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THE ESL SWORD OF DAMOCLES

THE ESL SWORD OF DAMOCLES

“Rewards and punishment is the lowest form of education.”

Zhuangzi

THE ESL TESTING OF IMMIGRANT SPOUSES

 

So, there you have it – David Cameron, the British Prime minister, has come up with a very cunning plan to enforce the integration of ethnic minorities in the UK (perhaps it’s just me, but enforcing integration, in my mind at least, sounds about as effective as obliging people to have fun). The idea in question consists in ‘encouraging’ (his choice of verb) the process of integration by ESL testing the spouses of immigrants to the UK two and a half years after their arrival in the country, and if they haven’t shown signs of improvement during this period of time, well, it looks like the idea as it stands at the moment is to ask them to leave again.

 

THE ULTIMATE MOTIVATION TO STUDY?

 

It has to be said, the threat of deportation certainly would encourage you to brush up your language skills – especially if your spouse and children weren’t being asked to pack their cases. I told you it was a cunning plan – it makes your threat of not handing out a chocolatey treat look very ineffectual indeed.

ESL testing threat 3

The plan has just been rolled out, so it remains to be seen whether the women (this proposal is aimed primarily at Muslim women who, according to Cameron, do not get a chance to pick up the language ‘naturally’ through daily contact with English speakers because of social isolation) who fail the test will indeed have their children torn from their arms, and be frog-marched to the airport – I have my doubts, frankly.

 

DOING THE SUMS

 

There is much which could be said of such a policy, not least of all regarding the stereotyping of all Muslim women as oppressed, however, even from a purely professional point of view of those actually involved in EFL and ESL, it is rather perplexing. The experienced EFL or ESL teacher, had he or she had a chance to have a chat with Mr Cameron before announcing such a decision, would probably have asked him several rather reasonable questions, and perhaps pointed out a series of potential flaws in the idea, such as the following:

A budget of £20 million has been allocated to supply English classes to these women. The women in question, however, number 190,000. While £20 million sounds like a huge sum of money, it only works out at just over £100 per person, or, put another way, assuming that the women can be grouped together in classes of 20 (geography could play a huge part in this, as the women presumably live over the entire national territory), and are offered one class a week over the two-year period, it comes out at just under £21 an hour to cover all costs. Text books and/or other materials will obviously be required, leaving what for the teacher before tax? Maybe £19 or thereabouts – before tax? Or perhaps even less?

 

JUST HOW CHEAP ARE WE?

 

One lesson a week is barely sufficient to make good progress, especially in a class of 20, but with that kind of budget, you cannot possibly offer smaller classes, or twice weekly encounters, because, although EFL and ESL teachers are cheap (apparently), we’re not that cheap.

So, with classes being held once a week, and in groups of 20, what kind of progress would it be reasonable to expect and to test for? Consider that the teachers will be facing the challenge of teaching individuals of different nationalities, different social backgrounds, different levels of education, not necessarily possessing the same first language, different levels of literacy in their own language, who may or may not wish to be there, and who may or may not have the full support of their families.

esl testing threat 2

Keeping in mind the limitations of budget, is it to be assumed that courses for different initial levels of ability will not be offered, but that everyone, whether they know not one single word of English, or whether they already possess a few basic notions, will be placed in the same class?

 

HOW EASY IS OUR JOB?

 

My calculations were based on the assumption that one lesson per week would be offered, over the two-year period, for a total of 104 hours (anything more and it slashes the available budget per hour to unworkable levels) – however, 104 hours is very little for, say, a native Urdu speaker. For native English speakers to learn Urdu to the US Foreign Service Institute’s level 3, they calculate that 1,100 hours are needed. I’m going to assume that the inverse – a native Urdu speaker learning English – requires the same amount of time, and, although the FSI level 3 corresponds to a professional proficiency level, which is more than what would be required here, I can’t help feeling that approximately ten times less the number of hours would be a lot less time than is actually required to get any sort of worthwhile result. It’s (apparently) a well-known fact that teaching English as a foreign or second language is easy – but it’s not that easy.

