Monday, 31 December 2012

Teaching English is Bad for the Health -- Part Two

Teaching English is bad for the health, Part II
(or how I was nearly shot, roasted alive, and killed, all in the course of the job)

If you read Part One of my Bad for the Health blog, you’ll know that I mentioned the perils of overloaded schedules, bad sleeping habits, and air-borne diseases that the EFL teacher is faced with daily. Now I’ll expand on that theme a little, and write about some other unexpected health hazards you may encounter. All of these anecdotes actually happened to me.
First, the tale of the student who brought Dad’s pistol to class. He was aged 18 or 19, a stroppy little sod, and the son of an army officer. “Mr Don,” he asked me mid-class, “what do you think this is?” He pressed his t-shirt against his stomach, and I could see the outline of a pistol stuck under his belt. Later the other students explained to me that he’d borrowed his father’s pistol just to show off. Oh, well that’s alright, then. But I made a mental note to award him high marks in all his future tests. No point in tempting fate.
Next, how I was almost burnt alive. On the way back from an out-of-town private class I was stalled in an almighty traffic jam, so I got out of the mini-bus and started to walk. After fifteen or so minutes I came to the cause of the traffic snarl-up. Four paint factories and houses were blazing fiercely adjacent to the entry ramp of a bridge across Jakarta’s Ciliwung River. Emergency vehicles and fire engines were on the bridge, ineffectually trying to contain the blaze. I asked a harried policeman if I could walk across the bridge, and he impatiently beckoned me ahead. Halfway across, I realized there was no way I could go much further. At the far end of the bridge was a solid throng of humanity, all eager to gawk at the fire. A row of policemen was keeping the crowd at bay. I turned around to make my retreat, and found a sea of turmoil. The wind had changed direction, and flames were now licking hungrily across the entrance to the bridge. Emergency vehicles were retreating in panic. Soon I was the sole occupant of the bridge, trapped in no-man’s-land between an impenetrable crowd of onlookers, and the all-consuming flames. Oh shit, what a way to die, I thought. But, I didn’t die, of course. I made my escape standing on the back bumper of the last police car to leave, and lived to tell the tale. Just another day in the life of an EFL teacher.
What else? Oh yes; how I was pretty near murdered. How silly of me to forget that. It happened in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. On a country road between villages. A white-shirted youth approached me, stuck out his hand, and demanded money. I hesitated for a second, then his other hand shot out and punched me in the stomach. At least I thought it was a punch, but it was accompanied by an odd plopping sound. The youth then took off, not waiting to collect my money, and with a sense of foreboding I looked down at my stomach. There was an angry red hole just above my belly button. No pain at this stage, not much blood to speak of, but a little loop of my innards protruding from the hole.
No doubt you’ve read descriptions of near-death encounters where the narrator describes himself as leaving the body and becoming an observer from somewhere above. That’s what happened to me at that stage. I even found myself thinking of myself in the third person. “Oh, hell, he’s been stabbed! What on earth is he going to do now?” What he did do was limp down the road, each step becoming evermore slow and painful. A pick-up truck stopped, I gasped “Doctor, Hospital” to the driver, and two passengers lifted me onto the back of the truck, where they sat either side of me supporting me as the truck made its way to a small country hospital. At this juncture I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and feeling most sorry for myself. The moment the truck passengers had delivered me into the hands of a nurse they hastily left.
The hospital boasted three nurses, but no doctor. They stuffed the errant piece of my guts back in with what felt like a toothbrush, (“Sorry, we’ve run out of anesthetics”) and sewed up the hole with four stitches. Two rather unsympathetic policemen arrived fifteen minutes later.

“Have you got any money?”
“Yes, half a million baht, four hundred American dollars, travellers’ cheques…”
“Let’s have a look.”
My wallet, of course, was empty. Oh yes, those good Samaritans on the truck!

