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, 26 December 2007


Based on my ongoing research, here is a list of the main differences between a British and a Brazilian Christmas:

1) Alcohol consumption – whereas Christmas Day for many in the United Kingdom starts with a mother of all hangovers, Brazilian boozing is of the “aperitif, anyone?” or the “whoops I must stop now, my nose is tingling” variety, not the headlong dash towards oblivion so popular in northern climes;

2) Family gatherings – unlike many British Christmases, Brazilian family gatherings are generally warm, joyous occasions, with plenty of unisex hugging, kissing and arm squeezing going on throughout proceedings, accompanied by lots of shouting and generalised chaos. Distant uncles from the north of the country don’t tend to get wiped on whisky and challenge the other male members of the family to a fight, whilst keenly expressing the opinion that they are, quote unquote, “the hardest bastard in this family.” Distant uncles from the posh side of the family, that is;

3) Christmas Eve – as mentioned above, Christmas Eve in Great Britain is often a time for getting soaked in the local pub with friends whilst taking the opportunity to try it on one more time with that none-too-shoddy ex-schoolmate who still appears to be single. This is optionally followed by a bendy-limbed walk to Midnight Mass at the nearest church, which, quite apart from the obvious spiritual advantages, offers a chance to keep warm for half an hour after the pubs shut before your befuddled amble home;

4) Christmas Day – whereas Brazilians exchange presents and tuck into turkey and all the trimmings on Christmas Eve at around midnight, we Brits leave festivities to the twenty-fifth, when we gorge like escaped prisoners and collapse into comfortable furniture for the Queen’s speech, the movie magic of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang / The Sound of Music, and doze off during one or both. Brazilian TV is generally so dire that the natives just tend to eat, shout and generate more alcohol-free chaos on the big day, especially if somebody plays a musical instrument. The presence of a deck of cards ensures a riotous round of Truco, a card game whose main objectives, as far as I can fathom them, are to shout, feign an intriguing facial tick, throw your cards around pretty much at random and bellow at your opponents between hands;

5) Boxing Day – the twenty-sixth in the British Isles is the time where people relax, eat and drink more and sit/snooze for long periods, much as Sumo wrestlers do to maintain their fighting weights. Brazilians, on the other hand, show uncustomary enterprise by getting straight back to work on this day, whilst setting aside some of their worktime to phone around making arrangements for New Year celebrations and/or Carnaval.

6) Christmas music – in the southern hemisphere you will not hear The Pogues vs Kirsty MacColl, Shakin’ Stevens, Wham! or Slade tunes broadcast on Christmas radio shows, though you maybe be subjected to a deeply unfortunate Portuguese reworking of Lennon’s seminal Happy Xmas (War Is Over). When I seize control of the means of communication, this will all change;

7) Christmas cards / presents – it may be something to do with the state of their respective economies, but Brazilians do not generally feel the same obligation as residents of the UK to buy tat for every participant of the Christmas festivities. Children receive gifts, and you may be lucky enough to receive one if you participate in a nefarious Secret Santa plot. Brazilians economise enormously on trees at Christmas, as they have not yet been propagandised into sending the equivalent of a small eucalyptus forest in Christmas cards to everyone whom they’ve ever met, worked with, or with whom they have been involved in a minor road traffic accident, muppet or otherwise;

8) Christmas crackers - no pink plastic motorbikes / jewellry / hilarious jokes / paper hats are involved in Brazilian festivities, unfortunately. I'm sure Chinese exporters are working on it, though.

Now playing: Wham! - Last Christmas
via FoxyTunes


Friday, 21 December 2007


Show is dragging me away from the computer and stacking furniture against the door for the festive season, so I hope you both have a good holiday, and here is a beautiful piece of Christmas music, which I and my male voice choir are battering into a rough-hewn masterpiece on Wednesday evenings - goosebumps optional.


Tuesday, 18 December 2007


Today was one of those rare occasions when I had a light feeling in my chest that intimated a genuine relief at being a TEFL teacher. These sentiments seem to coincide with a caffeine rush, and tend to pass quickly, so I have decided to register my glee despite the late hour.

