22 TEFL-y things

I am delighted to report that a hand of friendship has been extended to this blog from the TEFL blogging community. Elly has nominated me for an ’11 Things Blogging Challenge’, so we are going to have a short break from church-related pondering and awkward moments while I don my teacherly hat. If you are not at all interested in English language teaching, you’d better stop reading now.

monty python

You can decide who has the most teacherly hat here.

Step 1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.

Elly is an inspiring teacher, an example of commitment, enthusiasm and imagination and generally all-round fantastic. Any teacher who finds they have the privilege of, for example, having a Saturday coffee with her at Le Pain Quotidien will certainly find themselves more motivated, energised and stocked up with ideas for the next week. She is also a skilled artist.


Step 2. Write 11 random facts about yourself.

  1. My favourite animals are penguins. I never thought about this before teaching, but one needs a favourite everything.
  2. My favourite film is The Lion King. See above.
  3. My favourite colour is green. See above.
  4. My least favourite phrase is ‘it depends on the situation’. My teenagers had to be banned from saying that it depended on the situation.
  5. I have been genially mocked by students for saying ‘OK’ too often, saying ‘indeed’ too often, and always tapping the same rhythm on the whiteboard with the marker.
  6. I’m still proud of the class of competitive 7-year-olds who learnt to shake hands at the end of every board rush and say “good game, good game”.
  7. My left hand quite often looks like this  DSCF3696
  8. and my right hand quite often looks like this  DSCF3697
  9. but I did manage to teach for three weeks with only my left (non-writing) hand available due to a right olecranon fracture. My students were very nice about this and would often look up while I was scrawling on the board and say “Maybe I will do it for you?”
  10. My seminars for teachers always include some allusion to Monty Python.
  11. The number of seminars for teachers I have so far given is two.

Step 3. Answer 11 questions.

Why did you decide to become an EFL teacher?

Amongst other reasons, I had just spent a year being a Creative Writing student, that is trying to become a poet, with other poet-hopefuls, and some professional poets, and some people who had signed up to be novelists and looked rather twitchy at poetry seminars as if the “pure poets” might suddenly call them second-class citizens and chuck them out. “Poet” seemed an uncomfortable label involving too much self-consciousness. “EFL teacher”: much more manageable.

(Of course, I later discovered that “EFL teacher” comes with its own stereotypes, for example that an EFL teacher can be easily identified by his/her rucksack, or that it’s unsurprising if thirty-odd EFL teachers attending a vocabulary workshop could all guess the word ‘inebriated’ in a gap-fill but only one or two could guess the word ‘abstemious’.)

Who inspires you (personally or professionally)?

If you’re reading this blog and I know you, you inspire me. If I don’t know you, I’m sure you would inspire me if I did.

What blogs do you read? Would you recommend them to others?

I don’t read blogs much. If you have one, by all means put a link in the comments and I will read it ASAP.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever done?

You can read about my most challenging teaching situation ever if you click here.

Have you always been a teacher? If not, what did you do before?

Immediately before becoming a teacher, I was the annoying person in the train station café who hadn’t done the all-important Cappucino Training Course yet. First Great Westerner cappucino enthusiasts have reason to rejoice at my career move.

What’s something new you’ve tried this year? Would you recommend it?

I did a lesson on Religion and Beliefs with a Pre-Intermediate class. It was a cover lesson and the coursebook wanted them to discuss psychic powers. I didn’t want to discuss psychic powers, and I wanted to know how the students felt before I introduced the topic. So we spent the whole lesson on “useful language for explaining what you believe and why”. It was challenging for the students, utterly terrifying for the teacher, and no, not recommended. But I do think, as it was a small group with a good friendly atmosphere, that they enjoyed the opportunity to talk about deeper topics than our coursebooks typically permit.

Where’s your favourite place you’ve visited?

In connection with teaching, this half-tumbled-down church which popped up out of nowhere two or three hours walk from the site of our summer camp.


What do you do to relax?

Banter, laugh at the students’ jokes, laugh at my own jokes, sing a song, do a dance or alternatively make the students do everything so I can just sit on a chair. Or did you mean outside lessons?

What did you find most scary/difficult as a new teacher?


What advice would you give your younger self?

