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?

Monday, 25 November 2013



You’ve had them, I’ve had them, me oh my how we’ve had them! And recalling them still makes us cringe with embarrassment. But not all classroom catastrophes are instigated by the hapless teacher. Some pretty hairy scenes can originate from the students themselves.

Like in the mixed-nationality class I once had when a Japanese girl’s cell-phone rang, and the highly-strung Korean girl seated beside her jumped up and tried to throttle her. Or when a male Korean student got up and administered an almighty kick to a Chinese student’s throat. (Our school had a rule: Start a fight in the classroom and you’re on the next plane home.) In another class, I had a male Korean student who had an anger management problem, and at least once a lesson would lower his head and glower at some poor hapless student and mutter unmistakeable threats. Not something you need when you’re busy conveying the intricacies of the past perfect tense to the class.(Notice how all my tales of dodgy students are about Koreans? Funny, that.)

But, face it, most of the classroom fiascos are the direct result of your own foolishness, or inexperience, or are perhaps just cruel twists of fate. I once made a dramatic entrance to a classroom which the students are not likely to forget in a hurry. It was raining heavily, as only it can do in the tropics, and I rushed into the room at full-pelt. The floor, of course, was wet, and consequently I slid along the floor on my bum, coming to a stop only when I hit a stack of folded chairs at the far wall. “Um… good afternoon everyone. Have you done your homework?” Or the time I berated a student who could never, ever repeat a sentence correctly. “Everybody else can do it, why can’t you?” He shook his head helplessly, then the girl seated beside him put her arm around him and said “He’s deaf in one ear”. Oh God.

Let’s hope your catastrophes are few and far between.


EFL Minus the B.S. is available on Amazon in book and Kindle form – buy your copy today.

Saturday, 16 November 2013



Asia. I love the place! It charms me.  It fascinates me. Whenever I’m away from it, I miss it like a heroin addict going cold turkey. But I’ve met plenty of people who couldn’t agree less. They find the heat oppressive, the traffic the stuff of nightmares, the food unpalatable, and the people plain obnoxious.

 I remember reading a parable about traveling long ago. A traveler approaches a town on foot. On the outskirts of town he spies a wise old man. (Every parable has its obligatory wise old man hanging around the edge of town waiting to give sage advice to passers-by.)

“Say, Wise Old Man, how is this town I’m about to enter?”

“Well,” says the WOM  (rather pleased that he’s been asked for his sage advice on what has hitherto been a quiet day), “how did you find the last town you passed through?”

“Oh, just great! Nice town, friendly people!”

“Well, I think you’ll find this town exactly the same.”

The WOM then sits back on his heels to await the inevitable next traveler. Sure enough, another guy turns up six and a half minutes later.

“Say, Wise Old Man, how is this town I’m about to enter?”

“Well,” says the WOM, “how did you find the last town you passed through?”

“Oh, bloody awful. Arse-hole of the world, crap people.”

“Well, I think you’ll find this town exactly the same.”

And that, Dear Reader, teaches us one thing. Which is… um…I don’t know really. Perhaps it teaches us that wherever you go; there you are. Or perhaps not. Shit, I think I’m losing track of this blog somewhat.

Where the hell was I? Oh yes – Asia. I love the place.

Where else could you sit at a seaside restaurant viewing the sweeping vista of a bay, and get sloshed on Tiger Beer at one dollar a can? Where else could you be the target of admiring glances from a passing parade of sensational-looking girls? Where else could you stuff your gob with fresh seafood and pay a measly six dollars for the meal? Where else could you fire an M-60 machine gun at a paper target on a hillside? Where else could you sit down at a restaurant table to be joined by two waitresses and the cook determined to delve into every personal aspect of your life?

So, if you happen to be reading this, Wise Old Man, good on ya. Keep on dispensing that sage advice of yours.


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.

Monday, 11 November 2013



When you teach overseas, pretty soon you’ll have to face up to the fact that you’ve got to become a second-language student yourself. Unless of course you’re content to cruise through your six months or a year overseas without ever engaging a local in conversation. So, what’s the best way to learn a language? Your school may run language classes for its teachers – if so, grab the opportunity. It’s all too rare.

In my life I have attempted to learn two languages: Indonesian and German. The first I learnt by total immersion, without the aid of a teacher. I learnt it in the street, from vendors, shopkeepers, passers-by and taxi drivers. And from girlfriends. I learnt it fluently. Learning German was a different kettle of fish. I enrolled in a night course, hunching over my text book every night wrestling with the grammar and memorizing vocabulary. And after six weeks of this, I’m ashamed to say, I admitted defeat and dropped out of the course. Today my German is still at the pre-beginner stage. All of which would suggest that a teacher is actually an impediment to acquiring a language. (Sshhh, don’t spread it around. It could put us all out of a job.)

learning Indonesian was a piece of cake. It must be one of the easiest languages in the world – simple grammar, delightfully limited vocabulary, and easily learnt pronunciation. No changes of verb form for different tenses. And, lissen to this – to make a plural, just say the singular word twice. So ‘buku’ means one book, and ‘buku-buku’ means books in the plural. Oh, I love it! And on top of all that, Indonesian employs the Latin alphabet, and has no tones.

