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Resurrection

Just over two years ago, I put this site/blog to one side. My career as an English teacher in Mexico had ended. What more did I have to say on the subject? I had new projects to explore and develop. But life often works in circles and very soon I will be returning to Mexico, resuming my interrupted career as a TEFLing toe rag in Tacolandia. So it’s time to breathe new life into this corner of the web and continue where I left off.

I have a number of plans for this blog. Shortly, I will be placing it with a new host, with a brand new sparkling template and its own proper domain name. I shall expand it – I have lots of ideas including lesson plans, online lessons and plenty of useful resources for students and teachers alike. Bits and pieces on TELFing and life abroad teaching English. I also aim to be a little more Latin America centric, although Mexico will remain the prime focus. A Facebook Page to accompany it? Maybe. But most of all, I’m looking forward to posting regular articles, exploring and poking fun at language. The English language in particular.

Did you previously read this blog? Was the RSS feed still in your Google Reader list? Welcome back. A first time reader? Just a plain old welcome for you.

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The TEFL Blunder

As I wind up my career as an English teacher in Mexico City, I can reflect and assess the last five and a half years or so. Were there any big blunders along the way? Oh yes. One stands out in particular. I’ll come to that in a moment. I became an English teacher in Mexico City because I wanted to live in Mexico City. Not necessarily because I wanted to be an English teacher, although that did have its appeal. And if it wasn’t something I enjoyed, I dare say I wouldn’t have spent all this time doing it.

But that’s why most people become English teachers abroad. The desire to travel, and plant roots somewhere different.It’s something that any native English speaker can do. Almost. I’m getting closer to my point – the big blunder. The truth of the matter is that the TEFL industry isn’t a world full of regulations, standards or qualifications. There are some recognised courses and certificates, but the most rigorous of those are one month intensive teacher training courses. If you don’t have one? No problem, you’ll still find work. I did take a course, by the by. But  how many other educational jobs for teachers from the developed world can be walked into with such ease?

Because the fact is, if you are a native English speaker, you can be a TEFL teacher. Some of those who’ve made a real career from real qualifications might disagree with me. They might say that not everyone can be an English teacher. But they’re wrong. What they mean to say is that not everybody can be a good English teacher. I remember my first class, back in 2005. How to judge myself?

By the standards of the professional teacher, I wasn’t ‘brilliant’. I didn’t know a relative clause from my elbow. The subjunctive was something that needed the attention of a doctor. But I’m a quick learner, and I’ve worked in industries where I have been required to coach people for most of my working life. I knew if a sentence was wrong or not, and could rapidly work out why, and share the information in an easy to digest manner. And over the years, I’ve developed a very thorough understanding of grammar, vocabulary and context. So I might not have been brilliant from day one, but I was learning the ropes in the same way 95% of TEFL teachers learn the ropes. I survived. So, for the most part, did my students.

A couple of years ago I received an email from someone I know from the digital world. Could he be an English teacher? What steps should he take to make it in Mexico City? I get asked the question a lot. Few ever actually make the jump. My response had become automated. Sure you can. Take a course with this teacher-training company. Get a few jobs, and away you go. That was my big blunder. I knew the chap only from his posting on the internet. Had I thought he might really, actually, whole heartedly go for the jump, then maybe I’d have given him alternative advice.

Perhaps I’d have suggested that his inability to write a coherent, grammatically correct sentence with half decent spelling might hold him back. Might make life difficult for him. There might be better career paths for him to take. I didn’t. I blundered. The truth might hurt, but the enormous amount of time and money that was subsequently wasted hurt more, I’m sure. Prospective TEFL teachers do need to be honest with themselves. You’ve don’t need to be the next Shakespeare. You might not even really understand what ‘grammar’ actually means. But you should at the very least have a decent grasp of the language. At the very least.

The chap failed his course. Miserably. Despite an extension and extra tuition. He did, however, find some classes anyway. Proving my point – anyone can become a TEFL teacher. But it was all too much hard work, and he soon returned from whence he came. Proving that while anyone can become an English teacher, not everyone should become an English teacher.

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Septic Tanks

The most oft asked question for a Brit teaching English in Mexico City is….what’s the difference between British English and American English? The answer I give depends largely on my mood at that moment. Perhaps I’m feeling like a smug, superior little Englander, in which case I’ll tell them that the difference is we Brits speak English.

Or perhaps I’m in a humble, post empire mood, in which case I’ll tell them that British English is now the junior partner in this global language of ours. I might even go further with the junior partner argument. But no, I’m simply not qualified, nor was my education expensive enough, to be able to argue with a man of such high post as the Prime Minister of the UK.

If I’m not being daft, I’ll simply tell them that the Americans have made some obvious improvements to the spelling of the language, such as removing the random ‘u’ in many words. Humor, not humour. I may suggest that American English is the older variety of the two. And that American accents are generally milder than the many British variants. Some of which are so coarse and unintelligible as to leave the impression you’ve just been conversing with a drunk caveman.