It started with a lesson which surpassed all expectations. I had been warned that I would be giving a class in-company to one of the owners of a small rubber factory (they make rubber products - the factory is made of steel, concrete, etc) and, given that his level was, as a colleague of mine used to groan, “pond life”, I was expecting the usual struggle to maintain even the most basic level of communication for a full hour and a half whilst maintaining a suitably Business English, collared shirt air about things. I had been provided with a couple of sheets with exercises, but to my delight, the affable stick launched into an animated, if barely comprehensible, ‘Allo ‘Allo-style presentation of his “fuctory”, which makes “voolcanizéd perts for motorbeak indoostrie”, complete with a tour and free earplugs. I like it when students usurp your best-laid plans and take over the class; it brings a spontaneous, living-on-the-edge drama to proceedings that TEFL generally lacks.

The fuctory occupies an area equivalent to a small fast food concession at Bournemouth’s Dean Court football stadium – nevertheless, it took us forty-five minutes to review the shopfloor troops, who were sweltering in temperatures well into the forties amid the pungent scents of burnt and/or burning rubber, sweat and cheap aftershave. Every now and then my guide would delve into a tub of rubber products and pull one out, then stretch it until it snapped, or didn’t, according to where it was in the production process, which I admit I hadn’t fully grasped by the time we ambled back into our air-conditioned office overlooking the production line, where the dehydrated bods looked at their watches and willed their lives away for another day whilst we sipped mineral water and made polite, if largely unintelligible, chit chat.

Then it was back to the school to a class of two new students, including one Carla Morgan. Apparently her great-grandfather was of Cambrian build and ended up here by means as yet unclear. She didn’t know any Goldie Lookin Chain though, despite my impromptu medley.

What gives you light feelings in your chest? Do you know anyone who resembles an ‘Allo ‘Allo character? Looking at the above picture, which do you suspect is Welsh and which Brazilian? (They were roughly the same age when the photographs were taken.)


Friday, 14 December 2007


It has been several generations since a Ward has been able to raise this blood-curdling cry to riff raff, armed only with a flintlock blunderbuss and a baker’s dozen ravening hounds, but it seems this branch of the family’s fortunes may be on the turn after years in the urban wilderness. Our unjust exodus from the country, involving a gentleman-farmer ancestor who drove our clan from the Berkshire Downs with a heady mixture of an ignorance of contraceptive methods, excessive port consumption and an insistence on the employment of a coach and four even for short family trips to public floggings (despite the elevated costs of stabling), may soon be righted, if on an entirely different continent.

Show recently went to town (São Paulo) with her credit card firmly clamped between her teeth in search of Christmas bargains at a bazar, a place where well-known retailers of haberdashery, drapery and the like offer their wares at knockdown prices, whilst I spent a frustrating afternoon on the phone to Visa trying to get her credit limit reduced. However, on leaving said suq she filled out a coupon to compete in a raffle whose prize was a plot of land in a condomínio, a secure compound within which the wealthy can live like Americans without fear of judgement, condemnation or armed assault. Imagine our utter stupefaction when she received yesterday a letter stating that she was indeed a winner, and that we are now the proud owners of a valuable square of grass in Águas de Santa Barbara, which lies about two hours north-west of our current place of residence, and which boasts, amongst other amenities, a “twenty-four-hour supply of mineral water”. Show, like me, hasn’t previously been exactly blessed in matters where good fortune plays a part, though I have won a tenner on the National Lottery twice, and once had fifty quid off the Premium Bonds. But this is a whole different level - we can now dream of being neighbours with footballers, company chief executives (to whom I will be slipping a suitably massaged CV), even actresses and TV presenters, all of whose private lives I’ll be closely monitoring and whom I’ll be photographing secretly, selling on the resulting images to the highest bidder.

It is one thing, however, to have a plot of land, and quite another to have the financial resources to build a house on it. Having read the complex and frankly pedantic regulations of the condomínio, I have found nothing specifically forbidding the parking of caravans or the construction of sheds, and I plan to fully exploit these loopholes. Then it’ll be out with the flat cap and the tweeds and a triumphant return to the days of yore, when trespassers were mangled in mantraps and the port flowed like the crystalline mineral waters of which we will soon have a twenty-four-hour supply.

Have you ever won a piece of land? Have you got a twenty-four hour supply of mineral water? I have.


Saturday, 8 December 2007


Should you ever be in these parts and happen upon a desperate soul on the parapet of a bridge or a high building intent on plunging to an untidy end, possibly the phrase least likely to dissuade them from seeing it through would be something along the lines of, “Think about all the great television you’ll miss, like Big Brother Brasil…” Yes, against all the precepts of rationality, and as proof that civilization as we know it is truly on the ebb, Big Brother Brasil is back in January for its eighth series, and I for one shall be neither tuning in, nor switching on, but dropping out.

