Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Summer off!

This is where I'll be hiding...
So don't try follow me.
Photo by A Guy Taking Pictures
I'm taking the summer off Teaching English in a Foreign Land to focus on my novel. There comes a time in every wannabe novelist's life when they realise that unless they buckle down and get on with it, and put distrations to one side, then the novel will always be an unpublished novel. And with two kids to look after now time is precious, so blogging has to take a hit.

This doesn't mean you can't buy my book though. I know, shameless self advertising but that's the whole point of this blog.

I'll be back in September though hopefully. I'll still be posting from Intrepid Den, so keep reading. Have a great summer, see you again when term starts....

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

DELTA a waste of time, blossoming students, and living well as a TEFL teacher

Here’s part 2 of last week’s blog.
How many of your students
make it into a flower?
Photo by l'Ours
5)      Only one or two students really blossom

Why is that? How is it possible that you teach the 3rd conditional, or some tricky ‘turn’ phrasal verbs, but only one or two students will actually remember, and be able to produce it, in the next class? I guess I’ve known this for a while, but it’s only really this year that I’ve taken on board the fact that no matter how hard we try to improve our students English, only a couple will really absorb the language we throw at them. 

What I noticed this year is that it’s always the ones who are avid note takers. You know, the ones who are always asking what everything means, who copy everything you write on the board, who are the ones who use those turn phrasal verbs in their next writing assignment. 

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was avid note takers, not just for the sake of copying, but because they actually want to learn the word, or maybe be an English teacher one day, go and live in an English speaking country and be able to sing at karaoke without everyone taking the piss out of their accent.

6)      Doing a DELTA was a waste of time

There, I’ve said it. After all those blogs I wrote about DELTA, saying how marvellous and life changing it was blah blah blah, now I’ve gone and done a 360 and decided it was all a load of tosh. Why oh why did I give up a year of my life, my writing, my hair, and torment myself with the pressure of doing a DELTA?

Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly. Of course it wasn’t a waste of time and I’m a much better teacher, at least in the eyes of Cambridge, but there was a load of crap on that course, wasn’t there?

I mean, really, what was the point in memorising so much terminology for that exam? I spent a good thirty minutes a day memorising words like catenation, onset, and morphology. Who in their right mind would ever use these words while teaching? It’s insane.

It’s funny but one of the main areas I had to improve on my DELTA was drilling. I still drill in class, don’t get me wrong, but not to the extent it was necessary to get a decent mark in Module 2. That brings me on to all the time we needed to prepare one hour of teaching. The reading, preparing, practising that we had to do was so unrealistic to the real world that it all seems a bit silly. I mean who has a spare 10 hours a week to plan for one class? And don’t even get me started on Module 3. Planning a course for a bunch of imaginary students I’ll never teach…please.

Saying that, if you want a career in TEFL and do want to improve the way your teach, then the DELTA is worth it, just be prepared for jumping through the Cambridge hoops to get there.

7)      Teaching phonetics is useless unless you go over it often

I made the same mistake again this year. I’ve done it two years running now. At the start of term I get all excited about phonetics and firmly believe that it’s a great tool for improving student’s pronunciation. Or at least showing them visually where they are going wrong. I spent about two weeks with several of my classes going over the chart in detail, doing activities, and drilling. For a few weeks I used phonetics actively in class, did a few songs, and there seemed to be progress. However, as always, exams and syllabus got in the way and pronunciation got pushed to one side in January. Stupidly I never got back into it again this year. The other week I did a few games to try to remind students of the sounds, but it was useless, half of them had forgotten.

So there’s your lesson. Don’t even bother with phonetics unless you are going to do it regularly. I hope I remember next term.
Hard work never killed anyone...not in TEFL anyway.
Photo by kylesteed

8)   You can live comfortably and support a family as a TEFL teacher in Spain, or at least in Sevilla.

After all those years of worrying whether I’d be able to survive while having kids as a TEFL teacher I can now safely say that I can. It’s hard work, and I have to do extra business classes early in the morning, which means long days, falling asleep on the metro in the afternoon, and getting home knackered a couple of nights a week, but it’s all worth it. Luckily I am a B1 and B2 oral examiner too, which definitely helps get that extra cash over the year to pay for the extras.

We still live quite simply at the moment, we rarely go out in the evenings or travel much, but that’s mainly because we two little monsters to look after, but we get by and enjoy life. Hopefully when my wife goes back to work we’ll be able to afford a few luxuries too, maybe get a car and have a couple of decent holidays a year.

