Tuesday, 27 January 2015



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

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Saturday, 3 January 2015



Every lesson should be prepared beforehand. For every one hour in the classroom, expect to spend half an hour’s preparation time. Fail to do this, and your lessons will be disjointed, confused, and unsatisfactory. Well, that’s what the EFL trainers would have you believe anyway. BUT. Take a look at the teaching schedule of an average EFL teacher in Asia. Thirty-two contact hours per week. Classes ranging from pre-literate four-year-olds (twenty of them in one class, would you believe) to TOEFL preparation. Written assignments to mark, tests to mark, student reports to write. And, oh yes, perhaps a little private social life squeezed in here and there. Now let me ask you, is that teacher going to spend another sixteen hours on lesson preparation?  Will the world be destroyed by a meteorite at ten past two tomorrow? Will Lady Gaga admit that she really is a man? Unlikely. Bloody unlikely.

So, you will get teachers walking into their classes without so much as a minute’s lesson preparation. Or perhaps they’ll engage in some door-handle preparation – as they enter the room they’re asking themselves ‘What the hell am I going to teach them today?’

Now, here I’m going to stick my neck out and make a bald, bold statement. A statement which could be my downfall, and nix my chances of ever landing an EFL job again. But nevertheless, fearless, undaunted, I’ll make it anyway. You don’t need to spend time preparing lessons. Perhaps in your first four or five months on the job, yes. But once you are in the swing of things, no. And your lessons won’t be the disjointed, confused, unsatisfactory disasters that the EFL trainers predict they will be providing you apply a couple of smart little ploys. “Ploys? Smart ploys? Wot smart ploys?” do I hear you asking?

OK, I’ll tell you. (I hope you’re taking notes.) First, you have in your bag a little arsenal of handy fillers.

Photo copies of information-exchange exercises, half-crosswords, word-searches, vocab pics, gap-fills, blank clock-faces, etc. Now of course you don’t fill up your lesson with a non-stop succession of these things. You teach from the book, then every fifteen minutes or so, or when the class’s attention level starts to flag, you haul one out.

That’s the paper stuff. In addition, you have stored away in your head a series of five-minute games, distractions, and fun activities which you also trot out from time to time. You don’t need many – three or four is enough to see you through most lessons. Our esteemed EFL trainers might dismiss these as a cop-out, but I hold that they are essential ingredients for a successful lesson. Two straight hours of book, book, book is the recipe for a boring class and a bunch of bored students. You only need to watch your students to prove that. When you introduce a fun activity you’ll see them sitting up straighter in their chairs, smiles will appear on their faces, and the undercurrent of murmuring in their native language will dry up. And when, five minutes later, you return to the lesson proper, you’ll notice a heightened level of interest and enthusiasm. Yes, regular injections of fun distractions are the way to go.

So, lesson preparation? Yes, all very nice if you’ve got the time. But I don’t know many teachers whose busy schedules afford them that time. Especially not if those teachers plan to devote some time in their day to a little bit of socializing.


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