Episode 30

The Accidental Emigrant with Philip Keay

Published on: 11th May, 2022

In 1991, Philip Keay accidentally emigrated to Thailand, where he accidentally became a teacher. He now devotes his life to exploring the inner and outer worlds and to inspiring others to empower themselves. His book Menu for a Spiritual Revolution, which brings together what Philip has learned over decades of life experience, was published in 2021. In this interview, Philip talks about: 

  • what brought him to Thailand and what made him stay
  • how to embrace life’s ‘accidents’ and live in the moment
  • the differences between teaching and learning; leadership and control
  • how nurturing self-control advances freedom, reinforces values and reduces fear
  • the problems with our current broken schooling model and how we can fix it

For more information about Philip’s book and his online course for home educators, go to https://linktr.ee/philipkeay or follow Philip on his Facebook page or YouTube Channel

The TED Talk mentioned in this episode is Sir Ken Robinson’s Do schools kill creativity?

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Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan

Transcript
Helen:

So hello, Philip, and thank you very much for agreeing to speak to us for our podcast AudaciousNess. As we've just been speaking about, I've been reading your book, Menu for a Spiritual Revolution, and one of the things that jumped out at me was your bio on the back, where you said that you accidentally emigrated to Thailand in 1991. So I'm curious, I'd like to begin with the first question, which is, how does one accidentally emigrate to another country? Or in particular, how did you accidentally emigrate to Thailand? Can you start us off with that?

Philip:

It's actually true that I did, but it was a nice rhetorical thing to include as well, but it's still true and I wouldn't say anything that wasn't true. I think the thing was that I wanted to go travelling to somewhere. I just wanted to travel because it's in my blood. My father worked in the aviation industry, so before mass travel was happening on planes we used to get 10% ticket prices, so I've been to a few countries. And so I went travelling, and I was going to go to China.

But at that time, it was very difficult to get a visa for more than a couple of weeks. So the next thing I knew a friend had just come back from about six months in Thailand, and he told me all his tales of beaches and mountains and food and everything. So I got the Lonely Planet book and Thailand looked perfect to me, very cheap, it was about a pound for breakfast, two pounds for your bungalow, and all this sort of thing. So I came over here and the intention was to come for about a year. I think that was the intention but by the time I came, there was less money and then it ran out quicker than you think. And I obviously had some plan in mind because at the bottom of my rucksack was a shirt, a tie and a pair of trousers. They were all crumpled but the lady at the guesthouse ironed them for me. And so basically, I went looking for a job on one day, and it was extremely hot. I was sweating and it was just horrible. And I went in and I was rejected a couple of times. It seemed that I needed a degree. So anyway, the story goes on, it's a longer story in itself, but I got a job the next day and this was great because it meant I didn't have to come home yet. And this was after three or four months and I was gonna have my tail between my legs because all the friends, ‘Well what are you doing back so soon?’ It was the middle of the winter, so it was gonna be a lot of egg on face. And I got the job. But what I didn't realise was how much I was going to enjoy teaching. And that was the thing. So what really happened was that I became a teacher just to extend my stay and I suppose 30 years later, or when I was writing the book, it felt like well, I suppose I've accidentally emigrated. Because there was no intention, it was just to come travelling.

Helen:

Was there any point in that where you thought, you said ‘I didn't want to go back with my tail between my legs’, so is that what was stopping you from going back? Or was there something that was keeping you in Thailand or was it a balance of both?

Philip:

I think it was mainly, I just didn't want to leave so quickly. I mean, it was the first time in my life where I'd taken time off. In England you're working all the time. You have your two week holiday. Suddenly I was like a beach bum and it was suiting me down to the ground. And I met all these travellers from all over the world and we were swapping travel tales. And it was intoxicating. And the Thai food and the Thai people were so friendly. The women were very beautiful. Everything was good. Nothing was bad. And I don't know if I worked this out at the time when I was travelling, or when it came later when I was working, but I realised that I'd become quite cynical in Britain from reading all the news and reading what was going on and so it was just, it wasn't ready to go back. And I think the plan was to leave for a year or so. And I think if I look back in time even further, I left Sussex and moved up to Manchester to work in the company that I was working for in London, because everything was much cheaper. I could buy a house and the plan was to buy a house, let it accumulate in value, sell it and then not buy another one and just go travelling. So travel was in my blood and the whole experience was just so good. And then of course I became an accidental teacher because this was now the job from heaven. So basically I was in the country of my heaven and I was in the job of my heaven.

