Sunday, 27 January 2013



To work overseas, you need the right documentation. Well, it’s logical, innit? You can’t have every Tom, Dick, and Harry wandering into the country and getting a job, now can you? There’s just one small problem here. Many a host country just doesn’t want to issue you with the right documentation. Why is that I wonder? I have two theories about it. One, the authorities resent seeing expatriates earning far bigger money than the locals. Two, by making the red tape required to secure a work permit or resident permit as arduous and complicated as possible, the applicant will be willing to shell out tons of moolah in order to get it done. Moolah which goes towards the bureaucrat’s down-payment on a new motorbike.

Some of the bigger and better schools will assist with teacher documentation, employing a full-time Documentation Person to get it done. All the teacher needs to do is provide copies of CV, references, qualifications, health clearances, police clearances, birth certificates, parents’ birth certificates, pets’ birth certificates, milkman’s birth certificate…. Oh, and don’t forget to get all those documents verified, authenticated, validated, stamped and translated. That’s a sworn translation, thank you very much.

If your school doesn’t provide documentation assistance, then it’s up to you to untangle the red tape and jump through all the hoops to get yourself legal. My advice? Don’t bother. It’s a sure path to stress, frustration, sleepless nights and eventual dementia and insanity. No, instead of that, work without a work permit. That’s what most teachers do. It may be easier said than done in much of Europe, the Mid-East and China, but elsewhere it’s par for the course. It’s said that in Brazil 95% of the expat teachers there are working on tourist visas. Now there’s a chance, a very remote chance, that your school will be chosen as a scapegoat in a documentation crackdown, but like I say, that’s pretty unlikely. Every now and then the newspapers will announce an imminent crackdown on illegal workers. If you miss it in the papers, you’ll see your boss working himself into a lather, or hear about it from troubled fellow-teachers. In the Asian country where I currently work, there have been five much-heralded crackdowns announced in the past five years. Not one of them has affected me an iota. I’m still happily employed sans paperwork. As are 90% of my fellow-teachers. The sole reason for the threatened crackdowns is to up the ante on the bribe money that school managements or permit applicants have to pay.

Work permit? Schmirk permit!


My new book, EFL minus the B.S., has a country-by-country break-down of countries you can teach EFL in, and also includes chapters on Documentation, Management and Mismanagement, and Applying for a Job. EFL minus the B.S. is available on Amazon as of next month.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013


EFL CLASSROOM DISCIPLINE. Yes, no, or sometimes?

In the matter of classroom discipline, the EFL teacher will find himself pretty much on his own. The school management would rather not get involved in it. Unruly students don’t take kindly to any form of discipline, and are likely to complain to the staff. “Mr Don treats us like children. He doesn’t allow us to speak our own language in class. He gets angry when we talk on our cell phones, and last night he went absolutely ballistic during the mid-term test. I mean, all we were doing was helping each other with the answers. It’s not fair!” These kinds of complaints are not what the management wants to hear. Unhappy students lead to dropouts and a falling school roll. Of course the school will make a pretext of maintaining discipline (a list of school rules stuck on the classroom door) but as for enforcing those rules, that’s the teacher’s problem, not the management’s.

Now the ironic thing is, at their regular school, your students will almost surely be subjected to quite strict, sometimes harsh, discipline. So it’s not as if the concept is alien to them. But not far into their EFL course they’ll realize that, discipline-wise, things are different here. And, if they are so inclined (and many are) they’ll push the boundaries as far as possible. So what if I ignore the teacher, spend all class time talking to my classmates, and play merry hell? The school isn’t going to chuck me out, or even suspend me. There’s no such thing as detention here, and if I’m given a double helping of homework I just won’t bother doing it.

So what does the teacher do? Throw in the towel? Say to hell with it, and let the students do whatever they like? Wield a big stick? Read them the Riot Act? Threaten them? Cajole them? Go home and kick the neighbor’s cat?

