Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, so the wags have it, well they teach P.E.
But what about those who couldn’t even lead a class through a few forward rolls and a bit of jogging on the spot? Well you’ll probably find these teachers having a go at teaching English as a Foreign Language.
Of course I loved the opportunities it threw up for travel and even sometimes enjoyed the (misguided?) idea that I was helping the students… Or maybe, perhaps, imparting some knowledge? Occasionally correcting their grammar?
Well, I once taught a middle aged lady whose name was Eminem so there was some enjoyment to be had, for me at least, in the class anyway.
But some of the fellow pros you meet in the TEFL world… well dealing with them could definitely test the patience of stronger men than me.
And it becomes hard to keep your spirits up, miles from home, dealing with a class of over-excitable 9 year olds or earnest students presenting a forest of raised hands, when you look at the other teachers and think “Is that me? Am I like THAT?”
Boozer, losers and cruisers.
Those are the three categories I’m told on my very first day teaching that all TEFL teachers fall into.
The first lot are all of a certain age, tell-tale broken veins at the end of noses, radiating the unmistakeable aroma of booze and failure.
You feel if they retraced their steps they could probably pinpoint the exact wrong path they took in life that led them here, teaching the third conditional to unresponsive Taiwanese, while all the time thinking about that pub round the corner.
The Losers are, as often as not, men in their 40s still living with their mothers, clumping into the classroom, an untucked bundle of smells.
When I was a travelling teacher, teaching for one or two week stretches in different towns in Europe, being put up in pensions and hotels with my fellow teachers, it was these loser characters that, if you came down just 5 minutes late for breakfast, would have left a scene of utter destruction.
A plague of locusts would have left more on the tables. They would stash away anything that was edible, living off this plunder for days, right down to the ornamental garnish of radish left by matronly Germanic hotelkeepers.
There are also jittery women with the curiously strong faith in crystals and dream catchers and that kind of thing.
Panicking and flapping over the photocopier every morning, not letting anyone else near it. Talking about negative vibes in the staff room every afternoon, explaining how they really couldn’t carry on working here a day longer. Returning, in regular blustering fashion, the very next day of course.
Never expect a Loser to offer any support or collaboration.
Deeply suspicious of other teachers and only hopeful that in the end you might somehow be struggling in some way, they show no interest in your work whatsoever, even if you’re pair teaching together.
However, they will talk you through in incredible detail what happened in their class.
Make the mistake of asking how things are going and its 50 minutes of infinitesimal explanations of lesson ideas that didn’t work and difficulties with students you’ve never met.
50 minutes! The class itself was only 45 minutes long for God’s sake.
And then the Cruisers.
Perky types straight out of university (“uni”, as they have it).
Everything is “awesome”, the most tedious, bovine student a “legend”. Goatees, rucksacks, flip-flops, bottom-less well of “positivity”.
The Boozers and Losers eye them over heaps of paper, needless books, coffee cups, stashed food, misappropriated photocopy cards with barely concealed contempt and hostility.
The TEFL staffroom, as you can imagine, is rarely a joyous place to find yourself.
However, you’ll find pretty much all schools will demand their teachers are well qualified – holding the correct accredited certificates (CELTA or Trinity), as well educated to degree level, and even new teachers will be asked to have good experience.
But you’ll also find that a school will often offer their students deals of year-long courses for as little as £300.
And if this sounds cheap for a year’s teaching, well, it is. Work it out: at around 48 teaching weeks in the year and 15 hours of classes per week, your long-term student is paying their ‘fully qualified, experienced teacher’ a princely 42p an hour.
So how on earth can the ‘fully qualified experienced teachers’ be paid properly? The answer is, of course, they can’t, and they aren’t.
Contracts are often short, maybe just a few weeks, usually zero-hours. There are no paid holidays, no benefits. It is a precarious occupation. And the TEFL world can promote a climate of terrible ruthlessness between teachers.
Of course it is enough to turn you to drink.
I first encountered one of the Boozers of the profession in my very first week teaching.
