Notes from the TEFL Graveyard

Wistful reflections, petty glories.

My Photo
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.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008


After day one, I've gleaned this much about Texas Hold'em from Seu Francisco, which I'm selflessly spreading across the blogalaxy, or at least this western spiral arm:

- if somebody has a good hand, he's likely to keep himself to himself;
- if somebody has a bad hand, he's likely to look around the table at the other players to see if he can pick up any clues from their physiognomy;
- the best players never bet everything they've got on a hand - they bet moderately to string others along;
- the answer is to develop a uniform appearance, be patient and always do exactly the same thing, no matter what cards you have;

Seu Francisco is a former Brazilian Poker Champion, and thus should be lent multiple ears, in my humble view.

Sunday, 27 April 2008


On Wednesday I finally met the shadowy Seu Francisco. He'd cancelled our Tuesday arrangement due to his being in Montevideo gambling (officially, casinos are illegal in Brazil). I was ushered into a meeting room in his property agency with a large casino table in the middle and packs of cards littering the surrounding surfaces. Ten minutes later a large car drew into the courtyard outside and a tottering brunette with designer everything got out, with Seu Francisco a few paces behind.

Brazilian entrepreneurs all seem to have the same kind of personality. They tend to be gruff, suspicious and exude an unwillingness to suffer fools gladly, which could put me in immediate danger, I mused ruefully. His ladyfriend was at most half his age and demonstrably sullen, as most extremely wealthy women seem to be in my limted experience. "I'm going to Las Vegas with her," Seu Francisco snapped, gesturing vaguely in her direction, "and we want to understand what they say in the casinos." He played with a chunky diamond encrusted gold ring while she stared at the blue felt surface of the card table with a recondite ennui. The stale, tense atmosphere hardly augured the swinging time The King proposed in his 1970s tourism masterpiece (see below), and which Tom Jones ensured with his own unique volume. Excusing herself suddenly, she swung her Louis Vuitton bag over her shoulder, planted her Chanel sunglasses on top of her head and wiggled out the room, leaving us gentlemen to the port and Montecristo Media Noches.

"Where did you win her?" I was about to ask, but Seu Francisco turned straight to business and demanded to know my price. I'm no negotiator, but I'm genuinely amazed to say that I managed to get my best deal yet for classes, plus my petrol and road tolls paid. Three mornings a week I'll be trundling there, messing about with decks of cards and earning a living wage for my troubles.

I'm planning to use Total Physical Response, a rather splendid technique that involves the teacher saying the words and doing the actions, in this case things like "deal the cards", "place your bets", "shuffle the pack", "shoot James Bond under the table", etc, with the students just copying the actions in silence. Somehow it makes them remember the new vocabulary effortlessly. I may even pick up some poker tips along the way. Either that or I'll be walking home blubbering in a pair of borrowed bermudas.

Viva Las Vegas!

Sunday, 20 April 2008


I’ve had a pretty good week. Nothing great has happened, but those little frustrations that normally boil over into an unseemly ire have passed me by like water off a duck going straight over my head. This turning problems into happiness stuff looks pretty righteous to me.

I even managed to get through my eight elementary classes yesterday without feeling like somebody had wheel-clamped my heart. I would usually shuffle into the first class like a dead man walking, but after finding some inspiration from an unlikely source, I would describe my entrance as, if not a strut, certainly nearer a gambol than a lope.

English Teacher X’s Teacher Tips is a mini-site packed with useful clues as to how to survive teaching. I’ve always found his accompanying blog about his misadventures teaching English in Russia by turns hilarious, harrowing and somewhat bleak, but with his teacher tips he hits the bull right between the eyes. His advice that buying a ball is the best investment a TEFL teacher can make, for example, is pure genius.

