Another darkness by Neil Scarth

Posted on Posted in Teacher Stories


The first thing I noticed about her were the dark pouches under her equally dark
eyes. Actually, that’s not true: the first thing I noticed about her was her skin colour, a
colour not usually seen in Bulgarian language classes. My first reaction was Finally,
after 8 years in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, I have a Roma lady in my class. I’m
suspicious of my own interest in the Roma. Is it an orientalist collecting of exotica,
slightly voyeuristic, or is it a real sympathy with the underdog, the stubborn survivor
on the physical and social edges of cities?

Anyway, she would turn out not to be of that race at all: she had joked about this
herself some weeks later, well knowing people’s presuppositions. Her complexion
was dark walnut (and not only the complexion: life had somehow been harsh on her
skin, drying it, lining it, making it like a parchment map of tiredness, of the pull of
gravity and time on the human face).

She was wearing a smart, brand-new looking, light grey suit with a skirt, but the suit
couldn’t hide her discomfort. She shuffled at the back of the cramped room with rows
of unpromising immovable desks, emitting gruff nicotine-sanded five-syllabled
complaints about the terror of a first English class, directed at everyone and no one.
She didn’t get a reply. People were busy with their own slight embarrassment. She
stood out a mile. I immediately felt slightly protective: I would probably have felt the
same way myself coming into a busy group of expectant strangers and with the
prospect of being deprived of the safety net of your own language, and I was
internally going through something similar. Trying to be breezy, welcoming and
vaguely competent-looking whilst inwardly cringing with that familiar fear of Will they
like me? Am I any good? What are they really looking for here? She sat at the back,
protecting her shyness by hunching in and letting her black bushy hair with one or
two white streaks be a dark cloud of vague unresponsiveness around her. 

We started the lesson with the usual cheesy getting to know each other routines. It
wasn’t that she didn’t attempt communication or avoid eye-contact: she clearly and
deliberately apologised to me and the other students, raising her tarred voice from
the back of the class and politely, firmly insisted that she just wanted to listen, which
I nodded consentingly to, although it made me vaguely uneasy. After all, she had
refused to pay tribute to the great God of Pairwork, one of the seven pillars of
Communicative Language Teaching. What if the other students opted out of our jolly
fiction of amiable sociability and fake phatic communion? I’d be left making small talk
myself, as sometimes happened, and I had long since discovered that I was
particularly dreadful at small-talk, turning into a simpering, faltering sycophant, like
an apprentice undertaker who just realises he’s got the coffins all mixed up on his
third day at work.

I had discovered I had the unfortunate knack, disastrous to a teacher, of showing
outwardly when I felt what I was saying was hollow, or just playing for time, or just
pedagogically pointless. That I wasn’t really interested in what they had done at the
weekend. Or that I was interested but that I knew it was getting them nowhere to talk
about it. That asking them what they would do if they won the lottery was not going
to help them with anything at all, including their knowledge of English, but was just a
prelude to some tired old grammar exercises. In such cases, I could hear my words
echoing around the communicative vacuum, bouncing gently round my rib-cage
before sinking meekly into the pit of my stomach.

She was always polite, though still clearly writhing with discomfort and self-reproach,
and the other students got used to her asking every time to be a silent witness to
their dry-run conversations. It would often mean the person sitting next to her
working with the people in the next row, with someone having to turn round a bit
uncomfortably in the minimal space between the desks. But we managed and her
silence was vaguely benevolent, never eye-rolling in disapproval like some of the
more active silences I had grown used to.

Then one day the power went off. This was not such a frequent occurrence: this was
modern Sofia after all, three quarters into the upwardly mobile capitalist West by

This time she was the first to speak while others coughed interrogatively towards the
unexpected blackness. Darkness, she said, was her element. Nights, night shifts at
the television studio where she worked as an engineer, a job she loved. Why they
needed to stay there all night I didn’t understand. Did they record at night? Or was it
editing? Maintenance? Maybe there were day shifts too, but it was the nights she
talked about. Years of nights. You could hear the tiredness of all those years. She
couldn’t sleep during the day you see. She lived with her sister. Neither were

She knew German, had learnt it in her youth. Now everyone wanted English. She
worried about losing the job she loved. Her sister and her job: that was all she had.
Her English was good enough. Another barrier, not the language barrier, was at work
in the class with the lights on. I listened. We all listened, as if there was nothing more
natural in the world than listening to this voice sketching the boundaries of a whole
life on the darkness.

I can’t remember the rest of the lesson: the lights must have come back on, she
must have slid back into her black cloud of tired vagueness and evasion. The course
must have continued with the usual awkward pleasantries, the occasional twenty
seconds of collective mirth, the frequent twenty minutes of time trudging towards the
classroom door and release.

Later I thought: ironic really—such deep reticence in the service of the least reticent
of media. I had been glad of that power-cut though. Somehow it had lifted the threat
in that heavy cloud of non-participation. How rarely we describe our whole lives in
such brief completeness as she had done in that handful of unlit minutes. We always
acted a little like the ones she worked for on the other side of the studio glass.
Studied naturalness. Talking but watching ourselves talk too. Listening but feeling
the quote-marks around our listening too.

I’ve had many well-lit hours in the classroom since then, but none have stuck with
me like those minutes of darkness. Maybe one day I’d have my own moments with
the lights off like that. And I’d start to tell my story, from the front of the class,
weighing the simple words with my tiredness. No attempt to entertain, no plea for
pity, no bid for approval, just telling.