What kind of assessment will be carried out? Will all skills be tested? Speaking, listening, reading and writing? If they are, isn’t there the risk that, with the Damocles sword of repatriation hanging over everybody’s head, the teacher is going to teach very much to the test? I know I would, however, I would also be very aware that by doing so, although I might be upping their chances of staying with their families, I’d probably be reducing the utility of the course, and therefore the core aim – helping them to integrate through improved social English language skills – might well be compromised.

Will the cost of the assessment of 190,000 individuals at the end of the two years be taken from the £20 million the budget? If it is, that will bring down the hourly pay of the teacher even further.

esl testing threat 01

Finally, what would occur if the teachers employed in this scheme were not of an entirely homogenized nature – that is, what if some of them were not as good at their jobs as others? When you have so much riding on the outcome – not quite life or death, but to a mother about to be forcibly separated from her offspring, it might seem almost as bad as that – what recourse would they have, if any, if they felt that their poor results hadn’t depended entirely on their own lack of effort or ability?

 

ESL TESTING AS A THREAT

 

As an EFL teacher, I always like to think of my lessons as a series of pleasant, sometimes even social encounters, with, at worst, the passing of an exam as the final objective, but ideally, with the satisfaction of being able to communicate with fellow human beings as the real result. I don’t know about you, but I’m not at all sure I like the idea of the teaching of English being used in the way in which this scheme would foresee.

THE TEFL LIFESTYLE GOT SILLY

THE TEFL LIFESTYLE GOT SILLY

“Children have one kind of silliness, as you know, and grown-ups have another kind.”

C.S. Lewis

“And TEFLers have the sort that often borders on hysteria.”

  • – tefl-lifestyle.com

 

Humour and the TEFL Lifestyle

Well, to be accurate, the TEFL lifestyle didn’t suddenly become silly – it has always had elements which were daft to the point of surreal – expectations which include teaching classes of really mixed ability groups (with some students who don’t even know how to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in English and others who, embarrassingly, speak it better than you do), organising ‘workshops’ for a hoard of hyper-active kiddos without so much as a finger puppet in the way of materials, and – true story this one – teaching literature in a department which has no actual books whatsoever. Yeah, you gotta laugh.

A Healthy Dose of Daftness

So, no excuses and no justifications for a little corner of the site dedicated to a bit of nonsense. Money may make the world go round, but a dose of daftness can keep you sane. Well, semi-sane, at least.

Click on the image above or the link below to hop to a page of memes dedicated to the TEFL lifestyle, some choice excerpts from that classic of English language teaching, “Mastering the Idiosyncrasies of the Syntax, Grammar and Idioms of the English Language By Means Of Illustrated Tales Demonstrating the Functions Thereof for Continentals and Other Persons of the Foreign Persuasion”, and any other nonsense examples of our razor-sharp wit which might occur to us.

Yes, I could do with a smile, and I’ll even settle for a wry one, but if it isn’t even slightly amusing, you’ll be hearing from my lawyers in the morning.

 

EFL ENTREPRENEURSHIP

EFL ENTREPRENEURSHIP

“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big.”

– Donald Trump

Yes, well, that’s easy for him to say – let’s face it, Donald Trump has never been an EFL teacher. Thinking big for many EFL teachers often simply amounts to begging their employers for a new photocopier, for EFLers are, for the most part, simple, noble souls, without the ruthless drive and nasty comb-over which apparently characterise the successful entrepreneur, but able to take joy in seeing a student’s face light up as he suddenly gets the difference between Present Simple and Continuous.

Though an odd hair-do might not actually be a compulsory element in explaining the success of high-profile business-people, some sort of compulsion to make money just has to be a vital component in the mind-set of those whose job is, well, making money, and that magic ingredient would seem to missing in many of us teachers.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, TEFLer?

