should, then you must adhere to it strictly or risk being labeled a hypocrite. As mentioned, the only situation in which it may be acceptable to gossip is when you are countering things being said about you. Still, very risky.

Discussing the negative effects of gossip may even make some people moderate their conduct. Amazingly, some people may not realize they are such shameless gossips or may not be aware of all its damaging effects.

Passive-aggressive Cowards

The two types of conduct discussed above: 1) failing to pass on information to a colleague so as to damage his reputation or ability to perform his job, and 2) gossip, fall under the category of passive-aggressive behaviour. The easiest kind of bad behaviour to get away with in the workplace.

Show me a nasty little gossiper, and more often than not, I will be able to show you a chronic late-arriver—another classic passive-aggressive manifestation. This is not to suggest that all punctually-challenged individuals are gossipers but I believe there is often a correlation.

Another weapon used by the passive-aggressive type is the silent treatment. Another cowardly method of failing to deal with various situations in the workplace in an honourable and mature way. The silent treatment is  another low-life tactic that people can get away with and it can make their target feel excluded.

Other types of TEFL workplace bullying exist that people more commonly associate with the playground bully. In other words, violence and aggression. The article at tefl.net uses a multi-point definition of bullying that "stresses the negative and ongoing nature of bullying as opposed to an occasional display of aggression or unfairness."

However, I think that definition misses the point that aggressive behaviour can also be ongoing. Perhaps the assumption is that something so brazen in the workplace simply couldn't go on for very long without being detected and sanctioned. But in fact, it can. And some of the unique aspects of the TEFL workplace in foreign countries make that even more possible.

The TEFL Workplace and Bullying

Now I will answer one of the questions posed by Kaithe Greene in her article on workplace bullying in the EFL industry: "is it [bullying] any different in the EFL industry to any other workplace?"

Yes, I do believe so.

In particular, in some Asian cultures and some types of educational institutions, the conditions are in place to allow the bully to get away with actions for a longer period of time than they would otherwise.

As mentioned, in some cultures there is still some uneasiness in interacting with foreigners, even if they are colleagues. The sentiment that "they (native English-speaking EFL teachers) are a necessary evil" does exist to some degree. With this comes the tacit understanding that disputes among foreign teachers stay among the foreign teachers. This sentiment is further strengthened by the foreign teachers themselves who don't want to cause problems for their hosts or to perpetuate any possible negative stereotypes about foreigners that may exist.

In addition, there is a certain kind of thinking that is ingrained in most people at an early age that benefits cowards, bullies and criminals. It results in the belief that to ever take a concern to someone in a position of authority is the most reprehensible and unforgivable sin possible. The fact that so many people continue to believe in these juvenile concepts long after they have become adults, thrills bullies to their manipulative little cores.

The notion that informing those who sign your pay-cheque about someone in the workplace who is out of control is somehow worse than the original bad behaviour, gains traction with many, many people.

Bullies understand this and use it to their advantage all the time. Listen to a bully start puking up sad clichés that reflect this kind of thinking when his behaviour is finally highlighted. Things like "grassing" and "can't deal with things on your own," all delivered with indignant outrage. Anything to deflect attention off the initial actions that may have led to a person trying to protect himself. Again, many people will fall for this type of garbage.


The problem with dealing with the most unhinged bullies is that while they often engage in some of the passive-aggressive behaviour discussed above, they can also be, at times, tantrum-throwing wackjobs. At first, the two don't seem to go together: passive-aggressiveness and the kind of outbursts associated with adult temper tantrums. But in many ways they are similar and can be displayed by the same individual. Both involve the inability to deal with things in a straightforward and respectful way.

Someone who throws temper tantrums is usually responding to the outrage of another person daring to disagree with him or to not do something he wants them to do. So he shrieks and yells and gets aggressive in the hopes that  his opponent will back down. Sadly, many people will back down. And the bully knows this.

While the ongoing nature of the behaviour seems to be one of the identifiers of bullying, in the case of violence, a single act can have long-lasting effects. Imagine, for example, if a tantrum-thrower committed an act of vandalism in the staff-room. The coward would be unlikely to have the guts or decency to stand up and take responsibility and would count on most people not getting involved and not "ratting" on him. So the cowardly bully continues on and the shadow of suspicion hangs over others as a result.

There also may be some reason to believe that the individuals who work as English teachers in foreign countries are more damaged to begin with and thus more inclined to engage in sinister, bullying behaviour. In Bangkok Filth, there are a number of stories that involve the EFL workplace. One theme that emerges is the alienation that many expats experience and the irony that instead of helping each other through difficult times, foreigners living in Thailand often turn on each other.

