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.

Saturday, 29 September 2007


Should you ever apply for a job in Brazil, or have any contact with enterprises with more than a couple of employees, learn to take with a large, high-blood-pressure-inducing pinch of salt their promises to call you. There’s no need to wait up anxiously by the phone, or rush out to buy a mobile in case they call when you’re out. When they say they’ll contact you, they’re just being nice - or trying to get rid of you.

I’ve just looked in my diary. On 19 June 2007 at oh nine hundred hours I went to a language school in nearby Sorocaba that I’d applied to for a teaching job, to do a test of English grammar and comprehension. This is supposed to be the school that offers the best pay and conditions available anywhere in the region. I had to sign a paper agreeing to go through the whole recruitment rigmarole, the test, followed by an interview and finally a battery of psychometric evaluations (I bet those results make interesting reading. I imagine many a mental TEFL teacher stumbles at this hurdle...) I can only assume I must have also been signing the Brazilian equivalent of the Official Secrets Act, such has been the mystery that has shrouded my dealings with this shadowy outfit.

Having breezed through the test in, I suspect, record time (if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s breezing through things in English) I was informed that my paper would be sent to São Paulo for marking, where someone, who I’m now convinced doesn’t really exist, would call me to guide me through the rest of the recruitment process.

A month on and nobody had called. Being a proactive go-getter (and observing the tightness of my long-suffering wife, Show’s, lips), I resolved to call the Director of Studies and chide her about the dark in which I was being kept. “I’ll call São Paulo and ask them to call you,” she lied efficiently, probably blacklisting me as soon as she put the phone down for having the audacity to do an Oliver Twist on her. Also, her having to phone São Paulo to ask somebody to phone me would require that two different people make two distinct long-distance calls, thus reducing exponentially my chances of receiving any adequate feedback.

But maybe I’m being impatient - that was a mere nine weeks ago. In the meantime, I’ve been developing an enchanting facial tick whilst planning to start my own business offering immersion courses for a monthly subscription equivalent to a pre-pubescent child’s pocket money – I’ll be running at a loss, but once I’ve put every other school out of business, I’ll be king of the castle, and they’ll be dirty rascals. And if anybody from the schools phones me to complain, I’ll just tell them I’ll call them back. And then I won’t. Ha ha! That’ll show ‘em...

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Thursday, 27 September 2007


I’m not a great aficionado of football, but my hearty congratulations go out to the Brazilian women’s team who have today reached the World Cup final, beating the USA for the first time by a score of 4-0. The standard of play from both teams was at times breathtaking, showing that even in football, women are stealing a march on us menfolk. There was little diving and rolling around as if caught in crossfire in a bank robbery, with both teams exhibiting a workwomanlike dedication, individual flair providing moments of exquisite drama.

I personally will be following the scandalously overlooked women’s game more closely in future. The men’s game has long since lost its soul to seven-figure salaries, with players apparently preferring a career in modelling, sportswear marketing or professional celebrity to actually playing the game they are fortunate enough to be richly talented at.

Football is now officially my second favourite women's sport, after beach volleyball (amateur or professional...)


Wednesday, 26 September 2007


The handsome brute in the picture is Moby, my beloved mongrel. I found him abandoned in a car park with his siblings, aged one month, and I adopted him. Who needs breeding? Just look at the noble lines, the aristocratic bearing. Even his legs are in proportion with his body, a comparative rarity for a dog of dubious parentage.

Moby is the canine equivalent of a Kray twin - I’m not sure which one, I always get my psychotic thugs confused – the one ex-Spandau Ballet star Gary Kemp most convincingly portrayed in the film (I bet that casting director never worked in movies again – he’s probably a TEFL teacher in Ulan Bator.)

Walking the streets with Moby is like going on a pub crawl with a distant Irish cousin who hasn’t been sober since Live Aid. I spend the entire time engaged in conflict resolution, dragging him out of fights and helping him intimidate aggressive strays – not that he needs any help, normally. Even cocky Pit Bulls start hyperventilating as he approaches. Strange, because he’s so affable with most people, except skateboarders, joggers, the postman and our wicked neighbour.

Only once has he got embroiled in an ugly scrap, when a yappy little big-eared mongrel, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Joe Pesci's character in Goodfellas, made an ill-advised attempt to bite Moby's elegant snout. Passing schoolchildren ended up running home in tears as the big guy picked up his assailant by the neck and shook him like a freshly rinsed cos lettuce, before tossing him across the road like a salad (to keep to green leaf similes.) I don't know where he learned that move, but I think word got around town, as now most dogs pretend they haven't seen him or sidle away silently as he struts past.

If any local councillor or the local police chief is reading, a friendly warning. The situation in this hamlet is getting critical mutt-wise. The ratio of stray dogs to people appears to have grown to about 3:1. No community so swamped with hounds can hope to walk long with unsoiled footwear...


Tuesday, 25 September 2007


Sometimes we are in situations where it is inadvisable to let out a crass, reflexive guffaw when something strikes us as particularly jocular or ludicrous, and the TEFL classroom is often just such a setting. We know it’s wrong to show reactions of mirth when students make mistakes or inadvertently utter balderdash, but sometimes the undisguisable absurdity of their declarations simply overwhelms us.

I recently taught two young ladies who I assumed were a pair of rollicking wenches studying English just for the sheer, unbridled revelry it bestowed, given their collapse into initially charming bouts of adolescent giggling every time I asked them a question in English. After several rounds of blushing and tittering in response to my attempts at addressing them with simple questions, I reverted to chatting to them in Portuguese. “So, what do you do?” I asked them. “We’re teachers,” they replied, stifling a chuckle. “Really? That’s interesting,” I responded, “what do you teach?” “English!” they replied, veritably shrieking with the unmasked comedy of the situation. How we all laughed!

