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?