Finally, the point is not to bend to the will of the workplace bully or let him get away with either his passive-aggressive behaviour or his temper tantrums. To accept the bully's way of dealing with things will only result in further bad behaviour from him and in the end, a situation that escalates. In the TEFL staff-room in a foreign country, this is a sure-fire way to violence. And even if you are able to mash the coward's head into the concrete, it's not worth it because you will be the one who ends up in prison.

While it's a good bet that the bully is also a feckless wonder whose other actions in the workplace may eventually trip him up, the sad reality is that often, the bully wins. Still, take steps to protect yourself and remain as professional as possible at all times.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Eight Best Books on Writing

Eight Best Books on Writing
I am always amazed at the number of people I meet who self-identify as writers and who subsequently register shock when I ask them what kind of instruction they have had or what books they have read on the subject. The very notion that someone who sets out to write a book would deign to seek guidance seems to be an affront to many.

Perplexing. What other profession or vocation would someone undertake without any instruction or training? But many writer wannabes seem to think that they are naturally imbued with what it takes to bang together a sellable book.

Many of these individuals may well have good writing skills. But to think that you naturally possess the knowledge of character development, narrative, dialogue and numerous other aspects is a grand delusion for the majority of novice writers.

On the other hand, some writers devour all the books on writing that they can lay their hands on. There must be a happy medium in there somewhere. Reading a book on writing does not mean that you will necessarily alter all your habits and and adopt all its recommendations. But I have no doubt that if you read some good books on improving your writing, you will pick up some incredibly useful advice.

Plenty of excellent "how to write" books exist, for both fiction and non-fiction. I have compiled a list of the ones that I believe are the best.

I have discovered something interesting as I have read these kinds of books over the years. While many of the authors have been published many times over and have made a comfortable living as writers, I have found that the superstar, bestselling authors with whom most are very familiar are not the ones who write the best writing books.

On to the list!

1. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

Techniques of the Selling WriterThe oldest book on this list and in my opinion the best. A comprehensive look at all facets of fiction writing, Techniques of the Selling Writer is rammed full of practical advice. While many books about writing are good for their inspiration and overview of things that can help you, this book gets into real, step-by-step instructions on how to write fiction. In fact, it is so granular at times that it may be too much for those who already have developed their own approach to writing.

Swain covers the motivation and inspiration side of things as well. For example, he discusses at length that oft-repeated sentiment that you should write what you know, and in particular, explore those emotions and ideas that intrigue you the most. He does it in such a concise and convincing way that you wonder how you could ever set out to write what you think you are supposed to write instead of writing about that which truly interests you. Yet so many writers do just that and tackle what they think is subject matter appropriate for a novel.

I like Swain’s take on the exercises that many a popular writing book espouse:
Won't exercises give the same result less painfully?
Regrettably, no; at least, not in my experience. The man who cottons to exercises generally isn't cut out to be a fiction writer. He's certainty-oriented; reaching out for a sure thing.
Most potentially successful writers have little patience with such. They're too eager to get on with their own stories; too intoxicated with their own euphoria; too excited over their ideas. Exercises excite no one. Palpably artificial, only tenuously related to the difficulties that beset you, they turn writing into drudgery for anyone.
Never once have I been motivated to perform the end-of-chapter exercises provided in some books. Practice implementing suggestions in my own writing? Sure. But exercises make my eyes glaze over. Then again, some people may like writing exercises, and some of the other books listed below satisfy that need.

Techniques of the Selling Writer is so good that you may even find out something about yourself. As the author asks the reader, what is good fiction but insight into the character of human beings?

2. Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

Stein on WritingStein on Writing is one of the most popular books on how to write and for good reason. A plethora of insight is contained here that will make you look at your own writing in a completely different light. While the book focuses on fiction, it also provides many sections and loads of great advice on writing non-fiction.

Stein makes the point numerous times that people's tastes have evolved over the years and readers now demand to be instantly entertained and have very short attention spans when they decide whether or not to keep reading. In one passage, he talks about the difference between description, narrative summary, and immediate scene, and why, especially in this day and age, you will want to focus on immediate scene.
An immediate scene happens in front of the reader, is visible, and therefore filmable That’s an important test. If you can’t film a scene, it is not immediate. Theater, a truly durable art, consists almost entirely of immediate scenes.
As with all of the very best writing books, Stein on Writing devotes a good portion of its advice on how to create interesting characters. Stein provides some absolutely great advice on how to introduce each character through interaction with minor characters, how to delve further into your character when you find that you are lacking the knowledge of him or her to complete a scene, and other practical tips.

