Wednesday, 27 March 2013



There’s no big mystery in writing a book. The English language has 600,000 words, give or take a preposition or two. What you’ve got to do if you’re a writer is to choose some of those words (relax, you won’t need all of them), juggle them round until they’re in the right order, insert some punctuation marks, and bingo, you’ve got yourself a book. And if you’ve chosen the right words, you could well have yourself a blockbuster, on the New York Times bestsellers’ list for 36 consecutive weeks. You retire from your day job, do an interview or two with Oprah and Jimmy Fallon, and sit back to count your royalties. Easy street at last!

I did all that with my book EFL minus the B.S. Well, Oprah has yet to call, and the NY Times has yet to discover me, but I’ve done the writing bit. That was the easy part. Now you’d think that once you’d typed ‘The End’ on your manuscript, all your work would be over. Think again. This is where it gets tricky. You’ll need a publisher. So, you send your manuscript off to a bunch of literary agents and publishing houses. I did that – seventeen of them. Three months later I had accumulated seventeen rejection letters. Some were your standard form letters; a couple were real letters. “Your manuscript is a good read and deserves a wide audience. Unfortunately, because of the downturn in book publishing we have cut back on the number of titles we publish each year, and must regretfully….”

So then you eat the words you’d said just twelve short months ago, and decide to self-publish. You look up self-publishing on the internet, and narrow your search down to the two big players in the field: Createspace and Lulu. Both stress the fact that the publishing process is simplicity itself. It ain’t. It took me nearly five months of confusion, frustration, tantrums, and fruitless nights to get it right. But then, at last, finally, a package arrived for me in the mail. The first ever physical copy of my book. I gazed at it, sniffed it, gently riffled through the pages. I went to sleep with it under my pillow, then next morning I gazed at it, sniffed it, and riffled through the pages. It’s mine, all mine! Look everybody! See this wondrous, beautiful work of art. I made that. Me! Unaided! Do you want to hold it? Alright – have you washed your hands this morning? Here….

So, you’ve got a book. One problem remains. You’ve got a book, but no-one else has got it, or even heard of it for that matter. You’ll have to publicise it, promote it, flog it for all you’re worth. That is if you want to sell more than the two dozen copies your family and friends have promised to buy. If you’re self-publishing, you’re on your own when it comes to book promotion. How to do it? Blogs, articles, free copies to reviewers, press releases, advertisements in EFL publications, whatever you can dream up to get your book title out there in the market place. And that’s exactly what I’m embroiled in now. Oh me, oh my! To think I’d breathed a sigh of relief when I typed in ‘The End’!

Oprah still hasn’t called.


“EFL minus the B.S.” is now available on Amazon and Kindle.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013



Um... come again?

OK, so you are teaching overseas, then suddenly it all goes belly-up. The town where you worked has been reduced to flotsam by a tsunami. The school where you worked now resides at the bottom of an earthquake fault. You received a Dear John letter last week and you are now a jabbering wreck, sliding uncontrollably into a meltdown. You’ve been horribly injured in a traffic accident. You find yourself in a festering jail peopled by rats and large sodomites with rotting teeth. Or all five at the same time.
What do you do? You ask your embassy for help, of course. After all, that’s what embassies are for, isn’t it? Um… sorry to disappoint, but no. Not any longer. The reason embassies exist today is to promote trade between the host country and the home country. If a citizen should get himself into strife, that’s his bad luck. Don’t expect us to do anything about it. Oh… ok, we’ll notify your family and perhaps bring a bag of oranges to your bedside, but apart from that, all the best, Chum.
You only need to look at your embassy’s website to learn just what it is they’re not prepared to do for their citizens who find themselves up sh*t creek without a paddle. The site will contain a long list of things they won’t do for you. (They won’t even lend you a paddle.) But there is one piece of good news. They’ll arrange your funeral for you if they can’t find any of your family or friends to do it.
I’m speaking from bitter experience here. Some years ago I was stabbed twice in the stomach and robbed of all my cash and belongings in Bangkok. Not a pleasant experience. So here I am lying in hospital with plastic tubes sprouting from every orifice, including a few orifices I didn’t have before, and in walks the Embassy Guy. He’s not in the best of moods. There’s a big embassy party tonight which he should be getting ready for, but instead he’s here in this crummy, over-crowded hospital talking to me.
EMBASSY GUY: Mmm… you’re in a spot of bother, aren’t you?
ME: Yeah, dammit.
EG: Do you have any money to pay for the hospital fees?
ME: No, I was robbed, remember?
EG: No medical insurance, no bank account, no hidden emergency funds?
ME: Nope.
EG: Mmm… I don’t see where we can help in this case. The embassy is no longer authorized to offer financial assistance to citizens in distress.
ME: Buggar me! Does that mean I’ll have to stay in this hospital forever?
EG: There is one thing we can do. Give me a list of family members and friends who are likely to help out financially, and we’ll contact them.

