Wednesday, 5 March 2014


(and one reason to do so)

I remember my expectations when I first decided to become an English teacher 40 long years ago. “Ah hah,” I thought, “this job will provide the solution to a number of nagging dissatisfactions I have with my current status in life. First, it’ll provide a passport to international travel. The world will be my oyster. Whatsmore, I’ll be getting paid to escape my humdrum life back home. Two, I’ll be able to meet and befriend interesting overseas residents – perhaps even form a romantic liason with one (or two, or three) of them. Three, the job will give me the opportunity to pass on the intracies of my native language to the grateful populace, enabling them to better their station in life and prospects for the future. Four, the cost of living in Asia is a fraction of what it is back home. Wow, bring it on!”

Another compelling attraction of EFL was that there was nothing I needed to do beforehand to prepare myself for my dramatic career change. I was a native English speaker, after all. My grammar was up to scratch, my vocabulary adequate, my people-skills satisfactory. All I needed to do was present myself at an English school overseas, and say “Here I am, and when do I start?”

I forget exactly when the disillusionment set in. Three, maybe four months later.
Disillusionment number one. I had joined a school in Jakarta where disorganization ruled the day. The management didn’t know what it was doing, the students’ needs were ignored, and teachers were treated as tiresome yet necessary evils. Was this just bad luck on my part, that my first school was of mickey mouse quality? Um, no… I was later to find that anywhere in Asia, badly run schools outnumber well-run ones by a ratio of 3:1.

Disillusionment number two. My expectation that I’d be paid well for my contribution to the nation’s development was dashed by payday one. My pay was, in a word, peanuts. And therein lies a lesson for all newbies to the Asian EFL game. When you’re living in a country with a gross national product far lower than your own country’s, don’t expect to be paid at anywhere near the rates you’d get back home. No, no, no, no, no. Squash that thought right off.

Disillusionment number three. OK, so I’m being paid crap money, but look on the bright side: the cost of living is so low over here, I won’t need all that much money to get by. Well… yes and no. For one thing, the local shop-keepers, landlords and suppliers will see you as easy game; a foreigner, obviously loaded, possibly verging on millionaire, and ripe for over-charging. Your accommodation, your purchases, even down to that packet of ciggies you bought ten minutes ago, have all been price-adjusted accordingly in view of your foreigness. Call it a white-skin tax. Call it sliding-scale exchange-rate calibrations. Call it… ok, call it over-charging if you will, but there’s little point in getting hot under the collar about it. It’s a fact of overseas life. Welcome to Asia.

Disillusionment number four. Romantic liaisons? Yes… sure. Not so difficult to come by. Being a foreign teacher, you’re looked up to as a rather desirable commodity: well-heeled, well-qualified, well-educated, well-spoken…. Most of all well-heeled. But romantic liaisons come at a price. There’s the small matter of your girl’s rent, due the day before yesterday, and her landlord has already started complaining loudly about the late payment. And this cell phone of hers… I mean, look at it! Last year’s model. And all of her friends have already upgraded to the latest smart phone with touch-screen, mega-pixel, Bluetooth, android, dual processer. It’s so embarrassing when I haul out this antiquated old model and my friends smile pityingly at me. And, by the way, Baby Brother is starting school next week and he doesn’t have shoes, uniform, or text books yet. Could you possibly…?

Disillusionment number five. I’ll be passing on the Queen’s English to a grateful populace hungry for the opportunity to better their job prospects and their station in life. OK, yes, maybe you do have three or four students who would qualify for that description. But what about the other 98%? Kids who don’t want to be stuck in an EFL classroom, and who would far rather be at home playing video games. Teenagers bored out of their trees with English lessons. Corporate class students, dog-tired after a full day’s work, forced by their bosses to attend English class. Adult learners who’ve been studying English for three years and who still can’t utter one grammatically correct sentence.

Disillusionment number six. You don’t need any training to become an English teacher, providing you’re a native speaker with OK grammar. You’re hot to trot. No, not exactly. There’s a bit more to it than that. Keeping a class occupied and interested for two hours at a stretch does require more than a good command of the language and an impressive vocabulary. It requires a number of teaching techniques, strategies, ploys, and tricks of the trade which can only be acquired with time, experience and – dare I say it – training.

So, all things considered, if you’re contemplating a life in EFL, don’t. Take up a postman’s job, take up selling life insurance, or flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s.

But, hold on a sec! Before you completely dismiss the EFL career notion from your head, let me add a post script here. In spite of the crap pay, the pathetic school management, and the venal bosses, there is one compensation. Your students. Sure, some can be pains in the butt, but the majority are well-meaning, likeable people who look upon you to help them learn English and thereby move on up in the world. You’ll sometimes see this demonstrated when you walk into a class and find the students squirming in their seats and tittering behind their hands. What the–? You turn around and find the reason for their mirth. There on the whiteboard someone has written “Mr John, we love you.” Complete with a drawing of a heart.


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.

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