3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print by Renni Browne and Dave King

Self-editing for Fiction WritersAnyone who has written seriously knows that the difference between garbage and quality is in constant re-writing and editing your own work. Self-editing for Fiction Writers provides you with an extremely knowledgeable and accurate lens through which to edit and improve your writing. The chapters on writing and improving dialogue are the best I have ever read. The comments regarding “on-the-nose” dialogue versus dialogue with subtext should be studied carefully by every novice writer who has vomited forth awkward and embarrassing lines of dialogue.

Great chapter as well on the different types of point of view and how to choose which one suits you best and which character you should use for the viewpoint character.

The authors are experienced editors of numerous published novels and include many real examples of work they improved. I found this extremely helpful. When an author includes his own examples, they tend to be contrived and the “problems” evident in passages written solely to demonstrate a point just don’t work as well.

4. How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey

How to Write a Damn Good NovelAfter reading this book, you will probably never read fiction books again without quickly identifying the elements that are highlighted by author James N. Frey. From the “every protagonist is the best at whatever he or she does,” to a discussion on how to choose a viewpoint, How to Write a Damn Good Novel breaks things down in an entertaining and easy-to-follow way.

The book also provides many practical ways to create your characters and plan your plot before you actually get down to writing. Well, you are writing when you plan, but as Frey points out, just diving in without any sense of where you’re going is almost a sure-fire way to splutter out at 10,000 words or so.

The detailed instruction on creating well-rounded characters should be followed by writers who find themselves making things up as they go along. Here, Frey writes about character biographies:
If you do a thorough job on your biographies you will know your characters well—at least as well as you know your brother, sister, or best friend—before you begin your novel. It is not possible to make a list of all the elements that should be included in these biographical sketches. You should include any detail that affects the motivations and actions of the character. Include anything that influences his relationships, habits, goals, beliefs, superstitions, moral judgments, obsessions, and so on—all the factors that govern choices and behavior.
Frey also wrote a good follow-up called How to Write a Damn Good Novel II that is worth a look as well. It picks up where the original left off and provides more great insight into writing fiction. While Frey does repeat many of the ideas he discussed in the first book, he expands and adds more helpful information as well.

5. On Writing Well by William Zinsser

On Writing WellA superbly written book on how to improve your non-fiction writing, On Writing Well is enjoyable to read regardless of whether you plan on taking on board any of the suggestions. An advocate of clear writing and slicing out the clutter long before it was popular, Zinsser presents methods for tightening up your writing and developing your own style.

He does not generally include the nuts-and-bolts type of advice that tells you exactly how to craft sentences but instead provides overall strategies that will benefit your writing. Plenty of interesting anecdotes and examples of how not to write well make for an entertaining and helpful read. The concisely written chapters are grouped into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. I go back and occasionally read a chapter or two of Zinsser’s book when I want some inspiration and to jog my memory regarding some of his great insight.

As with all of the books listed here, On Writing Well gains credibility because of the fact that Zinsser himself is such a superb writer.

6. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

50 Writing ToolsThis compact book is one of the most practical guides for quickly improving your writing that I have ever encountered. Most of the tools listed here are described in two pages or so. To-the-point, concrete and easy to implement tools that without a doubt, will improve your writing.

The advice in here ranges from sentence construction to ways to develop your own style to habits that will make your writing more engaging. Writing Tool #7: Dig for the Concrete and Specific is an example of a simple way to improve your writing. While the book is aimed at non-fiction writers, I believe that fiction writers would also benefit from reading this book.

Absolutely no filler in this one. I constantly refer back to this book when I feel that I have let my writing stagnate or regress. Highly recommended.

7. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

War of ArtOK, this isn’t strictly a book on writing. However, I have included it here because it is a very good motivational book for artists of all types. And, the author is a writer so many of his references are in relation to writing.

The early part of this book and its focus on resistance is one of the best extended pieces I have ever read on overcoming obstacles and creating art. He also hammers away at the notion that serious artists are the ones who put in the hours every day and know the value of hard work. Hardly an original idea, but Pressfield has a way of really stating it in a way that motivates and inspires you to get off your arse and do some writing.

While, for me, the second half of the book lagged a bit, overall The War of Art is well worth a look for those writers who are looking for a metaphorical kick in their writer-blocked asses.

8. Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins

Getting into CharacterThis is a very interesting book and, as far as I have seen, quite unique in the field of books on improving your writing. Brandilyn Collins focuses on using ideas from the world of acting and applying them to writing fiction. Specifically, she uses characterization methods that actors have used for years to develop memorable characters on stage and in film and translates those ideas into ways fiction writers can create similarly intriguing characters in their novels.

Some of the seven secrets she discusses include subtexting, inner rhythm and emotions memory. Collins really delves into useful methods for developing believable and interesting characters. One thing that made this very useful for me is that all the suggestions are so instantly plausible (no doubt as they are tried and true in the acting world and adapted here) and just plain enjoyable to utilize.

So there you have it. Eight books on writing that will provide all sorts of reading enjoyment and some great advice and motivation. I suppose I could have found two more to make it an even ten, and for sure there are more than two more great books on writing out there, but I decided to go with the most memorable ones I have read and benefited from.

So take the time to check out some of these books or otherwise seek out ways to improve your writing. But above all else, keep hammering away at the keyboard and churning out the words!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Two Canadian Sisters Dead in Thailand

A horrible way to die: two Canadian sisters have been found dead in a hotel room on Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. The early indications are that they might have been poisoned. Speculation will run wild as this comes three years after two other tourists were found dead on the same island, only a short distance from where these two young Quebec women met their tragic end.

In Bangkok Filth: The Freaks, Frauds and Failures of the Expat Community, I explore the mysterious and horrible way that far too many expats and tourists die while in Thailand. An excerpt from "Suicide Solution":

The country’s most respected forensic pathologist made a public comment a few years ago regarding the number of “mysterious deaths” that occur in the Kingdom every year. She ranked the number at approximately 1000. These are deaths that are unexplained and largely go uninvestigated by Thai police.
So, on top of the high number of murder victims, there are 1000 deaths deemed completely unworthy of looking  into. Perhaps due to the social status of the departed or the possible murderer. Or maybe the mind-numbing heat plays such havoc with corpses that things go beyond the solvable stage a lot faster than in other parts of the world.
While not the freest press in the world, this news does get reported. But somehow it doesn't resonate outside the country as much as it should. That image doesn't jibe with the experience most people have had while vacationing here. The winsome, ever-smiling Thais with a rich and varied culture are just so darned nice in the short, hazy doses of a two-week vacation. And of course, most Thais are genuinely decent people. Still...
Bangkok Filth: The Freaks, Frauds and Failures of the Expat Community in Thailand

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Thai Driver's License for Foreigners: Procedure, Documents, Instructions

Department of Land Transport Bangkok
If you plan on staying in Thailand for any length of time, it is a good idea to get your Thai driving license.

In this post I will provide information on how to get your Thai driver's license in Bangkok from the Department of Land Transport offices located at 1032 Pahon Yothin Road.

Specifically, this is for people who have a valid work permit and a valid driver's license from their home country. For all other individuals seeking information on how to get a Thai driver's license, I would contact the nearest licensing office in Thailand.

While different offices in Thailand well may follow the same procedures, I have found that when dealing with various government bureaucracies, different locations sometimes have their own set of rules and require slightly different documents.

If you have any questions about whether there are additional documents required for verifying the authenticity of the driver's license from your particular country, please contact the Department of Land Transport. In my case, only the original driver's license from Canada and photocopies of it were required.

Just a quick note regarding the current online information posted by numerous individuals about the Thai driver's license process: I found that some of the details were outdated. My experience was that the process has been streamlined when compared to what had been outlined in a number of those online posts.

Address, Phone Numbers, Opening Hours

Address: 1032 Pahon Yothin Road.

Phone number(s): 02-271-8804, 02-271-8888, 02-271-1105-27

Opening Hours: 0830-1530

However, the doors to the second floor Information desks where you obtain the first of numerous queue numbers, open at 0745. I urge you to arrive early. I walked in at a few minutes after 0800 and it was already a mob scene.

Also, the office closes for lunch from 1200-1300. And you apparently have to be in the queue for doing the testing on the third floor at least one hour before the office closes for the day.

Original Documents Required

—Work permit
—Driver's license from home country
—Medical certificate: this can easily be obtained from any walk-in clinic for 100 to 200 baht.

The Department of Land Transport in Bangkok does not seem to be concerned about what tests were done to obtain the medical certificate. If you have any problem when trying to communicate to the people at the doctor's office about what you need, the phrase in Thai for "medical certificate" is "bai rap rong paet" (ใบรับรองแพทย์).

