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, 31 January 2008


Whilst recently perusing a list of Dos and Don’ts for teachers at the TEFL Tips blog, one item particularly caught my attention:

DON’T - Wear weekend clothes to class. Jogging pants, jeans or shorts aren’t acceptable… Men should wear dress pants and a dress shirt with a collar.” (My emphasis)

Ignoring the fact that the author of this tip has used the wrong word “pants” for the correct one, “trousers”, this, to me, is sound advice. I got through my Certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults in Bournemouth in 1993 thanks, in no little part, to my TEFL Trousers.

Fresh out of University, electing to do a TEFL course was perhaps a strange choice, as I too was subject to the world’s most widely-held phobia, that of speaking in public. The closest I’d come in my four-year degree in Italian to standing in front of a group of people to give important information was revealing incoherently to my drinking brethren that, if they really expected me to down the rest of my pint of Irish stout in one, I couldn’t be held responsible for ensuing dry-cleaning bills.

All who have endured one know that a TEFL certificate course is full-stick - four weeks of intense pressure with a thousand quid (probably more now) at stake should you let your attention wander.

And so I came upon my TEFL Trousers – a pair of unremarkable black slacks, with turn-of-the-decade front pleats. When I slipped into them, I felt confident I could face down any classroom situation, though, to be fair, the students we were educating during our afternoon teaching practice sessions were doing the extra classes for free, so were hardly likely to be disruptive or complain about things. As the days passed I began to warm to the task, even managing to combine recently learned juggling skills into a lesson, thus neatly placing myself within the TEFL/big top fraternity.

During the course I also struck up a four-week friendship with a first-rate companion who, like me, was an aficionado of chess. Without fail, every morning break between classes we’d set up the board and have a round of speed chess over coffee, with honours roughly shared over the duration of the course. It was our daily ritual, from which we never wavered.

Then, one day, disaster struck. My TEFL Trousers had gone to the wash without my prior knowledge, and I was forced into wearing jeans to school. I tried to remain calm, but by the end of the day’s teaching practice, I was in tatters. The timing of my class had been all over the place, my concept checking laughable, the students had ended up uniformly confounded – even that day’s chess match had been the scene of an almighty, almost Crimean, blunder. I realised that, in order to teach, my TEFL Trousers were a necessity. Given this revelation, I also began to worry that I might be turning into Bobby Fischer, give or take a few IQ points.

Back strutting around in my worthy black strides the next day, I breezed through the day’s lessons, carefree and crazy. I even got a grade “B” at the end of the course, for what that’s worth. As for my TEFL Trousers, they made it through the rest of the nineties giving me their sterling professional support, before being retired at the end of the decade when a growing paunch rendered their services wholly inappropriate.

Men should wear dress pants and a dress shirt with a collar.” It’s a worthy statement, and I commend it to the House.

Do you have a pair of TEFL Trousers? Or another garment you need in order to teach? If you do another job, do you wear any lucky item of clothing, like a helmet with a light on it if you’re a miner, or a stab-proof vest if you’re a Policeman? Do you like chess? Do you ever worry that you may be turning into an obsessive, in an unhealthy way? Please feel at liberty to open up about your trousers.

Now playing: The Who - I Can't Explain
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Tuesday, 29 January 2008


Having recently tracked me down over a longstanding debt, when a long lost school chum learned I was living way down south, he opined, “When I think of Brazil, I think of scantily clad women in feathers and stuff.”
“So do I”, I quipped back, ducking instinctively. But there’s much more to Carnaval than simply food for socks-and-sandal-wearing northern European men to get overemotional about – it’s not just the best use humankind has yet found for drums, sequins and G-strings (or fio dental – dental floss). Oh no.

Hardly has the smoke cleared from the New Year’s fireworks than the annual saturnalia of flesh, samba and more flesh is upon us, when largely conservative Catholic Brazil lapses collectively into up to a fortnight of hedonistic tumult, making you wonder if there hasn’t been some kind of countrywide mix-up involving mushrooms.

The Rio de Janeiro carnival is, of course, the most famous for its lavishness, followed by poor cousin São Paulo, but other regions of Brazil interpret the festivities in their own unique manner. Salvador, the capital of Bahia, leaves aside floats, samba schools and the perfectly choreographed drumming in favour of a free-for-all that takes over the city’s streets, turning it into the largest street party on the planet, regularly attracting around 2 million participants. Ignoring the official carnival dates of Friday to Tuesday, baianos spend at least a week following the “trio eletricos”, more or less open-top buses on which famous bands and singers perform for the delirious populace in tow.

