Monday, 1 December 2014



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.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014



“Whether the weather is good, or whether the weather is bad…” It’s an old, half-forgotten ditty from my childhood, but I’ve just got home from a 30-minute motorbike ride in a tropical downpour, and weather is very much on my mind.

And here is the weather report. From a few different countries I’ve worked in. No, don’t worry, I’m not going to get all technical and start waxing on about global warming, polar jet-streams, El Nino and other meteorological oddities. What I will say is that I’ve noticed the weather in different countries is as different as can be.

Take Indonesia for example. Weather here is very localized. I came out of school one day, stood on one side of the road, and noticed that on the other side of the road was a wall of rain. As I watched, in less than a second the curtain of rain advanced across the road and enveloped me. On another day I was riding along in a bajaj (a 3-wheeled taxi) and suddenly the driver braked violently. Ahead of us, and closing in fast, was another curtain of rain. One day I was driving my car down a street in Jakarta when suddenly a bolt of lightning hit the street not 30 meters ahead of me. It fizzled and crackled as it hit the ground, and left a large patch of dry asphalt. Had I been 30 meters further on, I would have been toast. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the tires insulate the car and leave its occupants unharmed. That’s one theory I don’t want to put to the test; I’ll leave that to the Mythbusters team. Indonesia has two seasons: dry (very dry), and wet (very wet). I was teaching a class one evening in Indonesia at the end of a long, extremely dry season. Suddenly we heard an unaccustomed sound. Big, fat raindrops were hitting the school roof. In an instant the lesson was forgotten and the whole class rushed outside and stood with faces raised to the long-awaited rain.

When it rains in Indonesia, it buckets down. But Indonesia is no match for Thailand and Cambodia. There the rain comes down on your head with the force of a high-pressure water cannon. And with it comes the lightning. Sheet lightning, forked lightning, ball lightning  – you name it they’ve got it. Thailand’s thunderstorms are spectacular. I had a roof-top flat in Bangkok, and during a thunder and lightning session I would go out and marvel at the display. Every ten seconds or so the lightning would illuminate the sky for a split second, then plunge it into darkness once again. One night I had a good idea: why don’t I put a bucket out to catch the rain, thus saving myself of the tiresome task of lugging water up from the tap on the second floor? Next morning I inspected my bucket of rainwater. Floating on top of it was an inch of black grease.
Now, cross to Cambodia.
I arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, a time that the tourist guide-books advise is best avoided. The mornings are cloudless and stultifyingly hot. A twenty minute walk has me dehydrated and panting, and searching for the nearest air-conditioned bar for respite.  In the afternoon the rain clouds gather, and around sunset the first fat raindrops plop onto the roofs and awnings. With practised efficiency the waitresses and waiters snatch up table cloths and condiment sets from the street-front tables, and whisk away the seat cushions.
Then comes the rain.
My god, the rain. Within seconds streets become fast-flowing rivers. As if by magic the endless stream of motorcycles ceases, riders huddling under shop awnings, bus shelters, and trees. Lightning flashes etch freeze-framed pictures of a glistening city onto the retina.
By morning the skies are once again cloudless, the sun as searing and unforgiving as ever.

Next, love in Asia. As I wrote in EFL minus the B.S., a single teacher will have no problem finding a soulmate in Asia, no matter how temporary. But there’s a price to pay when a male teacher hitches up with an Asian girl: he’s expected to become family provider. This may manifest itself in requests for money to help fix granny’s leaking roof, or father’s emergency motorbike repairs, or a loan to see mother through a rocky period. In the case of my current girlfriend, it came in the form of Younger Brother. An affable enough guy with no English and no apparent means of support, Younger Brother was your consummate freeloader. He had an unerring sense of timing and smell. Ten minutes before a meal was due to be served, there would be a knock on the door and Younger Brother would enter. He would help himself to giant portions of food, twice as much as anyone else, eat it, lie down on the floor and sleep for half an hour or more, then wake and leave with a brief “Goodbye”. His visits became increasingly frequent, and I became increasingly pissed off.
“If he were to occasionally come with some fruit or a few cans of beer in hand, I wouldn’t mind,” I protested to my GF, “but he just appears, eats, and leaves without so much as a thank you. Tell him he’s not welcome.”
My girlfriend promised to do so, tomorrow or the day after. She didn’t of course; such a thing would be unthinkable in the culture of Asian hospitality.
 “Look, if you don’t tell him, I will. I’m sick and tired of him feeding his face at my expense.”
“OK, I will, I will. Soon.”
I took to going out as soon as Younger Brother appeared, and not returning until he had departed, but this failed to get the message across. (If he had noticed my absences at all).
The final straw came when I woke up one morning and saw that he’d slept the night. I took him aside and said “I don’t like you sleeping here. I don’t like you eating here.” To reinforce my point I handed him a print-out of a Google translation reading ‘NO MORE FREE MEALS HERE FOR YOU’. Younger Brother said “Oh. OK”, reached for his motorbike helmet, and departed. And has yet to return. Halle-bloody-lujah! Problem solved.

