Thursday, 30 May 2013



I don’t normally run guest posts on this blog, but when the noted blogger Will Lake offered to write one, I jumped at the chance. (Notice I said ‘noted’ there, not ‘notorious’.) Here it is:


To quote Don, “Learning a second language is no walk in the park.” And I couldn’t agree more! But I also believe that teaching a second language, especially English, is equally no walk in the park! English is probably the most widely used language in the world and as a result, each and every person uses the language in their own unique way. Yes, sure we can give the students the basics they need to make the most of the language, to communicate with other speakers and to make themselves understood. The tricky part comes when they want to understand native speakers!

They ask: “Teacher, how can I improve my listening skills?” I reply (according my training, research and judgement): “Listen more!” They ask, “how can I improve writing?” Again, I reply ‘Read more!” But is it really that simple? I’ve started to wonder.

Let’s take a look at the way us ‘native’ English speakers use the language. Are you a Scotsman, Georgie, Scouse, Mancunian, Londoner or even from the West Country? Maybe you hail from the United States and have a deep south accent? Or you might even be of Indian descent and speak the lingo with thick Indian accent? It’s no wonder that students often feel flummoxed when trying to listen to English!

So why should we pity the poor teacher you might ask? Well, where do we as teachers, start to teach a practical listening lesson that actually gives EFL students the ability to listen to a native speaker speaking his (or her) normal everyday English? How do we explain all the different little sayings, slang words and everything else that every different English speaker uses? Ones that us native speakers understand fine! How do we explain that a ‘chuck’ in Manchester is a word that older women use to greet younger people, whereas in Australia it means ‘chicken’.

How do we sift through the world of ‘lol’, ‘whr r u’ and all the other acronyms, abbreviations that litter our everyday lives with the advent of mobile phones and the world wide web? Where in the world do we begin to teach students how we really use our language?

This brings me back to Don’s original sentence. “Learning a second language is no walk in the park”. Yes, I agree, unless they are living in an environment where English is spoken all around them, they will find it extremely difficult to get the stage where they can understand most of what us native speakers say. From a teacher’s point of view, the language is so vast, and evolving at such a pace, we find it difficult to know where to start! All we can hope for is that we teach them the correct way to speak English and that us native speakers start to use the correct way of speaking English sometime in the near future just to give students, and us teachers, a fair chance!

In the face of all these obstacles, I’ve seen some truly wonderful students over my few years of teaching English and if you apply yourself you can do anything! The students that find success in learning a second language are ones that truly apply themselves! The same goes with English teachers; the successful English teachers are ones that develop their skills and meet the needs of their students.


William Lake is a Lecturer of TEFL at Build Bright University in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He publishes a blog called <a href=””>Blog About ESL</a>.

Sunday, 26 May 2013



Working in a Moslem country requires the teacher to make a few mental adjustments. One of the many interpretations of the word ‘Islam’ is ‘submission’. You’ll find your students very passive; reluctant to ever contradict, argue, or criticize. Say goodbye to the notion of holding classroom debates; once the first opinion has been voiced, no-one would ever think of contradicting it. This general practice of submissiveness can be a good thing – you seldom see arguments or fist-fights break out in a Moslem country. (In my home country, you’ll see 10 or 12 fist-fights a night at around bar-closing time. In my 20-odd years in Indonesia, I only remember ever seeing three punch-ups.)

Then there’s Ramadan, the fasting month. For 30 days a year, around two billion devout Moslems the world over observe Ramadan as one of the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’. In that month, they don’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset, nor do they smoke, harbor negative thoughts, or have sex (or even think about having it). One Indonesian Moslem (a doctor) told me that this period of self-restraint was an invaluable boost to physical and mental health. “If you don’t observe Ramadan, that’s like owning a new car and never trying out the brakes. You don’t know whether the brakes, when you really need them, will work or not.”