To make a long story short, I was admitted to a Bangkok hospital where they informed me I had a perforated colon and needed to be operated on immediately. But first, could you please fill out this form granting the hospital indemnity should the operation go wrong, and an address of where to send your remains. I spent two weeks in the hospital, not permitted to eat, enduring deep intra-muscular injections every four hours, and with a long plastic tube running up from my stomach and out my mouth. Not the most pleasant two weeks I’ve ever spent. On my release from hospital I limped onto a train bound for Jakarta, and after a recuperation period, restarted work, wondering what lay in store for me next.

So there you have it. My tale of woe. Hopefully nothing like that will ever happen to you in the course of your work, but you never know….
Happy teaching.


In my new book, EFL minus the B.S. (soon to be available on Amazon), I have related some other anecdotes from my roller-coaster life in EFL, along with teaching tips, and a description of the plusses and minuses of a career in EFL.

Saturday, 29 December 2012


HOW NOT TO TEACH ENGLISH. (Or maybe I’m wrong...)

When you’re working in EFL, you learn something new every day. Or at least I do, anyway. My latest revelation took place over the past two weeks. I’m at a new school. It’s called Speak Naturally. I was informed on Day One that in order to speak naturally (and it must be done with an American accent, mind you – very important) you need to spend nine tenths of every lesson doing unison drilling. No games, no breaks, no light relief; no nuthin except unison drill, unison drill, unison drill. And don’t let that American accent drop for one second. The line-up of expat teachers charged with the task of teaching natural American English is two Brits, two Filippinos, one Ukranian, one guy whose accent is so bad I can’t make out where he’s from, and me. Now the expats aren’t required to actually conduct a lesson. Oh no, they are co-teachers, which means that their role consists of standing up front listening to the Vietnamese teacher doing his or her unison drilling, and, on command, saying a word or sentence here or there. Much like a performing seal. Sitting in on one of these sessions is excruciatingly boring, and time drags.
Now, being a writer engaged in writing a book about English teaching, I was very interested in this new method. It presented me with the perfect input for a chapter pouring scorn on misguided EFL methodology. Thus every night after my co-teaching stints I would hurry home to write furiously about how ineffective and unsuitable this particular method was.
Before I continue, let me describe a typical lesson I have suffered through. This particular 90-minute session for an adult Elementary class is intended to teach 20 expressions, and train the students to say them exactly as a Milwaukee factory worker would. Some of the expressions are useful language – ‘my sister, my grandchild, my grandson, parents-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law,’ and some are a trifle odd – ‘a plump boss, a weak housewife, an old actor, a strong farmer.’ No full sentences, note. The words are projected onto a screen. Cue in the expat co-teacher (that’s me, Folks) who says the words twice and has the students repeat in unison. OK, that’s my bit done for the meantime. Siddown, and let the Vietnamese teacher take control.
Word number one.
T: Sister. Repeat.
Ss: Sitter.
T: No. SiSSter.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
As the students speak, the teacher raps a bamboo stick against the screen in time with each syllable, and at the same time stamps his or her foot.
T: Again. Once more. Again.

By this time I am taking surreptitious looks at my watch. When in the hell is the real teaching going to begin?

T: Right, second word. Brother-in-law. Repeat. Repeat. Again. Again.
What with the tapping and stamping, the teacher is already beginning to work up a sweat.
T: Again. Once more. Again.
Once the family relationships have been taken care of, it’s time for the odd expressions.
T: A bored housewife.
Ss: A bored housewie.
T: No. HousewiFe. Repeat. Again. Again. [Tap-tap-stamp-stamp.]

By this time I’m bored out of my tree. Even more bored than the housewife in question. So too are the students, surely.

The choral repetition of the twenty expressions takes up the first hour. God, what’s next? Uh oh, it’s my turn to add a contribution to the lesson. “Mr Don, who is the housewife?” “Um… she’s a bored housewife.”
T: Yes. Everybody! Who is the housewife?
Ss: She a bored housewie.
T: No. Listen to Mr Don! Mr Don, who is the housewife?
Me: She’s a bored housewife.
T: Everybody! Who is the housewife?
Ss: She a bored housewie.
T: No! She’S. Repeat. Again. Again. HouSewife. Repeat. Again. Again.

