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.

Thursday, 29 January 2009


Whereas Idris was a TEFL waster in the drunken, lecherous, hapless sense we British seem to profoundly admire, Pete was an altogether different animal. He was The Man With No Shadow.

As far as anyone knew, he was a Liverpudlian living in Málaga through marriage to an Andalucian. Despite repeated attempts to engage him in social discourse over the nine months I worked with him, he showed himself to be uninterested to the bone in communicating with the outside world.

He would arrive and stand around with his hands in his pockets gazing at the ground until it was time to teach, then would silently slope off to his classroom, a term that could only be loosely applied to the six-foot by six-foot cubicles that had been cheaply constructed in the vast office space using paper thin partitions.

It was one of those highly successful schools that do nothing to warrant their popularity. They had totally cornered the pre-teen market.

The teaching faculty, of which I formed an integral part, was packed with unworldly no-hopers, desperate hangers on subjecting themselves to any depth of indignity just to remain on the Costa del Sol.

Wages were laughable. After a fortnight of working there, I decided to find out why the other teachers kept entering the tiny store cupboard with such frequency, wondering if there was some kind of cleaning rota in place I was unaware of, only to find it was the inaccurately designated “resources room”, built to the design of a ship’s lavatory, full of empire era manuals on understanding the natives and the proper manner in which to address one’s houseboy.

The Director of Studies was a raucous yet likeable American woman who went around screeching, “How should I know? I’m white trash!” in answer to teachers’ questions. When I complained that the course materials were worse than appalling, she informed me it had been her that had written them.

All this pandemonium simply passed Pete by.

When teaching in the cubby hole next to his it was impossible to tell if he was actually in the same vicinity as the students, such was the St Trinians inspired mayhem his presence, or lack of it, encouraged.

Occasionally he could be heard muttering a monotonal reprimand – “José Maria, no gouging, remember?” - but in general it seemed he was quite happy to sit and bear mute witness as his underlings flat-packed the furniture, hurled themselves at the walls and painted each other, all at a decibel level I frequently considered sufficient to bring a successful prosecution.

Then, at the end of his stint, with a silent raising of the eyebrows as he passed, he’d be gone into the night, like William S. Burroughs into the backstreets of Tangier.

I have never met a teacher who cared less about his work. He acted like a torpid South American civil servant who knows that, save for an attempted homicide, he cannot be fired.

And I have to secretly admire him for that.

Thursday, 22 January 2009


Regular readers of this weblog, the longest resignation letter in history, may sometimes wonder, "If that M C Ward character doesn't like TEFL so much, look, why doesn't he do something about it, instead of carrying on doing it, like, and moaning about it? Know what I mean? He’s beginning to give me the right…” etc, etc.

This is, in fact, a question that baffles all three of us.

But I may have found an answer to this conundrum - I am officially a spanner.

Last time I visited the salty shores of my island brethren I stole a book from my sister called, "The Mind Gym" - subtitle, "Wake up your mind" (Time Warner Books, London, 2005 - RRP £ 12.99). I claimed at the time that I'd been reading it and had accidentally put it into my bag, a half-truth she has kindly forgotten about.

The book is classified in the Self-Development / Business category, and is packed with little reflections on How to Have Better Being a Person Skills, or something along those lines.

I plucked the dusty manual from its shelf in the library yesterday wondering if it would provide some slick fodder for my Business English wordfests, and I happened upon the chapter called, "In charge".

In it, there is the definition of the "spanner" and the "planner".

Broadly, when we have problems to face, "spanners" (so named because they are always throwing one into the works) concentrate on the problems - they fret about them without mustering the energy to do anything about them.

Planners, on the other hand, spend their time finding possible solutions and acting on them. Simple, yet elegant.

Here is an extract that was, I am now convinced, written about me personally. I reproduce it here in the hope it may fire others into taking action to free themselves from the bonds of inanity:

“Spanners worry about all the things that might go wrong which they feel they can’t do anything about, and are likely to

  • Be reactive, responding to what happens, often feeling like a victim, buffeted by events rather than leading them (yup)

  • Spend a lot of time worrying in ways that will drain their energy but won’t improve the situation (yes)

  • Blame and accuse other people for the problems and challenges in their life (sim)

  • Put off doing things for as long as possible, in the end often doing much more to achieve the same or a poorer result (I do, all the time)

  • Fail to take action that would be likely to improve their circumstances (I have been in TEFL for 15 years - need I say more?).

