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.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007


My new best friend, Number 24, the blunt Yorkshireman, really came into his own during the leadership tests. These comprised a variety of apparatus including scaffolding towers, planks and ropes, and unwieldy objects such as oil drums and ammunition boxes to be transported across gaping voids, all without touching the ground. Each of us in turn was taken aside from the group, briefed on the task to be performed, then ordered to gather our company together, pass the instructions succinctly on to them and lead them through to a successful conclusion. That was the theory, at least.

Two Majors were in charge of this part of the proceedings, one an impatient, elongated ghoul and the other a frightfully well-spoken middle-aged gym mistress. The latter kept us jogging on the spot (there’s an awful lot of that going on in the Army) as we waited to be summoned to tackle the next asinine challenge. She also made each of us complete a verbal assignment whilst we were idling. Number 24 was invited to tell a joke. This was going to be good, I thought to myself, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Given the circumstances, an obedient drudge eager to please the aristocratic Major might have resolved to tell an innocuous “Knock, Knock” joke, or a cheeky, “Doctor, Doctor” pun – something involving the words, “bonkers”, “old Etonian”, or maybe “tally-ho”. Number 24 blazed a trail with, if not the funniest, certainly the most magnificently inappropriate gag imaginable. Here is his contribution, verbatim, to be read in a Yorkshire accent.

Little Red Riding Hood’s walking through the forest, and she sees a wolf in the bushes. She goes, “My, Mister Wolf, what great big, bulging eyes you’ve got!”, and the wolf replies, “Piss off, I’m having a shit.”

It was one of those moments where you feel you’ve been sat on by a prop forward and a sound you didn’t think you were capable of producing involuntarily roars from the depths of your belly. I wanted to buy Number 24 a drink, simply as a reward for his audacity and splendid sense of the ridiculous. Instead I acted like a spineless scullion, and when asked frostily what I thought of Number 24’s improvised stand-up, I mendaciously labeled it, “A bit of a poor show, Major.”

It was all downhill from there on. I briefed the group on my task with such haste and lack of clarity that anyone watching the frantic pandemonium that broke out on the apparatus might have thought we were workers in a Chinese fireworks factory where a sneaky attempt to break the no-smoking rule had resulted in a tragic industrial accident of shocking, yet uncommonly entertaining, proportions.

By the time we came to the planning exercise, I was already fighting Custer’s Last Stand. The scene of carnage presented to us was this: we were one of three crew members aboard a yacht in a round-the-world race, and an unexplained explosion on board during a storm had apparently blown both the engine and the Captain to smithereens, and hideously maimed the 17-stone salad-dodger of a boatswain. There was a motorised dinghy aboard, but only with x amount of fuel and a top speed of y. The current was pushing the yacht towards a nearby island to the east (where there was a telephone) at z knots, and the other boats in the race were n nautical miles behind, traveling at s knots. There was also another archipelago nearby to the west, but to reach it we’d have to fight against swirling tides, represented by the variable t. A distant lighthouse had a broken radio. The question was: which course of action did we have to take in order to save the boatswain’s life, considering that he would bleed to death if untreated within the next hour?

The logical approach was to calculate speed-time-distance relationships, eliminate the unfeasible options and get the boatswain safely airlifted to casualty. After an hour and a half of mental tumult, the only conclusion I’d arrived at was that I’d be sheepishly avoiding eye contact with the boatswain’s widow at his funeral.

As it turned out, none of us had managed to solve the problem adequately, which was to let the yacht drift east on the tide to the island and call 999 using the telephone. Each of us was required to stand up in random order and present our answers. Of course, I was again last to be called upon. “Right, Number 25,” the elongated Major snapped, “stand up and tell us the correct answer.” Had I been paying close attention, I may have perceived from the other incorrect answers the key to solving the conundrum, but I’d drifted off to a sunny beach with my bikini-clad Andalucian flamenco dancer. “Firstly, I’d put the boatswain in the dinghy,” I started, only to be rudely shouted down by the Major. “We’ve already said that’s impossible!” he bellowed, reaching instinctively for an imaginary sidearm, “you’re in the middle of a storm and the boatswain weighs 17 stones!”. His vehemence forced me to think quickly on my feet. “I’d roll the boatswain into the dinghy on deck,” I ventured meagerly, “then launch the dinghy with him already in it.” I knew it was harebrained, but if I admitted I didn’t know the answer, I felt I’d be following the boatswain down to a watery locker belonging to a certain Davy Jones.

“Sit down, Number 25,” the Major sighed, as if the boatswain’s last moments on this Earth really were ebbing away due to my incompetence. I noticed him writing, and I suspect he was wearily scrawling the world “ARSEHOLE” in cold, black ink next to my name on his clipboard.


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Tuesday, 30 October 2007


If I can blame anybody but myself for my failure to enroll at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in September 1995, it would have to be Number 21. (In order to strip us of our humanity during the Regular Commissions Board (RCB), each of our six-member unit was given a number from 20 to 25, and we were ordered around using these digits rather than our names.) I had taken an instant dislike to Number 21 when I had failed in a polite attempt to make small talk as we awaited the Scottish Sergeant-Major’s dressing down. He was the sour fruit of the county of Essex, and struck me as a charmless Thatcherite “there is no such thing as society, only individuals” acolyte. He was selfish, truculent and had mean little piggy eyes and a wayward conviction that he would be getting through the forthcoming tests despite, rather than with the help of, his fellow team members. Several times over the next couple of days his obnoxious ignorance provoked in me a strong urge just to seize him wordlessly and slap him repeatedly about the head.

Making up the rest of our company was a lanky Northern Irish school leaver, another loud fish wife from the north-west (were they sisters, I wondered?), a heaving blonde with bright lipstick, a Royal Military Policeman seeking to rise through the ranks, myself and the excellent Number 24, a cynical undergraduate from Yorkshire who did little to disguise his utter lack of interest in joining Her Britannic Majesty’s Forces. Apparently his father had insisted he candidate himself for a commission in a nostalgic tribute to the good old days when press gangs roamed the taverns of Portsmouth and Southsea offering careers as Royal Navy Able Seamen.

One of the reasons given for my dishonorable discharge from the RCB was, to quote the wrung out Colonel’s missive, “a lack of physical courage”. This insinuation wounds me deeply, and I would like to take this opportunity to defend my soiled reputation.