At Ramadan, Moslems rise early, an hour before sunrise, and gorge themselves on a huge meal to tide them over the 12 hours’ of self-deprivation to follow. Around six pm another huge meal is laid out, and people tune into their radios awaiting the drumbeat that tells them it’s OK to eat and drink again. (Statistics reveal that more food is eaten during Ramadan than at any other time of year.)

Some years ago when I was living in Indonesia, I decided to try fasting for a day, just for the experience. It was a long, long day. I didn’t miss the absence of food so much, although my parched mouth was crying out for water by midday. No, what made the day such a drag for me was the boredom.  Our three meals per day serve to break the day up, and provide us with welcome diversions to occupy our minds. Without those breaks, you get twelve uninterrupted hours of boredom, lethargy, and irritability. And, if you’re a smoker, nicotine-withdrawal symptoms too.

If you’re teaching during Ramadan, steel yourself for a bunch of tired, preoccupied students, and a very long break at around six in the evening when your students break their fast.

Some other considerations to keep in mind when you’re working among Islamic believers. Don’t ever profess to being an atheist – that’ll put you among the lowest of the low in the eyes of your Moslem students. Don’t discuss religion. While that’s what dictates how your students live, work, and think, it isn’t really open for discussion, especially not with a non-believing infidel such as yourself.

Don’t use your left hand to gesture, touch someone, hand over money, or anything else. The left hand is unclean, and reserved for wiping the bum only. Don’t contradict or question anyone’s opinion. Don’t mention stuff like sex before marriage. (The Moslem male hankers after it, and has probably secretly savored it in a local brothel or two, but that’s not something to be talked about or even acknowledged.)

I began my two decades in Indonesia unreservedly admiring the Moslem faith for its culture of tolerance, hospitality and passivity. I ended my time there disillusioned with the religion, because of its dishonesty, duplicity, and hypocrisy. What prompted such a turn-around of opinion? Perhaps the countless instances of doors left to swing back in my face, the small-mindedness, the bald-faced lying, and the all-pervailing dishonesty one faces daily. Certainly because of my experience of Islamic courts as they dealt with my divorce hearings. (“Tell Mr Don that if he were to see fit to pay for the Haj pilgrimage of the honorable chief judge and his wife, then the court’s decision will certainly be in his favor.”) No, I no longer have any patience for the religion or its practitioners. Perhaps I’m wrong about the one true, hallowed religion. Perhaps, when I reach the gates of paradise, I’ll find my promised seventy-two white-clad virgins sporting chastity belts and fenced off in a high-walled compound. Insha’alah. Time will tell .


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; all are examined with as much political correctness as a loud fart in a library.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013



Today’s travelers don’t know how lucky they are. Back in the days of yore (the 1970’s and thereabouts) the long-distance traveler didn’t have it so easy.

Take money, for instance. Namely, your travel funds. In those days the only option was to take it with you. Credit cards and ATMs were yet to be invented. So you were left toting either cash or travelers checks. The checks were the more sensible option; they couldn’t be cashed in by any thief who managed to lift them from you. (In theory at least. In India, it was rumored that if you had a handful of someone else’s travelers checks you could cash them in with certain money changers for 75% of their face value.)  So you secreted a wodge of travelers checks in your money belt, where they soaked up the sweat from your body, and when the time came, you went through the laborious, time-consuming task of cashing some of them in at a bank. And when the travelers checks were all gone, you wrote a letter to Dad (by snail mail, of course; e-mail was yet to be invented) asking for a transfer to a bank in Poona, Phnom Penh, Padang or wherever. And then you spent the next two weeks calling at the bank to be told that, sorry, your money hasn’t arrived yet.

Travelers checks did have one advantage over ATMs though. In those days, you were often required by border officials to prove that you had enough money on you to support yourself for the duration of your stay. Not enough money? Sorry, we can only give you a three-day visa. Now, with travelers checks, there was one easy way of doubling your money. (Of course I never did it; I just heard about it on the travelers’ grapevine. Honest.) When your supply of checks was running low, you went into an American Express or Visa office and declared your travelers checks lost or stolen. Twenty-four hours later you had in your hand a new wodge of checks. Simple, as long as you remembered not to cash any of your ‘lost’ checks.