Armed with this new recommendation, before yesterday’s class I stopped off at the local pet shop. Unfortunately they didn’t have any squeaky balls, which would have really set the classroom on fire, I have no doubt, so I bought a plain blue rubber dog sphere. Just as things were flagging in my first class, I drew the toy from my bag and suddenly there was a new light burning in the students’ eyes. “Let’s do the alphabet! A!” I cried, lobbing the ball to student P. “D!” he cried, tossing the orb to student M. It took a while to get through all the letters in a generally acceptable order, but suddenly we were alive and childlike and innocent again, back to the days when nuns rode bicycles on village greens and summer came on a lollipop stick with a joke on it…

The thing about TEFL tips is that they have to be based on the real world and not some idealised publishers’ fantasy island. Too many create activities that are great in theory, provided that you have uncompromisingly cooperative, motivated and easily-pleased students, a utopia I, personally, have yet to stumble upon.

The only blemish on an otherwise splendid week was an unexpected turn of events regarding my male voice choir’s trip to Poland. One of the baritones tried to drum up support this week for an audacious plan to have our conductor sectioned. His removal to a secure psychiatric unit would be justified, according to the baritone, due to the fact that (1) our choir hasn’t been enrolled in the Polish festival at all, (2) the sponsors of the trip have pulled out / are on the verge of pulling out, thus rendering our voyage financially unviable, and (3) the conductor owes him money.

Whether there is any truth in any of this is as yet unproven, despite tales of damning intercepted email messages, but it does add spice to the prospect of an odyssey to Eastern Europe with two screaming loons on board.

If only they could turn their problems into happiness…

Wednesday, 16 April 2008


I rose at 7:30am today, slipped into my cleanest dungarees and headed to Osasco in the suburbs of São Paulo for a meeting with Seu Francisco, a gentlemen with whom I had arranged a meeting to discuss the prospect of regular English classes at his company. (Seu is a polite form of address for more mature men, similar to the English form, Old Man). His immediate concern is to learn the language well enough to enjoy the full potential of Las Vegas, which sounds to me like an English course worth giving. I girded my loins for a rare 50km solo drive to the metropolis and set off at an environmentally friendly speed, waving trucks, buses and the odd cyclist past as I hugged the inside lane.

The meeting was arranged for 9:00am, and as luck would have it, I arrived on the dot. After first calling at the wrong factory and confusing everyone by not knowing Seu Francisco’s surname, eventually I was let into a small courtyard and greeted by a large, friendly woman. “I don’t think Seu Francisco is coming in today,” she reported, “it appears he left on a trip yesterday.” A few weeks ago this would have provided the perfect opportunity for some tight-chested frothing, and I would have silently railed against the universe on my truculent journey home. But that was before Lama Zopa Rinpoche shared some pearls of wisdom with me through his marvelous manual, Transforming Problems into Happiness, which I fell asleep reading last night.

Taking away the religious aspects of his message, Zopa tells us that all our problems are the result of our negative past actions (karma). Instead of feeling angry when bad things happen to us, we should simply accept these difficult circumstances as the logical fruit of our past errors. This makes huge psychological sense to me. Even if the karma business isn’t true, it’s still a great way to live – not getting brought down by the inevitable setbacks in life, but accepting them with grace and getting on with it anyway. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm”. And he should know, having been responsible for several dramatic failures during the First World War, including the disastrous Gallipoli landings. If that really is what success is, then I’m well on my way.

So even when I got lost in São Paulo on my way home, ending up crossing the entire city in a state of utter bafflement until by chance finding another motorway that eventually led me home, I was able to remain calm and relaxed, and even almost enjoy a Dire Straits song on the radio during the journey. Whether the latter is a positive development or a step backwards is, perhaps, debatable.

Even when Seu Francisco called me at 10:30am to ask me where I was, as he’d just arrived in the office, my teeth remained unclenched at his worker’s incompetence and I was able to smoothly rearrange another meeting for next Tuesday at 10:30am.

Long may this new serenity last.

Friday, 11 April 2008


I prepared a lesson featuring the scene below from Love Actually. In the middle of watching the scene I was ambushed by an overpowering urge to weep.