As expected, the officer recruitment tests featured an assault course. It wasn’t a particularly lengthy or taxing one, but it was fiendishly located on a significant down slope, meaning that, on exiting several of the obstacles, you couldn’t help but build up an undesirable head of steam when approaching the next. One of said impediments to be negotiated was a bar to be leapt over. Having just crawled under an annoyingly low construction, as I scrambled to my feet, it became clear I was never going to manage to high hurdle the awkwardly placed stick, given my accelerated velocity and the short distances involved. I therefore deemed it wise to run past the obstacle, decelerate, jog back up the hill, and calmly complete the task under more controlled conditions. Evidently, this was wrong – even if it meant knocking the bar flying, I should have blundered through the task at breakneck speed, like some rampaging lunatic devoid of basic motor skills. If I’d known in advance that this kind of raising Cain was what they were after, I wouldn’t have scaled the seven-foot wall, I’d have run straight into it in a brave, but ultimately futile, attempt to demolish it with my head.

Another cunning psychological ploy utilised was to herd us into a corrugated iron hut at the bottom of the slope where we would await our turn on Hamburger Hill. From this Spartan vantage point we could hear, but not see, each other panting and gasping around the course, and it was cleverly situated near enough to the seven-foot wall for us to discern the sickening thud and desperate scraping sounds that accompanied the latest hapless pretender’s attempt to overcome the unyielding wooden edifice. Our numbers were called out in random order, adding to the tense, air-raid shelter atmosphere of our cramped den. Of course, having been singled out by my advanced age for special treatment, I was last to be summoned to complete the course, and was almost certainly the least.

I, for one, secretly warmed towards feckless Yorkshireman Number 24 as we heard his quickening, flat-footed lope approaching and winced in unison at his loud collision with the wall. There followed an undignified grunting and scrabbling, then a sudden silence, broken seconds later by the unmistakable sound of some immoderate dry heaving as his flaccid, unconditioned body spectacularly betrayed him. The man had a certain cavalier, devil-may-care panache - I comforted myself that I would be in good company as it became increasingly clear that neither of us would be passing out in the conventional military sense.


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Sunday, 28 October 2007


Eighteen months is a long time, even for an accomplished procrastinator. I suspect the inordinate length of time that elapses between expressing an interest in an Army career and actually getting to the Regular Commissions Board in Westbury is all part of the cunningly devised system, a conceit designed to evaluate whether procrastination’s evil step-sister, self-doubt, is going to rear her ugly biscuit and separate some wheat from the chaff. I must admit that, by the time I arrived at the forbidding, barbed-wire encircled compound in rural Wiltshire, the officerly wind in my sails had diminished to a gentle zephyr, having peaked at gale force eight during the trial run in Beaconsfield three months previously. After that brush with the spontaneously combusting Colonel, I had suffered a motivational relapse and was simply going through the motions, driven only by a determination to show that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, I wasn’t a capricious bottler who gave up on things as soon as the first altocumulus undulatus began to form in an otherwise cloudless sky.

It didn’t help that I’d recently become entangled with an untamable Andalucian gypsy girl who had unaccountably resolved to train her amorous flamethrower upon my unsuspecting person and, more than once, made me lose all sense of time and direction. The thought of being awoken at 2am not by her affectionate longings but by some mustachioed, criminally insane Sergeant Major eager to aggressively harass me into wading across a swollen river inside the next fifteen minutes filled me not with an overpowering urge to sing Jerusalem, but an unwholesome, morbid dread. But stand and fight I must, lest my reputation be forever sullied.

If Beaconsfield had revealed a snapshot of a state school triumph of hope over plausibility, Westbury wasn’t any more convincing. The Sergeant Major charged with administering us presumably came from one of the Scottish regiments, judging by the ill-fitting tam o’shanter that perched atop his balding pate. When he started talking I thought it judicious to listen, if only out of an antiquated proneness towards politeness, but the rest of the motley gaggle of state school delusionists exhibited a healthy distrust of authority, and continued chatting obliviously as if still attending morning lectures in the Student Union bar. Only when the Sa’rnt Major started braying and turning crimson did he receive the full attention of the gathered cross-section of redbrick intelligentsia, even then receiving resentful glares from several parties there present clearly unaccustomed to being told what to do.

The news that I was, at 25, the oldest candidate, and therefore the “Chairman of the Mess”, filled me with a pathetic pride mixed with a nagging anxiety. Whilst I would get to be in command during the last evening’s “mess dinner” (with the right to use a gavel and everything), a certain spotlight would be projected onto me that I wasn’t altogether sure I was going to relish. My suspicions were confirmed over the next three and a half days - I was singled out for relentless and severe scrutiny every step of the way, and under such duress, I have to admit I cracked. A couple of weeks after my soulless display, I received a pithy rejection letter full of simmering resentment signed personally in heavy ink by the Colonel in Beaconsfield. Looking back, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint the reasons for my botched misadventure.


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Saturday, 27 October 2007


With the momentous decision to try to become an Army officer made, the eighteen-month escalator whirred into life and, for a time, I became a single-minded Sport Billy. I jogged daily, mountain biked, walked everywhere with a hefty backpack on like a total arse, gamely doggy-paddled the width of the local swimming baths - all based on Robin Eggar’s Royal Marines Fitness Course book, which allegedly duplicates the psychopathic regime employed when “beasting” potential Commandos on the inhospitable Devon moors. Of the five levels of intensity, I reached level three and decided to stay there – a man has his limits, and I have mine, too. (Incidentally, seven years on, I had to undergo back surgery to treat a herniated disc, something I still haven’t ruled out demanding MOD compensation for.)

Then it was on to Beaconsfield, the Regimental HQ of the Adjutant General’s Corps, for a mock-up of the real officer recruitment tests. We were greeted by a Colonel and his bouncy young female Captain sidekick. The former was an angular, reedy man with a post-traumatic glare that suggested he’d been not one, but several bridges too far. His manner was tart, and the suspicion grew over the following two days that he was edging ever closer to resigning his commission and emigrating in disgust at the quantum lack of decent officer material the country was capable of producing. Looking at the rabble of which I formed an integral part, I couldn’t fault his misanthropic logic. Whilst the glamorous regiments such as the Coldstream Guards and the King's Royal Hussars vacuumed up most of the decent public school candidates, our Col. was left with people like us, TEFL misfits and state school teachers with unachievable delusions of grandeur.

Comprising our inglorious company there was a five-foot policeman, a whiney harridan from the north-west, a spindly Intelligence Corps aspirant, an airbrushed aerobics teacher, a rather large young lady whom I could only assume was there to win a bet, and myself, a desperate TEFL escapologist. If I was determined to act like an officer and a gentleman and at least show some decorum, it was a resolution apparently not widely adopted by my brethren. As we were receiving the Col.’s briefing, the whiney harridan abruptly piped up, “I think I need a wee”, stunning even the camp commandant into a narrow-eyed, smouldering silence.