The common use vocabulary is essentially the same, with just the occasional word tripping us up. Brits were mystified when Ronald Reagan described Libya’s Colonol Gaddafi as flakey. Did we hear right? The US just bombed Libya because their leader has some sort of skin ailment? Us Brits need to be even more careful when over the other side of the pond. Declaring that you wouldn’t mind a fag would raise a few eyebrows. In certain parts of the bible belt, it might cause a raised shotgun and request to leave the premises.

But really these are all minor differences, of the sort which exist not only between the two nations, but within the borders of each country. The real difference? I’m inclined to believe that British English is so much more fun. This may, of course, simply be my British bias, and because I’ve been exposed to British English just that little bit more. But British slang seems so much more random, mystifying and varied. Cockney Rhyming slang has no equal. British slang also tends to have a little more wit to it. Of course, this is all entirely subjective opinion. The septic tanks may beg to differ. Wankers… 🙂

There’s more subjective opinion on this weeks Americana podcast by the BBC, which is always a good show, and will explain my expletive at the end of the previous paragraph. It’s too good a word to let pass by without use. You can use on friends in jest, or non friends to offend. You should probably assume that I’m using it in the former.  This weeks episode, Big Cities and Small Towns features just a little bit of slang based audio journalism at the end, which I’ve posted below.

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Everyone fancies packing their bags and wandering off to live in another country at some stage in their lives. I’m pretty sure for a lot of the good citizens of the UK that ‘stage of life’ starts at around 10 years of age and continues until the 80th birthday. Or death. Whichever comes sooner.

How easy is it? Really, it’s very easy. You just save a bit of cash, pack your bags, buy a plane ticket, get on plane, get off plane, book into a hostel or somewhere cheap until you get more permanent digs. Arrange to do a TEFL course with a reputable provider, and providing you have a little savvy and aren’t completely illiterate….voila. You’ve done it.

Don’t read too much into the negative stuff you find on the web, and don’t worry yourself too much about the tales of red tape that accompanies virtually every online forum you’ll stumble across. Corruption is everywhere, and as a result, you’ll be able to work a way round the bureaucratic mess.

For Mexico I highly recommend Teachers Latin America. It’s run by a guy called Guy. Which is a good introduction to homophones – he should use it more often as an intro to the world of grammar. Maybe he does, and I missed it when I did the TEFL course. Book a course with him and let me know. He’s a helpful chap anyway, and will guide you through the maze of accomodation, employment and socializing as well as how to actually pass on your native language skills to Mexican students.

Letters of recommendation are cheap and easy. I could waffle on about the merits of the course material etc. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. I took the course just over five years ago, and I’m still here, still teaching English, and still in touch with Guy. And happy enough to write up a recommendation once in a while.

This time, the ‘post of recommendation’ is to celebrate the unveiling of his new website – which was long overdue! Although I shouldn’t poke fun, seeing as I did offer to help design a new one about a year or so ago and never got round to it. He’s also (re)starting a blog. He had a pretty good one that died a couple of years ago at the hands of some unruly Terror Bytes, but hopefully this one will stay the distance!

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Getting Involved

Teaching English involves many things. Vocabulary, grammar, listening, context, conversation and many other bits and pieces that make up a language. But it can also be more specific, when required. There’s no point teaching a businessman or woman the ins and outs of zoology when they deal with accountancy on a daily basis. Unless the student has such an interest!

Most students appreciate involving their industry in classes, and there are numerous ways to do this. Just chatting about what they do exactly. Bringing in audio of video that is related. I tried a different approach recently. The idea started out as a simple ‘factory tour’ where they would show me around their plastics factory.

But the idea evolved. Firstly into a factory tour which I would video, so that we could go back into the classroom and discuss their processes, look up and bits of vocab that didn’t come straight to mind, and generally analyse the workings of the factory floor. Later, we decided to produce a promotional video as a learning project.

It’s fun to do, involves everyone, is a great way to bring their industry into the classroom and of course, there’s a final product to show for all the effort. It took a fair few classes to produce. Firstly a discussion where we decided what we wanted to film and talk about. Then script writing, for both spoken and text content. Then two takes to create the video.

The film might not earn anyone any Oscars for acting, nor me any awards for videography. But I’ve looked at YouTube videos where people have done something similar, and this is much better than any I’ve seen. So I’m happy with the end result. I hope the gang at the factory are as well.

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Most of the work I do with my students is through course books, video material, audio or conversation. But I do create specific lessons from time to time, or collect free to use lessons from various TEFL sites on the internet. What to do with them? Sadly, over the last five years, I’ve lost most of them, having hidden them in folders on my hard drive. Accidental deletion, hard drive failures, OS installation – none of those do the files any good!

A nw tactic. WordPress supports Box.net accounts within a sidebar widget. So all lesson plans will go in there from now on. In the cloud, available to all, safe from my delete finger. The first lesson I’ve added is one I created about the History of Plastics for some students working for a plastics firm, with four typical exercises. It can be downloaded by anyone, I believe, from my sidebar.

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