This interview was conducted by email over the last week or so, with me submitting the main outline and then asking a few follow up questions when the main answers came back. My questions are in bold, and the follow up questions and answers are in italics.
1. A brief history of your career
This was covered in a recent interview in the BKK Post but here it is again:
I began life in a completely different field—selling industrial equipment and negotiating Joint Ventures in China. When the company I worked for had a problem with our customer in China, I was sent to Hong Kong to resolve it.
When the company went under, I was somewhat abandoned in Hong Kong.
The job market back home was not that good (and my field was very specialized) so I thought I would look for a job in Hong Kong. A friend suggested I teach English to earn some money to pay the rent.
Before long I was teaching full time and loving it! I then started opening small schools around Hong Kong. But after several years I was burned out. Married by then with a small child, we decided to move to Thailand. Soon afterwards I decided to pen up a TESOL course. The main purpose was to find and train qualified teachers for the schools in Hong Kong! But after some initial success I decided to expand.
2. A brief history of TEFL International, the secret of its success and the principles behind it
Started out as a Trinity course. After some differences of opinion with the CE of Trinity at the time, we became independent on 1 Jan 2000. As a small, newly independent school, I decided that the only way we could credibly tell our students that our course was internationally recognized was to be truly international. Thus, the rapid expansion.
3. A list of some of the things that TEFL International does now
· TESOL Courses
· Volunteer Programs
· Guaranteed Jobs programs
· Teacher Training for local teachers (usually through the Thai Ministry of Education)
· Teach/learn language programs
· Teach/Intern programs
4. Can you give some details of TI’s charity/non-profit status and structure
First of all, we do not need to be a non-profit. We could avoid all taxes by moving our base to some offshore tax shelter. And it’s not like I enjoy having all of our accounts (including my salary) available to the public. But we work with universities and universities feel better working with a non profit than a for profit. Plus, we do a lot of things that non profits do like real volunteer work and assistance for the less fortunate.
I do not know a lot about US tax laws (which are extremely complex). But every year we have to hire a special accountant to do our taxes and submit them to the IRS to ensure we continue to meet US non-profit status.
Does that mean that each part of TI is a charity or part of the same charity, or that some parts are profit making enterprises and only the “parent” and therefore the fees they pay to it are under non-profit rules (the latter is how International House , for instance, works)?
The centers that are independently owned (like Phuket) are not non profits and we note that on the bottom of each site page of our website (www.teflintl.com)
Do you think some people who hear you do volunteer programs and that you are non-profit might be surprised that you are not a purely charitable organization like Save the Children?
Some people may be surprised. But we do mention the difference on the website and I think most people see the difference in what we do—providing a product vs “pure” charity work.
5. TI’s partners- agents, franchises? etc.
We have two major agents that recruit a majority of our students; ITTC and TEFL Course International. Along with our internal recruiting that accounts for 95 percent of our students. We also have a few smaller agents out there that contribute a handful of students per month.
Partners? We have a lot. How do you define a partner?
Franchises: We have never “sold” a franchise. The closest we have ever come to that is allowing schools to join as partners. We have allowed some schools to join us if they are looking for an international organization and are willing to follow our rules. Anyway, all income goes through our US account—not sure why there is this thing about franchises and the non profit. Cambridge ESOL, who administers the CELTA, is also a non profit and they are ALL franchises!
If it’s any consolation, the British Council and International House get just as much stick for being non-profit organizations that have parts of their work that look like and/ or compete with private companies.
Can you see how some people might see a non-profit having agents as strange? (I’m guessing Oxfam and the UNHCR don’t work through agents, although with the heavy sell charity guys with clipboards in London I could be wrong…)
The fact is we get no grant money and no government subsidies. If we sat around waiting for money to drop down from heaven we would have been out of business long ago. So we must act as a profit-making company that simply does not earn a profit.
6. Your own position and day to day duties in TI
My only job is to look for the future. The day-to-day takes care of itself with Dave on the Academic side of things and our admin team taking care of the rest. My job is to find things that keep us different and always changing.