"The person who creates and then focuses on solutions we’ll call the “planner”, because they are coming up with a plan of action to tackle these problems.

"Their focus is on all the things they can do that might have a positive influence on the situation, and they are likely to have the opposite experience to the spanner. For example they are more likely to:

  • Take action proactively, doing things that will help

  • Feel more in control of the situation (and their life)

  • Find they have more free time to do what they want

  • Be seen as leaders and/or people who are strong

"Planners work out what they can do about the situation and concentrate on doing it. As a result they are more in control of their lives and get more done.

"The idea of having a locus of control was put forward by Julian Rotter in 1966. He suggested that externally orientated individuals (the spanners) typically believe that rewards in life are controlled by forces such as fate, luck or other people. People with an internal locus of control (the planners) tend to see events being triggered by their own behavior and capability."

This is it. Nothing can stop me now.

Saturday, 17 January 2009


Having taken lunch at the shopping today, I am doing what I often do when alone in that cathedral of consumerism that Brazilians have embraced with typical gusto – I am silently observing teenage girls.

Before I am accused of being oh so British, I must clarify that my interest in the young delights is purely anthropological. I am a student of the human condition in all its beauty and tragedy, so anyone who confuses me with a perv can frankly bugger off.

I am still bemused and intrigued by how adolescents in this country manage to be such generally fine, warm human beings. A healthy fifteen-year-old boy in a recent class moved not a hair when his mother, who studies with him, spontaneously grabbed him in a prolonged, affectionate embrace.

Do that in Anglo-Saxon environments and you risk an outbreak of arson. While studying in Italy I met a New Yorker whose teenage brother had set fire to their penthouse apartment after a tiff with his parents, then had had the gall to sulk and whine about the family having to go to restaurants every mealtime for several months due to the smoke damage.

Attractive Brazilian teenage girls (and there are a lot of them) are nice people too. Dare to snatch a glance of les belles du jour at English secondary schools and you’re likely to be met with a less than coquettish, “What are you staring at?” Brazilian teens will look you straight back in the eye with an approachable “come on then, let’s converse” demeanor.

Teenage boys everywhere are largely clueless. Those contemporaries of mine socially advanced enough to engage girls in flirtatious mating rites largely did so by grunting at them, kicking them playfully in the shins and being rude to them. Occasionally picking a fight with one of the class eccentrics was also a popular ruse to entice the laydies, with sometimes bafflingly successful results. I suspect it’s much the same nowadays, only with the addition of hoods.

Brazilian lads are little better, all baseball caps, Bermuda shorts and fancy trainers, but I’m sure they have much greater success than their northern contemporaries. Rather than getting a mate to tell the object of their affection’s mate that they fancy them, Brazilian youths just secure eye contact and disengage the handbrake with admirable aplomb.

I can remember endless grey winters in Bournemouth being lit up by gaggles of babbling, sensuous South Americans, full of the fire of life and being pathologically friendly to everybody.

Maybe it all has something to do with the tactile nature of Brazilian social congress. At a gathering of people, it is considered impolite not to go round shaking hands with every last man and kissing and hugging every last woman, even if you don’t know them from Adão/Eva. This immediately creates a certain intimacy.

Witnessing males of all ages hugging is also not rare, and is interpreted as a healthy display of respect and affection. Back home, it can only be done after scoring a try or in a drunken attempt to express deeply repressed yearnings for human warmth and a saner life than the one we are currently dragging ourselves through.

I had better stop now. There is a security guard watching me.

Thursday, 8 January 2009


Show recently extracted the wind from my sails with typically well-intentioned down-to-earthism. Armed with several diagrams and a kitchen knife, she extolled her opinion that I should concentrate on doing what I can do and stop fannying around trying to learn how to do things I can’t, in yet another feeble-minded attempt to divorce myself from TEFL. Yet again, I believe her to be right.

It all started back in May, when I went to Poland with my male voice choir and on the plane to Frankfurt found myself sitting next to Jetro, one of our second tenors.

I’d never really spoken to him before, but during the trip I discovered that he ran a small yet growing Internet company, an online system through which owners of used car dealerships could manage their businesses. He explained how previously he’d been something of a factotum, working around the country in various jobs and starting various businesses, until he discovered that he could neither work for somebody nor manage others – leaving him no option but to work alone.

Casting aside these ominous sociopathic leanings, I became fascinated with the idea of running an Internet business. I had visions of getting a site up and running, then sitting back and watching my bank balance swell to extraordinary proportions.