So if you’re wondering about whether you can afford to teach English and have children, then the answer is yes, you can, but you have to work your arse off.

So what have you learnt this year? Enlighten me.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

FCE keeps me sane, Spanglish is real, troublesome students…

Sometimes you get to a point as a TEFL teacher and wonder if you know it all. I mean, how difficult is it to teach kids how to put an ‘s’ at the end of a verb, or help them pronounce like, like ‘like’, and not like ‘lick.’ 

After twelve years of teaching I’ve built up a fair amount of knowledge, techniques, and have found my ‘style’ of doing classes, but if I really think about it, I’ve still learnt a lot this year. No one likes a know-it-all anyway, especially me.

Here are eight things I’ve learnt this year as a TEFL teacher, spilt over two blogs.

What's round the corner?
Photo by Epcott Legacy
1)     Troublesome classes are always round the corner

After dealing with three rather demanding, competitive and extremely rude teenage girls a couple of years back, I thought I’d had my worst possible class ever. There was some serious tension in the class between them, me, and the two poor lads who were objected to nasty abuse for a good nine months. In the end, after seven months of battling, and loads of patience (and a bollocking from me and the director) I whipped them into shape and they started to behave like civilised human beings. One has now become a charming young lady, the other two left, thanks god. I was adamant that I couldn’t possibly get a worse class and would never have to endure such a horrific group of adolescents. I was wrong, or I thought I was for at least three months.

Last September I was dished out another tricky, devious, and complicated class. This time the problem was some  lads. For about two months I had nothing but attitude, boisterous showing off, and mini wars. At times they were funny, but it was their immaturity that really got to me. I had endless talks with the class about their way in class, and lack of work done. In the end, after a disastrous lesson where only three people had done their homework, I lost it. 

The next class I had them sat in rows and made a speech about how there were six students who were causing problems, wasting their time, their parent’s money and their colleague’s education. I made them present to the rest of the class about why they were at the academy, how they were going to change their attitude and what their parents would say if they found out about their behaviour. After a few tears, it worked. Since then they’ve become one of my favourite classes, we get on really well now, and their marks have improved. But it just goes to show, no matter how long you've been in an academy and have worked up a decent reputation, you can still get those tricky classes. 

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Intrepid Den: COSTA RICA

Here's the latest post from Intrepid Den in Costa Rica.

With incredulity, I watched my bag shoot out on to the console at San Jose airport, like a torpedo from a submarine! I was so sure I wouldn't see if for days, if ever, that I'd even stashed emergency supplies of everything including tobacco, into my carry on luggage. Some things I can do without, but tobacco isn't one of them...

San Jose, from the sky looks like one enormous caravan park – colourful, ordered, clean and constructed, unlike the everywhere else I'd seen which just looks like one huge shanty town thrown together with no consideration – and that's probably exactly what had happened. It was hot but not debilitatingly so and it was cloudy. It's green and pleasant and clean – lovely! A man holding a taxi sign asked if I needed help. I always need help but didn't say that. Instead, I said I was looking for the bus station. In no time, were walking out the airport – him wheeling my bag whilst I trotted along behind. We had negotiated a price to Ciudad Colon – my next stop and it seemed reasonable - £20 and no language barriers. He spoke fluent English and he said that lots of people in Costa Rica did. So far, so good/excellent. There are cars everywhere and most of them are Japanese – I am surprised as the USA has such a presence here, so much so that a lot of money in circulation are dollars and the new bus terminal is called the Coca Cola Terminal – no mistaking that one then.

We pulled into Ciudad Colon and found a bank so that I could pay him. It threw out five brightly coloured, parrot faced notes worth £25 each and he just rolled his eyes when I gave him one. He had no change. No one had any change, even the shops didn't have any change so in the end, I gave him 20,000 colon and he gave me back $10 complaining that he'd lost money...

I got out my old joke of a phone which I hadn't used for two months and dialed a number. Ten minutes later, Paul who looks uncannily exactly like Tony Soprano arrived in his huge 4 wheel drive necessity to meet me. Paul is a friend of my friend Daniel Dresner and even though we have never met before, we gave one another a great big hug, loaded me up and off we went to the 4 Monkeys Ranch, deep inside the tropical rainforest terrain of Costa Rica.

