Twenty Things In Twenty Years Part One: Falling Into A Me-Shaped Hole

In much the same way as I once found it inconceivable that I’d ever suffer the indignity of reaching the terrifying age of 30, so it seems preposterous that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my career in English Language Teaching! In acknowledgement and commemoration of this rather momentous life event, I’ve decided that over the course of the next twelve months I shall attempt to blog twenty pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned during my years at the chalk face . . . and in publishing and on the conference circuit.

In April 1993, I stumbled onto my one-month CTEFLA course at Westminster College, having spent the previous two years (since graduating in 1991) doing everything from building site labouring to making sandwiches in a factory canteen, from demonstrating ‘the ancient Chinese game of Jenga’ (TM) in Hamley’s the Toy Shop to buying and selling old records in the legendary and indeed infamous Music and Video Exchange empire, all the while trying my darndest to enjoy the many and varied delights, shall we say, that London’s nightlife had to offer. I was 24 and reaching some kind of burnout point. A change I was most definitely ready for!

jenga image

As with many native-speaker teachers, a career in education was certainly never something I’d planned on. In fact, it was a fateful conversation in a pub in Soho with an old friend, the splendidly named Julian Savage, that pushed me on down the road I’ve been exploring ever since. A few years older than me, I’d first encountered Julian in Our Price Hastings and our initial bond was to do with the fact we both sported bowl cuts and loved The Byrds and The 13th Floor Elevators. Julian had himself wandered into TEFL a few years earlier as a way to facilitate his wanderlust and peripatetic lifestyle. Anyway, he was briefly back from a sojourn in Iran. Or was it Ethiopia? Or Indonesia? Anyway, we retired to a watering hole to catch up and shoot the breeze. At some point, I mentioned I was in need of a change of scene and was contemplating heading off round the works in search of thrills and pastures new – at which juncture a CTEFLA was suggested. “Why would I want to be a teacher?” I asked incredulously. “I hated most of my teachers at school!” “Well,” Julian countered, “that’s as good a reason as any for becoming a teacher! Look on it as a firm of revenge.” And thus my fate was sealed!

With a full set of negative role models to kick against, I stashed two grand away during a gruelling six-month stint working bars seven nights a week and embarked on a whole new adventure. Now, here’s the thing: almost as soon as I’d finished my first twenty-minute teaching practice, I had a strange and most singular feeling – here was some kind of work for which being me was not only no longer a profound disadvantage, but where it may actually be an advantage! In every other form of paid employment I’ve ever had, with the possible exception of second-hand record store work, at some point or other being me caused problems. I struggled to confine myself to the (often stark) parameters of the work; I struggled to keep my big mouth shut when confronted with idiotic rules and jobsworths; I struggled not to give in to the overwhelming desire to gouge my own mind out in frustration at the sheer tedium of so much of it!

In many ways, teaching didn’t feel – and to some extent never really has felt – like real work at al, certainly not when compared to trying to prevent the local apes from ripping each other’s faces off on a Friday night’s pub crawl down the Old Kent Road! As such, it’s probably worth considering why that might be the case.

Obviously, much of the early appeal, apart from (and let’s be honest here) the thrill of being in close proximity to so many beautiful and interesting young people from all over the world, was down to the space teaching allowed for whatever kind of demented (albeit well-intentioned) attempts to create my own lessons I could muster. It took me probably far too long to realise that not only were my students not massively interested in lessons based around David Bowie‘s God Knows I’m Good or A Clockwork Orange, but also – more crucially – that they weren’t teaching much of real utility.


I was also slow to grasp that stumbling into class pretending to be drunk really wasn’t the best way of teaching the present perfect continuous, but I was still intoxicated by the freedom allowed me and by the plaudits of being ‘dynamic’ that students rained on me.

In retrospect I can see that a lot of poor teaching is excused – or possibly even validated – by a kind of pedagogical relativity, where we persuade ourselves that we teach as we wish to be taught, as though this justifies all, or where rampant experimentation is not only tolerated but actively encouraged. the point is, though, that teaching is a broad church and one that allows you to explore and work through all of this and more. Which is why becoming an English language teacher felt to me – and I’m sure to many many others – like falling into a me-shaped hole.