7. Any other organizations, businesses or people you personally have a role in or close relationship with, and any connections to TI
I still own 50 percent of my old schools in Hong Kong but I have no real responsibilities there.
I am working on running a car restoration business (more for fun than anything else) but it is going slowly…
8. Same two questions as above for who you would define as the other two top people in TI and/ or who you would define as the top people in a couple of countries
Dave Hopkins is our Academic Director.
Mike Fitzgerald wears a number of hats but one of them is ensuring that all schools comply with validation rules.
Fritzie Doronio is head of admin and handles the day-to-day communications—both internal and external.
My wife, Siriluck, who handles all the legalities of working in Thailand. The REASON why we are one of the only three courses in Thailand approved to run the course by the MOE.
Of course, every center has a Lead Trainer and Course Administrator.
It might be just being in Japan that makes me ask this, but what I’m trying to get at is- Are there any companies that TI pays money to that are owned by people who also work for TI, e.g. is anyone a landlord of a property that TI pays rent to?
US law prohibits me from being a subcontractor and “benefitting” from the non profit. Is that what you are getting at?
It was, and you have answered the question very clearly, thanks.
9. TI and the Internet
-How you use it
Mostly to advertise. The internet was and remains the key to our success. We began just as it became THE method of finding work as a teacher.
-How your critics use it
In my opinion, the few (and it really is FEW) unhappy campers out there use it to do anything, ethically or unethically, to destroy our credibility.
-Whether and how both could be improved
I have always said to our critics, if we are not being fair and accurate in our advertising, bring up the specifics and we can change it. The only thing that has ever really come from that offer is our policy of posting “course + guaranteed job” programs in the Jobs Available section of some major websites. A few people think this is unethical. We disagree.
How the internet could be improved? Webmasters, Bloggers, do not allow unsubstantiated rumor and outright lies to be posted on your site. Even if you admit it is unsubstantiated, the next site will quote yours as “evidence” that the claims are true. Pretty soon someone will say they must be true because they read the same thing on 5 different sites. That is simply unfair, especially when the claims are personal in nature. Do you really need hits that badly?
I don’t think many people do it just for hits. I think they feel powerless and are not in the position to be able to spend the time and money that journalistic standards of proof would demand- hardly surprising when the Guardian never does investigative reporting on TEFL and the EL Gazette is absolutely swamped with potential stories.
The position with TEFL International and several other organizations at the moment is that if you do a simple Google search very few if any of the hits will bring up sites where there is an independent point of view, whereas if you did the same with the name of a hotel or electronic product only one or two results would be directly connected to the hotel company or manufacturer. Don’t you think that is a slightly unhealthy position to be in that perhaps explains some of the hysterical reactions and “no smoke without fire” beliefs?
I can’t speak for the industry as a whole. All I know is we attempt to be very transparent in the way we operate. We are members in good standing with the Better Business Bureau with a link to their site right on our website. If you contact them they will tell you we have had nine complaints in our entire history and all of them have been successfully resolved. We even have all of our end-of-course feedback online, unedited. As far as I know, we were the first and remain the only course that does this..
-Your take on the TEFLWatch story
TEFLWatch was a flawed idea from the beginning. Their concept was that the teacher was always right and, therefore, the schools were always wrong. How can a site like that have any credibility? There must be situations where the school is right and the teacher wrong, even if it is just 1 in 50.
But, for me, my involvement with TEFLWatch began when I shouldn’t have gotten involved in a business deal with a person that I now believe cheated me in many ways. When the whole thing fell apart, this person and his associates used TEFLWatch as a weapon against me. For nearly a year, a small group of individuals, none of whom were actually our course graduates, used multiple usernames to attack me, the company, our courses, and even my family.
There were a few legitimate complaints aired. But the legitimate complaints could be counted on one hand, and our staff had done their best to resolve these complaints while still meeting our international and professional standards. The rest were over 100 pages of baseless, unsubstantiated attacks.
