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.

No comments:

Post a Comment