Teacher Stories: Stories from the Edges of Language Teaching

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Teacher Stories: Stories from the Edges of Language Teaching


Paul Walsh and Theresa Gorman

Cover Design: Paul Walsh


Published by Grassroots Press

Text Copyright © individual authors 2015

The moral rights of the authors have been asserted.

This book is distributed for free, and shall not be resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent.


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Editor’s Introduction

This book is an ode to the dog days of working teachers.

Even though foreign language learning is a global, multi-million dollar industry, the people who labour to keep this industry running—working teachers—are largely invisible. We wanted to change this, to make visible the lives of ordinary teachers.

We wanted to take a stand against the economic calculus that dominates our profession; the idea that the ‘market knows best’; that self-interest is the prime, and perhaps only motivating factor. When our teaching community suffers under the weight of precarity; when we are asked to be ‘self-responsible’ for everything from healthcare to training; when we’re burdened with endless lists of Do’s and Don’ts, we wanted to create a new platform: a place where we tell our own stories.

The authors have certainly succeeded in this respect. The stories presented here offer a glimpse of six different edges; edges where teachers—the bodies that dance across classrooms, performing the pedagogical rituals required of them—try to achieve some kind of balance and grace.

Within the stories themselves you’ll find morning tiredness, journeys, sadness, reflection—but also humour! Although we may be invisible, the disposable parts of a vast machinery, we’re still smiling to ourselves.

For the editors, myself and Theresa, the project has certainly not been easy—with its own highs and lows—but definitely worthwhile. We’d like to extend our gratitude to the teachers who gave up their time and energy for a project where success was not guaranteed, and which would certainly fail any individual cost/ benefit analysis.

Finally, thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to read, and converse with the stories in this collection. 

In solidarity with wherever you are, with whatever story you’re trying to tell.

Paul Walsh and Theresa Gorman (eds.)

Monday Morning Dizziness

Sabine Cayrou

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 discussion.

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 him:

“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 anything.

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


Light a perfumed candle

Helen Waldron

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 people).

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 negotiation?

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 too.

“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 want.”

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 move.”

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 end.

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.


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

Greg Bond


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.

Make the Most of Your Days[

Paul Walsh

*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 Dębica (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 Dębica 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: ‘Duże 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 Dębica’s one mini-roundabout, speeding towards my future life. Giggling.


*23 Aug 2007 *

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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 *

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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 Dębica, 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 Dębica 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.

Creative Leadership

Mohammed Qaid

“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.

Another darkness

Neil Scarth


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 now.

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 married.

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.


About the Authors[

Greg Bond


My mother was a teacher. I have had the privilege of being taught by some great teachers. Back in school, my English teacher, Mr Thompson, brought in a teacup and saucer to illustrate Gerard Manley Hopkins’s idea of inscape. That blew my mind and it would be a story of its own. Today I work as a teacher and trainer, moderator, facilitator, mediator, translator, editor, and writer. The older I get, the more I think it’s

all just a roundabout way of connecting with people.

*Sabine Cayrou *

[* *]

“One can only see with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes.”


I grew up in the south-west of France, in the town of the famous aviator Antoine de St Exupéry, who still inspires me. My cultural roots have Mediterranean origins, mixed with Occitan and Italian influences. We do not forget where we come from.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I found my second home in this vibrant growing city, where I have been enjoying teaching my mother tongue for 12 years now.

Mohammed Qaid

I am an ESL teacher and translator from Yemen. I have an MA in TESOL and Cambridge CELTA. I spent 8 years doing lesson planning and TTT in several parts of the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Lebanon. This is only a lead-in so no need for realia and I won’t be asking any CCQs.

Neil Scarth


Zig-zagged blindly through university before unwisely graduating in Norwegian which not surprisingly led to dead-end office temping. This made ELT seem strangely attractive, which it turned out to be (both strange and attractive). I’ve unintentionally taught exclusively in the confines of the former Ottoman Empire and sometimes translate.


Helen Waldron


Being a Business English trainer, I’ve outsourced this. And I have discovered I am a witty/unpredictable/iridescent/reliable/adult/charming erm independent erm business language teacher, who enjoys showing off (my) English. My students like me because I’m always up for a joke (with cats) and when I retire I’d like to buy a house on the coast of England and just wander around.


I did light a perfumed candle and leave that toxic company, though. That much is true. 


Paul Walsh

[* *]

I graduated in Fine Art in 2005, and since then have been teaching English abroad. In Poland I read James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time and started a writer’s group with Joe Morin, who features in my story. We produced a story collection called “Help!”—which was an entirely appropriate title. In Saudi Arabia, I started another writing group to combat the tedium of living in an alcohol-free, quasi-totalitarian state. Now in Berlin, I try to organise grassroots organisations. And so it goes…

Teacher Stories: Stories from the Edges of Language Teaching

'We are the stories we tell ourselves.' This book is a varied collection of non-fiction stories from working language teachers. It aims to show the highs and lows of our profession, and to make the valuable work that we do visible. These stories are sad, reflective, funny - and can each be read in one sitting. Want to take a look over the edge?

  • Author: Paul Walsh
  • Published: 2015-12-16 17:50:27
  • Words: 8097
Teacher Stories: Stories from the Edges of Language Teaching Teacher Stories: Stories from the Edges of Language Teaching