Just when I thought the misinformation and attacks were bad, they took a turn for the worse. The owner and chief moderator of the website made wild and personally damaging accusations. He claimed that I got him fired from his job and that he fled the country in fear. This was so over the top I was stunned. I had no idea who he was, where he lived or where he worked but suddenly I was being publicly accused of getting the guy fired. And people posting on the website seemed to believe him.
I was just getting to the point where I felt like something had to be done when everything about TEFL International disappeared from the site. Conspiracy theories were everywhere. But according to the owner, he said he had been holding me to a higher standard than anyone could possibly attain and realized that the dispute was a commercial one, not one involving teachers and lack of pay.
I think a site like TEFLWatch is great but I think it needs to be fair and well moderated—a way of resolving disputes not just airing (sometimes baseless) accusations would be a vast improvement. Mike FitzGerald mentioned one of his trainees in China recently used a site called ESLjudge, which took the teacher complaint to the school for a response, and then submitted it to three impartial legal arbitrators. I think a site like that has more credibility and helps teachers better than unsubstantiated angry personal attacks disguised as public truth on something like TEFLWatch.
11. TI and other teacher training organisations and qualifications
- How they compare, e.g. In syllabus, being checked by outside bodies, attitudes to changes in teaching theory, practicality, qualifications of trainers, being accepted by schools
We were a Trinity course and retain the same basic course outline, although we have added to it as our Academic Director has been training teachers for over 35 years on five continents. Our course moderation is better though. We realized our clients had to pay more by flying UK moderators across the planet every month. So we set up a qualifying process that does an even better job at quality course control. Things like posting feedback publicly, or having experienced moderators that know a location’s region. As you may know, teaching 70 primary kids in kindergarten is different from working on an English camp in Spain. TI’s regional moderators know this.
Good trainers are hard to find, but we stipulate that TEFL Int’l trainers have over five years in the industry and post-certificate qualifications. Although school acceptance could be easier, because most schools just assume that any good certificate must be Trinity or CELTA. However, since we now train more teachers annually than Trinity and have been in the business for over a decade on almost every continent, our certificates are very internationally-recognized. We have people in the company that are hired only to maintain the standards of our certificates and communicate with schools for our grads.
I would say we are even better than Trinity and CELTA in many ways. For example, our PELT courses allow working teachers to get qualified to the same standards with one week on-site training and using their existing teaching to meet all our criteria. This is something CELTA and Trinity don’t do and yet there are many teachers that can’t give up a whole month. Our Special Asian programs allow four-month practicum teaching which gives even more hands-on and observed teaching. The only criteria we don’t have that the other two have, is our Board of Academic Advisors doesn’t meet on a regular basis. But you can well understand the logistical difficulties with 25 global locations having a regional moderator visiting in week four, and the differences in time zones and course timetables. But we have a BOAA coordinator that updates moderators on anything important.
Obviously CELTA is the big name out there but I think our expansion has allowed us to become widely known, given our grads fair opportunity to get jobs around the world, and take the teacher training industry to new innovations that are definite improvements.
-Others you would recommend, e.g. ones you accept when employing teachers
I think ANY training is better than no training and ANY course that has 120 hours + 6 hours of Observed Teaching Practice is a legitimate TESOL certificate course. Some are obviously better than others, though. Keep in mind we don’t often hire teachers. We are a teacher training institute, not language schools like EF English First or International House. We do help place teachers though, and I’d have to say I’d recommend our certificates.
-Ones you wouldn’t
Some online courses and courses without observed teaching practice. However, we have developed an on-line course that allows on-site observed teaching practice.
- The future for the TEFLCert industry, e.g. the chances of exam boards working together to set and ensure standards
If you talk to CELTA / Trinity, you’ll find they have dominated the industry and set the standards for the last 40 years, and feel they should continue to be at the helm. No one agrees more than I that the industry needs a framework to abide by. Our mission is to “help the world communicate better”, which requires good teachers and solid standards. But what makes me angry is when everyone questions improvements to the industry because they think only two organizations should be able to make the rules and framework. That’s not how the future of other industries work, or learning in general, right?
