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.

Friday, 28 March 2008


As far as I can tell, despite our glorious history of comedy, we British are not renowned abroad for our humour. When colleagues first met me in the factory I briefly worked at, many expressed surprise that I wasn’t “serious”, a point they often emphasised by miming the wearing of a tie. I don’t know where this stereotype comes from – if they were surprised by my sobriety I might have better understood their confusion.

One of the many baffling aspects of living in a foreign country is trying to understand the nature of native comedy. When my wife, Show, lived in England, at first she couldn’t understand the hoopla surrounding the sitcom The Office, in particular the sublime central character, David Brent. When she started working in an office, however, the nuances became crystal clear. One comedy that caused some unseemly wrestling over the TV remote control was The League of Gentlemen, which I found beguiling and she found utterly distasteful, which is why it was so amusing, I used to plead from the wrong end of a half-nelson. To me, the bawdy, ribald baseness of the show was merely a continuation of Chaucerian jesting, with a nod and a wave along the way to La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, the Decameron and The Railway Children. She remains unconvinced, and still hides the remote control out of habit.

The League of Gentlemen may be tasteless, but it is easy to grasp why it is funny to aficionados. The acting is superb, the characters way beyond grotesque, the catchphrases memorable and, well, catchy (“This is a local shop”, etc). I have been studying the local comedy here for nigh on six years, and I must admit to remaining singularly unread in the ways of Brazilian burlesque.

The pictured double act are stars of Pánico na TV, from left to right, Repórter Vesgo (“The Cross-Eyed Reporter”, which he apparently isn’t) and Silvio (an impersonation of Silvio Santos, a septuagenarian TV host and owner of the second-largest TV station, SBT - the teeth are not his own, incidentally, and I have my suspicions that he may be using a syrup too). Their job is to go to famous parties, try to gain access and/or hang around outside and insult arriving celebrities. Those who react badly are urged to put on the “Sandals of Humility”, which can be amusing at times, especially when Vesgo is physically assaulted and some of the more tedious celebs make fools of themselves. They are essentially Brazilian versions of English comedian Paul Kaye’s character Dennis Pennis, who did much the same on both sides of the Atlantic. This I can grasp – this is universal.

At the other end of the scale comes Saturday night’s prime time Zorra Total (“Total Old Vixen”, if my dictionary is to be trusted). This is a sketch show written, apparently, by German infants who live in northern Finland and who don’t see daylight from October until March. I just don’t get it. One of the sketches involves a heavily tattooed forty-something chap, and a camp short guy with a funny haircut who delivers rambling, effeminate monologues, interrupted by the former urging him to be “macho”. Then, just as you’re reaching for the remote control, out of nowhere the little camp clown squeals, “A faca, a faca!” (“The knife, the knife!”) and everyone runs for cover. I’ve watched this repeatedly, week after week, and I’m getting no closer. I really try to find it funny, but it just passes me by and leaves me feeling strangely empty.

Finally on this whistle-stop tour of South American jocularity, there is Tiririca. He is a mustachioed loon complete with funny hat who also engages in rambling monologues, but winds up taking preposterous tangents and never reaches any comprehensible conclusion. He is probably funny because he is relieved of the obligation of delivering a suitably droll punch line.

In my humble opinion, all Brazilian comedy scriptwriters should be sacked forthwith and replaced by chimps with typewriters and flexible deadlines.

What is your favourite comedy? Have you ever watched a Brazilian TV comedy? Are you a German infant looking for a career in sitcom, resident in Northern Finland? Is somebody shouting “The knife, the knife!” funny anywhere in the known universe?

Tuesday, 25 March 2008


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura.
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I, 1-3

Reading the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, it is easy to imagine he was, at the time, a TEFL teacher. Those of us who plough on in the trade despite advancing years all reach the dark forest, the TEFL Wall, like lightly trained marathon runners off Blue Peter. The wisest of us get ourselves qualified in something other than speaking, reading and writing English and get a real job, whilst the more naïve, perhaps fantasising we are still in our carefree twenties, suddenly find we are cantering towards forty with little chance of leaping from our speeding donkey.