Ironic really: my deep reticence in the service of a profession which is at best,
uncomfortable with reticence. My private darkness unwelcome somehow in the
cheerily flickering strip-lights of the classroom.

Image from DavidfWall, Flickr. CC license 2.0.

Creative Leadership by Mohammed Qaid

Posted on Posted in Teacher Stories


  “Look, your English is good. BUT that is not enough,” the Principal said while scratching his bushy goatee, causing that insufferable noise.  “I may give you a car, you can crash it, I can give you a computer, you may smash it. But I can’t afford to give you students’ minds to ruin them.”As Principal and owner of the Language Institute, he decided to grant me the chance to teach at his Institute even though I had not had any teaching experience before. I thought he was the epitome of wisdom. I left his cramped office, just another room in a building that was designed to be anything but a language school, to meet the Level-One Teacher and the Secretary. I told them both how the interview inspired me. The Level-One Teacher mumbled while the Secretary started a long tirade about how we did things and about our mission, our vision and all that. Two weeks later, I was disenchanted. I got into the eternal predicament of having to be strict or risk loss of control of a class. I did an ancient trick, which is to single out the major merrymaker and take action before the party gets wild. The main agitator was a girl, and I told her gently but firmly, if such a thing is ever possible, that she should quit causing chaos. She left the class immediately and headed straight to the Principal’s office to protest. She told him what I did was not fair because “she wasn’t the only one talking”.  “I don’t think you handled the matter discreetly, Mohammed. You should have been very subtle and smart about it,” the Principal began.   “I did every trick in the book. If I didn’t do what I did, you would have the rest of the class right here complaining about the lack of discipline.”  “Still, you should have been very gentle,” his sturdy body shaking as he was stressing the point.   “If you wanted me to babysit, that is not going to happen.” I started to lose my temper.   “I’d babysit the students; I’d even do their laundry if I had to. This place is run by the cash coming out of their pockets.” I do not remember how that argument was concluded. I just never took my boss seriously after that. To my subconscious, he was no more associated with protecting students’ minds, but with doing their laundry.  We used to organize a simple event at the end of each course. It was usually attended by teachers, students from other classes and of course by the Principal. It is worth mentioning that he majored at some branch of mathematics at college. It was the hardest branch of mathematics, according to him. Everything was going well during the ceremony until he decided to throw a little speech in English towards the end of the ceremony. The forty five year old Principal stood there, very confident with his dark red suit on.    “Ladies and Gentleman. As the Dean of this Institute, I am very happy to see every people here….”  My conscience as an ESL teacher stops me from transcribing the rest of the speech. The Level-One Teacher looked at me and said:   “Now that’s somebody who cares about students’ minds.” When it was all over, a mischievous student came up, you know that type who likes to make fun of everybody all the time. He told the Principal that he made several grammatical mistakes during the speech. The accused smiled and retorted confidently:   “Of course I did. I did that on purpose. I wanted to motivate the students. Those who make mistakes will be encouraged to speak when they see that even the Principal makes mistakes.” The funny student was speechless. I don’t think he ever tried to be funny again.  I was about to leave the academy after a long, laborious day when I saw the Level-One Teacher standing next to the staircase murmuring something to himself. I asked what the matter was. He looked around as if trying to make sure nobody was listening.   “Listen man. Our boss is losing it…” I reckoned somebody else was the one losing it.  “…a test was scheduled this morning but the copy machine was out of order. I asked the Principal if I should postpone it. I told him I could write the questions on the board but wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. He said it wasn’t perfect but it’s better than putting off the whole test. So, I went on with plan B. After the test, the Head Tutor, who was in charge of monitoring our performance, told the Principal that writing the test on the board wasn’t such an effective method. The boss was fuming and gave me an earful in front of the Head Tutor. I reminded him that we’d had a discussion about it and that he approved it. He said:  “I was only testing you to see if you would do the right thing. Unfortunately you failed miserably.” Before I was able to comfort my bewildered colleague, a tall student with a cap intervened out of the blue. He was yelling at an invisible entity.   “This place is a scam. They are ripping people off.”   “Calm down and tell me what is going on,” I inquired.   “Well, I was robbed in broad daylight…Upon registration, the Principal convinced me to pay an additional fee to get a coloured book instead of the dull black-and-white version. I was convinced and paid. He handed me a black-and-white copy and promised me that coloured books were on their way. Three weeks have passed, two weeks left to the end of the course, and I haven’t received a book nor a refund.”I tried to discuss the problem further with the student while the Level-One Teacher was busy checking that no one was spying. The student left as the Secretary showed up, her long eyelashes fluttering like little wings. She pointed at both of us and said with the enthusiasm only secretaries and patriots can display:  “Shame on you two! That boy was hammering the organization you are working for and you were listening with tight lips…” “Aaah, I was just trying to figure out what…”  “Anyway, have any of you seen the DVD player? A teacher handed it back to me at the front desk while I was busy registering a new student. When I was done, I couldn’t find it.”We both answered negatively. She was disappointed and whimpered about the potential deduction from her meagre pay if she didn’t find the device.Next day, the Secretary herself was nowhere to be found. It was a mess without her. I managed to get her number and called to see if she was fine. As soon as she heard my voice, she broke into sobs.  “He…he had it all th…the time.”  “Who had what?”  “The Principal…had the DVD player all day. He saw I was too busy so he took it and hid it in his office….I was looking for it all day. I even stayed an hour longer in the evening. And…and at the end, he just brought it back and told me he did this so I’d watch out next time. He said it could be stolen if I kept being so careless. What kind of person is he! How could he d-d-do this to me! I am not going to that place anymore!” She kept weeping, and I was certain her long eyelashes must have stuck together with all the tears.I quit that job a soon as I found another one. That was a few months later. The Level-One teacher and others stayed longer either because they could not find another offer or because the Principal got them involved in long term contracts. My main headache in the ESL world is unprofessional management. No doubt, there are difficulties related to material, students and workload. Yet, those issues can be solved if there is a wise, flexible management. On the contrary, modern facilities and competent staff may be wasted if they were not guided in a professional manner. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (image edited). CC license 4.0. 