Here’s what I do. I turn a blind eye to a certain amount of misbehavior. Kids need to let off steam, and if they do that by yelling, roaming around the classroom, and throwing the odd punch, so be it. Teenagers, too, are subject to a range of conflicting pressures that go hand-in-hand with being a teenager, and I let them get away with a fair bit of argy-bargy. Adults, no – I don’t think it’s unreasonable to insist on a minimum standard of classroom behavior. But whatever the age, there’s one uncrossable line. A kind of thin red line, beyond which lies a no-go zone. Those students who want to study (hopefully you’ll have a percentage of them in every class) should be able to do so without distraction and disruption from the misbehaving students. So if little Jimmy wants to give the occasional shout and scribble on his text book, that’s ok. But if he wants to throw shoes and pull the girls’ hair, no sirree. “Come outside with me for a minute, Jimmy. There’s something I want to talk to you about.” If teenaged Sam wants to wisecrack in his own language half of the lesson time, alright. If he snatches up Molly’s book and throws it across the room, no. And if the whole class is intent on ignoring the teacher entirely and acting like irresponsible twats, “Sorry class, but there’ll be no break this lesson, and if you keep that kind of behavior up, I’ll get the manager in here to deal with it.”

Good luck. And if it all fails, there’s always the neighbor’s cat to vent your frustrations on.


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?

Saturday, 19 January 2013


DIRECTOR OF STUDIES. A sweet little number.

Oh yeah, I heard you’ve been promoted to Director of Studies. Congratulations. Now you’ll no longer have to drag your protesting body into a succession of classes and switch on your lively, energetic, A-plus personality for two hours at an end, on time, on cue, on demand. Now all you have to do is sit in your DoS’s office, sharpen pencils, doodle, and have the occasional word with a teacher. Easy street at last!

 Well, sorry to disappoint, but I think that pretty soon you’ll find the position carries with it quite a number of problems you hadn’t thought about before. To illustrate, let’s take a little peek into A Day in the Life.

Problem number one. Not one of the classroom air conditioners is working today. The school handyman informs you it’s because a circuit breaker has melted, and finding a replacement will take a week at the soonest.

Problem number two. The parent of little Jimmy in Kids’ Class TK46 says that last Tuesday his teacher slapped her kid so hard on the bum that the teacher’s handprint was visible for two days.

Problem number three. Someone has stolen the CD player from Room Four. It’s the second CD player to go missing in two months.

Problem number four. Class P32 informs you that they want a change of teacher, because their current teacher doesn’t know his grammar.

Problem number five. The teacher of Class P32 informs you that he’s particularly pleased at how well the class is coping with their grammar lessons.

Problem number six. The new teacher you hired last week seems to have an alcohol problem. In spite of the breath-mints he continually chews, there’s an unmistakable odor of beer fumes from meters away. (And, to top that off, his personal hygiene is suspect too.)

Problem number seven. Every teacher, including the drinker, has refused to ever set foot in Teenage class DG14 again. They claim the students are undisciplined, unruly, and unteachable.

Problem number eight. You’ve just been handed a petition by the teachers in which they refuse to do any more back-to-back classes at the weekends. They’re demanding a 15-minute break between classes. A move which would throw the school’s scheduling into complete disarray.

Now, dealing with this little lot of headaches seriously detracts from the pencil-sharpening time you’d scheduled for this week. It is around this stage that you start wishing you’d stuck with teaching, and turned down the promotion. But it’s too late to back out now; you’re committed. So, Mr/Ms new DoS, here’s a few pointers to help you handle the job.

 Make sure teachers know what’s expected of them. Their contracts give the broad outlines, but they need to be put in the picture in far more detail. The ideal way is with a teachers’ handbook. If your school doesn’t have one, make writing one your first task on the job. (Uh oh, there goes your doodling time.) You needn’t write the whole shebang in one sitting. Just write about the topics that are the most urgent. Report writing probably, and children’s class discipline, and perhaps timekeeping and absenteeism. Thus you can issue the teachers with a handbook in a loose-leaf binder, with more pages to be added at a later date.

Another tip. Make time to listen to teacher complaints. An individual complaint is far easier to deal with before it grows into a staff-wide mutiny. Ditto for student complaints.

