Charlie Ellis takes a light-hearted look at the maladies that commonly afflict English language teachers – he identifies four possible afflictions and their typical symptoms.
Those who work in TEFL for an extended period are liable to suffer from a variety of afflictions. In this article, I will outline some of the more virulent of these maladies and put forward a couple of suggestions for mitigating their cumulative effects.
As I have outlined in previous articles in ETp (see Issues 119 and 132), this affliction leads teachers to be constantly on the lookout for things they can use in the classroom. These can include pictures, diagrams, YouTube videos, panel show games, etc. Having a strong TEFL-eye can help teachers create really engaging and interesting materials for their students. However, as TEFL-eye increasingly encroaches on other parts of your life, it contains the seeds of something more serious. Eventually, you may find that you are suffering from a more serious affliction, namely TEFL-itis. This is an inability to turn off your TEFL-eye and may require specialist treatment.
From TEFL-eye we have the associated verb to TEFL-ise. This is the idea that any incident in the classroom can be used to teach language – that anything is a teachable moment. In many staffrooms you may hear colleagues say such things such as: Isabel’s great at TEFL-ising, or He skilfully TEFL-ised his tuna sandwich or Have you got any ideas for TEFL-ising this? Most of us will have TEFL-ised Covid-19, though the novelty soon wore off. So, the spilt cup of tea, the knock on the door, the nosebleed can all be used to expand your students’ language knowledge and awareness. A spilt cup of tea, for example, could lead to an exploration of the difference between spill and pour, some conditionals (If Daniela had been more careful ...), some work on tenses (Daniela has spilt her tea all over the desk, While Daniela was walking into the classroom she spilt her tea).
In addition, TEFL-isation relates to the ability to turn objects not typically used in the classroom into teaching tools: Could this cracked window or set of cards be TEFL-ised? This is an extension of TEFL-eye. Where TEFL-eye is primarily about spotting the classroom potential of objects, games, etc, TEFL-isation relates to the realisation of this potential. So, proponents of TEFL-isation are to be found musing whether a particular board game or television panel show can be TEFL-ised (Chris did a great job of TEFL-ising ‘Would I Lie to You?’ when I observed him last week). Is there anything which can’t be TEFL-ised by those who suffer from this obsession?
Another very common – and perhaps related – phenomenon is the feeling of being TEFL’d-out: an excess of EFL in your life and an inability to switch off. The low-paid nature of language teaching generally leads to long hours being taught and, as a result, tired and somewhat burnt-out teachers. Of course, the first two maladies I described also contribute to this – the inability for some teachers to escape from the job and turn off their TEFL eyes and TEFL brains. Most teachers will feel thoroughly TEFL’d-out at times during their careers ... which often leads to serious TEFL-doubt.
Those with a serious case of TEFL-eye will immediately spot this useful example of connected speech: TEFL’d-out = TEFL-doubt. Usually as a consequence of the type of burnout associated with being TEFL’d-out, most teachers will go through several periods of profound doubt about their own teaching and, indeed, about the whole purpose of teaching English. For some, this will be some version of ‘imposter syndrome’ (thinking yourself not worthy), but for others the doubt is more fundamental. I’ve had colleagues who came to wonder whether attending classes actually helped their students – or whether those students would have been better off simply living and working in an English-speaking country and picking up the language on the job.
I’m sure many of you will have suffered from these ailments from time to time. Thankfully, apart from some extreme cases, they are all curable. Moreover, as these maladies are all connected, they have the same fundamental solution – achieving the correct TEFL–life balance. This is not straightforward, but key to achieving it is recognising the early signs. Hopefully, others may point out when you start displaying symptoms. However, if you spend too much time in the company of other teachers, this may not happen. They may also think that it is normal to watch Scott Thornbury talks at the weekend or muse upon the teaching potential of a dental appointment or a stolen bicycle. So, spending time away from your colleagues is probably essential to maintaining a healthy TEFL–life balance. Luckily, TEFL-eye and the ability to TEFL-ise can be channelled fruitfully into your teaching. However, care is required, and all those in the world of EFL teaching need to be alert to the dangers inherent in its all-consuming nature.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh, UK, where he works at Alba English School. He is currently working on a book on British conservative ideology for Edinburgh University Press. He contributes to the ‘What they don’t teach you on the CELTA’ blog at notoncelta.com.