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, 15 November 2007


TEFL courses tend to ignore the possibility of students spontaneously bursting into tears during lessons, and those of us who have experienced such troubling spectacles are thus left with few guidelines as to how to handle sensitively scenes of sudden and inexplicable emotional meltdown.

Barely three months into my TEFL wanderings, I managed to make 66.67% of a class weep in under two hours, setting a personal best that stands until today. And before you jump to the perfectly understandable conclusion that I was teaching children of primary school age, I wasn’t - they were fully grown up Japanese Local Government Officers.

In the class there were three students, the Group Leader, a squat, wide, inscrutable blade whose only facial expressions were an occasional stiff smirk and an almost imperceptible narrowing of the eyes, and two twenty-something women from different Japanese Prefectures. It was my first lesson with them, and I’d chosen an exercise that remains one of my favourites to this day, for its adaptability, long-windedness and need for zero preparation. I forget from which book it comes, but students write on a piece of paper three names (someone they like very much, someone they’ll never forget, someone they don’t like very much), three places (the place they were born, somewhere they’d like to visit, a place they like to be alone), then three dates (the year they first went to school, the year they were happiest, the year that changed them most), and finally three memories (a happy memory, a funny memory, and their first memory). Then they read out their answers and everyone grills them for more details. Anticipating an unwanted emotional outpouring, I’d used what little intuition I possess to change one of the memory questions from a sad memory to a funny memory, but in the event, it helped not a jot.

After giving the students a few minutes to come up with their answers, I started directing my questions to one of the women.
“So, T, who is somebody you like very much?” I started brightly. She reddened and without managing to emit a word, broke down, the copious tears plopping onto her notepad. I hadn’t anticipated any plopping. I froze, neither knowing what was happening, nor what to do. I looked at the Group Leader, who stared back at me evenly, apparently determined to wallow in denial as if the wailing and gnashing of teeth to his right were a figment of our collective imaginations. We all remained there staring at each other silently for a few seconds as T sobbed quietly in the corner, before I could take no more and bolted. “Excuse me,” I mumbled as I ran out of the door and down two flights of stairs to the Staff Room, a-swearin' and a-cussin' like a docker.

“You shouldn’t do anything that involves expressing personal feelings with Japanese students!” my colleague helpfully advised me, just too late, “They’re shy, they don’t like talking about themselves - do something more general.” I grabbed a list of discussion questions, hastily photocopied it, legged it back upstairs and, taking a deep breath, made a stately re-entry into the fray as if it had all been carefully planned. Whilst I had been away, the Group Leader had either spoken kind words, or ordered T to get a grip, as she had, by this time, more or less composed herself. I handed out the new sheets and we continued the lesson, each of us respecting our secret pact that everything was going swimmingly.

The eerie emotional armistice lasted only a short time, before the other woman, A, was also reduced to tearful wreck. In answer to the question, “Do you think murderers should receive the death penalty?” she started answering, then became choked and started sniffling pathetically. My heart began to shrivel. The Group Leader’s eyes narrowed fractionally, but he kept them firmly fixed on me, determined to stoically face down this second emotional tailspin as he had the first. Composing herself after what seemed like an hour of titanic internal struggle, A revealed that a friend of hers had been killed recently and the murderer hadn’t yet been caught. Cut to me looking suicidal at the white board. How unlucky was that? Japan is famed for being one of the safest countries in the world, their murder rate is one of the lowest of all developed nations, for all that’s holy…

As a footnote, about three weeks after they left, I received a beautifully crafted Japanese photo album through the post from T, packed with pictures of their stay, including an ironic snap of me and the group grinning like our classes had been nothing but a series of fun-packed romps. There was also an invitation to visit her in Japan, and a confession of her amorous intentions towards me. The first lesson’s shenanigans kind of made sense now, but I decided not to take her up on her kind offer of hospitality - if she had been like that when she met me, imagine what would have happened when the time came to say goodbye.

Have you ever made your students cry? Are you planning to? Have your students ever made you cry? The TEFL Graveyard is a place where you can open your heart, and cry if you like.



Anonymous sandy said...

Well, some of my current crop of 'students' make me sick, angry, or just plain frustrated. If I cry, it's at the thought of having to teach lemons like these for another ten years or so...

17 November 2007 at 14:16  
Blogger No Good Boyo said...

I've never made any students cry, although I nurtured a desire to inflict eye-watering indignities on a couple of Germans in my Russian language class at London Uni in the 80s. I'd prepare some material 20 minutes before the class by leafing through a Soviet mag while having a fag on the balcony, and usually managed to bluff my way through any unexpected questions. Siegfried, however, would gaze a me steadily while his ash-blonde girlfriend leafed through the Holy Bible (Borras and Christian's Russian Syntax) in search of just the right example to contradict whatever ungrammatical bollocks I had just posited. My Hegelian training enabled me to reconcile their objections for as long as it took to end the class and flee to the SOAS bar. Where they would track me down.

18 November 2007 at 09:02  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Different languages / continents, same muppets. There is no escape.

18 November 2007 at 11:26  
Anonymous Zach said...

Great entry! I've made one student cry, and that was here in Brazil. She was anxious about her upcoming wedding. I've also reduced one or two others to shouting "Por que eu nao consigo falar ingles???!!!" You ever had this kind of thing - mega frustration erupting in class?

Going back a bit, how did your simultaneous translation event go? My Portuguese is pretty good, but I don't know if I'd have the courage...

18 November 2007 at 17:19  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Thanks Zach. Talking about things that make us cry, my foray into simultaneous translation was an unmitigated flop - I know it's glib, but I really wished the ground would swallow me up. Badly organised and worsely executed. I'm filling up as I write... Never again!

18 November 2007 at 18:48  
Blogger Numb Buns said...

I have never made a student cry or cried much bc of a student- but I have become depressed for several years because of many unkind and disruptive remarks that I have been unable to refute bc the administration side with students and the students are adults and can come and go to class. Of course I know it isn't personal, but if 95% of the class tries to be adults and to work with their instructor- the other 5% should br told to leave and make room
For waiting students bc this program is grant funded with limited seats per class!

We have to be smiling ambassadors of English and work part time and teach at odd hours with no benefits and occasionally be abused by admin. I have been looking for another job for over a year but it takes time to change industries. I could go overseas, but I would rather just find a totally different job and be able to finance a trip.

27 September 2009 at 10:47  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Hi Numb

All sounds like a painfully familiar situation to me - the TEFL trap, I think most of us reach burn out at some point, as the conditions are generally appalling wherever you are. Making money abroad is largely a myth in my experience too - you merely end up poor in a different place. I've managed to make a break into translation recently, and it has been a huge relief to be doing something else. Good luck with the job hunting, I sincerely hope you find what you are seeking.

28 September 2009 at 16:59  

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