I was glad I’d put in the physical training. After a lavish breakfast of scrambled eggs, tea, cereals and croissants (this was getting better and better), we were ordered to get into PT gear and follow our leader on a damp stumble around the camp perimeter and down into a natural valley behind some trees. There we were put into pairs (being a TEFL teacher, this part was a cakewalk) and told to give each other a piggy-back up the slope ahead of us. I had been paired with a big-boned pit pony of a school-leaver, which was fine when I had the reins, but nearly had me lobbing the continental contents of my stomach up and over my new, Army-issue pumps when commanded to return the favour. On our way back to HQ, the large girl was found projecting her insides into the brambles, but the Col. ordered us to merely hurdle her and drive on regardless. This was the kind of tough decision Army officers have to make every day, I reflected ruefully.

One of the things that hinders any possibility of TEFL teachers making a success of themselves in a real job is the fact that we are not encouraged to hold opinions. Teacher trainers drone on endlessly about cutting down “Teacher Talking Time”, as if we are all supposed to behave like some shadowy mime in the classroom, simply “facilitating” the mumbo-jumbo that students talk to each other because they haven’t heard enough correct language to be able to express themselves in any meaningful way. Debates never involve interesting, controversial opinions for fear of offending someone, so we end up discussing inane, plastic subjects nobody has anything to say about whatsoever that a literate child hasn’t already pondered and dismissed as inherently without significance.

So when we sat in a group and were asked by the bouncy Captain to discuss America’s influence in the world, I found myself deferring politely to everyone else’s opinion, instead of shouting down my contemporaries with confident assertions that we should “demand UN sanctions, and definitely not rule out the military option.” If I was to sail through the Regular Commissions Board, I was going to have to ramp up my assertiveness by several warp factors.


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Thursday, 25 October 2007


I'm going to be lying low for a while, at least until all this has blown over. I was just lucky that Volkswagen Beetle was there to whisk me off to an undisclosed location. It's peaceful out here, I'm well hidden from the lupine corporate bankers. Show and Moby should join me soon, when it's safe to travel.

Should you notice anyone snooping around here, I'm a blonde deaf mute with big tits who goes by the name of Barbara.

More when I can. Meanwhile, please partake of the new poll at the bottom of the page.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2007


I have been reduced by the fragile Brazilian electrical energy infrastructure to writing this in a Cyber Café. An entertaining Sunday evening's in-house pyrotechnics ended with a burnt-out PC, exploding lightbulbs (and I wasn't even singing), six hours of darkness and Show fleeing into a frightful panic and manning the lifeboats far too early.

Tomorrow I have to don a suit and tie and head for São Paulo to take part as a Brazilian - English interpreter in a two-hour video conference meeting on high finance. I've never done this before, but have been compelled to make an attempt by economic necessity, natural vanity and a taste for some linguistic Russian Roulette.

If I can pull it off, the TEFL chains could be loosening, if not, I could be arrested and end up on the chain gang. If it's the latter, I appreciate your support over the past few months and I will be writing an interesting blog from an inhumanly overcrowded cell in a São Paulo penitentiary, whilst offering English classes to fellow inmates in return for a guarantee of sexual abstinence. Being a stout, pale blonde in Brazil has its disadvantages, too, you know - it's not all kissy lips and fancy trainers...

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Sunday, 21 October 2007


Today’s Brazilian Grand Prix has got me a-thinking. Being an amateur anthropologist, one thing I like doing when abroad is attending sporting events, even if I have little or no interest in the spectacle itself. It is a splendid opportunity to observe the natives en masse and forumlate some overly simplistic generalisations that may help a little in understanding what makes them tick.

Formula One is a sport populated by multi-millionaires who take driving much too seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to watch a whole race except when monstrously hungover, when lying sweating and watching the bright colours go round and round has a strangely soothing effect. I attended the Brazilian GP in 2003, around six months after touching down here, and the crowd’s social interaction was fascinating.

Firstly, the grandstand provided the perfect setting for some hierarchy-building. Those Alpha males who arrived early (we’re talking around 6am for a 2pm race) took position at the top of the inclined seating area, then proceeded to verbally abuse any interloper audacious enough to try to reach the summit uninvited. “Levanta cedo! Tomar café! Você vai ficar de pé!” came the chilling chant of the hillfort defenders (“Get up early! Have breakfast! You’re going to have to stand!”) This all involved literally hundreds of good-natured hecklers, without central organisation of any kind, and was widely respected, even by bewildered blonde Finns who, lacking local language skills, for a split second believed they were about to enter the Guinness Book of Records as victims of the largest mugging yet recorded, judging by how wide their eyes suddenly became.

The one exception to the implicit “no ascending” rule was, of course, attractive female motorsport enthusiasts. “A gostosa sobe! O viado desce!” (“The tasty one ascends! The gay goes in the opposite direction!”) was the jolly cry that greeted embarrassed couples walking along the front of the grandstand, as they desperately tried to look cool amid the hail of water-soaked screwed-up newspaper missiles that rained down on them from the battlements. Every male who passed was denounced as a “viado” (“gay”) by practically everybody in the upper echelons. Most victims of this abuse either light-heartedly returned the compliment or ignored it – something hard to imagine at a British sporting event, where, instead of inoffensive balls of wet Guardian supplements being tossed playfully from on high, the sky would be brown and amber with beer bottles. During the whole two days (practice and the race), I didn’t see one punch thrown, or one drunkard ejected, despite many beer-soaked hours spent waiting in persistent, torrential rain.

One thing that really made me laugh was the under-the-surface subversion on show. TV loves to portray Formula One as the epitome of glamour. We see close-ups of gorgeous pouting women in Fendi sunglasses trying to look interested in the team garages, the starting grid is awash with celebrities and top models and entertainment folk being photographed with Bernie Ecclestone. Down in our neck of the woods, on the back straight, the crowd was deliciously ribald and irreverant. As a vintage Kombi maintenance van trundled down the track towards us, shouts went up, “Be careful, Rubinho (Barrichello)! There’s a corner coming up!” – as it passed us we caught a glimpse of a rain-drenched pair of buttocks being majestically mooned, which raised the most rousing cheer of the whole event. TV commentator Jim Rosenthal probably claimed that we were cheering Michael Schumacher, who was following shortly behind in the back of a pick-up to inspect the flooded track. He received as lively a torrent of abuse as I’ve witnessed since prison, only topped by the foul-mouthed taunting he received when he later crashed out of the race. Apparently misinterpreting the obcene gestures, he waved to thank the crowd for their support in a state of utter, egocentric delusion.

As for the race, then Ferrari driver Rubinho Barichello started in pole position, dropped to sixth within a lap, regained the lead with some deft manoeuvres, then famously ran out of petrol just in front of us. Inexplicably, literally half the crowd at once packed it in and went home, despite the race not being even halfway through and the elevated price of the tickets. Brazilians tend to see sporting failure as just another reflection of their country’s lack of hope of a successful future.


