By Peter C. Meltzer
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is “How and why did you start Super English?” Here is the answer:
I first visited Thailand in the summer of 1999. I had gone to visit my uncle, who was working in Hong Kong at the time, and he and I took a quick weekend trip to Bangkok. Even though I don’t really like big cities, I immediately felt right at home. I clearly remember the taxi ride from the airport into town, driving at breakneck speed while my uncle talked about Thai culture. “Thai people are much more relaxed about things than westerners,” he explained. “Thais like to try things out. Maybe mix a bit of purple with some orange, add a spot of pink, and see what it looks like? Looks bad? Oh well, never mind. Looks good? Great!” It’s a basic approach I have tried to carry over to Super English.
The rest of the weekend in Bangkok only cemented my initial response to Thailand. The food, the weather, the people, the scenery, the prices, everything felt very comfortable. The pad thai I had by the side of the main river in Bangkok still stands out in my mind as the best pad thai I have ever had, and there is some wicked good pad thai in Surat. I left Thailand with a sense of knowing where I belonged.
I graduated a semester early from the University of Virginia and spent those six months volunteer teaching for the International Rescue Committee. I taught a family of Bosnian refugees. I worked primarily with the mother and father in the family, while another teacher worked with the teenage sons. We sometimes combined the groups and did a joint lesson. It was a truly educational experience. The IRC doesn’t have a lot of (or any) resources so there was no training, minimal orientation, and no support. They handed me a binder with about 150 random pages and the address of the family. I would go to this family’s sparsely furnished apartment once or twice per week and sit at the kitchen table with mom and dad, who could speak almost no English. No whiteboards, no photocopies, no get-up-and- run-around activities. I used whatever useful pages I could find in the binder provided and improvised the rest. I learned a lot about teaching. I also learned that teaching was something I was reasonably good at. I already knew what I wasn’t good at (calculus, micro-economics, almost all sciences, etc.) so it felt good to discover a fun, rewarding skill that could also help others.
I had also done a fair amount of coaching during my time at UVA. I worked as the assistant track and field coach at Western Albemarle High School, which sits about 20 miles outside Charlottesville, VA. This was also an activity I found fun and rewarding. I had some success in coaching and enjoyed working with kids.
I decided to combine my various skills and teach ESL abroad. My first choice was, of course, Thailand. However, it was very hard to find any position outside of Bangkok at the time. After a long search, and almost ending up in Japan, I found one position available at a language school in Surat. I applied for it, never heard back, then tried again, and got hired. I arrived in Thailand on July 27th, 2001. The position started out great. I loved it. The paperwork was somewhat reasonable, the classes were somewhat fluid, but the kids were sensational. I loved every minute with those kids. They were fun, creative, intelligent, affectionate, compassionate and motivated. I was able to see almost daily how I was improving their English. I threw myself into their education with great enthusiasm and energy. When I wasn’t actually teaching, I was thinking about teaching. What types of fun, interactive activities could I do with the kids to help their English improve? What was the next step in their English language development? How could I make the lessons challenging, rewarding and productive? I thought about the students’ likes and dislikes and incorporated them into presenting lessons, dialogues, games, etc. It was a great time.
The town of Surat also really welcomed me, as it does so many teachers. The people were so warm and friendly. There were always invitations and activities. Thanks to their efforts, I felt very much at home. I studied muay thai at one of the local gyms and the owner, Ajarn Somboon Tapina, has become like a family member.
After about seven months on the job, things started to take a turn for the worse. The paperwork began getting out of hand. They originally required some, but now they seemed to be adding new things every other week. The school wanted typed student evaluations (at least one page per student), typed class procedures (a 10+ page document updated monthly), typed lesson plans (one entire week submitted in advance), typed students profiles (at least one page typed per student and updated monthly), plus an enormous amount of additional paperwork required for an off-site class at a government school. Over the last few months of my contract I was spending substantially more time in front of the computer than in the classroom (I was teaching 24 hours per week). I felt completely burnt out. When I got in front of the kids, I wasn’t thinking about the class. I was thinking about how I would be at the school until 9:30 pm typing. It wasn’t fun. I felt stifled, both intellectually and creatively. A few months before my contract was up I let the school know that I planned on leaving when my one year commitment was through. I stayed until the end of my contract, finished strong, and knew I needed a break from teaching.
I moved to Phuket and worked with hotels. I worked as a consultant, primarily assisting Thai hotel management in marketing and customer relations. I also worked hands-on with the various departments in improving customer service and guest relations. Eventually, one hotel hired me as their in-house marketing manager. I was the only foreigner. It was a very educational experience. I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that all the managers would meet every morning. The meeting would last 2-3 hours. Every morning. Each day the managers would debate the decisions they had made the previous day and then change their minds from those earlier decisions. Even worse (or perhaps better), the decisions they made in these lengthy meetings had pretty much no effect on how the hotel was run because once the managers left the meeting those decisions weren’t discussed or promulgated amongst the general staff. So a few hours every morning were simply burned away. I lasted six months before I couldn’t take it any more. The straw that broke the camels back was when I prepared a meticulous (they wanted exact height measurements of beds and things like that) 30 page report for an online reservation system called VIP and the hotel management came back and complained that I had to redo the entire report. Why? Because the commission rate they had given me was incorrect and their “other marketing manager”, who resided in Bangkok and rarely had any communication with the hotel, had already independently offered a different commission rate to VIP. Moreover, they said the mistake was my fault. Brilliant.