 

If you actually chose your chosen profession – to teach English to foreign language speakers – it’s probably safe to say that becoming fabulously rich was probably never uppermost in your mind, as EFL teaching has never been an obvious association with Scrooge McDuck piles of glistening gold. Unless, of course, you didn’t dream of being an EFL teacher all through your childhood, and you just sort of stumbled into it. And then couldn’t get out. Although such a thing is doubtlessly a rare occurrence, with the vast majority of us most probably having spent our school and university days and nights feverishly trying to figure out how to break into TEFL, it could just be that a few of us EFL teachers actually had, at some point, a burning desire to make some money.

One thing we can be sure of – those hands do not belong to a TEFLer.

 Harsh Realities

 

If you were one of those who, when still a child, had envisioned a future life of wealth, power and fame, then the harsh reality of TEFLing must be a tad hard to digest at times. Truth be told, not just the earnings, but the general the working conditions of many EFL teachers have been known to be, to put it mildly, pretty dire.

To add salt to the wound, trade unions are not an option in a profession which, by its very nature, has those who do it constantly on the move from contract to contract, from nation to nation. In order to create an organisation like a trade union, one has to be able to discuss, debate, confer, agree, collaborate and act with others, and in order to do that, one really ought to be in the same place as at least some of the same people for sufficient time to actually develop ideas and take action.

And most importantly, it would be very helpful if all the members of the profession were actually governed by the same national legislation, and not by dozens of different ones. Furthermore, it would be immensely helpful if your members were all in nations in which trade unions were actually permitted by law. Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – none of these nations permit trade union activity. On the bright side, it has to be said that, if you ever did have the urge to become a modern-day Tolpuddle Martyr, finding a destination undesirable enough to transport an errant, bolshy EFL teacher off to might prove to be challenging. Australia? You wish. Ironically – or perhaps not –  some of the least appealing places on the planet are key EFL locations.

Unfair? Too damn right it is! But full-blown protesting is usually not an option in TEFL.

 

 Every TEFLer For Himself

 

It’s probably safe to say that the profession has ended up being one of the least regulated in the entire universe, and it’s very much a case of every TEFLer for him or herself.  So, we’ve already established that there aren’t too many life-jackets on the good ship TEFLdom, and many of us get left hanging on for dear life as decisions are made by others apparently with the sole intent of destabilizing even further, and based on a logic which totally escapes us.

The Big Money Picture

 

Although we teachers will alternate panic attacks with bouts of scoffing over what appear to be utterly nonsensical policies, we usually fail to see the wood for the trees. And by ‘wood’ and ‘trees’, naturally I mean ‘profits’ and ‘education’. Which also goes some way to explaining why there’s a substantial number of EFL managers and entrepreneurs who haven’t worked their way up from actual EFL teaching; you will very often find yourself governed by business-people, many of whom don’t actually know a great deal about EFL teaching, or any sort of teaching for that matter, and even a good few who know very little English.

However, during those industrial-scale eye-rolling and eyebrow-raising moments we indulge in when the latest anti-educational decision filters down from above, consoling ourselves with the thought that we could do so much better, a lot of the time we’re actually wrong. Much more often than we, the teachers, would care to admit, they know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re doing it rather well.

The TEFL Gold-Mine

 

So, what is the appeal of TEFL for those not involved in the ‘T’ bit of it? That war is good business is a generally accepted fact, however unsavoury the implication of such a statement might be; education seen principally as a mega-business, and not as a contribution to the evolution and development of Mankind, is another concept which might be slightly hard to wrap your ethical brain around, but which is not one relegated to the realm of merely abstract.

According to the GSV EDU Education Sector Factbook 2012  English Language Learning (ELL) accounted for a whopping $63 billion slice of the overall global education-business pie in 2012. Which goes some way to explaining why even those not dedicated to EFL teaching per se have found themselves irresistibly attracted to the business of English Language teaching. In other words, English is not only the language of global business, it is a global business. And it’s one of the healthy ones – it’s forecast to reach the mind-boggling sum of over $193 billion by the year 2017.