I don't know if it was a homesickness-driven longing for the side streets of London, the tacky Christmas carol recording, the sheer sentimental romance of it all, or the result of a build up of female hormones. I've never really trusted the milk here.

I draw crumbs of comfort from the fact that Hugh Grant wasn't in the scene.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008


When bedding down on the straw for the night, it is not uncommon for the gentle preamble before sleep takes hold to be punctuated by a loud noise from outside in the street. This is normally due to the detonation of the rojão, a loud and unentertaining cousin of what we westerners would describe as a firework. Those responsible are normally adolescents with undoubtedly glittering academic careers ahead of them, though on occasion it is, in fact, the settling of a mild disagreement between drug dealers through the employment of firearms.

Even the dedicated curmudgeon wouldn’t begrudge the odd firework display to celebrate important events. I particularly remember watching the enchanting spectacle of the Millennium Eve fireworks from Southwark Bridge in London, my delight only slightly overshadowed by the growing certainty that I was about to fall over amid the swirling crowds and be trampled to death, never to discover if my computer had crashed due to that Y2K business or not. Fireworks are symbols of joy, of celebration, and on Bonfire Night, are the perfect accompaniment to the burning of an effigy of a bloke who maybe, in hindsight, had an idea worth considering.

One Bonfire Night in the mid-eighties was dubbed the Merley Riots, when one school companion had the crafty idea of launching rockets through a piece of down pipe from some guttering that his father had recently renovated, creating, in effect, a rudimentary bazooka/panzerfaust. Keen to keep up in this miniature arms race, other teens made similar weaponry and there followed a night of running battles around the housing estate, terrified residents watching scenes through their net curtains reminiscent of the Battle of Kursk. Dorset Police sent squad cars and even a specially-equipped Land Rover to quell the disturbances, eventually managing to detain one youth, who turned out to be the one youth out that night who wasn’t involved in the perilous high jinks. It was a sobering glimpse of the potential challenges involved in installing anarchy in the UK, and cannot be interpreted as Dorset Police’s finest hour, please God.

The rojão, on the other hand, is simply annoying, both in function and frequency of use. If their football team scores, fans rush out into the garden to make a couple of celebratory banging noises. If any team scores against a team they don’t like, they rush out into the garden to make a couple of celebratory banging noises. It wouldn’t be so tiresome if the rojão had some style to it, but the result of its employment is similar to the small arms fire that greets Afghan weddings – a few puffs of smoke and a cowering neighbourhood full of hysterical, woofing/yapping dogs.

Whilst I’m no expert, there seem to be two basic types of rojão. The first is one that just makes an almighty bang, and is good for mining. The other, which I have unofficially dubbed the Warlord, is similar to a burst of sub-machinegun fire, followed after a momentary pause by a lobbed grenade. Some say that they are used by drug dealers to indicate to their clientele that the latest delivery has arrived, but I cannot confirm the accuracy of this information.

The day after I arrived in Brazil in June 2002, I was invited to play a game of tennis with my brother-in-law, and two of Show’s many cousins. As we pinged the ball about and lurched flatfooted around the floodlit court, we became aware of some loud banging noises in the vicinity. Assuming it was exuberant locals launching pre-World Cup rojões, we continued playing, before a group of players on a nearby basketball court sprinted past us silently at an adrenalin-fuelled pace. Gazing up at the clubhouse, we could see a crowd gathered, looking out of the window and pointing with growing consternation. Suddenly uneasy, we decided to interrupt our game, and made for the clubhouse too. In the distance we could see the unmistakable glow of a fire in the night sky. “Is that a bonfire?” I asked my brother-in-law innocently. “No,” he replied, turning white, “it’s the Police Station.” The sounds like gunfire were, indeed, gunfire, as the Police tried to quell a riot in the cells, where the prisoners had set their mattresses on fire and tried to escape. People at the sports club were worried because the only escape route would be through the sports club. I had nightmare visions of another prison massacre à la Carandiru, but as it turned out the Police were only firing warning shots at the prisoners’ feet and presumably shouting, “Dance, sucker!”, and nobody was injured.