When the kids come into the room for the first lesson looking so sweet and innocent and nervous…. don’t be fooled. Clear expectations. Discipline. Routine routine routine.

What, for you, is the best thing about teaching?

Students. (But I like my colleagues as well.)

Step 4ff. Sadly I will be unable to provide 11 more bloggers with 11 more questions, because (as mentioned) I don’t read many blogs. If you have stumbled upon this post and you are a TEFL blogger yourself, please leave a link in the comments so I can broaden my horizons. If there are 11 of you, so much the better.


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Dragons and Pearls

In a cupboard full of books, mostly in Russian, all looking somehow both worn and unread, and out of reach except by stepladder, my next-door-neighbour made a surprising discovery: a book in English by John Wimber, of Vineyard Movement fame, called Power Evangelism.


“blink detected”

It’s a curious feeling when you find an abandoned English book in a Moscow krushchovka that hails from roughly the same Christian camp as yourself (in my case, according to some unexpected Wikipedian terminology, evangelical and neocharismatic). It’s as if you’ve found, not only a book, but an unknown friend across the generations of short-term tenants. And not, I hasten to add, because neocharismatics are united in the belief that only neocharismatics will be saved and that everyone else’s Wikipedia pages will be taken down and recycled as cat memes. It would be curious in the same way to find a plectrum in a dusty corner, or some literary criticism, or an empty jar of Sainsbury’s reduced salt yeast extract.


Marmite is just not good enough.

Of course the church is a far more complicated tribe than the tribe of all Sainsbury’s reduced salt yeast extract enthusiasts. After about a page of Wimber’s book I was feeling generally spiritually inadequate and planning a book of my own called Weakness Evangelism. Reading on, I wondered sometimes how Christian writers manage to be so sure about everything, and at other times, how I managed to be so unsure about so many things. I had a particularly sharp disagreement with pages 39 and 40 and considered removing them from the book altogether before allowing it to fall into anyone else’s hands. It’s still on my shelf, but looks as if it doesn’t know whether it’s really welcome there, while I don’t know whether the surreptitious glances it keeps giving me represent the indifference of effortless superiority or a secret wish to call a truce.

These frosty silences are naturally more painful with books than with people. (After all, it seems to be only Wikipedia that actually calls anyone neocharismatic.) But denomination is a problem, whether you were born into it, or achieved it, or had it thrust upon you. I remember attending my first ever C of E Sunday morning service, having no idea how to share the peace, and my friend apologising about the infant baptisms. Around the same time, she privately objected when our Religious Studies teacher ticked the phrase ‘As I am an Anglican’ in her exercise book as if it was remarkably intelligent and insightful. ‘We’re like iron sharpening iron,’ said my cessationist Baptist friend after a flaming (ahem) row probably about speaking in tongues. At Cambridge, I attended a college Chaplain’s Lunch for religious society organisers, wearing my CICCU Rep’s Hat, a very uncomfortable invisible garment designed to help reps defend the evangelical corner at all times, so that I would have sat in terrified silence throughout the meal, had I not been kept in civilised conversation by the kindness and good manners of the representative of the Catholic Society. More recently, I was approvingly called a progressive liberal Christian by a friend probably unaware of Christian contexts in which ‘liberal’ collocates with ‘woolly’.


Woolly laptop obstruction.

And then, denominational confusions aside, there is the question of what to do when you just seem to be generally inclined to disagree with things. If you’re with me on this, you may even have flinched a bit or started muttering to yourself at some point while reading this blog. It’s ok; I’m the same. Maybe we do it by sheer force of habit, or because everyone else is always so terribly positive-spirited about everything, or from some confused notion that if we work at this bit of grit for long enough it will eventually turn into a pearl.

One example from me, but please do replace it mentally with your own. This article by Robert Fergusson, a Hillsong pastor, justifies the line ‘Even when it hurts like hell, I’ll praise you’ to those who might raise eyebrows over it: ‘We live in a desperately broken world. Occasionally, it feels as if hell itself has been unleashed. Of course, we know our victory and safety is in Christ, but it still hurts.’ Disagreement answers immediately that the problem with the line is not that it exaggerates suffering but that it trivialises suffering. ‘It hurts like hell’ is a rattling contemporary adult’s equivalent to ‘it hurts like billy-oh’, like Eustace Scrubb losing his dragon’s skin. Stubbed toes hurt like hell. But I only bothered to think about this because I happened to read Robert Fergusson’s article.

