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I do, I do….(for now)

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I know most marriages don’t start out with the “for now” bit, but I’m guessing maybe some of them do: the “for now” is mumbled under breath and hopefully out of earshot – à la Jeremy Clarkson. But I wouldn’t put too much store by a marriage that starts out thus.

And that’s what the TEFL world is – it’s a dodgy marriage based on what we all THOUGHT and not on what it really is. Marriage never changed anyone – that bloke who spent his weekends drinking beer with his mates down the pub and getting nasty when his footie team lost wasn’t waiting for you to come along and show him the error of his ways and turn him into a loving, caring, doting husband. That woman who spends everything she has on handbags and shoes, leaves a trail of clothes through the house and never sets foot in the kitchen is not waiting for you to come along and turn her into domestic goddess with a magic touch. Don’t ever imagine that things will change. They absolutely will not.


And so it is with the TEFL world. It has never pretended to be more than it is. It pays badly, is managed by people whose only motivation is numbers and the more the better – dollars, pounds, rubles and lira. More than the state education systems, TEFL institutions have as their only raison d’être – money and more money. There is not one that is there for the betterment of the students who attend or the employees they hire. They SAY they are and are very clever at the subterfuge, offering gizmos and gadgets and grand panjandrums to entice the punters. But what they are REALLY there for is to make money and lots of it off the sweat of others. That’s what a capitalist society does. And I think I may have to repeat – it NEVER pretended to be anything else nor was it ever anything else.

It’s US, the teachers, who have misread the whole thing. We think that by being professionals, being good at what we do, loving what we do and putting as much time and effort into it as we can, we’ll change the system, one school at a time. But don’t you see? That’s NOT what the schools want. They want to make money – they never pretended to want to do anything else. You, with your years of experience and substantial qualifications are too expensive, with your high expectations and need to make it something it isn’t. So bugger off. You came into this with your eyes open – and to be honest, we did – so shut up and do your job so I can make a profit.

We ain’t never going to turn this business into something it isn’t and never intended to be in the first place. I stayed for a while for the sake of the kids, but things were so bad, I was no longer doing them any good. I’m leaving it to its footie and beer, its slovenly habits and handbags. Take the house, the car, the pension and the kids. Give me the divorce papers. Where do I sign?



The Deleted Post

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This time last year – about – I was prevailed upon to delete a post that was deemed “politically” risky (read ‘anti-corporate’). This is the post:

As I sat looking disconsolately at the end-year figures, I said, “Damn, if we had managed to get in just a few more students, we would have broken even.” Slick, smooth manager type – booted and suited and uber-smug – replied, “Well , if you had cut your teaching costs more, you would have broken even.”

And that’s it right there; that’s the problem, the issue, the bad thing, the thing that needs changing, the thing that the teachers in EFL/ELT fight against, the thing that is making where we work and how we are told do it unpalatable and ultimately untenable.

I have no answers. All I know is I’m no David and the Goliath that is PLS holds all the cards. As long as we – as in ELT professionals – are told, “If you don’t like it, there’s the door. There are plenty of teachers out there waiting for jobs,” we are on a loser, because there ARE plenty of EFL teachers (I used the word advisedly) out there willing to work for £13 an hour

for the summer
for a year
until they find something else
once they’ve retired.

But that is what most of the PLS are looking for.

And since leaving, I have been offered €10 an hour to teach online, £10 an hour for face-to-face teaching, and £15 an hour with petrol thrown in.

Can’t do it any more…

Sound and Fury

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Sometimes I get involved in things and then spend days wondering if I’m crazy, or stupid or disengaged. This weekend has been one of those times.

It started off with a few Facebook posts which were reactions to a talk Sugata Mitra had just given about his “hole-in-the-wall” experiments. I don’t really want to go into all the ifs, ands and buts, but the thrust of the arguments seemed to have two strings:

The first was that Mr Mitra was talking about schools that were empty of teachers and maybe that was a good thing and the second was that his audience – teachers – were applauding this idea.

Being somewhat garrulous and passionate – a lethal combination – I leapt into the fray and wondered why the Facebook posts were offended, disappointed, concerned by Mr Mitra’s comments (he has a right to say whatever he likes) when it was the applause of the teachers that should be the focus. Why were teachers agreeing with this man that schools without teachers are a “good thing”?

Then I revisited the lecture and listened to it again – very carefully and paused it when I needed to think and rewound it if I thought I hadn’t heard clearly. These are my conclusions to what he said:

– teaching and learning are different things – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– ask the right questions – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– absent yourself from the learning space – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– learning in a community is better than learning in isolation – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– learn by doing – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– schooling as we know it has to change to meet the demands of the 21st century – we as teacher KNOW THIS.
– good teachers make themselves progressively unnecessary – we as teachers KNOW THIS.

Why then has this talk provoked such deep concern, unease and worry?

I don’t know.

