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.

Monday, 19 December 2011


Brazil is, we are told, currently experiencing something of an economic miracle, finally making progress towards fulfilling the massive potential it has always harboured. Economist speak feverishly about all kinds of economic indicators that make little sense in the lives of ordinary people, and the country is held up as a beacon of hope in an increasingly grave global economic meltdown.

Various companies have wasted no time in jumping on the bandwagon, notably Johnny Walker, whose TV ad, "Keep Walking, Brazil" depicts Sugar Loaf Mountain rising into the form of a giant, to the disbelief of onlooking cariocas. "The giant is no longer sleeping", the caption reads at the end of the spot, which may sell a few more cases of whisky, but is about as detached from reality as it is possible to be without employing psychtropic drugs for those at the bottom of the food chain - such as TEFLers.

In many ways, TEFL is a perfect capitalist model. Charge students as much as you can get away with, pay teachers as little as you can get away with, and sit back and admire your burgeoning bank balance. Those entrepreneurs who started language schools in Britain in the sixties are largely, if not millionaires, certainly very comfortably off. And with qualifications to become an EFL teacher basically amounting to a certificate completed in a month and a minimum fluency in the English language, there is no shortage of eligible candidates to form the academic staff of these illustrious academies of learning, a fact which of course forces down wages due to the laws of supply and demand.

Venture abroad, and things are even more laughable. Most language school owners in Brazil, for example, are franchisees, many of whom have not the faintest grasp of the language they are meant to be offering. Drawn in by promises of untold riches, they take the language school model to the extreme, showing little concern for results (which are often indiscernible, as discussed previously) except those of a financial order.

The experience of a Brazilian friend of mine illustrates this point perfectly. Eager to earn a little extra cash, and having lived in Australia and taught English over a number of years, he approached a language school in a neighbouring town with a view to picking up a few classes. The owner, a thankless shyster as it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, met his enquiries with enthusiasm. "Come and participate in our two-day training course," he enthused, "so you can learn about our unique methodology." My friend asked the obvious question of how much he could expect to receive per hour. "Don't worry about that now," the owner insisted, "we can iron out the details after you've done the training." In other words, my friend was forced to do the training to find out his salary - reluctantly, he agreed, taking two days unpaid leave from his regular job to listen to 9 to 5 claptrap, twice.

Much waffling and stalling later, the owner revealed the hourly rate, as if he were announcing the winner of the latest series of Strictly. Only this time there was no ticker tape or delerious studio audience. "I can give you my maximum rate (for experienced teachers only) of eight reais per hour", the tightwad intoned gravely.

I won't bore you with what that equates to in pounds, dollars or euros. Suffice it to say that, at a school of the same franchise, my friend formerly received twelve reais an hour - and that was fully a decade ago, in 2002 - factor in inflation, and it probably represents more than a 50% pay cut.

Truly a miracle of economy.