The fact that we were all left with tears rolling down our cheeks was a poignant reflection of the tragi-comic nature of Brazilian state school education. There was nothing ironic about their pronouncements, they really were secondary school teachers of English. How? is another, infinitely more pertinent question. A whole generation of youngsters is growing up with its future clouded by the utter inefficiency and incompetence of an education system which remains underfinanced, poorly remunerated and prepared to admit anybody willing to accept the obvious privations to which teaching subjects them. Moves are afoot in some circles to try to reverse this steady and headlong decline, so far with mixed results.

A couple of months ago I went to the British Council offices in São Paulo with my friend Bert. (To be honest, I felt I was being very gracious since they had recently ignored my application to become a Projects Officer, which from what I could gather primarily involves messing about on a computer and arranging cars to drive around the city and pick people up - ideal for the budding procrastinator. They probably thought I was simply too good, and that soon I’d be replacing the person who hired me*. There’s a lot of that about over here.)

Incidentally, if you ever visit their São Paulo offices, check out the fourth-floor restaurant, a very reasonable and surprisingly sumptuous all-you-can-eat buffet. Bert took it as a personal gastronomic challenge, eating two main courses and two desserts, but he’s double my size, and I’m British and polite. I could see him agonising about having a third dish of profiteroles, but our meeting was about to start and I had to drag him away before things got ugly. There’s also a fake pub on the ground floor, where you can buy half a draught Guinness for a week’s wages and get misty-eyed about home.

The reason for our intrepid journey into the heart of the metropolis was to hear a talk about a program they’re implementing here in Brazil for state school teachers called English Teacher’s Portfolio (ETP). It’s a 100-hour course to help state school teachers of English improve their language skills, all available entirely for free via the Internet. It’s actually a very good course, in my opinion - the materials are online for teachers to access, print out and study, and there are recordings of Brazilian teachers moaning in English about their salaries, working conditions, etc, giving the course a candid authenticity not usually found in TEFL materials. Added to this is the “teaching tips” section, which affords teachers some creative ideas for livening up their classroom experiences – a condensed, no-frills TEFL course, if you will. So impressed have I been that I have become a volunteer “mentor”, a person who oversees monthly meetings and gives feedback on the course to the participants. (I ask little in return other than the naming of one of the town’s thoroughfares after me – and not some dank cul-de-sac, I’ve made it clear I want a tree-lined boulevard.)

I met with the Department of Education at the local Prefeitura and they embraced the project wholeheartedly. Sixteen teachers initially signed up, and we arranged that they would try to complete two units of the course per month. After a month the first meeting took place. Of the sixteen original applicants, ten had already given up. Of the remaining six, only one had successfully completed all the portfolio tasks. If Brazil is to ever to free itself of the shackles of underinvestment and skewed priorities that keep this giant, potential-filled nation pinned down like Gulliver in Lilliput, attitudes towards education really have to change.

TEFL – sadly, you really can’t give it away.

* - !

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Saturday, 22 September 2007


Today I had a spiritless Hancock’s Half Hour* of a class with a student of mine. The theme of the lesson was “At the Restaurant”. I had made up thirty situations in a restaurant that the student had to complain about, things like, “A diner on a neighbouring table has started smoking, and you are sitting in a non-smoking area. Wound him with intent,” and “The waiter accidentally brushed up against your / your partner’s ample bosom when serving the wine. File a sexual harrassment complaint with the maitre d’.” You know, everyday situations.

I patiently barnstormed virtually every possible known English structure for making complaints since the Great Vowel Shift and wrote them on the board. This student has been studying English for ALMOST TEN YEARS (though, in my defence, I have been awkwardly bound to her in the linguistic equivalent of a three-legged race for only six months.) The relevant language was ON THE BOARD. She has a “good job” in an AMERICAN MULTINATIONAL COMPANY. This is how she thought she could summon the manager of the despicable pigpen of an eatery:

I would like him to the manager please.

The best part of a decade. Where do you fricking start? If I’d been better able to disguise my disillusionment I would have regaled her with an explanation about verbs being “doing” words, and that most sentences need at least one in order to convey “meaning”, which, after all, is the purpose of our emitting these peculiar grunting noises. But I just couldn’t face it. I let it slip by without so much as a wince or an overexcited belly laugh. This is what is happening all over the world, twenty-four hours a day. English students are talking gibberish and teachers are letting it go, whilst both are respecting an unspoken pact in pretending that there’s some serious schooling going on. In any other profession we’d be exposed and clapped in irons by nightfall.

I've been trying to think of a parallel. Imagine if you paid for your daughter to have horseriding lessons for ten years. One day, you decided to go and watch her compete in a dressage competition for the first time, and she climbed on the horse facing backwards. You’d want some pretty good answers from the stable owner, wouldn’t you? Yet this is what TEFL is, it's the Emperor's New Clothes. We all want to be deceived. Teachers want to hang stubbornly on to the belief that they’re not wasting their precious lives completely, and students want to be able to proudly tell friends, relatives and employers that they’re “doing English”, like infants sporting their “I am five” badge.

A sobering final word from Dorothy Parker: "Time doth flit; oh shit."

* - Hancock’s Half Hour was a British radio and TV comedy series starring the somewhat morose deadpan comedian Tony Hancock (12 May 1924 – 24 June 1968). Hancock committed suicide in a hotel room in Sydney, Australia after battling for years with alcoholism and depression. One of his suicide notes read, “Things just went wrong too many times.” Another read, “It’s this or TEFL.”

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Thursday, 20 September 2007


Looking back on my arrival in Brazil over five years ago, I recognise now that I was carrying some pretty hefty cultural baggage. I was expecting things to be like in Britain, only slightly more half-baked and with more fresh fruit juices. I was counting on a reliable postal service, an adequate banking system and reasonable public services.