I later learned, of course, that the Subud quote on the back of one of the early Funkadelic LPs about freedom being free of the need to be free is profoundly true when it comes to teaching, and that it’s perfectly possible to still be both completely yourself in class and yet operate within clearly thought-out and even fairly narrow parameters.

But that, perhaps, is an area best left for another day!


16 responses

  1. OMG..I had a favourite lesson (for me) based on God knows I’m good too.Think the students were somewhat bewildered..

    1. That’s deeply odd!
      Great song on a great LP, but when I look back at the lesson, I wince!

      I did it with Upper-Int / Advanced classes and would begin by brainstorming differewnt kinds of crimes – maybe throwing in some extra supplementary vocab sheet. There might then have been some kind of discussion of any crimes they’d ever seen / read about, etc. The song was done as a gap-fill (but of course!) and was followed by a discussion of any new vocabulary (I now, I know . . . “what means A NATIONAL CONCERN?”!) before a few fairly trite comprehension questions and the icing on the cake – the role-play wherein students would take turns being the old woman, the security guard and other customers!

      1. I don’t have your photographic memory (!) but I know it involved a discussion about whether stealing was always wrong..agree with you about the album, one of my favourites still.

  2. Hugh,
    A very nice read (timely too as Bowie is about to release something new). It’s also the first time I’ve seen a post tagged with both Funkadelic and CTEFLA. Perhaps next time you could do one tagged with Lexical Priming and Bootsy Collins? Comprehended Input and The Fall?
    I managed quite a few Our Price branches, in fact, I worked for them for 10 years. My strategy was to gradually move as close to Highbury as possible in order to make night games a bit easier. To get to the Holloway Road branch from Telford in Shropshire took in quite a few strange moves (if somebody asks you to work in Kilburn just say ‘no!’).
    I’m still looking for the me-shaped-hole although I know what you mean. My worst classroom experimentation included a ping-pong table. Don’t ask. But if you follow the CELTA route and don’t work somewhere where you get good feedback or can visit other classes, experimentation is essential. A sea of bemused faces tells you a lot.
    Now I’m doing an MSc I find how unaware of the parameters I actually was, and now I am finding them they have fallen away again. It’s taken me 10 years to realise quite how bad I used to be and also how it will take me another ten to be half as good as I think I was.


    1. I often worry that the musical references are either self-indulgent tosh or else simply utterly bemusing for the average reader, so it’s always nice to see they’re not totally lost on everyone! Music has always been so much a part of me and my life that it just seems to seep in naturally. Also, I came into TEFL having previously been in a band for ages as well.

      I would like to hear the ping pong table story though.
      I do hope this thread is going to generate some confessional kind of responses!

  3. I’m certainly glad you undertook the journey to find your me-shaped hole and then went on to pave the way for others with your coursebooks and accompanying material. The first time I held you original Innovations books in my hands felt that finally someone had asked the right questions – my questions – about language and language use and provided some answers, though I was unable to put that into practice in the classroom until I came across your second attempt at Innovations plus the excellent teacher’s books that go with them. You won’t believe the amount of positive feedback I get from my students since I started working with your material. And a lot of it is probably due to me being able to be me with that material and thus authentic with my students and positive about my job. Thank you!

    1. Hi Antje –
      I’m almost blushing reading your post here.

      A thousand thank yous for such kind words and for following what I’ve been up to so keenly. It’s really lovely to know how much our books have meant to people. It really does make our efforts worthwhile.

      And to think . . . had it not been for a chance conversation in a pub twenty years ago!

  4. […] teaching lessons they love, but which don’t teach much of use, as talked about in this article by @hughdellar.  However, most participants agreed that if students enjoy a lesson, the teacher does, too and […]

  5. Hi. I hit your page for preposterous reasons from an island off Washington state in a country that once broke away from England. (We are ungrateful wretches.) Even more preposterous I did some teaching that was a tiny bit like what you did, though really different also. This has to be the silliest and ridiculous comment you have ever received. (I should not brag; it’s unseemly.) I hope everything is going well with you and my comment is absurd enough for you to realize that is it is not spam and not the product of an artificial intelligence.

    1. Hello there –
      As a connoisseur of the absurd, I am curious as to what exactly brought you to my site.
      Pray tell!

      I wrote in a post celebrating this blog’s first birthday about some of the weirder searches that seem to have somehow led folk here, so I do really want to know! Were you Dogme bathwater or Japanese taboos, for instance?