There’s only one other problem remaining. My GF’s mother, a pleasant, likeable lady, comes to visit us from up-country every now and then. She’s no trouble around the place, she helps with the washing up and mops the floor, but her visits do seem to go on and on and on. Now I’m perfectly happy for her to visit for a week, even two weeks from time to time, but a five-week stay does seem to be pushing it a bit. It’s a problem that’s going to take more delicate handling than the last one.

I’ve been changing schools a bit lately. One school didn’t offer enough hours, one school’s confusion and mismanagement defied description, one school did nothing but complain about the teachers’ performances. I’ve now got two jobs: 14 hours from Monday to Friday, and a second school offering a 10-hour block at weekends, teaching tiny tots and children. To top it up, I’m doing two hours private lessons a week, and a third school is calling me in to substitute once or twice a week. I’m working seven days a week (not an unusual situation in Asia). It’s not a perfect state of affairs; with a seven-day workload you’re liable to lose track of the days, and the hours are antisocial, but it’s the best I can manage for now. I’m not the only one; my fellow teachers report just as many frustrations and unsatisfactory employers as me. Ah well, nobody promised us a rose garden, I guess.

Here’s what readers have said about EFL minus the B.S.: “This book is about as good as it gets.” “So, you have checked it all out and decided to go teaching overseas. Now listen you fool… don’t even think about it until you have read this book!” “Excellent book.” “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.”
 So there you have it. Buy your copy of EFL minus the B.S. today. A quarter of a million readers can’t be wrong! (OK, OK, I have exaggerated a teensy bit there.)

Tuesday, 7 October 2014



Here’s a run-down on what you’ll get when you buy EFL minus the B.S. There’s a country-by-country breakdown on teaching in all the Asian countries, and a vaguely alarming chapter on how many hoops you need to jump through to secure work permits for those countries. There’s a chapter on living and working overseas – not all wine and roses. There are the chapters where I’ve roundly criticized school management (mostly mismanagement), language teaching theories (mostly mumbo-jumbo), and linguistics (wholly mumbo-jumbo). Plus some tips on teaching children and teenagers, and on how to fine-tune classroom dynamics. I rail on about bosses I have met (nine out of ten of them all-round ass-holes) and teachers I have met (nine out of ten good to work with, the others undeniably weird). There’s a chapter about how to start up your own school, and another about sex and the single teacher (based on extensive field-research on my part). 

There are no chapters on pedagogy, or the meta-cognitive paradigms of second-language acquisition. You’ll have to look elsewhere for info on those subjects. When writing the book, I didn’t overly concern myself with political correctness. Some readers have taken me to task for this, accusing me of insensitivity, chauvinism, racism, negativity, and just plain ignorance. Gulp, I’ll try and do better in the sequel.

Now here’s something not related to teaching, but something that’s been on my mind lately. Associations. No. I’m not talking of the Automobile Association or the National Rifle Association here, I’m talking about the weird associations our minds make with specific places and specific events. Associations that will stay with us until the end of our days. You with me here? No? OK, let me give you a few examples.

I’m in New Zealand, I’m in a supermarket queue, and I overhear the lady in front of me saying “Isn’t it terrible about Princess Diana?” A moment forever frozen into my memory. Another example: In New Zealand once again, but this time in a small, isolated West Coast hamlet, and I hear a customer remarking to the shop assistant “It’s sad, isn’t it? And he was the twin of Robin. I never knew that before.” My heart gave a bit of a lurch, and I hurried outside to tune into my car radio and await the news. As I had feared, Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees had died.

I’m sure you all have similar associations. Most people can tell you the time and place where they first heard news of a beloved celebrity’s death, whether it be JFK, Lady Di, Amy Whitehouse, or Elvis Presley.

Most of my mental associations, I’m happy to say, are not connected to the death of someone, but to music. I’m in Katmandu, I have an eye infection that’s keeping me closeted in my dingy hotel room day and night, and the guy a few rooms away is playing the Bee Gees “Tragedy” over and over and over. I’m teaching in Seoul, not enjoying it all that much, and AFKN (American Forces Korean Network) is incessantly playing Randy Vanderwarmer’s “Just When I Needed You Most”. (Great song, great voice; I wonder why he sank into oblivion immediately thereafter. Perhaps it had something to do with his choice of name.)

Whenever I hear the old Bee Gees hit “Holiday”, I’m instantly transported to a flat in Gloucester Road, London, that I shared with 14 other people. Whenever I hear Cat Stevens sing anything at all I’m back in London too. “Knights in White Satin” puts me back in the Atlanta Hotel, Bangkok. I hear Bob Marley singing “I Shot the Sheriff”, and I’m wandering down Notting Hill Road. I hear “Disco Duck” (a horrible song that enjoyed brief popularity in the mid-seventies) and I’m transported to the Kings’ Club in Itaewon, Seoul, where a hundred or so sweating, off-duty GIs are singing and quacking in unison. And whenever I hear The Eagles “Tequila Sunrise”, I’m sitting in a hostel dormitory in Jakarta with my best friend who insisted on playing the song non-stop.

Yes, funny things, associations are.