So perhaps the solution is to stay off the Internet, avoid conversations, try not to think too much and focus on practical service. To act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly before God, and lose sight of the fact that the third line of verse two in such-and-such a song was definitively appalling. To trust in the Lord with all your heart, and not lean on your own understanding. And all God’s people said, “Yes, we’ve heard Proverbs 3:5 plenty often enough before”.

It’s unavoidably easier said and heard than done. I’d always let the sentence stress fall naturally on ‘understanding’, leaning on understanding even in telling myself not to lean on understanding; read in this way, and taken in isolation, the verse might come to sound like you’re really not supposed to be thinking too much about things. But then I discovered that I could lean on a different word. Do not lean on your own understanding; do not try to support your self against your self, because you will fall over; understanding is fine, in fact, this is Proverbs after all, so get wisdom for all you’re worth, but do not depend on your own understanding, depend on understanding, but not your own, someone else’s, there is a better and broader and stronger understanding that can take the weight and lift you.

At this point, having theoretically cast all our anxieties on Him, it would be nice to float gracefully into a concluding paragraph before my remaining readers’ attentions are drawn away elsewhere. But conclusions are rather too easy, and the church is still rather complicated. It seems fitting that, if you search for pearl oysters on Google Images, all the pictures that show real oysters look disgusting, and all the others look fake. There is no illustration of Eustace being un-dragoned, but the illustration of the newly dragoned Eustace is repeated on Google many times; in one photo, it has been reproduced as a tattoo on someone’s leg.

pearls two


pearls one



eustace dragoned

Eustace, dragoned

What I really wanted to find, by way of representing the church, was the illustration of Reepicheep the mouse in conversation with Eustace at night:

On such occasions, greatly to his surprise, Reepicheep was his most constant comforter. The noble Mouse would creep away from the merry circle at the camp fire and sit down by the dragon’s head… There he would explain that what had happened to Eustace was a striking illustration of the turn of Fortune’s wheel, and that if he had Eustace at his own house in Narnia (it was really a hole not a house and the dragon’s head, let alone his body, would not have fitted in) he could show him more than a hundred examples of emperors, kings, dukes, knights, poets, lovers, astronomers, philosophers, and magicians, who had fallen from prosperity into the most distressing circumstances, and of whom many had recovered and lived happily ever afterward. It did not, perhaps, seem so very comforting at the time, but it was kindly meant and Eustace never forgot it.

But this picture of encouragement and mutual grace seems not to have found its way onto Google Images.





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Blessed are those who help others put their бахилы on.

Starbucks, despite being an evil enormous international corporation, is a great blessing to the Englishwoman having tea out in Moscow. Starbucks baristas, when asked for black tea With Milk, do not look shocked and perplexed and ask whether they should put the milk in the teapot. Nor do they dish out a cup of hot water and milk froth with a well-intentioned teabag in it completely failing to brew. I have even been asked in Starbucks how much milk I wanted exactly, and whether I’d like it in a separate cup to add at the appropriate moment. Such service seems not far short of a godsend.


(One can achieve the same result in cafeteria-style places where you collect black tea and milk from different counters and put them on a tray.)

Good tea is particularly necessary, of course, immediately after a Sunday morning church service when a further hour of Bible study still lies ahead. But there is a certain irony in the situation when you take your expensive cup of excellent black tea with milk and a sun-dried-tomato sandwich and settle down in a comfortable corner of Starbucks to talk with your brothers- and sisters-in-Christ about the importance of financial generosity.

Here is the opening of the article we discussed, Grace Turns Giving Upside Down.

Giving can be a touchy subject. It may be hard for pastors to address it without apologizing on the one hand or laying down a guilt trip on the other hand. Most of us often would rather avoid talking about the subject altogether.

