Sunday, 29 December 2013



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.)


EFL minus the B.S. is the best book  ever written, and I should know – I wrote it. Buy your copy today.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

EFL, ESL, TESL, TESOL or what?


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.


Here’s a customer’s review of EFL minus the B.S.: “So, you have checked it all out and decided to go teaching overseas. Now listen you fool… don’t even think about it until you have read this book! I have been an ESL teacher for close on a decade and this book is about as good as it gets. Read it… then do it. See you over here.” – Sensai.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013



Every lesson should be prepared beforehand. For every one hour in the classroom, expect to spend half an hour’s preparation time. Fail to do this, and your lessons will be disjointed, confused, and unsatisfactory. Well, that’s what the EFL trainers would have you believe anyway. BUT. Take a look at the teaching schedule of an average EFL teacher in Asia. Thirty-two contact hours per week. Classes ranging from pre-literate four-year-olds (twenty of them in one class, would you believe) to TOEFL preparation. Written assignments to mark, tests to mark, student reports to write. And, oh yes, perhaps a little private social life squeezed in here and there. Now let me ask you, is that teacher going to spend another sixteen hours on lesson preparation?  Will the world be destroyed by a meteorite at ten past two tomorrow? Will Lady Gaga admit that she really is a man? Unlikely. Bloody unlikely.

So, you will get teachers walking into their classes without so much as a minute’s lesson preparation. Or perhaps they’ll engage in some door-handle preparation – as they enter the room they’re asking themselves ‘What the hell am I going to teach them today?’

Now, here I’m going to stick my neck out and make a bald, bold statement. A statement which could be my downfall, and nix my chances of ever landing an EFL job again. But nevertheless, fearless, undaunted, I’ll make it anyway. You don’t need to spend time preparing lessons. Perhaps in your first four or five months on the job, yes. But once you are in the swing of things, no. And your lessons won’t be the disjointed, confused, unsatisfactory disasters that the EFL trainers predict they will be providing you apply a couple of smart little ploys. “Ploys? Smart ploys? Wot smart ploys?” do I hear you asking?

OK, I’ll tell you. (I hope you’re taking notes.) First, you have in your bag a little arsenal of handy fillers.
Photo copies of information-exchange exercises, half-crosswords, word-searches, vocab pics, gap-fills, blank clock-faces, etc. Now of course you don’t fill up your lesson with a non-stop succession of these things. You teach from the book, then every fifteen minutes or so, or when the class’s attention level starts to flag, you haul one out.
That’s the paper stuff. In addition, you have stored away in your head a series of five-minute games, distractions, and fun activities which you also trot out from time to time. You don’t need many – three or four is enough to see you through most lessons. Our esteemed EFL trainers might dismiss these as a cop-out, but I hold that they are essential ingredients for a successful lesson. Two straight hours of book, book, book is the recipe for a boring class and a bunch of bored students. You only need to watch your students to prove that. When you introduce a fun activity you’ll see them sitting up straighter in their chairs, smiles will appear on their faces, and the undercurrent of murmuring in their native language will dry up. And when, five minutes later, you return to the lesson proper, you’ll notice a heightened level of interest and enthusiasm. Yes, regular injections of fun distractions are the way to go.

So, lesson preparation? Yes, all very nice if you’ve got the time. But I don’t know many teachers whose busy schedules afford them that time. Especially not if those teachers plan to devote some time in their day to a little bit of socializing.


EFL minus the B.S. is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle form. The book will be of interest to (a) people contemplating a job in EFL, (b) newbies wondering just what their EFL course trainers left out, and (c) battle-hardened veterans of the classroom. Buy your copy today.

Friday, 13 December 2013



The good, the bad, and the unbelievable.

I’ve worked in a lot of language schools – 27 of them I think, but I may have forgotten one or two. These schools are scattered across China, Hong Kong, Korea, New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. And of these schools, about seven were well-managed, responsibly run, and concerned with their students’ progress and their teachers’ work conditions. The other twenty were shoddily managed, couldn’t care less about student progress, and treated teachers with arrogant disdain. For them, the bottom line was money, pure and simple, and fuck every other consideration. Yet, such is the demand for English language tuition, these mickey mouse schools were still making a bundle, and laughing all the way to the bank. And they continue to do so.

Now, let’s consider what it would take to transform a sub-standard school into a good school:

1.       Establish some procedures for the recruitment of students, placement testing them, and assigning them to classes of a suitable ability-level. Don’t compromise on the placement levels, no matter how much the student or his parents plead.

2.       Train the staff in the administration of these procedures.

3.       Purchase suitable text books.

4.       Schedule the classes.

5.       Advertise for, interview and hire teachers with the required qualifications and experience.

6.       Advise the teachers of school procedures, duties, and the expected standard of teaching.

7.       Monitor both the administrative staff and teachers to check that minimum quality standards are being met.

8.       Ensure that classroom equipment is in working order.

It’s all basic stuff, isn’t it? And the outlay required is not all that much: probably classroom equipment (air-conditioners or fans, whiteboards, whiteboard markers and audio equipment) would incur the greatest expense. Do all that, then BINGO, you’ve got yourself a quality school. Rocket science, it ain’t. I wonder why the sub-standard schools aren’t doing it?