I must admit to having watched the program on occasions, when it still had some vestige of interest as a psychological experiment. The first British series was intriguingly puritanical, with participants being forbidden to discuss the voting and having to complete tasks in order to receive food - now that’s a show. The Brazilian version is so watered down and stacked full of product placements and unrestrained, mindless hedonism as to be almost obscene, especially for the class D and E viewers (the vast majority), who huddle around their flickering TV sets in dank favelas watching a bunch of self-absorbed rich folk talking drivel and playing out their narcissistic personal dramas for weeks on end until most of the audience are practically vomiting with boredom. Then we have the accompanying nightly interviews with passers-by encouraged to give their considered opinion on who should be voted out of the “Biggy Broder” (sic) house, whilst their views on the deeply entrenched, institutionalized corruption that cripples the nation, for instance, are deemed unworthy of being expressed or aired. Is it just me, or is something deeply wrong?

To its credit, the broadcaster, Globo, did strike upon a fabulous twist to the mundane malarkey in several previous series when it decided to raffle off the last two places in the house through a magazine. This gave the opportunity for average people, and not perfectly-shaped bimbos or perpetually sunglassed Chippendales with adult-movie-star abs, to compete for the, not inconsiderable, one million real prize money. Reflecting the tendency for Brazilians to show an estimable solidarity towards the less fortunate, on both occasions one of the poorest competitors won, much to the chagrin of their middle-class contemporaries, who simply couldn’t compete with the earthy probity of the pauper, and one by one bid a tearful farewell to the casa, and to the one million big ones it had once promised. Unfortunately, Globo decided that this was against the spirit of the show (and probably deeply upsetting to sponsoring companies eager to use the Photoshopped participants’ images for future marketing bacchanalia), and they resorted to choosing participants according to their likely potential for TV commercials and/or Brazilian Playboy (see photo).

Unlike the Spartan British house, the Brazilian mansion is the scene of non-stop whoopee-making. Themed parties are de rigeur, representing the only time contestants slip out of swimwear, only to don fancy dress, and the challenges are not conceived to decide whether the participants are fed or not, but rather to determine who wins a brand new Fiat, or who gets to ride on a float at the Rio Carnival. Pop stars even visit the house to give concerts, albeit pop stars with tax problems trying to make a comeback after twenty years in the wilderness.

What is worse is that there is no ban on discussing the voting, so whenever you happen to tune in you will invariably see some bikinied bimbo draped around some beachwear model (within seconds of the show starting, they start pairing up), saying, “If A votes for C, then B’s going to vote for D. E said she won’t vote for you, if you vote for F…” They then cut to another couple, who’s going through similar permutations. It’s mind-numbing stuff, unless you’re a dedicated fan of algebra. After some time watching this, you find you’ve been dribbling all down your front, and you haven’t even noticed. Or maybe that’s just me.

What has to be seen to be believed, however, are the histrionics that accompany the expulsions from the house. It’s hard to remember that they’ve only been in the place for a matter of weeks, such are the hysterical performances that they can only have been contractually obliged to give. The two candidates who are up for voting are shown live pictures on huge screens of their delirious families chanting their names, at which point they stand up and start frantically pointing and wailing. “There’s Mum! And Dad! And Grandma! And the neighbour, João! Lívia, my niece! The maid! Uncle Francisco!” They then burst into tears and fall to their knees, eventually curling up into a slobbering, simpering mess and murmuring softly from the safety of the fetal position.

It would be touching were they Nelson Mandela, and the house were located on Robben Island, circa 1990.

Have you ever been on Big Brother? Would you like to? What would you talk about, voting preferences, or would you open your heart and discuss inner bollocks?


Friday, 7 December 2007


I know you can't wait any longer. Here are the answers:

  1. Who is Student A? - Edgar Allan Poe
  2. Who is Student B? - H L Mencken
  3. Which poem do the closing lines, "Time held me green and dying, Though I sang in my chains like the sea" come from, and who wrote it? - Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas
  4. Which font is "Notes From The TEFL Graveyard" written in? (For readers with Asperger's Syndrome.) - Impact
Neither of the entrants got all the questions right, but No Good Boyo takes the biscuit with a sterling 50% pass rate. Just brush up on your Windows fonts and your future is bright.

As promised, here is a picture postcard of the local railway station, the first reinforced concrete building to be constructed in Latin America, designed and built by the French arquitect Dubugras in 1906. Its art-deco style is based on an upturned table.

Congratulations, No Good Boyo, and thanks for humouring me.