In fact, I spent the first few months here in a state of perpetual malhumour, interspersed by unpredictable bouts of seething, railing, fuming and frothing. The source of my ire was the blithering, and ongoing, idiocy of Brazilian bureaucracy. The difference now is that I have gone so far native that I patiently view my burlesque encounters with collective public enterprise with a sentimental, heart-softening whimsy. This acceptance of the unacceptable is why the unacceptable becomes acceptable – nobody can be arsed to make a decent case for change, let alone organise, protest, start a petition, etc. After all, why get all stiff-jawed when there are whole hectares of cows to be barbecued, footballs to be craftily juggled and motel sheets to be surrepticiously soiled with your latest squeeze? These people have a point.

Visiting the bank is the single most life-denying activity Brazilians can indulge in. If you totted up how long the average citizen spends in bank queues over their lifetime, I swear it would make tattooed men sob at the sheer futile waste of human potential. Interminable queues, sweltering temperatures accompanied by questionable personal hygiene, and always one cashier, representing fifty percent of the available workforce, who abruptly stands up, walks away and doesn’t come back for several days.

Opening hours don’t help any. With doors swinging open at eleven and slamming shut at four, this five-hour window is barely sufficient to pay the water rates, let alone arrange an overdraft, apply for a loan or buy insurance. Add to this the preference given in the queue to senior citizens (many of whom must still be in their fifties, I often resentfully note) and mothers carrying children (you can see infants being passed around outside the bank in return for a small fee, or a sandwich), and the establishment becomes a powder keg where tempers are as short as queues are lengthy. Heavily armed and poorly trained guards in bullet-proof booths only add to the atmosphere of potentially front-page tension.

I have a theory (as yet an untested hypothesis, admittedly) that Brazil’s wealth of lavishly talented footballers are a product of their constant submission to mindless bureaucracy. Surely someone, anticipating another couple of wasted hours in some queue, thought of taking a football along with their banking, the resulting ad-hoc kick arounds on nearby wasteground whilst their places are held in the line providing valuable extra match training. In support of my theory, which country has won the football World Cup a record five times? Brazil. Which team won the last World Cup? Italy, another world-leader in officialdom. (Have you ever tried buying a train ticket in Italy? There is always, without exception, a nun at the front of the queue who spends at least ten minutes in animated conversation with the clerk. I mean, how much information about trains can the average nun need?) Ah, you say, what about Germany and France and England, all World Cup winners, all relatively red-tape free? They are simply exceptions that prove the rule.

If anyone would like to sponsor further research in this area, please get in touch. I would even be willing to stop teaching for a while in order to dedicate myself entirely to this study.


Wednesday, 19 September 2007


Just as video killed the radio star, professionalism killed rugby union. The early games in the 2007 Rugby World Cup have been uniformly unedifying spectacles, as a sport that used to promote flair, courage and audacity has descended into a turgid, predictable waste of human energy. Watching the sport’s giants crush the so-called minnows is like witnessing the psychotic school bully deliver a sickening beating to the eccentric school swot, try after unstoppable try like a litany of original and devilishly cruel methods of breaking somebody’s arm.

Rugby used to be a game for those not blessed with any particular sporting talent. Fatso could comfortably pack down with titch, and the team would be none the worse for it. Welsh rugby legends such as Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett weren’t large buggers at all, the latter being informed as a child that he’d never be big enough to play rugby (I’ve read his autobiography, “Everywhere for Wales”.) Edwards played a record 53 consecutive games for his nation without being dropped or seriously injured, a feat impossible nowadays given the quantity of blood-soaked mutilations we now witness per game. Johnny Wilkinson must be facing an existential identity crisis – if he undergoes any more operations, only his head will be original – in that case, will he still be Johnny Wilkinson? Welsh fullback legend JPR Williams, possibly the most recklessly brave tackler in the history of the international game, was recently asked in an interview if he’d like to have played in the professional era. No, he replied, he was always worried about getting injured, even back in the days when they’d train by jogging to the pub, doing a few press-ups and building up their upper body strength by raising a beer mug and smoking a packet of fags. For a fearless nutjob like him to get the willies proves that a very wrong turning has been taken somewhere along the road to riches.

Ex-England coach Sir Clive Woodward may have guided his nation to their first ever World Cup in 2003 (thanks, in great part, to Wilkinson’s sublime kicking skills), but he also helped promote a horrible corporate rugby ethic. I wouldn’t be surprised if Team England doesn’t have a mission statement, “To strive for excellence on and off the rugby field, whilst exceeding the expectations of our supporters and generating value in return for their investing their time in supporting us”, or some such offal. A whole new vocabulary of corporate rugbyisms has appeared, with pernicious terms such as “putting in big hits” (tackling), “getting over the gain line” (running forwards with the ball) and “going through the phases” (running into the opposition repeatedly en masse until a gap appears in their beleagured defences). Whilst I am an admirer of ex-Wales legend Jonathan Davies as a player, as a commentator he blows. If I hear him describe a team’s defence as “immense” once more, I’m putting it on record that I’ll be firebombing the BBC’s Cardiff studios.

Having said all this, I’ll be tuning in for some of the remaining games, notably those involving the boys from the valleys, and the All Blacks, just to enjoy the rabid Haka and see if they can yet again manage to throw away another World Cup from a virtually unassailable position as overwhelming favourites. They must be a bookmaker’s delight, along with the England football team in a penalty shoot-out.

So, come on lads, stop going to the gym so often, stop talking like you work for Citibank and go out and get a proper job like in the good old days (there are always openings in TEFL – but be sure to check out Sandy’s UK TEFL Blog and The TEFL Blacklist first.) Kick back, have a few beers (join me for a Special Brew here in the TEFL Graveyard, if you like), smoke the odd fag if you want to, don’t worry so much about your weight and enjoy the sport for what it is – a primitive rough and tumble for the Welsh, and people who don’t mind getting muddy. We, your long-suffering supporters, will thank you for it.


Tuesday, 18 September 2007



The eagle-eyed will notice that I've changed the template, font and colours of my blog (I've always been a huge fan of Trebuchet MS.) This is a feature of my seemingly bottomless capacity for procrastination. The almost infinite formatting options offered by an Excel spreadsheet will keep me amused into the small hours, like an infant in a sandpit. In fact, I had a sandpit when I was an infant, perhaps that's the root of my procrastination... Anyway, get used to it, it's just what I do.