Show’s cousin went there last year and spent the first few days in a hospitality box, before being persuaded to join the multitude jumping around in the streets below. The first two or three hours of this bouncing along was alright, she reported, but as the day wore on she became increasingly disillusioned by the fact that it was impossible to leave the throng due to the sheer numbers involved – even to find a public convenience. The resulting collective letting go in the middle of the crowd created an acrid stench of human waste products strangely at odds with the sweet, sweet music. Arriving back at the hotel after dark and weeping, she threw away her shoes and elected to stay in the comfort of the air-conditioned hospitality box for the rest of the week.

When I first came to Brazil and saw Carnaval, I must admit I was ignorant of the complexities involved. I didn’t realise, for instance, that the parades went on all night, nor was I aware that each samba school has to tell a story using its various components – the floats, the samba song specially written for the occasion and the various choreographed groups of dancers in costume. The carnavalescos, responsible for designing and building the carros alegóricos (floats) are creative genii - many of the materials used are recycled household waste.

Strict time limits are also in place and there are various pernickety rules - the porta-bandeira, a woman charged with carrying the samba school flag, for example, isn’t allowed to let the flag roll. It is a deadly serious business for those involved, especially when the results are announced a couple of days later, overshadowed by the threat of the weaker performers being relegated to the second division.

Being genetically unused to such practices, coming from a country where popular festivities amount to pancake races, morris dancing and one town where people chase a circular cheese down a hill, I tend to watch the first two or three schools from the comfort of my bed, after which I flake out and usually have some strange, but stimulating, dreams.

Now playing: Alceu Valença - Bicho maluco beleza
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Thursday, 24 January 2008


Brazilians are a friendly bunch. This is a fact. If you don’t watch out, complete strangers will strike up conversation in public places, which is something that tends to unnerve the average reserved Briton and make him want to start running. Having overcome this urge by sheer force of repetition, I now throw myself into social congress with anybody sufficiently slow-moving.

Whilst standing on an odour-filled bus recently lamenting the absurd state of public transport with a senior citizen who couldn’t get away, I was reminded of a rather arresting incident that occurred early in my foraging for a living here in the Republica Federativa do Brasil.

I was exercising my hound, as is my daily routine, when I noted a strikingly tall blonde with dark glasses tottering towards me on an unruly pair of high heels. As she passed, she hissed something to me out of the side of her crimson-traced mouth. Back then, I was subject to the second-and-a-half time delay that kicks in when spoken to unexpectedly in the native tongue, and I just looked at her blankly and continued walking, my poor brain trying to decipher her sudden interjection.

Mulling things over, two things struck me about her throwaway comment: (1) she had a voice that would be suitable for dubbing the Rocky character into Portuguese; and (2) she was, if my flaccid language skills weren’t deceiving me, inviting me to put her “on a leash” – presumably an oblique reference to my dog-walking. Quickening my pace, I continued on my perplexed ramble until I got home and consulted a dictionary, which only confirmed my suspicions.

I have since seen various photos of my new friend in the society pages of the local paper, each time in a different dress under captions such as, “Marco reaches boiling point at the Metallurgical Workers’ Union Annual Barbecue”.

It’s reassuring to know that, should you ever need one, there’s a transvestite available, even in a small town such as this.

Has anyone ever offered to put you on a leash? Do transvestites make odd proposals in the street to complete strangers in your country? Please feel free to share your dressing-up stories.

Now playing: The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again
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Monday, 21 January 2008


One of my many TEFL escape attempts, which ended, like all the others, only with my nose pressed up against the glass accompanied by some desperate clawing, involved the abstruse realm of computer programming, forward slash, web development. Computers have always held something of a fascination for me, more for the entertainment value they offer than the associated careers, it has to be said, and over the years I have made various abortive, procrastination-laden attempts to enter the Gordian profession of computer programming. I fancied that, as I like studying human languages (though I’m no Cardinal Mezzofanti, sadly), learning computer languages should be a logical and certainly more lucrative progression.

