Notes from the TEFL Graveyard

Wistful reflections, petty glories.

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Location: The House of Usher, Brazil

I'm a flailing TEFL teacher who entered the profession over a decade ago to kill some time whilst I tried to find out what I really wanted to do. I like trying to write comedy (I once got to the semi-finals of a BBC Talent competition, ironically writing a sitcom based on TEFL), whilst trying to conquer genetically inherited procrastination... I am now based in Brazil, where I live with my wife and two chins.

Sunday, 29 July 2007


Experience has shown me that TEFL is populated by a rich patchwork of humanity, from driven, career-seeking go-getters to odd misfits who seem happy to let normal life go on around them. An ex-colleague of mine had a running joke with his students that we were all taking part in a vast hoax, teachers were pretending they were teaching and students were feigning being students, but, unbeknownst to us all, we were in fact inmates in some form of mental institution. It was a popular joke at which most people laughed, some rather more uncomfortably than others.

Looking back now, the warning signs were there on my month-long TEFL Certificate course in B, where in a rainy November I spent four weeks in the company of as big a cross-section of mental health as can be imagined. As with everything TEFL, the course involved a lot of pairwork, and I became aware of a fellow TEFL graveyard aspirant, hereby known as D, who would virtually run into the room to sit next to me when classes began. Once I satisfied myself that there was nothing sexual in his enthusiasm to share his learning experience with me, I tolerated his ever-so-slightly unnerving desperation with a mixture of fascination and mild anxiety.

It wasn’t as if I had done anything to encourage his purely academic advances, but slowly I began to realise that he was less running to me and more running away from the rest of the human race. He had trouble keeping eye contact when speaking to people, a big problem in such a “people-oriented” pastime as TEFL, and jumbled stories began emerging of a past spent in the merchant navy, culminating in an ugly incident in Haiti. His nickname among some of the other aspiring TEFLers became “The Crimson Pirate”, as amusing as it was absurd. D found the teaching tough. He wasn’t a natural communicator and, when it became clear that his mumbling performances were leading him to a dark place, a TEFL Certificate-free zone where he would end up a thousand pounds lighter, cracks in his perception of reality became fissures.

At the beginning of the third week, like a punch-drunk boxer, D threw in the towel. Aware that he was not so much throwing away a gleaming career as flushing a thousand big ones down the lavatory, I thought I should commiserate with him and ask him if he was sure, etc. The vehemence of his reponse quite took me by surprise and I suspected there was more to the Crimson Pirate’s plank-walking than the chance of a spot of skinny-dipping. “Don’t you start,” he barked aggressively, “I’ve already got enough people asking me all these questions.” I wondered how many of them were imaginary. A clue came when, at the end of the course, we found out that D had in fact been interned in a local psychiatric hospital after he started wandering the streets of B convincing buskers he was a record producer and offering them record contracts. I hope D has found peace over the intervening years. Either peace or the next big boy band.

The irony is that, blissful in our ignorance, all of us soon-to-be-certified TEFL teachers were also embarking on a path towards an imaginary career.


Wednesday, 25 July 2007


If the title of this blog sounds melodramatic, even Poe-esque, that's kind of the idea. Metaphor plays to the right side of the brain, the creative side. My main point is that, once in one, a graveyard is a hard place to get out of, and so it is with Teaching English as a Foreign Language. I should know, I stumbled into the TEFL graveyard a baker's dozen years ago at a time when my contemporaries were chasing their dreams and hatching their lifeplans. Rather than swim off in search of adventure and distant, unimaginable horizons, I made the unconscious decision to tread some water for a decade or two.

Recently I have come to the conclusion that it's easier to leave organised crime than it is to leave TEFL. Once a TEFL teacher always a TEFL teacher, give me a man and I'll show you the TEFL teacher. But there is hope. Buddhists say the art of living is to totally accept suffering. Drowning isn't supposed to be half as bad if you stop struggling (yeah, like the person who survived to write that one knows...), so whilst in a graveyard why not sit down, crack open a can of Special Brew and enjoy the dark and the silence for a while?