In Praise of the Basics

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I have just spent a night in the most basic hotel I have ever been in. Initially I was a bit depressed by the come down in my circumstances. Sitting in the hotel bar, alone, I took time to have a look around not only at my environment, but at what was inside my head. The decor was the pinnacle of “cheap and cheerful” – great big 60’s daisies wallpaper in pink and green, shocking pink plastic-moulded chairs and a cheap, but cold Pinot Grigio. No barman, no little doilie under my glass, no buzz of conversation from the smart set chilling out after work.

So? Would I talk to the barman? Do I need the doilie to affirm my specialness? Would I engage with the smart set? No. So not having those things didn’t really make any substantial difference.

Up to the bedroom – the sort of fundamental reason for being in the hotel in the first place. Ghastly, tacky, plastic carpet, grey, furry fleece curtains( I kid you not ). No shampoo, bath gel, body lotion or proper glasses. No satellite TV, no wireless connections, no central heating. But – a big space, windows on two sides, spotlessly clean linen, piping hot water, plenty of towels, efficient wall heater and a working telly. Everything I would have had at home and absolutely everything I needed for the 10 hours I’d be there, most of which I would be unconscious.

On to the breakfast. Oh my, a very spartan affair. Fairly nondescript coffee, juice from concentrate, toast, fruit, cereal and a bog standard selection of so-called Danish pastries. What would I have had at home? Middle of the road coffee and a banana – if anything.

What did I pay for this? £30.

Now, what struck me was, why would I pay anything more than that for stuff I won’t use, things I won’t do and bits and pieces I don’t need? I don’t want satellite telly, a beauty counter of weeny bottles of ‘stuff’, including – almost religiously – a shower cap and a shoe horn. When last did you use or need either?

The extras and non-essentials are costing us and the planet dearly. Strip it back. Stop paying extortionate prices for hotels when all we really do there is shower, sleep and drink a cup of coffee.


I used to have this dream where I was standing in a classroom the size of a school hall which was filled to the four walls with eager, demanding students gazing up at me as the ‘dispenser of all knowledge and bringer of good futures’. I would look to my left and there, coming through the door for as far as the eye could see, were streams and streams of such students, pushing and shoving and needing to get into the room.


MOOCs hadn’t been thought of then, but if I had been able, in the dream, to hand out a url, I might not have woken up in a cold sweat wondering how on earth I was going to cope.

And this dream wasn’t so far from reality. At the time I was working for a training centre in South Africa which had opened its doors to students who needed to pass the school leaving exam in order to get on with their lives. Their education (I use the term loosely) had been disrupted by the social and political circumstances (convenient euphemism) that had prevailed for some time and were to prevail a while longer.

But this post isn’t a quick nostalgic look back at that experience: it’s a reflection on teaching MASSIVE classes and what it’s like doing it. Classes varied in number between 120 and 150 students.


I was teaching (loosely used term again) the equivalent of GCSE ESL English literature. There was no time for all the niceties like exploring and researching and pair work and interesting discussion leading to informed opinions and such like. The syllabus had to be got through and pretty sharpish.

Today’s work – Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea from Prison”. So, with my middle-class, white South African frame of reference and a nod to the teacher training I had received, I opened with the almost de rigeur schemata-activating question: “How many of you have actually BEEN in a prison?” says I, inwardly rolling my eyes at such an absurd notion. Fully two-thirds of the class raised their hands. WTF? NOW what? Middle class, white South African frame of reference being all there was for me to cling to in the face of such a situation, I asked the next stupid question, “What for? What were you in prison for? Errol?” (Errol sat near the front and I knew his name.) Errol looked at me and smiled wryly to himself. He knew I had been rocked back on my heels by the previous answer. “Stealing a goat.” Unable to stop myself, I almost screamed, but it came out as a whisper, “Why?” He looked at me squarely now, “Because I was hungry.”

I wonder if a DELTA assessor would have passed me on the lesson that followed? Not a bleeding chance. But be that as it may. I also wonder, in the context of the current adaptive learning debate and the approaching tsumani that are MOOCs and their like, whether in fact, rather than teachers becoming obsolete and somewhat “last century”, perhaps having a real live human teacher to talk to may become a distinct privilege.


Going Back

UnknownI’m not even going to apologise for the bold stealing of the idea for this post from my favourite blogger. He knows I’m an inveterate idea larcenist, but then maybe we all are after a fashion.

But on with the post. I have just got back to the UK after three weeks in South Africa and the feelings and thoughts these visits usually evoke haven’t settled down yet.

It was summer and hot and thundery, shade was at a premium. That sticky, heavy air oozed across the water barely lifting a ripple. Doves slept in the gum trees which sighed under the relentless beating sun. “I love it here so much,” I hear myself breathe. But it isn’t love: it’s essence, spirit, basis, being. And it’s hard and unforgiving and demanding and cruel. It makes you need it, but remains unmoved; it makes you long for it, but it doesn’t care if you leave; it hooks itself into you like a parasite that leaves you feverish and disconsolate.

I want to go back, but that would mean a kind of dying and I’m not ready for that.


Sir Lowry's across False Bay

Near Riviersonderend




The Art of Conversation

Mr James Nathan Miller said:

There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation.

I think I’ve said it too.