The initial stimulus came from a colleague who left school at eighteen and within a couple of years was traveling the world working as a programmer in C++. When I met him one Christmas he’d just spent six months in India, having whooped it up for the previous six in Holland, all whilst receiving a salary generous enough for him to buy a house back home before I was out of university, indebted and with a degree in Italian and a bilingual sinking feeling.

Whoever designs the packaging for these programming language software packages must be, or should be, one of the most highly paid Microsoft workers – it may even be Bill Gates himself, judging by their effectiveness in conveying the promise of a pretty snappy future. To me, they conjured images of productivity, wealth, efficiency – neat, logical, interconnecting steps on the road to financial abundance. Everything TEFL doesn’t normally lead to, in other words.

My first attempt at learning a computer language came when I splashed out £ 80.00 United Kingdom pounds sterling for Visual Basic 5.0 Learning Edition, which came with a video disc featuring some whiney guy teaching the basics, like writing a program to accept somebody’s age, then displaying it back to them. Computer programs are generally more complex than this, I suspect, but I diligently studied and tried to get my head round the concepts, only for Microsoft to release Visual Basic 6.0 less than a fortnight later, thus rendering my version rather obsolete.

I then purchased Visual C++ 6.0 Standard Edition, which to me appears to be the computing equivalent of Mandarin, only more so. Obscure isn’t halfway there. After bumbling around with this for a few months, it has become destined to sit unused taking up precious hard drive space for the rest of eternity.

Having more or less mastered HTML and basic web pages, I tried my hand at PHP and MySQL databases. Here I made about as much progress as the British Army at the Somme, only much slower. Using poorly conceived free tutorials from the Internet, which completely omitted the vital question of security, I was luckily never let loose on a live site, or my work would have been hacked within seconds and peoples’ credit card details would have been financing wild nights out in Beijing and Moscow for the computer science undergraduates from those countries.

I realize now that, in order to work in this slick profession, you need to have started studying algorithms and looping structures in the womb. In Brazil, things are even worse. Companies increasingly offer estágios, like an apprenticeship, only often you don’t earn a bean – you are simply cheap labour for your employer, who can get rid of you and replace you with somebody else at any time. The list of technologies and software packages you need to master in order to fill such a vacancy is mind-bending: HTML, Javascript, PHP, ASP, CSS, Corel Draw, Photoshop, Flash, the .NET framework, Ruby on Rails, Java applets, ActiveX controls, SQL, AJAX… Only a genius, or somebody completed demented, could know all that and want to work for just luncheon vouchers and a bus ticket.

TEFL may be many things, but it’s not a profession that demands you be a deranged obsessive. Not in a financially lucrative sense, anyway.

Now playing: The Who - Pinball Wizard
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, 17 January 2008


As we are all well aware, the Internet is stacked high with pornography - you simply can’t avoid it, no matter how hard you try. Who hasn’t been startled by images of a mustachioed Dane being attended to by a young extrovert sporting only undergarments and a shaggy perm after inadvertently appending an “n” instead of a “t” on the end a Google search for “vintage port”? How many of us have been confronted by a hangarful of large-chested exhibitionists during research into “large mistakes”, due to our mistaken employment of the ambiguous search term “big boobs”? Erotica is big business, but there’s also a lot of free stuff around if you put in the hours looking for it. Apparently.

Another rapidly growing area is that of the Internet Sage. In common with the filthmongers, they are in the business of selling fantasies. I often wonder if my blog would be rewarding me financially if visitors were greeted by a picture of me looking wise next to a tree or something, my visionary gaze clapped firmly on infinity - perhaps under the subtitle “Reformatting the hard drive of your soul”, or “Experiments in lifestyle plumbing.” I might even manage to swing a book deal to publicise my tatty philosophising – “Finding a Life Home – From Bungalow to Penthouse in Three Easy Yoga Positions”. Then I would join the merry band of Internet authorities who write little articles on “How to Give Up Giving Up”, “10 Mistakes That Lead Winners to Lose”, and other such froth. Often these authorities quote each other, thus creating a self-propagating, self-aggrandising clique.

Before I am accused of being anti the self-help genre, I must confess that when I was younger I showed a total lack of interest in these kinds of works, perhaps the result of a pioneering independent spirit, arrogance, or stupidity. After a time, I overcame this prejudice and read some publications avidly, and actually found some of them very useful. There are some insightful and thought-provoking writers, normally those who have some kind of background in psychology or psychiatry, whose genuine motivation to help others shines through in their prose. The self-appointed Internet Shamans, however, are normally just very clever marketers, sometimes attracting millions of visitors to their shiny smorgasbord of insipid ruminations.