      I am also curious about the context in which your probably-fairly-dissimilar teaching once took place.

      1. Hi Hugh,

        First of all, I have never been to England, though my daughter studied in London for a year (at a remote branch of her American college). She almost got mugged and didn’t want to tell me about it. Perhaps she thought I would launch a thermonuclear missile toward the UK.(My father, whom I sort of killed) worked for the REAL Dr. Strangelove, if you’ve seen that cheerful movie.

        Second, my experience has been that I can offend just about anybody in 10 minutes. People who say, “I am open-minded; I am tolerant, etc.,” usually take me 15 minutes.

        For example, my daughter just married her female partner of more than 20 years under Washington state’s new homosexual marriage law. (Ruined my best joke – I use to call my daughter’s sweetie, “My daughter out of law.”) My daughter is co-mom to our eight-year-old granddaughter, who considers it perfectly normal to have two mommies who live in Seattle and two daddies (sperm donor and his partner) who live in Chicago.

        I am the founder and nominal head of the only atheist organization on Whidbey Island, where we live. I offended most of the atheists in this group, and most of them are currently shunning me. It’s pretty talented, I must say, to offend a group of atheists.

        I also volunteer for a local church. They pretend not to be offended by my atheism.

        Anyway, when my granddaughter was about three years old I began secretly blogging about her, using the secret name, “Random Granddaughter.” As she is now eight years old, and I am getting ready to die, I am printing out the blog for her to read at the age of 18 (which she probably won’t, because her mommies are kind of prissy prudes for lesbians, and don’t like her reading negative, morbid stuff) and are turning her into a very good person, in spite of my hopes she will continue to be a little hell on wheels. (For example, I was a high school teacher for a while, and one of my students later (after graduation) murdered her new husband.) Perhaps reading my blog (at 18, when she can demand to read it, being an adult, legally), she will be inspired to murder a spouse, mail or female? As you can see I have a bad attitude, although I have been married for 47 years. I have a joke about my wife and I killing each other. Are you married? If so, you probably know what I am talking about.

        I was printing out pictures in the printed edition of my old blog I am hiding away for my granddaughter to get on her 18th birthday and I stole a picture of a cover from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which you have displayed on your web site. I am explaining to my granddaughter to read, after I am dead, about how I love books such as 1984, THE LORD OF THE FLIES, and CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

        In my last job before I retired, I worked for a public library system near Seattle (King County Library System). (I had 17 jobs – just counting the full time ones, and not including the part time, in between other jobs jobs, etc. which probably come to 30 or so), I taught computer classes, mostly to new immigrants, who use libraries in the 21st century as earlier immigrants to the United States used Ellis Island. (My Ukranian maternal grandmother landed there shortly after 1900, after losing a baby on the way over.)

        I wasn’t teaching ESL strictly speaking, but much of what I did fell into that category. I also trained volunteers, who also came from the same countries. My favorite, off the top of my head, was Mary from Peru. I called her “Maria.” She politely corrected me. “My name is Mary.”

        If you know the American Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue,” (which I am sure you can find on YouTube). Mary’s story is sort of a feminine version.

        “Why are you Mary instead of Maria?” I asked her after I got to know her well.

        “My father liked American movies. He named his daughters after American actresses after American movie actresses and movie characters.” All his daughters are highly educated: psychiatrist, linguist, and Mary is an industrial engineer.

        In high school in Peru, her adviser told her, “You are good at math. An appropriate job for you [a woman, the implied message] is to be an accountant.

        Mary, “Thank you for your advice. I plan to be an industrial engineer.” After she graduated from college in Peru as an industrial engineer she attended the University of Washington to get a Masters degree. (Where I met her.) She worked for a local power company for a while. Now, she works for Boeing. Johnny Cash’s boy named Sue gets into fights (in the song). Mary never fights. She just politely does what she wants to do.

        Anyway, I am not sure the mommies will let Anne Elise read 1984, and LORD OF THE FLIES, and CLOCKWORK ORANGE, because they believe in positive thinking. I am a cynical and gloomy dystopian, not sure civilization will survive the century, so I am telling Anne Elise (my granddaughter) to be prepared to fight and hunt and kill. And that’s how I got to your blog, buddy.