Friday, 19 October 2007


Most TEFL teachers have at some point at least entertained the idea of coming hither with the foreign students they are charged with enlightening, and those who deny fostering such designs are liars, fools, or both – it is the only perk. The flames of our duplicitous tendencies are often inexplicably fanned by the fact that a majority of English-seeking visitors to our mountains green seem to lose all sense of discernment when confronted with an otherwise average Joe with a face puffy with drink, a whiteboard marker and hazardously dated fashion sense.

Let me come clean now and say that my experience of this kind of horseplay is relatively limited - TEFL philanderers have always provoked in me a profound mistrust. No sooner have they waved off some damp-eyed maiden at Heathrow Terminal 3, than they’re hovering around the Information Desk posing as a taxi driver ready to whisk off, and get some sober groundwork in with, another perfumed delight eager to be hoisted off the TEFL baggage reclaim. I suspect these healthy misgivings are, if truth be told, largely based on white-hot envy, but I just don’t like the buggers, and I refuse to apologise for it.

If, like me, you have taken occasional advantage of the romantic opportunities the language barrier offers and managed to somehow persuade desirable foreigners that you’re a catch that’s really going somewhere in life, please help me with my research by ranking your favourite nationalities. Here are mine:

  1. Brazilian – hotter than a burning sock
  2. Spanish – earthy and all-consuming
  3. Spanish Basque – earthy, all-consuming and sullen
  4. Russian – beautiful enough to spark a border incident, yet maddeningly aloof
  5. French-Iranian – unhinged and apparently married
  6. Er, that’s it...

This is not in any way to disparage other races, creeds, nationalities or states of evolution, it simply means I haven’t managed to manhandle them in any meaningful way. (If Show is reading this, my use of the present perfect in the last sentence was figurative and not literal, of course.)

I invite you, gentlemen, to opine away without fear of judgement or condemnation. If you prefer doing this in pairs, so much the better.

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Another generally successful TEFL Graveyard poll has now closed, with a grand total of five votes registered. As the last election was marred by a vote-rigging scandal in which two of the seven votes were cast from two different computers by the same lonely person with too much time on his hands (I believe they call them “hackers”), I can only assume that the same five citizens have voted again. I salute you, pollsters, you are the manure that helps the rose of democracy shamelessly blossom.

This time, four readers said that they prefer my humble burial ground to Dave’s ESL Café (no need to shoot myself in the head just yet, then), whilst one visionary prognosticator shares my conviction that I’ll be famous one day, and wants to be able to bask in some reflected glory.

The only lingering doubt is whether I’ll achieve notoriety for doing something brilliant, or whether my name will be carved forever in TEFL infamy as the first known perpetrator of a Reverse School Massacre. This is where, instead of some implosive, devil-worshipping student sadistically taking out his teenage angst on assorted jocks, cheerleaders, the prom queen and the school janitor, a TEFL teacher goes on a rampage against his students armed only with some child-proof scissors, a non-toxic glue stick, sharpened whiteboard pens and an industrial stapler.

Some things we can only leave up to the gods. They shall speak to us when it is Time To Act.


Thursday, 18 October 2007


If those nice people at Sitemeter are to be believed, a BBC insider is regularly visiting my fun-packed long barrow. It reckon it must be the Head of TV Sitcoms, who found me after a Google Search on "BBC Talent Sitcom Entrants We Wrongly Rejected At The Semi-Final Stage". Let him weep into his vodka and tonic!

Remember Decca Records executive Dick Rowe's classic? "Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein."


Wednesday, 17 October 2007


As some of you already know, today I went to São Paulo to do a voice test for a video production company. To be frank, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

Firstly, they told me there was no need to do my tap dancing routine. Then, barely three bars into “You’re All I Need To Get By” (the moving Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duet), the woman, in a tone of voice I didn’t take to one little bit, demanded that I, “Just read the text we gave you, please” – some turgid piece about an electrical engineering firm. I was almost expecting her to shout, “Bring on the hook!” halfway through, such was her offhand attitude to my artistry. I read it, but had had so little time to get into character that I wasn’t at all satisfied with the result.

Then came the feedback. I have an exquisite voice, apparently, but I need to “put more energy into my performances”. I explained that I’m into my second decade as a TEFL teacher. She crossed herself and suggested I practise at home.

Shoddy, that’s how I’d describe it. If these are the depths to which the search for new talent has plunged, soon we’ll be back to the days when Little and Large was considered prime-time Saturday night entertainment. Then don’t come running to me.

Show has just informed me that the word "esquisito" in Brazilian is a falso amigo - it doesn't mean "exquisite", it means "strange" or "odd". That's good news, then.

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Tuesday, 16 October 2007


After my dalliance with the nation’s seaborne defence force, the rest of my university career progressed without further incident, except for an abortive attempt to join the Hong Kong Police. I think my problem was uniforms. Whereas most men spent their energies on trying to persuade sexual partners to dress up as policewomen, maids, nuclear plant workers, etc, I would cut out the middle man and amuse myself for hours in a matching set of khaki fatigues and a pith helmet (see picture – please note, this is not me).

My colleague E, the demented bigot, was probably the one person who, more than anybody else, persuaded me that a career in The Army would be a step forward. A year into my TEFL adventure, he was displaying such spectacular symptoms of mental meltdown, accompanied by a raging self-loathing apparently based on the fact that his salary hadn’t risen significantly for about fifteen years, that I felt compelled to leave the burning deck before I too became accustomed to the idea of caravaning as an economic holiday option.

One Monday morning I was walking along a corridor in the school, when a classroom door burst open and a hysterical Swiss woman spilled out, wailing in an advanced state of agitation. “Is he mad?” she screeched, “is he mad?”, as she half-ran, half-staggered into the school garden like a victim escaping a sudden building collapse. I poked my head around the door and, sure enough, a pair of deranged, paranoid eyes glared back at me as if belonging to the most junior private at Rourke’s Drift who’d just heard the Zulu drums for the first time. They prompted me into a judicious silence, but it turned out later that E had been burgled for about the eleventh time the day before, and his revenge, exacted upon the innocent Swiss lawyer, had been as swift as it had been without logical foundation. In the interview to discern her level of spoken English, E had peevishly destroyed her obviously imperfect conjugation of verbs, together with her self-confidence, and left her, along with the rest of us, questioning his suitability for living in the community.

