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, 25 February 2011


Yesterday I was just tucking into my jugged hare when the doorbell rang. My father-in-law answered it to a lady, returning to inform me that it was me to whom she would like to address an enquiry. Unaccustomed to lady callers, I descended to the gate and held a barely audible shouted conversation with my suitor above the rabid barking of my hound.

"Is it you that gives the English lessons?" she enquired.
"Not any more, I'm afraid", I snapped, snorting involuntarily, "I work with translation now, and I don't have time to give lessons."
She appeared to crumple physically.
"I can't believe it," she whined, "a friend of mine called you a while ago and you told her you weren't giving lessons any more," she went on, this revelation begging the question as to why she thought I'd make some kind of inconsistent exception for her. "It's for my 16-year-old son. Not even conversation?"

Ah yes, conversation classes - the linguistic equivalent of watching a student give birth. For some reason people assume "conversation classes", which are more often than not nothing of the sort, are something you just do at a minute's notice, some kind of free and easy 1960s students and teachers heavily relating to each other sort of vibe. Little do they realise most students' abject inability to hold any kind of conversation that would be generally accepted as intelligible, meaning that good old teach has to prepare wads of material and assorted bumpf to fill the awkward silences. I still awake at night with sweats brought on by nightmares involving running out of material absurdly early in a class.

My last teaching job at a Business English-oriented school involved giving lessons to a particularly limited individual who was invariably the only member of the class to show up, meaning I was forced into giving him one-to-one classes. Of the hour-long class, he probably communicated for at most 15 minutes, which, to be honest, was quite enough. Oddly, though I detected no stammer when he spoke Portuguese, when he attempted to express his inner feelings in English, he'd suddenly get stuck on a word, repeating part of it half a dozen times while cocking his head at an awkward angle and looking heavenwards, as if he were looking up a chimney, or perhaps had just sat on something unexpectedly sharp. I would just sit there and look evenly at him, stifling the urge to scream encouragement.

Anyway, this lady was particularly persistent. I suggested my friend Bert, who has a school and speaks impeccable English.

"And in the next few months," she pressed, "any likelihood of you having more time available?"

Here is what I would have liked to have replied.

"Madam, I note that you have not yet grasped the depth of my loathing for teaching English, so allow me to spell it out to you. When I was young and carefree, I used to work in a school in Bournemouth, and I used to have a recurring daydream. In it, I would give the class an exercise to do, and while they were quietly beavering away, I'd symbolically empty my pockets of board pens, elastic bands, paperclips, the paraphernalia of my craft, and I would silently leave the room. Softly, ever so softly, I'd tiptoe down the stairs, past reception and out of the front door.

"Turning right, I'd walk along the road, down the hill, across the Square and into the Lower Gardens, dappled with the early afternoon sun and alive with colour and life in a manner my TEFL classes never were, strolling on until I reached the end of the pier. I was never sure if, when I got there, I'd actually end up jumping in or not, or whether I'd just stand there and whisper incantations to the deep and urge the seabirds on in their anarchic arcs and dives. I only knew that, from there, I would be able to see the horizon, and I would be free.

"So, in answer to your question, no, I don't foresee being available any time soon. Good day to you Madam!"

Have you ever had daydreams in class? (Nothing lewd please, control yourselves). Have you ever jumped off a pier? I believe it's called tombstoning. What paraphernalia do you use in class, apart from that listed above?

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Wednesday, 16 February 2011


I remember reading a Somerset Maugham short story once in which the writer moves into a house where he is told one of his neighbours is a poet. Interested to meet the bard in question, Maugham decides to pay him a visit. When the gentleman opens the door, Maugham is immediately impressed by his physical appearance, and goes on to describe his keen eyes, noble face – generally, he is exactly what he expects a poet to look like, the twist in the story being that he’s actually called at the wrong house and is describing the wrong man.

I was reminded of this story after a particularly vivid dream, which I won’t recount in full out of pure compassion. I don’t know how Freud did it, listening to all those people’s dreams – to me, it’s the most boring thing anyone can do, start to recall dreams to you. It’s just a load of mumbo jumbo, “I was in this dark place, which was like my grandmother’s coal cellar, but it wasn’t, and there was this huge carrot...” blah, blah, blah. Utter nonsense. But this dream of mine was different - it really left a mark on me. I was at an airport and had seen an American student I’d studied with in Italy about 20 years ago. She was there with her Italian husband (who was her then boyfriend) and several children. They hadn’t seen me, but I was truly delighted to clap eyes on them. I awoke with a strong feeling of wanting, nay needing, to get in touch with her, but I knew not how.

I trawled the Internet to no avail. I searched Facebook for every possible combination of her name, but without success. Then, more recently, I had another dream about her, and was left with the same nagging desire for contact. This time, Facebook came up trumps – she was not only there under her maiden name, but she was first on the list. The photo was unmistakable, the brief info I gleaned through her lax privacy settings gave me all the confirmation I needed – living in a small Calabrian village, several kids, owner of an English school (oh, the irony!) Without wishing to be pushy and go straight for a friend request, I sent her what I thought was a suitably cool, honed message, eager to re-establish contact and see just what my dream was telling me.

To date she has not replied.

I realise now I should have included a Disclaimer:


UPDATE: I've just realised that I sent the message on 14 February (Valentine's Day), which was probably an error, as it may have insinuated I now wear thick glasses and have been harbouring an unspoken, stalker-style, 20-year crush. Timing is everything.

ANOTHER UPDATE: She once told me she dropped tabs of LSD on a fairly regular basis, so, quite apart from the detrimental effects on her long-term memory, she may have had trouble smelling my name. Or summat.

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