Here’s what readers have said about EFL minus the B.S.: “This book is about as good as it gets.” “So, you have checked it all out and decided to go teaching overseas. Now listen you fool… don’t even think about it until you have read this book!” “Excellent book.” “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.”

 So there you have it. Buy your copy of EFL minus the B.S. today. A quarter of a million readers can’t be wrong! (OK, OK, I have exaggerated a teensy bit there.) 

Saturday, 27 September 2014



Some students can master correct pronunciation from the kick-off, and some can’t, no matter how hard they try. The Indonesians call it “having a thick tongue.” So, in this post I’ll address the problem of handling cases of thick tongue.

I’ll start with Clarence, a student I once had. Clarence (or at least I think that’s what his name was, it was difficult to tell) could not for the like of him reproduce any sound correctly in spite of my best efforts. Unison drills by the hundreds, individual repetitions until the cows came home, breaking the words down syllable-by-syllable, rhyming drills, nothing worked with poor old Clarence. (Not all that old, by the way. He was about 30.) Now here’s a funny thing about those students whose pron is abysmal: they love to talk. You would think they’d sit in a corner with their mouths closed rather than be subjected to a succession of “Pardon? Huh? What? Say that again. Whaddaya talking about? Repeat”. But no, they’re eager to air their unintelligible utterings at the drop of a hat. “Ah, T-shirt!” “Yes, Clarence, what is it?” “Flugelhorn spligglepan zimbabwe judder titty bum-bum?” “Right, Clarence. Good question. Now let’s see… how shall I answer it? Oh, look at the time! We’ll have to come back to that question next lesson.”

It cannot be said that Clarence didn’t work hard at getting his pron up to scratch. Before he spoke, I’d see his lips silently moving as he prepared himself to say something. He threw himself into repetition drills willingly, with a determined frown on his face. But the more he tried, the thicker his tongue got. Clarence wasn’t stupid, by any means. His written work was faultless, and his reading and comprehension skills impressive; it was just that he couldn’t say the damn words right.

There are some sounds that any student will have difficulty in mastering. Sounds that don’t occur in their native language. Consonant clusters. Multisyllabic words (it means long words, Roger!) Some students will settle for an approximation of these sounds, and hope for the best. And as long as they’ve got the other sounds and words right, the listener will make sense of what they say, often by using context as a clue.
But the Clarences of this world get all the sounds wrong, leaving their listeners bewildered and at a loss how to respond.

Now here’s my theory on how to handle severe pronunciation problems. To my mind, the key is in the students’ listening skills. If they don’t hear it right, there’s not a chance in hell they’ll say it right. How do you hone students’ listening skills? With dictation. But not just ordinary old dictation – rapid dictation. You say a sentence and get them to write it down. No talking, no copying from your neighbor’s paper, just listen and write. I say the sentence at normal speaking speed (that is to say, fast), I repeat it again and again and again. As I speak, I circulate around the room and put red marks on the students’ papers indicating where a mistake occurs (but not what that mistake is). I’m constantly seeing instances of an individual making a particular mistake (e.g. a missing ‘s’ from a plural noun) that is exactly the same mistake which occurs in his or her speech. I continue repeating, repeating the sentence until 95% of the students have got it 95% right. Then I ask them to repeat it (along with a response) in unison and with a partner. Then, on to the next sentence. Try rapid dictation. If you do six to ten sentences per lesson, you’ll see a marked improvement within two weeks. A student who last week had his dictation paper dotted with a myriad of red marks, this week has only half a dozen, and next week even fewer. And you’ll hear their pronunciation becoming better and more natural, too. For my money, rapid dictation is one of the most effective, valuable tricks in the book.
Did rapid pronunciation work with Clarence? Um, no. I’ve got no explanation for that, no excuses. I’ll just repeat the opening sentence of this blog. Some students can master correct pronunciation from the kick-off, and some can’t.


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

Friday, 5 September 2014




‘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. 

Thursday, 21 August 2014



Uh oh. Another one of those days when no single topic is running around inside my head waiting for me to expound upon. So, once again, I will just record a few passing random thoughts before they escape me forever.

I have been trying to analyse exactly what kind of blog topic attracts the most viewers. A few months ago, after I had just posted my ‘Corporate EFL Classes’ blog, in which I’d pointed out that teaching company classes is pretty much a lose-lose situation for the teacher, I received an e-mail from my son. “Are you ever going to write a positive blog?” it read. Oh hell, I thought, am I being too negative? Am I coming across as an ill-tempered, whinging malcontent who never has a good word to say about his chosen profession? So, suitably chastened, next day I sent off my ‘Rewards of Teaching English’ blog (a kind of ‘EFL Soup for the Soul’ article.) A blog so feel-good and positive it warms the very cockles of the heart. The result? Two days of the most dismal viewing figures ever. Ouch! So the readers don’t want warm and fuzzy, huh? OK, my next blog post will be an outpouring of invective and withering criticism of the EFL game. Thus: ‘The Top 5 Moans about EFL’. I’m awaiting the readership figures on that one.
(Maybe I should go 50-50, with one positive blog alternating with a negative one. To try and please all of the people all of the time. Mmm… I’ll have to give that some thought.)