Make the Most of Your Days by Paul Walsh

Posted on Posted in Teacher Stories

15 Nov 2006


The EFL party continues.  My little buddy here woke up two days ago (after all night in the all-night pub) with a woman in his bed who didn’t speak a word of English.  He remembers her vomiting but doesn’t know where he met her. 


Good man.




9 Mar 2007


What’s up?  Spring, sunny days, blue skies here. The non-stop pub is our latest hanging out place.  A real dive.  All the winos are in there, and the EFL teachers.  This business really is the biggest SCAM imaginable. Long may it continue. 


One teenage group coming up, not the worst of the bunch but still annoying. One of the little thirteen-year-olds in my class yesterday, seriously pissed off at having lost the game we had been playing, looked across at the other team and, forgetting where he was, shouted: FUCKERS!


Okay, it’s Friday night and pay day which equals PUB. 







I had just completed a four-week Teaching English as a Foreign Language course in Krakow—then the cheapest course in Europe. After kicking around Krakow for a month, desperation beckoned: I was running out of money, living off a diet of packet soup and frozen pierogi. A school in Debica (meaning place of oak trees and pronounced ‘Dem-beets-a’) offered me my first teaching job and I was grateful; my only other option being a shameful re-entry into a career of long-term unemployment.


I boarded the blue-white train leaving Krakow full of hope. It was a long, hot journey, and as I was meeting a representative of the school at the other end, obviously libation-free. After some time, my Mecca approached. With two rucksacks on my back, a small, half-full plastic bag in my hand, I began heaving my suitcase along the narrow train corridor, cursing Eastern Europe’s narrow train corridors. I squared up to the red exit door breathless, wondering how to open this mass of Silesian metal. The door, and the Polish words written on the door, revealed little—but I had been on trains before—therefore, no problem. We cantered into Debica and poking my free arm out of the tiny window I began janking the door handle furiously in both directions. Wait! Something clicked. A pale elderly couple, arm-in-arm, gazed at me as I passed by; the door sprang open and I fell out onto the warm concrete of a blue-yellow, small-town Polish train station, closely followed by my luggage, the plastic bag fluttering in the breeze. Other passengers disembarked and walked around me—a small child pointed and yelped: ‘Duze okulary!’ (translation: ‘Big glasses!’)


Gathering myself in the train station car park, embarrassed but also thrilled by the prospect of a job and a regular wage, I waited. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. I was getting nervous. Just then in the distance a blur of English words flashed by. A yellow hatchback braked, turned and raced across the asphalt towards me; car—tiger, me—antelope. The car skidded to a stop, and I peered at the words across the side of the car: English Fist – Opening up a Wold of Opportunity! The gap between door and car body had swallowed up the two Rs, and was about to swallow me too.


A small blonde-haired woman wearing large, black, shiny sunglasses rolled down the window in a few quick jerks, threw a cigarette onto the pavement, and turned to face me.


“You are Paul, yes? Agnieszka. Put your stuff in behind. We will go to flat first, then school.”


My head flew back as we zoomed away. I held onto my seat. We turned right and as we passed the yellow Market Hall, I asked Agnieszka about the town. Pushing back her sunglasses with her forefinger she said:


“Zadupie! That’s what we call it—in Polish: ‘ass-town, shithole’. There’s nothing to do here. You want a cigarette? Light me too please.”


She pointed to below the radio. I reached down and pulled a cigarette out of a glossy white packet; lit one and passed to her; lit myself another and took a slow drag.


“But there are other English teachers…we hang out. There is Joe—you will meet him. He is crazy, like all native speakers…[her voice went flat]…all behave like dogs…and maybe YOU too.”


She paused and glanced over at me.


“Just JOKING!!!”


Her laugh met the roar of the engine and we accelerated across Debica’s one mini-roundabout, speeding towards my future life. Giggling.




23 Aug 2007


Hey there, found a job yet?  In Glasgow, working in a call centre, about to end a week on Friday.  Hellish—easily the worst job I’ve ever had.  Good morning, Joe speaking, how may I help you? Aaaaahhhhh.  I don’t know how anyone can stick it.  My team leader told me my calls were on average SEVEN SECONDS too long!!! 


Send some news…





2 Sep 2007


Hi buddy,


Still in the dreaded call centre but only one week to go. Two little dudes sitting beside me were drinking quarter bottles of vodka they had cunningly poured into Fanta bottles the other morning. Good one. I’ve got my new flat sorted in Poland (with satellite tv) and it’ll be interesting to see who the new cunt is.






I first met Joe at the tyre factory. He had a small frame, close-shaven hair, looked around fifty. The lit roll-up poking out of his mouth seemed incongruous compared with what he was wearing: checked, crease-free shirt and thin, blue mackintosh. He was leaning forward, his elbows resting on the metal railings; he half-turned to face me as I got near, giving me a stern look. Tense, unmoving, thin lips.


“So you’re the new cunt, then. Welcome to Shit-river—don’t let teaching at the tyre factory go to your head!” he said in a warm Glasgow burr, laughing and extending his hand. I felt better; Joe tended to cackle when he laughed, which was extremely funny—you could see all the teeth in his mouth, which wasn’t many.