What seems like three days later, the 90-minute comes to an end. “What do you think?” the Vietnamese teacher asks me. “Well, it’s certainly an interesting teaching method,” I say. So interesting I can’t wait to get home and record my thoughts on how not to teach.

Every rule of effective language teaching has been disregarded. For one thing, drilling for 90 minutes is tiring and stultifyingly boring for the students. The language drilled has been of doubtful usefulness. The students were not asked to speak in complete sentences. There have been no changes of focus, no periods of light relief. The language practiced was as unnatural as you could dream up. In short, a disastrous sham of a lesson.

Now I’ve often extolled the virtues of unison drilling. It allows the students to familiarize themselves with the sentence patterns, the vocab, and the pronunciation in near anonymity. Any mistakes they make will pass unnoticed, and hopefully in the next repetition they’ll get it right. But unison repetitions for 90 minutes straight? Madness.

But. And this is a big but. As I am winding up my critical, almost vitriolic condemnation of the technique I’d observed and been engaged intermittently in over the past two weeks, I cast my mind back on how the students had reacted to this madness.

Not one of them had spoken Vietnamese during any of the sessions. Not one had nodded off or lapsed into the nether-world of daydreams. All had responded promptly to the teacher’s cues, and with an obvious desire to get their utterances right. And they had given their undivided attention to every minute of the lesson. Which kind of describes the perfect class, don’tcha think?

Why is that, I wonder? Maybe because the rote learning method is one they’re familiar and comfortable with; the method by which they’ve learnt everything from maths to science at school. Maybe because they haven’t been asked to contribute their own input at any time in the past hour and a half. Maybe because they haven’t once been asked to think for themselves. Maybe….

Like I said, you learn something new every day in EFL.


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (soon to be available on Amazon) is my take on the English teaching game world-wide. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher; all are examined with as much political correctness as a loud fart in a library.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Getting Your EFL Students Interested


I don’t often quote Noam Chomsky, but I will here. Nine tenths of the challenge in teaching English is getting your students interested. (Possibly I’m misquoting him here. I can’t for the like of me track down the original quotation, in spite of combing the internet.) But the words are very, very true.

Student disinterest can be an all-pervasive, contagious influence in your class. You walk into the class with a bright and cheery “Hello everybody,” to be met with a mumbled “Hello” from three of your twelve students. The others are engaged in activities far more compelling. Some are talking on their phones, some sending text messages, some gossiping in their own language, some listening to Albert’s long and involved joke. You try again. “How are you?” This time only one responds. Albert, it seems, is nearing his punch-line. Oh shit, you think. Today’s unit is Worldwide Charities. How in the hell am I going to stir up even a glimmer of interest in that dry topic? Good question.

You could, I suppose, forget covering the unit, and instead introduce some topic that’s more likely to elicit a spark of interest. But what topic fits that description? Our Home Town? No, did it last week. Interesting People I Know? No, done that to death. People I Hate? Maybe…. What Annoys Me Most About My Parents? Possibly, though there’s always the chance that a certain percentage of the class will refuse to say one derogatory word on the subject, claiming that their parents are the most wonderful parents in the world. (“Yes, I know, I know, but couldn’t you just conjure up one little thing for the sake of getting the discussion rolling?”)

OK, let’s suppose that you’ve decided to bite the bullet and go with the Charities unit. Now, rule number one: Don’t have them open their text books. If some of the keener ones have already done so, tell them to shut their books. Confronting your students with two dense pages of reading text about the Red Cross, Medicines Sans Frontieres, and Live Aid is a sure-fire way of getting them to slip into the ‘Ahh, who gives a shit?’ mode. The texts are just too dry, too dense, and too riddled with unfamiliar words for them to be bothered getting their heads around. Far more interesting to make a phone call, send a text message, or listen to Albert’s next joke.

