Teacher Talking Time by Simon R Gladdish


When I left university with my degree in philosophy I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with my life until a friend suggested doing a TEFL course. ‘It’s easy wonga, easy work and easy women’ he assured me. Like a fool I fell for it. I enrolled on the preparatory certificate (prep cert) course at International House in London which cost me 400 quid – a considerable sum in those days. When later, people asked me if I’d learnt anything on the course, I would answer truthfully – yes, never to part with 400 quid quite so easily again. The course lasted a month and although I enjoyed it, I can honestly say I learnt next to nothing.Still, I scraped the certificate and hatched some plans. At the time my girlfriend, Sue, who was studying Spanish at Hull university was spending a year in Granada to improve her language skills. I wrote to her asking if I could join her. Luckily she answered in the affirmative and I more or less caught the next plane to Malaga. She was sharing with a couple of Muslim girls who violently objected to having a man in the flat so I was forced to find alternative accommodation. I eventually moved in with four charming young women who turned out to be lesbians. Because I spoke very little Spanish at the time I would spend many an evening playing chess with the lesbians and usually losing. I survived by giving private English classes to Spanish students. The trouble was I didn’t get many students and I always let them beat me down to a ridiculous hourly rate. If I had to catch a bus to teach them I could even find myself out of pocket. After six months, although my Spanish had improved dramatically, I was considerably poorer than when I had arrived and was beginning to fear becoming a destitute in Granada. I used my last few pesetas to buy a ticket home.My father was less than enthralled to see me back on his doorstep and immediately set about organizing me another job. This time it would be in Lerida in Catalunya at a proper language school. The boss, Ramon Vidal, interviewed me by telephone and I was offered the job at the end of the conversation. My father was so pleased to get rid of me that he even paid my flight to Barcelona. I was actually quite excited about the prospect of a proper job and a new life in Spain whose language I could now speak. I was driven to a flat and introduced to the other teachers who seemed alright. I shall never forget my first lesson. I was sitting quietly alone in a large classroom when the door burst open and twenty boisterous adolescents trooped in. My International House training kicked in immediately. I thought I was going to have a heart attack and almost fainted. How I survived that first lesson or the ones that followed, I will never know. I staggered punch-drunk out of the school and into the nearest bar. After a few beers I began to feel better and even managed to laugh about the day’s events. The following morning I had an eight o’clock class which I taught with a hangover. This unfortunately set a pattern that lasted the (brief) duration of the contract. Because (thanks to International House) I didn’t really know what I was doing I was forced to wing it (fasten your seatbelts!) which had an extremely deleterious effect on my nerves which I would assuage afterwards with alcohol. In the vernacular, I got pissed every single night. My day of reckoning was not long delayed. After a couple of months I was taken to one side by senor Vidal who informed me that he was letting me go but would I carry on teaching until they could find a replacement. I thought it was the least I could do. My successor was a school-leaver who hadn’t even done the prep cert. I gave him my text books and taught him everything I knew which took about ten minutes.When I returned to Reading my father shook me warmly by the throat and demanded a detailed explanation of my latest disaster. I managed to convince him that I had learnt the job but not fast enough to satisfy the powers that were. My next foray was with Inlingua. I had an interview with an attractive woman in Edgebaston, Birmingham who offered me a job in Manresa, Catalunya, not far from Lerida as it happens. My father, surveying the wreckage of his previous investments, would only shell out for the coach fare. This turned out to be a slightly more successful enterprise, partly because we were largely left alone, and I survived the academic year. I developed a curious hybrid style as an EFL teacher. I was good at the grammar having done French and Russian at ‘A’ level but I was absolutely hopeless at the amateur dramatics so beloved of International House. Some students liked my style and some hated it. Where I really came unstuck was when I was being observed by someone higher up the EFL food chain. It’s actually quite interesting analysing what makes a good teacher. My (new) Spanish girlfriend, Regina, said they loved their English teacher because ‘they had a great laugh’. ‘But you didn’t actually learn any English’ I pointed out unkindly. ‘Nobody did’ she answered in Spanish ‘but we all had a great laugh!’ I still think that teaching is ninety percent personality. If you are an extrovert and you like people then you stand a far better chance of becoming a good teacher than if you are an introvert who dislikes people – like me. If you get on with your students but not with your colleagues, you stand a good chance of surviving. If you get on with your colleagues but not with your students, you stand a reasonable chance of surviving. If you get on with neither, I would recommend an urgent trip to the nearest travel agent. The upper classes have long had a fondness for EFL. The oldest son would inherit the estate. The second son would join the army. The third son would enter the church and the fourth (slightly dim) son would become an EFL teacher. During my extremely chequered career (which astonishingly eventually lasted over twenty years) I have met enough TEFL bores and listened to enough TEFL bollox to last me a lifetime. I have encountered people who are seriously mentally ill who are classified as EFL eccentrics. They can’t go home because they have no home to go to. Quite a few Teflers have ended up marrying foreign partners and going completely native. I met my wife, Rusty, at a language school in La Coruna but she was at least British. I have met my best friends through EFL and made my worst enemies.Do I regret my more than twenty years at the chalkface? Not at all. I have travelled the world (Spain, Turkey, Tunisia, Kuwait). I have lived and worked in countries that I could not even have afforded to visit under normal circumstances. I have learnt to speak foreign languages (fluent Spanish and survival Turkish and Arabic). For the last three years of my TEFL career, for the very first time in my life I even made some money teaching in Kuwait. Hitherto I had been eking out a meagre living on subsistence wages. What advice would I give a young person thinking of a career in TEFL? My heartfelt advice would be to dive straight in but expect the waters to be icy cold and bracing rather than warm and enveloping. You don’t have to stay in it for ever. It will furnish you with good, bad and indifferent memories that will stay with you for life and give you something to ponder on your deathbed and at the very least, it will postpone that evil day when you have to get a proper job.

Journal Comments

  • Martin Derksema
  • Rusty  Gladdish