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.

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