Doing The ‘Dirty’ Work

 

Are you reeling? I know I am. That’s an awful lot of money, however, those who do the teaching are not going to be pocketing anything other than a teeny proportion of that figure. Which is pretty hard to digest, when you think about it, since we’re the ones in the front-line, trying to cram many years’ worth of grammar and vocabulary into a year of foundation programs, create lessons which, miraculously, exclude neither the couple of students who are highly fluent, or the handful who appear to know absolutely no English whatsoever, but who have been put in the same class, or who have to put together activities which are demonstrably effective from an academic point of view, yet are amusing enough to engage a rowdy crowd of kids or teens in a summer camp. Just as well we love teaching, right?

kiddies

There’s a reason why the summer camp job ad specifies that “energetic” teachers are required.

 

So, where’s The Money, Honey?

 

So, if it isn’t the actual teaching which makes the money, which aspects of ELL are the cash-cows? Well, although the situation varies from region to region – for example, high taxes in European countries can make owning a independent language school not much more profitable than teaching in one – the main money-spinners in the ELL market are:

  • ELL publishing (market leaders include Pearson, Oxford University Press, Macmillan)

  • International educational providers (such as EF or Kaplan)

  • Testing / assessment (Ielts, Toefl, PET, FCE, etc.,)

  • Assessment preparation (big guns, such as British Council, and countless independent bodies globally)

  • Study-holiday providers (EF, Bell English, English UK, etc.,)

  • Course providers, both on- and offline (Berlitz, Rosetta Stone, Linguaphone)

  • Language schools and centres (British Council, International House, and many, many smaller players)

  • App and program creators/sellers (FluentU, Busuu, Nearpod, etc.,)

  • EFL/ESL teaching certification (CELTA and TESOL being the most obvious)

The Online Teaching Meat Market

 

A special mention apart has to be made of the blooming online English language teaching market. Doing away with the need to transport actual flesh-and-blood teachers to actual schools, there’s a proliferation of bodies which either offer online courses with ‘their’ teachers, or which offer platforms to freelancers, on which you get the opportunity to undercut the competition by lowering your pay-per-hour to levels which, post-tax, won’t cover the cost of your dinner. If we want a very clear example of what the commodification and globalization of ELL can do, in terms of just how far the teaching profession can be devalued, then this market sector just has to be the winner. Of course, for those who own the platforms and virtual schools, the limited outlays and running costs make this a very profitable field.

Now, realistically, as individuals, being worthy rivals of the Big Boys, such as Kaplan, isn’t likely to happen any time soon. Nor would launching a rival EFL/ESL teaching certification be the brightest idea in your ‘make-a-Tefl-fortune mind-map, so cross it off right now. Keeping our feet planted firmly on the ground, let’s ponder which areas can we reasonably focus on, should we wish to participate a bit more substantially in that 193 billion dollar growth foreseen for ELL over the next year or so.

A Piece  Of The Pie

 

Although material writing and opening your own private English school still remain as options to teachers wishing to branch out professionally to fields outside the classroom, it should be kept in mind that a huge chunk of the ELL mega-growth is forecast to  lie in the digital realm, so if you happen to have a buddy who happens to be an IT whizz-kid, you might want to stay chummy with him, because great ideas which take ELL on-line in effective, user-friendly and engaging ways are potentially superb money-makers for those able to come up with ideas and for who make them happen. An IT expert may or may not also have expertise in the ELL sector, but it’s more likely that he or she doesn’t – likewise, a brilliant, creative English teacher may also dabble very effectively in IT, but it’s not awfully likely that they possess the sort of top-notch coding skills required to create apps and programs. Conclusion? A collaboration for the mutual benefit of both parties makes perfect sense.

pie

Fancy a piece of the pie?

Back to the online teaching malarkey for a moment – nothing wrong with cutting your teeth in someone else’s online ‘school’, however, there are platforms out there that you, as an individual, can use to set up your own virtual classroom. Zoom.us is just one example (the choice lies greatly in cost – some platforms are really rather expensive if you’re just starting out, but Zoom.us lets you have unlimited teaching sessions free of charge, if you keep each one to a maximum of 40 minutes), but there are many more out there, such as WizIQ, which you would probably want to take into consideration only after you had built up a bit of a user base due to its starting price of $33 a month.