Monday, 17 September 2007


In my final week of being misleadingly described as Social Organiser, I had reached a serene state in which I was past caring about pleasing the terminally sullen, making small talk to the genetically petulant or trying to seduce the unrelentingly critical. As far as I was concerned, the experiment had failed, the shop had held its closing down sale, and after seeing out the week, I would never again be foolish enough to volunteer to be a poorly remunerated stand-in for a Butlins redcoat. Being nice to foreign students is no way to make a living, I had concluded.

The very last event I concocted that summer was a boat trip, to be held on the last Friday evening in August, which would be my last night with the students, most of whom would be going their various ways over the weekend. The voyage would start from a local quay, head out across the harbour and up a river to a small historical market town. Then, after an hour, we would gently chug back. The way things were going I was fully prepared for the boat to sink in a freak squall, or get rammed by a cross-Channel ferry, and whilst boarding I was careful to make a mental note of exactly where the lifebelts were situated. At the very least, I envisaged a majority of the students being violently seasick, and was girding my loins for the inevitable bleating that would accompany such catastrophe.

In fact, against all expectations, the evening was an utter delight. The sun took a long time to cool that night, the breeze was gentle and the atmosphere on board was one of pure enchantment. There was music and beer and laughter, this time not at my expense. Students stood at the prow, dresses flowing in the wind, like in a rather tacky, low-budget Titanic remake. I tried to relax, but the summer had made me wary of premature champagne cork popping.

We reached the historical market town and all headed for a pub. All, that is, except H, the Turkish monument complainant, who, despite the gathering darkness, preferred to seek out the ninth-century town walls. I felt little doubt that this endeavour would engineer another solution-free grievance, especially as the walls in question were more unrecognisable earth mounds than towering fortifications. To my surprise, however, he met us back at the boat an hour later without so much as a whimper, much less a bang.

Then, on the way back across the harbour, something miraculous happened. A penny-pinching Swiss student, one of my fiercest critics throughout the summer who had taken it upon herself to badger me relentlessly about why I’d made some of my more dubious decisions, sidled up to me one last time, I fancied for one last pop. At the time I was standing alone, gazing at some floating effluent on the starboard side that I was having trouble identifying. Turning to look at her, just for a split second, I conisdered jumping overboard. Looking a little tipsy, she smiled genuinely, her nose wrinkling charmingly. “Now this is a great evening,” she slurred brightly, “this is the best evening I have had in England.” (Actually I don’t think she used the present perfect “I have had” correctly, but I wasn’t about to give her a private lesson). I felt a sudden, overpowering urge to kiss her, which would have been the closest I had got all summer to any fraternising with the enemy, but, before I could furtively jump her, she manoeuvered herself to the side of the boat and disgorged extravagantly into the calm, black waters beneath. I tried not to take it personally.

Whenever there’s a poe-faced student in the TEFL classroom, we become overwhelmed by a desire to make that person happy, to see them smile and participate in proceedings with relish. It’s not a compassionate response to a fellow human being’s suffering, it’s a grim challenge that becomes all-consuming, almost a phobia to be faced down and overcome. Their negative energy pollutes the space they occupy, and, if we are not careful, contaminates those in their vicinity. We can have twenty contented, smiley faces in a class, but the one that looks bored or mirthless invariably becomes the focus of our attentions, as we manically do all we can to please them. If they do eventually come around, the resulting sense of relief instils in us a belief in a better tomorrow, and so it was on that delightful summer boat trip after I received a heartfelt compliment from a nauseous Swiss girl, and had a lucky escape by not getting kissy with her.

As I bid the students farewell that night with mixed feelings of deliverance from damnation and an anomalous, nostalgic melancholy, I began to wonder if it wouldn’t be fun to arrange a similar event the following summer...


Sunday, 16 September 2007


The summer’s social programme had limped unspectacularly along with my having gained a reputation for an innate inability to organise a drink in a brewery. It was, I resolved, time to show some devil may care panache.

Eager to take advantage of the glorious local coastline, I’d recently taken a group of students for an unexpectedly arduous beach walk which could have comfortably comprised a special forces training exercise due to my gross underestimation of distance / time relationships. What I had imagined would last a couple of hours at most had actually taken over five, most students arriving home disorientated by the darkness that had already fallen. In true British fashion, all the cafés en route were closed by that time of night, and the buses had long since stopped running. Looking back along the seafront at the bedraggled survivors was like watching dehydrated runners at the end of a marathon, their brains having long since lost touch with their wildly elastic lower limbs. I was half expecting someone to collapse and start urging the others hoarsely, “Leave me, save yourselves, I’m only slowing you down...”

I had spent the next day sheepishly avoiding eye contact with the walkers, most of whom were gingerly stiff-limbed from muscle fatigue, or limping from painful blisters. But, despite the physical trauma, all had had to admit that the scenery was sublime, and I was convinced that, if I had any future as Social Organiser, it lay in venturing once again into this wonderous, unique landscape.

So it was that I planned my most audacious soirée yet. We would take a double decker bus (a sure-fire winner in itself) after school and drive forty minutes into the countryside, visiting a village with an eleventh-century ruined castle for an hour, before motoring on to a small Victorian seaside town with a beautiful bay, pleasant inns and a huge seafront amusement arcade – in other words, there would something for everyone, from the amateur archaeology buff to the drinker and gambling addict. When the bus company offered an open-top double decker bus, my heart fluttered excitedly, and I decided to gamble on fine weather. This night was going to go down in history.

All I had to do to cover costs was make sure the bus was filled to near capacity. To promote the outing I created a montage of carefully selected photos that showed the region in all its sun-soaked magnificence, the rolling meadows, the spectacular coastal rock formations and the stunning, centuries-old architecture. The fact that we would be visiting only a fraction of the locations advertised was a mere detail, which, with hindsight, I perhaps should have paid a little more attention to. In my defence, isn’t that what all advertising does, though - try to create an intimation, an illusory image of the experience the product will give you, not talk about the actual features of the product itself?

