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.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008


Whilst I have nothing against felines as a species, I do object to their ungratefulness. Recently a mangy cat fell, or was thrown, into our back yard and we had a hell of a job, that lasted over an hour, manhandling it through the house and out the front door without contracting an exotic zoonotic ailment as it struggled, scratched and bit as we approached the cauldron. Show said that the strange creature gave her the willies, it was so thin and had larger-than-necessary eyes.

Not five minutes later it was back mewing in the back yard again, clearly keen for a second chance to pass Feline panleukopenia to its unsuspecting saviours. Another half an hour's struggling and it was out the front door again.

Since then, there have appeared cat-style footprints on the bonnet of our white car every morning, normally leading up the windscreen and over the roof. "The scamp," we thought. Now things have escalated alarmingly.

Every morning we awake to find cat's business on the front of our vehicle. Not a little, a lot. It like he's inviting his whole family over, the evil little freak. Show, late as usual for an appointment with a wealthy client, sped off a couple of days ago without noticing the cat muck all over the shop, hardly conveying the slick, clean image of the stylish interior designer that has become her hallmark.

My question is: without resorting to unnecessary/expensive violence, is there anything that can dissuade the cat population from defecating in inappropriate places? You know, three parts Coca Cola, one part vinegar and three teaspoons of cement mix, spread in a circle around the area, or something.

Any help would be appreciated, before I set the dogs on 'em.

Saturday, 21 June 2008


Ten years ago I used to tailspin into a cold sweat at witnessing my students' lack of participation, such was my desperation to win their collective approval, but a decade of having my best intentions quashed on a daily basis has brought me to where I is at today - a comfortable place where I couldn't give a macaco's danglers what they do. If they want to act like catatonic extras in an unambitious remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, they can knock themselves out, as Americans are wont to opine.

It's like this - we all troop to the school, we read/write/listen/speak a bit, I'm nice to them and occasionally make them laugh (usually in Portuguese, because life's too short to try joking in English), then we all go home to rest. That's all they can expect, and all I am willing to deliver. They're all thirsty in the middle of the limitless desert of language learning, and as their camel, I am all too aware that the oasis that is fluent English is but a teasing mirage shimmering on the parched horizon, for at least 94% of them.

Occasionally, students surprise us. I have a rather dull but pleasant student, who remains silent so much of the time that I wonder if he hasn't taken a vow of some sort. His normal in-class behaviour is to look alternately at the board and at his pad of paper through his thick-lensed glasses, occasionally frowning to himself, then wordlessly shrugging and scribbling something in answer to his own silent query. If he comes to class or not is very much a question of nuance. Yesterday I found myself staring at his hair, which I'd suddenly noticed had a deep and suspiciously even mahogany tone to it. Did he colour? I wondered absently, or was it a toupé? My late father had something of an obsession with mens' wigs, which I seem to have inherited, alleging vehemently as early as the late seventies that Terry Wogan had at least three, which he'd rotate to make it look as if his hair were growing longer, then whip back to number one to feign having had his mop cut.

Anyway, in last night's lesson yer man surprised me, whilst at the same time confirming why he normally keeps his mouth shut. In answer to the question I'd scrawled on the whiteboard in a lame attempt to generate discussion, namely, "What is important in a marriage?", he suddenly guffawed as if the voices in his head had just told him to run his boss over. "Karate" he offered. "Sorry?" I ventured. "Karate," he repeated grinning, looking at the bemused other students for confirmation of his wit. I just didn't have the energy, or the inclination, for that matter, to explore his rationale any further, my wasting arm was already aching after writing several sentences on the board. "Yes, good, karate," I agreed, obviously humouring him and not actually adding it to the list for fear of a sane person there present asking what on God's sweet earth he was on about.

At least it gives me something to write about, I suppose.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008


I was first introduced to the concept of inner bollocks by my dear friend D, whose cousin had used the term in reference to a fruitless night he'd spent trying to seduce an attractive companion by feigning a sensitive, New Man kind of approachability. "What did you talk to her about?" D had asked earnestly the next morning. "Oh, you know," his cousin had muttered cynically, "inner bollocks."

The meaning of the term now having widened, it has come to represent not only what women refer to as feelings, but also any kind of mental labour, or philosophising. Having recently acquired a copy of Julian Baggini's The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, a volume that includes some inner bollocks of the highest order, I have been inspired to add my own thought experiment to his list of 99 "mind-boggling tales from the outer limit of thought" (The Guardian).

Should we feel sympathy for the victims of bar violence?

A short time ago, a new bar/nightclub opened at the bottom of our tree-lined avenue. Literally weeks after its inauguration, the town awoke to find a young man with a fatal gunshot wound to the head a short distance away from said establishment, the victim having last been seen by witnesses gettin' jiggy wi' it (whatever that means) inside with an unidentified femme fatale, (no pun intended). A typical wild west tale of liquor, poker and messing with the wrong woman, without the poker and possibly only with soft drinks.

As far as I know, there were no witnesses to the dispute that ended in gunfire, and the perpetrator of the hideous act has yet to be identified, let alone cautioned for disturbing the peace by firing a gun after eleven pm.

Given these facts, I wouldn't go near the place, not even to rescue a litter of puppies from a raging fire. Moreover, those that do frequent the locale, knowing that there's a mad killer on the loose apt to show his displeasure my shooting at peoples' heads, are clearly of the opinion that the chance of a fling with a succulent morena outweighs the possibility of being fatally killed on the way home.