Having said that, I find myself visiting these blogs on a fairly regular basis – they do exert a certain morbid fascination. One favourite is Steve Pavlina’s entertaining “Million Dollar Experiment”, to which people have signed up in the belief that they will manifest incredible riches through intention alone (in the process finding some elbow room on The Secret bandwagon). The results make sobering reading, especially participant number 15, Silvino Henriques, who has apparently “manifested” the sum of $22.08 in just under eight months. If Silvino got a job, any job, he’d manifest more than that in a few hours. I could tell him that.

No wonder the most popular Internet search word is “sex”.

Now playing: The Flaming Lips - She Don't Use Jelly
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Sunday, 13 January 2008


If the first couple of weeks of January are anything to go by, 2008 will be a year of unprecedented industry in the Ward tent. I am also planning to resurrect my first film script, which has been on hold due to the difficulty I experience in writing in Portuguese. But then I think of Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, let it be remembered) and I feel young again.

For some reason I woke up today thinking about Margarida. Here is a compilation of his finest moments, which comprise the only reason to purchase a football ticket, in my opinion.

Now playing: Gnarles Barkley - Crazy
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Sunday, 6 January 2008


The previous tale of Madeleine Albright has brought to mind another strange sequence of events related to me by my ex-colleague Crockers. We were thrown together when our two companies were merged, and we spent a large proportion of our time exchanging knee-slappers by email, normally topical jibes about the big-top-inspired events going on around us. Many such commentaries involved the dapper Andrea, a neat, likeable Italian taken to wearing three-piece suits and arriving for work at six in the morning, a full three hours before the rest of us ambled in.

When the two companies had been combined, Andrea, sensing the opportunity of his vita, had arranged a visit to our office, then moved like lightning to ask for a personal meeting with the owner to utterly pan our half of the organisation and offer himself humbly as the answer to the aghast boss’s hastily improvised prayers. In all the time he worked with us as Office Manager, I can honestly remember only one measure he took that changed conditions fractionally, which was to make a simple cardboard flag which could be craftily inserted into the partitions between the desks, and which would indicate, according to a strict but fair rotation system, which “cell” in the open-plan office would be responsible for answering the telephone for that day. Other than that, our office was as efficient as it had ever been, but of course Andrea took the credit for that, the owner mistakenly believing that his dedicated prodigy had really turned things around, presumably by arriving at six in the morning and wearing three-piece suits. I for one thought he deserved a salary over four times my own - hats off to both of them, I say.

Though I have unfortunately now lost touch with him, Crockers was a dry character bordering on the misanthropic. I sometimes wondered if his tolerance of my inane and relentless japery did in fact hide a deep irritation, even a mild fear, as at the time my tendency to procrastinate had almost become a clinically diagnosable mania. To avoid focusing on my slow death by Accounting, I would do anything to put off completing and submitting my work, essentially because I had no idea what I was doing. It was Imposter Syndrome, then a bit. It probably didn’t help that, instead of diligently studying for an Accounting Technician qualification at night school after work twice a week, I would find myself robotically hanging a right en route to the vapid banquet of straight line depreciation and activity-based costing, spending an industrious evening instead in the local snooker hall, (best break a nine-ball twenty-nine, red, black, red, black, red, blue, red, blue, red).

Anyway, back to Crockers. After leaving school, the innovative cove had set up a business providing paintings of peoples’ most valued possessions, mainly, it seems, cars and pets. Lacking any artistic bent himself, he’d advertise in women’s magazines, etc, receive a photo of the treasured item and send it off to some bloke in China, who had an incredible forty-eight hour turnaround - Crockers would have a perfectly painted portrait in his hands within a week. How he ever came up with that idea I never asked, but after a time his unique business folded for reasons unexplained, and he moved from Bournemouth to London to work in an office job.

One morning at around nine thirty he received a phone call from the Police, who proceeded to inform him that his flat had been completely destroyed in a gas explosion. Everything he had ever owned in his life had been blown to kingdom come in an incident he described, with characteristic understatement, as “a bit of a strange day.” Borrowing money from a colleague, he left his job with immediate effect, took a train back to Bournemouth with just the clothes he stood up in, and had a bit of a rethink about his future.