It was hardly the welcome to Brazil that my in-laws had envisaged.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008


One of the commonest figures to be found within TEFL is the aspiring administrator. This is a teacher who, often drained by years of repetitive, poorly remunerated clowning around in the classroom, seeks a position managing other teachers, such as Director of Studies (aptly and attractively known as "Doss"), from which they can sit in an imaginary TEFL director’s chair smoking a cigar, bellowing, “CUT!” and enjoying not having to pull a linguistic rabbit out of a hat twelve times a day, five days a week. I include myself within this TEFL subgenre, although my past experiences of administration have left me with an odd yearning to get back into the classroom and be king of my own modest sandcastle.

In 2005, whilst I was working in HR at a local factory, my Brazilian friend Bert and I decided to start our own school. I had recently managed to wriggle out of a honey trap I’d set for myself, when I offered to give a free English course to my colleagues in the factory’s Training and Development Department. I’d made this offer for several reasons – I wanted to try out some new teaching techniques I’d found out about in a low-pressure situation, and I hoped it may gain me some credibility, given my boss’s opinion that I spoke pidgin Portuguese, making it difficult to assess whether I was the village idiot or the wise Shakespearean fool. Lastly, I hoped a few would be sufficiently stimulated by the freebie experience to seek out paid private English classes with me.

As it turned out, the course was something of a disaster. The only time available for holding the classes was from 6:00am to 7:00am, meaning that twice a week I had to be up at 4:30am to get ready for the 5:10am works bus. After an initial spurt of interest, student numbers fell from about 14 to 2, and worse, I began to be hounded by my boss into providing reports on my students’ progress. Rather than see my initiative as a selfless act for the common good, he mystifyingly interpreted it as some kind of favour he was doing me. I let it go on for about two months, then used the high drop-out rate as the perfect excuse to plead that it was turning into a wasteful extra use of electricity at a time when the training centre would normally have remained in darkness.

Thus our plan for a school was conceived. As by far the more accomplished procrastinator, I took it upon myself to be Head of Tables and Pie Charts, and produced a glittering array of graphical representations illustrating just how wealthy we were to become. The school was located in the town where the factory stood, and with just over 5,000 employees and an internal English course limited only to Engineers (of whom there were less than 100 in total) I confidently predicted that if even 1% of the workers there were interested in learning English, that would provide us with a cool 50 students, just to kick off with. We found suitable premises, put up partitions to create 2 decent-sized classrooms, installed an illuminated sign, advertised in the local press, did leafleting campaigns, sent letters door-to-door, and ended the first 12 months with a total of 12 students, a figure that compelled us to employ a scorched earth policy, removing the furniture, disabling the telephone and beating an indebted surrender.

The aggravating factors that caused our failure were many. Firstly, there was the tendency for Brazilians to promise to do something, then not bother to do it. Secondly, there was the mystery of the leafleting campaign, which didn’t appear to reach any of our target consumers. When I explained the task to the lad charged with delivering the material, I developed the suspicion that he was several lemons short of a caipirinha, a fact confirmed when he waved to me from a bus leaving town not twenty minutes later. Only after we closed the school and abandoned our aspirations did people come to me and ask me where the school was located. “I saw that school,” they said, “but I didn’t realise it was yours. I thought it was just another franchise…”

I’m not a good salesman. In fact, that’s not true. I’m not good at selling myself. Give me something to sell, and I’ll shift it for you. What I find difficult is convincing myself of my worth, let alone other people. Maybe that’s why I’m still in TEFL. Or maybe that’s what TEFL has done to me.

Are you good at selling yourself? How much do you charge? Have you ever opened a business? Do you have a job for me? I’m punctual.