My acupuncturist recently told me that I’m “explosive”. “What the f*ck are you on about?” I snapped, swatting his hand away churlishly. “I am having a lot of gas, admittedly…” I began, but he chuckled ironically as he held me down by the throat and explained that I am breaking into a seething rage with great facility. This is why I love acupuncture – by taking a few pulses they can diagnose emotional factors that western medicine rarely considers. Western medicine sees the human body as a machine that either works or it doesn’t, whereas eastern techniques take into account emotions and have a more holistic outlook.

The point on the top of my head, which when pressed feels like somebody is banging a six-inch nail into my pate, is making hairstyling a misery exactly because of my tendency towards tumultuous indignation at the drop of a hat, or more commonly, the wearing of one. It doesn’t take much at all to set me off, and I can be found wandering the streets with my dog, muttering and railing to myself like a delirious drifter in a delusive road movie. It’s all related to the meridian of the liver, apparently, problems with which are often related to anger. Interestingly, the adjective “liverish” appears to confirm this contention.

Only yesterday whilst out walking my teeth champed at an imaginary bit as a complete baseball-capped dick in a red Volkswagen Golf with lowered suspension arrived at an obvious road block, squeezed his vehicle through the barriers and accelerated raucously away with a volume of noise inversely proportional to the size of his manhood - another case of a brainless arse thinking the rules are for everybody else. It didn’t even matter that he found his path blocked by a JCB digger along with accompanying hole the width of the road and was forced into making a humiliating reversing manoeuvre, my humour was already blackened, and I made rude hand gestures towards the driver from behind a parked lorry.

I don’t know why, but I took such offence that I just wanted to grab a megaphone, stand on a nearby car roof and declare, “Hear ye, Brazilians! Stop acting like you’re contestants in a tropical-penal-colony-based reality show and start following some rules and joining the community of nations! The Australians have almost done it, and they used to be a penal colony. They’re even good at cricket and produce a couple of decent lagers. They like barbecues like you do, so if they can do it, so can you!” But then of course the Polícia Militar come, confiscate your megaphone, beat you about the legs with sticks and revolution feels much the same as a broken femur.

The point is I need to learn to control my anger. In late 1997, over ten long years ago, I had reached a point of equilibrium in my life that I long to achieve once more. Having become interested in meditation, I’d been practising daily the cultivation of compassion, reaching the point of not seeing students as invaders of my privacy any more, but as friendly beings towards whom I could express kindness and generate happiness for them and for me. I felt top notch, all the time. Nothing disturbed my contentment. Then over time, things changed, laziness engulfed me, procrastination held sway, until now, even seeing a baseball cap for sale in a shop is enough to make me have to have a sit down for five minutes.

So today I am going to find a quiet five minutes, sit and meditate. I need to do something before the six-inch nail in the top of my head becomes a six-inch nail in somebody else’s.

Do you get angry easily? How do you control your negative emotions? Do you feel like you’ve got a six-inch nail in the top of your head? Have you ever instigated revolution with a megaphone, or other Public Address system? What are you looking at? You got some kind of problem…?

Thursday, 20 March 2008


There is nothing we British love more than a good drink, but those wishing to make their TEFL career last more than a matter of weeks should probably avoid teaching whilst intoxicated – it can be a very unpleasant experience for all concerned. As I have confessed previously, when I was younger I used to swan around like a poor man’s bohemian, heavily influenced into equating alcohol abuse with being alluring by devoted lushes such as Dylan Thomas, Jeffrey Bernard, Jim Morrison, Oliver Reed and their ilk, but I was probably most inspired by Charles Bukowski’s alter ego Hank Chinaski’s reflection, “When something good happened, I drank to celebrate. When something bad happened, I drank to forget. When nothing happened, I drank to make something happen.” I was a subscription paying fan of drinking to make something happen.

Unlike in other professions, in TEFL there is no place to hide. There are no corners in which you can quietly sit and nurse a hangover, no steady supply of aspirin and black coffee to ward off the accompanying pain and sloth. My first class given in a state of drunken breeziness occurred after spending a memorable evening in the company of my Welsh friend NPD and a striking blonde girl from Madrid, which ended, as most such evenings did, in the bowels of the underground Swiss Keller Bar in Charminster. As it was located under a restaurant, it possessed a liquor licence that guaranteed unlimited early hours thrills and spills, and as I fantasized that, with every pint, the Spaniard with us was finding me as increasingly attractive as I was finding her womanly lines, I ingested liberally, eventually arriving in NPD’s flat at around five, with classes programmed to begin at nine.

