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, 16 December 2008


It would be quite wrong to suggest that December heralds the start of the party season in Brazil, as since Carnaval people have been pretty much in the swing of things. The Christmas period merely increases the frequency, volume and festivity of knees-ups.

Show's septuagenarian aunt (who, incidentally, has recently been crowned Miss Senior Citizen both for our town and for the state of São Paulo, with the Miss Senior Citizen Brazil contest taking place in Natal early next year) organised the first of what will inevitably be many parties on Saturday night, a typical affair which followed the usual pattern - everybody standing around eating with relish, everybody standing around drinking in moderation, then everybody dancing with total abandon.

To be honest, I wasn't really in a party mood (something Show was quick to point out to me from between clenched teeth), but I have to admit that my back's still giving me jip from my entry into the collective hysteria into which Brazilian galas invariably descend. It was when the DJ (Show's aunt) put on the Marchinhas de Carnaval things really got going. The lyrics hark back to an earlier, stranger time, with such classic lines as:

Mamãe eu quero,
Mamãe eu quero,
Mamãe eu quero mamar

Mother I want to,
Mother I want to,
Mother I want to breast feed

and the delightfully non-PC “Maria the Big Lesbian”:

Maria sapatão, sapatão, sapatão,
De dia é Maria,
De noite é João.

Maria the big lezzer, big lezzer, big lezzer,
By day she's Maria,
At night she's John

continuing in a similar vein,

Olha a cabeleira do Zezé,
Será que ele é?
Será que ele é?
Bicha! (everybody shouting)

Look at Zezé's hair,
Do you reckon he is?
Do you reckon he is?
Poofter! (everybody shouting)

Ah the innocence of past epochs.

I am consistently amazed at how Brazilians manage to do parties, family gatherings, in fact anything collective, with such genuine joy. All the grandmothers were dancing. A mother was dancing with a sleeping babe in her arms. Even an ex-con with a history of violence was getting it on.

It's a far cry from British assemblages, where only the youngest and least self-conscious / drunkest venture into the limelight. I once had a girlfriend who recounted how her Irish father used to ruin her chances at every wedding reception by suddenly appearing in front of her performing his own unique Irish dance, arms firmly clamped to his sides, all frenzied kicking and hopping, this in the days long before Michael Flatley made such practices hugely profitable / socially acceptable.

I could be on a different planet. And I'm rather glad of that.

Monday, 8 December 2008


Of all the soul-wearying débâcles that TEFL thrusts upon its traipsing minions, the School Christmas Party has to be near the top of the flammable fake plastic tree. I suspect swept along by the nincompoopery we serve up daily as “Business English”, the school owner decided to “strengthen our brand” by delivering a festive “Happy Hour” for our gibbering charges last Friday, the fate-tempting title of the event practically guaranteeing a diametrically opposite result. Brands are only strengthened when companies offer something that their customers actually want, I have always imagined.

School Christmas Parties in Britain are one thing. There, the students are essentially trapped, as they normally have little or no social life outside the boundaries of their surrogate college – therefore, they are all too happy to turn up and participate, however half-baked and forced the occasion may turn out to be. With our students being sent to study English by their bloodsucking companies, every last one of them probably had an almost infinite list of places they'd rather be, or things they'd rather be doing – hence, of the 34 students who had enthusiastically embraced the idea in theory, I counted a maximum of 15, who were clearly the politest and/or loneliest of our befuddled student body.

Things started inauspiciously when even the waiter hired for the event didn't turn up. With the alleged festivities due to burst into life at 5pm, another bow-tied server screeched to a halt outside in an ageing Volkswagen Beetle at 5.45pm, and still managed to be the first non-staff member to arrive. He turned out to be a nice, industrious chap, with notably clean hair.

We teachers had been expressly instructed to mingle only with those students we didn't teach, a move that practically killed off any hope of maintaining anything like a flowing conversation. What little we might have had to talk about with the people we vaguely knew, and might actually want to talk to and get to know a little better, was lost, and we were reduced to making painfully slow small talk with complete strangers, which is bad enough even if you both have equal language skills. Early on, for what seemed like a lifetime, I got cornered by a rather unnerving girl with a brace on her teeth, through which she cackled just a little too loudly and heartily for anybody's comfort. “I no have children,” she babbled at one point, in response to one of my simpler questions, “I trying, but nothing. I very trying,” she squawked, gaining momentum, “I very like trying!” she shrieked, launching into a snorting belly laugh that only swift medical intervention could have curbed. Suffering from a slight head cold, I willed my nose to run just a little more obviously so I'd have an excuse to leave her increasingly frothing company and spend at least half an hour in the toilet.

