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, 30 May 2008


One of our number has posted the following video on YouTube. Despite the shaky camera work, we weren't in fact performing on the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry, but in an auditorium in Sorocaba, Brazil, days before our triumphant tour of Pomerania.

NB The author reserves the right to delete any derogatory, defamatory, inflammatory or anti-Welsh comments that may ensue from the playing of the above clip.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008


We return triumphant.

After what has to be one of the most amazing foreign trips of my TEFL-riddled lifetime, I am now safely back in small-town Brazil, weak limbed with jet lag, but with several songs on my brain, several Poles in my heart, and a sharp aftertaste of Żubrówka in my throat.

It was an often tearful tour, such as when we arrived at our bed and breakfast establishment on the first night exhausted from our 14-hour journey and mustered what strength we had to sing a song for our hosts. Amid open weeping, I have to admit the emotion-charged atmosphere brought a tear to my eye, but that could have been due to the fact that I'd been supressing a bowel movement for the previous twenty-something hours.

Another highlight was singing Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium in a room at Malbork Castle where choirs have been performing since the fifteenth century, but what will mark me always is the reception we received from our Polish counterparts, who were the most gracious of hosts and made sure we wanted for nothing throughout our stay in their country. As I predicted in my pre-match post, our choir won over the locals with its charisma, positive energy and sense of fun, even if, as the only amateur choir performing amongst professional and university ensembles, we were a little way behind in technical terms. Having said that, we were awarded a bronze diploma in each of the three categories in which we competed in the festival, no mean feat for our first attempt in any kind of contest.

Also, I don't think I've ever laughed so much in my life, as the natural playfulness and lack of alcohol-fuelled aggression of the Brazilian is a delight to partake of, and is certainly contagious for those with whom they come into contact.

I also expect to gain a number of new private students for English classes, especially one of our troupe, who went white after a scorching Czech girl from another choir whispered a husky, "Let's go" to him at the end of festival party. "No! No!" he replied, thinking she was informing him that she was going home, which she in turn understood as a rejection of her saucy advances, and rightly stormed off. He spent the rest of the evening searching for her amongst 800 frumpy choristers, but, sadly for him, the curtain had already fallen.

Congratulations have to go to the University of the Philippines Singing Ambassadors Choir, who deservedly won every category in the festival and the prize for Best Choir. We really are not worthy.

Sunday, 11 May 2008


This is my last post for a couple of weeks, as our male voice choir's voyage to Eastern Pomerania has finally been confirmed, and we fly out on Tuesday. Last night was our farewell concert, filmed by local TV stations and packed with second-class dignitaries. I think it's fair to say we went down a storm, rather than went down in a storm, much to the relief of the companies funding our musical mission.

I have a feeling that the Poles will warm to the sheer joie de vivre of our group, comprised of, amongst others, a five-foot mathematician (useful for quick currency conversions), a psychotic paediatrician (useful for discouraging hypochondria) and a soloist with an ego (if not a voice) that could fill the Maracanã, who has refused to memorise the music and is in constant conflict with our brilliant but unpredictable choirmaster. Throw into the mix an unwitting Benny Hill impersonator, and we could justifiably be described as truly blessed.

For those unable to attend, here is a track listing of our repertoire. You'll just have to close your eyes and imagine 28 Johnny Cash dressalikes belting out these numbers, relentlessly, one after another, whilst jiggling around like only brasileiros do at appropriate junctures. I, at most, will be clapping self-consciously on the off beats.

  1. O Magnum Mysterium - Morten Lauridsen (USA) - sacred music in Latin;
  2. Salmo 150 - Ernani Aguiar (Brazil) - sacred music (Psalm 150) in Latin;
  3. Exultate Deo - Palestrina (Italy) - sacred music in Latin;
  4. Inveni David - Anton Bruckner (Austria) - sacred music in Latin;
  5. He Hideth My Soul - Fanny J Crosby, William J Kirkpatrick, arr. Joseph Linn (USA) - gospel music in English;
  6. Asa Branca - Luiz Gonzaga, Humberto Teixeira (Brazil) - folk music (forró) in Portuguese;
  7. Samba do Ernesto - Adoniram Barbosa (Brazil) - folk music (samba) in Portuguese;
  8. Isto Aqui o Que É? - Ary Barroso (Brazil) - folk music (samba) in Portuguese;
  9. Desafinado - Tom Jobim, arr. Eduardo D Carvalho (Brazil) - folk music (bossa nova) in Portuguese;
  10. Rockin' Jerusalem - André J Thomas (USA) - negro spiritual in English;
  11. Swingin' with the Saints - Traditional, arr. Mark Hayes (USA) - negro spiritual/jazz in English;
  12. Peggy O'Neill - Harry Pease, Ed G Nelson, Gilbert Dodge (USA) - barbershop in English;
  13. Ain'-a That Good News - William L Dawson (USA) - negro spiritual in English.

