There is something deeply tragic about the TEFL school staff photo that to this day haunts my dreams. No offence to those being snapped, but it isn't hard to recognise the silent desperation hidden behind the wool ties, the sensible clothes, the pained haircuts. Normally, those involved are a motley crew aged anything between 20 and 65 - those at the younger end of the scale are still fairly normal looking, for the years haven't yet taken their toll. They entered TEFL due some kind of wanderlust, or maybe just some kind of lust, judging by the number of Tesco Value lotharios I have come across over the years.
I remember a particularly smooth teacher of Italian parentage who used to descend on Bournemouth of a summer fancying himself as a modern day Lord Byron, entrapping doe-eyed latinas and chaperoning them to the beach at night, which, he claimed, was "guaranteed to get them in the mood". Probably not surprisingly, his popularity with women was inversely proportional to his popularity with male colleagues, and he always seemed to pop into pubs alone, only ever ordering a half and taking a quick tour of the beer garden, presumably to check out the new arrivals. He probably didn't mind being shunned, though, he was the Julio Iglesias of the Poole/Bournemouth conurbation. I remember one of my colleagues once dismissively snapping, "What's he got? He hasn't got anything," to which I pointed out that nor had we, but at least he was gettin' jiggy wit it on a regular basis, unlike at least three of us.
It's desperately hard to be flash in TEFL. I once led a rather fetching young Brazilian back to my bedsit, only to leave her outside the door as I went in first to throw all the jumbled clothing into the wardrobe, collect up the dirty crockery and put it into the sink and shut the partition doors that cunningly hid the kitchen area. The look on her face when she entered made it clear that her live-in maid had larger quarters and the climate of nicely simmering romanticism came to an abrupt end as she crunched across the crumb-strewn carpet to make a polite exit to a hastily called taxi. Why hadn't I gone into advertising, I thought wistfully as I waved her goodbye from the bay window that was jammed open.
Also to be found in the average TEFL school photo are the thirty-something women, who are genuinely relaxed and cheerful because they are already married to a barrister making a six-figure salary and with two children in a Montessori school. They beep their horn brightly as they pass you in the rain of a morning in their BMW and you unsteadily take one hand of the handlebar of your bicycle to wave back at her from beneath your oilskins.
Then we come to the 35+ men, their masculinity drummed out of them by 15 years at the TEFL grindstone. They are bleak and dispirited as the realisation is beginning to dawn that they've spent the best years of their lives on intellectual factory work, with little discernible result, no transferable skills and absolutely no financial security to show for it. Look carefully at the photos and you'll notice their eyes can no longer smile, like people who have had their house repossessed six times in four years. Sometimes literally. Rather than looking into a camera lens, they appear to be staring transfixed into a morbid oracle that shows hazy visions of what their life will be like ten years from now.
The saddest photos are the ones where the school insists on the male teachers wearing a necktie, a marketing ploy as pathetic as it is transparent, the assembled misfits looking much more like defendants queuing to appear in court on shoplifting charges than a group of dynamic language solution providers.
These beaten early-middle-aged men are thrown into sharp relief by the last type of TEFL teacher, the token retiree who pitches up now and again to take a break from golfing, bowls, the Rotary Club and Tory party fundraising, all in the company of a rather tart ladyfriend. I once worked with a retired Royal Navy officer who must have been sixty-five if he was a day, and who, whichever country you mentioned, would comment, "Ah yes, I nearly married a [ENTER NATIONALITY HERE] once. Striking girl..." He told students that it was wrong to say "OK" and it was only correct to use "alright", much to everyone's bemusement given that it's the most widespread utterance in the English language after "Coca Cola".
Or maybe it's the other way round.