For a writer, there’s nothing so dispiriting as asking a literary agent to consider handling your book. Literary agents tend to come across as self-important primadonnas. There are those who will tell you not to send a proposal; instead, send a one-page letter convincing them why they should bother reading your proposal. Some ask for a reading fee before they will deign to read your book idea. The majority of agents will insist you do not send your book proposal to anyone other than them. They will stipulate the format your submission should adopt: American spelling, Chicago Tribune style punctuation, 12-point Times Roman font, five letter-space paragraph indentations, etc, etc. And should your format not adhere to their stipulations, the proposal is relegated to the slush pile without being read. Most literary agents take smug satisfaction in informing you that they receive 300 unsolicited manuscripts a week, and thus your book stands a .0001% chance of seeing the light of day. And most will warn you not to expect a response from them for three to four months. Some even take delight in saying that should your submission prove unacceptable to them, do not expect a reply.

I have a dream. The time: sometime in the future. The situation: my book has finally been published and has proved a runaway success. With a self-satisfied smirk on my face I send off an e-mail to each of the literary agents who’d given me the brush-off. “Dear Mr/Ms XYZ; It may interest you to know that the book which you rejected seven months ago has now entered the New York Times best-sellers list at number four. It has, to date, sold upward of a quarter of a million copies. And I only used three letter-space indentations, too. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, you wanker.”

Teachers. Alain de Botton is widely quoted as saying “You become an English teacher when your life has gone wrong”. Gulp, that hurts. But why did Botton (sorry – de Botton) make this observation? Sure, I’ve worked with teachers whose lives have definitely gone wrong; assorted drunkards, druggies and no-hopers who would be better off in a job where they had no exposure to the public at all. (The army, perhaps.) But I’ve worked with many more teachers who are devoted to the profession, and carry it out in a professional, caring manner. And I’ve found that the ratio of losers to professionals is about 1:10. So there, Mr de Botton.

No-one is quite sure just how many of us English teachers there are out there. I read one estimate that there are 20,000 expatriate EFL teachers in South Korea, and that China recruits 100,000 new native-speaking English teachers annually, but as for total numbers worldwide, it’s anyone’s guess. My estimate is that there are a helluva lot of us. Here’s an idea: English teachers unite! Let’s form a worldwide union to press for better pay, better conditions, and better schools! There are some guys out there who are religiously trying to do just that. But I can’t help feeling that their efforts will come to nought. There are too many teachers, they’re spread across all four corners of the globe, and they’re a widely disparate mob. A union? Nice idea, but I predict it’s doomed from the start.

Students I have met. Idris, a young Indonesian man of around 24 whom I taught, comes to mind. Idris was affable and easy to like, and we formed a friendship. We’d go out after class for a meal once or twice a month. Idris was single (but wished he wasn’t), and lived with his parents in a small, cramped house in the Jakarta suburbs. As the eldest son in a family of six, it was his responsibility to look after and support his five siblings, who ranged in age from six to twenty. A weighty responsibility, but one he accepted without qualms. After all, that’s the way things are in most Asian families. He would join me in a beer, (sipping it through a straw), but after one and a half glasses would beg off, saying he was much more comfortable drinking Coca-Cola. Idris had one regret in life. At the age of twenty he had fallen in love with Sri. They had gone out, held hands, and had planned a wedding someday. Alas, it was not to be. After lengthy consideration, his parents had decided that Sri, a Sumatran, just wasn’t quite suitable for a Javanese to marry. And so Idris and Sri had shaken hands and bid each other goodbye. Idris was near to tears when he recounted this story to me.
After our first meal together, I leant back and lit up a cigarette. Idris carefully unrolled his sock and extracted one of two cigarettes secreted there. “Why do you keep your cigarettes in your sock?” I asked. “My father doesn’t know I smoke. If he found out he’d be very angry.”

Bosses I have met. (Shudder.) I’ve worked for so many bad ones it’s hard to choose which one to write about. Some bosses are just too busy and too important to have anything to do with the teaching staff. I worked at one school in Saigon where I never got to meet the boss. Her edicts were handed down by nervous staff members. “You will be paid one week later than usual, because payday is a bank holiday,” the secretary announces in an awed tone of voice. “What? Tell Mrs Thuong that’s completely unacceptable.” “Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly do that.”
Then there was the Aussie boss of a big school in Indonesia with the temper of a newly castrated pit-bull. During one flaming row with seven teachers he sacked all of them on the spot. ‘The Day of the Long Knives’ it became known as. Thus the hapless Director of Studies was landed the task of finding seven new teachers virtually overnight. He did a creditably good job of it, but inevitably most of the replacement teachers were an ill-assorted bunch of misfits who had no business at all being in a classroom. (Six of the seven sacked teachers went on to very profitable, plum jobs in Brunei, by the way. Tax free.)

