Let’s talk to a very nice lady by the name of Kathryn Webb. Kathryn is the TEFL course trainer for Samui TEFL on the island of Koh Samui. She has a degree in psychology and a wealth of experience in the field of English language learning, both as a trainer and a language school owner.
Hi Kathryn. Welcome to the ajarn hot seat. You’ve been involved in the English teaching business for a number of years but let’s take you back to your native USA first of all. Were you born into a family of teachers / academics?
Indeed I was. Both of my parents have PhDs – my father in solid-state physics and my mother in organic chemistry. My father is an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin and my mother did research at the University of Wisconsin. I think I got my passion for teaching from my father.
You majored in psychology so I’m guessing that teaching / training / running a language school was not something you originally wanted to do?
I did graduate in psychology, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but then went on to do my MBA. After having finished half of it, I decided to move to Italy for a year. I signed up to do a year’s course in Art and Design. While I was doing that, a friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in teaching English at the school that she was attending. I told her that I knew nothing about teaching English.
She convinced me to go and talk to the owner of the language school anyway, which I did. I was offered the job despite my lack of qualifications or experience. I soon realized that I loved teaching but also knew that if I were going to do it, I owed it to my students to do it right so I got qualified. One thing (or should I say year) led to another, and before I knew it 20 years had passed!
But your psychology background must come in very handy when it comes to EFL classroom management?
I do think that my education in psychology comes in handy in EFL. I think so many of us have been turned off from a subject or sport that we may have initially really been keen on by a teacher that we didn’t like – a teacher who was unable to motivate us or engage us – to show us that learning can be fun.
I think we all know of the swimming instructor thinking he or she is going to get results by throwing the frightened child into the deep end. I, as yet, have not met someone with whom that has worked. I think it is really important to recognize the various learning styles our students may have and cater to their needs.
I also try to stress with my trainees that our students can see through us so never give the students an activity without a purpose otherwise it is purely an exercise, something none of us enjoys hence something we rarely learn from.
Had you been to Europe before you ended up in Italy?
I had never been to Europe before and my parents had spoken so fondly of their trips there that I wanted a taste of it while I still could.
Do you get back to the USA much? What do you miss about home (if we can still call it ‘home’ after so many years away)?
I have been going back to the States for a couple of months each summer since moving away. Certainly what I miss most about the States is my family and a few dear friends. My father, brothers, nieces and nephew are there, albeit spread out from Colorado to New York but it is very important to me to spend time with them each year.
I have an eleven-year-old daughter who has been to amazing places like London, Rome, Venice, and New York, but her favorite thing to do is the family camping trip each summer in the Rocky Mountains. I must say I also miss the different seasons, the incredible autumn colors and even the meters of snow!
So let’s get back to Italy. Where was the language school that you opened?
I opened a language school in Reggio Emilia, the area where the famous Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar are from, and home to the headquarters of the fashion house Max Mara, as well as the renowned Ferrari, where I was living with my family.
I had been director of studies in a nearby town and had commuted (2-hour train ride each way) to Milan to teach at the British Council for a year before having my daughter. I wanted to open a quality school that was focused on the learner and the teachers and not just a business.
I see from your profile that a major part of that language school business was providing corporate training for some of Italy’s biggest fashion houses. That must have been interesting. Tell us about that.
Teaching at Max Mara was fantastic. It was a great environment – the people who work there are very committed, fun, creative, hard working people. It was funny because you could see how the teachers who were going there to teach gradually changed their fashion sense. No more bulky red jumpers with lime green trousers – just black, black and more black!
I often have female teachers contact me and ask how they should ideally dress in a Thai classroom. OK, I’m probably the last person on earth to give out that kind of advice but being as I have a ‘fashionista’ in the hot seat, I’ll ask you the question instead?
Well, Thais place a strong emphasis on looking smart, and while covering shoulders and knees, and hiding cleavage is important, it’s just not enough. Your best investment is a tailored pencil or A-line skirt just on the knee that can be worn with a selection of smart blouses (if your school doesn’t provide a shirt). The schools prefer this any day rather than a long flowing skirt.
Also, save the flip-flops for the beach, and invest in a comfortable pair of closed modest shoes that you can wear with any of your outfits (even though you may have to leave your shoes at the door). Make sure your hair is neat at all times, wearing it up is easiest in the heat.
