"People are not who they say but rather who their actions reveal them to be."

- Ziad Abdelnour


"Whatever we cannot easily understand we call God."

- Edward Abbey


"You need to be thought of to be ignored."

- Russell Peters


"The truth doesn't work for everybody."

- Robert M Price


"Arts degrees are awesome. They help you find meaning where there is none."

- Tim Minchin



The Crass Ceiling

I don't get many unwilling students.

I get students who party all night and don't have the energy to study all day - and that's fine. It's their youth to enjoy, their choice to make, their quota of daily strength to allot how they choose.

I'm all in favour of fun - in fact, I wish I'd had a lot more of it when I was a teenager. Getting drunk for the first time at 23, eating a block of marijuana resin at 28 - supplied by a friend who'd decided to give up...and falling hopelessly in love for the first time at 32 - that's my pattern, trying everything a decade after everyone else.

I do get students who want to learn english, but don't want to put in the hours practicing, so they never become fluent - that's okay too. I don't have the patience to get good at the guitar, or program properly in python, so I understand.

I get students who're only want to use english for one purpose - whether that's discussing ponies on facebook or (I kid you not) qualifying as a teacher of english. Kein Problem (german), La'isa Moshkila (arabic), No Hay Problema (spanish).

What I almost never get is students who aren't at all interested in the subject, and don't want to be enrolled in the first place. When I get them, it's because their pushy parents or pointy-haired bosses are making them take the course.

You can't force someone to be interested, you can't bribe them into it, and you can't rationally persuade them they ought to force themselves to work at it until magically it becomes interesting to them. Which is why, contra the preachings of certain managerial types, I don't try.

Teaching in the private sector, your job security is nonexistant and whether your employer is sensibly professional or a delusional nutjob is luck of the draw. But the job of teaching itself is bearable, because you actually are a teacher, not a glorified prison warder.

However, I do get two distinct types of student. Type A is happy to forumulate opinions, present them in clear sentences and discuss them openly. Type B is afraid to form any clear belief, really really doesn't want to put them into words, and is afraid to state them in case someone else disagrees.

Type A is known as "most of the boys". Type B is "most of the girls".

It's the conventional wisdom - and therefore probably wrong - that boys outperform girls academically until about 13, then girls overtake them. For all I know, that could be broadly true of physics and literature. But for language learning, the boys consistently outstrip the girls.

It's not for lack of raw ability - not that I think there really is such a thing. It's confidence. The attitude that there's no personal shame in making a mistake and being corrected, that if you don't understand the explanation you have the right to ask again, that one doesn't need to fit in and have fashionable opinions to be respected.

Among the boys, even the nerds are jocks. Among the girls, even the most forward are apologetic about it.

So what can I do about it? Not much. Simply because you can't force someone to be free, and you can't inject confidence by encouraging someone to invent their own there and then from nothing.

In talking about this with female teachers, they say the same, so I don't think it's just that I'm intimidatingly butch (ha!) or that female student connect better with female teachers.

The classroom is a rather artificial environment, so perhaps in the real world outside the boys become taciturn and the girls are the gossipy flirts. But I don't think so.

It seems that even though young women now want careers, independence, and not to be quiet housewives...they still habitually act as though they don't.

"Truths kept silent become poisonous."

- Friedrich Nietzsche


"Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth."

- Friedrich Nietzsche


"If the world is crashing around your ears, you choice is future or no future."

- Eric Hobsbawm


"Patriotism is a disease."

- Albert Einstein


"The degree of one's emotion varies inversely with one's knowledge of the facts - the less you know the hotter you get."

- Bertrand Russell



Boys of Summer


They voted me "Best Teacher".

It's not difficult to be the students' favourite - you just have to be the one out of fifty temps on zero-hour contracts who's on their side and admits the obvious.