Shit-river was our affectionate name for Debica, an outpost of the Polish ELT world, and we formed a small part of the shoal of teachers then swimming in the clear blue waters of an expanding industry.


This was my first meeting with Joe and, after I left in the summer of 2006, the start of a conversation lasting several years.





4th April 2013


Still here and not sure what the next move will be.  I’ve quit my job, actually finishing in three weeks.  My boss says he doesn’t have enough hours for me because he wants to hire younger and cheaper Polish teachers.  I’m keeping my flat here until the 1st of September, after that I don’t know.  Could be Russia. Could even be freelance in Poland, the main problem is the national insurance thing, if you’re freelance you must pay it.


Final few weeks mean watching a lot of videos with the kids and going to the park.  Adult groups go to the pub.





24th September 2013


Hello buddy,


Any plans for the new school year?  No fucking new school year for me.  Got back to UK on 1st September, two days later I was in hospital.  Cirrhosis of the liver, not a great shock.  The ward was hellish.  Grown up men walking about in nappies.  A sorry collection of alcoholics and junkies. 


A fairly respectable-looking guy asked me one day: do you know how I can become a professional actor?  The fucking loony bin.  Every one of them was a deep yellow, except me.  Kept me in for ten days, now staying at my mum’s because I mainly sleep all the time. They said three months minimum in terms of beginning to recover.


Hope things are fine for you




29th September 2013


Hey buddy,


Thanks for writing.  I’m just sick, lying in bed, no energy, hospital and clinic visits, they’re talking about three months minimum recovery time. I’m eating like crazy, which is good, but haven’t gained an ounce.  The bones on my face are all sticking out.  I’ve been off the booze for six or seven weeks which is only the beginning.


A mate of mine just started a job teaching in Istanbul.  On the second day he said to the DoS: I don’t really understand my timetable.  Does it mean four classes each day, or five.  Yes, the guy said.  Yes four, or yes five.  Yes.  So I’ve got four every day. Yes.  And finally, so that’s five. Yes.


Good luck to you mate and keep in touch.




20th November 2013




This is Celine – Joe’s daughter. I found your email address on his computer – I hope you don’t mind me contacting you. Joe died yesterday morning – alcoholic liver disease. The funeral is next Tuesday. If there is anyone else that you guys were friends with would you be able to tell them what’s happened.








Joe lived rough in Paris for several years in the 80s, but also had a M.A. in Literature from Glasgow University and would quote Joyce, Beckett, and his favourite writer Céline (“Life is a classroom and Boredom’s the usher…”) from memory. He—like a lot of us, drank too much: but not without reason.


Nights of laughter and vodka toasts clutching tiny brown cups dancing to the hip-hop tapes sent by his daughter; the camaraderie of friends—with Joe centre-stage, grinning wildly, directing his own private circus; the snow-filled quiet streets. All this rekindled something inside me—this spark becoming a strong, protective core—like the slow, definite rings of an oak tree. I left Debica re-sensitized: pulsing more than reasoning.


But I didn’t go to Joe’s funeral in Glasgow. I couldn’t rearrange my classes, I was short on money, it was a long way to go—there are more excuses. I’m angry at my own laziness; at a profession where the call to witness births, weddings and funerals provokes second thoughts; at a world where friendship and family sometimes lag behind career and next month’s rent.  


But most of all, I’m sad that I can’t sit down with an old friend and talk about books and life with moonlight coming in through the kitchen window—and share one last toast.


This story is an apology and tribute to my friend Joe Morin. 


Who I miss very much.


You should try to make the most of your days

That’s what people say

You should try to make the most of your days

But I’ve never really known how to (in any proper way)


The Funny Waves – Make The Most Of Your Days (I’ve never known how to..)

Lyrics: Joe Morin, 2012.

The Chicken and the Egg: Task-based Teaching in East Germany in the 1980s by Greg Bond

Posted on Posted in Teacher Stories


There is a photograph of me, aged around 23, wearing an old tie my father gave me. I still have plenty of hair, which is no longer the case today. I am seated against the backdrop of a painted mural, showing a naked lady diving among fishes of the sea. There is real netting to add to the atmosphere. A man is standing, holding a live chicken, towards which he is bent as if tenderly whispering in its ear. We are in a seafood restaurant in Leipzig, the year is 1986 or 1987. The occasion is a farewell party for a group of adult students I have been teaching English. The chicken is my farewell present.


Like many, I fell into English teaching when it offered me the opportunity to work abroad. I headed from Manchester, UK, to Leipzig, East Germany, in 1985, when it still was East Germany. There I spent two years teaching English to students at the Karl Marx University, as it was then called. The first year I taught adults who had been delegated to go abroad and work in projects in friendly states—as doctors, architects, food scientists, administrators. I did not have much teaching experience, but like us all I had a lot of experience of being taught. That helps.

I admit that my priority was not the classroom. These were exciting months and years in many other ways—for a young man exploring the other world behind the iron curtain. Nonetheless I taught some twenty hours per week and had no material provided. The brief was conversation. I quickly learned that politics and society were not suitable themes for the classroom—my students belonged to a professional and political elite and were hand-picked to go abroad. They were too wary of open exchange of opinion. Today I know that politics and society are not the best themes in most English-learning classrooms, and that there are better ways of getting conversation going.