So, the moral of my little tale is: Stay out of trouble while working overseas. And if you can’t stay out of trouble, don’t rely too much on your embassy for help.
In my new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now 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, 19 March 2013

TEACHING CHILDREN -- Why so difficult?

TEACHING CHILDREN -- why so difficult?

OK everybody, shaddup and listen. Hands up those of you who are teaching English to kids. OK…. Now hands up who’s enjoying it. Mmm…. Buggar all of you. Why’s that, I wonder?
Lots of reasons. One: Kids don’t want to learn English. They’re there in your classroom because Mom and Dad think it’s a good idea, no other reason. They’d far rather be at home playing video games. Two: Soon after joining an English school, kids make one surprising discovery: unlike their day school, there’s little or no discipline in an EFL classroom. Which, as any normal kid knows, is an open invitation to run riot. Three: Kids, one at a time, are likeable, sometimes lovable, little darlings. But put 15 kids together in one room for two hours, and all vestiges of likeability or lovability are cast to the four winds.
So, how does the EFL teacher saddled with a succession of kids’ classes handle the situation? Work yourself into a seething, two-hour rage, then go home and drink yourself into oblivion each night? Spend hours on the internet searching for tips and hints about how to handle kids’ classes? Say fuck it, and let the kids run riot for the whole session, while you catch up on text messages and work out next week’s budget? Resign?
The answer my friend is… I dunno really. I’ve been teaching children and teenagers for years now, and I still haven’t come up with an answer on how best to endure them. What do minds far wiser than yours or mine have to say on the topic?
Plato said: “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness.”
OK, thanks Plato, Old Boy. So, in other words, leave the big stick at the front door, right? Gotcha.
But, hang on a minute, what did William Cowper have to say on the subject? “Adopt the graver style. A teacher should be sparing of his smile.” And Leonardo da Vinci? “People react to fear, not love.” So, let me get this straight: you two guys are advocating the big stick approach to discipline, right?
Well thanks, you three. I’m still none the wiser. No, I think the most telling, perceptive quotation I’ve heard on the topic is (ahem) mine: “Kids’ classes? Aaargh!”

By the way, does anyone know if infanticide is still illegal?

Wednesday, 13 March 2013



It happened to me six weeks ago, at around 10:00 pm on a road leading into Saigon. I pulled out to pass another motorbike, and the rider decided for no fathomable reason to pull out at the same time. The next moment I was sliding along the road at 60 kph, with my bike sliding alongside me.

Now I can’t claim that it was unexpected. You know, you just know, that sooner or later your number will come up. The statistics prove it. In Asia, more traffic fatalities occur daily (most of them involving motorbikes), than the yearly tally back home. Most of my fellow teachers have had their dings; lots of grazed arms and knees, one with a broken collar-bone, one comatose for three days. You can drive slowly, you can drive ultra-carefully, you can drive defensively, but whatever you do there comes a time when your slow, careful, defensive driving just isn’t enough. Then, blam, you’re another victim. You just hope that your accident will prove to be minor, and you’ll end up in hospital with a scrape or two, but not on the mortician’s slab.

Back to my predicament. I’m sliding along the road and thinking “Oh God, is this it? Is this Goodbye Cruel World? Even if this contact with the hard, unforgiving road doesn’t kill me, will I become a pancake under the wheels of the truck hurtling along behind me?” But my slide did eventually come to a halt, the truck behind me did manage to stop in time, and I’m left lying on the road in a daze. A crowd quickly gathers around me. There are lots of loud opinions being voiced, but nobody seems exactly sure what to do next. I try to stand, but can’t, and roll back onto the road. Two men help me to my feet, then to the side of the road. I’m hurting. My shoulder, my elbow, my knuckle, and my knee are throbbing painfully and dripping blood.

Oh fuck, what to do next? Getting away from the scene is probably a good idea. Before the police arrive and things like driving licence, negligence, and payouts become unwelcome issues. Some onlookers have uprighted my blood-splattered bike and wheeled it to the side of the road. “Can I still ride it?” I ask the man beside me. He shrugs. I swing my leg over it. Ten minutes previously this would have been an effortless, automatic move. Now it’s a slow, painful feat that requires all my concentration. The handle-bars are slippery with blood, the seat, speedo and frame are splattered with it. I press the starter. The bike starts immediately. That’s one small compensation at least. Now, where to go? Hospital? Doctor? No, it would take an age to track one down, especially at this hour. A chemist shop, to get something for the wounds. There’s one nearby, so I park in front of it and with great difficulty ease myself off the bike and limp into the shop. I hold out my trembling hand to the pharmacist, showing her the bloody knuckle. She tut-tuts and nods, then reaches for antiseptic cleaning fluid, iodine, bandages, and band-aids. “And some Panadol too,” I say. “The strongest you’ve got.”