It didn’t rain, but a strange, out of season midsummer fog descended that evening that blanketed everything, including what was left of the much-anticipated castle, which stood on a small hill in the middle of a valley. Of course, true to form, that was closed too. “You’ve got an hour,” I hissed to the students as I slipped past them into a pub. “Where is the castle?” a Turkish student inquired. “It’s up there somewhere,” I replied, pointing upwards into the murk. The ruins of the outer bailey could be glimpsed through the swirling mists, but little else. It was like a scene from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

A few of the students joined us in the pub, but most took to wandering the village, which, given the weather, was less like a ghost town than a ghost housing estate. Moving on to our final destination, the sea was unrecognisable in the gloom, the amusement arcade was closed (you can probably detect a pattern developing here) and the only choice left was between spending another few hours in a pub or wandering the streets avoiding unwelcoming groups of feral youths, who all appeared to be throwbacks uncomfortable with the presence of outsiders.

By the time we set off for home, the temperature had dropped significantly and the only people braving ear ache and possible hypothermia on the top deck were us British teachers and some of the hardier students, such as the Russians and an Argentine from Tierra del Fuego. The rest were huddled for warmth on the lower deck, cursing the elements in a dozen langauges. Trying to put a brave face on events, I turned to the Turkish student. “So, H, did you enjoy the trip?” I asked, instantly regretting my rashness. “There weren’t enough historical monuments,” came his preposterous reply. I had a momentary vision of him flying through the air from the top deck of a speeding, open-top bus, limbs flailing like a lifeless crash-test dummy. Containing my displeasure, I had to literally bite my tongue to prevent myself from suggesting, in rather graceless language, that he, “Push off to Greece, then.” Given the ongoing tensions between the two countries, I fancied my self-control was wise.

So that was it, another night failing to live up to expectations, this time because of the ludicrous lack of monument-building by previous residents of the region. It was clear not only that I was never going to please all of the people all of the time, or even some of them some of it, but also that I was never cut out to be a Social Organiser. I was kidding myself that I was some kind of events producer, that I’d one day be mounting West End Shows or booking top rock acts for famous festivals. No, I was a simple TEFL teacher, and had better get used to the idea. Given this stark realisation, sitting freezing my extremities off on the top deck of that bus, all I could do was morbidly fantasise that the combination of a forgetful driver, a wrong turning and a low bridge might suddenly put us all out of our misery.


Thursday, 13 September 2007


Anxious to make amends for the sausage shortfall fiasco, for my next trick I decided to arrange a stately evening of wine tasting, whose sophisticated appeal I fancied would regain some of my recently barbecued credibility. Such a refined affair had proven popular in previous years, particularly with the Business English contingent of the school’s population, and it was this body of the crowd to whom I was shamelessly playing. For my part, the logistics were eminently manageable. All I had to do was buy and cut into cubes a few lumps of cheese and invite the local off-licence to send a representative, who would bring a selection of wines for the students’ delectation and give a brief talk on them, in return for a small per-head fee to cover costs. No sausages, no chicken and absolutely no beefburgers would be involved.

My best-laid plans started to go tits uppermost when the off-licence returned my call just hours before the event was due to begin. Rather than confirm arrangements, they bluntly informed me that they were no longer willing to do wine tasting functions, as the previous year they had lugged crates of wine to the school in the expectation of a successful entry into the wine export market, only to achieve disappointing first quarter sales – the students had purchased absolutely nothing. I protested that they were already paying a fee for the evening, and that therefore the off-licence wasn’t set to lose anything, but the woman was as surly as she was adamant. Business definitely came before pleasure, not just in the dictionary.

Given this unexpected twist to the plot, I was facing another challenging evening, intimated by a familiar sinking feeling. Thinking on my feet, I remembered that a local pub was having a quiz evening, and I made a snap decision that several teams from the school would be entering. I dashed around the classes to convey this last-minute change of plans, and judging by the raised eyebrows and rueful shaking of heads that greeted the news, my disordered clowning wasn’t universally winning me admirers.

Something strange happens when groups of foreign students go to British pubs. We would perhaps expect them to spend the evening animatedly exchanging opinions and cultural experiences, making comparisons between their native countries and traditions, but in reality, the majority sit around tables in big groups in deathly silence, as if they have awkwardly stumbled into the wrong wedding reception, or perhaps the wrong funeral. I have never been able to pinpoint exactly why this should be. Maybe it’s the tumultuous volume at which many pubs insist on playing music (if I’d wanted to go to a disco, I’d have gone to a disco), or the increasingly intrusive presence of televisions (if I’d wanted to watch TV, I’d have stayed in), which, however hard we try, can’t help but attract our captivated attention, like somebody on a neighbouring table in a restaurant making a loud complaint about finding a foreign body in their food. I suspect globalisation has had a hand in things, as most young peoples’ values are now so intimately tied to those of Nike, Adidas and The Gap that looking at foreign students it is impossible to guess by their appearance from whence they hail. It’s as if they’ve all just come off the same, culture-free production line.

Another truism is that pub quizmasters are invariably egocentric bores who use the evening to perform their artless stand-up comedy routine, which they believe
still has some mileage in it, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Instead of simply asking the questions in a clear, articulate voice, they become a poor man’s Ronnie Corbett, sitting in his black leather chair on The Two Ronnies telling waffling shaggy dog stories.

The combination of these two factors gave me a strong urge to put a brick through the off-licence window on my way home. After a couple of incomprehensible questions, the frustrated students reverted to the sullen group silence routine, downing pens and sitting back from their tables, their body langauge much easier to interpret than the quizmaster’s inane burbling. Understanding possibly one word in every ten, I fancied they were wondering if they shouldn’t just jack in the English course and go home, the bewildering evening’s events only going to confirm their utter lack of progress in the English language. I thought about trying to run from group to group to explain the questions in easy-to-grasp sentences, but I’d probably be accused of cheating and banned for life from all pub quizzes in the region. In the end, I decided to buy several more pints of Guinness and sip my way into a numbed, disinterested place where I briefly believed nobody could inconvenience me ever again.