In those days, when I had to start teaching at 8 am, I would often get out of bed literally fifteen minutes before class began, dress and set off on the five-minute walk across the muddy walkways of an unfinished and decidedly unattractive new housing development on the outskirts of town. During those five minutes I would hastily decide what to do in class. I bought a bottle of milk on my way, usually then drinking it in the classroom. That was my breakfast.

Around the table were eight to ten professional people. I had plenty of freedom, as they enjoyed off-the-ball topics, as long as there was nothing politically delicate. One morning I drank my milk in their presence and began talking about milk. I asked them a number of how to, where from and what can you do with questions. How is milk produced? Where does it come from? What can we do with milk? What can be done with this bottle, except use it for milk? And we had a conversation going. Without knowing it at the time, I was then developing the kind of task-based classroom activity that would be one bedrock in my future career as a teacher. It was born naively and of necessity—not least the need to sleep, due to an aversion to eight o’clock starts, which were unknown where I came from.

From the milk we came somehow to eggs. I don’t remember how. But it is not a great leap of the imagination. Scrambled, fried, poached, used in cakes or in omelettes. Hard boiled or soft boiled? How, why, what for? Plenty to talk about and plenty of vocabulary to teach. From eggs we got to chickens, of course. It is amazing how much you can make of a topic once you get going. And then the class was over. I remember everyone enjoyed it, including myself.

All my students in East Germany were very sociable, and I was often invited to join them in weekly meals out, mid-term parties and end-of-course celebrations. It was at one of those that I was given the chicken, in recognition of my teaching—in praise of task-based learning. After the party I went home with the chicken, which spent a night in my bathroom. One of the students came with me, willing to help me slaughter it. I couldn’t face that, and I chickened out when he had a knife to its neck. The next day I took the chicken to a garden nearby where I had seen chickens, and gave it to the lady who lived there. She asked no questions and accepted.

The milk bottle is one of the few mementoes I still have of my two years learning how to teach in Leipzig. It stands on a filing cabinet in my study. It is unique, as bottles of this size and shape are no longer produced.


Light a perfumed candle by Helen Waldron

Posted on Posted in Teacher Stories


Panorama windows, but everyone is far too busy doing important stuff to watch me
approach. I hand over my ID card to be scanned at the desk and give the security
people a nice smile, because i) they’re nice and ii) they’re invisible service providers,
like me. And iii) I need them to open the turnstile: as a non-employee my card has no
chip in it. Click click click click. What sort of a company makes its admin employees
go through a turnstile to enter? They already perform random searches, though they
haven’t singled me out yet (which is another reason to be nice to the security

You have to dress the part to walk these hallways, and I’m not really a black slacks,
white blouse sort of woman, so I’ve done my usual compromise which involves
something I feel like wearing that day and something posh, like jewellery or heels.
Click click click click. All the lost and lonely people sitting in front of the glass
windows look away from the screens showing company products, hopeful at the
sound of my heels. Have I come to pick them up for their job interview/supplier
I give them a smile too. The company should pay me for being their Goodwill
Person. Job description: conveying an unrealistically positive company image.
Smile, glass, chrome, sunshine city.
Pity they treat their people like crap.
I heard it first from other suppliers and would-be suppliers. They’re so arrogant. Then
I experienced it myself when HR decided they couldn’t be arsed to learn more than
one name and simply chucked out the independent trainers. Our students protested
and got us back, but I can’t negotiate conditions anymore. No one’s responsible for
you. An index-linked pay rise? Additional compensation for specialist training
measures? No need to ask, the answer’s no.
Now the company is reviewing its own employee conditions. My students have
started to envy me and tell me shyly they need some English for interviews or that
they’d really love to work freelance like me. It has such a caring, we-are-family
image, but it treats more people like crap every year.

And still we dress to look the part. Really we’re all happy smiley people, propagating
the company image, grateful for the prestige of working here. Prestige is nice, but it
doesn’t pay the rent, let alone allow you to invest in the appearance it expects of
you. And it has the company name on it, not yours. You can’t take it with you.
The latest upheaval is that they’ve introduced open-plan offices. Now they’re sitting,
miserable in huge foyer-like concourses. You can hear me click click clicking here
“We have to go to the toilet to cry,” said one of my young, (blonde, ravishingly
beautiful) students.
“I have less responsibility than I had 20 years ago,” said another, (very nice, moved
sideways) man.
“You do it right: no bosses breathing down your neck, free to go whenever you
Well, I can go, but I’d just be throwing away money. It takes ages to build up a
freelance business. And I earn much better than a lot of teachers. Being freelance is
psychological freedom more than anything else. They’re such great people. I’m sad
for them. At least I have freedom, even if I never seem to exercise it. Psychological
freedom is better than nothing. 
“Go for it”, I say. “Open your shoe boutique. You’ll regret it if you don’t make the
And, “Does it really matter if you retire a year or two early? You’ve got your company
pension no matter what you do. You’ll probably get a severance package too.”
They look at me sadly. You don’t throw away a good job. Not even I can bring myself
to do that. Even without the security and benefits. I’ve grown like them.
I used to worry about all the glass and chrome catching the rays of sunlight from
outside and drying up my soul. Maybe it’s happened. I’m so involved in the ins and
outs that I practically work there, just without the benefits of paid holidays and
sickness benefit and job security. I’ve sort of transitioned from a happy low maintenance
evergreen to a hothouse plant that is delicate and wilting.