Tuesday, 4 December 2007


As most of Brazil seems to have been winding down for Christmas since around mid-October, here is my contribution to the festive season, based on my blog logo:
  1. Who is Student A?
  2. Who is Student B?
  3. Which poem do the closing lines, "Time held me green and dying, Though I sang in my chains like the sea" come from, and who wrote it?
  4. Which font is "Notes From The TEFL Graveyard" written in? (For readers with Asperger's Syndrome.)
If you include your address, the prize will be a postcard with a picture of the local railway station, the first reinforced concrete building to be constructed in Latin America (postage not included).

Good luck!


Sunday, 2 December 2007


In a previous dirge, I have commented on the widespread tendency amongst Brazilian businesses to make unfulfilled promises to return phone calls. It is ironic, then, that the very school to which I was referring in that regard apparently found my number recently on a scrap of paper stuck to the bottom of somebody’s shoe and decided to call me to invite me to a “group dynamic” in São Paulo. Driven by a childish resentment, my first reaction was to berate them for taking six months to communicate with me, making clear my intolerance of such slapdash practices, and to hang up triumphantly, but my diminishing bank balance, coupled with my wife Show’s eroding peninsular of patience, persuaded me to agree to their demands.

On the Sunday before Monday’s group session, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of not wanting to go. I sometimes have these strange and inexplicable intimations of misfortune, but it is hard to tell if they are genuine, or just the result of an idleness-based wishful thinking. I mentioned to Show my reluctance to participate in the organisation’s fustian jamboree, but the visible tightening of her lips, together with her screamed encouragement along the lines that we couldn’t afford to turn down work opportunities, swiftly stifled what misgivings I was entertaining. My sense of foreboding was not unfounded however – it was on our way to the fateful group dynamic that our car was shunted whilst stationary in a traditional São Paulo traffic jam by a baseball-capped, lorry-driving wunderkind.

There were eight or nine of us in the group, and I was the only native speaker of English. Having arrived thirty minutes late, I was relieved to find that the session didn’t involve those tiresome psychological tests where you have to complete pictures, draw rows of vertical lines under time restraints, or play group-based games to prove you’re not a sociopath – or rather, the wrong kind of sociopath, for all corporate entities need suitable ones to fill management-level positions, as No Good Boyo has so succinctly described. All that we had to do was choose a subject to talk about, tell each other about ourselves and control our urge to shout down our contemporaries or make threats. This became difficult when one of the other candidates started prattling on about The Secret. As I’ve intimated before, I have no problem if people find the book or film helpful, but I do find it tedious when people turn it into fact and start preaching about it. This guy obviously had shares in the distributor, such was the zeal with which he summarised the principal theories and encouraged us to get on board. At one point, one of the interviewers admirably blurted, “I’m a bit sick of The Secret, to be honest” in a desperate and not very subtle attempt to change the subject, but our man saw this as just another challenge to be surmounted. I’d be interested to know if he was chosen for one of the positions on offer, and if not, how The Secret fits into this scenario.

I was called again early last week to attend an interview at the local branch of the school. There, the school manager and the coordinator, who looked like she’d been bored, or hadn’t slept, for about the past twelve years, told me about the school and invited me to ask questions. Of course it wasn’t the first question I asked (I know rudimentary interview etiquette), but conversation eventually moved onto the vital issue of pay. The manager asked me how many years of experience I had. I said a soul-wrenching fourteen years. In Brazil, he clarified, and work registered officially, not just cash-in-hand jobs that are teaching’s mainstay. In that case, in teaching, I don’t have any experience, I replied. He repressed a smirk, and informed me that I’d probably start on the bottom rung of their pay ladder, as movement to the next pay band only occurred after every four years of registered work. I repressed a smirk, for entirely different motives.

The manager called me on Friday, and in stately tones, invited me to become part of their team. The grunting and clattering that greeted my polite refusal of his offer can only have been the sound of him falling off his bar stool, since I imagine I could well be the only person ever to turn down a job with his much-vaunted organisation. I have long believed that small is beautiful in all realms of human activity, and I am content to stay at my current place of employment, where the rather excellent owner shares my belief that a teacher should only ever be expected to give two consecutive hours of classes to the same group, amongst other enlightened attitudes. E.F. Schumacher was right, and I am prepared to launch a Secretesque defence of his reputation.

Have you ever turned down a job, and felt churlishly thrilled as a result? Do you work for a large corporate organisation or a small, organic producer of English speakers? Do you ever have inexplicable intimations of misfortune that come true? Please feel free to express your intimate misfortunes.