Flaky teaching theories. There are plenty of silly teaching methodologies about, and every now and then you’ll find yourself working in a school that has whole-heartedly adopted one of these misguided methods. Would you be prepared to don Mickey Mouse ears and do Disney character role-plays every day, lesson after lesson? There’s a chain of schools in China that expect you to do just that. How about this: You teach 20 new vocabulary words each session, by unison drilling. No games, no light relief; just unison drill, unison drill, unison drill. No full sentences thanks – just stick to the words alone. Or how about the SALT method? (Suggestive Accelerated Learning and Teaching.) It’s designed to get the left and right hemispheres of the students’ brains in sync. All it takes is copious amounts of drinking water, candles, group hugs, and a little bit of Mozart playing in the background. And perhaps a little tap dancing to get the students’ speech rhythms right.
As teacher, don’t even think about questioning the efficacy of these methods, or suggesting a slightly different approach. No, the management has decided on Mad Method X, and Mad Method X is what you’ll apply, (if you want to be paid at the end of the month, that is).

Right, there you have it. My idle mianderings. Any of it ring a bell with you?


EFL minus the B.S. is now available on Amazon, in both paperback form and Kindle version. Buy your copy today.

Thursday, 14 August 2014


An assortment of passing thoughts

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. “That’s all, thanks. 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’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. (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. 

Monday, 11 August 2014



A while back I was joking around with a young adult class, and one of the students said, “Gee, Mr Don, you are so childish!”

I was chuffed, to say the least.

Lashings of childishness will serve you well in an EFL class. Think about the average classroom 100 or so years ago. The teacher was God, and his or her every order was to be followed slavishly. No slacking off. No fooling around. No muttering to your fellow students. Follow the instructions, or feel the wrath of an irate teacher descend upon your head. Classrooms are places of serious study, not jesting, day dreaming, or getting off-task. Such unclassroom-like behavior would invariably land you a caning, or at the very least an hour’s detention.

So, as well-meaning as those good teachers of yore were, why not a bit of fooling around… joking… laughter… silliness? As long as it doesn’t take over the lesson entirely, what’s the harm? Or more to the point, what are the benefits? There are plenty in my view.

A student with a relaxed mind is more receptive to new information, rather than one whose mind on its best behavior fearful of invoking a teacher’s wrath. Silliness brightens up a lesson and keeps your students alert and on their toes. The time seems to pass quicker. Students leave the classroom with smiles on their faces, looking forward to tomorrow’s lesson. I rest my case.

What kinds of silliness sit well in the EFL environment? Here are some examples. We all know the “Stop the Bus” activity. Now if students were required to say “Teacher, I’ve finished” at the end of each round, the important ingredient of silliness will have been stripped from the activity. Another example. You’re doing an activity that requires each student to write a sentence on a piece of paper, then exchange it with another student who must answer the question. A very straightforward (and rather predictably boring) reading and writing activity. So how about this: instead of merely passing the question slip to another student at random, tell the students to crumple their slips into balls, and to lob the balls into a box on the floor? When all the balls are in the box, students pull out one each. The throwing of the paper balls becomes one of the highlights of the lesson, with students either cheering or jeering each other’s throwing accuracy. Another: Students are required to perform tasks one by one in succession. OK, how do we select whose turn it is? The teacher points at the next student? Nah, you’re passing over a good chance for an injection of childishness there. Give a student a balloon or a ping pong ball, and tell him or her to throw it to a student of choice. Fun, laughter, hilarity. Music to my ears. 

I won’t give any more examples; I’m sure you’ve experimented with a few yourself, and found them very successful. But what I will urge is this. Make silliness a regular ingredient of your lessons. You won’t be disappointed. And neither will your students.


You won’t find the teaching hints contained in EFL Minus the B.S. in any other book, journal, or EFL training course. They are the result of my own 40 years of trial and error (lots of error, plus the occasional EUREKA moment). They’re 100% original, and 95% infallible. Don’t believe it? Read the book and find out for yourself.

Monday, 4 August 2014



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.


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?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014



We’ve all had those moments, when it’s time to go into a class, switch on your cheery, enthusiastic, A-Plus personality and do a two-hour lesson, but all you really want to do is go home, have a beer, and sink gratefully into bed.

These moments don’t necessarily reflect on a lack of professionalism or dedication on the teacher’s part. No, they are more likely to be the result of an overloaded teaching schedule, the knowledge that the class you’re about to teach is a bunch of unmotivated, unresponsive dead-heads, you’re coming down with flu, or it’s your best friend’s birthday party and you’ll miss most of it. Or possibly you’ve been asked to cover for an absent teacher with just two minutes’ notice, (and you know, you just know, that the reason he’s absent is that he’s gone to your best friend’s birthday party).

But there’s a class that’s paid for two hours of tuition, and you’re the lucky teacher who is expected to deliver it. So how do you go about it? You can’t stomp into the classroom with a haggard, disgruntled, “here we go again” expression on your face; that would spell doom for the lesson from the kick-off. You’ve got to summon up all your acting skills and deliver them convincingly and memorably, leaving the students with smiles on their faces and perhaps, just perhaps, better English than they had two short hours ago. Actors regularly face the same predicament that you are now facing. The audience is expecting a convincing performance even though you’ve delivered the same lines night after night ever since Sir Laurence Olivier first took to the stage. So, you have to think show biz, performance arts, improv, edutainment. Then go in there and do the Grammy award-winning performance of your life.