But I digress. My plan now was to join The Army as an officer in the Educational and Training Services branch of the Adjutant General’s Corps, formerly the Royal Army Educational Corps. The job seemed perfect – teaching some English to foreign military officers being trained in the UK, learning and then teaching foreign languages to British officers being sent abroad, and best of all, running a course for non-commissioned officers who wanted to gain a commission by rising through the ranks. This involved taking them to the theatre, art galleries, great European cities... making them posher, in other words. I greedily filled out my application forms, sent them off to the Regimental Headquarters in Beaconsfield, and started the arduous process of getting physically fit.


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Sunday, 14 October 2007



there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't

weep, do

Who wrote this poem?
  1. John and Liz Soars (authors of New Headway)
  2. David Cotton (author of Business Class)
  3. Simon Haines (author of New First Certificate Masterclass)
  4. Charles Bukowski (author of All The Assholes in the World And Mine)
  5. Raymond Murphy (author of English Grammar In Use)
Prize: Free dictionary


Saturday, 13 October 2007


Being commissioned into The Army is not an obvious career move for a TEFL teacher, but it is a measure of my desperation to scale the wall of the TEFL Graveyard and bolt that, for a time, I considered it the most propitious. In a life replete with many a poorly planned venture, this was, by several furlongs, the most gloriously preposterous. Fortunately for the defence of the realm, the assembled officers at the Regular Commissions Board in Westbury concurred wholeheartedly. Indeed, I suspect that, twelve years on, more than a few of them are still dining out on my laughably limp performance during the gruelling three-day selection process.

My unhealthy obsession with all things military started when I was a child. Whilst my contemporaries were into Marvel comics, 2000 AD and superheroes, I used to read Warlord, which was full of Second World War battles and other assorted slaughter. I also spent vast amounts of time and money on the quite pointless hobby of military modelling.

By the time I reached University, I hadn’t grown up any. As a Fellwalking Club stalwart, I loved nothing better than to rise early on Sundays, don a backpack, galoshes and a souwester, and wander around the north of England for four or five hours in appalling, miserable weather. Becoming a military officer seemed the obvious next step. Conveniently ignoring the fact that I could well be coming under a fatal hail of heavy machine gun fire or a lethal mortar barrage, I fancied that a career in the armed forces was nothing more than a heavily-armed form of rambling.

I never managed to convince myself one hundred per cent of my suitability for earning the Queen’s shilling, however – another case where my endearing leaning towards procrastination was given full rein. However, in an uncharateristically enterprising moment, I did once arrange an interview with the Royal Navy Careers Officer – I’d always fancied travelling around the world, and of course there was the added bonus of routinely being piped on board ship.

My interlocutor was an athletic blonde who seemed to fill the entire room, as most forces types do. I was feeling unaccustomedly buoyant.

“So, how’s the course going?” he boomed.

“Excellently,” I barked back, “to be honest, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get a two-one.” He raised an eyebrow and nodded approvingly.

“I’ve worked hard and I think I deserve it,” I added, exuding an alien self-confidence that almost, but not quite, spilled over into self-satisfaction.

“So, are you going to apply?” he bellowed as we wrapped up our no-nonsense shouting match.

“I think so,” I retorted.

We exchanged a bone crushing handshake, I took the forms he proffered, turned on my heel and marched purposefully home. When I arrived I went upstairs to my room, inexplicably put the application forms straight in the bin and had a lie down for the rest of the afternoon.

But that was far from the end of my martial ambitions.


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Friday, 12 October 2007


Keen to ramp up the intellectual rigour of this blog, not least due to the fine scholarship of englishteacher365 and no good boyo’s ongoing treatise “On Eastern Bloc Surrealism and Being a Welsh”, I am happy to inaugurate my own meek fare of Brazilian Lexical Semiotics – The Basics. If you are a TEFL teacher, please feel free to cut out, paste, crayon, laminate, make a board game out of, do a jigsaw reading with, put to music, divide into Student A and Student B, or fashion a paper hat out of this material – I only ask in return that you click on the advertising on my blog at least one hundred times a day for the next three years and introduce ten new customers each to my smorgasbord well-intentioned, and increasingly erudite, emissions.

The aim of the course is to examine the meaning of common Brazilian expressions and their English equivalents, and to see if any cultural nuances can be detected in the process. I feel somewhat qualified to set forth on this subject, as at University I read Italian and was obliged to study the seminal semiotician, Umberto Eco, who, I was surprised to discover, has written much more than that novel about a monk who thought he was Sherlock Holmes starring Sean Connery.

Unit One: At the Disco

In British dance halls, after between three and five Tequila Slammers, predatory males are often tempted to compliment wenches, serving or otherwise, on their “boob tube” (see Diagram 1.1). The term in English does exactly what it says on the tin – it describes a tube that holds boobs (or bosoms, for University-educated readers).

In Brazilian, the same item of apparel has an altogether more lurid name - the “tomara-que-caia”, or “let’s hope it falls (down)”. The average Brazilian is a delightfully base creature to whom carnal relations are as natural as alcohol-drenched brawling is to the cream of British manhood. If we delve a little deeper, we find that the patriarchal nature of Brazilian society is reflected in the expression, as the probable beneficiaries of the sudden exposure of a finely-shaped bust in the average nightspot are likely to be assembled members of football teams, high court judges, local councillors, assorted married philanderers and priests. (And perhaps the odd lesbian).

As adolescent beauties are thus accustomed from an early age to wearing a fashion item whose very name conveys their partners’ and admirers’ secret wishes for a revelation of more than they bargained for, the flashing of baps is more likely to occur in the southern hemisphere than in the northern, if the preliminary findings of my research can be relied upon. Proof of this is the fact that groups of Brazilian males do not feel the need to drunkenly bray, “Get your tits out for the lads!” in nightspots in some kind of desperate, directionless mating ritual.

I hope you found this informative. Once I get EU or Mercosul funding for my work, I’ll be publishing it in all relevant journals. Meanwhile, please feel free to peer review this first draft.



Some call it Customer Relationship Management...

Vote now, only six days left!

(UPDATE: The poll is now at the bottom of the page)


Thursday, 11 October 2007


For those who worry about me, I have some good news - my jailer might have dropped my cell key, and by bending a coathanger, I may just be able to pull it under the door. I've been asked to go to São Paulo next week to do a voice test to be a narrator for a video production company. Further down the line, this could be my long-awaited passport into vaudeville.

I have to choose a text, roughly a page of A4 long, to recite during said dry run. My shortlist currently comprises:
  1. Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas - an opportunity for a crude Richard Burton rip-off;
  2. The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope - in my humble opinion, the greatest, and longest, poem ever written in any language about hair;
  3. Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett - this strident monologue may better exhibit my full range;
This is just an instinctive first draft - please feel free to add your suggestions.