Helen:

Perfect. So you started off teaching English as a foreign language in Thailand there? And what happened after that? What kept you for another 30 years in Thailand?

Philip:

Well, I was teaching without any experience or qualifications and then about a year and a half later I was going on holiday back to England. And the headteacher said to me, would I like to be the new headteacher because he was moving to another branch? And the answer was no, I just love this job, I do not want to be the headteacher. I've seen all the hassles you get. I'm just enjoying my work, I'm just teaching, it's just me and my students, who were adolescents and university students and young adults working, so it wasn't children. And so… what was your question?

Helen:

(laughing) What happened after that? How did your career develop after that?

Philip:

I always paint the context and then I forget where I was leading to.

Helen:

No worries.

Philip:

When I came back from my holiday he suddenly told me you have to study for the certificate. Because we can't have headteachers without a certificate. So I was sort of drawn into studying that, which as you'll know, is one month long. And that taught me how to teach. Now I felt like I could almost claim to be a real teacher. And then about three or four years later, I was again talked into doing my diploma. And at this time, I was beginning to want to write my book, but I took the diploma and suddenly, I knew how people learned. It's a very different distinction between me teaching and making learning happen. And that was just amazing. And then, I don't know why, I had a very well paid job with lots of holidays in Bangkok for five years at a university and then I went back to England to do my Masters in 2000. And then the plan was to go to Hong Kong or somewhere that paid a lot of money and earn big money. But when the time came, my heart was telling me to go back to Thailand. So that's what I did. And then I quickly moved up to Chiang Mai and Chiang Mai is, as anybody that's been here will always rave about it, it's a great place to live. And then a couple of years later, I got the job teaching the teachers and this was a big challenge, cognitive challenge. And I loved it. I absolutely loved it because I like the challenge. My work is brain work, unfortunately. I'd rather be a gardener. So, it was teaching the teachers and I really learned myself and I basically got to the peak of my form, if you like. But I had to write this book, it was in me. So it was another great job and then I met my wife. So about 17 years ago, she's a Chiang Mai girl, a native so she wouldn't want to live anywhere else and I don't really. So suddenly 30 years have gone, and I'm nearly an old man now.

Maribel:

Beautiful. You're such a great storyteller. I was so interested in just listening to the stories, that now I have to come up with a question and I do have a question. So in those 30 years, I picked up you used the word ‘accidental’ two times — you became accidentally a teacher and you emigrated accidentally — so do you think that you were following something in your head or your heart that was telling you to do that? How disconnected or connected were those choices to how you wanted to live your life?

Philip:

That’s a good question because I have to rely upon memory. And it's strange in life, that you know very well what's happening today, but in 20 years time, think of how many days that you've lived and how many of them are simply not in your memory bank. They're just not there. And then there's other memories that will be triggered. But so much of our life just passes us by and we don't have the memory. Whatever memory we have, that's all we have. It’s different to the actual experience that we have now. So, my mum, she didn't leave Kenya until she was an adult and got married to my dad. So she lived there. Her mom was in India for her life. And I was on an aeroplane going to Kenya when I was about six weeks old. So I think that I've been born with this travel lust, or wanderlust I think it's called. And when I left school, I couldn't wait to leave school. I didn't know what I wanted to do. My dad had a cargo airline company at the time and I think he probably wanted me to come in and take over, being the son. But I tried to keep away from a stressful world. I think I've been driven by not wanting problems and not wanting stress. And I used to see a lot of problems everywhere when I lived in England and didn't have so many myself. My problems were more of the inequity and the injustice that I could see going on in the world. But I didn't really ever have any personal problems. And that's the way I've always had my life. So I think perhaps I was born like a free spirit, I don't know, Maribel, I just know that I love travel. We've just opened up a tea shop in Northern Thailand and my wife runs that and I go there for half the week. And we had a couple of customers come and I sat down and was talking to them for over two hours and they were travellers and we were swapping our travel tales and it reminded me that when I'm travelling or when I'm teaching, I'm absolutely in the moment and I love being where I am. And you're connected with the people. And when you're swapping travel tales, you're connecting with positive people and when you're teaching, you're connecting in a positive environment because I've set up a positive environment in the classroom. So I'm in situations where it's a joy to be alive. So in terms of the accidental bit, if I'm open then that means that things will happen in my life that I hadn't planned, and I didn't really plan anything so I suppose the accidents happen because I approach life with an open mind and an open heart. And I'm not fixed to one place in the earth, and I see it as a huge planet and I love to see the planet. So it's an accidental job and an accidental new country to live in. And I've now been here longer, because I was 27 when I left England, so I've been here longer than I was in England. So yeah, I think maybe the accidental nature, which is, I like that word because you hear of people emigrating and expats and that's what they were, but I never did do that. So it feels right to call myself that, but I like those kinds of accidents where you let life come to you, I suppose. And then you react to it when something good comes along.

Maribel:

So that means you're not a controller or a planner. You… Oh, what does that mean, that smile?

Philip:

Because maybe Helen will remember reading about the control which I write about in the book. If you don't have self-control, you will spend your life trying to control other people and other people will be controlling you. So I think control cuts to the very heart of living a good human experience because it's vital. Control is coercive and I smiled also, Maribel, because in my classroom, I am seen as the leader and the hierarchical top person, but I can only make my classroom successful when I've got the students feeling they’re on the level. So, this is where I learned about good leadership. Dictators will want to control you, autocratic authority wants to control you, but leaders don't do that. They want you to flourish, and therefore they're going to listen to you and they're going to make you feel useful and valuable and valued and all that sort of thing. We all want mentors when we're young, we want heroes and we want good people to be inspired by, not necessarily to copy but we get that inspirational, external spark that can help us. Control is a big one because for me when you're trying to control other people, or you're allowing other people to control you, you don't have freedom. And I thought that humans are supposed to feel free because it feels good.

Maribel:

What is the kind of self-control that… I understood you suggest we should have self-control? Did I understand that correctly?

Philip:

I think so. Integrity. I have an acronym. I have lots of acronyms because they help you remember things, but I talk about living with integrity and to do this you live with HEART. And HEART stands for Honesty, Empathy, Awareness, Responsibility and Trust. And so you just do that. That's what you do. And it's tempting sometimes to tell a white lie, for example, even if you don't want to lie. And then there's other times I observe a lot of people in life talking badly about other people who are not there. Talking behind your back. You can't do this. So that needs self-control because you're causing harm to other people. And in my understanding that I've come to in life, if I harm you, Maribel, then I'm actually harming myself. And if I let you harm me, then you're harming yourself and I'm being harmed, because we're all relational. So for me, the self-control is necessary to live with freedom, which itself needs defining. Freedom to me is doing what you want, when you want to do it without causing harm to anybody. So if you're going to cause harm, you can't do it. So sometimes, to avoid lying, I won't say anything because I know that it's going to actually be too much for somebody to hear, for example, so just don't say it. And I've also denied myself immediate pleasures in the past because I knew that it would lead to harm for somebody else. So I think that's what I mean by the self-control, is to live with integrity, which in our world is not always easy to do.

Helen:

Do you think, Philip, if you have this self-control, it allows you to do more audacious things in life?

Philip:

I do, because that's your guide. And if you're living by that, you're living by values instead of fear. There's no room for fear when you're living with your values. So I think that if you consciously have certain values to live by, that is your one man-one woman religion, if you like. That's your 10 commandments. But they're your personal ones that you've chosen that fit you. And so yes, I think so.