      2. Wow! I’m slightly stunned by this post, I have to say, and both delighted and bemused as to the random connections life makes possible in this Internet age.
        Despite being somewhat at a loss for words as to how best to respond, I guess I should really just feel flattered to have come into your orbit as you went abut such an excellent task.
        I sporadically try and post on a blog I’m writing for my daughter, Maia (who’s just turned four) to read when she’s 18, so understand this impulse.
        I also think recommending such mighty works as 1984 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE should stand your granddaughter in pretty good stead.
        Stuff like that, along with tons of other similar bits and bobs, certainly helped me deal with the weirdness and sporadic wonder of life down here on planet earth (I even ended up doing an English Lit major!). She’s lucky to have you around still to think of these things.

        As for offending people, it seems this is another thing we maybe have in common.
        I seem to have somehow acquired a reputation within ELT (English Language Teaching) as a troublemaker through sheer dint of having opinions, which some folk would prefer one didn’t have. Ever!
        So it goes.

        By the way, if, in your bid to put your life in order, you ever discover that either you or any friends of yours, have stashes of obscure or unusual US records from 1965 to 1975, do let me know!
        As well as teaching and writing and blogging, I also obsessively collect music from this era and am always interested to see what folk have!
        One of the great joys for me in my career has been the fact that I get to travel to places to talk to teachers and, whilst there, get to go record shopping in old second-hand stores and turn up lost gems!

  6. I should add, that although I am preparing to die, and recently had a TIA (in English, medical jargon for a “mini-stroke”) my doctor tells me that he thinks I might survive for another 10 years. So I try to be prepared for anything. Out here, we are supposed to have a giant earthquake any day now. The last one was in 1700. Be prepared. Then relax.

    1. Be prepared then relax is pretty sound advice for living in general, but also for teaching, I’d say.
      Sorry to hear about the mini-stroke, but I suspect that preparing to die actually makes the event itself slightly less daunting to confront as and when one has to.

  7. Off the top of my head, I don’t know that I have anything useful or interesting from 1965-1975. I tend to be a “hoarder” by inclination, so I run the risk of dying in a massive pile of junk (as many people do). My wife is a “tosser,” by inclination, so she throws out stuff we end up eventually needing. Between the two of us, we seem to muddle through.

    My wife and I were married in 1965, the same year my father died. My family is more adventurous than I am. My paternal cousin move to Taiwan to learn Chinese. After becoming fluent, she and her Taiwanese husband started a company called Graco that makes baby furniture, car seats, and the like. After she became a millionaire, her daughter received the first cochlear implant received by a Taiwanese child. Grateful for her good fortune, cousin Joanna set up a foundation to benefit other Taiwanese children who could benefit from similar surgery (and the training needed as well). She’s no longer alive, but she’s a bit of a Taiwanese national heroine. Not bad for a Jewish girl from Southern California.

    My brother can play about any Western stringed instrument (guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, etc.) He spent three years in Senegal in the Peace Corps with his first wife. At the time (maybe today, also), Senegal held a national battle of the bands. The local village band discovered my brother’s guitar ability and asked him to play lead guitar. Although he cares not that much for rock and roll (what they played), he is good enough to play about anything. They began winning the elimination contests and appeared to be heading for the finals. As a very white face on a stage of very black musicians, my brother began feeling uncomfortable. Periodically, he asked his fellow performers in Wolof (which he became fluent in), “Are you guys sure this is OK?” Not as unkindly as it sounds, they responded, “Just shut up and play, white boy.” However, when they eventually reached the national finals, it turned out the winning band would always come from the village of somebody in the national government, so my brother was quite relieved not to become one of the champion musicians of Senegal.

    1. Hey again –
      Very much enjoying these little exchanges.
      An interesting little sideline to the usual; stuff I end up chatting about here!

      I also suffer from being a bit of a hoarder, especially books and records!
      I’m guessing, though, that the word TOSSER doesn’t have the same meaning over there in the States as it does here!!

      The family stories are excellent and I enjoyed them very much.
      I’d love to have heard the kind of stuff your brother was playing in Senegal!
      Don’t suppose he has any recordings left from those days?

      My own wife is Chinese-Indonesian, and we met while while I was working in Jakarta many moons ago.
      She has a sister in Singapore, a brother still in Jakarta and another sister in Portland, Oregon – not a million miles from your good self, I think!

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