Now, in these circumstances, chances are you’ve done no lesson preparation at all, but that needn’t detract from your performance. No EFL trainer worthy of the name would agree with me, but lesson preparation isn’t the make-it or break-it key to a good lesson. All the preparation you need is a bit of experience, and a good memory. And a little arsenal of hand-outs, games, and bits and pieces in your bag. Whatever the students’ level, it’s a good bet that they need to brush up their telling- the-time skills. (It’s something we teach at elementary level, then never again bring up, and most of your students will have forgotten all they ever learnt about it.) So, from your bag you produce a cardboard clock and a handout of blank clock faces. There’s a good ten or so minutes’ lesson time taken care of. Also in your bag you have some food flash cards. Ergo, you have a vocabulary exercise for elementary levels, a countable/uncountable, “some/any” exercise for intermediate levels. Remember, flash cards are not just for flashing. You’ll get far more value from them if the students have them in their hands, passing them around and asking questions about them. “Have you got any lettuce? / Yes, we’ve got some.”

When you’re tired and would prefer to be anywhere but here in the classroom, you don’t want the students’ attention to be focused 100% on you. So, make sure most of your activities are student-centered rather than teacher-centred. Which means info exchanges, role plays, pair and group work, milling exercises, and perhaps a little bit of writing thrown in. And a song. And a competitive game. Hot Seat’s good value. So too is miming, charades, and Stop the Bus. You haven’t tried Stop the Bus yet? Here’s how to do it. Issue one slip of paper to groups of three or four students. They have to write seven words on a topic you’ve nominated. Jobs, forms of transport, food, sports without a ball, or articles of clothing, for example. It’s a race, and when a group has finished they don’t say “Finished!” but “Stop the Bus!” Don’t ask me why, but this little catch-phrase immeasurably adds to their enjoyment of the game. A little bit of silliness goes a long way in an EFL class.

If you go through the routine well, you could find yourself, mid-session, actually enjoying the lesson. And you might even get a text message from your best friend mid-lesson too, saying he’s put back the starting time of the party two hours because most of his mates are teaching.


EFL minus the B.S. is the best book I’ve ever written, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.  

Wednesday, 9 July 2014


Wouldn’t you know it, another famous name has been charged with pedophilia! This time it’s Rolf Harris. Yes, lovable old Rolf, children’s entertainer extraordinaire. Who could ever forget his classic “Jake the Peg” and “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport”? It has now been revealed that the 84-year-old  Harris has been sexually abusing girls aged from seven years upwards since the late 1960’s. Also implicated in the case was Jimmy Starr, another British singer and comedian.

Before Rolf was Jimmy Saville (Sorry – Sir Jimmy Saville) who, it was revealed after his death in 2011, had been abusing and raping his under-aged fans from the 1960’s on. The toll of Saville’s victims is 300 and counting.

The best known child-abuser on the celebrity list of pedophiles is Gary Glitter, of course. After his conviction for possession of child-porn images in Britain in 1997, went on an eleven-year spree of child molestation in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The EFL profession attracts more of its fair share of pedophiles. Why is that exactly?  Put yourself in a pedophile’s shoes for a moment, (as stomach-turning as that may be). You have already notched up a couple of child-sex convictions in England, Canada, Germany, wherever. Your name now appears on your country’s Sex Offenders’ Register.  So…  where to next? Asia – yes, why not? There’s a long tradition of child-sex in countries like Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia. Law enforcement is notoriously lax. Might as well get a piece of the action there. And once you’ve arrived, how better to meet young people than in an English language school?  The obvious choice for any self-respecting pedophile.  So off you go. Your record doesn’t bar you from entry to the Asian country of your choice. Your English is ok, and schools are crying out for teachers. You don’t choose any of the top schools of course – places like The British Council do embarrassing background checks. No, a small school should suit you fine. Maybe the pay’s nothing to write home about, but you aren’t here for the money, are you? No, what you’re here for is the chance to grope a 12-year-old’s body, and perhaps… just perhaps…

Like it or not, that is the reality of the situation in a number of English language schools in Asia. Just look at the shameful facts and figures on the internet.

John Mark Carr, a 41-year-old American, was teaching English at the Bangkok Christian College when he was arrested for child-sex offences. He’d previously taught at I&S Language School in Seoul, and in Taiwan, Costa Rica and Honduras. On the plane going back from Thailand, Carr confessed to the police accompanying him that he had killed the 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey; a charge later disproved. 

Christopher Paul Neil, a 32-year-old Canadian, was arrested in Thailand for under-age sex. He had previously taught English in Kwanju, S Korea, and was currently working at a school in Bangkok. He boasted of his sexual exploits on the internet, complete with a head-shoulders photo of himself with the face obscured by a computer-generated swirl. German police managed to unravel the swirl to reveal his true likeness, and to eventually lead to tracking him down in Thailand.

Sean McGowan, a 45-year-old Brit, was teaching English in Bangkok when he was repatriated to Britain on charges of raping an 8-year-old Thai girl.

Peter William Smith, a 48-year-old Australian teaching in Jakarta was arrested and convicted of engaging in sex with more than 50 boys.