EFL minus the B.S. is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle form. Buy it, and you’ll get not only an entertaining dissection of the English teaching profession worldwide, but also a bunch of original, workable teaching tips, advice on how best to land a job, and a country-by-country breakdown of living and working conditions all over.

Friday, 6 December 2013



As far as the school management is concerned, Corporate Classes are a sweet little number. On the course’s opening day, the school will be festooned with banners welcoming the course participants, and the first half hour of the class will be taken up with speeches and pomp and ceremony with the school’s bosses and company’s big-wigs all in attendance.

The classes may be conducted at the school itself, or the teacher may have to travel to the company’s premises to do them. Whatever, Corporate Classes differ from your usual classes in the following ways. For one thing, the school probably has no say in the grouping of like levels. Thus you could be landed with a group of students whose levels range from beginner to upper-intermediate. It makes no sense of course, except to the company’s bean-counters, for whom it makes very sound economic sense. So you’re already starting off at a disadvantage. For another thing, the course participants are not there of their own volition. It’s their bosses who have decided that they are in urgent need of English, not them. Consequently, the motivation factor is conspicuous by its absence with many of the students. Thirdly, all your students will have just completed an eight or ten-hour working day, and would rather be watching telly at home or in the pub than in an English classroom. So there’s three major disadvantages for starters. And, because of the importance and prestige the school attaches to this kind of course (not to mention the inflated course fees), the teacher will be expected to deliver a top-notch performance, with every student’s English going ahead in leaps and bounds, and every student deliriously satisfied with every aspect of the course. And to check this is so, midway and at the end of the course the students will be issued with feedback forms to fill in. And that, yes that’s when the heartaches begin.

If you are a student in a class where most of your classmates are of a higher level than you, and where the text book and level of language presented is far beyond your grasp, you will need to blame someone or something to explain away your inevitably poor results in the final test. You can’t blame the book of course; that would expose your low start-level. So instead, you blame the teacher for your poor performance. And then the teacher finds himself on the firing line. “John, we’re bitterly disappointed. Look at all these negative comments! We expected better of you. You’d better pull your socks up, or that’ll be the last Corporate Class we ever give you.”
Lose-lose again. Surprise, surprise.


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now 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.

Saturday, 30 November 2013



Kids’ classes are the answer to a school manager’s prayer come true. First of all, kids don’t drop out, no matter how much they’d like to. The kids are there because their parents have decided they need to learn English – no other reason. The kids themselves would far rather be at home playing video games. Second, kids stay for the long-haul. The parents keep on sending them, term after term, year after year. Third, kids don’t complain. They don’t complain about the crowded classrooms (20-25 per class), the teaching quality, or the sub-standard school management. They accept it all without question. And the parents pay good money for the tuition, looking on it as an investment in their children’s future. Fourth, the classes can be conducted in the mornings and afternoons, in time-slots that are difficult or nigh-on impossible to fill with adult classes.

Weekends are the prime time for children’s classes, from early morning until late afternoon. Thus, weekends are the big money-earners for teachers. And earn their money they do. Teaching children is hard, hard work. It tries the patience, saps the energy, and in many cases drives the teachers to near distraction. Two hours in a kids’ class is the equivalent of four or more hours in an adult class.

Let us now take a minute or two to examine exactly why kids’ classes are just so damn grueling. Firstly, misbehavior rules the day. One misbehaving child is unbearable enough, but get 20 children together in one room for two hours, and the increase in misbehavior is exponential. The kids feed off each other, they egg each other on, they compete to outdo each other in the misbehavior stakes. So Johnny’s naughty and loud? Fair enough, I’ll be naughtier and louder. Freddy pulled Jane’s hair? OK, two can play at that game. I’ll pull Lisa’s and Sally’s and Emma’s hair. Jack’s showing off his karate moves? Right, I’ll show him some moves I bet he doesn’t know. 

Meantime, the harried teacher is trying to establish a semblance of order in the class, trying to keep the noise level down to less than that of an Airbus at takeoff, and trying to stop Jack and Sam kicking each other unconscious. The class will have a local Teaching Assistant (unless the girl didn’t turn up today, or the school is too stingy to pay for one). The Assistant’s role is to keep the children in order. It’s a tall order. Some classes will comply to a degree; others will run wild regardless of the TA’s best efforts. Oh yes, there’s one other thing. The teacher is expected to teach the kids some English in the chaotic two hours. 

Back in the West you probably looked forward to the weekend. Here you dread its arrival, and breath a long sigh of relief when it’s over.

One Sunday evening at 9:30, I was wearily packing my things ready to go home. In the past two days I’d taught 17.5 hours, 14 of them in children’s classes. As I trudged toward the door, a staff member said to me, “Have a good weekend, Mr Don.”

“What? Oh, um, thanks. You too.” She wasn’t being ironic. She wasn’t trying to be funny. She just thought it was a nice thing to say, that’s all.

Have a good weekend, You-all.

In my book, EFL minus the B.S. (now 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?