Union Makes Strength

 

Of course, it’s always easier said than done, and coming up with brilliant and innovative ideas can’t be that simple, otherwise we’d all be doing it all of the time. It also has to be said that contemplating what can amount to a career-shift, if not an actual full-blown career change, is a decidedly daunting prospect, however, exploring one’s options carries no financial costs, and, if the aim is empower yourself as a professional in order to get a little bit more of what you deserve, it’s definitely worth the mental-energy investment required.

There’s a great deal more to be said on the topic, and we’ll certainly go back to it in future, however, in the meantime, if you do have any great entrepreneurial ideas, why not share them with a trusted colleague? It shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the reasons teachers get shunted off the money-making playing field of their own profession is that many of the aspects of TEFLing – the short-term contracts, the high-mobility of colleagues, the trans-continental moves – do not facilitate cooperation and collaboration among peers. Perhaps, ultimately, partnerships with fellow teachers, mutually supporting and encouraging one another, is the way to go – after all, it is the digital age, and collaboration across distances really shouldn’t be an issue.

All the best!

 

NIGHT-LIFE

NIGHT-LIFE

Shinjuku_at_night_in_1930s2“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It is lethal.”

– Paulo Coelho

Now, isn’t that the truth? And if it isn’t the actual truth, it’s most probably the justification you give your loved ones (and yourself) for wandering the globe year in, year out, in search of TEFL gigs, so, either way, it’s definitely a keeper and possibly worth considering as the quote to add under your digital signature when you write emails to the folks back home.

And, let’s face it – there are times when we get to feel just a little bit smug over our choice of lifestyle. If your provenance is more northerly regions, and you’ve landed a job in hotter climes, then the feel-good moment often arrives when you’re sunning yourself on a sugary-sand beach, whilst it’s pelting down grimy winter rain back home. Need you be reminded that such moments really ought to be accompanied by Instagram and Facebook photographic proof in order to maximize the gloat factor? No, I didn’t think you did.

The Night-Life Beckons

And of course, the fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down; while back home they’re sitting watching Coronation Street, clasping a mug of hot tea to their breasts, and a lousy hot water bottle to look forward to at the end of the evening, you have a balmy evening of exotic entertainment beckoning to you. It’s undeniable – the attractions of a twinkling-in-the-dark foreign city after working hours are multiple, however, it shouldn’t be forgotten that they aren’t entirely without the odd risk to health and wallet.

As a seasoned traveler, you might be tempted to forego the cautious checking and double-checking of your home nation’s foreign office web-site for potential dangers abroad, leaving such caution to the worry-warts who venture nervously abroad for a fortnight once a year. And well you might – after all, you’ve probably been doing the whole globe-trotting malarkey for a long a time, and have managed just fine to stay out of trouble up till now. Add to the equation that teachers are naturally a very sensible bunch, with TEFLers well-known for being particularly judicious, everything I’m about to write probably falls under the heading of ‘bloody obvious’, however, just in case you’re new to the field, or just happen to be that one-in-a-million EFL professionals who does not possess commonsense in industrial quantities, I’m just going to state the bloody obvious.

Let’s start off on a positive note – by day or by night, some of the regions of the planet which your friends and relatives back home might well assume to be very risky, especially these days, are actually safer – in some cases, much safer – than your home town. Concrete example? The UAE was indicated as the nation with the lowest rate of violent crime in the world in the 2014 Social Progress Index, which, even leaving a good bit of a margin for unreported crime, still translates into a place which is far from being riddled with risks. That said, even in the ostensibly safest places on the planet, applying a wee bit of commonsense, especially after dark, is never a bad thing.

Know the Local Culture

Here’s a possible rule of thumb – could you give a half hour talk on the laws, customs and culture, including the religious mores, of your new country? If you can’t, then quite possibly you might not have a total grasp on what will pass as acceptable or even legal behavior. Some tourists spend months swotting up on the do’s and don’ts of the countries they’ll spend barely a few days in; it’s not totally out of place to suggest that, when you arrive in a new country to live and work, spending a little time to form a general idea of how to keep out of trouble before hitting the town isn’t a such a bad idea. Just in case, rather than hitting the town, you ought to be tapping it. Very, very discretely.