Rudely awoken at eight by the white light streaming through the unclosed curtains, we skipped breakfast and weaved our way to the school in a state of blurred apprehension. My first class was with three middle aged women, all friends from Majorca. Our previous classes had been riotous at times, as they were certainly out for a good time and constantly heckled each others’ efforts to speak Eengleesh. The tone changed on this day, however, as my rapidly deteriorating condition ensured that it was all I could do to sit in front of them and sweat. “Page twenty-two, exercise A,” I croaked, unable to muster the energy to teach them anything. After forty-five minutes of silent endeavour, one of them finally snapped, collected her things and walked out. “I’m going for coffee,” she pouted. Though I suspected that this could be a worrying development, I followed her departure helplessly with my eyes, like somebody struck mute by a sudden and debilitating palsy. I knew I should have tried to follow her and dissuade her from abandoning proceedings, but I didn’t have any strength in my legs.

When the break came at ten to ten, I headed unsteadily for the staff room for ten minutes of quiet respite. As I turned the bend on the stairs, through the window I was alarmed to see NPD hopping into a taxi and being whisked away to an undisclosed location. Far more versed than me in TEFL survival skills, he’d summoned all the energy he could and bounced into the class at nine o’clock, giving it his all for the first period. At the break, he’d retired to the lavatory, hurled exuberantly, then pleaded food poisoning to the Principal and been allowed to leave early. There was no way I’d be allowed to do the same, as there was only ever one teacher on standby. I was going to have to sweat it out alone, quite literally.

I was thus deprived of a chum with whom to share my considerable suffering, which in peacetime is the nearest us civilians get to experiencing camaraderie. Indeed, much of the enjoyment of binge drinking lies not in the actual consumption of alcohol, but in the mad stories that are revealed during post-bender debriefing sessions. There is always somebody who ended up relieving himself in a wardrobe or woke up in bed with a divorcee with chronic halitosis – getting thrown out of, or not even allowed into, nightspots brings special kudos. Eager to cover my own rather mundane speciality, which was to reach a certain point where I simply had to sleep in a bed, normally my own, and invariably alone, I took to making up stories to delight my partners in lager and lime. “What happened to you last night?” they’d enquire. “Me? The last thing I remember was taking off in pursuit of that blonde with the tattoos, but I reckon I must have fallen down a manhole, because I woke up in a 2-metre waste pipe next to a tramp who thought he was Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”

In fact, the nearest I ever got to having a vaguely amusing anecdote to tell was when I went to a party in somebody’s flat, disappeared whilst on my way to the bathroom and was found, fully clothed, snoozing in a bed belonging to a nightclub bouncer, who was fortunately out at work at the time. Suddenly ravenously hungry, I and my companion stopped at a petrol station and bought a McCain’s Mini Pizza each on the way home, only for the encrusted microwaved topping of mine to skid off amid my drunken fumbling and land upside down on my shoe. Not even sober could I do that again. Anyway, all was well that ended well, as I was able to reattach the separated components and diminish my hunger, in the process somehow avoiding a nasty case of botulism.

Luckily, I had no classes the next day.

Have you ever caught food on your shoe and been drunk enough to eat it anyway? Have you taught whilst drunk? Have you made up stories in order to fit in? Am I as sad as I feel?

Tuesday, 18 March 2008


Here is the scene in question, for those seeking cultural enlightenment.

Sunday, 16 March 2008


As I was trawling the Internet five minutes before a lesson recently in the hope of finding some suitably pre-prepared material to fill the forthcoming hour, I came across one of those teaching tips that are somehow useful. “Remember, we are not just teaching language,” it breezed, “we are teaching culture.” With this in mind, I have decided to teach some of my private students about British culture using the medium of film. I am planning to show them an excerpt of a movie, without sound, and demand that they write a script according to what they think is happening and what the characters are saying in the scene.

Too many foreigners unfortunately only have access to what they think Britain represents through that film The Queen, Mr Bean repeats, Benny Hill and films with Hugh Grant in them, such as Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. I don’t know about my compatriots, but I’ve never met any real Briton like the charmingly bumbling Hugh Grant, and if I had, I certainly wouldn’t be shouting about it, let alone making films about him. So, after much thought, and taking into account my limited film collection, I have come upon the seminal vehicle through which to show a true slice of what it is to be British – Bruce Robinson’s 1986 classic, Withnail and I.