Photocopies Required

—first page of passport
—page containing the Non-Immigrant B visa, or the most recent extension
—the most recent entry stamp
—the departure card (TM)

Work permit
—all pages with information

Note: I am assuming this is the case. For me, this was the first 8 pages of the work permit (i.e., 4 photocopies). However, if you have numerous renewals in the same work permit booklet, you may only need the first six pages plus the most recent renewal stamp.

You may want to confirm this with the office directly or wait to get the photocopy of the work permit when you arrive. However, if you want to verify this at the second-floor Information counter when you first arrive, you will have to go to the photocopy kiosk and this will cause you to lose your place in line. The easiest solution is to photocopy all pages in advance and they can take what they need.

Driver's license
—front and back

Sign your name at the bottom of all photocopies.

Directions/Getting There

Department of Land Transport entranceAs mentioned, the Department of Land Transport office where I completed this process is located at 1032 Pahon Yothin Road. If you are taking the Skytrain, get out at Mo Chit station, exit 2, walk straight on (walk in the same direction as the traffic) for about 15 minutes. If you are travelling by subway, get out at Chatuchak Park station, exit 4 and walk straight on (walk in the same direction as the traffic).

Department of Land Transport building 4When you get to the Department of Land Transport main entrance, enter and walk straight down the road for about 250 to 300 metres until you get to Building 4 (no English sign), which is located on the right-hand side.

If you arrive by taxi, the driver will likely know where you are going. Or, simply ask any number of people inside the Department of Land Transport complex, as almost anyone will know where you want to go.

Once You Arrive: Procedure for Obtaining Thai Driver's License

Enter the building and take the stairs to the second floor.

Building 4 second floor
When you get to the second floor, enter the doors straight ahead. Get in line at the counter. The clerk will check that all your papers and your passport, home-country driver's license and work permit are in order.

The clerk will get you to print your full name on a form. Then, she will give you a queue number and the photocopies and you will go to the large waiting room in the back of where you have just been processed.

There seems to be two counters in the waiting room that are dedicated to processing foreigners (i.e., people like you). So, you get a bit of a break here and won't have to wait long. You will be called to sit inside a cubicle and you will sign your name on another form and leave the photocopies. Next, you proceed to the third floor with your documents.

Building 4 sign third floor
When you get to the third floor, turn right, walk through some doors, and then turn right again. Wait in line at the Information counter. There, they will give you a form and another queue number.

I believe they hold back your home-country driver's license and perhaps your passport at this point—it's a bit of a blur right now. Of course, you will have everything returned at the end of the process. This allows them to extract all the necessary information and enter it into their system and saves you the hassle of having to fill in any forms.

Driver's license video physical test
Next, you will have to wait in this area for 10 to 20 minutes before you are called in to the adjacent room to perform a few cognitive tests. In this waiting area, there is a TV that  runs a video showing examples of the tests you will have to perform.

An employee with a microphone will call in lots of 10 to 15 people to the testing room according to their queue numbers. It helps if you understand basic Thai and know when your number is being called. If not, just hang around and hold up your number like a simpering fool when a new lot of people is being ushered into the testing room.


On the day that I was there, you had to perform three tests, though apparently there are potentially four tests.

First Test
Indicate what colour lights are shown on a traffic light standard that is about seven metres away. The attendant there will click a button, the light will appear, and you call out the colour. Probably better to learn the colours in Thai, though I am sure they would accept English.

Second Test
Press a gas pedal and brake pedal to indicate your reflexes. In this test, you sit in a seat and on the floor is a unit with a gas pedal and brake pedal. About three metres in front of you is a rectangular box with a lighted meter that is activated when you press the gas pedal. The idea is to release the gas pedal and push the brake pedal before the lighted meter enters the red zone. However, I believe that as long as you push the brake pedal before the lighted meter goes past the red zone, you should be OK. To begin the test, press the gas pedal.

As mentioned, this is one of those tasks that is easier done than said. Just watch the example video when you are in the waiting room. Believe me, you will have no problem. I can't imagine that anyone in the history of performing these tests has ever failed!

Third Test
Sit down at a seat and push your nose up against a metal slot against which thousands of others have mashed their faces (blech!). The attendant presses a button and lights (red, green, yellow/amber) will flash to the right and left to test your peripheral vision. Call out the colours as they appear. As long as you get two out of three you are OK. The yellow/amber is not very bright and can easily be mistaken for green.