Wary Women

There probably isn’t a woman on the planet who hasn’t had it drummed into her since girlhood that the world is a dangerous place, especially after dark, and who consequently doesn’t know the golden rules off by heart: avoid walking close to dark doorways, walk with your keys in one hand and your cell phone in the other, and, safest of all, arrange some sort of buddy system by which a pair or a group of friends keep an eye out for one another, to name but three. All well and good, but if your current social circle in your new country of residence is restricted to the one friendly colleague of your own age-group who you grab lunch with once in a while, the whole buddy system solution might not seem terribly workable.

Rather than wait for the relationship with the pleasant colleague to bloom into full paint-the-town-together buddy-ship, why not make use of one of the social networking sites for ex-pats, such as Internations or Meet-up, with the precise intention of finding some gal-pals with similar interests? Be pro-active in proposing that you all take a bit of care of one another, by arranging lifts, taking turns being the designated driver, taking turns the being stone-cold sober Responsible One, double-checking safe arrivals, etc.

Taxi Tricks

It really, really is worth asking around for a trusted taxi-driver, tried and tested by those who’ve been there longer than you, and who can be counted on to turn up when he’s supposed to, not to rip you off by grossly inflating the fares (not everywhere in the world do taxis have meters), or by taking you on an unnecessary extended version of your trip which you, with that just-arrived look on your face, did not ask for, drives calmly and carefully in a vehicle which does not have tyres ripe for bursting or an engine ready to conk out on a busy motorway, and, if you’re a woman, can be relied upon to keep his hands to himself. You might have to arrange your own social life around his availability to a small degree, but depending on where you are, the alternatives could be pretty dire.

Drinking and Driving

While we’re on the subject of getting around, it’s worth remembering that the penalties for drunk driving vary from country to country, and in some places are extremely severe, even when the alcohol in the blood is only a teeny bit over the established limit. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that in some countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, residents are expected to be totally dry – even just being caught in possession of a bottle of booze can have horrific consequences. Karl Andree will be spending Christmas at home this year, but a couple of months ago, his situation was looking dreadfully bleak. The 74 year-old spent a year in a Saudi jail, and had a 350-lash public flogging on the horizon until British PM David Cameron managed to intercede on his behalf. Many of the other nations with an alcohol ban are not EFL destinations, so not a concern to your average TEFLer, however, a few are – Kuwait, Brunei, Libya and the Emirate of Sharjah (something to keep in mind if you’re living in the UAE and travelling with alcohol in your car).

Punishments around the world for drunk driving can be very severe, whether the nation in question has outlawed alcohol consumption or not. Consider the following examples:

  • If you don’t manage to obtain the intervention of your Prime Minister or President, you could face 10 years in a Saudi jail. Plus a public flogging. You also get fined several thousand pounds, but I reckon that would be the least of your worries at that point.
  • China has to be one of the biggest TEFLer employers, so huge numbers of colleagues are either working there already or are planning to do so. This country also comes down very heavily on drunk driving, and will mete out life sentences in prison to those injuring others or damaging property through DUI.
  • In France (yes, France!) too you can end up in the clinker. Not less than a year behind bars, plus a fine, plus the withdrawal of your driving license for up to three years.
  • Not a key TEFL hot-spot, by any means, and I can’t honestly say I’ve met someone who has taught there, but there are TEFL jobs on offer, so it’s definitely worth pointing out that El Salvador has the most severe penalties on the planet for DUI – death by firing squad, even when it’s a first offence.

The sensible thing, of course, is to get clear, detailed, up-to-date information from a reliable source regarding the country you’re staying in, focusing in particular on the limits of alcohol permitted by law (if at all) and the potential penalties you risk facing should you get caught breaking those laws, preferably before a drop too many has clouded your capacity to make wise decisions. While you’re at it, it might be worth double-checking what is and isn’t tolerated even when you aren’t behind the steering wheel of a car. Take Dubai, for example – you can get arrested for making a spectacle of yourself in public whilst under the influence.