After opting to do a TEFL course, he headed to Madrid to ply his new trade, perhaps drawn by the earthy women, the free tapas or Julio Iglesias, and his son Enrique. One day, whilst giving an in-company class in a Madrid office, his train of thought was rudely interrupted by the detonation of an ETA bomb immediately outside the building. As shattered glass, dust and assorted debris engulfed the room and the Spanish students, hair smoking, “freaked out a bit” (his own words), Crockers showed typically British sang froid, helpfully informing his disoriented charges, “Right, I think we’ll stop the lesson there.” A model professional.

As far as I know, Crockers hasn’t suffered any more near death experiences involving explosions, which I have often suspected could have been attempts on his life from a disgruntled Chinese fine artist and fan of The Pink Panther movie franchise.

Have you ever survived two explosions? Do you know any Chinese fine artists? Would you be willing to give their names to Interpol? Have you ever had a painting done of your pet / car?

Now playing: I'm Goin' Up A Yonder
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Friday, 4 January 2008


The young wench in the picture is Madeleine Albright (name changed to protect her identity). I first met her in late 1995 in a flat in Madrid (for she hails from the Iberian Peninsula) when I was on a lone Inter-railing holiday, a form of excursion not to be recommended, by the way – rather than being feted in bars like an itinerant troubadour with Moleskine and quill in hand, I sat alone feeling deeply miserable and wondering why I hadn’t just gone to Ibiza for a fraction of the cost and tried recreational drugs or something. I was in the Spanish capital returning from Málaga, where I had been staying with my friend Lawtey and his then girlfriend, now lovely wife, Macarena. (Incidentally, should you ever meet her, don’t mention the song – if you do, she’s likely to slash you with any available sharp object).

Fellow TEFL hostage Ticket had kindly offered to put me up for the night before my trawl back up to Paris the next day, and Madeleine Albright arrived home in the early evening. At the time she worked for “¡Hola!”, the Spanish equivalent of “Hello!” magazine, and I sensed some tension in the air when Ticket confided to me that he was planning to dump all her possessions on the street whilst she was at work the next day due to some escalating rent dispute. As I wasn’t involved in their tawdry brouhaha, I made civilised small talk with her, and mentioned that I’d recently been sitting alone in bars trying to look literary and interesting in Málaga.

“Really?” she said, “I’m from Málaga.” “What a coincidence!” we both thought, coincidentally at exactly the same time.

“I don’t suppose you know Macarena J?” I asked pathetically, given that the population of the city exceeds 558,287, according to the 2006 census. In my defence, I was wondering if she’d ever been wounded by her after being poorly advised during a karaoke session.

“Of course I do!” she said, “I used to live in the same building as her best friend!” Little did she know that, if Ticket got his way, she’d be heading back south sooner than she realised.

Coincidences duly experienced and absorbed, I hit the rails the next morning and went home to another rainy, damp TEFL winter of discontent, imagining that that was it as far as the crossing of our ways went. In October 2006 I was back in Málaga, however, this time driven by a curiosity to know whether being a TEFL teacher in a warm place was any better than in a cold, wet place, and a fuzzy determination to try to write something rather than just act like I had, or would one day, pen a masterpiece. A few days into my odyssey and Madeleine Albright walks past a bar outside which I am indulging in some lunchtime beer after a hard morning handing out my cv at local schools. Judging by the fact that she was indeed back on the Costa del Sol, I felt it wise to avoid mentioning Ticket and her unplanned contracting of a removals firm to salvage what she could from the pavement outside their flat. After exchanging pleasantries she left and I never saw her in the flesh again.

Shortly after Show and I legally pledged ourselves to each other in Dorset in 1998, she showed me a photo album of her friends. Flicking through, there was a series of photos of the party she’d thrown shortly before leaving for England. One snap caught my eye – the very same one in which Madeleine Albright appears here, in fact. Against all the odds, Madeleine Albright had appeared at that farewell party in Show’s flat in São Paulo, a guest of a mutual friend. It was the first and only time the two had met.

Jung called it synchronicity – others call it stalking.

Have you ever been victim of an intercontinental coincidence? Have you ever been stalked / a stalker? Have you ever been attacked by somebody because you made an innocent joke about their name? Do you know Madeleine Albright too?

Now playing: The Police - Synchronicity II
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