I’ve already started my indoctrination program by pre-teaching a class on “Taboo Language”, an entertaining lesson that detailed the meaning and usage of the F-word, several of the B-words and even the C-word, all absolutely necessary in order to understand the plot and comedic potency of the motion picture in question. Unfortunately the material omitted the pejorative expression, “shag sack”, which Withnail uses in reference to Danny the drug dealer when they are bickering about who can take the most drugs and still “run a mile”, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

For those who haven’t seen the cult classic, Withnail and I is the semi-autobiographical story of two out-of-work, destitute actors, the eponymous Withnail and the narrator Marwood. Set in London in the late 1960’s, it follows the two unemployed thespians as they spend their time and what little money they have drinking and dabbling in recreational drugs whilst living in slum conditions and trying to survive the bitter cold of an English autumn. Their health failing due to overindulgence, eventually they decide to spend a weekend recuperating in the country at a house owned by Withnail’s rich uncle, Monty, and of course the trip is plagued by all kinds of drunken japes, misunderstandings and other stuff Shakespeare was good at.

In order to extract the maximum cultural value from the exercise, I have decided to show them an excerpt from the film where Withnail and Marwood have been given five pounds each by Monty to buy some Wellington boots (very British), but instead they plan to lie to Monty that they couldn't find any and retire to the local boozer instead (even more British). As “time” is called in the King Henry pub, giving revelers twenty minutes to finish their drinks and leave, Withnail orders “a pair of quadruple whiskeys and another pair of pints”, a request I’m sure will have my generally alcohol-free students looking blankly at the screen and wondering if they just heard right. After this, they leave the pub and, in a state of inebriation Withnail describes as “utterly arseholed”, they make for a teashop to eat cake, “to soak up the alcohol”, another uniquely British concept.

Quintessentially English, the teashop provides a powerful glimpse of the generation gap, and the two drunkards’ mildly anti-social antics expose the widespread habit in the United Kingdom of complaining privately about unruly behaviour, yet not actually confronting it, perhaps wisely nowadays given the number of people who have taken to the Dickensian practice of walking around carrying knives in their hosiery.

When Withnail loudly demands “the finest wines available to humanity”, the proprietor of the teashop finally takes a stand and tells his assistant to call the Police - another quaint British custom – do that in many countries and they simply wouldn’t come, or if they did, they’d probably shoot, beat or at least arrest everybody in the environs. Having insisted that they’re millionaires and that they plan to buy the teashop and sack the woman calling the Police, Monty arrives outside in his limousine and Withnail and Marwood make their exit, leaving the bewildered senior citizens peering curiously through the net curtains, in a poignant concluding reflection on English manners.

British culture – that’ll learn ‘em.

Now playing: The Who - My Generation
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, 12 March 2008


I’ve started teaching on Saturdays. Normally this is against both my principles, but as I’m currently teaching only 13 hours per week, I have bent to the will of my spouse and assorted creditors and now complete a marathon of weekend English instruction. I drive 10km east to start my first class at 8.00 in the morning, then drive 70km west for a choir rehearsal from 10.00 until 12.00, before refueling at home at around 12.30. After that, I’m back east for classes from 13.50 until 18.50. Last Saturday was the first attempt and I survived more or less intact, though I missed listening to the Six Nations over the Internet and threw a suitably measured tantrum.

The second of my afternoon classes had an ominous tone about it when an exasperated executive declared that he wanted to be speaking English by July. “I’ve started over and over again about seven times in different schools,” he nearly wept, “and I just don’t get beyond the verb to be. I can’t take any more being.” Part of me wanted to respond to his existential moaning by suggesting he plug the pie-hole and learn to be like the rest of them, but the part of me that hasn’t yet died found his comments somewhat intriguing, if overbearingly familiar. Is it possible to learn to speak a language in 5 months having 3 classes a week, I ask?

When I came to Brazil I made a conscious decision not to study Portuguese. Before the accusations fly that I am a Little Englander, what I mean is that I decided to “pick up” the language naturally, without formal study. It was an interesting experience. At first I felt like a toddler, understanding more and more of the messages being directed at me, soiling myself occasionally, yet unable to do more than make sporadic grunting noises in response to others’ attempts at communication. Then, little by little I began to utter words like “Mummy” and the like, and before long I was discussing the allegorical aspects of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso with anyone sufficiently bedridden.