Next, mail. The only way to get mail from home was to have it addressed to the Poste Restante section of a post office in a city of your choice. (“Don’t forget Mom, I’ll be in Manila for Christmas, then in Hong Kong around mid-January….”) All you had to do was turn up at the Poste Restante counter, show them your passport, and collect your mail. Straight forward, simple, and damn slow. But, before the advent of e-mail, it was the only way you could receive word that Freda has passed her exam, Johnny’s written his car off, and the tax department is demanding you pay $273 in overdue tax.

Of course, if urgent matters were to be discussed, you didn’t have to resort to the excruciatingly slow mail system. You could always phone home. On your cell phone. No, hang on, cell phones were yet to be invented. So, you went along to a post office and used one of their overseas phone booths. Now in those days, overseas calls weren’t the instant affairs they are today. There was the queuing, the temperamental nature of the international phone system (pre-satellite telecommunications), and the difficulty in getting overseas operators to understand what you wanted (“So, that’s person-to-person to Mrs Flo Butter, Oakland, right?” “No, it’s person-to-person to Mr Joe Butler, Auckland!”) If your luck is in, you may just be talking to the loved ones back home within an hour. Then there’s the matter of poor lines, or conversations between you, Dad, and some other unnamed, uninvited third party who’s moaning about his back-ache. “Say that again Dad. Johnny’s written what?” “Oh, I didn’t sleep a wink last night.” “His car.” “He’s written his car?” “I’ve gotta look for a doctor today.”  “Off. Off. Written off.” “Oh the damn pain is killing me….”
A heart-felt thank you, Mr Cell Phone Inventor. You did a good a good thing back there.

Nowadays, undergoing a long-distance journey is an easier and more trouble-free prospect than ever before. But not all the changes have been for the better. My biggest regret about the changing face of travel is the closure of the hippie trail – overland from Amsterdam to Katmandu on $2.50 a day (or less if you were prepared to rough it). Thousands of travelers traversed the hippy trail and found peace, enlightenment, and nirvana along the way. For them it was a life-changing experience. For others, the trail turned out to be a succession of bouts of diarrhea, bed-bugs and boredom. But now the vagaries of politics have rendered the hippie trail impassable. Ayotollah Khomeini nixed passage through Iran in 1979. In the same year, Russia invaded Afghanistan. Soon after, Lebanon became embroiled in a civil war. This spelt the end of the road for the hippie trail, and it became just a distant, wistful dream. Sad.

Buy your copy of EFL minus the B.S. today. Here’s a customer review: “Excellent book. As a former EFL teacher, ten years in Vietnam and Indonesia, this book is spot on in giving the basic lay down of teaching overseas. The book is a quick read and should be read by every EFL teacher. Definitely a good read while on your flight to whatever country you are going to teach.” – J.D.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013



In the 29 or so schools I have worked in, I must have met around… um… upwards of… oh, a helluva lot of teachers.  Some good, some bad, some indifferent. In this blog I’ll describe some of the worst ones. (Admit it you’d be bored out of your tree if I wasted time writing about the good ones.)

Names, of course, have been changed, to protect the less-than-innocent, and to forestall any libel actions.

First, James. An American. Clean-cut, well-dressed, popular with students, and a heroin addict. None of us had noticed at first. We’d noted that he had his off-days of course, when his amusing line of chatter dried up and he had nothing more than a grunt or two to add to a conversation, but we had put that down to problems at home or some such thing. After all, none of us are on top form every day of the week.

The first intimation I had that all was not well with James was when I was waiting to use the toilet, and suddenly out burst James, red-faced, sweating, and unable to even respond to my word of greeting. ‘Strange,’ I thought. ‘He must have a particularly bad dose of the runs.’ His behavior got progressively weirder as the day went by. At break time he dozed off and we had to wake him up to return to his class. His first question on waking was “Oh shit, does anyone know which room I’m in?” He dismissed his class ten minutes early, and his students wandered out unsure of whether they’d actually had an English lesson or not. He spent the half hour until the next lesson dry-retching into his handkerchief. “You OK James?” someone asked. “What? Oh, yeah, I just seem to have…. scuse me, gotta go to the toilet.” “The toilet’s thattaway, James.” “Oh hell, izzit?”

