Special interest column: A (tefl) life less ordinary

In our new regular feature, Alastair Grant (IH San Isidro) tells us about life as an intrepid English teacher, 8,000 miles from home and in a far sunnier climate than his native North London: the joys, the sorrows, the good classes and the “improvable” classes, the highs and the hangovers – all things that relate to life as a TEFLer abroad. Join him on his unsteady journey, to share in his pain or simply to laugh at him.

Tefl should be for life, not just for Christmas. Discuss.

Just as seasons turn like the Wheel of Fortune itself, so the circle of TEFL life spins on – we have all these intrepid youngsters (or oldsters or mediumsters) intrepidly going to be intrepid in far-flung cities around the IH World, returning perhaps at Christmas to catch up with friends, to get yelled at again by mums and to all the while maintain a radio-silence with abandoned exes.

But how far from home are we really, conceptually and culturally?

Nick Kiley’s great article The Loneliness of the Long Distance Tefler explores just this notion – do we return with tall tales of derring-do to enrapture our land-lubbing friends like a Victorian anthropologist, finally stepping out of the steaming jungle, eager to prove how much we’ve changed for the better; or do we just slot right back into where we left off? Or a bit of both?

Indeed, after six years living abroad, London has become for me a land of perpetual Christmas: a Dickensian candy-caned paradise where everyone is always (generally) pleased to see me and spend at least a week eating leftover turkey and drinking brandy next to the cheery if clichéd glow of a home fire. A delirious fantasy, clearly… so why do this to myself (or yourself)?

And how did this happen to me? Well, let me take you back to January 2007 – where were you? I was getting off a 21-hour two-stop flight to Buenos Aries, trying to breathe in a city whose summer airs feel like having a wet sock stuffed, with some urgency, down your throat. I found my first few months here something of a culture shock, but then again, I was asking for it.

A year previous to my arrival in 2007, I had visited my adopted home, saw the weather, the food, the charming people and what I saw as the insouciant bon vivant lifestyle of the English teacher here and I thought to myself (if you’ll pardon the vernacular) “I wanna piece of that”. So I got it, although at first said piece did feel a wee bit like it was more than I could chew.

My very first evening here involved being met, at the friend’s apartment I was staying at by two of his local porteño friends, one of whom, let’s call him Juan, attempted to kiss me on the cheek in greeting. As I got over my humiliation at having recoiled in a fit of Englishness, I realised that, despite my travelling, this was going to be different, I was going to be living here and I had to get used to it, sharpish.

The same happened in the local supermarket where I naively believed that all I’d have to do would be to dump my foodstuffs on the little black conveyor belt and hand over my cash, no questions asked. Imagine my surprise when the supermarket cashier tried, as is fairly standard in South America, to chat to me. This I wasn’t prepared for and I stared blankly before saying my only Spanish word, “no”. Her look of shocked disappointment was only explained weeks later when I found out that it is standard in many supermarkets to ask shoppers when they pay, whether they’d like to donate a couple of coins to a local children’s charity. Not the best start.

It seemed even stranger that on top of all this, I was actually going to have to work as well. Not content with making me look stupid socially, clearly tefl also intended to make me look like a muppet in the classroom. I didn’t have to wait long for that, as I soon realised upon meeting the Argentine teachers with whom I shared the institute. Their encyclopaedic knowledge of my own language was breathtaking and embarrassing in equal measure. Mysterious and Tolkein-esque terminology such as “future perfect continuous” and “non-defining relative clause” were being bandied about with the consummate and easy skill of any Argentine football team to my awe and bafflement.

Indeed I may as well have been sitting in a lecture with the great Einstein himself as my colleague Silvana patiently tried to explain to me the structure of the second conditional – she filled the board with an equation so perplexing that I felt like I was my old, short-wearing six-year-old self sitting in Mr Sarabi’s maths class again.

More surprises were awaiting me in my first class of Upper Intermediate 12-year-olds, all of whom had a grasp of English that seemed impossible considering their age. I mean, really, I remember struggling through “je m’appelle Alastair” when I was twelve: how on earth were these guys capable of negotiating so adroitly that they shouldn’t be given any homework because their teacher last year had never given them any? Even given the enormity of the fib involved, I felt like applauding their argument as one would an eloquent if Machiavellian barrister.

I began to feel as though, far from being some kind of gold-dusted and soon-to-be-laurel-wearing native speaker, I was actually something of a liability, until I got my act together and started learning about English for myself. So I would spend copious amounts of time and coffee in the cafe round the corner lesson planning: poring over the Teacher’s Book as though it were a grimoire and trying to think how I’d be able to crowbar THAT activity into THAT class (the fitful and fateful beginnings of my Dogme pretensions).

So… the year flew by and I grew in confidence (if not ability) and yet, and yet… despite this pedagogical and personal evolution, as a “long distance tefler”, you’ll still notice that the minute you flop into the back of your parents’ car at the airport, their first question, (e.g. “why is your hair… like that?” or “have you been flossing?”) is banally apposite enough to pierce the armour of any life-changing ten-month stint on the other side of the planet. Any psychological progress you think you’ve made in the intervening period gets reduced to rubble. But it’s all worth it: just remind yourself that you’ll be getting on a plane as soon as the January hangovers start kicking in. And smile smugly.

Author’s Bio: Alastair is an English teacher Director of Studies and the Teacher Development Manager at International House in San Isidro. He holds an Honours Degree in English Literature and Philosophy from the University of Warwick in the UK, has completed the International House Certificate of Advanced Methodology and all modules of the Cambridge DELTA.
As Teacher Development Manager in San Isidro, Alastair organises and delivers sessions in teacher training both in-house and at local schools, institutions, and conferences, including the I.H. Director of Studies conference in London. His special interests are developing students’ receptive skills as well as studying Process Writing and Discourse Analysis.