This ranch is huge and lush and modern. It looks like a kind of huge hacienda except the attention to detail – like mosaic walls, swimming pool, palapas roofs, guest house bigger than my house, every fixture and fitting, in fact every single thing in and on this ranch, makes this ranch a place of wonder and intense natural beauty in total empathy with the wonder and intense natural beauty that is Costa Rica! Paul introduced me to Dunia, his girlfriend, who is as welcoming and lovely as he is. They have never met me before, know nothing about me but as Paul said, if I am a friend of Daniel's then that's good enough for them! Thank you Daniel!

Sunday, 7 June 2015


Here's the latest blog from Intrepid Den, tinged with sadness at the end.

This is possibly the most bonkers day of my life. Maria's friend Hector arrived in his big 4 wheel drive truckette to take me to Santa Marta. Maria hitched a lift and told me that he'd take me to Minca for 50,000 pesos – all of £12.50. I'd read that I could get there for 5,000 so declined the offer. We dropped Maria off at the market clutching an enormous rolled up orange thing which might have been a single mattress, but this is Colombia, so who knows what it was. Maria and I hugged and kissed, as I knew we would. I thought of taking a photo but somehow, the moment just got lost and Hector took me to Casa Familiar and the lovely Fabio, who once again embraced me like a lost lover. He took my enormous bag from me and locked it away, I reassured him that I would be back on Saturday and off I went to the ATM twice – it is so difficult to just get what you want vis a vis money withdrawals. And then to the supermarket to stock up on rum (well, what else was I going to do for three days in the mountains) and then to the chicken place to stock up on protein.

All ready, I headed for the place where I was assured, I could get a collectivo taxi to Minca except that I just couldn't find this place. “Minca” they told me, was all I had to say and as if by magic, it would all become real. I said “Minca” here, I said “Minca” there, I said “Minca” everywhere and no one had a clue. One kid hanging out of the door of a bus beckoned me to get on and in no time at all, beckoned me to get off – I didn't even have to pay but where was I? And NO ONE spoke English. Finally, a bus stopped, I said “Minca” and he waved me on. Well, we drove around Santa Marta to parts I have never seen before. We went near to the bus terminal, where I was convinced he would drop me off, except we didn't even stop at the terminal. The next thing, we were driving around a new housing estate which looked absolutely bloody awful and then there was only me on the bus. I said, once again, “Minca” and he slapped his head with a gesture which meant that he had totally forgotten that I wanted to go there. By this time, we weren't even on what we would call a “road”, this was just dust and gravel.

Never mind, he was on a mission to get me to where I needed to go. He drove past what passes as bus stops, not even bothering to stop, just gesticulating that there would be another bus along in a minute. And then finally, on a sand road, to what seemed like nowhere, he told me to get off because this was where I needed to be. I got off and all I could see was one shop and a few motorbikes. The driver gestured to the motorbikes and drove off. “Minca”, I said again not believing that I would ever get there and a kid on a motorbike said “Si” and gunned his motorbike into action.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Intrepid Den: Taganga Part 2

Here's part 2 of Intrepid Den's trip in Columbia.

Day 4

A strong wind gusted through and blew everything everywhere. Chico said it was unusual to have wind at this time of year and called it Viento del Loco – you can guess what that means. It seemed like a good day to replenish food supplies. Some of the little older shops have resisted change and still have goods stocked on shelves behind a counter. A couple of enterprising souls more geared up for tourists, have gone upmarket and opened bright new shops on the front with a more self service feel – except the booze that is, which is stashed firmly away. With drink, it's the same everywhere - it's all locked away and yet I don't see anyone drinking illicitly – maybe it's because it is all locked away. Anyway, I selected a pineapple as big as a baby, carrots that look as if they've been grow in the ground rather than on a production line and many other things besides. It filled an enormous bag I had a job to carry and then he told me the price – 8000 pesos. How much!? I mentally gasped, thinking I'd been massively overcharged but then realised it was only £2 – I keep forgetting to knock off three noughts and divide by 4. Once you do that, everything is nothing.

Chico also owns a restaurant – a pizzeria – he is Italian after all and tonight was the opening. I'm not sure if it's been closed for refurbishment or whether it's just opened, but there was a little party and everyone in the house was invited, including me. I think I am the only “guest” but I simply don't know for sure. Once again, I had to explain my “alergia” to a disbelieving crowd who were simply not having it. An enormous slice of pizza was proferred my way – it looked and smelt so GOOD. My mouth salivated – I think I may have drooled. What was I to do? I gratefully accepted it and ate my first pizza for over 15 years and it was just magnificent! The melted, creamy cheese caressed the roof of my mouth, the chirizo exuded paprika and a meaty tang tantalized my tastebuds and the crispy bread base just seemed to dissolve like a shortbread biscuit. I couldn't even think or see. I could only taste and make strange noises closely associated with love. The damage was done. What could I do but have another slice – in for a penny and all that, and then another and then another. I was momentarily so satiated that when I washed it down with cold Colombian beer from the bottle, I felt like a Roman emperor or even Bacchus himself. If this was the beginning of a downward path in the epicurean stakes, then saddle me up and let's get going!