Another technique I also found useful was to silently have pretend conversations in Portuguese with an imaginary friend. I do that in English too, but it certainly helped me progress through the often dense forest that is Portuguese grammar. After around 18 months I was speaking the local tongue better than any other foreign language I’ve ever sought to learn, including Italian, which I spent 4 years at University in England and Italy studying between beers. I don’t know Portuguese grammar, but I know what’s right and wrong because I’ve heard it or read it, proving that it’s possible to become fluent in a language without it being like learning the rules of Physics – indeed, I would posit that I’m more fluent because I didn’t learn the grammar – I’ve never had to hesitate to remember a grammar rule, I simply say what “sounds” right. The question is: can this be transposed into the TEFL classroom?

I suspect a number of readers are fellow linguists. I invite your feedback on your language learning experiences, which I may collate and put into a book and sell all over the world and make millions and retire and live a life all fine port and cufflinks and Italian suits and… (I’m crying at this point)…

What are your language learning experiences? Do you have imaginary friends? Have friends or relatives ever tried to section you under the Mental Health Act? Is it possible to learn a language in 5 months? Should students plug their pie-holes and learn “to be” in the traditional way? Please feel free to detail your experiences with tongues other than your own.

Now playing: Barenaked Ladies - If I Had a Million Dollars
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, 8 March 2008


I can't express my delight at Wales' rugby football win in Dublin any better than this Russian bloke. I'm sure No Good Boyo gave him voice coaching and sold him an e-book on artistic expression.

For non-Welshes, the Star Wars-style karaoke machine is definitely a helpful addition.

Play that banjo son!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008


A new pet shop opened last Saturday not a brisk five-minute stroll from our caravan, and yesterday I set about discovering the services it offers, in particular its pet cleaning set up. I was greeted by a harassed receptionist who looked to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, despite my being the only customer in the vicinity at the time.

“Do I have to book to have my dog washed?” I enquired, noticing by the monogram on his white coat that he was, in fact, the veterinary surgeon in chief.

“Er, yeah. It’s probably best…” he mumbled. “I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by demand,” he bleated defensively, out of nowhere, “we only opened on Saturday.”

“How much does it cost for a large mongrel?” I asked him. He consulted his price list.

“Without a Breed Defined (Jumbo)... thirty-five reais,” he responded. He opened his diary on tomorrow. The page was largely blank.

“We’ve got two booked tomorrow…” he said, his voice trailing off helplessly.

“Right…” I looked at him. He seemed lost for words.

“I’ll call you tomorrow then,” I suggested, unable to bear the tortured silence any longer.

“Yeah, call us tomorrow and we’ll see if we can fit you in,” he retorted efficiently, grateful for my forbearing.

Buggering that, when I got home I grabbed some coconut soap and stood on Moby’s lead whilst I hosed him down in the back yard. I was never going to fork out R$ 35 to clean an animal that, before you could say “Jack Russell” would be lying in his own effluent, or that of an unidentified third party – he’s a handsome beast, but his personal hygiene is nothing to write ballads about.

As I cleansed my mutt, I began to do some mental arithmetic. R$ 35 per dog – let’s suppose there are two pet hygienists working, one washing and the other drying. I reckon you could bathe at least three large mongrels an hour, maybe more smaller hounds, especially as the most popular breed around here appears to be, inexplicably, the Poodle. So that’s roughly R$ 105 per hour. As an EFL teacher, the most I’ve ever managed to earn per hour in Brazil is R$ 25. As far as I can guess, pet hygienists don’t need any particular qualifications – in fact they could be utterly witless and still make a career out of it, as long as they knew which way round to wear the apron and remembered to keep the dog’s head above the waterline at all times. Even if the two of them shared the R$ 105 per hour equally, they’d still be creaming off double what I receive – and they wouldn’t have people gazing resentfully at them all day with a look that says, “I still can’t speak English, and it’s nobody’s fault but yours.”

When I did my TEFL course, I recall that one of the teacher trainers made the observation: “If you’re entering TEFL to make money, there’s the door.” I now realize that he wasn’t indicating that it was the door to making money, but the door to get out of TEFL before it was too late.

Damn him and his confounded ambiguity!

Now playing: The Flaming Lips - Lightning Strikes The Postman
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