After my foray into working directly for Thai people, I went back to teaching. I hopped around various language schools in Phuket as a part-time or substitute teacher. I worked with three or four different schools over the span of a year. I saw how they operated, how they treated their teachers, how they set up their educational programs, and more. It was uniformly unimpressive. There was no commitment to the teachers because there was such a high turnover. But one could also argue that there was a high turnover because there was no commitment to the teachers. Apparently, this never occurred to the schools. The lack of commitment was apparent on all fronts. The schools were very hesitant to provide any visas, resources, support or assistance. They simply assigned you a class, usually at a Thai school and you showed up. Once again, I learned a lot about teaching. Before going into one second grade class, they handed me a paper with the lyrics to “row row row your boat” on it. I asked them if this was supposed to be the lesson. They just shrugged. I showed up at the Thai school and was escorted by a Thai teacher into the storage room, which was a long, rectangular shape. The back half was stacked with chairs, drums, outfits, tables, etc. The front half was moderately clear and had a small, A4 size whiteboard on rollers. There were no chairs or desks set up for the students. They wouldn’t have fit in the room anyway. I was somewhat perplexed and was about to ask the Thai teacher what was going on when 55 eight year olds came storming in and sat down in two long lines down the length of the room. The Thai teacher smiled and left without another word. I looked at the sheet of lyrics in my hand as the kids were jabbering away in Thai. I tapped the board a few times to get their attention and said, “Hello!” They immediately burst into laughter. I folded up the song lyrics and did my own teaching. How did I teach 55 eight year olds for a full hour with no book, no resources, and no clue as to what their English ability already was? Without them destroying the room? I’ll tell you when you get here.
I could go on and on about many similar teaching experiences such as the one described above. Suffice to say that the lack of commitment from the schools towards teachers was, in my opinion, translating into a lack of commitment from the teachers towards the students, which isn’t really surprising. How is a teacher supposed to do their job without any direction, guidance, advice or support from those in charge? It can’t really be done, at least not with any continuity.
After 1.5 years I realized that Phuket was a great place to visit but definitely not a great place to live and work. I had learned a lot but hadn’t achieved much personally or professionally. Surat was where I still felt most comfortable and knew I could make the most difference. So in May, 2004, my wife and I decided to move back to Surat, which is her hometown.
I started looking at the other language schools in town and what they were offering. At the time, there were three major language schools in town and smaller ones were opening and closing sporadically. The final impetus to open Super English came from two main realizations: 1) The larger schools were good schools, but to me they seemed stagnant, both in terms of academic development for the students and the type of professional development they were offering teachers. In other words, none of them were trying to be the best they could possibly be. 2) Some of the newer, smaller schools were opening for all the wrong reasons and were, in my opinion, doing more harm than good.
I wanted to create a school that tried to be the very best it could be. Not the biggest, just the best. Whether we achieved the goal of maximizing our potential or not was secondary. The main thing was at least to strive for it. I truly felt that the students, Surat Thani, and the teachers who come all the way over here, deserved a school like that. In my, and many others opinion, this is really one of the very best places in Thailand. I felt like the town had done so much for me during my first year that this was a way I could try to show some reciprocity. I also believed that if you let teachers teach with as few impediments as possible that they will achieve much better results.
I took everything I have learned, seen, experienced and thought about and rolled it into Super English. I actually often did the opposite of what I had seen and experienced. Instead of checking teachers through six tons of weekly paperwork, I tried to completely do away with it. Instead of promoting solely based on seniority, I promote based on ability. Instead of either giving a teacher no materials at all or very strictly regulating what page has to be taught in class on which day, I tried to find a middle ground that allowed the teacher as much creative autonomy as possible. Instead of shooting down every idea anyone had, I tried them whenever possible. Instead of thinking of management/administration as a controlling body, I thought of it as a supportive entity. Instead of calling everyone in for lengthy, weekly meetings, SE generally has just one meeting at the beginning of each semester. Instead of requiring office hours, we give teachers the freedom and flexibility to think about their classes whenever they choose.
I believe that over the past six years we have achieved great success. I am proud of what Super English is. As far as I know, we are the only language school that:
- offers a unique, multi-structured support system for teachers
- has students that study for free based on financial need –
- allows teachers to choose what to teach – requires no office hours
- hasn’t raised the price of classes in over three years (we are the least expensive language school by more than 30%)
- consistently tries out new ideas and approaches to educating the students
- offers teachers additional money making opportunities, such as writing online articles, taking photos, or recording audio files
- has monthly out-of-class contests for the students to help them improve their English
- has monthly cultural events, such as a muay thai lesson, a Thai cooking lessons, a beach party, a riverboat trip, and more
As much as possible, we are a school built by teachers and for teachers. Whatever minimal paperwork we do ask for is either required by the Thai schools we work with or the Thai government.
As far as I can tell, our teachers enjoy their work immensely and feel that they are really helping the students. Our teachers operate relatively independently and, I believe, as a result the students learn faster, better and have more fun doing it.
Our aim is to live up to our slogan, “The Best School for Teachers and Students.” While we may or may not have achieved that goal, we will continue to strive for it. And if we are someday recognized as the best then we will still continue to strive to provide the best possible education for our students and the best possible work experience for our teachers. Without either of those two, there would be no Super English.