At the one point I was chatting to one of my students and we were actually having what resembled a good time, the school owner sidled over to me. “Go and speak to that group,” she hissed through the side of her mouth, nodding to a group of trolls in the corner, “I think they're talking Portuguese.” Reluctantly, I sloped over to them, and of course my presence instantly put the kibosh on their animation and laughter and I might as well have been an anthropologist meeting members of a previously unknown Amazonian tribe who'd never seen a white man before. Most of their ensuing garbled conversation was an abject admission of their inability to speak English, laments about how hard it was for them, how many years they'd been self-flagellating at various English schools with little or no result, how they felt like giving up. We just got depressed together, really, between painfully awkward silences perforated by frequent swigs of beer, the specially chosen, bouncy jazz soundtrack and festive balloons merely providing the perfect juxtapositional backdrop for their bleak midwinter yammering.

Luckily, Show turned up at eight to pick me up, and I made my escape. As for our brand, the only thing strengthened that I could discern was my belief that Christmas parties should only be held at the students' express request, at a location of their choosing, and there should be no obligation to speak English imposed.

Anything else is a load of baubles.

Friday, 5 December 2008


My favourite quotation about Brazil:

"Brazil is not for beginners."
Tom Jobim, co-inventor of Bossa Nova

My second favourite quotation about Brazil:

"Brazil has over four thousand kilometres of beaches. It's full of foxy women. Why struggle to be a superpower?"
Pablo Santucci, Market Leader Intermediate, Group 3A

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


As I came up for air yesterday from my pail of rice and beans, I recalled that I never completed my diatribe on crafty Europeans entitled Cheating Foreigners, the first part of which I published back in mid-August to wide acclaim from No Good Boyo. It isn't much of a story, really, but it was an experience that instilled in me a wild and lasting distrust of all things pan-European.

After leaving University clutching a handwritten, gravy-stained bachelor's degree in Special Italian (the most unfortunate of titles, you must agree), I lost no time in pondering my hugely narrowed career options. I had by then resolved that I could never live in Italy again (though I did later for three months in Verona, until I could stand it no more), and even working in close proximity to them would have me gnawing things at regular intervals. I have nothing against the nation as a race, but they are just so entirely different from us that I could never fit into their way of doing things, despite years of trying in a vain attempt to find happiness in any place other. Nine months spent on the picturesque but cramped hill called Urbino, the Renaissance equivalent of Corfe Castle whose delights could comfortably be taken in before elevenses, had driven me to a deep despair.

Naïve attempts to befriend the locals had been hampered by our collective cultural baggage. Gianni, a short Neapolitan who always engaged me in conversation about Eugenio Montale's hermetic poetry, as I'd mistakenly mentioned I had to read it for one of my courses and was finding it, well, a little obscure, amused himself by playing with me like a cat with an injured bird. “Next time I go to Napoli,” he'd announce with a flourish, “You're coming with me as a guest of my family.” Bags packed and shoes polished, every bank holiday I'd end up sitting lonely in my room gazing at yet another interminable sunset until I saw him once again in the cafeteria some days later. “NEXT time I go to Napoli,” he'd state dramatically, oblivious to my glaring cynicism and putting his arm around my shoulder in a heterosexual way only Latins can pull off, “You're coming with me, as a guest of my family.” This pantomime went on for the best part of a year. To be fair, if I were him, I don't think I'd have wanted to present me to my family, but there was no reason I could see for his pretending he did.

So, on to my experience with the European Commission. Eager to live it up in Brussels on the hefty salary of a European civil servant, I sent off an application to do an entry test for the bureaucratic underworld that runs the EEC. My best friend was also trying his hand, as he had a degree in Politics and had been on a trip to the Commission as part of his course, but information was hard to come by due to the fact that he'd completed missed the guided tour of their facilities. He recalled, scratching himself, that he'd woken up a couple of hours after answering his telephoned alarm call with the receiver still in his hand, with hazy recollections of having spent the previous evening drinking lager from a glass cowboy boot.

Wembley Arena was the location we were summoned to to take the entry tests. We sat in rows, as is traditional in tests, the British candidates silently working away at their responses in customary, unspoken endeavour. To our left there was what can only be described as a fish market going on, all squawking young women and gesticulating young bucks in a state of electric animation that contrasted starkly with myself and my nose-to-the-paper countrymen. This was the “Foreign Nationals” section of the candidates, and they were clearly intent on exercising a lot of supra-national co-operation to get their tanned hides past Commission security.

The “invigilators” did absolutely nothing. The ones tasked with controlling the rabble on our left flank all appeared to be foreigners themselves, and were quite happy to passively watch their faustian antics - their country's representation within the Commission would be strengthened by having as many fellow nationals working there as possible, after all. The British invigilator, a crushed, awkwardly thin middle ager with a moustache of pure nicotine, wandered aimlessly around the room pretending it was all nothing to do with him.

This was in the days before mobile phones, but I've since heard stories of candidates openly phoning people outside the examination hall to get answers, with no adverse consequences for their application.

I failed the test by the margin of 0.2 of a point, or something ridiculous, a result I have always silently questioned.