Tip number three. Keep teachers and staff informed about any procedural changes that affect them. Do it on the staffroom notice board.

Tip four. If the teacher is doing a good job, tell him or her so. Teachers who feel their contribution is valued work harder, more willingly, and more enthusiastically.

Tip five. Forget the pencil sharpening and doodling. You aren’t going to have the time. Sorry.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013



I sat down this morning to write an update for this blog, and found that my mind was completely devoid of ideas. Undeterred, I decided to just write on a series of random, disjointed topics – whatever came into my head. (I have never let a dearth of ideas stop me from sounding off authoritatively on any subject.) Soo… here goes. And my apologies in advance if it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

First, Asians’ music preferences. They like Western music. They’re not too up-to-date on the latest songs, but they love The Carpenters (in fact most of them know the words of “Yesterday Once More” by heart), and they love Lobo too. Why is that, I wonder? If you listen closely to The Carpenters and Lobo, you’ll find that they enunciate their words very clearly – that’s probably got a lot to do with it.

In a Vietnamese school I was doing a series of oral placement tests. Next in line was an elderly, shapeless Vietnamese woman. “Hello, what’s your name?” She raised a hand and gave that open fingered waggle that means either “no”, “nothing”, or “I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about.” I tried a few other simple questions and got the same reaction. In front of me I had a sheet of paper on which I had to record scores of one to ten on things like Pronunciation, Vocabulary Range, Listening, and Grammatical Accuracy. For the first time ever, I awarded the woman zero in every category. “Thank you. Goodbye.” Another hand-waggle. I shooed her out of the chair, and called a receptionist over. “Sorry, but that lady has absolutely no English. I doubt she could ever learn any either – she’s too old. Sorry, but in all fairness to her I think you should discourage her from enrolling here. She’d be like a fish out of water even in Beginners’ Level.”

My sage advice was, of course, ignored, and two weeks later I walked into a new Beginners’ class to find a smiling Mrs Vinh sitting there. Oh hell. Well, as you’ve probably guessed by now, Mrs Vinh turned out to be one of my star pupils, enthusiastically throwing herself into every activity, and quickly becoming a favorite of her fellow students, all of whom were a quarter her age. She had more gumption and determination to speak out than all the other students put together. Lesson Four was: “Can you swim / dance / sing / ride a bike?” etcetera. I asked Mrs Vinh “Can you sing?” and she smiled and nodded her head. “OK, please sing for us.” Without a moment’s hesitation she launched into an old Vietnamese love ballad, complete with facial expressions and hand gestures. When she came to the end of the song the whole class erupted in rapturous applause.

I asked a Pre-Intermediate level Russian student what his ideal job would be, and he answered “Proctologist”. Where in the hell had he picked that word up, I wonder?

Jeeze, this blog post sure is random, isn’t it? Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Oh yes… the boss I most love to hate. Here’s a copy of her staff Christmas Party invitation. “You are invited to the Christmas party on December 23, at XYZ Restaurant. All teachers are expected to attend. Wives and children can come, but there is a charge of 300,000 dong for each of them. Children must not sit in separate seats. Any teacher who does not attend or who leaves early will be fined 400,000 dong.” Yes, peace and goodwill to you too, you bitch. This particular school owner has become known as “The 3-D Boss” – Dishonest, Dislikeable, and Devious. (Not that she gives a damn; she’s laughing all the way to the bank.)

I’m still waiting for my book EFL minus the B.S. to get onto Amazon. The current stumbling block is obtaining an American tax code number. Now, first off, why in the hell do I need one? I’m not a US citizen; I’ve only ever spent one week in America and have no plans to go back in the foreseeable future, so why does the American tax department feel itself entitled to a slice of my royalties? Well, anyway, mumbling and grumbling to myself, I sent off an application to the IRS. I received a reply six weeks later. Application rejected – insufficient information included in box twelve. I revised the application and sent it off. Rejected. I revised the application and sent it off. I am now awaiting a reply to my fourth application. All I want to do is find a way to pay them some of my hard-earned money. Why in the hell are they making this so difficult? [Mumble, grumble.]