I’m fascinated by my students’ fascination for their work. I think it’s meaningless stuff,
and suspect that those who think about it, think this too, but if they all stopped
keeping up appearances, it would set off a whole chain of infinity reflections and the
prestige would shrivel up and nobody wants to listen to an English teacher being
negative anyway. So I smile and thank God I don’t work in an office, it’s bad enough
listening to executives telling me their problems all day. I feel I’ve been listening to
people’s problems for 30 years.
Black slacks and white shirts aren’t generally my style. I don’t like chrome and glass
particularly. I need to leave this company. Life is too short.

Then I read it on Facebook. Light a perfumed candle for Joanne. A teacher
colleague, older than me, we worked together briefly at a fashion academy. We met
for lunch and she wanted to discuss curriculum but I told her I was leaving. She was
disappointed. Either she was more conscientious than me, or my leaving was a kick
in the teeth for her, or both.
She told me she was ill, but I didn’t know how ill. She told me she was living on €50
a day insurance. You can’t live on €50 a day where we are. She was an American,
stranded longer and further than me. Perfume because she was sensuous till the
Light a perfumed candle. Dance. Go mad a bit. Life is too short.
“You can’t leave. Tell me you don’t mean it.”
“But I look forward to our lesson every week.“
“This lesson is the only thing I enjoy in this company. It’s me-time.”
All very flattering, but I know I’m replaceable. I don’t like it here anymore and it’s me-time
from now on.
There are huge plastic banners for Agenda 51 hanging from the few outer walls that
are not chrome and glass. Agenda 51 is basically a series of slogans like WE ARE A
TEAM and WE LIVE OUR BRANDS. Now that I have come to my senses I would
like to dance, sing and comment that slogans like this make me sick.
I’ve been coming to this company long enough to remember when the entrance was
less chrome and glass and bombastic, and more low key, red brick and in keeping
with the company’s then down-to-earth image. It was also further up the road. The
company owns most of this part of residential Hamburg. It used to own more, but as
it outsources its departments, it’s selling up the property. There’s a luxury fitness spa
where adhesives used to be manufactured. The company employees get discounted
membership, but it’s still too expensive unless you go every day, they tell me. And
who wants to spend their evenings with their colleagues?
Click, click, click, click.

Monday Morning Dizziness_pic1

Monday Morning Dizziness by Sabine Cayrou

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Monday morning, early in the German capital. There are moments in life when every
minute feels an eternity, but this morning nothing appears more ephemeral to me.
Seconds and minutes escape me. Since I got out of bed, I feel like I have been
running for nothing, like mothers often feel.

Each time I am about to begin an intensive course, it is always the same. On the first
day I look like a work animal, able to carry three or four burdens all at once.
Somehow so overloaded but at the same time so empty. I feel like a young,
inexperienced beginner, having to learn pretty much everything, or like an expatriate
arriving in an unknown land. Nevertheless, there is a mixture of fear and curiosity in
me, in anticipation of a new group of learners.

Will I be able to keep them awake this Monday morning? Nights in Berlin can be so
long. Now, this morning in the centre of Berlin, a small French woman— me—still
sunk into deep dreams, is trying to face this real challenge! In order to deal with this
big question, I decide to use these few precious minutes left to do some deep
breathing exercises, so that I can dispel stage fright. I nearly fall asleep on my
neighbour’s shoulders in the train, then I suddenly jump. I arrive at Berlin’s
Friedrichstraße station, already backstage, ready to go on.

As soon as I arrive in the classroom, my back suffering from the weight of teaching
materials in my backpack, I immediately try to create an atmosphere that facilitates
collaborative work. Psychology would say: “It seems to be important to first create an
environment that encourages learning.” This does not take into account the daily
gymnastics of a language teacher consisting of removing furniture, so that
participants should at least be able to see each other while trying to speak and
understand one another.

A few minutes later, the first participants enter the classroom. My first impression is
rather good, the group seems to be motivated and lively, except for a few among
them, still dozing off in a corner. We are all standing in a circle, then dispersed, we
occupy the whole space, speaking with each other. We laugh, I feel that my entrance
on stage is successful, I have broken the ice.

Next, I ask them to go back to their seats and think about the first topic: studying
abroad. Having done a first oral comprehension task about the same topic, some of
the students seem to be tired, but most of them are resisting Monday morning
tiredness and continue the discussion.

In a corner, one student, who has hardly spoken until now, begins to change his
posture and lays his head on his hands. He seems to be taking the ideal position for
a short meditative break, as Japanese businessmen often do.

However, after a few minutes, we hear a light snoring from the corner. Some of the
participants start smiling, others giggle and begin to make fun of the snoring student,
who probably has to make up some hours of missed sleep. A few minutes later, the
snoring amplifies and fills the whole room so loudly that we eventually interrupt our

I suggest a coffee break and then ask two participants to help me wake the snoring
man. We shake and rattle him several times, but he barely wakes up. We finally
manage to keep him awake for a few seconds. I lead him staggering to the door and
show him the way out for the break.

He looks at me appalled, as if I were born in another world. I smile at him and tell

“It’s all right, you are in your French lesson, do you remember?”

He nods and smiles, so I ask him: “Could you please bring me a real strong coffee,
to chase snoring people away?” He doesn’t understand me, so I repeat my polite
request in his mother tongue, German. He looks at me, slightly embarrassed and
answers me in German: “My French teacher often used to say that you can
pronounce French much better while yawning. I have just been practising the nasal
sounds!” I start laughing, quite loud, I find his reaction very amusing and his attitude
rather pleasant. Then, his face darkens, he turns around and leaves, without saying

After the break, his seat remains empty. I never saw him again.

Teacher Stories

The Book is Finished!