I was at a summer school, where students travel from abroad to learn English in out-of-term university campuses or old public schools.
It’s an attractive package for parents – get the kids out of their hair for the summer, have sex in every room in the house as their little ones spend a wet July and August boarded at an uncomfortably impressive institute, perhaps improving their English, perhaps not, and getting to see England’s attractions from a stuffy coach.
It’s also a great way for the Boozers and the Losers – no homes in England, no ties; employment only in desperate far-flung outposts; missing England and its comforts – to get temporary accommodation back home.
Emlyn was a ratty, spare, sunburnt, mean-faced man who had spent the last 11 months in Saudi Arabia and was attempting to now make up for all this time spent in a dry country on his very first day back.
He proceeded to keep an ever-growing pyramid of Special Brew cans in the window of his accommodation on the campus throughout the summer.
Who knows what the shy Japanese girls thought of it as they passed every morning, diligently making their way to lessons, folders tucked under arms.
Emlyn would sit on the stoop of the staff accommodation, making conversation about his time in Saudi to anyone who would listen. The stories, as far as I could tell, always seemed to end “…and then some bastard tried to shoot me!” Or once “…and then I found some bastard had rented out my arse!”
When the sun went down he was reduced to making guttural leering noises at the passing students. Sometimes shaking a fist, sometimes not.
He was made Senior Teacher the following year.
On one school excursions to Windsor Castle, I was paired with Emlyn to look after a group of kids for the afternoon trip.
“Let them go shopping or something” he said as he pulled me into the Horse and Groom. Lining up a brace of pints in front of me, I felt I should really try and make some sort of conversation.
“So…when did you start as a TEFL teacher?” I started, brightly.
“No talking” Emlyn replied, impassive, nodding at the pints “Just drink.”
I felt I learnt a lot during my first summer teaching.
However, when I took my first overseas teaching contracts, the standard of drinker seemed to markedly upgrade too.
Laurie was a softly spoken, gentle, Scottish bloke in his 40s. Wrote his own sci-fi novels. I liked him a great deal when we all met at the airport.
We were to be working as a team with an old, seasoned, gruff, great bear of teacher, Gordon, in a small village in the middle of the Austrian Alps.
A meeting with the contact teacher for the school was set for 10am on the Sunday morning. Laurie decided to go out for a quiet drink on the Saturday night. He met some Austrians. Of course, they got him roaring drunk. Took him to the village disco.
Cut forward to next morning and Gordon, myself and the Austrian teacher meet, but no Laurie.
No Laurie by mid-afternoon either.
We started to worry and checked his hotel room. There was no sign of Laurie ever having been there.
The contact teacher called the police.
I dwelt on how we had been told by the company who had sent us out to teach here high in the Alps to present as professional a front as possible. As the police arrive at the hotel, I got the feeling that perhaps the professional gloss had slipped somewhat.
The police had no lead on Laurie. The hotel owner told the police that her brother was the local taxi driver. So they called the brother, who told the police that he had seen two legs sticking out of a snowdrift that morning.
The police, hotel owner, taxi driver all set off to dig a passed out, blue, Laurie out of the snow.
Finally dug out of the snow, Laurie was still, heroically, completely off his face.
The Austrian rescue committee decided to take this mystery man to his hotel and let him sleep it off. So Laurie went to sleep in a hotel room.
BUT it wasn’t his hotel room.
The rightful occupants arrived and the elderly German couple were greeted by ranting, incoherent Scot swearing and shaking.
They decided to call the police too and the finale to this TEFL farce saw the police arrive again, with myself, Austrian teacher and hotelier watching, blanched, from the doorway of this elderly German couple’s room – as a confused and wild Laurie, stark-bollock naked, started attacking a staggered Gordon, and the police grappled the angry nude Scotsman to the ground.
In the end it was decided not to make an arrest and the equitable hotel owner allowed Laurie to stay and the TEFL week, teaching a class of sweet 12 year olds under beautiful blue skies in the Austrian countryside carried on as normal.
The incident was never mentioned by Laurie, Gordon or the company who sent us out to teach.