  • Yes, the timetable is wrong.
  • Yes, speaking and listening is more interesting and useful than reading and writing.
  • Yes, you do learn more vocabulary from watching kids TV than a textbook chapter on marriage ceremonies in outer mongolia.
  • Yes, you're supposed to spell country names like mongolia with a capital letter, but it's okay if you forget.
  • Yes, this exercise is incredibly boring and doesn't teach anything you'll ever need. So yes, we will abandon it - but mark it as "completed" in my pointless pile of paperwork that I have to fill out but no one will ever read.
  • Yes, the managers are idiots, and so are their rules, and yes, if we want a productive lesson, we have to find ways around them.
  • Yes, the school's very own custom-made textbook which I'm under strict instructions to follow is boring, unclear, irrelevant, badly thought out and often just plain wrong. Which is why we just have it open on the desk in case an idiot manager looks in.
  • Oh, and yes, that other teacher is a complete moron who fills out very neat paperwork but couldn't teach to save her life.
Well, I don't actually have to say that exactly. The students say it themselves on their official "feedback" forms. The bits of paper they fill out at the end of the course, where I ask them to *not* emphasise just how much they learned from the Dr Who transcripts we went through and the Dr Who videos I'm not supposed to show.

I got an email today from someone I taught two years ago - just to say she's taking a baccalaureate in biology.

You can never predict who'll stay in touch. But you can usually predict who'll make progress while you teach them and after they leave. The best speakers have the confidence to stand up and make mistakes, to accept correction...and to not mind that there is no single correct way to say things.

They're also the ones who aren't bored by grammar but also aren't really interested in it either. Which means the best speakers are the worst linguists. Which is why I'm such a lousy language student myself.

Most teachers have a particular view of what students are capable of. Specifically, that:

  • They can learn the base meanings of 10 words at a time, but can't handle simultaneously learning three meanings of one word.
  • They can learn a grammatical rule, but can't cope with there being more than one opinion about what the rule is.
  • Anything the teacher doesn't know how to explain, they can learn by a magical process called "osmosis".

I always learn from my students. The only reason I know about drifting and slenderman is a class of ten year olds told me. Usually what I learn though, is that my book about their language is wrong.

The german word "Bullgeschichte" is only used by english speakers. Germans use the english word "Bullshit".

And no one has said "Angenehm" on meeting someone for the first time in a century.

In seven years doing this, two students have figured out I'm gay - and both were called Alex. Alejandro, nerdy bespectacled spanish polyglot. One of those clearly advanced-level students who gets miscategorised as lower...and thus gets to be the unofficial teaching assistant.

When we did the dumb lesson on "What do you want to be when you grow up?", he wanted to be a pole dancer. Then changed his mind to "dandy".

He lent me his Jeanette Winterson novel...and I lent him my William Burroughs. He said he was "interested in androgeny and sexual ambiguity...but liked girls". Can you say that in your second language?

The other, from this last month: Alexander, big blond handsome german metrosexual. Straight but loved flirting with everyone - boy or girl, staff or student.

The kind of guy who will offer, in front of the whole class, to do anything - "Anything at all, mein Kapitano" - if only I give him an A-grade. Which he deserved anyway. And he knew it.

I've actually never been tempted to try it on with any student. The idea isn't repulsive - just as the idea of sex with a tree isn't repulsive, just a bit surreal with no attraction.

I guess I'm nonpedagogicosexual.

It's not quite over yet. There's a few classes still running for the next one or two weeks. After which I'm officially unemployed again...or officially emigrating for work again.









"Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism."

- Friedrich Nietzsche


"The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence."

- CS Lewis


"Whiners, if given power, become tyrants."

- Gary North


"Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much it goes away."

- Tim Minchin


"Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment, but of boredom."

- Quentin Crisp



Monsters from the Id


I am surrounded by idiots.

But everyone thinks that.

If you're an idiot, your definition of an idiot is anyone who disagrees with you. Seeing as that's pretty much everyone, they surrond you.

If you're not an idiot, your definition of an idiot is anyone who can't bear to think they might be wrong, misguided, or not respected. Seeing as that's pretty much everyone, they surround you.

The difference between an idiot and a fool is that a fool accepts all criticisms unquestioningly, while an idiot accepts none.

So if you're wondering whether you're an idiot, imagine someone calling you an idiot. If your response is to consider that they might be right, you know they're wrong.

But if you're wondering, you're already not an idiot, because idiots can't endure introspection - because that's a form of (self) criticism.

The result of educating an idiot is an educated idiot.