I’ve always found EFL jobs overseas by first going to the country of my choice, and doing my job-hunting there. I have a good friend who’s been teaching English almost as long as me and who has approached it in an entirely different way. He has first found the job on the internet, applied and been accepted, and then flown to the country in question. Which method is the more successful? You could argue the pros and cons until the cows come home, but let me quote one fact which clinches the argument. He’s now earning $32 an hour, as compared to my $20. And he gets an accommodation allowance and holiday pay too, damn his eyes.

I’ve just received a wedding invitation from an ex-student who met his wife-to-be in my class 18 months ago. Now doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy? It does me. He may not have gained much English from his course, but he did gain a life-long partner.

So, there you have it. An assortment of passing thoughts that entered my mind over the past hour. Make any sense to you?


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (soon to be available on Amazon) puts the English teaching game under the spotlight. 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, 12 January 2013



There’s nothing EFL teachers enjoy more than a good old whinge about their schools, their working conditions, and their students. Wherever teachers gather to whine and dine, you’ll hear them airing their pet peeves and latest stories of indignities visited upon them at the hands of venal, unscrupulous bosses until the wee small hours.

Let’s take a little time to examine just exactly what it is that gets up the noses of legions of EFL teachers. Ladies and gentlemen, for your entertainment and edification, I present The Top Five Moans about EFL.

1.       My boss is a dishonest, dislikeable, unscrupulous shit. Yes, yes, yes, we’ve all worked for bosses who come under that category. If you’re working in a developing country, it’s par for the course. The problem, of course, is that the management’s bottom line (and only line) is profits. And if maximizing profits requires shafting teachers, staff and students alike, then that’s what they’ll do. There is no educational watchdog to stipulate otherwise, no governing body to clamp down on shoddy or non-existent quality, no national tradition of business ethics. Anything goes.
2.       They keep screwing up my teaching schedule. Yes, sigh, that too goes with the territory. Scheduling is infernally complicated and difficult, and so schedulers nearly always take the easy way out, drawing up schedules that place a teacher in every classroom, but without any consideration for the individual teachers bound by those schedules. So you’ll end up with, say, a two-hour class in the morning, a 90-minute class at 4:30, a two-hour break, then a 7:45 to 9:45 class. Thus you will have done five and a half hours’ work which is all very nice, but it’s spread over a thirteen and a half hour period. Now the annoying thing is that classes are being held in that two-hour evening break, during which you’re sitting around the staff room staring at the walls. If your morning class were to be dropped from your schedule, and a class allocated to you for that break period, your 5.5 hour stint would have taken up 5.5 hours of your day. Sure, you’d have done three classes back-to-back, but most teachers would prefer that to the time-consuming spread-out schedule. But try pointing that out to the scheduler and see how far it gets you.
3.       My classes are made up of students of varying levels. Uh oh, that perennial old problem. Schools will blithely mix levels within a class for a variety of reasons: the placement testing system is faulty, the student insists on naming his/her entry level, a student is promoted in spite of poor showings in the previous level’s final test, or there’s no class of the correct level currently underway.  Mixed levels make for virtually unteachable classes, which leaves all the students dissatisfied, but it’s an expedient way of getting maximum revenue, and that, for the management, is the overriding consideration.
4.       I’m forever getting demands on my free time. I’m expected to attend meetings, workshops, school functions and outings – all of them unpaid. Yes, once again par for the course. You could flatly refuse, of course, but that’ll leave you in bad odor. Some schools will levy fines or trim your paid hours as a punishment for your intransigence. How come school managements have the temerity to expect you to willingly, happily devote hours of your leisure time to unpaid activities? It’s normal in countries where there’s huge numbers of unemployed. Locals fortunate enough to be holding down jobs know that unpaid work is expected of them, and that to refuse to do it could end up in the loss of their jobs. Thus your local worker will meekly agree to the outlandish demands on their time. In such work environments, your bosses will expect the same of expat workers, and react with offended astonishment when their demands are refused.
5.       My students are unwilling to talk. Yes, you’re experiencing the back-lash of the Asian educational system. Your students will have been given English language classes at school from the age of ten or so, but those classes were heavy on grammar, vocabulary and reading, but light on listening and speaking. Especially light on speaking. Their classes were just too damn big to allow time for individuals to speak, and anyway the teacher’s speaking skills were in all likelihood woefully lacking. So students will sail through three or four years of English language tuition without ever being asked to open their mouths and utter a sentence in English. Now here they are in a private language school, and you the teacher are expecting them to come out with an English utterance or two every half minute. Ouch. I’ll just avoid the teacher’s eyes and hope to hell he doesn’t pick on me to say anything.