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At long last, Teacher Stories: Stories from the Edges of Language Teaching is available here in e-book format and downloadable as a pdf here. Both versions are free. We hope you enjoy the book and share it widely. The intended readers are teachers and their supporters, but also anyone who pours their heart and soul into a worthy cause which barely sustains them.

Become part of the story
Teacher Stories goes on. In the coming months, the stories in the book will be released one by one here, and we will invite you to comment and post questions for the authors. Who knows? There may even be interviews with the authors. We also plan to put together another collection, so if you missed the submission deadline, you will have another chance in 2016.
How it all came together

The idea for this book came to me last winter during discussions about creating a special interest group to address teachers’ working conditions within one of the international language teachers’ associations. Apart from the various roles we are supposed to play and stereotypes projected onto us, does anyone know what our lives are like? Or care how we feel?

This book answers that question–YES!

Teachers have courageously and creatively revealed themselves, encouraged by our numerous enthusiastic supporters here and on Facebook. But here I must also celebrate the efforts of my co-editor, Paul. While we shared the editorial duties, Paul deserves the most of the credit for getting this project done. From the technical feats of e-book production to the artistic cover, his elbow grease, tenacity and not a few late nights were the linchpin.

Join the conversation on our Teacher Stories facebook page:
inner critic

Talking back to the Inner Critic

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The struggle to out-maneuver and defeat the inner critic is a military exercise. Most writers experience self-doubt at some point, but the intensity and frequency of encounters are different for everybody. I happen to have a particularly loud and persistent inner critic, so I’d like to share a few of the weapons from my arsenal.

Infiltrate the enemy

Listen to it. Does the voice have a certain quality? A certain intonation pattern? Repeat what the voice is saying, changing the quality or pattern, singing it away. This can empty the message of its meaning and make it disappear.

Trust your process

Think back to something you wrote that was good. It was finished on time and you survived the process. You were happy with the text and maybe even received compliments from someone else. There were blockages and difficulties but you just kept going. You wrote bits that were edited out later, but they had to be written just the same. Trust your process to bring you again to a good final text.

Write by hand

If you usually type everything, try writing by hand, at least for the first draftit’s too easy to delete when writing on a computer. Freeing yourself from the linear march of text across the page can help develop ideas in the early stages of writing. The inner critic may pounce at times when you’re not sure where your ideas are going, but accepting this uncertainty with a sense of play will head off self-doubt. If necessary, splash fragments around the page and connect them with lines and shapes instead of forcing out sentences.

Use reason

The inner critic is NOT the voice of reasonjust ask it! Inner critics are quick to point out what’s wrong, but rarely do they have anything useful to offer. When the inner critic shows up, ask it for a positive suggestion. If it doesn’t have anything helpful to say, then you are not listening.

Manage anxiety

The other day I was writing a critical summary of an academic article and was struggling so much that I had to pause, get a scrap of paper and write: ‘This is really difficult! I don’t know if I’m doing it right.’ Then I was able to concentrate again. A while later I realized that the writing process was intact and the summary was fine. Just acknowledging the doubt and letting it go was enough. It can also be helpful to take short breaks to do relaxing exercises from t’ai chi or yoga.

Finally, visualize the moment of success in as much detail as possible. What will it look, sound and feel like when you finish your text? Then visualize the obstacles that you need to overcome to get there, knowing that you will overcome them.



Teacher Stories goes LIVE!

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This weekend we have the opportunity to do a live workshop at LinguaCamp Berlin 2015! We plan to take participants through a series of activities to develop their story-writing skills.

LinguaCamp is an event where, according to the organisers Christian Reuter and Sherri Williams, “There is no audience, only participants.”

There have been two previous LinguaCamps, in Hannover 2014 and in Berlin 2013 where I first presented the idea of Decentralised Teaching and Learning, leading to a two-year blog project and lots of exciting opportunities.

So come! Who knows what might happen…

What is LinguaCamp?

LinguaCamp is democratically organised, what is sometimes called an Unconference or Barcamp. All of the suggestions for workshops are put forward and voted on, so the participants decide on the sessions. Here is a useful introduction to LinguaCamp which explains the concept:

Here you can find more information about LinguaCamp and proposed sessions including: Babel Tower (building a tower in different languages), designing flashcard apps, and a Maker Space!

Teacher Stories at LinguaCamp

Over the course of the Teacher Stories project, we’ve noticed that there are several points in the process where people experience problems. These are typically at the start and at the end of the process. Also, keeping the momentum going from start to finish is often difficult.

So, we’ve designed some activities which will ignite your creativity, get you on the right track and keep you on the right track to writing a great Teacher Story.

How do I sign up to LinguaCamp?

You can sign up to LinguaCamp with Eventbrite here.

Where and when?

Berlin LinguaCamp 2015 takes place at the Free University (Freie Universität or FU) of Berlin in Dahlem (south-west Berlin), on both Saturday and Sunday 10am until 5.30pm, at the “Rost- und Silberlaube” building, Otto-von-Simson-Str. 26.


So, all that remains to say issee you there!


Getting going and sticking with it

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Linda Barry

One of my favorite writers is Lynda Barry. I discovered her comic, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, in 1991 and have been reading her comics and books ever since. These days, Lynda teaches writing and drawing courses and even though I can’t take her classes in person, I try to do some of the homework that she assigns her students.

Here’s an activity Lynda Barry calls a basic, daily 5-minute diary which I’ve been doing several times a week for over a year now. I’m reluctant to mention this and jinx myself, but by doing this homework consistently, I’ve come up with some writing and drawing that I like!

I still have a lot of anxiety connected with writing, but when I look back at some of my “Lynda Barry homework”, I feel like I already have everything I need in my head for a party on paper. And that’s an irreplaceable feeling.