Part Four to follow shortly...


Tuesday, 11 September 2007


The first murmurings of what was to become known as The Summer of Discontent were evident at a school barbecue early in my tenure as Social Organiser. As I was busily stoking up the fires and unpacking the meat products, I noticed a group of mainly German-speaking students had gathered in a huddle on the far side of the school gardens, like torch-bearing villagers on a secretive witch-hunt. The whiff of discord was stronger than the stink of white-hot charcoal. Seconds later, my pulse started racing as I noticed a messenger from the group approaching.

“We will not eat beefburgers,” he informed me curtly, “because of the mad cows.” I smiled on the inside, having already foreseen just such a reaction to concerns that had recently been raised over links between eating British beef and the human form of BSE. Concerns that I myself shared, in fact.

“Don’t worry,” I said calmly, “I have plenty of chicken and sausages.” The messenger nodded, turned on his heel and left to report back his findings to the select committee. As I began to slap the first deliciously marinated chicken legs onto the grill, I became aware of the special envoy again hovering beside me.

“We will eat sausages, then,” he barked, “not chicken.” I started. I had only bought a few pork products, definitely not enough to feed everybody. Trying to subdue my desperation, I asked him why. After many seconds of confusing anglo-German relations, I eventually understood that the self-styled food hygiene inspectorate had decided that eating chicken cooked on a barbecue was, at best, unhygienic, and at worst, carcinogenic. This was very bad news. The nearest supermarket was probably closed by now, and anyway I’d already spent all the money I’d charged the students. I resolved to cook the chicken as quickly as was legally possible, and try to distribute it as swiftly as I could, before the rumours of inevitable future infirmity spread. In the end there were enough sausages for everyone to eat roughly a third of one each, and after supplies ran out, the chicken and beef dodgers were forced to fill up with a bland, if not entirely unhealthy, diet of bread and coleslaw.

Though none of the witch-hunters actually confronted me during the evening, or proposed I be subjected to the ducking stool, their none-too-delicate descriptions of events could be heard floating on the gentle breeze as they mooched off home - “Scheiße Grill!”

Part Three to follow shortly...


Monday, 10 September 2007


In theory, the TEFL-specific position of Social Organiser definitely has its charms, an obvious one being a fully financed social life at somebody else’s expense. When I first started teaching, the individual who at the time occupied the post glided skilfully around all summer like a sequined Come Dancing natural, alternately the master of ceremonies, the life and soul of the various parties he organised, and the subject of seemingly constant infatuations involving as wide a variety of the female species as it is possible to cram into a busy seaside language school in the middle of a British summer. These factors combined, it took little to convince me that I was a Social Organiser in waiting. One day, I fantasised, I would return triumphant and, like a Pied Piper without the period costume and the tin whistle, I would lead my students on a merry dance in my vacant hours, perhaps even emulating the near-fatal attraction that my colleague unmistakably exercised over virtually every member of the opposite sex.

So it was that, three years later, I did indeed return, albeit less with an air of triumph than a deflated, resigned realism, having just spent nine months with my nose firmly pressed against the TEFL grindstone, and consequently courting financial ruin, on the Costa del Sol, which I must admit, as the name suggests, is pleasantly sunny, if not the best place in the world to seek highly paid English teaching hours. Heartily weary of teaching the same repetitive chapters from galling textbooks, I also found the prospect of only giving four lessons a day instead of the regulation six mightily attractive, as I would only be expected to teach until lunchtime, after which I would be free to organise and promote the events before slipping into my Sunday trousers for an evening of effervescent, hedonistic whoopy making. All whilst legitimately dipping my hand in the till.

In fact, the arrangement was less than ideal in practice, the principal issue being that no time for class preparation had been built into my timetable. Often events started straight after school and ended around midnight, which actually made me more stressed about the next morning’s classes than I would otherwise have been. This I got used to, however. What I failed to accustom myself to was the powder keg of conflicting interests, cultural expectations and downright petulance that I encountered on the various events I organised, as students would take it in turns to sidle up to me and point out with how much more of a swing things would have been going had I arranged events in the way they felt appropriate.

On more than one occasion I began to wish I was all alone, sitting soberly in a quiet pub with a soft drink, a pair of scissors and some glue, thoroughly planning the next day’s classes.

Part Two to follow shortly...


Sunday, 9 September 2007


This is the first of an occasional series highlighting famous people who worked in TEFL. It will be interesting to see if a history of extreme poverty, mental illness, alcohol or substance abuse, or other psychological trauma can be detected as a feature common to their biographies. Please feel free to contribute names to the list of prospective TEFL Graveyard Spectres.

To get the ball rolling, here is a revealing excerpt from Wikipedia on Irish literary legend, James Joyce. A century on, it appears little has changed in the often murky underworld of Teaching English as a Foreign Language...

“... Joyce remained in Dublin for some time longer, drinking heavily. After one of his alcoholic binges, he got into a fight over a misunderstanding with a man in Phoenix Park; he was picked up and dusted off by a minor acquaintance of his father, Alfred H. Hunter, who brought him into his home to tend to his injuries.

“... Joyce and Nora went into self-imposed exile, moving first to Zürich, where he had supposedly acquired a post teaching English at the Berlitz Language School through an agent in England. It turned out that the English agent had been swindled, but the director of the school sent him on to Trieste, which was part of Austria-Hungary until World War I (today part of Italy).

“Once again, he found there was no position for him, but with the help of Almidano Artifoni, director of the Trieste Berlitz school, he finally secured a teaching position in Pula, then also part of Austria-Hungary (today part of Croatia). He stayed there, teaching English mainly to Austro-Hungarian naval officers stationed at the Pula base, from October 1904 until March 1905, when the Austrians — having discovered an espionage ring in the city — expelled all aliens. With Artifoni's help, he moved back to Trieste and began teaching English there. He would remain in Trieste for most of the next ten years.