I pay with blood-stained banknotes, and ask where the nearest hotel is. She waves a hand down the road. “Near or far?” I ask. “Very near.”

Once in the hotel room I get my shirt and jeans off and check my wounds in the bathroom mirror. Shoulder, like a red, oozing tennis ball. Knuckles, a mish-mash of raw flesh, dripping blood onto the tiled floor. Elbow, more red meat. Knee, twice its normal size, stiffening fast, and hurting like hell. I dash antiseptic fluid onto the wounds, gasping with pain as I do so. I gingerly towel the wounds dry, leaving the towel damp and red. I apply iodine to all four injuries, bandage the knee and elbow, and put three band-aids on the knuckle. I take two Panadol and get myself onto the bed. I sleep fitfully for four hours, waking intermittently to take more Panadol, then get up at 7:30 am. I check out of the hotel, and drive slowly, carefully, shakily to my town 140 kilometers away.

I count myself lucky. As motorbike accidents go, mine was minor trivial almost. My head and face were undamaged. My glasses and cell phone were undamaged. The bike was unscratched, and working as well as ever. The aftermath of my accident was a mere four weeks of painful movement and daily applications of ointment. And a few scars as a reminder. Yes, very lucky indeed.

The odds of getting killed on the streets of Asia are changing in your favor. Road fatality statistics, though still hair-raising, are slowly diminishing. For example, the Ministry of Transport in Vietnam recently announced that in the first nine months of the year road deaths fell to 6,940, as opposed to 8,440 in the same period last year. So that’s down to 19 a day. Progress, indeed. (In my home country, New Zealand, the tally is around one a day.) China has 68,000 traffic fatalities a year, and Thailand 11,000.


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

Sunday, 3 March 2013




‘No gain without pain.’ It’s a cheesy, over-used saying, but oh so true when it comes to learning a second language. The pain we’re referring to is enough to ensure that for every 100 beginner-level students enrolling in an English language course, 17 will not complete the beginner’s stage, 13 will drop out at the end of that stage, 21 will drop out after the elementary level, and another 41 will drop out at the end of the pre-intermediate level or soon after. Which leaves us, just 30 or so weeks after the course started, with only eight of the original 100 students still active. That’s one hell of an attrition rate in anyone’s book.

Why is it so, I wonder? After all, everybody learns their first language without undue trauma. Even the thickest, laziest, most inept of us. But when it comes to learning a second language, it’s a different story entirely.

The student starts off with a rush of enthusiasm. Think of all the benefits that acquiring a second language will bring me! A better job. An assured future. Perhaps the opportunity to meet a foreign partner – a devoted, loaded, generous foreign partner – who’ll eat out of my hand and grant me my every whim and desire. It’ll be my passport to international travel. It’ll be the key to success. Oh, the benefits are endless! So you rush to a language school, you listen enraptured to the front-desk girl as she confirms every one of your dreams in spades, you hand over your money, you’re given a text book, and told to come back at 7:30 pm the following Tuesday.

Once back home, you sit down and flick through your new text book. And that’s the moment when your first doubts and misgivings begin to emerge. “Hell, look at this! Unit one: ‘Are you a student? / Yes I am. Are you a student too?’ Unit three: ‘The be verb.’ Unit seven: ‘Can you swim? / Yes I can’. Bloody hell! This isn’t going to get me a better job, or hook me up with a foreign wife/husband, or have the slightest impact on my future. What, oh what, am I getting myself into here? Well, I’ve paid my bloody money, and a helluva lot of it too, so I’ll just go along to the school and find out for myself how they’re going to set me on the road to fluency and success.

Fast forward six weeks. You can now use the ‘be’ verb 80% accurately (although when speaking you tend to omit it altogether). You can now extract personal details from someone you’ve just met (“Right, so you’re a student, you like football and video games, you can swim, and you have no pets. So, what will we talk about next?”) You have expanded your English vocabulary to the tune of 80 words. You still can’t understand English pop songs, or conduct a prolonged conversation, or make head nor tail of your teacher when he talks at a normal conversational speed on an open topic. Your chances of landing a top job in a top company are as remote as ever. You still haven’t found the English-speaking gal/guy of your dreams. You are no closer to attaining that successful, happy future you thought was at your fingertips.

The first level of your English course is soon to end. Should I extend it or not extend it? If I don’t extend, I’ll be able to upgrade my phone to one that will allow me to surf the web, play games, make movies, listen to half a million songs…. I’d be the envy of all my friends with a phone like that. Tempting….


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