Writing a novel as a metaphor for TEFLing

A guest piece by TEFL.net book reviewer and published (non EFL!) author Saul Pope

“At first glance, EFL teaching and writing a novel do not appear to have a lot in common. However, this combination has been a big part of my working life for past decade, and I am beginning to see the similarities. So, without wanting to mix my metaphors, I’m going to step up to the plate and grab the bull by the horns, and try to grasp at the straws where the worlds of novel-writing and EFL teaching collide…

The first, and perhaps most important, similarity is the way in which both are largely about good planning. Plenty of budding writers have a great idea for a novel, but then find it difficult to find either the necessary time or patience to plan the structure of their text properly. Similarly, there are EFL teachers I’ve met who think it’ll be a walk in the park to teach abroad, failing to understand that good planning is often what made the professional teachers’ lessons they observed during training look so effortless and casual. For a carefully planned and well-organised lesson that achieves its goals and motivates the students, a suitable metaphor would be Martin Amis’ London Fields, a masterclass in how to make structure work; I hope one day to be able to write something even one-tenth as interesting. The two minute glance through a copy of Headway (original edition), before deciding to talk about your weekend for as much of the lesson as possible is the EFL equivalent of the not proof-read, straight to free download novel, something that is becoming ever more frequent…

Inspiration also plays a key role in both jobs. The character of my first novel, who has now extended into writing his own blog, Jonathan David, came to me when I was lying on a bed in a damp B + B in Lyme Regis on a rainy afternoon, staring at a can of Coke; Jonathan is addicted to Coke (the drink) and is probably exactly the type of person who’d enjoy lying around in damp B + Bs. Equally important to my other career was the tube journey home part way through my TESOL Diploma training, when I suddenly dreamt up the game I would use to practice past modals in my external observation the following day. It worked superbly, which makes Jonathan the literary equivalent of an EFL game – I’m sure he’d love that.

There is also the small issue of rapport – both the characters in the novel and the students in the classroom need to interact naturally if maximum benefit is to be gained. I’ve still got work to do in both classroom and on the page in this way, and genuinely marvel at those teachers who seem to have students relaxed and unafraid to experiment from early on in the course. Such practitioners are the Douglas Coupland of the EFL world, a writer who, with jPod, has written a book whose characters interact so effortlessly that I’d love to spend even half an hour amongst them. My own Jonathan David is perhaps the best literary comparison to classes in which the students seem to rattle around nosily and pointlessly, like dried peas in a tin, for most of the course, or else find it impossible to tell you even one interesting thing they’ve done over the last month. Jonathan is getting a bit better, and has recently extended his social circle beyond one friend he never sees and a fifteen-year-old Russian who spends most of his time mocking him.

Finally, neither EFL teachers nor novelists seem to get the respect they deserve. When I was teaching abroad, I got tired of being asked by fellow Brits what I’d be doing when I went back home, as if EFL was simply extending my university years and prolonging the inevitable. When I explained that I intended to continue teaching, I was invariably warned that this would probably involve ‘getting some extra qualifications’…

Similarly, when I mention that I’m a writer, I am quickly scanned from head to toe and – when the speaker realises that I’m not a rich writer – asked what else I ‘do for money’. So for the EFL teacher working split shifts abroad, coping with the rigours of life in a foreign country, trying to motivate tired businesspeople and noisy teenagers day after day but still told back home that she is not a ‘proper teacher’, read the writer staying up late in his cramped flat, writing and rewriting the same paragraph, trying to ignore the rejection letters from the agents and hoping to one day get some respect from society for what he has created…

‘Russia, The Man and Jonathan David’ is available from Amazon and Waterstones. A blog written by Jonathan, featuring his more recent life, can be found at http://saulpope.wordpress.com/

Thanks Saul. Any other published authors want to write a guest piece for me (as Martin Amis has been banned for being a troll)?

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3 Responses to Writing a novel as a metaphor for TEFLing

  1. anon says:

    ALEX CASE spent 3 years at BIRMINGHAM UNI at the public expense and they taught him NOTHING but how to VILLIFY how to MOCK and DEBAUCH THE REPUTATION of those whom he should REVERE. HE is against the normal LAWS of NATURE and mal PRACTISE. CEASE YOUR attacks on ME.
    NON SPARK THAT YOU ARE.

  2. Robert Murray says:

    Hey guess what! Some time ago I wrote a novel that was set in the EFL world. It had a double perspective of working in Portugal and New Zealand (‘What … don’t they speak English in New Zealand?’) and was a psychological mystery involving a central character who absolutely hated EFL and was only using it as a cover for an assignment Down Under where he had to find a missing person (now I remember how complicated the plot was – and probably why it didn’t get published).

    I intended it to be humorous, but it was obviously a ‘cri de coeur’ from someone who didn’t exactly have a high opinion of the EFL world. It was also based on ‘real-life’ situations. I wonder if I should dig it out and dust it down and try and get it published (although that would risk getting sued).

    I have now turned my literary efforts towards non-fiction, but have recently re-entered the EFL world (actually more EAP) after a few years away and have a more considered view of the profession. i wonder how many other EFL novels are out there (I can only think of Matthew Kneale’s ‘Whore Banquets’, set in Japan).

    Yours sincerely,

    Robert Murray

  3. Alex Case says:

    Hi Robert, thanks for commenting. I read two novels where TEFL teachers commited murder. Think one was by Julian Barnes, but could never track the other one down

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