Wednesday, 10 October 2007


My dear old Pop would have been 77 today. He was one of the most naturally funny people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, not in a “ba-boom, I thang you” kind of way, but in an incredibly witty, dry, understated manner. He was the best storyteller I’ve ever known – he’d use just the right number of words, never too many nor too few, and always left his enchanted audience wanting more.

I’m not sure he dreamed that his son would one day become a TEFL teacher, but amid my overlong career as a unbearably vainglorious adolescent upstart he never questioned my right to make my own choices, that often later proved to be mistakes.

He used to tell me about a writer he loved, who in his opinion was one of the greatest of the English language. I never paid much attention. One day, years later, I asked him if he’d ever read H L Mencken. To my shame, he replied yes, and repeated his opinion that he was one of the greatest writers of the English language. Mark Twain summed it up: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” I included that in my tribute for his funeral, but when the time came I was in no state to read it, which is something I will always regret.

As a procrastinator, I could have wished for no finer model. Eyes burning, he would regularly reveal stunningly imaginative schemes that caught the imagination and carried us off to a distant, exotic land – from putting oak panelling in the living room to building a log cabin at the bottom of the garden; from buying a Mirror sailing dinghy to trading in our sixteen year old Ford Escort for a classier model. Within minutes he'd be gently snoozing in an armchair as we tried in vain to catch his dreams as they vanished into thin air like cigarette smoke. It was his winsome way of dealing with a job he hated (high street banking), and it engendered in me a healthy acceptance of disappointment - I soon learned to curb my enthusiasm.

I think about him every time I watch a funny TV show, read a pleasing blog post or tuck into one of Giovanni Guareschi’s peerlessly brilliant tales from The Don Camillo Omnibus, which I can remember him enthusing over when he discovered it in a secondhand bookshop, and which my mother erroneously brought to Brazil after I asked for my copy of Don Quixote.

So thanks, D J Ward, for all the laughs, the unrealised plans, and the innumerable perfect stories.


Tuesday, 9 October 2007


The TEFL Graveyard Poll has now closed, with a staggering seven votes, two of which I made from different computers in a misguided attempt to get the ball rolling.

In answer to the question, “If I could teach English to anybody living or dead, my choice would be...”, the results, in reverse order, are as follows:

Mother Teresa (Albanian nun) – 0 votes (0 %) – Perhaps unsurprising this one. Selfless acts of altruism need no translation.

Marcel Marceau (French mime) – 0 votes (0%) – Given that Monsieur Marceau spent his life communicating in his own unique form of sign language, it can only be assumed that he didn’t even speak French, perhaps due to having no roof to his mouth or summat. Bit of a trick option that one.

Tabatha Cash (French liberal) – 1 vote (14%) – Although she has sadly now retired, I became an admirer of Ms Cash’s work as a socially inept adolescent. I’ve always wondered about her opinions on the future of European Union integration and whether the Maastricht Treaty was really a fair deal for all member states. There was a time when I’d have been more than willing to pump her for information on these and other issues of national sovereignty (provided there were no cameras involved), but a man can only send fan mail thrice-weekly for so many years before a reluctance to enter into dialogue becomes a restraining order.

Genghis Khan (Mongolian Club 18-30* Rep) – 2 votes (28%) – Two courageous educators elected the widely-feared oriental marauder as their number one choice. Imagine how history might have taken a different, less scorched path had a bilingual GK been able to make pacts with neighbouring nations over a cup of tea rather than just sack, burn and depredate. The Volga Bulgars may even have beaten the British to industrialisation.

David Beckham (English Club 18-30 pin-up) – 4 votes (57%) – Comment is unnecessary.

* - Club 18-30, formerly known as the Young Conservatives, is a British youth training charity that aims to promote the acquisition of life skills through study abroad programs. Their motto, unofficially attributed to ex-Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, is “Nothing is sacred, if it's going to be a good laugh then we're in.”

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Monday, 8 October 2007


Those of us EFL teachers who ply our trade in non-English-speaking countries often fancy that a step left into translation may allow a little daylight to be peeked through the bars of our cell windows. Having been in Brazil for five years now, just such a cunning scheme recently filled me with muted enthusiasm, which was soon tempered by various aggravating factors.

Firstly, there is the vastly complex correlation between the intimacy of social bonds and the likelihood of actually receiving monetary payment for your work. Brazilians are instinctively herd animals, and once you have penetrated somebody’s inner group an unspoken regimen comes into play based on the exchange of favours. It is almost unthinkable for somebody to charge a friend anything for services rendered - it goes without saying that brotherly sentiments be expressed through toll-free gestures of kindness and fraternity.

This, as I have found to my cost, also extends to friends of friends. Last month a playmate passed a six-page translation for a cosmetics fair to me that he hadn’t had time to complete for an acquaintance of his wife’s, who works for a makeup maunfacturer. They needed the text the following morning, so I spent that evening duly drafting and perfecting it, before sending it back to them before the eight o’clock deadline the next day. Until today, not only have they not paid me, but they haven’t even expressed their gratitude. If anarchists wanted to bring down corporate capitalism in Brazil, their best bet would be to circulate the theory of the “six degrees of separation”, according to which we are all linked to any other person on the planet through, at the most, six people. Given this revelation, the entire economy would grind to a halt - nobody would end up paying anybody for anything.

I have recently been dabbling in two main forms of translation. One is for undergraduates who are required to write a summary of their dissertations in English (normally not running to more than a page) and the other is dreary doctoral theses on deeply obscure economic theory that, if presented to the likes of Alan Greenspan, I imagine would have him glancing at his watch and settling his distracted gaze on the ceiling tiles.

The former, though shorter, are often morbidly impenetrable texts that, whilst written on fairly straightforward subjects, suffer from a widespread tendency towards overelaboration. Many are the times that I have spent uncomfortable minutes questioning my Portuguese as I stare at the paper utterly confounded, before passing it round the family for second, third and fourth opinions formulated through the use of dictionaries, thesauri and Internet searches. My brother-in-law, who is a brain surgeon, recently took one such summary written by a student of Nursing to his bedroom to engage in some complex codebreaking, only to return half an hour later looking disoriented and mumbling incoherently.

I normally revert to one of two courses of action – strip it down to the barest of bones and produce a text a semi-literate child might copy to practise joined-up writing, or translate it literally into something approaching an extract from Finnegans Wake. The person marking it probably hasn’t even finished Headway Pre-Intermediate (New Edition!) anyway.

Pricing is another can of worms altogether. Eager to seek compensation for the bashing my brains were about to take from another masterpiece of macroeconomic masturbation, for the last thesis I received I resolved to daringly raise my levy by one real (approximately 50 US cents) per page. A deathly, and open-ended, radio silence has since descended.