- Online training
Valuable to a point. But do you start driving after reading the drivers manual? Learning via internet is growing in popularity. But teacher training is still that – physical training. So any good on-line course will provide consistent and experienced guidance throughout, and yet allow the trainee to get hands-on practice. TI realizes this importance and so created www.bestteflcourse.com to provide this type of on-line training.
- Who would suit working and/ or living in Thailand
Someone who can literally say “sabai sabai” and not get stressed out by the sometimes arbitrary way things work here. Our head office and first course is in Thailand, so we have over a decade of the infrastructure needed to help someone learn the Thai way of being relaxed. We help lots of trainees that come here with a more western attitude to adapt to the stress of living in a different culture. That’s one reason we have such an excellent relationship with the MOE and have been able to expand to north and south Thailand.
- The difficulties of doing business in Thailand
The bureaucracy and the “long timers” who tend to be the biggest wingers you have ever met in your life! (see ajarn.com discussion forum!). I mean really, if you hate it so much, why have you been here 10 years?
- The advantages and disadvantages of being an organisation with a recognizable face
When I started TEFL International I never thought I would become so well known. I suppose one positive is that people know who ultimately can make a decision. Another positive is all the good you can do with a recognizable face in education. One reason I feel I am a very well-rounded person is because I left the States and lived abroad. This taught me a lot about tolerance, charity and integrity. I’ve seen these traits develop again and again with my staff and my clients. When TI became so big, I didn’t continue to pursue expansion for monetary gain, but because I knew I was making a difference in so many people’s lives: Americans that may not get another chance to see other communities, or children that could use more native speakers. In reality, it is this charitable outlook that drives me, not monopolizing an industry like many of the bloggers out there make me out to be.
The negatives are all the personal attacks—not only on myself but on my family and staff . Being called names, and having people I don’t know assume these names have facts behind them because “it’s on the internet”.
- Some examples of times you have had legitimate complaints or criticism and have made changes
It happens all the time. We read the end-of-course feedback. If a trainer or location is getting more than a bit of negative feedback they are told and asked to improve. In fact, because the center also sees the feedback, they don’t have to be told to make changes, but rather can see in what area they are weak. For example, we saw a few complaints regarding our course location in France last year. Mauzac, the location, was an absolutely beautiful and peaceful region which we advertised as a rural experience. Some trainees loved the location (mainly older grads), but we noticed in the on-line feedback that many found a lack of nightlife available. So, we moved the location a few months ago. Of course, when you make big changes like that internet posters will assume there must be something very wrong with your courses. Nonsense, it’s quality improvements based on client feedback. We only get better thanks to our clients. Generally the feedback is quite good. You can see it at: LINK BROKEN
We also give refunds and discounts if we screw up. Two examples would be France where we had to give discounts to an entire course when the trainer was behaving inappropriately. Some people wanted full refunds and airfare reimbursement. I responded that I would have considered a full refund if they had walked out on the course half way through. But they took the full course and got their certs so we gave them $300 discount, and most were happy with that. Of course, we immediately fired the trainer too.
A second example was one of the few legitimate complaints that came up on TEFLWatch. A couple arrived in France and had a bad experience. The normal meeting point (an internet café) was closed and the taxi driver got lost. When they finally arrived they could not get any food. Jet lagged, frustrated and unhappy, they decided to leave the course. The rest of the people stayed and they had a good experience, but I decided that, under the circumstances, we would offer this couple a refund of their fees. And they still complained.
Many thanks for Bruce for taking the time to answer his critics- if it had been me I would’ve just let them get on with it! I’ll give you one week to comment, and then will make a final decision on whether to take Bruce off the TEFLtastic Blacklist of Shame Guardian Watch 3.
Links to later interviews covering points raised in the comments section etc:
And click on the TEFL International category below for numerous other posts on TI.