It would not even be seen as worth mentioning. These are just the ways of TEFL..
There are different types of TEFL teaching and TEFL schools.
You’ll usually find the best teachers in year-round UK schools. Teachers who have actually chosen this as a career. Though how they survive on the salaries each month is anyone’s guess.
The Cruisers will look for jobs teaching abroad. Though if they’ll get a salary at the end of each month is anyone’s guess.
The plus side to teaching in downtown Manila or Jakarta is that often you won’t need to have gone through the effort and expense of obtaining the correct teaching qualification. A certificate knocked up in a backstreet printing shop with your name spelt roughly right will do.
The downside is these companies, not exactly being bastions of following company law to the letter, will regularly forget to pay their employees.
Or, as happened to more than one teacher I’ve met, just pack-up in the middle of the night never to be seen again, as teachers and students wait in vain outside an empty building for their lessons to start.
The holy grail for all TEFL teachers abroad is always a gig in South America.
Ask any Cruiser where they’re hoping to head next and, like a troubled Butch Cassidy, there is some inbuilt yearning for South America.
You never, ever, see a job advertised in a Argentina or Peru or Chile though. Thousands for a newly industrialised, smog-smothered province in China, nothing in Brazil.
As always, the TEFL gods are keen to have the last laugh.
There is the Callan Method which, again, doesn’t stipulate that teacher should have the usual recognised teaching qualification.
When I applied to work in a Callan school my CELTA teaching qualification was roundly ignored and I was asked more assiduously if, instead, I had any “am dram” experience.
I lied and told them what good notices my church hall Stanley Kowalski had received, and got a job.
The Callan method requires the teacher to repeat a simple sentence, read from a book, and get the student to parrot it back.
Repeat a simple sentence, read from a book, and get the student to parrot it back.
Over and over again.
It is utter tedium for both teacher and student but like some strange mystery of the pharaohs, it works. The students gain no deep knowledge of the language but they pick up conversational English in an incredibly short time.
It offers the worst pay in TEFL but the job adverts do proudly state that absolutely no planning is required for the teacher. One advert I saw blithely announced “You can turn up 5 minutes before the lesson with a hangover!”
Well, they knew their target audience I suppose…
A further type of teaching to try are private students, which can be lucrative and avoids the pain of planning group activities to get your wilfully sociopathic students – cheerful as a cemetery – mixing and talking.
But you can also find yourself at the mercy of your student.
Living in Barcelona once, I advertised in the fashion all private tutors appeared to do – tacking to trees around town a piece of paper with strips cut at the bottom with my name and number for potential customers to pull off and take away – and I duly received a call from a woman a few days later, on the other side of the city, keen for a lesson.
I gathered all my apparatus together and headed onto the metro, sweating like a donkey with a wooden easel slung over my shoulder, large white boards with the times of the day and the weather drawn on them tucked under my chin. Heavy bags of books and pens and writing pads hanging off of me.
I collapsed after several flights of stairs into the artificially chilled air of the Eixample apartment, exhausted but ready to teach my first lesson in Spain.
My student greeted me in faltering English:
“I go to England tomorrow.”
This seemed a bit soon.
What can I teach in that time? Hoping to do my best, I pulled out some of the teaching props.
“Yes, yes, you call England now?” she said handing me the telephone receiver. “You book me tickets to go see musical. I see Cats. Yes?”
I had a feeling my teaching potential wasn’t being fully tapped here, but called London anyway and booked the tickets.
I then launched into a freshly concerted effort to furnish a few helpful phrases. She waved a dismissive hand.
I held up the huge drawn pictures of rainclouds, ice creams, umbrellas that I’d lugged up calles and paseos all over town.
“Si si, thank you,” she said as she pushed me out of the door. “You go now.”
As I pulled out my photocopied teaching handouts, she stuffed a 100 pesetas bill in my pocket and gave me a hefty shunt towards the stairs.
Japanese students are less demanding.
Teaching in Japan is far politer and friendly and, once natural timidity is overcome, the students overwhelmingly warm and amiable and keen to learn so that teaching can be a real joy.