One of my favourite novelists, Paul Auster, got his big break as a writer when he was asked to translate a Mexican movie script, and was handsomely remunerated for his trouble, according to his account of the episode. I still haven’t given up hope of being contracted by a Brazilian filmmaker, but I suspect that, instead of being financially rewarded, I’d have him cleaning my windows or washing my car for the next five years as part of some kind of primitive barter agreement.

Back to preparing the lessons...


Sunday, 7 October 2007


My daily walk with Moby almost ended in tragedy earlier today thanks to a boneshaker-mounted loon. Judging by the fixed-eyed concentration it was taking to keep his baroque means of locomotion safely progressing the wrong way down the dual-carriageway (four-lane highway for North American motorists), he was almost certainly whacked on Thunderbird, or some such homemade local equivalent. His sloppy beard and Fidel Castro hat added a rakish revolutionary gait to his thrill-seeking antics.

In order to warn speeding automobilists of his imminent rasping of their offside paintwork, the lovable simpleton was insistently honking his horn, or rather, squeaking his toy. Unlike any sound belched before by bicycle-mounted early warning systems, the apparatus he doggedly pumped emitted a sound familiar to all hounds fortunate enough to have been entertained with a collection of chewable novelties in their youth.

A sudden canine flashback, an unexpected lurch and our man from Havana was very nearly another mashed addition to a road traffic accident bar chart. He didn’t seem to mind, though. That’s why I love Brazilians. In Britain I would have been viciously assaulted, both by the cycling Cuban revolutionary and passing vanloads of riotous ruffians, Moby would have been confiscated and destroyed, and the delinquent biker would have been hailed a “have-a-go hero” for lamping me, eventually getting off with 20 hours community service for being drunk in charge of some handlebars.

Oh yes, the so-called Third World has some lessons to teach on tolerance.



Anyone seeking a mind-bending alternative to the Sunday papers should check out this blog. The draft Kafkaesque novel Anti-Danube is set to become a post-hope classic. I think it's probably written in English, but it could well be Welsh...


Saturday, 6 October 2007


"In order to activate your account, please reply to this message with the following information:

First Name:

Last Name:

Username on Forum:


Phone Number:

Info about yourself, and a detailed explanation for joining:"

All I wanted to do was take a quick look at Mr D Sperling's jobs forum. We are all aware of the post-9/11 scenario, but isn't this a little excessive? And no, I am not, have never been and never intend to be a member of the TEFL Liberation Front.

The second part of the last item seems a little redundant, considering it's a jobs forum, where, presumably, the principle objective is finding employment.

What does he keep in there that requires such clandestine information gathering...?

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Friday, 5 October 2007


The highlight of my week is Wednesday, not only because I have no English classes to teach, but because it’s rehearsal night for my male voice choir. Twenty-five men, strong and true, plus me, participating in a sublime act of collective solidarity.

To me, singing in a choir is the apotheosis of democratic principles. Nobody is more important than anybody else in a choral ensemble – age, social class, economic conditions, sexual orientation, status – all are rendered meaningless. The prince and the pauper can stand toe to toe and neither must give ground, they are absolute equals, the differences between them becoming indistinguishable (except that the prince probably wears dandy threads and the pauper rags, and the pauper’s bodily odours probably aren’t anything to write a poem about when contrasted with the prince’s fragrant Old Spice.)

One thing troubles me, however. This week we have been given seven days to complete the unenviable task of memorising two stretches of German composer Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (Ecce Gratum and Fortune Plango Vulnera, to be precise.) To give a flavour of what this entails, consider these fragments from Orff’s masterwork:

Qui conantur ut utantur premio Cupidinis,

Quicquid enim florui,

Nam sub axe legimus Hecubam reginam.

The obvious question is, why write a serious choral work in Klingon? Just to assure your place in the trendy vanguard? Those damned Trekkies have a lot to answer for – I challenge anybody to give even one example of how they have contributed to human progress with their sinister conventions and suspicious disguises, not to mention their cloven-footed talking in tongues.

A wider subject for enquiry is why more classical composers didn’t write in English. Were they so lacking in foresight that they failed to appreciate the unstoppable march of our beautiful language towards its status as the global lingua franca? Was TEFL held in such low regard even back then? Imagine how much greater Mozart’s influence might have been had he spent a little less time on his ditties and dedicated a little more energy to making some progress through the Headway course.

History tells us that there were a few visionary exceptions. George Frideric Handel (Friday 23 February 1685 – Saturday 14 April 1759) was born in Germany, but moved to England in 1712, clearly aware that only by living with a Host Family was he to master the language of the future and achieve true reknown. His undisputed masterpiece Messiah, based on the King James Bible, was written in English, making it one of the most accessible works in classical music, provided that you speak the language, of course.

Beethoven’s insistence on writing his lyrics in German has caused untold strife for subsequent generations. When we attempt to sing a certain phrase from his shiver-down-the-spine-inducing Welten Singen (from his oratorio “Christus am Ölberge”), each of us baritones interprets the stretch in our own unique way. As we reach the heartstopping crescendo at the end of the scale, I habitually have at least three syllables left over. All because Beethoven was linguistically lazy.

There is a lesson to be learned in all this. If anybody knows what it is, please enlighten me.


Thursday, 4 October 2007


Assuming that 50% of the readers of this blog are teachers of English, can either of you enlighten me on the following points? They are keeping me awake at night.
  1. When writing a sentence between parentheses, should one put the full stop (period for you yanks) inside the brackets, outside the brackets, or both?
  2. In the following sentence, should a question mark be placed after the word "why", or at the end of the sentence? Why is a different, trickier question
  3. When the bloody hell should one hyphenate?
  4. Does the employment of an exclamation mark enhance or neutralise the comic impact of a sentence?
I look forward to your interaction.


Wednesday, 3 October 2007


The beguiling freak in the photo is the inimitable Mauro Shampoo, whom I suspect had just come last in a Brian May lookalike competition. Apart from being an accomplished hairdresser (hence the pseudonym, presumably), the unkempt oddity is an erstwhile footballing legend with Ibis, from Recife, the Worst Football Team in the World according to the Guinness Book of Records, this title having been bestowed due to their failure to win a game for three straight seasons. Shampoo was their attacking midfield dynamo, ending his career at the club with a remarkable record of one goal in ten seasons.

Since his retirement from the beautiful game, Shampers has taken to the chat show circuit and been the subject of a documentary entitled, “Mauro Shampoo – Footballer, Hairdresser, Man”, which won the Best Short Film - Audience Award at the 2006 Rio Film Festival, amongst other accolades. I first saw him on a late night David Letterman Show clone hosted by Brazilian wit Jô Soares, and I was instantly hooked.