And now you’re training teachers on Koh Samui. So what happened to the Italian love affair?
My husband and I decided that we wanted our daughter to continue her education in an international context, as well as experience different cultures. Living in Thailand offers this, and attending the International School of Samui means that she meets children from 35 different countries.
She is fluent in English and Italian, but is now also learning Thai, Mandarin and Spanish. I also had the fantastic opportunity to join Rosanne at Samui TEFL, and we had the same ideas on how a TEFL school should be run, with an emphasis on personal attention, which is why we keep our class sizes small.
When Rosanne made me the offer to join her more than a year ago, I discussed it with my husband and we decided that we were ready for a change, and that there seemed no better place than a tropical island to make this change.
Your business partner tells me that you’re one of those teachers who loves to have fun in the classroom. Do you think there’s too much emphasis put on this whole ‘edutainment’ idea purely because we’re teaching in Thailand and Thais love to have fun? It does tend to be a very divisive issue among teachers here doesn’t it?
I do like to have fun in the classroom and I like my learners to have fun. I think we all enjoy having fun, not just the Thais, and will participate more willingly and enthusiastically if we are having fun-learning without even realizing it-than if we are bored to tears.
However, it’s important to realize that while the fun aspect will grab and hold their attention, the lesson and activities still need to have a purpose and a goal – it’s not just about entertaining the children.
Another question I often get from inexperienced teachers coming to teach in Thailand is “do I need to take a TEFL course?” I’m not going to ask you if that’s a yes or no answer but do you think there are people who are ‘natural teachers’ and just seem to instinctively know what to do in the classroom?
AI do think that there are people who are ‘naturals’ as you say – they have a certain classroom presence, flair, passion and compassion, and perhaps instinctively know how to engage people.
However, without some basic knowledge of the subject matter, teaching techniques and philosophy, I don’t think you will achieve the desired results from your learners – you will be well liked, but not necessarily effective.
What do you enjoy most about being a teacher trainer on Koh Samui?
Well, just like I think that doing a TEFL course in a beautiful setting is a draw card, so is training here. Where else can you host your welcome lunch two minutes from your training center on a spectacular beach, enjoying delicious food and fresh coconuts!
Also, I love the people – young learners who we have the incredible opportunity to do our teaching practices with. The Thai people in general are so kind and the children are incredibly sweet, receptive and respectful. The adult learners are equally kind and receptive and as you have said, do like to have fun!
And what do you like least or what do you find to be the toughest challenge in teaching a four-week program?
Well, I guess just having so much I want to share with and teach the trainees and not enough time to do it all. I also recognize that they have chosen to come to Koh Samui rather than a dreary, polluted city somewhere to do their course, so I try to plan things so they have some time to enjoy the island and all of the wonderful things it has to offer whilst here.
Ah, you mean the dreary, polluted city that I live in? As we know, the average teacher salary in Thailand is around 30-35K a month. Just out of interest, how would that compare to what a TEFLer could earn in Italy?
It depends on where you are working. At a private language school you would likely be paid around 1,000 baht per hour gross (more if you were doing private tutoring) but then the taxes there are exorbitant!
Finally, the very mention of Italy has got me thinking back to my own TEFL course in the UK. I did most of my teaching practice in front of groups of young, rowdy, excitable Italians. But they were good fun. Italian kids seem to love studying English abroad don’t they? Is it to gain new experiences or just to get away from their parents for a few months?
AItalians do love to have fun. They are very sociable, fun-loving people and Italian parents DO love sending their children abroad to study English.
Unfortunately most of them send them away with an organization that takes many children even from the same class so the children end up speaking more Italian that English whilst on their study abroad.
The children have a grand time but I am not sure if it is what their parents had in mind when they paid the thousands of euros to send their children away to improve their English.
Thank you Kathryn for your time.
APhil, thank you for your time, it was lovely chatting with you.
I just want to add that our trainees find your website most informative and helpful, and that the content is honest and true, not only painting a pretty picture, but also advising on the pitfalls of teaching English in Thailand.
During our lesson on compiling their CVs, we also assist them in loading their information onto ajarn.com and show them where to look for jobs, as it is most certainly the most up-to-date website for the Thailand teaching job market.