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.

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


Blogger El Gringo Vasco said...

my thoughts exactly! although yours are much more articulate, of course!

21 January 2008 at 19:29  
Blogger No Good Boyo said...

My brother-in-law is a programmer at Microsoft in Seattle, and became equipped for this life of mumbling, Cheerio-consumption, t-shirt-wearing and megabucks because his parents are a mathematician and a mad scientist, both of whom tampered with the very stuff of nature as a matter of course.

On his visits to Britain, which come via elliptical air routes and last hours rather than days, he brings me and Mrs Boyo various bits of experimental software.

These we pass on after a decent interval of neglect to various Hobbit-fancying unmarried types who almost weep with gratitude, rather like the Hebrew University chap getting the Dead Sea Scrolls as an afterthought from a shepherd who decided he couldn't make sandals out of them.

I can barely cope with Blogger, so hats off to you again, sah! At least you escaped into the sunlit realms of TEFL, where dwell preedy gorls not trolls.

21 January 2008 at 22:34  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Thanks, Gennamen. It's good to see I'm not as thick as I feared.

NGB, does your brother wear tanktops?

22 January 2008 at 15:12  
Blogger No Good Boyo said...

Brother-in-law, mc. He's Ukrainian - the Italians of the Dnieper! - and is obliged by law to retains a modicum of style. He wears t-shirts and the odd tasteful sweater bequeathed by his pneumatic ex-wife. He has an anorak, though.

My own brother wears ex-Bundeswehr shirts, lumberjack coats and a roll-up, like all self-respecting Welsh.

23 January 2008 at 02:01  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Sorry my mistake. Had me a bit worried there.

23 January 2008 at 11:20  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remain a fan! I relate to much of what you've said here, which is a big reason why ELT World moves forward at its sloath-like pace. (glad to see I made the starting eleven)

David V. or Vincaça, according to

24 January 2008 at 15:22  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Thanks, DV. I always thought you were a bit of a whizz with the compyooter, what with your extravagant use of PDFs, forums, etc. You'll go far, boy.

25 January 2008 at 11:05  

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