Rule number two. Personalize. Now, how do you personalize a charity for a group of students living in a country completely devoid of charities? With great difficulty, I must admit, but let’s give it a go. “Now, you are a pop-singer, Albert. A very famous, popular pop singer. Every girl in the country is in love with you. How would that feel? And how much money would you expect to be paid to sing just one concert? And Jane. You’re a doctor. You just graduated. How long does a doctor have to study in this country? And how much money do you think doctors earn in a year? Anybody know? OK, Albert and Jane, I’ve got a question for you. A very important, very personal question, so you must answer truthfully. Albert, I’m inviting you to sing in a concert that I’m organizing, but I’m not going to pay you for it. Not even a cent. How about it? And Jane, instead of starting your doctor’s practice and earning $XXX,000 in the first year, I’m inviting you to go to Africa for a year, to work for nothing. How about it?” And so it goes. It might be 20 to 30 minutes before they open their text books and start reading, but if it has succeeded in arousing the class’s interest, it will have been time well spent.

Next, keep the pace brisk. Break the lesson up into chunks interspersed with bits and pieces of light relief. Play “We Are The World” and get them to sing along. Do your doctor joke: “Doctor, when I poke myself here, it hurts. When I poke myself here, and here, and here, it hurts. What’s wrong with me?” “You’ve got a broken finger.”

Next, keep up your cheery, enthused demeanor. Let enthusiasm exude from your every pore. Whatever you do, don’t let it show that the unit is every bit as boring for you as it is for them.

Finally, if you think the unit is just too limited in interest to hold their attention for two hours, drop it after an hour and a bit, and do something else. There’s no law etched in concrete saying we must cover every word of every unit. For a book like Straightforward, that would be tantamount to turning your students off learning English forevermore.

Like I said, it’s difficult to arouse students’ interest and sustain it. Good luck.


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (soon to be available on Amazon) is my take on the English teaching game world-wide. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.

Friday, 21 December 2012



For a business that has been one of the world’s top growth industries for more than a few decades, a business that reaps 6.25 billion pounds a year globally according to The Economist, it seems rather strange that no-one can agree on what to call the English teaching profession. Is it EFL, TEFL, ESL, TESL, ESOL, or TESOL? No-one’s quite sure. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

But, when you come to think of it, this inability to decide on one name for the profession is rather indicative of the state of the English teaching industry today. Since worldwide demand for English language tuition surged in the late sixties and early seventies, the industry has grown like topsy. Some of the key players have been well-organized professionals; some have been incompetent opportunists eager to clamber aboard the band-wagon. That’s why today you have English language schools ranging from the professional to the haphazardly run bucket-shop. And if you’re in Asia, South America, or countries like Spain and Greece, you’ll find that three out of four schools are in this latter category.

Why are these sub-standard schools allowed to operate? Who exactly is keeping tabs on schools which are out for an easy buck, with not the slightest regard for service, quality, student needs, or teachers’ working conditions? Why hasn’t the body responsible for governing schools clamped down on them? Why haven’t they been given the ultimatum: ‘Shape up or ship out’? All good questions. The answer, of course, is that there is no body responsible for ensuring minimum quality standards in English teaching. Some European and Western countries have set up their own codes of practice, but worldwide? Nowt. Nada. Nuthin. And thus the rip-off schools, the schools where the only thing that matters is money and where the words ‘quality’ and ‘standards’ are unknown, continue to operate unfettered, and in most cases operate very profitably too, thanks very much.

Anyway, what to call the game we’re engaged in? How about English Teaching for Students All Over Who Just Want To Learn the Bloody Language (ETFSAOWJWTLTBL)? Ok, everybody agreed? Let’s call it that then. After all, there’s no international body to say we can’t.


In my new book, EFL minus the B.S. (soon to be available on Amazon) I have touched on this theme, along with many others. In the book you’ll find answers to these questions: How can I get an overseas English-teaching job? Why in the hell would I want to get an overseas teaching job? How can I survive that job once I’ve got it?