Fourth Test
Apparently, there is a fourth test as indicated on the video in the waiting room. This test involves pressing a start and stop button to line up a pair of posts in a box in front of you. One post moves and you press stop when it is in front of the other one. This test was not conducted on the day I was there. Perhaps the machine was broken or maybe they change up the tests on any given day.

Completing the Process

The attendants at all these test-stations write the results on a form and when you are finished the final test, you take the papers back down to the Information counter on the second floor. You are given a final queue number, and you then go back to the waiting room with the dedicated counters for foreigners. When you are called into the cubicle, you will be asked to verify the spelling of your name on a form. Finally, you sign your name and then have a photo taken for your driver's license.

Minutes later, you are the proud owner of a Thai driver's license. Note that this is a one-year, temporary license that can be renewed for a five-year license when it is close to expiring.

The process I went through is much easier and more streamlined than is indicated on other websites. You really do not have to fill in any forms and do not need to read or understand Thai. Hence, it is really unnecessary to bring along a Thai person to help you. I believe at some point that someone in charge realized it was much more efficient to let the Thai staff fill in all the information and avoid the inevitable blundering around by foreigners attempting to guess what details went where on the forms.

Good luck!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Self-Actualized into Eternity: The Everest Insanity Continues

Mount Everest
Reaching the top of Mount Everest—and dodging the human excrement, garbage and more than a few corpses along the way—represents the ultimate in self-actualization for many people.

A few days ago, 200 people were on the mountain, with many of them bottle-necked at a point above 8000 metres as they waited to make the final push to the top.

An image of pure insanity.

I understand the idea of a burning passion to push yourself. A hobby that takes up the majority of your free time. You do it for years or even decades, and then realize that you have reached a level that allows you to take on the toughest related challenge.

But for many of the relatively inexperienced climbers who decide to tackle Everest, apparently it's simply a hip thing to do that will solidify their image of themselves as sophisticated dilettantes. Something that will make them minor celebrities among their friends and family.

Money Trumps Safety

And it is all facilitated by people who will essentially carry them to the top for a nice tidy fee of approximately $50,000. No regulations exist for how many tourists/climbers can be on the mountain at any one time. This should tell people something: money often trumps life when massive profits are at stake, and in this case, it is irrefutable.

And while we all assume that the noble sherpas must be the most skilled and safety-conscious individuals imaginable, my experience in that part of the world is that a certain fatalistic insanity is attached to anything where life and limb are at risk. Those quaint, winsome Nepalese sherpas who are always seen in only the most positive light by westerners who have never really travelled outside their narrow existences.

There's a Corpse, Here's a Cliché

The associated cliches are all there too. The family of one of the deceased offered up the sad but utterly ridiculous line that "she died doing what she loved doing."

I would venture that running out of oxygen, having your brain turn to mush, freezing and then ceasing to exist for eternity is not somehting anyone loves doing. Of course, we all get the intended meaning. The family is devastated and they must rationalize. They cannot consider the horrible reality that they may have played a part in her death by validating her unrealistic dreams. And most importantly, they still exist as they offer up the clichés about someone who is gone forever.

The expected response of full-on schadenfreude from some people is not hard to find. The claims that anyone deserves to die in this way, regardless of how reckless or unrealistic they were, are just nasty and unwarranted. Sadly, the families are no doubt aware of these sentiments and will have likely read these types of gleeful comments from online sociopaths.

But wait, you must be saying, any physical pursuit can be dangerous. Might as well offer up that most banal of responses to criticism of risky behaviour: "But you can die crossing the road..."

The point is, the over-crowding on Mount Everest and the lack of any real oversight is now as much a part of the danger as are the physical aspects.

Some of the people who have summited Everest include: a blind person, a double amputee and a 76 year-old man. Together with the hundreds who make the "guided" attempt, the bloom surely must have withered on this challenge somewhat by now. And the dangers of trying to summit Everest have actually been compounded by advancing technology. With the availability of a reasonably reliable internet connection at base camp and increasingly accurate weather forecasts online, the optimum days for making the attempt are now more unanimous than ever, resulting in the huge bottle-necks.

However, I have no doubt that the grossly under-experienced tourist climbers will continue to pay huge fees to be escorted to the top of Everest. Most will return relatively unscathed, regardless of whether or not they reach the summit. Thirteen years after Jon Krakauer's superb book Into Thin Air highlighted the dangers of trying to climb Everest and detailed the most fatal day in the mountain's history, people are certain to continue trying.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Seven Positive Aspects of Being an EFL Teacher

TEFLing It ain't all bad
It's easy to  find things to complain about regarding the EFL teaching profession. But there are also many positive aspects about being an English teacher.