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.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013



Although working in EFL can be frustrating – the understatement of the year – it does have its compensations. (It must do, otherwise I wouldn’t have stuck at the job for so long.) The compensations are, of course, your students. Let me describe some of the most likeable and memorable ones I’ve met.
I was doing an early-morning Free Conversation class in Seoul. I’d just spent four winter-free years in Indonesia, and had arrived in Korea mid-Winter. It was, they told me, one of the coldest winters in memory. Icy, biting winds swept down from Siberia, snow fell on the city every night, and by day it had turned to frozen sludge. I would start off every morning conversation class with chattering teeth and shuddering “brrrrrrr”s which would go on for the first ten minutes until I had pulled myself together enough to announce the day’s conversation topic. After a week of this, an elderly Korean student presented me with a parcel. “Thanks,” I say, “what is it?” “Open it,” the students urged. I did, to find a pair of long, wooly long-johns.
A cute, petite Indonesian girl shyly handed me a note after one class. It was embellished with blue-birds and flowers. “Mr Don,” it read, “you is my tipe – a man.”
Two of the Japanese girls I taught many years ago in New Zealand still correspond with me, keeping me up to date on their jobs, their tribulations, and their love lives. One of them returned to visit me on her annual holidays for three years in a row.
In a class in Indonesia, one of the girls was unusually bubbly and excitable, jiggling up and down on her seat and scarcely able to stay still. “What’s up with you this morning?” I ask. “I’ve just come back from the doctor, and he told me I’m going to have a baby! My husband will be so pleased when he hears!” The rest of the class ooohed and aaahed and congratulated her.
A Saudi Arabian student in New Zealand handed me a letter. It was from his uncle in Saudia, thanking me in elaborately formal and old-fashioned English for taking care of his nephew so well.
A Vietnamese student was perturbed to hear that I was single, and introduced me to a succession of available girls that he knew, anxiously enquiring “Do you like her?” after every introduction.
A Chinese student named Davis, a loud, brash, swaggering young man of about 23, had just come back from a class field-trip to a beach near my home town. He took me aside after the trip, and in an uncharacteristically subdued and awed tone of voice confided it was the first time he had ever seen the sea. The same student, on the day he was to finish up his course and go back home, donned his best suit for the farewell speeches. I had as usual prepared a witty, astute speech, guaranteed to get the assembly of staff and students laughing. A few sentences into the speech I looked across at Davis beaming proudly in his too-tight suit, and I choked up, on the brink of tears and unable to continue. Davis exchanged e-mails with me for the next several years.
Yes, there are many, many students I’ve taught who are friendly, likeable, and a privilege to know. They’ve been all too keen to advise me on their cultures, wine and dine me after class, invite me to their homes, and befriend me. On many a birthday, the students have clubbed together to arrange surprise in-class parties for me. (Of course their huddled conferences over the preceding week had given away any surprise.) In my wardrobe hangs a range of expensive shirt and tie sets they’ve presented me with. And on my wall are a series of crayon drawings of fish, flowers and unidentifiable objects that younger students have given me.
I’ve been known to gripe at times about difficult students I have encountered, but they are a very small percentage of the overall number. On the whole, the students are undeniably the thing that keeps me in the job. And keeps me sane too, come to think of it.


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, 4 January 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.


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?