Tuesday, 18 December 2012



When you teach overseas, pretty soon you’ll have to face up to the fact that you’ve got to become a second-language student yourself. Unless of course you’re content to cruise through your six months or a year overseas without ever engaging a local in conversation. So, what’s the best way to learn a language? Your school may run language classes for its teachers – if so, grab the opportunity. It’s all too rare.

In my life I have attempted to learn two languages: Indonesian and German. The first I learnt by total immersion, without the aid of a teacher. I learnt it in the street, from vendors, shopkeepers, passers-by and taxi drivers. And from girlfriends. I learnt it fluently. Learning German was a different kettle of fish. I enrolled in a night course, hunching over my text book every night wrestling with the grammar and memorizing vocabulary. And after six weeks of this, I’m ashamed to say, I admitted defeat and dropped out of the course. Today my German is still at the pre-beginner stage. All of which would suggest that a teacher is actually an impediment to acquiring a language. (Sshhh, don’t spread it around. It could put us all out of a job.)

Now learning Indonesian was a piece of cake. It must be one of the easiest languages in the world – simple grammar, delightfully limited vocabulary, and easily learnt pronunciation. No changes of verb form for different tenses. And, lissen to this – to make a plural, just say the singular word twice. So ‘buku’ means one book, and ‘buku-buku’ means books in the plural. Oh, I love it! And on top of all that, Indonesian employs the Latin alphabet, and has no tones.

Tones… aargh! Tones are a devilish invention designed to prevent foreigners from ever understanding or speaking the language. Our ears do not hear them clearly. It is a strange phenomenon; if a language contains a sound that does not exist in your native language, your mind automatically converts that sound to one that does exist in the mother tongue. The phenomenon occurs in reverse too, which explains why Germans say ‘zis’ and ‘zat’ and Chinese say ‘I will ruv you follever.’ So if you’re saddled with learning a tonal language, you’ve got to spend countless hours saying ‘mu, mu, mu, mu, mu’ in a rising tone, a falling tone, a slightly rising tone, a rising then falling tone, and so on ad finitum. It’s possible, but it’s hard yakker.

Another thing you have to contend with when learning an Asian language is the little matter of register. You have to address different levels of people (e.g. teacher, parents, siblings, shop assistants, government officials) in a different way, using different words, different sentence patterns and a different tone of voice. It’s hard to come to grips with, but it’s important. If you use the wrong register, you risk alienating the person you’re talking to.

Like I said somewhere before, learning a second language is no walk in the park.

Thursday, 13 December 2012



They’re as predictable as a flock of sparrows, classroom dynamics are. On Monday you teach the Shopping for Clothes Unit, and it soars like a hot-air balloon. Your lesson is so good that the class damn near gives you a standing ovation as you leave the room.
On Tuesday you teach the Shopping for Clothes Unit, and it plummets like a lead balloon. By the end of the class, all you want to do is to crawl under your desk and put an end to it all.

Why is that, I wonder? Jill Hadfield and Alan Maley have tried to throw some light on the matter in their book Classroom Dynamics. Well, I’ve read the book, and I’ve adopted some of the techniques they described therein, and the results were patchy to say the least. Now I don’t want to say that these two good people don’t know what they’re talking about. What I do want to say is that their expertise and experience is with classes of European students, and a class of European students and a class of Asian students is alike as chalk and stilton cheese.

No-one has satisfactorily explained just how to adjust the dynamics in order to transform a reticent, non-responsive class into a vibrant, active one full of fun and quality learning time. But I’ll give it a go, anyway….
If you’re saddled with a class that exhibits all the liveliness of a Taleban prayer meeting, I think what’s called for is the George Bush shock and awe approach. In other words, wake the buggars up, give them a piece of your tongue, shuffle them around, make them laugh, make ‘em cry, jar them out of their “I’ll just sit here and do nothing, and then I’ll go home” frame of mind. Show them that your job is to get them to actively participate in the lesson, and that’s what you’re going to do, by hook or by crook.
Now the shock and awe approach requires quite a lot of energy on the teacher’s part, but hopefully, after a few sessions the class will have got the message. Your classroom is not the place for daydreaming, complacency, or passivity. Just the opposite. What you want, what you expect, and what you are demanding is the whole-hearted participation of each and every class member. Anything falling short of that is unacceptable. Not on my watch, anyway. Give it a go. Take no prisoners.
(By golly, George would be proud of me.)