So try this. Do it once. Do it again the next day.

This is what you do:

i) Divide your notebook page into four frames, with the top two a little bigger than the bottom two.

ii) In the first large frame, quickly list seven to ten things that you did today.

iii) The second large frame you fill with a list of seven to ten things that you saw, anything from things you stared at for no reason to spectacular happenings like someone smashing a bottle on a bridge. These two top frames should only take you about 2 ½ minutes each.

iv) In a smaller frame below, make a 30-second drawing of one of the things you saw.

v) In the last frame, write down something you heard, like a morsel of an overheard conversation or the rasping squeaks of a grackle’s mating call.

The idea here is to practice hearing, seeing and remembering the world around you, as patterns will emerge which help you understand the back of the mind, as Lynda puts it. Here’s a page from my diary:


Over an extended period, this practice will help you to access and write your story.

So, to conclude, I wish you luck getting going!


Photo: Portrait of cartoonist Lynda Barry by Guillaume Paumier at the Alternative Press Expo 2010, organized at the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco, California, by Comic-Con International on Oct. 16-17, 2010.

5 steps to becoming a creative person

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Are you a creative person? What is creativity? How do you get it?


In this video, John Cleese states that “creativity is NOT a talent, but a mode of operating”. He contrasts two modes of operating: closed, where we are tense, anxious, purposeful and—trying to get things done. This is the mode we are in at work. 

But the open mode is different. This is where we are relaxed, childlike, contemplative, open to humour, and playful. This open mode is the place from which creativity flows. 

But how do we get into this open mode? Cleese says that there are five factors, five things that help us to enter this mode of creativity (skip to around 12.30 minutes in the video):

1) Space (to be undisturbed)
2) Time (for play to happen)
3) Time (persisting in uncertainty, being comfortable with the ‘discomfort of not knowing’ the answer)
4) Confidence (to trust that the answer will come)
5) Humour (to help moving from closed to open)

The crucial points for me are being able to carve out time from my schedule and being able to persist through uncertainty and the ‘discomfort’ of not knowing the answer. These are the two things I find most difficult!

So, now you have some tips on HOW to be creative, you know that ANYONE can be creative as it’s not a talent but a way of operation—

…so what’s your plan for getting creative and writing your Teacher Story?


A Teacher Stories Extension Bridge

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mighty-extension-bridge-wide-wallpaper-335458 (Mobile)

A confession. After three months and dozens of Facebook/ G+ posts, we only have five stories that we feel are suitable. We have received three other stories which don’t meet the submission criteria i.e. they are blog posts or research articles, or pieces that have been published elsewhere.

We also have the feeling that writers are reluctant to do any re-drafting or revising, as there are a few stories we really like but we feel they could be improved. Well, who isn’t reluctant to go back and revise their work?


So, a rethink is required. Part of the problem lies with us. We didn’t really provide the clarity, support and guidance necessary for people to really understand the project, and that has resulted in less stories than we envisaged.

For that—a big mea culpa (or nostra culpa to be exact); this project is run in our spare time, we have no funding, and we do this as a labour of love.

The original intention was to gather enough stories to be able to publish a thematic collectionthese themes emerging from the stories themselves e.g. Journeys, Special Moments, etc. But without a reasonable amount of submissions this becomes impossible. Do we publish a much shorter collection or try to improve our way of working?

Our response

An extension! The deadline is extended for another 2 months to give more teachers the chance to participate. Also, we are going to write short blog posts to give a clearer idea of exactly what we want, and practical, actionable tips on how to achieve this. We are also planning to have a Google hangout to discuss the project on the 20th September.

Issues and hot topics

i) The feedback process. We will be giving back feedback as readers, not as editors. Neither of us are professional writers, so it would be wrong to claim expertise. But we are both voracious readers, and it is our experience as readers that will ground the feedback we give. Just to be clear, we are also trying to write teacher stories, so we know how much time, energy and concentration it takes to writeand we know how difficult it is to carve out time from a busy schedule.

ii) What standard are we looking for? We’re not looking for the next Margaret Atwood or John Steinbeck, but we also think that engaging, well-written prose is within reach for any enthusiastic writer out there. And we want to put our names to a collection of well-written, engaging stories.

iii) What do we mean when we say ‘stories’? This question has come up several times. We are looking for personal narratives or memoirswe accept both. What’s the difference between the two? A personal narrative focuses on one significant event only, and is written in the first person. A memoir is different in that it can include different events, and contains deeper reflectionand possibly insight. Our Model story is an example of a memoir. More information on the difference between the two here, also check out our submission criteria here.

iv) Quality matters. With the deluge of printed material we are faced with nowadays, it’s even more important to stand out from the crowd: quality matters. E-books lend themselves to quick and easy publication, but it’s a bit like digital cameras: everyone’s a photographer these days, but how many excellent photos do you take?

If you have any questions, please don’t be afraid to ask on the Facebook page or in the G+ communitywe want things to be crystal clear.

So, to summariseyou will see:

More clarity
More blog posts

More tips on writing
More conversation on writing
Feedback from enthusiastic and attentive readers


What we would ask from the ELT teacher community out there are two things: to spread the word about Teacher Stories, and to try and encourage your colleagues to submit. Above all, we want your STORIES.

The word count is: 750 minimum and 1500 maximumbut there is no punishment for going slightly over or under. We’re after quality more than anything else.

I quote Winston Churchill rarely, butNow this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Extended deadline is 1st Novembergood luck with your writing.

Paul and Theresa