Making a Difference

A cliché, but one that is so true. Will you connect with every student you encounter? Present lessons to every student in a way that will motivate, enlighten, and most importantly, help them improve their language skills? Of course not. But if you dedicate yourself to improving your teaching skills and making your lessons interesting and engaging, you will see students who improve before your eyes and increase their effort and desire to learn. It's a great feeling when it happens.

Working Independently

If you enjoy working in a situation where there is little supervision, then options exist for you in the world of EFL teaching. However, there are many schools and language centres where the reality is just the opposite. For example, someone always breathing down your neck, a litany of  paperwork requirements that confirm you have performed any number of tasks, and strict sign-in and sign-out policies.

Fortunately, if you work as an English instructor in a university, you are likely to experience little supervision. Almost to a person, teachers in this environment will say that they greatly appreciate such freedom. The unfortunate thing is that there will always be a percentage of teachers who can never handle this responsibility.

Is it something hard-wired into them that results in more than an acceptable number of canceled classes, chronic tardiness, and a kind of twisted glee at missing various deadlines? Whatever the reason, these types of teachers never respond to being treated as adults with the common respect that you would expect, but instead offer up a kind of unhinged, monumental inability to manage their responsibilities.

In extreme cases, poor behaviour from some teachers can result in freedoms being clawed back for everyone. But management can surprise sometimes, and then the feckless individuals are confronted and face consequences for their own failings.

But for teachers who can handle being treated like adults, the peace of mind is very rewarding. It's almost as if you are a free agent. You are assigned courses, and you go about taking care of business: attending classes, submitting marks on time and conducting yourself in a professional way.

New Beginnings and Endings

New semesters and new groups of students always present new possibilities, the opportunity to improve your teaching skills, and most importantly, the chance to encourage and motivate different students.

Had an off semester? A class of students you just didn't click with for whatever reason? Reassess, tweak some things and then you get a fresh start the next semester.

The end of each semester can also be very rewarding , from being able to finish all the marking and grade submissions, to seeing the end of a particularly repugnant course you dislike (and may be able to see change down the road because of your feedback to course coordinators), to the satisfying feeling of completing something and moving on to the next semester.

It can also be a very nostalgic time as memories return of years gone by and your own school days.

Going Mobile

This is a huge advantage that comes from being a teacher. It really hits home if you leave teaching for a while and find yourself chained to a desk for eight hours a day.

The health benefits from being on your feet and moving around for a good portion of the day while teaching can't be over-stated. Of course, you can move around as much or as little as you want in a particular class. If you feel tired, limit the time you spend on your feet. If your students are listless, move around the room and motivate them with your own energy.

Even the act of moving from one classroom to another can perk you up and keep things interesting.

Teaching a Subject You Love

I would hope that most EFL teachers like working with the English language day in and day out. For those who truly do, working as an English teacher will improve your understanding of the language and allow you to spend hours a day sharing your passion with others.

Before and after classes, you will pore through grammar books and websites searching for answers to questions that were prompted by students' questions. Or you will simply spend hours researching the language because something made you start thinking about a particular grammar point in a way that demands more insight and and a better understanding. Seriously, you will. At least I do.

For teachers who started teaching English for reasons other than a love of a the language, I don't know what to say. It must suck to some degree to find yourself doing something you don't really like.

Gobs of Free Time

Again, a point that needs to be heavily qualified. Some positions won't provide all that free time. But, if you are going to be a teacher for any length of time, you should really make an effort to secure a position that gives you months of holiday time every year. Because those positions are there, and so you might as well enjoy a benefit that is traditionally associated with being a teacher.

This is especially true if you work at a university. Two and a half to three months of free time at the end of the school year and at least one other large chunk of time off at the end of the first semester are great for recharging your batteries and visiting your home country. Of course, you probably will only have two to three weeks of actual holiday time and will be expected to be "on call" to perform any number of related duties during that free time, but still, it's a huge advantage.

Former Students

I probably have three to four thousand former students in Thailand. And I run into them all the time. It's amazing how many times I instantly recognize them and remember their names. They are usually happy to see me as well.

You had some kind of effect on a student, they remember you, they are happy to see you. It speaks for itself as a positive aspect of being a teacher.