Friday, 7 December 2012

Teaching Little Kids

(and I mean little kids)

I’ve got to do a demo class at 5:30 tonight. There’s a fair bit riding on it, because depending on how well I acquit myself, and the students’ reaction to my teaching, the school management will decide how much I’m to be paid at this new job. Fair enough, that’s pretty standard over here.

“OK, 5:30, then. I’ll come in fifteen minutes early to check out the book. Oh, by the way, how many students, and what level?”
“Twenty-one students, aged four to six.”
Oh my God. A demo in a pre-literate class of four to six year-olds? And a crowded class at that? Death, where is thy sting?

I’ve started preparing the demo already. I don’t know what book they’ll be using, or what language is to be covered, but I do have a fair idea of what to expect. I’ll be required to cover two text book pages, which will contain a minimum amount of language; probably five or six new words, e.g. ‘red, yellow, blue, green, orange’, plus the question ‘What color is it?’ So, how does one keep 21 kids interested for 90 minutes, when all you’ve got to do is teach five words?

Let’s get back to basics. Ingredient number one: movement. Kids need to move around. Sitting still is anathema to them, and pretty-near impossible to achieve. So, the hopping game. The school will have color flash-cards. (I hope to hell the school has color flash-cards.) Lay them out in a row on the floor, and get the kids, one by one, to hop along the row, naming each color as they land beside it. That’s a good ten minutes of lesson time. Tack the cards on the whiteboard. Have the students form two rows. Sorting out the rows will take three or four minutes. If there’s an even number of boys to girls in the class, fine. If not, you’ll have lots of grief getting any boy to join the girls’ line, and vice versa. Explain the rules of the game. The Teaching Assistant will need to translate. The class will have a TA. (Please God, let the class have a TA.) Issue the front student in each line with a fly swat. When you name a color, these two students rush forward and try to be the first to swat the color. He/she then hands the swat to the second kid and goes to the back of the line. Fun, shouting, excitement, and the occasional shoving match.

So, that’s two active games in a row. Time to slow down for a bit. Get them to sit down, and drill them on the vocabulary. Introduce and drill the question. Hand the flashcards around in a chain, each student asking the next: “What color is it?” Wander around the class, pointing out various colored items. Tommy’s t-shirt, Sarah’s bag, James’s pencil box; “What color is it?” Play a kids’ video dealing with colors. (Presumably the school has such a thing, but I won’t set my heart on it.)

Another movement game. Tack the flashcards on the walls one in this corner, one in that corner, one on the door. The kids stand in the center of the room, and when you nominate a color they rush over to it. Fun, shouting, excitement, a few kids getting knocked down and trampled, a couple of outbreaks of fisticuffs.

A change of focus before they get bored. (There’s a theory I read once, that children’s attention spans are equivalent to their ages. A six-year-old has a six minute attention span, an eight-year-old eight minutes, etcetera.) A song, preferably an action song. Chances are they’ll already know some of the old standards: If You’re Happy, Head-Shoulders, The Wheels on the Bus, This is the Way I Wash My Face.

A game of statues. You play a music CD and the kids dance in time. When the music stops, they do too. Fun, excitement, pushing, arguments.
Siddown again. “Let’s repeat the colors, ok?

Well, that’s a good hour’s lesson time covered. In my pocket I will have the good old standby in case I run out of things to do; a balloon. It never fails. Batting a balloon around the room for five minutes has nothing to commend it in the way of teaching English, but you won’t get any of the kids complaining about that.

So that’s it. Nothing cutting edge about it, nothing state of the art methodology-wise. Just a fast-paced mix of movement, music, competition and repetitions. Not to mention fun, excitement and fisticuffs. Hopefully I’ll be able to pull it off.

Please God, let there be a Teaching Assistant.