Making The EFL Patchwork Quilt Work For You

by Clara Harland

The discovery of Hot Potato Syndrome during my first summer school eight years ago was one of a number of lessons I learned while I was grappling with my own attempts at teaching those of the regular grammar variety to my students. Finding myself dropped at the end of the season when the hordes of teenagers went home was a shock and spurred me into a belated job-hunt that should have started months earlier. With more than a modicum of relief, I wound up working for a year in Italy with all the excitement that a first EFL job abroad entails. But what happens if you decide, as I did, to return to the UK after your time abroad? What are the opportunities for EFL teachers back under the familiarity of the unpredictable weather?

I came home after Italy to another season of summer school but this time I was prepared for the prospect of the regular work drifting away once the summer slipped into autumn. I looked at my options and realised that they seemed to be depressingly limited. My local town had numerous language schools and a couple of universities but finding a permanent position with one of them proved to be problematic. I made the most of the occasional week of work and then reluctantly did the rounds of the temp agencies although I would much rather have been in a classroom than sitting in an office.

Eureka moment

It was around this time that I had an epiphany in a supermarket. Standing in the vegetable aisle, trying to focus on what to buy for my dinner that night, I suddenly realised that I was surrounded by foreign voices. This was not unusual though. I’d regularly seen the dusty double decker bus from a nearby farm over the summer months, arriving and decanting fifty or so people all over the car park. On this particular occasion, however, a lightbulb switched on and I realised that I was standing in a sea of potential students. That spark was the beginning of an idea that developed into a business I ran for four years: providing lessons for foreign employees on farms in the area. I taught everywhere from plush boardrooms to drippy caravans with dodgy electricity supplies. I even held a lesson in a utility room, my students sitting on washing machines while leaning on ironing boards instead of desks and with the whiteboard propped up on a dryer.

The end of my TEFL adventures?

As with everything else I’d encountered through TEFL, it was unusual, diverse and interesting. Nevertheless, it had its frustrations and was a very unstable source of income so, much as I loved it, I decided to pack it up and move on. By this time, with a few more years of experience under my belt, I was able to land a job with a UK boarding school teaching their international students. These jobs are like gold-dust and I was overjoyed that I’d finally managed to land one. I was tired of struggling to pay my rent and thought that this would answer my problems. I stayed in the job for three years, developing skills in teaching Academic English while my limits of patience were pushed in ways that only secondary school students seem to know how. I went into it thinking I’d found the solution but I would often find myself gazing out of rain-spattered windows, wondering if that was the full-stop, if that job was the end of my TEFL adventures. It wasn’t enough, and so I left.

I launched myself into the uncertainty of what I have come to refer to as the ‘EFL Patchwork Quilt’. EFL teachers have options in the UK but we have to be prepared to patch together work from a variety of sources. Many of my teacher friends have the same list of language schools; we all do the rounds, piecing together weeks here and there and hoping for that elusive permanent job to pop up. Some are studying for the DELTA or an MA and working towards jobs in universities, others are freelancing as private tutors, building up a bank of one-to-ones. All of us have two things in common: a love of EFL and a determination to make the EFL Patchwork Quilt work for us in the UK.

Clara Harland is the author of ‘Escape From The Big Green Button’, a novel inspired by her experiences in TEFL.

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