I played down the significance of his confessions that he really needed this break, as he was near breaking point with all the stress of running the business. A complete novice at web development, he’d recently employed a young programmer who knew much more than him, and who’d one day blocked all the users’ passwords in a crude attempt to blackmail him.

In Poland, he persistently badgered the locals to allow him Internet access, so that he could check his email every 30 minutes and answer the many support requests that derived from the shaky architecture of his site. Of everybody on the trip, he was probably the one that relaxed and enjoyed himself the least, a fact I managed to conveniently overlook.

Undeterred by these revelations, over the past few months I’ve been attempting, yet again, to learn how to design complex websites. And quite honestly I’ve had enough. I’ve bought videos by a likeable Aussie from the Internet. I’ve spent a good part of most days hunched over my laptop, face screwed up in constant discombobulation. When I do actually manage to understand how to do something, I immediately forget the fucking syntax, meaning I have to trawl through endless reference pages to enlighten myself yet again.

I’ve become obsessive and irritable and constantly distracted by trying to solve programming issues. I’ve become distant and preoccupied – ladies and gentlemen, I have become the nearest thing a tit can get to a geek.

Web development is like a pox-raddled strumpet that I keep returning to, in the unlikely hope that she'll magically turn into someone I can introduce to my mother. No more! TEFL is the life for me. And translation.

2009 - no more waving, only drowning.

Sunday, 4 January 2009


One of the things that has drawn me to admire, and at times gingerly adopt, the tenets of buddhism (a label I deride, incidentally, as to me it is less a relijurn and more a box of wise psychological tools - the allen key set of spiritualism, if you like) is the fact that, unlike other religions, it expressly forbids anger in all its forms.

It seems to me that any move in this direction can only be a wise one for humankind. Imagine how many fewer high school massacres, suicide bombings, street stabbings, drunken beatings and tit-for-tat violence there would be if we could just learn to chill out, stop taking life so seriously and exercise a little patience at critical moments.

As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says,

"Anger obscures your mind and makes your life unhappy. Anger can cause physical harm and even endanger your life. When you are angry, you are certainly unhappy and may be afraid, and you may also cause fear and unhappiness in others. Anger can make you destructive... The pain of anger is like burning red-hot coals in your heart. Anger transforms even a beautiful person into something dark, ugly and terrifying."
(Transforming Porblems into Happiness, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2001, pp. 22-23)

I have, over the years, met a few angry people in TEFL. Andy (pronounced Andeh) was a brash northerner who'd spent the previous n years teaching in a special school for exceptionally violent children.

He was full of harrowing stories of teachers having to enter the classroom in twos in case they were jumped by the students, and of students unleashing unprovoked blitzkriegs against classmates on a regular basis. Most teachers, he said, lasted less than a week in the job - but the pay was good, compared to normal state school teachers, so he'd stuck at it.

His whole personality deeply marked by this experience, he'd grabbed onto TEFL like a drowning man to barnacle-encrusted rocks, in perhaps one last attempt to save himself from a tailspin into complete mental collapse.

His body language spoke volumes. He stormed everywhere. When the bell went for breaktime, he'd storm into the staffroom and down a couple of mugs full of over-hot coffee. When the bell went again, he'd stomp back to his classroom with simmering menace.

At lunchtime, he'd storm into the cafeteria for lunch, then storm out into the garden for a deeply-drawn fag. I suspect he even stormed to the toilet, though this is a theory that was never corroborated, probably wisely.

As Lama Zopa predicted, Andeh made everybody nervous, if not exactly fearful. Once, when someone had engaged him in conversation about the differences between TEFL and his previous job, he'd responded bluntly, "Here, the students are nice. There, you spent all yer time fighting the bastards," illustrating his point by wringing the neck of an imaginary youth so hard that his own eyes started to bulge.

He was eventually moved to a sister school, I imagine due to there having been some complaints. His background not being in languages, he'd respond to linguistic queries from the students with a deeply clichéd, "Don't worreh - be happeh!"

While this may have placated the demure orientals and the easy-going latinos, the course-fee-aware Teutonic-Scandinavian axis in the school saw his glib retorts for what they were - desperate attempts to dodge questions to which he had no plausible answer.

The last time I saw Andeh he was storming down a Bournemouth street like a man on his way to confront a gang of twelve-year-olds who had set fire to his camper van the night before. Days later, it turned out he'd suffered a heart attack and was in intensive care.

If only he'd read Lama Zopa Rinpoche's 2,500-year-old warning.