What makes teaching in Asia perilous?
Sometimes it’s the need to conform one’s teaching to a political philosophy, or to stay out of politics entirely despite one’s subject matter. But that hasn’t been my experience here in Thailand.
I am thinking of the way I was handled as we tried to require “English proficiency” for PhD and MA students following criticism from employers of previous graduates that they had expected our students to be more capable in using English than they had turned out to be. The administration was alarmed. So, we imposed “English proficiency” and a proficiency exam as requirements for graduation. It was my job, mainly, to develop this requirement and produce the courses and exams. Now, proficiency is a technical term in English as a Foreign Language. It is measured in levels from beginner to advanced, some 6 or 9 levels, each one taking about 200 (two hundred) hours of instruction and practice. That is too much to be suddenly added onto a degree program in some other field, such as “Advanced Nursing” or “Doctor of Hospital Administration.” Even moving students from one level to the next would be impossible. So, we first decided to simply produce a course and exam that showed that students could use English better than when they came to us. We had an entrance exam, and then an exit exam and if the student improved, great. But not all students were equally improved. We modified the course to clarify areas of competence: listening and comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing. Every time we taught the course, we tweaked it. But a couple of the PhD students who were medical doctors aiming for medical administration degrees (2 out of about 20 students) complained that the exam included questions about a reading that had not been presented in class. Even though it was in the course outline that “ability to analyze English writing to determine the meaning” was the course objective, which is not the same as “remembering what was discussed in class”, the administration became alarmed that out PhD students were unhappy. Immediately, without regard for prior approval of the course outline and description of the lessons, I was required to re-grade the exams and make sure those PhD students all passed. From then on, we had to re-write the English courses to include only material from the textbooks (not more than 2 or 3 pages, actually, from 400-page textbooks) and make sure that the exam had nothing new, no more “proficiency” but only “accomplishments” were to be measured.
This went on for two years. There was continual readjustment of the courses as they were going on, based on student feed-back. It seemed painfully unfair and organic, as if nothing could be depended on. What mattered, as it turned out, was student satisfaction much more than future employer satisfaction. Even end-of term evaluations were based on what the institution needed to show, how the overall impression about the institution would look.
Twenty years prior to that I went through another disappointing attempt to be effective and creative. I was teaching institutional management to master’s students. Up to that point, we did not have practical courses at the master’s level because the effort had been to produce effective functionaries. But I thought I had stumbled on a way to improve the instruction to produce leaders who would know not only what they were supposed to do but why things worked as they did, which would lead to discovering better ways to get things done. For example, if the course was about administration, then students ought to be familiar with literature that was available about management, and able to go into the field and examine how things were operating. So, our students scattered out and came back with new perspectives. No longer blocked by old ideas of adhering to manuals of operations, they reported that dysfunction had nothing to do with loyalty to the establishment but everything to do with clan and ethnic expectations. So, our management questions needed to be reformulated. Establishment efficiency could not be achieved and sustained without attention being paid to what actually mattered to the people who did the work and were the constituency.
I lasted only to the end of that year. Our university did not need a new way of perceiving its objective, which was to educate masters who would be leaders. Actually, that notion was so irrelevant it was not even the reason I was replaced as teacher of the practical courses in the master’s program. I was replaced because there was another man who needed a job, and teaching “the manual of operations” was what he could do. We needed him because he could attract students and because he was well known.
In thinking about this, larger principles came in sight. What always mattered was the reputation of the institution and its ability to recruit students. What did not matter was the integrity of the instruction as it pertained to course objectives and outcomes. It also did not matter that teachers were treated with disregard to their dignity or qualifications. What was important is that the institution and its leaders were always “on top of things” even though they were burdened by less competent underlings. The institution and its leaders were what mattered. The issue was institutional esteem.
I have now retired after nearly 60 years of contact with educational institutions in Thailand. In my leisure I have reflected on how things work here. There are differences in institutional culture, especially with regard to those massive government-connected institutions and private ones. But one thing that seems to be true in all of them is that the thing to be defended from challenges of any sort is the institution and its leaders. Sometimes it is not immediately apparent who is the “leader” since the one in the front office may not be the one in charge. It’s a hierarchical system built on a pyramid that gets steeper and lonelier at the top. Some leaders stay in charge by trying to micro-manage everything; hours are long and physical wear and tear are inevitable. Some leaders try to build a team to which they listen and use as surrogates or buffers, extensions of their own authority (because the country as a whole understands hierarchical administration to the exclusion of all others). Some leaders consider themselves temporary place-holders, something like the zero in mathematics; they are helping the institution through a transition, usually between what was and something quite similar to that which was.
It is not dangerous to be a teacher here in Thailand. There are no spies in the classrooms reporting any suspected deviance to political authorities, no batteries of surveillance cameras in the rooms and hallways, as in neighboring China. There are no midnight raids rounding up teachers and sending them to prison or making them disappear forever, as in neighboring Myanmar. There are no parents forming vigilante groups to police teachers, ban textbooks, and take over boards of education, as in the USA, causing teachers to resign in droves.
The parameters are culturally specific: students are to be treated properly, as students at the very bottom of the pyramid, and the institution and its leaders are to be supported and defended as necessary. All service institutions function on a similar principle. The system is to insure institutional esteem. It helps to know that.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.