“Show de bola” is an expression in Brazilian Portuguese that, translated literally, means “show of ball” or “ball show”. This is not, as it may first appear, a reference to indecent exposure, but an idiom that normally describes the spectacularity of an event. If the movie you just watched surpassed your expectations, it was “show de bola”, or the abbreviated form, “show”.

The fiendishly inventive Mauro Shampoo uses this expression to describe everything, be it animal, vegetable or mineral. When he speaks, every second word is “show” - people are “show”, places are “show”, he even involuntarily utters “show” out of the blue, without having anything obvious to characterise as being “show”. It’s as if he has a captivating, inoffensive case of Tourette’s Syndrome.

His enthusiasm for all things “show” is maddeningly infectious. Forget New Age positive thinking gurus, Mauro Shampoo has found the key to a happy life – everything is “show”! The man’s psychological insightfulness is inversely proportional to his ability on the football field.

So that’s why I call my wife Show, as a tribute to a hirsute fruitcake who spreads positive vibes through his awkward lack of vocabulary. When we encounter moments of marital tension, as all the best couples do, I just call my spouse Show and soon we are smiling, kissing and making up.

Thank you, Mauro Shampoo – Footballer, Hairdresser, Man.


Tuesday, 2 October 2007


The affable gent in the picture with the grin as wide as the brim of his hat is none other than David, tavern keeper at the rather splendid David’s English Teaching World. Judging by the vast scope and sheer ambition of his network of blogs, I imagine he lives in an extinct volcano on a remote South Pacific atoll, as the fellow clearly courts English Teaching World domination. He seems to spend a good deal of his time philanthropically promoting all TEFL-related blogs in the hemisphere, including my own humble jumble sale of shaky wisdom and myopic insights, garnered from over a decade spent wandering, with no little wondering.

What is refreshing about the big man is his willingness to give equal column inches to both the determined “TEFL is a serious career” crowd and the irreverant, back seat of the bus “TEFL is a lot like skiffle” splinter group (of which I am the self-appointed Brown Owl.) We should, I feel in my bones, be distrustful of anybody who seeks to attach a brightly coloured, Windows XP interface to TEFL, accentuating the positive and conveniently ignoring the darker side. After all, in working in TEFL, we are neither guaranteeing our sainthood nor doing the devil’s bidding – like every job, it has its ups and downs, its moments of low farce and genuine, heartwarming pleasure.

So, if you're busily looking for the TEFL lowdown, or even a TEFL hoedown, be sure to swing by David’s empire – just avoid Oddjob and be careful not to fall into his shark tank on the way out...


Monday, 1 October 2007


A colleague of mine once came out of a lesson looking ashen. She had been doing an exercise with a group of Mongolians that involved her reading out a series of simple directions (turn left, go straight ahead, take the second right, etc) whilst the students diligently followed her instructions on a colourful map of a fictional town to get from A to B. Although a couple of the brighter stars in the firmament duly made it to the rendezvous in front of the imaginary school, they were in the minority. One ended up on wasteground behind the library, another was left standing precariously on the railway tracks, three found themselves in the pub car park, with the remaining two having inexplicably managed to return to where they’d started, in front of the local supermarket.

Nothing odd here, we might ponder - such pandemonium is the very stuff of the “Communicative Approach”, the widely accepted and seldom questioned dogma of EFL teaching. There was, however, a sinister footnote to the bedlam – the Mongolians, to a man, were air traffic controllers. I don’t know about my colleagues, but I quickly took Ulan Bator, Choybalsan and Dund-Us off my list of possible TEFL destinations (though I still wouldn’t necessarily rule out Dalandzadgad if I managed to enter overland from China.)

Recent events here in the world’s largest Catholic country have brought to light disturbing similarities with the Mongolian mayhem described above. Two major air disasters in a year have led to some troubling revelations about the state of the air traffic control system, though the truth has been hard to distinguish amid all the mudslinging and buck passing that any political hot potato inevitably encourages.

Firstly, there was the almost inconceivable mid-air collision in September 2006 between a Boeing owned by Brazilian airline Gol and a privately-owned Legacy jet from the USA, in which the latter managed to make an emergency landing whilst the former crashed into dense undergrowth in Mato Grosso state, without leaving survivors. Blame has been variously attributed to air traffic controllers for giving the wrong altitude to the pilots of the Legacy (possibly due to their poor English skills, according to the pilots), the controllers have blamed the pilots of the Legacy for not having their transponder switched on (which would have warned of any aircraft in close proximity), and politicians have rounded upon everyone except themselves. An alarming article in yesterday’s newspaper reported that the Department of Airspace Control, or Decea, estimates that fully six hundred new controllers need to be trained urgently in order to sustain adequate levels of service and safety. Even more worringly, on 09 December (my birthday, incidentally – thanks in advance for the presents) Cindacta 1, the air traffic control hub in Brasilia that controls 80% of Brazilian air traffic, allegedly lost radio contact with all airborne aircraft for five whole minutes.

Unable to hide their disgust at being blamed for the problems enveloping the creaking system, on 30 March disgruntled air traffic controllers went on strike, closing 49 airports, bringing air traffic to a standstill and stranding tens of thousands of air travellers at their points of departure. Even the most daring Dadaist couldn’t have dreamt up the image that circulated in the next morning’s newspapers. The Director the National Civil Aviation Agency (Anac), Denise Abreu, the person responsible for the sector, was photographed at the height of the rebellion enjoying a knees-up at a colleague’s son’s wedding reception. Had she been photographed taking a drag on a cigarette, we may have assumed she was, at least, stressed. Even if she had been puffing on a pipe, at least we could have associated her actions with rumination, cogitation – after all, Sherlock Holmes did his best deducing with one. But no. Dona Denise was snapped smoking that very symbol of self-satisfaction, the Cuban cigar – and not some dainty, vaguely ladylike Café Creme-style stogie - the Fidel Castro model, the one Winston Churchill was smoking when he made his “V” for victory, the kind Brigadiers partake of with port when satiated after a heavy meal in the Officer's Mess. This photo came to symbolise all that is smugly rotten in Brazilian institutions. Abreu resigned, but only after limping along for a further five months with her credibility in tatters.

As if this tragedy wasn’t enough, on 17 July an Airbus 320 belonging to Brazilian airline TAM overshot the runway at Congonhas airport in São Paulo and crashed into a warehouse owned by the same company, leaving 199 more victims. President Lula sprang into action and replaced the Defence Minister. With characteristic candour, Lula made a somewhat wayward attempt to calm the nation’s nerves regarding the safety of air travel. As his new choice was unveiled, he confided, “When the plane door closes, I just put my fate in the hands of God.”

Sometimes (quite rarely, admittedly) I’m glad I’m just a humble, landlubber of a TEFL teacher.

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