Girls, Girls, Girls

Gents, this one is for you. Women nowadays tend to be pretty aware of the hazards of not keeping their eye on their drink, but if you’ve landed a teaching post in South East Asia, even though you may be a big, burly bloke, leaving your drink unattended, or just letting yourself go and getting thoroughly tanked up in the wrong company while in search of a bit of R & R, could turn out to be a huge mistake. Who isn’t aware that girls working for night clubs earn their money by convincing you to buy them mind-bogglingly expensive drinks? Well, maybe some tourists – certainly not worldly, well-travelled TEFLers. What you might not know is that in some places, for example, in Thailand, some of the girls are willing to take it one step further, and will spike your drink, get you thoroughly incapacitated and then clean you out. If you don’t fancy coming to several hours (or days!) later, with your cash and credit cards gone, then take advantage of the fact you’re not trying to cram the fun and games into a week’s holiday, but can afford the luxury of taking your time to get to know which areas and clubs should be avoided like the plague.

DESPERATELY SEEKING YOUR THIRD EYE

DESPERATELY SEEKING YOUR THIRD EYE

“Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape”

Unknown

God knows, TEFLing can be awfully hard on the ole physique. Without even getting into the less than state-of-the-art medical facilities one is often forced to rely on, the dramatic change of diet, climate and environment which comes hand in hand with TEFLing abroad for a living can knock your organism for six.

It’s none too gentle on the psyche either, it has to be said. The job often requires an individual to repeatedly subject him or herself to a combination of classic stress factors, such as moving home, changing job, living far from loved ones, financial instability and consequent concerns, and integrating oneself into new cultures on a fairly regular basis. Just one of those challenges is enough to send a person into a tizzy – your average TEFLer abroad deals with the combination of all of them many times throughout his or working life!

So, what to do when the TEFLing has started to take its toll, and you’re feeling a little ragged round the edges?

Yoga might well be the answer.

When East Met West

The precise origins and age of yoga are in themselves subjects for debate, however, charting the introduction and influence of the Eastern philosophy in the West is much easier to do, as it occurred relatively recently, though perhaps not quite as recently as one might think. Long before modern-day rat-race-runners halted in their tracks and turned to the East in their quest for inner peace, Norbin Chunder Pal, a graduate of the Bengal Medical College, published in London A Treatise on the Yoga Philosophy, under the anglicized version of his name, N. C. Paul. The year was 1851.

If you’re struggling to imagine stiff and starched Victorians trying to get into yoga poses, it’s because they didn’t – Paul’s book focused on explaining, from a scientific view-point, the physiological effects of yoga on the human body, including the decidedly spectacular phenomenon of a Punjab yogi’s capacity to ‘suspend life’ and survive a 40-day live burial; the book stimulated theoretical discussion, not actual practice, among its readers, who were, it has to be said, mostly from the press and the scientific community. So, although he may not have been responsible for hoards of New Age Victorian ladies busting out of their whale-boned corsets to salute the sun, he can certainly be accredited with getting the West talking about yoga for the first time.

About forty years later, a swami called Vivekananda made it to the USA and, once there, wowed the audiences at the Chicago World Fair with his exotic robes and turbans, and an undeniable stage-presence, getting a two-minute standing ovation just for his five-word opening: “Sisters and brothers of America!”. He too avoided trying to coax his listeners into tantric poses, but orated his way into their enthusiasm, speaking to them of Hinduism, Buddhism and harmony among religions with such eloquence that the American press nick-named him ‘the Cyclonic Hindoo Monk of India’.

From Treadmill to Transcendental

It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that yoga began to be practiced in the West on any real scale. No longer merely a subject for polite conversation, yoga was launched stateside primarily by an American called Richard Hittleman who’d completed his apprenticeship in India, and who filtered the religious element out of the very spiritual practices he’d learned from his guru, and made it palatable to large numbers of more secular Americans by focusing on the physical benefits to be had.

