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.

Thursday, 29 November 2007


As in most spheres of human activity, TEFL is swimming with competent, bottom-rung classroom staff doing their best whilst managed by high flying buffoons. When working abroad, we often find that school owners don’t have the remotest idea about the realities of language teaching - indeed the majority doesn’t even speak English. In Spain I was kept under the tight-fisted cosh of a slippery accountant with whom I struggled to explain my absences in an awkward sign language; here in Brazil I was just this week interviewed for an English teaching job in Portuguese. If I didn’t speak the language, I suspect that, despite my unquestionable staying power, I would not even have been called, for reasons of practicality.

Franchises are deeply popular here and have, in my opinion, an unwarranted reputation for excellence. Their names don’t exactly conjure instantly recognisable mental images related to the learning of the world’s lingua franca – Wizard, Yazigi and the psychedelic Pink and Blue Freedom do little to inspire teachers that they’re in safe hands. But let this not be a comment confined to our experiences in strange lands, where we can expect things to often be a little half-baked, for a variety of reasons I won’t explore here. At home in the British Isles the disordered patchwork that is the TEFL marketplace comprises just as many soiled and threadbare scraps of cloth.

One of the many TEFL-free tangents I have briefly shot off on was a fall through a trap door into the administration of an international group of language schools, with centres in the US, Britain and Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. When I joined the organization as a grossly over-qualified data input clerk (Customer Support is what they called it), the firm was owned by a huge American educational corporation, and many of the managers were executives drafted in from other industries. One in particular, the head of US Operations, was a fluent exponent of the imponderable language of the corporate dimension, forever ramping up this and leveraging that, whilst totally failing to keep abreast of what was happening in the schools whose operations he was meant to be heading. When questioned about why a school principal had resigned about a fortnight earlier, he stifled his lack of coherent response with the excuse that this fact hadn’t “crossed his radar screen” yet. After a year of such bigwigs flying around the world to meetings where they’d discuss “robust initiatives” and “core business competences”, the holding company saw our disastrous annual results and put us on the market before their shareholders found out.

By far the most hopelessly misguided plan conceived during my brief and entirely platonic relationship with the firm was the much trumpeted implementation of an online chat-cum-booking system that would allow students to enter the company’s website, chat live with a member of staff to clear up their queries, and subsequently book their courses online. Rumour had it that the system had cost one million dollars to develop and integrate into a smooth, interactive online experience. As wonderful as this may have sounded in the corporate boardroom, the system presented some major teething problems. Not least amongst these was the tendency for visitors to the site to subject the Brazilian woman responsible for chatting to them to a relentless torrent of sexual harassment, which became truly Caligulan after Galatasaray beat Arsenal in that year’s Champion’s League competition and a significant section of the male population of Istanbul chose the system as their favoured vehicle for their expletive-heavy celebrations. Apart from being deeply offended, my beleagured Brazilian colleague had to constantly interrupt her work to answer what at first appeared to be genuine student enquiries, before questions of an indiscreetly personal nature made her politely disconnect and try to catch up with some of the work she’d just spent half and hour postponing.

Given this crisis, meetings were called, conference calls were held, executives sat up in US corporate offices well into the night with web developers to brainstorm how they could modify the software to filter out inappropriate content, when little old me had a rare brainwave. Timidly knocking on the Sales Manager, K’s, office door, I humbly suggested that they change the female names on the site to male ones, predicting, correctly as it happened, that people wouldn’t be quite so keen to indulge in sexual innuendo with somebody whom they believed to be a man. K froze and hung up the phone with a long-lost glint in his eye. “Ok, thanks, yes, that might work,” he said, ushering me out and closing the door whilst fiddling with speed-dial on his mobile phone – he had an urgent suggestion to make to the company President stateside.

As a footnote, in all the time I was there, not one booking was ever flagged as being a direct result of the use of this splendid online system. No doubt those responsible have moved on to other corporations, where they are busily ramping up and leveraging everything that moves, whilst still failing to check their radar screens.