No, in Japan it’s not the students but the teachers, once again, that make work feel as pleasurable as a bout of water torture. As arduous as carrying a dead horse up a hill.
The particular – male – teacher that seems attracted to working in Japan doesn’t seem to me to fall into any of the boozer, loser or cruiser category. A new grouping needs to be coined for them: the floozer? Abuser? TEFL Yakuza?
Anyway, I took a 3 month contract teaching under-graduates in a Tokyo university and was quickly introduced to one of these thin, wiry, spectacled, serious, teacher-looking-more-like-a-student types, in obscure alt-rock indie t-shirt.
I made small talk about the new country and culture… and, silent and unemotional, he leant forward to me with staring, unblinking eyes, and told of his uncontrollable lust for the Japanese woman.
Nervously changing the subject I turned to talk of the course we were there to teach… He produced the book ‘Urban Tantra: The Way Of The Superior Man’, the bible for the TEFL Yakuza.
“The levels of ecstasy I can create for Japanese woman having read this” he tells me, tapping the book, halfway between brainwashed religious nut and sex starved goat.
I’d rather have been back with the Boozers.
Sex seems to be the all-prevailing motivation for the TEFL Yakuza.
Perhaps obscure Korean films too – ones that no one else will have ever seen and which will nicely aid the smugness, in his eerily dispassionate way – but, generally, sex.
I watched with a shudder as they sat like a conniving, libidinous Jesus at the Last Supper, surrounded by innocent smiling students they’ve invited to the local izakaya tavern for a ‘brush up your conversational English’ session.
One time I leaned in to hear some of wisdom of the ‘Urban Tantra’ in action at a bar as the TEFL Yakuza turned to pick-off a lone Japanese female drinker using the guile he has learnt in his sexual samurai training…
…and I was mildly disappointed to hear a sad gambit, well-worn by TEFL teachers in any opening lesson of ‘getting to know’ the students:
“So..er..what sports do you like?” says the erogenously enlightened one.
This was followed by a yawning silence as both TEFL Yakuza and the Japanese girl looked uncomfortably down on the table, conversation all used up.
The self-satisfied sneer refused to die though, remaining nailed to that face for the rest of the teaching term.
In Frankfurt I taught for a week in a Rudolf Steiner school. These are schools where no rules must be set. You cannot tell the student what time they must come to the lesson, you cannot ask them to get their books out and start, you cannot tell them to be quiet when they are screaming and shouting and running round the classroom.
These schools are designed so the students are free. So that they find their own place and are morally responsible to one another. So that they “spiritually awaken”.
They were the biggest bunch of little shits I ever taught.
All the students knew what they could get away with – talked of the “Steiner approach” with a knowing wink… but ducked straight back behind its shield of hokey nonsense when I actually tried to get them to do anything.
Ok, so the idea behind it is a noble one. And some of the more timid students perhaps appreciated, and grow, by being treated evenly and beneficently. But I worried about what would happen to these cosseted mice when they got out into the real world. When they had to deal with people at work, the normal, every-day, bastards, who hadn’t been to Rudolf Steiner school.
And then there’s the type of TEFL teaching that is the – earlier mentioned – summer schools.
Usually a few weeks of little teaching and more crowd control, with a bit of cornball entertainment thrown in for the pampered children of the world’s rich.
Summer schools are the cash-cow for TEFL companies. Each summer you will find hundreds of these courses around Britain, with the number of teachers required reaching saturation point.
The proportion of Boozers and Losers roaming loose in TEFL land in the summer simply sky-rockets.
One night I found I was to share duties with one 50 year-old perma-sozzled summer school teacher.
Small, round, red faced, resembling a colonel who had lost his stripes through drunkenness. What was he doing teaching in this teenage camp?
I was due to sleep in the student’s residential hall, with me on one corridor, this other teacher on another – to make sure no one got ill, or was upset, or that none of the randy Brazilians got into the Swedish girls dormitory (an impossible task – it would always be the quietest, most unassuming girl that, on being assured there was no one in her room, you would the tug on her wardrobe door and watch 6 or 7 burly adolescents fall out).