"Joyce came up with many money-making schemes during this period of his life, such as his attempt to become a cinema magnate back in Dublin, as well as a frequently discussed but ultimately abandoned plan to import Irish tweeds into Trieste. His expert borrowing skills saved him from indigence. His income was made up partially from his position at the Berlitz school and from taking on private students."

Literary genius he may have been, but tales of his financial and professional struggles secure his place in the pantheon of TEFL Graveyard infamy.


Saturday, 8 September 2007


One of the most successful DVD releases in recent years, at least here in Brazil, has been The Secret (2006), a film purporting to show a link between positive thinking and material wealth. (I apologise if this is an over-simplification, but time is money... especially if you think positively about it, apparently.) Using the “Law of Attraction” as a guiding principle, the film claims (without presenting concrete evidence, it must be noted) that some of the most successful figures in human history knew about and used “The Secret” (ie the “Law of Attraction”) in order to fulfill their often momentous ambitions. The film, partly a series of dramatisations, partly interviews with various supposed present day beneficiaries of the phenomenon, reports extraordinary advances in material wealth and career prospects after the featured individuals got wind of the previously classified formula. Well into the second half of 2007, the related book is still at the top of the best-sellers list here in Brazil, and I suspect this success has been repeated worldwide.

I was first introduced to “The Secret” by my acupuncturist, B. Like a pair of low-brow Parisien café philosophers, our monthly, needle-strewn sessions commonly involve a frank exchange of some pretty out-there opinions, B intricately interlacing strand after strand of bold, esoteric thinking, until what we’re left with is a bloody great confusing knot that life seems too short to attempt to unravel. His psychedelic, new age mentalising has become the mind-bending highlight of many a dull month, his uncompromising inner contortionism often pounding me into a bewildered, silent stupor.

One of the factors that turned me into something of a “The Secret Skeptic” was that, of all the fabulously successful interviewees extolling the almost supernatural power of the “Law of Attraction”, as far as I could fathom, none of them were former or acting TEFL teachers. Nobody was filmed saying, “I was a TEFL teacher living in penury in rented accommodation and eating baked beans out of the can when somebody told me “The Secret” and, almost overnight, I was transformed into Britain’s forty-ninth richest person, with self-esteem and everything...” On the contrary, they all appeared to me to be people who already had some kind of Big Life Project bubbling away in the cauldron, and who had simply found a way to cleverly market and sell their wares. One guy had written a book and was in the process of trying to find a publisher, when he'd had the brainwave of trying to get a magazine to serialise it. Lo and behold, he became impossibly rich. This, to me, is less about the power of the “Law of Attraction” and more about the power of “Having A Good Idea”.

For those fans who find “The Secret” inspirational, please don’t think I wish to pooh-pooh it. I genuinely believe that positive thinking is vital, showing marked benefits for health and a reduced tendency to experience damaging negative emotions such as anger, resentment and hatred (difficult in TEFL, but something to aspire to nonetheless. Check out this great video for more on this.) However, I do feel that it can be all too convenient, not to mention rather reckless, to fill peoples’ minds with facile answers to life’s complexities that are, judging by the film’s premise, based on some fairly flabby pseudo-science.

As a footnote, in the immediate aftermath of “The Secret’s” release, B became an apostle of the “Law of Attraction”, buying, watching repeatedly and lending out the DVD with zealous abandon. Not unmoved by his infectious enthusiasm, I also watched the film more than once. Perhaps confident of the riches that were inevitably soon to materialise, B traded his car in for a brand new, more expensive model. Apart from that, a year on, he remains the same struggling, thinking man's acupuncturist, and I persist as a striving, if philosophical, TEFL teacher.



Brazilians, a popular saying goes, are descendants of Italians trying to be Americans; Argentines are descendants of Italians trying to be British. I’m unilaterally willing to grant UK citizenship to the lads in a rather effeminate blue and white after they put Les Bleus to the sword at the Stade de France yesterday in the opening tie of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

Their win passed without event here in the Brazilian countryside, due to a confused apathy surrounding the sport of rugby union, coupled with a pandemic antipathy towards Brazil’s southern neighbours. During the last football World Cup, more fireworks were ecstatically discharged, more beer quaffed and more samba feverishly improvised after Argentina’s elimination than after all Brazilian victories put together.

If Ireland can survive the group of death with Argentina, Wales’ path to the Cup is assured. (Humour me...)


Thursday, 6 September 2007


Something happens to many British males in late adolescence that I haven’t identified to the same degree in any of the other cultures with which I have come into contact. We begin to regard
the consumption of alcohol not as a complementary side dish to the plat du jour of our social life, but as a bargain bucket main course from Chicken Delight, to be dispatched without regard for the often disconcerting consequences.

My heroes in my late teens were all drunks. I admired Hemingway and Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski and Doors frontman Jim Morrison, winos to a man. To me, tales of Oliver Reed’s legendary piss-artistry weren’t the lachrymose testimony to a wasted acting talent, they were cause for an undeserved Oscar nomination. Despite never having written anything of note, except rambling poems composed after a night out on a bender, and to which I’d spend the next day trying to attribute meaning other than a latent bisexuality, I considered myself a writer, and imbibed accordingly. Of course, to those in my vicinity, I wasn’t a literary giant; I was an immature boob.

TEFL and alcohol are frequently intimate bedfellows, as the desire to socialise with, and clumsily attempt to seduce, impossibly exotic foreign girls often becomes all-consuming after a hard day at the coalface. My TEFL career nearly ended sooner than I expected after I came into contact with my dear friend N, Welsh TEFL legend, talented musician and all-round class act. My mother hails from the Welsh valleys, and I have always considered myself an honorary Welshman, expressing my patriotism through fanatical support for Wales in rugby union and an almost improper passion for male voice choir singing. (I currently warble with a Brazilian group called Camerata Vocal, part of the Academia Concerto.)