So, there you have it: seven positive things about being an EFL teacher. No doubt, there are many other reasons. If you are thinking of becoming an English teacher, perhaps this list will give you some things to consider. If you already are a teacher, feel free to add more reasons.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Charity Shakedown: Weirdness in the Workplace

Donation jar
When the Invisible Children/Kony video went viral, it once again highlighted the fact that, when it comes to charities, helping people is just one of many aspects we consider when we decide whether or not to open our wallets.

Giving is an inherently emotional act, but it also allows us to rank ourselves against others. Being hip to an emerging phenomenon in today's media-saturated world is something else that influences us.

And of course, everyone likes to consider themselves sophisticated and immune to being scammed. Unfortunately, charities and scams go hand-in-hand.

For example, the debate continues to rage about whether street beggars in some parts of the world are controlled by the mafia.

One side says yes, and claims many beggars pull in a decent amount of money every month. The other side says; perhaps that is partly true some of the time, but it is more of an urban myth that makes it easier not to give.

Controversy often surrounds giving, even in the workplace.  

Charities in the Workplace

It is very common nowadays for companies of all sizes to align themselves with an official charity. This accomplishes a number of things. First, it fulfills people's need to give and feel generous. But it also allows a company to be seen as generous and a good corporate citizen. While the workplace and charities have had a connection for years, it has become much more pronounced in recent years.

Many charities have numerous people dedicated to creating and maintaining relationships with companies. Of course, the official charity that a company has a relationship with is not the only charity that has a presence in most workplaces. This is a good thing in many ways. After all, the result is that more money goes to more people who need it. But it also results in some interesting dynamics.

Competing Charities

A kind of competition exists for employees' charitable donations in the workplace. From the parents who send around emails asking for contributions for their sons or daughters school or sports-team related funding drive, to various individuals championing the cause that best complements the image they present to the world, it can often feel like a shakedown.

Don't give and you are highlighted as a scrooge. Don't give enough and you are seen as cheap. In extreme situations, an employee who champions a certain charity in the workplace can make it personal.

At an organization I briefly worked at, an official relationship was established with a local charity. The "privilege" of wearing casual clothes on Fridays was tied to the charity. In other words, if you wore casual clothes on a Friday, you were expected to put some money in the charity jar that was located in the kitchen.

To some people—the ones who did all the organizing and interacted with the charity—this was non-negotiable. For others, it was something that they did on occasion, sometimes dumping their loose change in the jar, and other times putting in a five or ten dollar bill when they felt generous.

I fell into the second category. While I never changed my attire for Fridays, I still liked the work that the charity was doing and donated once in a while. I was only working there on a short contract and had no other work prospects in sight, so I felt others would probably understand if they knew I wasn't coughing up every Friday.

Shamed into Giving

Then one Friday, a snarky email was sent around by one of the women who helped administer the collection of money for the charity. She questioned why donations were down. She emphasized the fact that when you wear casual clothes on Friday, you are entering into a tacit contract that means you must fulfill your end of the bargain and donate some money.

She clearly thought that she was going to browbeat everyone into giving more. But it had such an inappropriate feel to it that I am sure that it had the opposite effect. From that point on, the charity seemed all about that person.

I envisioned her talking to her contact at the charity and shamefully reporting the meager takings for the month. She probably had a list of other organizations who were also aligned with the charity and likely knew how much they were donating on a monthly basis. This is another way that charities increase donations—turn it into a kind of challenge to see who is the most generous.

Another relatively recent trend is for individuals to announce to colleagues that they are involved with a specific charity. Often, the choice of charity is related to the individual plight of a family member or friend. If the end result is more awareness and more people receiving help, who can argue? Surely not the employer when approached by the individual who wants to make the pitch in the workplace. And once one person has the green light, it is impossible to deny others the right to publicize their favourite cause.

While most people are tactful when soliciting support in the workplace, there can be some cringe-worthy exceptions. When the individual engages in an ongoing physical challenge (think: swimming a pre-determined number of miles) as part of the soliciting of donations, an email update might appear with every kilometre they run, or new milestone number of hotdogs they ram down their gullets.

I can't help but think that they are conscious of who is giving the most. Won't this ultimately affect how they interact with their colleagues in the workplace?

Here's an idea: next time you want to make a donation to a worthy cause, do some online research and find a decent charity that doesn't have a lot of overhead and doesn't pay an unacceptable percentage of their donations to salaries and other administrative costs.

Then, make an anonymous donation to that charity and tell exactly no one about your act of kindness.