This blog entry title is obviously a play on the strange 1980s pop song, “One Night in Bangkok,” written by ABBA guys and from the concept album for the musical Chess. I remember coming back from studying abroad in Salzburg, Austria, and everyone played the song that summer. Since I have never really had my finger on the pulse of the pop music world, I never really got the song at the time. But oh, in the summer of 1985, it was hot!
It was hot last week in Bangkok as well. In fact, the original title I planned to use for this blog entry was “Hot in Bangkok,” since that works on several levels, but as strange as it may seem, while my friends and family in the USA were shivering in sub-zero temps, I felt quite strange with the mid-90s temps of Bangkok. And frankly, it would be strange on several levels.
Anyway, I spent a week in Bangkok working two recruiting fairs for teachers to come to KA. We have been going to these fairs for four years in Bangkok, but they don’t yield many signed-on-the-dotted-line teachers. In fact in Year 1, we gained no teachers from Bangkok, in Year 2, we gained 1 teacher eventually from that fair, and last year, even with about a half-dozen offers made, again, we came up bupkis. I should have done a blog entry last year, “Bupkis in Bangkok”!!
So it was with somewhat less enthusiasm that I got on a plane on January 2nd in Cincinnati headed for Bangkok. Actually, the most amazing thing is that I got on a series of planes at all ending up in Bangkok. As my father and I drove to the airport on that second day of 2014, we had several inches of new-fallen snow on the ground, and a pronounced white fog around us. I am amazed that we left Cincinnati at all. We landed about an hour late in New York; however, that was late enough for me not to make it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as I had planned. Anyway, Gary and Christy and I met at our favorite pizza place in New York, Patsy’s on the Upper West Side, and we laughed and laughed and worried and worried about the storm invading New York. I got on the subway to get back to JFK—again, just as the prognostications of a major blizzard were coming true, we took off bound for Amman. I landed in Amman and had three hours to get back to campus, unpack, shower, re-pack and head back to the airport for the 10 hour flight to Bangkok. All except one suitcase—who decided to stay in New York for a few extra days—made the connections, and I landed in Bangkok with the temps in the mid-90s. Within my first hour at the hotel we had our first interview…bam! Land, Shower! Interview! The interview was with a kind, energetic, involved teacher. I liked him more than my team. Bangkok was off to a rousing start!
I guess the week is so strange in Bangkok because we rarely leave the hotel. I had a great view from my room of the river winding through town with the tour boats and bus-ferries and fancy hotels on the banks of the river. It is tropically warm with thousands of heat-seeking tourists. But we were all suited up, wound up, and interviewing/scheming/planning/reconnoitering inside all day. It’s not a prison, but it’s not a vacation either.
One of the problems is that Bangkok is not among my favorite towns, or rather, a town that I have felt I have “owned.” I visited Bangkok for the first time in 1998 when I took my first trip to Asia, visiting college chum Sharon in Singapore and Malaysia. But Bangkok is a big city, hard to navigate, get inside your head. London, Vienna, Salzburg, Boston, and New York—now these are my towns.
Perhaps another reason why Bangkok remains hard to love is that it has now become a signal for the next school year. We have just rung in the New Year, and we jet off to Bangkok to hire teachers for next August! And by hiring new teachers, we are, naturally, bidding adieu to teachers we have worked with. I am still a little new at the administration game that this doesn’t bother me a little. Saying good-bye—such a part of teaching teen-agers, and in an international school, a big part with adults that cycle in and cycle out as well.
So, let me look back at one day of the week and just explore what we did that day. I met with our school head John at the breakfast buffet at 8 (8?? What a luxury! It is usually much earlier!) and I told him of our plans to interview people that day. Now what we have learned in our fair-going years is that you want to have as many interviews as possible before the interview sign-ups begin. Now, does that make sense? The way it works—by the time of the interview sign-ups, if you haven’t met with your first choices, they will probably have already snagged a job and signed a contract. So we have learned to interview before…whatever! So we read the newspaper, looked at the schedule—we had six interviews scheduled and hopes for several more.