Alan Smith, a 53-year-old Brit, used fake references to get a job as EFL teacher at Nongyai Temple School, just north of Bangkok. He was arrested in 2007 for child-sex offences.

Ian Bower, a 42-year-old UK national, was teaching English in Cambodia when he was arrested for child-sex offences with two boys aged 12 and 14.

Mark Joseph McDowell, American, taught as ESL Professor at Daejeon University, S Korea, and  at  BCM Academy in Seoul, and also ran the EFL resource website Mark’s ESL Wide World AKA He was arrested in Korea for child molestation.

Earl R. Bonds, a 42-year-old American, was arrested in Phuket, Thailand for child-sex. He had been teaching English in Bangkok, and took regular trips to Phuket to satisfy his taste for Thai minors.

John Wrenshall, a 62-year-old Canadian, taught at AUA Language Center in Bangkok for ten years. The director of AUA described him as “so polite and quiet”. Unbeknown to AUA, their polite, quiet teacher had spent his after-school hours setting up an internet website for pedophiles, “Boy Love and Chat”, and was charging foreigners $400 per introduction.

Karl Joseph Kraus, an Australian, was arrested in Thailand for raping four young sisters whom he had been giving private English lessons to in his home. He was 92 years old at the time of his arrest, thereby setting the record as oldest convicted pedophile.

Michael James Dodd, a 61-year-old American, was teaching in Phnom Penh when he was convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old Cambodian girl. He’d previously been jailed for a similar offence in Northern Mariana Islands.

Dennis Gale Catron, a 60-year-old American, had been teaching at various educational institutes and colleges in Thailand until his arrest on child-sex charges.

Gregory James Miller, a 48-year-old American, worked as an English teacher at Garden International School, Rayong , Thailand for eight years,  before he was arrested  and charged with sexually assaulting five boys under the age of 15.

The above list, I’m sure, is just the tip of the iceberg. It shows only the cases that appear on the internet, and doesn’t, of course, include the pedophile EFL teachers who have gone (and still go) undetected.

Those pedophiles who are convicted and jailed abroad, find that unlike Western prisons, pedophiles are not cosseted away in special “safe” units. They are thrown in with the murderers, rapists, thieves and what-have-you detritus of the criminal world, and consequently have to bear the brunt of their actions at the hands of their fellow inmates. It’s a tough old world, innit?


EFL minus the B.S. is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle form.  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.

Sunday, 29 June 2014



STOP! I’m about to write a blog on an unpleasant, stomach-turning topic that is better off left unread. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll click off this post right now and log onto You Tube instead, or play a game or two of Solitaire. I’m not joking around.

Bloody hell! Are you still here? OK, but don’t say you weren’t warned. Today’s topic is dunnies and the squitters. First off, dunnies. Or Asian dunnies to be exact. Public toilets in Asia are few and far between. Far fewer that what you get in the West. Now this may seem of little consequence, but if you’ve got a dose of the squitters, it’s of paramount importance. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Public toilets in Asia are best described as basic. That’s Basic with a capital B. Some have real Western-style bowls that you can actually sit down on. Count yourself lucky if you come across one of these. The toilet seat, if there is one, probably has shoe-prints on it, as Asians are accustomed to half-standing while doing their business. That’s all very well if it’s just Number Ones you’re about to engage in, but a bit off-putting if you have Number Twos in mind. Some modern Asian toilets have diagrams on the walls to explain that you don’t stand, but sit on the seat, but these seem to go largely ignored.

Toilet bowls are a rare luxury. It’s far more likely that you’ll find a squatter (a hole in the toilet floor) in which to deposit your excreta. There’s no flush button – just a bucket of water and a dipper with which to sluice away the bowel motion. There is, of course, no toilet paper. You’re expected to use the dipper to splash water onto your posterior and thus wash away any vestiges of poo. A word of advice here. If that is the set-up in the toilet cubicle you are currently visiting, remove all clothing from the lower half of your body. Otherwise you’re going to end up with very wet trous; a decided embarrassment when you emerge into the sunlight. And while I’m on the subject, these holes in the floor are not a pretty sight to see. They’re often clogged with the evidence of the last five people to visit the facility. No, not pleasant at all.
Are you feeling nauseated yet? I warned you, didn’t I? And here’s another word of warning. This blog is about to get even more basic.

The squitters. The trots, the runs, Delhi belly, Montezuma’s revenge, diaria, diorhea, diarhea, diahorrea, (if you know how to spell that goddamn word, let me know), the shits.  Words that will have a special resonance for Western visitors to Asia. Because this is the ailment a Westerner is most likely to be hit with soon after arrival. Some say it’s because of the unfamiliar food, some blame the spiciness of the food, some say it’s the body’s reaction to the hot climate. (A doctor back home once told me it’s none of those things. His theory was that it is the different mineral content of the drinking water that causes it.) Whatever the cause, it’s a given that you’ll come down with the shits some time during your visit to an Asian country. So, what to do when it happens? Take Imodium or Loperamide; both of them very effective in relieving the symptoms of diahorria. They don’t actually cure you; they just make life more bearable while you wait for your body to recover of its own accord.