“I told you so”, I felt like saying when everyone gasped at my golf ball eyes in the morning. “This is what happens when I eat wheat , never mind when I eat wheat AND cheese. “ But you know what, I really didn't care, it was worth it and besides, I'm not exactly here on the pull, so to speak. Thinking about it, I haven't seen one attractive man the whole time I've been here apart from the jet black man who drums up custom for Super Mable and the like, but I wouldn't say he is from these parts – not with those sculpted cheek bones and body of hewn ebony. But I digress...

Despite the visible disability, I once again headed for the beach, sunglasses firmly in place. Today, I thought, would be a good day to invest in a snorkel so that I could at least keep my face out of other people's and for long periods of time, in the water. It was great! I could just swim. Snorkelling gives swimming a whole new purpose. Even when there is nothing to look at, and there isn't, the sound of your own breathing is so relaxing. I swam over to the rocks on one side and then swam across the bay to the rocks on the other side. When I finally took the mask off, the pressure was so intense, I thought it might pull my eyes out and leave them dangling on my chest like in a Cormac McCarthy novel. I think, in some weird way, it might have also reduced the swelling or was that just in my imagination?

Back at Villa Mandela, there was a gorgeous young girl, not unlike Hale Berry, swinging in a hammock. Imagine my surprise when she turned out to be from Boston and spoke ENGLISH!!!!!! I was beside myself. I haven't spoken in my native tongue to anyone who also speaks it since I left England. Even Andree in San Agustinillo was a native French speaking Canadian. She is here teaching English on a government programme. The Colombians have finally realised that if no one here speaks English, it will impede their progress. This seems unfair, but it is, however, true. The amount of times I've tried to explain to people that if you can speak English, you can speak to the world, is multitudinous. She is on a placement in the dire town called Baranquilla that we sped through on the way to Santa Marta, thanking god that none of us had to get off there. She agrees that it is a stink hole and unfortunately, is there for a year! But in any case, I am so happy that, at last, there is someone who speaks my language!


Imagine my shock when I got up the following morning and found 2 other newcomers – one from New York and one from Bogota chatting in English! They asked if I missed anything from home – yes, CONVERSATION! So I got their life stories in a couple of hours. Like the Bostonian last night, the New Yorker is here teaching English, but in Bogota. When I mentioned my horror at all the desperate people in Bogota, once again, it was received with bewilderment – “what desperate people?”. How can they not see them, they are everywhere!.
My intuition tells me that the original Europeans settlers have abandoned the heat and chaos of the coast and headed inland to cooler climes, thus leaving the Caribs to dance and party and, to an extent, get left behind in the development stakes. But if it means they have time to pause for a little dance whenever they like – and they do it all the time, who, I wonder, is having the better time?

Somehow, it was cloudy (which I didn't expect – ever) and stocks were running low, so I decided to head back to Santa Marta to shop. I flagged down a really knackered old van, squashed aboard and 10 minutes later, I was further away than when I began. There is no route, no timetable and no reason. We finally rumbled off when the bus was full and rolled out of one town and into the other. I decided to try another restaurant for lunch which I hadn't noticed before even though it was within throwing distance of Casa Familiar and who should be in there but Fabio. He greeted me like a lost lover and I think I managed to explain that I would be back there for a night before returning to Cartagena – at least I hope that's what he thought I said... I've got a friend, Ray, in England who is fluent in Spanish, translating things for me so that when I do finally show up there, I can flash my laptop at Fabio and all will be understood...

Other than that, not much to report except to say that when the sun doesn't shine, the whole place seems so much calmer. It could also be the calm before the storm both in the weather and as the whole place gears up for Easter. They're even giving Villa Mandela a good clean (apart from my room of course...), although the newcomers complained of ants in their beds. They asked if I had them too – I didn't have the heart to tell them I had air con and I didn't even have flies, let alone ants.


My last day at Villa Mandela and I decided to, once again, walk over to Playa Grande. The Colombian girl who works here, thinking I hadn't been before gave me three warnings: never to walk there alone, to take at least 2 litres of water and NEVER to be caught out by the midday sun – all of which I'd done the last time...