Our first interview was with an Asian math candidate who grew up in Canada and has taught in Korea. She interviewed well, but afterwards we didn’t hear from her, and it turns out she didn’t reply to emails. Our next interview was with a sad-sack of a curmudgeonly man who teaches English in Guatemala, and has little tolerance, it seems, for the students he teaches. He is very much into technology, but there was just little joy going on there. Next we go out for lunch—outside—and find a little dive and have great curry and pad thai with a head of a school in Saudi Arabia and we discussed professional development activities in our schools. I have met her at other job fairs and always enjoy talking with her. She and John rattle on about “head” things and I marvel at what all they have to control as the head of a school.
After lunch we have four interviews in a row. Renee is young and perky, almost too perky, in fact, but we have a great discussion about her teaching of history. She is green, however, she may be very coachable. She is our best interview discussion so far. Next we meet Melinda, a woman my age, who left everything in 2010 to teach abroad. She has taught seemingly every course in history, and worked with drama and speech groups. This is a wonderful interview about her command of pedagogy and love of history. We are interested. Then we meet with a young man who surprised me how gentle he looks given his six years in the army in Iraq. Dan is a great interview as well. He grew up in North Carolina, went to Colby in Maine, has a new baby, but the conversation is so organic and unfolding…great conversation. Our last interview of the afternoon is with a couple who teach in Kuwait. They are young, bohemian types, but strangely, the more we talk with them, the more serious they seem, the more willing to tackle all that we have on our school plate here. Another good conversation.
After the interviews I go back to spend time on the computer writing the various heads of departments, asking them to look at the files on line. I study the files as well, reading the reference letters, checking to see if I think the candidates have the grit, resilience, intelligence and compassion to make it work here. I look through the emails sent out for more interviews, send notes out to those we had spoken to, and plan second interviews the following day with three of the candidates. I write notes to about 7 candidates who don’t look like good fits. I check and re-check with John. Actually, a fairly easy day in the job fair world. I take a spin on the stairmaster in the fitness center, and then head to the recruiter social.
I noted this mostly to look back at what we do at these job fairs. I schmooze and stalk when not huddled over a computer screen reading reference letters, or interviewing. When we like someone I stalk around the main areas of the fair, “bumping” into our favorite candidates, and then schmoozing them for awhile as we talk about the school. I like the stalk and schmooze angle! It’s fun.
Over the next two days I stalk and schmooze with Dan—we probably talk for about two hours about the school, teaching. I answer his questions, he makes notes. I like him enormously. He would make a great colleague. When we finish he calls his wife back in Shanghai. We offered him a contract, and after a few more talks with us, he accepted. Whew. That was our one week in Bangkok. I think he’s a good one.
While we signed Dan, yes, we also learned about five other colleagues who had been on the fence about their return (we don’t have to sign a contract for another week or more) who decided to leave to Jordan. So we gained Dan. And we lost a few more. It’s the nature of the ex-pat life in the international school. You lose some teachers. At this time of year, in Bangkok, it also looks a little dark, even with all the Thai sun.
At the First Battle of the Marne during World War I, French lieutenant general Ferdinand Foch sent out this communiqué: “My center is giving way, my right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.” Kind of funny that even in that tough situation, Foch saw hope. His willingness to remain hopeful eventually led to victory for his troops.
Sometimes in Bangkok we can feel as if we are losing teachers right and left. However, last year at this time we hadn’t signed anyone. Last month we signed four new people, and now Dan’s name will be on a dotted line. We just have to plug away, interview away, and find a way to conclude: “Situation excellent.”
That 1980s pop song, “One Night in Bangkok,” sarcastically juxtaposes the heady night-life of Bangkok with the game of chess. In the original London production of Chess, the setting for the song is an interview in which the candidate states a preference for what he sees as an intellectual purity in chess, in stark contrast to the seedier aspects of Bangkok's night life. Hmmm…all right, we had our week in Bangkok, the chess game continues, and I will conclude, “Situation excellent.”