Until the next time - don't go changin'!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008


Today, in order to practise the language of the green baize, I spent my morning lesson playing a game of poker with Seo Francisco and two of his managers. I cleaned the bastards out, fair and square.

It may take years of legal wrangling, but I'm determined to get what I'm entitled to. No changing the rules just because I'm a Johnny Foreigner. Things don't work like that where I come from I explained as the security guards carried me to the gate.

If anyone knows a good lawyer in São Paulo (preferably one that accepts Legal Aid cases) please break radio silence.

Monday, 5 May 2008


It's been a while since I last made a fool of myself at a school shindig, thank Mary mother of Jesus. Nowadays I'm resigned to playing the native speaker monkey to the school owner's organ grinder, sipping fruit juices and repeating to each student one by one that I'm not a yank, I'm British, that I'm from a small town on the south coast, near the Isle of Wight, which is famous for staging the rock festival that turned out to be one of Jimi Hendrix's last live performances, and no, I don't live in London, though I used to... By this time their eyes have normally glazed over, so I move on to the next questioneer eager to pursue their jumbled investigations.

School parties are something of a double edged sword. Whilst they are great for promoting international harmony and inter-cultural experiences, the temptation is always there to really let loose and show the students that there's more to you than a comprehensive knowledge of non-defining relative clauses and mixed conditionals. The urge to reveal our engaging, drunken side becomes more pressing with the presence in one of our classes of an attractive Valencian wench with smirking eyes that hoarsely whisper "Olé!" I have always had a healthy obsession with Latin women, perhaps because they're everything I'm not - and that's probably a good thing.

We Britons (well me, at least) often display a compulsion to draw attention to ourselves, to shake things up, to drink ourselves off the end of the earth, to raise hell, as if we're proving some point worth making. The irony is that, in doing this, we are making ourselves a target for virtually all the other young men around us, who love nothing more than giving a hearty beating to anyone who dares to raise his voice, let alone laugh, in public. Let this be a warning to all those who plan to go to Britain and have a good time.

The last time I was dribbling drunk was at a party at the school in Bournemouth where I worked. I was twenty-six. We'd organised a national stereotypes-themed party, a whimsical event that provided the very language school-esque spectacle of Turkish belly dancers, fur hatted Russians, flamenco-dancing Spaniards all bopping away to the latest sounds, with me staggering around as a historically accurate English football hooligan. Draped in a Union Jack, with an Alan Shearer T-shirt and theatrical blood streaming from an imaginary head wound, I terrorised as much as I amused, and looking back it was perhaps the least appropriate disguise in which to attempt to beguile a pretty Spanish girl.

I was also still in the throes of my adolescent literary infatuation with Charles Bukowski, and had taken to carrying a bottle of cheap whisky around with me, from which I would regularly swig irreverantly in memory of the crude old dipso. By the end of the evening I'd knocked back about half the contents and was in no position to do anything but drool. My friend D later informed me that I'd spent the last moments of the evening swaying and staring at the Valencian girl, as if trying to hypnotise her at a distance. Clearly unable to think rationally, let alone talk, I'd eventually been manhandled into a colleague's car and driven home. When I'd got out, I'd tripped over a parked car in the driveway and lain on the ground for an inordinate time, during which my colleague had briefly thought about getting out to help me, but as he himself was dressed as Charles II, he thought better of it and drove off into the night, leaving me to my ruin.

When I awoke the next morning, I wondered from whom I had received the frenzied knife attack. It felt like I had a dagger in my head, and there was red blood all over my pillow, which of course was the theatrical blood I'd been using for added authenticity. I phoned in sick and lay down again, mastigating the aftertaste of whisky in my mouth and wishing for a quick death. My friend D, who is probably the friend I most respect for a variety of reasons, asked me later that night in the pub, as I gingerly sipped some hair of the dog, why I had behaved as I had the previous night. I mouthed a response, but no sound came out, as it dawned on me that there was nothing I could say at that moment that wouldn't make me sound pathetic.

And that was the most chilling intimation I'd ever received of my own absurdity, though it certainly wasn't the last.