James began to miss days from his schedule. Sometimes he’d phone in ten minutes before starting time and give the receptionist a garbled reason for his no-show, but most times he just didn’t turn up. If challenged next day, he seemed to have forgotten that he’d missed out a day. 

It was about six months into his tenure when James arrived at his moment of truth. “Jeeze,” he announced to the staffroom, “I’ve gotten myself into some heavy shit here. Made a lot of bad choices. I think it’s time to move on to another country, clean up my act, get my shit together.” We expressed our understanding and sympathy, shook his hand, and wished him all the best. No-one heard from him for six weeks, then one teacher received an e-mailed update from James. He was now teaching in Colombia. Colombia, for God’s sake? Just the place to clean up his act.

And then there was Albert. Albert’s problem was that he loved a drink; after work, before work, and at break times. He chewed breath mints continually, but these did little to disguise the reek of alcohol on his breath. It didn’t seem to detract from his classroom performance though; every lesson was a loud, rollicking success. But the management became increasingly worried about the repercussions of hiring a teacher who was always as pissed as a newt. Students and student’s parents would soon wake up to the fact. They gave Albert a few warnings, but these fell on deaf ears, and finally gave Albert his dismissal notice. I met him ten minutes after he’d been given the word, and his first words were “Hey, I’ve just got two weeks’ severance pay! Come on down to The Sportsman Bar after work, and the drinks are on me!”

Celia was a Brit in her mid-thirties. She’d had a good Catholic upbringing, acquired impressive qualifications, and had come to Indonesia to further her teaching career. As Director of Studies at the time, I was the person who hired her. She hadn’t even started the job before her first insurmountable problem surfaced. “Sorry Don, but I’ve got to hand in my notice.” “Hell, Celia, you haven’t even started yet! What’s the problem?” “It’s the accommodation.” (We’d lodged her in a school house, along with three other teachers.) “Yes, what’s the problem with the accommodation?” “Well, for one thing, my room is the smallest of the four rooms.” “Yes, that’s right. If any of the other teachers leave, you’ll have the option of moving into that vacant room.” “That’s all very well, but why is it that I was chosen to go into that room in the first place? And another thing, my stereo equipment uses 240 Watts electricity, but the electricity in that house is 110 Watts. And the plugs don’t fit.” “Yes, that’s the difference between Britain and Indonesia. There are simple ways around it.” “But why wasn’t I given advance notice? That’s the school’s responsibility, surely.”
I managed to sweet-talk Celia into at least staying a month to get settled, before contemplating chucking it all in. She reluctantly agreed. Problem solved in the meantime. But before the first week was out, other problems had reared their heads. The house servants didn’t seem to understand a word she said. Her work schedule was far too demanding. She was getting an unfair percentage of children’s classes. The air-conditioning in her room wasn’t powerful enough. Some of the neighbors seemed dodgy. One of her house-mates was giving her the silent treatment. 

Every problem required a 30-minute counseling session to clear up, even temporarily. I forget which one of her problems was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but in Celia’s mind it was weighty enough to have her tendering her resignation, and no matter how hard I rationalized with her, her mind was made up. “I have had a good Catholic upbringing, and I cannot and will not tolerate this kind of treatment.” And so it was farewell Celia.

The postscript of this story is that eight months after her departure, I received a reapplication from her. No mention of the traumas she’d suffered the first time around. Just a breezy note saying “Don, we’ve always had a good working relationship, and I know you’ll welcome back a dedicated teacher with a good Catholic upbringing and a responsible work ethic.” Sorry Celia, Catholic upbringing or not, we have no vacancies either now or in the foreseeable future.


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.