Tones… aargh! Tones are a devilish invention designed to prevent foreigners from ever understanding or speaking the language. Our ears do not hear them clearly. It is a strange phenomenon; if a language contains a sound that does not exist in your native language, your mind automatically converts that sound to one that does exist in the mother tongue. The phenomenon occurs in reverse too, which explains why Germans say ‘zis’ and ‘zat’ and Chinese say ‘I will ruv you follever.’ So if you’re saddled with learning a tonal language, you’ve got to spend countless hours saying ‘mu, mu, mu, mu, mu’ in a rising tone, a falling tone, a slightly rising tone, a rising then falling tone, and so on ad finitum. It’s possible, but it’s hard yakker.

Another thing you have to contend with when learning an Asian language is the little matter of register. You have to address different levels of people (e.g. teacher, parents, siblings, shop assistants, government officials) in a different way, using different words, different sentence patterns and a different tone of voice. It’s hard to come to grips with, but it’s important. If you use the wrong register, you risk alienating the person you’re talking to.

Like I said somewhere before, learning a second language is no walk in the park.         


In my new 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?

Saturday, 9 November 2013



Learning a second language is no walk in the park. It’s hard, Man, hard. We do our best to teach it in the classroom, but outside the classroom we – and the rest of the English-speaking populace – do nothing but place hurdles in the learners’ path to fluency. It’s just that we kinda… don’t speak good English among ourselves like, know what I mean? We speak a sorta, um, non-classroom kinda English without any, you know, grammar or stuff like that, see? And when the learner overhears us prattling away in our sub-standard pidgin English, he is bewildered beyond measure.

We blithely disregard the grammar rules which we stipulate in class. “How’s things?” “Um, excuse me, Teacher.” “Yes?” “Didn’t you tell us yesterday that plural nouns must take the plural form of the ‘be’ verb?”

We use slang when we’re chewing the fat with our cobbers down the boozer. We use Mates-speak. “G’day ya no-hoping plonker. How’s it hanging?” We use irony. “Now he’s a sitter for next year’s Master Mind.” We use idioms. We use overly PC English. “I’m off to water the garden, use the men’s room, visit the comfort station.” We misuse, mispronounce, and mangle the good old Queen’s English which, in the classroom, we insist upon.

We could, I suppose, try to teach our students the variety of language they encounter outside school, but my guess is that this would end in tears. “Everybody repeat after me: ‘So me mate says to me, John ’e says, ya gotta lissen to this’.” No, I think it would be better to stick to standard text-book English, just as Donald Swan or Betty Azars would wish it to be.


Here’s a customer’s review of EFL minus the B.S.: “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.

Sunday, 3 November 2013



Here’s a funny thing. When you learn your first language, speaking is the first skill you acquire, which would suggest that it’s the easiest of the four skills. But when you learn a second language, speaking is very likely the last skill you acquire, as you find it the most taxing. The reason is not all that difficult to fathom. Listening and reading require no output from you. You hear the words, you listen to the words, and either you understand them or you don’t. If you don’t, there’s no embarrassment or shame involved – it’s just one of those things. Writing, of course, does require your output, but you do have recourse to a dictionary and Google in the process, (or you can ask your big sister for help), and once the writing’s done you can go over it as many times as you want, checking, revising and rewriting.

But speaking is a different story. For one thing, once it’s said, it’s said. You have no chance to review and correct your words. (Of course you can resay your words, but that’s all a bit embarrassing.) You’ve produced some oral language, and there’s an expected result – namely the listener understands or doesn’t understand what you have said. If he or she doesn’t understand, here’s where the embarrassment factor comes into the equation. You’ll be met with a blank stare, or a ‘huh?’ or a ‘pardon?’ and then you’ve got to go through the whole thing again, with no guarantee of success this time round, or the next. Ooh, the shame of it all! I wish I’d never opened my mouth in the first place!

Think about when you learned a foreign language; about how difficult it was to say your first dozen or so utterances. It required a great deal of courage, didn’t it? And what a setback and confidence shatterer it was when no-one understood. And that’s exactly how it is with our students. EFL text books nowadays expect students to speak 30% to 45% of class time. Speaking to a partner is difficult enough, but when you are required to speak out in front of the whole class, God almighty! Am I going to stuff it up? Will my efforts be met with sniggers, or hysterical laughter even? Oh Lord, let the ground swallow me up!

I’ve experienced the same feeling myself. In a teachers’ workshop, someone drilled us in beginner-level Mandarin, then asked the ‘students’ to say a simple sentence one by one. When my turn came around I was a dry-mouthed bag of nerves.

Which is why, as a teacher, you’ve got to get your students involved in unison repetitions from day one. Unison drilling allows the students to get their mouths around the target language in near anonymity. If they stuff up, there’s no embarrassment involved; no-one’s gonna know. Some people call it choral drilling, some call it unison drilling. Whatever you call it, there’s no substitute for 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.