Helen:

I’d like to go back to something that you said, actually when you were talking about becoming a teacher. You said that you teach, and then you said, ‘or rather, I enable learning.’ So I'd like you to say something, because Maribel and I are both former teachers as well and we know that what is taught is not always what is learned, and vice versa as well. Sometimes you might be teaching something completely different to what the learners are actually learning. I wonder if you could say something in your years of experience as a teacher and a teacher of teachers, what for you is the difference between teaching and learning?

Philip:

Teaching for me is the focus is on the stuff you're teaching and the focus is on you and the focus is on the curriculum. But when you’re enabling learning, you put the focus on the students and it's their education, and okay in a school system they didn't choose to be there, but when I began teaching, they chose to be there, they were paying their own money and spending their own time. And then I was told by my first headteacher, Thai students want two things — they want fun and they want to practise speaking. So both of those require learning to be a motivational experience. And so, if I'm focused on what I'm teaching and me and getting them to learn what I want them to learn, that's not motivational learning — that's teaching. So if you're teaching a foreign language, maybe if you study engineering, you need to learn certain facts and so on, but with a foreign language, my students, I can't control their mouth. I can't get into their ears. They have to do it. They've got to do it. So I had to focus and concentrate on, ‘How can I get them to speak and how can I get them to have fun?’ and the two come together. Because if you're sat there like in a normal school for 12 years, in rows and columns, just listening, and then you're blamed for not having attention because how can you? How can you pay attention for hours every day for 12 years? As a young kid when you're bursting to do things? And then of course, by the time we're adults, we've lost a lot of what is natural human essence and it's because all they do in the school is teach, tell and test. When you're enabling learning, you're creating a supportive emotional climate, you're making the students feel good, you're making them happy to be there. It can't be too hot, everybody's sitting in a U-shape so everybody can see everybody. And so you set the environment to be talkative, communicative, supporting. I never let cliques form, so I'll mix the students around so they work with everybody and they're happy to do that. Here's a little example: it was after my diploma, so I was buzzing with all my new abilities and skills. And I was doing a reading passage and after the reading I wanted all the students to learn about six different words from the passage, which gave the words the context, because we were then going to do an output, like a speaking activity where they could utilise the intake from the text. And one student called me over and said, ‘What does this word mean?’ And it wasn't one of the five words. Now, normally, I would say, ‘Well, we'll talk about that later but can you just do these five words? These are the important words.’ And then I'm thinking to myself, ‘Hang on, he wants to know what that word means. Why am I going to tell him no, I can't tell you?’ So that was an example of teaching the humans and not the curriculum and being alive to what's going on. That was just an example to highlight that, but learning is what it's all about, and when the students love their learning they become autonomous learners and they become lifelong learners. And I think if you become a lifelong learner, then all these accidents will happen to you and you will do audacious things.

Maribel:

You mentioned the education, like regular education that children have to go to — those fantastic 12 years where they sit and listen. What are they missing out on? What is education making kids forget? I think that children come to this world with agreeableness, love, trust, and through the years of education I feel like they lose things. From your experience and what you've seen and knowing how it could be, what do they forget or things that they came to this world with and don't learn or just lose?

Philip:

Have we got another two hours? They lose so much, Maribel. I consider it criminal. I think humanity somehow has fallen out of love with itself. And it's not to blame anybody. It's not to blame teachers or anybody but the system has developed over the years. The innate childlike curiosity and the creativity stamped out, there's no space to be creative. And if you're curious and ask questions… So the curiosity and creativity goes. They don't teach us how our body works and how our mind works. They don't teach us how to learn. There's so much involved in learning, it's not just being told. And without attention, nothing gets learned. So it's very hard to hold the attention. They don't learn self-knowledge, they don't learn learning skills. Listening skills are not taught, reading skills are not really taught, writing skills are not taught, speaking skills are not taught. You're there for 12 years. Why are they not working with each other? Why are they not building relationships and learning how to get on with each other and compromise and listen attentively and empathically and to read critically? So for example, if I do a reading text, I deliberately set questions that don't have fixed answers, so people have got to become responsible for their own ideas, and then we can have arguments and discussions and agreements and disagreements and so on. That particularly comes out nicely in multicultural classes. So, almost everything that could be wrong about schooling is wrong in my view. And it's not to blame anybody, but we need… I use task based learning, which is giving tasks throughout the educational experience. So students have got things to do, they've got speaking to do, they can move around, they need the time and space to get in touch with what their unique talents are. But the school just wants a one size fits all. So often people don't even know that they're talented in this or that. They lack confidence because there was never any speaking and never any need to think critically because all the answers were fixed and all the answers were given to you by the authority. And so, when we have a world where complying blindly with rules that harm life, this is because we had 12 years of schooling to comply. We were not given the opportunity to find out basically who we are. We were shaped into a society mould. And then of course, now when we become adults, our nurture and our nature are now antagonising each other. So we're constantly in some kind of stress, and we can't find harmony, and this is exhausting. It's tiring. And the only way out is for one adult to somehow get themselves properly educated. And that's where I'm heading now. I want to bring my teaching to the online world and help parents, because home education is now exploding. Parents don't know how to tackle it and, as usual, all the courses are telling the parents what to do, but the parents need the skills that weren't developed when they were in school. And that can be done relatively quickly. And so, it's one thing to know what the solution is, but it's very important that, if we have that solution that we spread it out, and that's my big venture now, that's my next plan. I left my beautiful job to finish the book, so I've gone from the peak of my powers to down here. But once I start teaching online, I'll be happy again. I prefer to be in the classroom, but online you can reach a lot of people.

Helen:

That was going to be my next question, Philip, how do we get out of this? And you've already started embarking on a project to try and, I guess, transform the education system and at least show people how it could be done.

Philip:

Well, in my book, the most intelligent teacher and human being of the 20th century, Krishnamurti, was always saying, and I agree from my work, that until you educate the educators, we're stuck. We will not emerge from this vicious cycle. So we have to educate the educators. But who's the educator? Now, we used to think teacher. Yes, teachers, but parents, leaders, community leaders, gurus, all kinds of people now. Anybody who works with other people and has some kind of leadership position, they are an educator. And if the educators don't know how to be healthy, and if the educators don't have learning skills, how can they really help the people they're educating? They can’t. So the only way out is for one generation to suddenly become good at educating. And the beauty with the home education is that if parents learn these skills, they won't be teaching their children so much as they'll be creating a co-learning experience because they’ll be learning themselves. Because when you become a task based learning teacher, you never stop, you're always learning yourself. And everybody loves that because you're now a human being and you're not imposing yourself and you're not trying to control them. And so everybody thrives in that kind of environment. And you see in our world today the environment is negative news non-stop. And for me it's because of the schooling. It's finally caught up with us. And perhaps the technology’s got a say in it, which is going to help, but we do need quite an urgent intervention and I think that is educating the educators.

Helen:

So do you want to say something about the project that you're working on at the moment?

Philip:

Yeah, it's a 16 hour course on 8 online sessions, 2-hour classes, and it'll be two per week so people can do it in one month. So 16 hours, there'll be homework but my homework’s always enjoyable. You wouldn’t want the dog to eat it. And they will have the recordings, which will be invaluable because one part of proper learning is reflecting. You reflect upon everything you've done… and I’ve just remembered what you said earlier on about input and intake — input is what the teacher gives and intake is what is received. So this course will teach the learning skills, the communication skills, reading, writing, listening, speaking and motivating techniques. And the thing is that when the parents or the leaders or the teachers do the course they will be with me live — it's only limited to 18 in the class so we can have a happy group. They will be exposed to everything that I do as a teacher, and those are the things that I'm modelling the actual teaching that I'm teaching. So I'm walking my talk and so the parents and the teachers, when I teach teachers, they're doing their Masters with me, not only do they get what I'm teaching, the knowledge, but they see it all in action. So they know and we have plenty of questions and so on. So, where this course is going to be really valuable is that everybody will get the recordings and they can watch those again and again and they can watch them with their children, and they will keep on learning more and more. And what the idea is, you'll get a crash course in learning skills, communication skills, and problem-solving thinking skills. There'll be a little bit of health and wellness knowledge, which is vital because if you're sick, you can't enjoy yourself. So that's the course in a nutshell. I'm hoping to get it taught throughout June, that's the plan now. So I'm about to launch it, an advert with all the education people that we work with and so on. And we'll see. I need 18 in the class, and if there's a big demand, I'll do two classes at the same time. And then the beauty is that when it's recorded, I can then do a bit of extra work and package it all up. And now it can go out, it literally could go out to thousands now, because it's a standalone course. The initial one will be live and the people who join it will be the actual students. But when you watch this, you see what you've got to do. So in this way, if enough people discover my product and they like the look of it, then it literally can reach thousands of people without me being burned out. So that's the big plan.