The fire alarm went off in the middle of the night, as it seemed to most nights, and we all had to race to pull on our clothes and run outside to wait out on the grass at the front.
Bleary eyed, I did a quick head count of the students and noticed the other teacher was out on the grass too. I was impressed at how quickly he’d got dressed.
There he was in his smart shirt, tie, nice little beige anorak…
Sadly, no trousers though.
So he stood, this small, round, gone-to-seed teacher – amongst the stunned students rubbing sleep-tight eyes, their mouths slowly falling open with shock – with his hands behind his back, rocking back on his heels, starring up at the evacuated building, tutting and shaking a rueful head, completely and quite thoroughly naked from the waist down.
I was surprised at how unsurprised I was.
In TEFL, the crowd of crazies and cuckoos are legion.
In Istanbul there was a teacher who, having boasted to the others – us being rather cautious and mealy mouthed – that Turkish water was perfectly safe to drink, he then ostentatiously drained a glass before us before entering his classroom.
He was to throw up spectacularly over the front two rows of his class of traumatised 7 year olds 5 minutes into his lesson.
He then carried on with his lesson, as if nothing had happened – having changed his shirt with one from the kids’ lost property.
The rest of the lesson was conducted in a 7 year old’s t-shirt, hairy belly hanging out, the kids staring dumbstruck.
I saw another, quite formidably obese teacher, somewhere in the wilds of Europe, lean on a classroom sink, taking it off the wall sending a huge jet of water spouting, again, over the poor kids of her class.
She flapped, beached on the classroom floor, as the students battled to plug the giant spray.
There was one unfortunate teacher who, completely deaf, was only able to recognise what was being said in her classes by lip-reading the person stood fully in front of her.
She put on a little theatre show with her class for parents and teachers.
She sat at the front of the audience, looking around her with pleasure as her first student came to the edge of the stage.
“Today we’re are going to act out a scene from an English restaurant..”
The teacher continued to beam with pride, nudging the parents next to her, pointing out that this was her doing.
“And on the menu today is…”
She continued to lean forward enthusiastically, scrutinising the lips of her student, twinkling with glory, when, from all angles of the stage came other voices:
“Cat shit!” “Horse shit!” “Pig shit!”
A silence filled the air as this teacher carried on nodding with unblemished satisfaction, pointing out the foul mouthed students to the dumbfounded audience and pointing to herself again in recognition.
There are the teachers who see themselves as the “chilled out entertainers”, high fiving students as they swagger into the classroom.
Or the teacher who, in every lesson, got all the students and himself to wrestle on top of each other in a bundle of arms and legs on the classroom floor.
He conducted this scrapping contest even in a lesson observed by 2 stunned, seated at the back, British Council teaching inspectors.
And then there are the managers and owners of the TEFL schools.
The satisifed charlatans who, far from feeling embarrassed at how a low their industry is, how desperate their hirelings or hoodwinked their customers are, swan around with an enormous sense of unwarranted self-worth and bizarre ego-fuelled detachment.
So with all this, why should I let the toad TEFL squat on my life?
Yes, teaching English as a Foreign Language and the opportunities for travel it throws up can give you a good life – if you don’t weaken. But the pay! The people!
After 10 years I feel it’s finally time for me to wriggle out from under the toad.
But you need to be definite in giving up TEFL work. And keep strong to avoid falling back into the “easy” option of doing it again, just one last time.
As I prepare to head off to start a new life in Greece it’s almost lucky that I don’t have enough Greek to even think about asking for a job in a language school.
And perhaps it’s time now for me to take a seat on the other side of the desk. Become one of those familiar, faltering, foolish faces I’ve seen for so long staring up at me.
Time for me now to become the requiring registrant. Time for me to learn a language.
The gamekeeper turned poacher.
So it seems it’s goodbye to all this teaching. And hello to..maybe..pehaps..actually..for once.. doing?