If you can list ten arguments against a belief which is important to you, you're educated. If they're all strawmen, you're still an idiot.

Idiocy is not a failure of intellect but of courage.


"Beware rhetorical questions. They tend to paper over whatever cracks are in the argument."

- Daniel Dennett


"It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages."

- Friedrich Nietzsche


"The history of religion is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason, to find a sound theory for an absurd practice."

- James Frazer


"Crime is contagious. If the government becomes the lawbreaker it breeds contempt for laws."

- Gore Vidal


"Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery."

- Fyodor Dostoevsky



Just Kill Me Now


According to my Death Clock I have five years to live.

I should probably hurry up and do something then.

Actually I often find myself thinking life is so banal, people so willfully stupid, and compensations so paltry...that I should just run a nice hot bath and cut my wrists.

Then I realise I'm contemplating suicide to avoid spending an hour on the phone to correct an administrative fuck-up that's delayed my wages. Again.

But I do have a blogpost prepared, just in case I decide to go through with it.

The last impulse to end it all was occasioned by an email from work last friday. It "invited" me to an "input session" where we would "workshop" "pedagogical strategies" to counter "issues" around "literacy". And another one the next day. Over the weekend.

Oh, and the invitation is compulsory.

So, I'm now going to count my blessings:
  • I'm having sex tonight
  • I'm in a place advanced enough that the only person who might possibly object to my having sex tonight...is his girlfriend
  • Thanks to a week of packed lunches without chocolate, I'm actually losing weight
  • I'm in a place advanced enough thet malnutrition isn't a problem - and obesity is
  • There's a rather nice, reasonably priced tablet computer which I might get
  • I have the spare cash to do so
  • I have a job which is often interesting
  • I have a job
  • I may not have the cash for a home of my own, by I've got parents who must secretly quite like having me around - seeing as I can see no other reason for them letting me live with them
  • There is zero chance that the "input session" will be useful, but it gives me several hours travelling time in which to study something interesting
Clicking the Death Clock again gives a different random estimate.


"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to believe."

- Robert M Price


"If you can charm everyone it means you don't care about anyone."

- Christopher Hitchens


"Socialists don't believe in fun."

- George Orwell


"Some dance to remember, some dance to forget."

- The Eagles


"It isn't what people think that's important, but the reason they think what they think."

- Eugene Ionesco



Something Old, Something New


I have a new job. It's also an old job. I hate it already and I haven't even started it yet.

In 2011 I spent six weeks as a summer teacher for Cavendish. It was a standard piece-of-shit language school, complete with:

* Insane idiot manager at head office
* Nice but useless manager at local office, too weak-willed to resist the insane idiot
* Resources extending to one whiteboard marker if you were luckly
* Requisite teacher with alcohol problem
* Requisite nervous newbie teacher
* Requisite intellectual teacher who wants to have learned discussions about world music with the class
* Popular teacher with collection of Dr Who videos (me)

After five weeks the insane idiot manager finally realised her daily incoherent emails were being ignored. She fired the entire staff. And got sued for non-payment of wages.

Last friday, Cavendish phoned me, desperate for teachers. To start on monday. Urgently, and did I mention they're desperate? How desperate? Desperate enough to pay my travel costs.

Different branch, different town, different manager, same piece-of-shit school.

Today (sunday), four of us TEFLers sat for five hours in a boiling room, listening to an "induction" on the labyrinthine rules for:

* calling the class register
* assessing the students
* getting assessed by students
* filling out plans for the day's leeson
* filling out different plans for the week's lessons
* filling out forms for what actually happened in each lesson
* ...and which part of the whiteboard is officually approved-of by inspectors for writing the date on.

So, starting monday I wake up at 4am, take a two hour train journey, spend four hours in a classroom, take another two hour journey back, sleep, and use the remaining hours for real life - pretending to plan lessons that don't need planning.

The question is, can I tolerate boiling hot classrooms, students hungry and exhausted for ramadan, and filling out mountains of paperwork giving meaningless answers to absurd questions...for six weeks?

Well, the money's pretty good, I generally get on well with students, and all that train travelling gives me a chance to catch up on a small backlog of six hundred podcasts I've got saved.

Life is all about priorities.