I wanted to try out my new snorkel, having been told that there was so much more to see. And there was! Near the shore, there were lots of tiny fish and over near the rocks, a bigger one that would look totally at home in a tropical fish tank and then I saw absolutely shoals of the lesser spotted peeled off beer bottle labels lurking in the shadows. They were everywhere! I doubt this was what everyone was raving about, but that's all I could see and god knows I tried. I diced with death to outmanoeuvre the boats going to and fro and swam the width of the bay. I passed other snorkellers equally surprised – I could have stuck my face in the aquarium back at the hostel and seen more, but never mind, it was a good swim. I'm told that at Tairona National Park, nearby, there is coral and all sorts and as I am so close, I will almost certainly go despite the hour trek to get there – I've got good strong legs that can take me anywhere so why not?

I treated myself to a boat ride back. It only cost 5000 pesos (£1.25) and I was the only passenger aboard . I could see the path I walked and it looked treacherous! I did try to get the anchor man to take a photo of me but when I checked, there were just my feet – how does that happen? Lunch beckoned and whilst woofing down another super meal, I got talking to a French Canadian who's been coming here for 7 years and confirmed my thoughts – when he first came, there was one bar, one bakers, one coffee shop, a few rooms to rent and no litter. How times change.

In the evening, Back at Villa Mandela, there were more people coming and going and even more little boys than usual all sitting around the PC where they sit for hours playing computer games. I once again talked to the Bostonian girl, Alana. I asked what she does in the day – lays in the hammock mostly. I suggested we walk to Playa Grande together on Thursday and she was all for it. So, as usual, I have made a friend just as I am leaving but at least, this time, I'm not leaving for another city, just another hostel. She drank a few beers “Aguilla” which means “eagle” (suddenly the bonkers Werner Herzog film “Aguilla, Wrath of God” made sense with the little wings on his helmet) and I drank wine, trying not to look like a total wino, but I don't know why I worry because no one here cares what you do. As I keep saying – this is Colombia and tomorrow is another leg of the adventure when I will be way up the hill at Casa Italia sharing a room with another girl for a whole week – god have mercy on her – I can't even share a room with a boyfriend for a week without both of us wanting to kill one another!

Thursday, 21 May 2015


You may have noticed that Intrepid Den has taken over my's the next instalment from Columbia!

I left the lovely Casa Familiar after a weird trip into town. My reading glasses had gone awry and needed fixing. I thought it was just a case of tightening a screw but no. It was more serious. The man on the street directed me to a proper glasses shop. Miraculously, I found it. He looked at my glasses, moved the arm alarmingly and spoke to me in Spanish. The dictionary came out – it wouldn't take long and it would cost 10,000 pesos (£2.50). I handed him my very expensive glasses and took a seat. Shortly after wards, I saw him holding the broken arm, unattached to the glasses and feared the worst. Minutes later, he returned them to me completely repaired! Bravo! I then went to an ATM to withdraw cash. In these private booths, you get mere moments to complete your transactions, obviously to default fraud but as a foreigner, it just isn't enough time. I thought I'd requested £150 but instead, only £75 came out. I thought of going into the bank to question the amount but what would I say - “I speak no Spanish but...”. I decided to leave it to providence and went to another bank which just spat the money out, no problem. I then went to the supermarket to stock up – Taganga, my next stop has nothing in the way of anything as far as I could make out on my recce a few days ago. I bought coffee, lactose free milk and a big bottle of rum to go with the 3 bottles of wine I already had – well I was going to be there for maybe two weeks!

I packed my bag, stashing the booze, a kilo of brown sugar (?), nearly a kilo of coffee (I drink a lot), fruit and salad – even I questioned my sanity and when it came time to check out, even the maids were alarmed at the apparent weight of my bag and offered to help me down the stairs with it. I thought that if it was dropped, it would look like a blood bath from the wine and smell like a drunk from all the rum...

Fabio rang a taxi for me, we took photos and he mimed crying. I mimed it too – for nearly a week, we've been miming everything and it has been such a laugh and a treat. He has been such a memorable host. The taxi arrived and it took two of us to carry the bag to the car. It took up the whole of the back seat – I had to sit in the front, and when we finally pulled away, waving as we went, the car could barely move under the weight. The taxi driver assured me he knew where Villa Mandela was but even so, at the first corner, he called to Fabio's son for directions. I said, in a language he didn't understand, that I knew the way – I'd already been there and as a Despatch Rider in London for four years, if I can't remember the way, then no one can.