Now let’s discuss a variation of the squitters that I’m all too familiar with. (And it’s not too late to switch to a game of Solitaire, by the way.) When you have the shits you’re running to the toilet six times a day. But when you have tropical spru, you’re making a bee-line to the toilet just three times a day. This elusive disease, tropical spru, is also known as PIMS or Post Infective Malabsorption Syndrome. The symptoms are thrice-daily visitations to the WC, with a thirty-second warning beforehand. Not nice. But here’s a funny thing: most doctors have never heard of it. And stool and blood tests don’t detect it. “Doctor, Doctor, I’ve got the shits!” “No you haven’t.” Yes I have.” No…” Because of this quandary, I suffered from PIMS for over a year, taking intermittent doses of Imodium but never actually getting cured. When I finally did find a doctor familiar with the disease, I was, to put it mildly, most relieved. Ecstatic, even. Solid shits at last! Hallelujah! It had taken a month of daily dosages of Tetracycline and Folic Acid, but it had done the trick. I’ve mentioned this disease because if you are unfortunate enough to contract it, you’ll have some idea of how to get shot of it.

Well, that’s it. Unsettling? Yes. Unpleasant? Yes, to say the least. But, something that may just mean the difference between months of discomfort, and good health. And on that upbeat note I’ll sign off, with a promise that my next blog post will on a nice, wholesome, family-oriented topic.


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?

Tuesday, 17 June 2014



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. Buy a copy today.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014



I don’t often quote Noam Chomsky, but I will here. Nine tenths of the challenge in teaching English is getting your students interested. (Possibly I’m misquoting him here. I can’t for the like of me track down the original quotation, in spite of combing the internet.) But the words are very, very true.

Student disinterest can be an all-pervasive, contagious influence in your class. You walk into the class with a bright and cheery “Hello everybody,” to be met with a mumbled “Hello” from three of your twelve students. The others are engaged in activities far more compelling. Some are talking on their phones, some sending text messages, some gossiping in their own language, some listening to Albert’s long and involved joke. You try again. “How are you?” This time only one responds. Albert, it seems, is nearing his punch-line. Oh shit, you think. Today’s unit is Worldwide Charities. How in the hell am I going to stir up even a glimmer of interest in that dry topic? Good question.

You could, I suppose, forget covering the unit, and instead introduce some topic that’s more likely to elicit a spark of interest. But what topic fits that description? Our Home Town? No, did it last week. Interesting People I Know? No, done that to death. People I Hate? Maybe…. What Annoys Me Most About My Parents? Possibly, though there’s always the chance that a certain percentage of the class will refuse to say one derogatory word on the subject, claiming that their parents are the most wonderful parents in the world. (“Yes, I know, I know, but couldn’t you just conjure up one little thing for the sake of getting the discussion rolling?”)

OK, let’s suppose that you’ve decided to bite the bullet and go with the Charities unit. Now, rule number one: Don’t have them open their text books. If some of the keener ones have already done so, tell them to shut their books. Confronting your students with two dense pages of reading text about the Red Cross, Medicines Sans Frontieres, and Live Aid is a sure-fire way of getting them to slip into the ‘Ahh, who gives a shit?’ mode. The texts are just too dry, too dense, and too riddled with unfamiliar words for them to be bothered getting their heads around. Far more interesting to make a phone call, send a text message, or listen to Albert’s next joke.

Rule number two. Personalize. Now, how do you personalize a charity for a group of students living in a country completely devoid of charities? With great difficulty, I must admit, but let’s give it a go. “Now, you are a pop-singer, Albert. A very famous, popular pop singer. Every girl in the country is in love with you. How would that feel? And how much money would you expect to be paid to sing just one concert? And Jane. You’re a doctor. You just graduated. How long does a doctor have to study in this country? And how much money do you think doctors earn in a year? Anybody know? OK, Albert and Jane, I’ve got a question for you. A very important, very personal question, so you must answer truthfully. Albert, I’m inviting you to sing in a concert that I’m organizing, but I’m not going to pay you for it. Not even a cent. How about it? And Jane, instead of starting your doctor’s practice and earning $XXX,000 in the first year, I’m inviting you to go to Africa for a year, to work for nothing. How about it?” And so it goes. It might be 20 to 30 minutes before they open their text books and start reading, but if it has succeeded in arousing the class’s interest, it will have been time well spent.

Next, keep the pace brisk. Break the lesson up into chunks interspersed with bits and pieces of light relief. Play “We Are The World” and get them to sing along. Do your doctor joke: “Doctor, when I poke myself here, it hurts. When I poke myself here, and here, and here, it hurts. What’s wrong with me?” “You’ve got a broken finger.”

Next, keep up your cheery, enthused demeanor. Let enthusiasm exude from your every pore. Whatever you do, don’t let it show that the unit is every bit as boring for you as it is for them.

Finally, if you think the unit is just too limited in interest to hold their attention for two hours, drop it after an hour and a bit, and do something else. There’s no law etched in concrete saying we must cover every word of every unit. For a book like Straightforward, that would be tantamount to turning your students off learning English forevermore.

Like I said, it’s difficult to arouse students’ interest and sustain it. Good luck.


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.