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The Incomplete A – Z of EFL: P-T


By Allistair Elliott

P is for parents (actually, mothers).

Can we please have some EFL training courses for parents. Whilst it is often a pleasure to teach their children, what is not a pleasure to teach are children whose heads are filled with psycho-manipulation, stress and worry given to them by overanxious mothers. Moms, for the love of god relax. Not passing an English test at school is not indicative of a lack of English language learning, application or ability. Nor does it denote that the English teacher is useless. But winding-up your child through constant manipulation and pressure is the surest way to English failure, academic failure and life-failure. Calm-down. Relax. Have fun. Please??????

P is for Plausible Deniability.

That is, providing an excuse that cannot be immediately refuted due to a lack of certainty. Thus, ‘I did not give you the new schedule for this afternoon, because I was in a meeting with the director all morning’. Or, ‘I told you three weeks ago about the school’s birthday, so why didn’t you wear your best clothes?’ Or, ‘your lessons are boring because the principal walked passed your class and saw the students looking sad’. Or, ‘the principal said the students are not learning enough because they are having too much fun in class’. It’s how it works in Asia. You’d best get yourself some. You’ll need it.

R is for Rule Number One.

I developed this rule in Korea and carry it around with me as more or less the truism that it is. There are exceptions of course, but these are usually so sensational, as to be almost the stuff of EFL legend. Rule number one in Asia is, of course, the foreign teacher is always wrong. This is so cast-iron as to be almost inarguable. Loss of face is so pervasive in Korea for example, that blaming the foreign teacher no matter how ludicrous the situation or constipated the reason, is often the only way out.  And you will often be entirely blameless. Indeed, you will often be entirely blameless and the best teacher of English in the place. And you will often be entirely blameless, be the best teacher of English in the place and have the most popular class, but, well, many students have left recently so there needs to be a reason for that. And that reason, must be you.

Teacher “Could it be that you charge too much money?”

School “No”.

Teacher “Could it be that there are too many tests?”

School “No”.

Teacher “Could it be that there is a high-turnover of staff resulting in a lack of continuity”.

School. “What’s that? And no”.

Teacher “So, what is the reason then?”

School “Actually, it’s because you are late to class and the parents are angry”.

Teacher “Eh?”

School “Yes. You are late to class and the parents complained and removed their children from school”.

Teacher “I was late, once, 3 months ago because there was a of a lot of snow”.

School “And that’s the reason parents have quit the school”.

Get out of that one. Appealing to reason doesn’t work, because, well, rule number one isn’t reasonable is it? Getting angry definitely doesn’t work, because, well, try it yourself and see. 

So, what went wrong and how do you avoid this scenario. Your mistake, if don’t know already, was to admit you did something wrong. It doesn’t matter what you did or when it was, if you admitted a mistake, this can be leveraged wide open at any time, so that all the blame can be dumped upon you. Never, ever, ever, admit you did something wrong, even if you did. Just lie. Just lie, in fact, like the locals do. Reach for that plausible deniability. In the above example, just flat out lie that you were late even once. I wouldn’t even admit that it snowed. Never, ever give your employer an easy win. Believe me. You are wrong for 99% of their own self-created misfortunates. At least make them work hard to put the blame on you, because rest assured, rule number one says they will.

S is for Sense of humour.

The good news is that this is an essential requirement for being a competent EFL teacher. If you can laugh in the face of chaos, uncertainty and other people’s blatant disregard for the truth of a situation, then you are well on the way to becoming a successful and skilled EFL teacher. The bad news is that not having a sense of humour, is an essential requirement to become a mediocre supervisor or IELTS examiner. As a rule of thumb, authentic teachers will laugh at the absurdity of the situation, supervisors and none-authentic teachers will grimace, as their mediocrity reflects back at them.

S is for skills. 

If EFL has grown to become a product. If mediocrity has flourished because of the growth in credential inflation and career progression. If more research into language learning continues to reveal “the truth” about L2 acquisition. If there are more apps being created dedicated to English language learning, then what skills does an EFL teacher need? In the face of the above onslaught, it would be easy for the humble EFL teacher to lay down and surrender. In fact, that is the goal of EFL mediocrities everywhere. However, don’t. You have a lot of valuable, useful and worthwhile skills that make you both a competent teacher and a decent human being. Hold on to your self-esteem, work hard at your confidence and never stop. You are a highly-skilled individual and you should be highly-regarded, if only by yourself. Don’t let the mediocrities grind you down.

T is for teachers in Asia.

Much is always written or commented about the ‘backpacker’ EFL teacher in Asia. Certainly, in the not too distant past, the backpacker teacher cruising around Asia, was a common occurrence. However, they have virtually disappeared or at least disappeared into the void that is internet teaching. The proliferation of certificates, the standardisation of EFL, and indeed EFL as a product, have all served to squeeze this group out of the physical world of EFL. In this respect, and in this respect only, I can agree with the need to professionalise EFL.

The next group in EFL we can talk about, is my group. That is, people like Jeremy Harmer and myself, who fell into EFL because they couldn’t quite get things going back home. Indeed, I would argue, that falling into EFL is positively beneficial for both the individual and the students we will teach. People who fall into and stay in EFL often have the necessary life-experiences needed to empathise with their students. Although wayward and uncertain in the beginning, this kind of EFL teacher is often tenacious, hard-working and dedicated. This person bonds with EFL and is often the best teacher around. I would argue our dilettantism is a strength, not a weakness. Hooray for life-experience.

The final group of teachers we might care to look at, are those who have trained specifically for a career in EFL. That is, they start out with a degree in TEFL and get more post-grad degrees along the way. They collect other ‘teaching certificates’ as if badges at a boy-scout meeting. They assiduously go to conferences to shamelessly network themselves.  These are the pseudo-professionals who couldn’t get a career in the civil service back in the UK and opt instead for career progression in the British Council or some such. They have little interest in actual English teaching, viewing the actual teaching as somewhat beneath them.

They are, of course, the reason why EFL has evolved, and is evolving, in the way it is. These are the people savvy enough to do a bit of reading to quote a few names, write a few desultory papers which nobody reads, and occasionally publish in magazines that few people know about. However, it is enough to propel them to the giddy heights of regional manager of South-East Asia (or some such title) Once there, they can play at being a professional educator, without, apparently, ever doing any educating to prove it. These are the grand gate-keepers of EFL. The guardians of EFL truth and knowledge. The high sultans of mediocrity. I do sincerely respect their academic achievements, but they seriously over-estimate themselves and their importance within EFL. Teaching English is a grubby, messy and dirty business, and no amount of certificate-waving is going to change that.

As I say, this is an incomplete and wholly unscientific examination of my 11 years of teaching English in Asia. There’s much more still to be said, for example about the worthlessness of contracts in Asia, but perhaps not by me.

What’s you’re A-Z of EFL where you are?

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