Welsh actor Richard Burton once opined, “Show a Welshman a hundred doors and he’ll walk through the one marked, Self-Destruction." (Burton was another one with an enthusiasm for the sauce, remember, and I suspect his comments were acutely autobiographical...) I met N a few months after becoming Certified, and we struck up a partnership that briefly drank the pubs dry, bewitched the passing womenfolk and very nearly ended with me receiving a premature P45. Those were the glory days, spent carefree and carousing, N ploughing into groups of foreign students with his all-conquering charm, with me bringing up the rear like a canny mongrel hovering for scraps.

N, I salute you, and sip a non-alcoholic lager to the treasured memories.


Tuesday, 4 September 2007


One of the many things I love about Brazil is the copious use of nicknames, which are often creative and humorous and help to forge informal bonds of friendship, even affection. A couple of years ago, during an all-too-brief interlude, I actually worked doing something other than teaching English (before my cover was blown and I was unceremoniously defrocked – more about this another time.) I had muddled my way into the Human Resources department of a large Brazilian metallurgical company, immediately receiving the sobriquet, “Chuck Norris”, due to the surly, if not exactly intimidating, photo on my company id badge.

Every large Brazilian company has to have an Internal Committee for the Prevention of Accidents, or CIPA, whose members are elected by co-workers. When the list of candidates circulated the factory it was a positive orgy of name-calling. As virtually nobody in the factory was known by the name they were christened with, the list had to include the contender’s real name and its more informal alternative, in order that the candidate be identified. Some favourites for election were “Cuecão” (Whopping Underpants), “Telemensagem” (Telemessaging?!) and “Carequinha” (Diminutive Slaphead).

My favourite ever nickname, however, belonged to a TEFL teacher, R, who went by the mysterious moniker “Ticket”. After a couple of summers running into him in various pubs I eventually discovered the origin of his abstract title. He had been teaching a closed group of Spanish teenagers and at the end of one lesson he had entered the staff room with a bemused look on his face. He had approached my friend D and confided, “Something really weird just happened in class. All the students kept calling me “Ticket”.” D hadn’t revealed the truth immediately, preferring to leave R to wander from colleague to colleague trying to find out if he was the only victim of this queer form of persecution.

Later, in the pub, the truth was revealed. D had taught the same group just before R and had made an underhand arrangement with them. They had established that, when answering R’s questions, they would append “Dickhead” onto the end of every response - given their marked Spanish accent, “Dickhead” had become “Ticket” to R’s unsuspecting ear.

As a reflection of how mud sticks, and how fast news travels in the Internet age, when R left to winter in Spain, much to everyone’s delight, a Spanish-speaking school secretary that called to offer him teaching work asked for “Señor Ticket”. At least, they think she said Ticket...


Sunday, 2 September 2007


If recent experience is anything to go by, I would strongly suggest that those responsible for advising retiring soldiers on future career options cross TEFL off the list of possible alternatives. The wisdom of advocating a career requiring sometimes superhuman patience in dealing with foreigners to somebody who has spent a number of years being trained and armed to kill them is certainly questionable. L, a former member of the Parachute Regiment, provided ample evidence in his brief, incendiary career of the challenges involved in keeping a lid on conditioned aggression in the TEFL boiler room.

L was a curious character, something of a loner, probably because he had come to B to work and had no roots in the area. This meant that he tended to socialise with teaching colleagues, and by association foreign students, with regularity. He had an odd technique of coming on to women which basically involved him asking them a question, then repeating their answer in a fatuous, high-pitched voice that appeared to be some kind of attempt at an imitation. Few found this irresistible and many found it intensely aggravating, as far as I could tell as a captivated bystander. The thing was, he wouldn’t just do it once or twice in a conversation as some form of manic ice-breaker, he’d insist on incessantly repeating every answer, over and over again. (In fact, it never passed two or three phrases, as the focus of his amorous intentions had normally walked away, or at least turned her back on him, by then.) But you couldn’t help but admire his determination and self-discipline, he simply refused to yield to the obvious.

L’s professional fall from grace was as spectacular as it was sudden. No sooner had he arrived and joined our jaundiced ranks than within a fortnight he appeared in the Principal’s office accused of gross misconduct. He had been teaching grammar to a group of Pre-Intermediate students and, perhaps not entirely acquainted with the realities of “super-intensive” English courses, had tested the class and insisted they re-do a chapter due to their widespread and abject failure.

“Super-intensive” English courses are, in reality, all about covering as much material in class as possible, however superficially, giving copious handouts and padding out students’ files so that they can contentedly look at the tome later and say, with a misplaced sense of achievement, “I learned all that on the super-intensive English course.” L, no doubt following the principles of his military training in refusing to cut corners, repudiated the class’s attempts at subterfuge and expressed his determination to see justice done to the chapter. It was to prove a fateful error of judgement.

There was a middle-aged German woman in the group (my colleague E later used her story as kindling for his smouldering anti-German delusions – see YOU, SIR, ARE A DEMENTED BIGOT for more on this), and she proved to be more than a match for L’s pugnacious inflexibility. Her response to his plan to revise the last chapter was an implacable, “Nein”. As is a common tactic among disgruntled students, she made her personal opinions appear collective by using the pronoun “we” instead of “I”, thus compelling L to feel like a Christian going solo in the Colloseum, encircled by some not insubtantial mousers. Under such duress, as L himself later recounted, “a red mist just descended”. His voice rising an octave, he shrieked histrionically, “If you were a bloke, I’d punch the sh*t out of you!”

Judging by the conspicuously frosty atmosphere when I later entered the room to teach the same class, despite not yet having covered the Second Conditional (If + past simple + would), everyone had caught the drift of L’s somewhat infelicitous example. L himself saw out the rest of that week, then disppeared as quickly as he had arrived - missing in action, presumed red-carded.