I am proud to say that during our discussion in Starbucks none of us did any avoiding, apologizing or laying down of guilt trips or anything else. But if touchy isn’t quite the word, then the word is complicated. Does giving result in the giver being blessed? we wondered. Or is giving a blessing in itself? Were we talking about material blessings there or about moral benefits? About consequences, about rewards, or about the inherent rewardingness of a spiritual discipline? Or did these amount to the same thing? Was tithing different from other sorts of giving? Was tithing commanded or just sensible? Was it to be considered in pragmatic terms, a handy mechanism for covering the church’s expenses, or should one emphasise its advantages for the individual disciple? Could one tithe anywhere or only to the local church? Did tithing ‘work’? If a megachurch pastor said that tithing was for people who want to be rich, did he mean that tithing would make you rich, or that tithing would make you reasonable? Was it possible to find a happy balance between those who felt thankful for the various good things in their lives, those who felt unfortunately rather hard up, and those in whom even a very good cup of tea could not quite curb a tendency to play Whack-a-Mole with prosperity gospels?


‘Peter’s conflict with Simon Magus’, by Avanzino Nucci, 1620. (Thankyou Wikipedia.)

Four days later, the weather changed. The rain fell, the wind blew, the entire city disappeared under a sheet of ice, and my thoughts about generosity were unexpectedly altered by a fall and a fractured right elbow.


Matthew 6:2-4.

It turns out that the left hand really never has any idea what the right hand is doing in the midst of most of its ordinary everyday activities.

left handed

Although sometimes we should say that the right hand has no idea what the left hand is doing.

I have discovered that my right hand speaks a mysterious language which to my left hand is more or less unknown. The fine motor skills possessed by my right hand, its comparative strength and dexterity, I never used to give any thought to: I might occasionally have reflected on my poor handwriting, but mostly my right hand was just there, ready and willing to answer the needs of the hour, whether with a pen or a plectrum, cutting a loaf, doing up a zip or straightening the washing over the radiator. The secret of the right hand is a secret skill, constant, functional and unconscious. Hold that thought for the moment. (And forgive me the anachronism and the sleight of hand involved in not mentioning that what one ideally wants is two hands.)

A broken elbow means that generosity has a different look, a very immediate one. Generosity looks like my colleagues in the Recruitment and Timetabling Departments when a bewildered teacher with a broken elbow came through their office door at eight o’clock on a Thursday evening, since they neither raised an eyebrow nor batted an eyelid but took the situation calmly and completely in hand, providing every sort of support, help and reassurance as if there was nothing better they liked doing at the end of a long working day. Generosity looks like a string of friendly taxi drivers. It looks like Service Control at the 24-hour clinic, represented by a bored-looking man in a white shirt, who, while I was trying and failing to get my бахилы on, appeared suddenly from the other side of the room and did it for me.




Generosity looks like the people who let me go ahead of them in the queue, arguing that my need was greater than theirs, which may or may not have been the case. Or like a text message, Facebook post, phone call or email from a friend or colleague, coming out of the blue. Or like the flight attendant checking up on me on the plane. Or like my brother waiting at Arrivals at Gatwick to drive me away. Generosity sees a problem and steps in with kindness.

No doubt all those people would say that it was natural and obvious to help in the way they did. But that is exactly the point. That is what the right hand does: without analysis or calculation it reaches out to do what is natural and obvious, which turns out to be the action that changes everything for someone else. Giving is not really that complicated. Giving is an instinct and a skill. It is not a system. It is just what we do because of the world’s needs.

Perhaps more Sunday morning offering slots should go like this:

Reverend Sykes emptied the can on to the table and raked the coins into his hand. He straightened up and said, ‘This is not enough. We must have ten dollars.’

The congregation stirred. ‘You all know what it’s for – Helen can’t leave those children to work while Tom’s in jail. If everybody gives one more dime we’ll have it -‘ Reverend Sykes waved his hand and called to someone at the back of the church. ‘Alec, shut the doors. Nobody leaves here until we have ten dollars.’

One challenge, of course, can be that one feels more like a left hand than a right hand: keen in principle to serve and be useful, but hesitant, clumsy, tongue-tied, impractical or underconfident. Here one can only hope that the metaphor will bear me out: left hands, real left hands, do acquire more skill with practice and with time. You might never know exactly how much difference you have made — so that the cup of tea, for example, which someone in the Timetabling department made for me, and which I failed to actually drink because I was too bewildered, will go down in my memory as an infinitely more valuable thing than anything I’ve had in Starbucks or anywhere. The tea itself is neither here nor there after all. What matters is the kindness with which it came.


The tea of human kindness.

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