Helen:

So if any parents or carers are listening to this podcast and want to find out more about this, where can they find it out?

Philip:

Good question. I probably have to send you my linktree link, because that's got links to my book and my Facebook author page and educator page. But as soon as I've got the first link for the advert, then I can update it so, I don't know when you're going to put this podcast out, but what I'll do is I'll send you my linktree link. And then whenever I change any links, that will automatically… people will get it that way.

Helen:

Okay. We’ll put that in the show notes.

Philip:

Okay, great. That'd be fantastic. Because I haven't got the first link yet. I'm doing all the work on these various software things, but within about a week or so I should have it and I'll update it. So I'll send that to you.

Helen:

Okay. All right, Philip, we've got one final question to ask you, which is to do with the name of this podcast, which is AudaciousNess. And the audacious part relates to having the audacity to do the things that you do in the first place. And the ‘ness’ part relates to, it's an archaic word for a spit of land which juts out into the sea and remains standing regardless of what the elements are throwing at it. So our final question to you is, what is it that keeps you standing, that gives you the solid grounding to keep doing the audacious thing that you're doing, despite what life is throwing at you?

Philip:

Well, I don't really think of what I do as being audacious. I just think that I do what I do based on the context I had in my life. So I had a very lucky start with my mum and my dad for different reasons. But yes, I do get bad moments and bad times and a lot in the last year with all this self publishing and learning all this new stuff and so on. I was in a beautiful comfort zone in my classroom. I think nature helps me, being alive to nature helps me and learning helps me. Because if you're a lifelong learner, you're always seeking out new things. So you've got an automatic guard against getting stuck or decaying or not evolving, because you are an automatic learner. And, my mum, I used to read books galore and she encouraged me to read books, so I'm a book reader, now I’m obviously a book writer. I don’t think of it as audacious. I think if people had a similar pathway to me, they would probably do the same thing. I'm just an ordinary soul. But if people think what I'm doing is audacious, and I understand that, I think… I value life and I value nature and I value learning and I think that’s what keeps me going. And then you have bad days and when I have bad days, I know that I have to observe the badness and the bad feelings and I know that the universe will help me if I open to it and say, ‘Come on universe, sort me out. I don't like these feelings.’ And then usually the next day it's okay. And it's not easy being a human being, there's absolutely no way it's easy. But I think if you have your values and you live by your values and you get your energy from nature, and you love learning, because if you love learning you love life. And if you love life, then you won't let it get you.

Helen:

Beautiful response. Thank you so much, Phil.

Maribel:

I love it. I want to remember that, ‘Come on universe, sort me out!’ Beautiful!

Philip:

It usually does, Maribel, it usually does. Because you're sort of digging yourself into it. You don't think you are but you are, you're putting yourself in there, albeit with some nasty things that might be going on or whatever, and of course in the last couple of years we've had very testing times, all of us, but yeah, have a connection or have a relationship with the universe.

Maribel:

Beautiful. Thank you so much. I learned from just listening to you.

Helen:

Thank you so much, Phil. It's been a pleasure. Thanks for talking to us.

Philip:

Well, I’ve loved it myself. Thank you for bringing me on.

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About the Podcast

AudaciousNess
A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

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I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

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I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.