Thus my contention: the buggers are asking for it, in my opinion. Only people expecting to be a victim, or the cause, of violence, or willing to face the very real possibility of it, would be so rash as to spend an evening at that nightspot.

If they went to the cinema instead, or a nice restaurant (São Paulo in particular has some excellent eateries), life would be so much more civilised and bullet-free for all of us.

Saturday, 14 June 2008


Last night I found myself collapsed on the sofa post-class with a glass of Burgundy Wood Finish Glenmorangie with ice in my hand, from which I periodically sipped.

This may not be considered strange, except that:

  1. Some of my most embarrassing faux pas / wretched attempts to entice the ladies / chilling near-death experiences have involved the copious abuse of this distilled venom, leading to a repeated vow never to indulge in its intoxicating effects again for as long as I'm buying;
  2. The last time I drank whisky was when I was inexplicably trying to impress a student of mine while posing as a scotch connoisseur, and ended up having to take the next day off work with a fever. I had decided to talk him through a tasting of the sublime single malt Cardhu, whose distillery I visited with a rather bemused Show whilst on honeymoon in Scotland (I'd had to find a subtle manner in which to stop my shaking without her becoming suspicious). My subsequent incapacitation speaks for itself;
  3. Given points (1) and (2) above, I regard whisky drinking as an unpleasant experience to be struggled through, rather than a luxurious pleasure that conjures romantic images of peat bogs, damp Scottish landscapes and Gentlemens' Clubs where all one can hear is the rustle of the Daily Telegraph over the ticking of a grandfather clock.
When pouring the volatile liquid into the glass, I noticed the cardboard cylinder speaks of the whisky being Handcrafted by the Sixteen Men of Tain. Who are they? I wondered idly. Do they have plump, rosy-cheeked wives waiting for them after they've finished a hard day's handcrafting? Are they all members of the same rugby team, with the smallest one a mascot, or summat? Have they all been working there all their lives? What's their story? I wondered absently.

Only then did it dawn on me. I'd spent the afternoon transcribing several videos about a certain brand of whisky, mainly some slaphead droning on about how brilliant he was at marketing it. A piece of it suddenly sprang into my mind, causing a cold shiver to run the length of my hunched spine: "Brands must have a soul, myth, a legend. They must be made with passion, hand-crafted, be able to tell a story."

Another haunting passage reads "this luxuriously rich, creamy and honied scotch is now available to be celebrated by the more indulgent connoisseur. The champagne of scotch whisky."

I have always prided myself on my independence of thought and action, but in fact I have just found another way in which I am wrong.

I'm sure Show has already added it to the ever-growing list.

Sunday, 8 June 2008


An interesting debate over at ELT World in answer to the question, Are your students learning anything? has got me all reflective.

Many rock songs are claimed by religious maniacs to include subliminal messages when played backwards or by missing every sixth word or summat, but others are more easily deciphered. As TEFL anthems go, perhaps one of the most memorably haunting has to be Dave Gilmour/Roger Waters' bitterly ironic collaboration reflecting on TEFL one-to-one classes being taught abroad, Wish You Were Here:

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

As TEFL mongers we often feel like we're in a fish bowl, year after year, not least because the majority of our students exhibit the retention capacities of the goldfish. After painstakingly explaining that we use the preposition to after various verbs, the next class is always a Dead Sea of blank faces as we ask the breezy question, What do you want to do tonight, João?, secretly hoping for the answer "emigrate" or "get that lobotomy I've been saving up for", but all we receive is the deeply inevitable "what means want?" (pronounced as in w*nk).

I have often felt like I'm in suspended animation in TEFL, like on that Nirvana album cover where the baby's bobbing about underwater in a silent yet transparent netherworld. I see life going on around me, people having careers - they may be getting promoted, being fired, whatever, but always there's some kind of movement involved, whether it be onwards and upwards or as part of a downward spiral - in TEFL, it's like we're endlessly treading water in the same place at the same time when we've just seen a Royal Navy frigate steam obliviously by - Year after year, Running over the same old ground.

The satisfaction derived from most jobs stems, I suspect, from the feeling of having achieved something. An architect designs and builds buildings, a pilot flies and lands his plane safely at its destination, even an accountant balances his books and passes audits, however soul-grindingly tedious this process might be. But in TEFL we're just passing time, talking at people, getting them to use all their mental powers to complete a gap-fill exercise, only for their total amnesia in subsequent classes to make us wonder if we haven't just dreamed the whole thing as part of some Kafka-esque nightmare. I have, to this day, never felt uniquely responsible for anybody managing to speak English fluently, my status only ever having reached that of poorly-motivated childrens' entertainer on their glacial trajectory towards blingualism.

I've had countless students stumble along through English classes for a couple of months, only to realise that they're wasting their time and money and bow out graciously, whilst never admitting that they're giving up, only that they're suddenly inexpicably busy, despite their state of unemployment. Then, when they realise they can't find a decent job because every Brazilian company ludicrously demands inglês fluente they troop back for another awkward stint of mental torment, only to eagerly duck out again when they find a job in a bar serving cachaça via funnels to monolingual, monosyllabic road workers.

I hereby cry: HELP!