By the time Swami Satchidananda, sitting on stage at Woodstock, in 1969, had half a million very mellow young people chanting ‘Hari Om’, Westerners had finally got off their horsehair-stuffed armchairs and were able to sit cross-legged on the floor. Not only that, many of them had learned to maneuver their limbs into yoga poses, and some even to meditate. It is rumoured that about half a dozen or so of them even managed to locate their third eye during those halcyon Age of Aquarius days.

During the 1970’s yoga went mainstream, and yoga studios started popping up everywhere, although the general vibe was perhaps more Lycra than cheesecloth. The many benefits of yoga were at last available to those not graced with being born in the shade of an ashram, and, increasingly over the decades, yoga has come to be seen as one of the most effective antidotes to modern, post-industrial societal stress. Even if you never do quite manage to figure out where your third eye is supposed to be, the slow-stretching, non-traumatic postures and positions of yoga can do wonders for those destined to spend their working days hunched tensely over computers.

Yoga: what’s in it for you?

A faster metabolism

Weight loss

Better balance

Improved posture

Improved breathing

Better sleeping patterns

Calms and de-stresses

Protects your joints

What’s not to like? It’s certainly worth giving yoga a bash just in case it turns out to be the answer to your bodily and spiritual issues, though strictly speaking there should be absolutely no bashing going on whatsoever, which is probably one of the main reasons why other less spiritual fitness fads have come and gone, some even revealing themselves to be rather detrimental to the health (remember the jogging craze of the Eighties? Everybody and their eighty-year-old mothers were slipping on lime-green or canary yellow, high-cut, nylon running shorts and pounding the pavements, and, tragically, many of them didn’t live to rue the day they suddenly took up vigorous exercise after a lifetime of sedentary behavior), while yoga has had an enduring appeal over the decades – it’s undeniably gentle on the heart, joints and muscles, as well as being soothing on the psyche.

Hitting the Yoga Mat

Well, perhaps not so much hitting it, as lowering yourself gently on to it.

If you’re keen to get started, ideally, you will want a good yoga instructor to guide you serenely towards inner peace and a more supple and flexible physique. Yoga schools and personal yoga teachers can be found just about everywhere on the planet, though, as always in such things, if you can get a recommendation from a very satisfied and observably chilled-out, loose-jointed client, it’s always better than just walking into some unknown yoga centre which you just happen upon.

What if your TEFL post has taken you well and truly off the beaten track, and there actually is no yoga instructor, much less yoga centre, in the area?

If you take it easy, listen very carefully to your body and to any warning signs it might give out in the form of twinges and overly-taut muscles (a word with a doctor would also be advisable, if you want to be 100% sure that there are no contraindications for you, though the doctors you can now access probably have a very limited idea of your past medical history – still, you might want to try and fill him/her in as best you can so they can advise you), there’s always the Internet.

Not quite the same thing as having your own personal guru lighting candles and incense, and talking you quietly through the process, but the computer monitor does give off a bit of glow to create a smidgeon of an atmosphere, and if you stick to your guns about never, ever pushing yourself further than is totally comfortable, a chirpy, gently encouraging YouTube yoga instructor surely has to be better than sitting on your bum in front of the TV all night – at least to get you started.

Naturally, yoga has a great deal more going for it than mere body postures – the physical aspect is, I am told by an actual yoga instructor, just the preparatory phase for the main event, which is, of course, the meditation. I’m not even going to begin to suggest that YouTube videos will get you lost in transcendental meditation…but you never know…so here are a couple of links to YouTube pages with some videos which might get you started on breathing exercises and meditation techniques. The only real risk with doing these unsupervised is that you might just fall asleep. And since TEFLers can sometimes be a bit sleep deprived, that’s no bad thing.

Even if you are dependent on a video guru, once you get the hang of asanas (yoga positions) and work out an effective routine, you can get yourself outdoors and find yourself a pleasant spot to go through your moves – a beach at dawn or sunset, a desert dune, a grassy meadow or a wood all suit the purpose perfectly.

And who knows, the next job posting might be somewhere that actually has flesh-and-blood yoga instructors. You never know – by the time your current contract runs out, you might be ready to give up the rich and materialistic TEFL lifestyle and run off to join an ashram.

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