Have you ever had as a boss who was a total arse? Have you ever had a boss who WASN’T a total arse? Feel free to describe your experiences with arses, whilst keeping within the bounds of human decency, please.



Blogger No Good Boyo said...

I've never met a boss who wasn't a dick. My favourite was an American at a company I worked for in Oxford who had all his food shipped up from Harrods, and had monograms on his cuffs. A colleague asked him if this was to remind him of who he was, and he had to think about it for a moment. He said "remuneration" when he meant "negligible pay".

This whole online booking system palavar could have been avoided if your company had rolled out a strategy I've long planned to launch myself, namely Drunk Bloke. Based on research carried out in Eastern Europe, I reckon every project team ought to have a Drunk Bloke on board.

On hearing this particular online chat proposal, Drunk Bloke would immediately have realized that the system would crash under the weight of priapic Turkish football fans. He would, however, most likely express these insights as "Grroagh, nyyu' ny'u, eh, eh, eh, bbppbb, Tuesday!"

It needs some fine-tuning, I know.

30 November 2007 at 07:51  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Have you ever considered Management Consulting? I'm sure there's a self-help bestseller in there - "The Drunk And The Executive", "Who Moved My Booze?", or even "How to Win Friends and Inebriate People" ?

30 November 2007 at 11:09  
Blogger No Good Boyo said...

The Cymru Rouge School of Management is already well established among my colleagues. i shall be sharing further insights, such as the "Stone of Oblivion" filing system, in due course. In the meantime, I've been planning a post on the Drunk Bloke factor and how it can boost your workflow.

30 November 2007 at 13:55  
Blogger Wally Windsor said...

Aah, I see you're referring to Aspect ILA, that highly efficient corporate teaching machine! So why didn't you mention their bloody name, you gonad?!

I had the misfortune to work for them for a stretch of about three or four months, I believe - several years back, though. Never have I been so keen to leave behind a 'school' and its bunch of cocky "show me something I don't know" Celta-belters and dolt-head managers.

In fact, so keen was I to 'move on' that on the day I left I actually took a taxi home - all 90 miles of it!

1 December 2007 at 06:47  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Wally - I am here to entertain, not inflame or defame. Being a gonad makes financial sense.

Brother Boyo - I am reminded by your Drunk Bloke theory of a heart-stopping incident at the Farnborough Air Show in the late eighties, where I was working as a waiter for an events catering company. Some of us were asked to stay behind to wait on the Red Arrows team and their then Soviet equivalents at a dinner held to celebrate the latters' first appearance at the show. They drank so much free champagne and hard liquor that the majority left on their hands and knees, or slipped into unconsciousness under the tables. "When did they do their display?" we asked one of the Red Arrows. "It's tomorrow morning at 9am," came the chilling reply. Personally, I couldn't bear to watch.

1 December 2007 at 19:59  
Blogger El Gringo Vasco said...

my first real teaching job, other than tutoring at the Uni, was with...Berlitz. The one I worked for was a locally owned and operated franchise; the owner bought it for her daughter, she runs it and it keeps her busy and of course she knows nothing of languages or learning, or anything, it would seem, for that matter. Among many shady marketing schemes, we offered children's classes. Now, she has a young daughter, say two years old. You would think that she would enroll her daughter in a class, right? Wrong.

3 December 2007 at 17:13  
Blogger El Gringo Vasco said...

in that case, maybe she does know something, that the method she is peddling is crap.

3 December 2007 at 17:14  
Anonymous Bert Floyd said...

I quit a job as a TEFL in 1999 when I had a very coherent, friendly meeting with the school owner and proposed to update the material and kind of in an absenced minded moment he revealed he couldn't care less whether students would learn or not, as far as they paid for their classes by the end of the month. Now, who could be more of an arse than that?

17 December 2007 at 12:56  

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