While surfing before work this morning, I stumbled upon a truly terrifying article about TEFL, called The Slavery of Teaching English.

Sure, you dress it up a bit, you produce your own handouts, you try to have a bit of fun. But you are basically a busker playing the same tired old tunes. Even though most students are charming and receptive, it is an exhausting existence, a life of pure drudgery.

Nevertheless, you always have to be on form, ever the life-giver. And perhaps worst of all, you always end up using the omnipresent “Headway” textbooks, which make full obeisance to every modern piety, and whose pages are full of fatuous illustrations of wimpish little men in aprons doing the washing-up, while their briefcase-carrying womenfolk stride out of the front door to waiting limos.

So while teaching English is fine if you want to spend a year abroad, and great for meeting pretty foreign girls, considered as a career that might offer some degree of professional fulfilment, it fails on every count. No one with a scrap of ambition can possibly consider it. As the philosopher Alain de Botton says: “You become a TEFL teacher when your life has gone wrong.”

As a character in Tim Parks’s Cara Massimina said,

What was a language teacher in the end? A nobody. A mere failed somebody else.

What a bleak picture. The financial situation for EFL teachers in Asia is far better than that of the Europe-based teachers described in the article, but I still find some unsettling parallels between their situation and mine. While I earn far more money than those poor souls teaching English in Rome, I’m not learning a great deal on the job.

When I was working as a programmer, I was always learning new things. The skills needed to do the job were constantly changing and expanding. I used advanced mathematics on a regular basis; I learned a great deal about the business world; and I was an integral part of creating things, things made out of pure ideas and logic, that made my employers millions of dollars. In short, I was challenged and stimulated. Spending eight to ten hours a day doing such work, had a clear effect on me. My mind was sharper. I could think more clearly, I could read faster, I could learn new things more easily.

Unfortunately, TEFL may be taking a toll. I’ve only been at it for about four years, and I can already feel the effects. Anything more I’ve learned about L2 acquisition and any progress I’ve made in learning Mandarin is more than out-weighed by what I’ve lost in other foreign language skills, math skills, and programming skills. Now, my urge to create has been confined to just a few JavaScript tools. Now, I can’t remember how to do Laplace transforms or how to talk about politics in Japanese. I just remember the names of my students, what their problems are, how to deal with their parents, and what they should work on next class.

Teaching is important work, good work that can affect lives. Somebody has to do it, and as long as I am doing it, I’ll put my whole heart into it and do it as well as I can. I’m beginning to realize I can’t keep at it forever, though.