Friday, February 20, 2004

Tim Parks - the Verona-based writer - once wrote a novel about an English teacher in Verona. The Daily Telegraph article I linked to a few days quoted it:

"No, it was awful. He was living from hand-to-mouth, from one day to the next, one month to another, week in week out. From the point of view of career, social advances, financial gain, the last two-and-a-half years had been completely wasted. More that that, they had left him physically exhausted and mentally addled by all these stupid lessons, besieged by boredom and mediocrity . . . He had reached the end of his tether . . . What was a language teacher in the end? A nobody. A mere failed somebody else."

And, indeed, Sebastian Creswell-Turner - author of the Telegraph article - makes it plain that he agrees. It's hard to know how to react as the picture painted is so absurb it defers rationality.

Teaching is wasting time, career-wise? Well, if you have a burning desire to be, say, a merchant-banker then, yes, it's a waste of time but that misses the point, doesn't it?. It's like saying that spending time in IT is a waste of time if you want to be a lawyer; of course it is: they're entirely different industries. However if one has any desire to teach, or any interest in languages, then it's certainly not time wasted. And if you don't have either of those, then why on earth are you in the industry in the first place?

And there's the heart of the matter: the people criticising the industry are those who find themselves in it but without any interest in it. It may be worth their while reflecting that their dissatisfaction probably says more about them than it does about the industry. Seb C-T tries to paint this as an exclusively TEFL issue but, as Luke Meddings points out in the Guardian article, career stagnation occurs in all industries.

Unfortuantely, TEFL does attract more than its fair share of new and lost graduates who aren't, necessarily, interested in teaching and who will, inevitably, show less interest in the profession than their more motivated colleagues. However it seems somewhat rich of them to then turn around and say that teaching English is rubbish (or even "..not real teaching..." as I heard somebody here say recently and, I might add, rather stupidly considering they were in front of their boss at the time). I suggest they look closer to home for explinations of of their frustrations.

TEFL is what you want it to be. For some it is an exit visit: a way of setting oneself up in a foreign land. For others it is a profession and a career: the CELTA qualification is indeed tragically easy to obtain but the more advanced qualifications that open up the doors to senior positions are, thankfully, not. And for others it creates some time and space to reflect. For me, it's a combination of the latter two: I knew I didn't want to continue pursuing my previous career and that I would enjoy the teaching; indeed I expected that language would, in some way, play a role in the direction I would subsequently choose to take. It has, and the only question now is whether to spend a further year teaching, something I may do because I, unlike our friend Seb C-T, enjoy it. Certainly I see no reason why, if you enter TEFL as an excuse to travel and then find yourself unwillingly caught up in a real job with real hours and real pressures, you should expect any sympathy. Why would the profession be otherwise?

As for "..boring lessons...": well, if you just teach from the book every day then of course. But, even if the books are perscribed to you then you can still adapt them and make the most of the material. Or rather, you can if you care and are interested in how people learn languages and what makes an interesting classroom. It's the same point I make above: if you're not interested then why are you in the industry?

And finally this rubbish about deadend lives: "A mere failed somebody else". Or, as Alain de Botton said, "You become a TEFL teacher when your life has gone wrong". Some do, certainly, but, again, lost souls are not a TEFL preserve. You could even, if you gave my circumstances a harsh reading, put me in that box. But if dissatisfaction with a previous life - and, as the cliche says, I'm glad I tried it - makes one a failure then the only people who aren't failures are those too scared to let go. Both quotes, as is obvious to anybody mature enough to acknowledge their own fallibility, are palpably nonsense.

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