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Blood, Sweat and English Teachers

Published in Shoestring Issue #6

From behind I may have looked composed and professional, but had I been facing a mirror rather than a whiteboard, the truth would have been apparent. What on earth was the passive voice used for? My mind had gone blank with the pressure and the whole lesson was rapidly evaporating. This whole TEFL-course lark was a lot harder than I’d imagined.

In similar circumstances, a trainee in a previous year had apparently sat down and got out their lunch, leaving the pupils wondering if it was part of the lesson. Talk about unprepared – I didn’t even have a packed lunch.

One of eighteen trainees of varying ages on an intensive four-week Cambridge CELTA course in England, I was paying for my lack of work the previous evening. I’d only done four hours of preparation and had sloped off to bed at midnight (slacker). We’d been pre-warned that the course would leave no room to work part-time or socialise, but most of us had mentally appended the word ‘much’. I mean, they were exaggerating, right?

That’ll teach you

The average day started in that most terrifying of environments for the untrained – the classroom. For this we were split into smaller peer groups, with half of us teaching on any given day. Those not teaching sat at the back observing or, if they were up next, wondering if anyone would notice if they shrieked and ran out the room.

Later, after the fears of those teaching had proved to be unfounded (or entirely justified), we came together to get feedback from the assessor and to exchange it with our peers.

This could be a strangely deflating experience after the adrenaline of the classroom: Your concept-checking is okay but you’re not eliciting enough; don’t ask if they understand – they might think they do, even if they don’t; and try not to weep so openly.

Afternoons brought with them a role-reversal as we became the students, learning the theory and practice of TEFL plus some key tenets of the English language. We were expected to incorporate these newly learnt classroom skills into our next lessons, like a juggler being thrown another couple more balls every day, and maybe the odd chainsaw.

Teaching English doesn’t require you to speak a single word of the students’ language. In fact, you’re encouraged to ban all talk in any other languages and make the classroom an English enclave. “Just imagine you’re in Torremolinos,” you might tell your class.

The meaning of new words can be conveyed by charades, pictures and using words with which the students are already familiar, the latter being particularly useful if you want to avoid play-acting ‘genetic engineering’.

Easy like Monday evening

By evening the course was over for the day, but the work wasn’t. It was taking me upwards of four hours to prepare an assessed lesson; researching the subject matter, creating the materials and drafting a to-the-minute lesson plan. Even our intended use of blackboard space had to be pre-determined.

Thankfully, in the real world, the ratio of preparation time to teaching time is far more reasonable. And you wouldn’t be required to do the four written assignments that we had to produce in our spare time (ha!).

The hours soon took their toll, and it became the norm for me to have eyes sagging off my face at night and a caffeinated stare in the morning. Meanwhile, my anti-social working hours and trail of unwashed crockery was putting a strain on my relationship with my housemate.

I could have gone to sleep early, of course – the failure rate on such courses is only about 4% globally. And then I’d have felt bright and fresh as I humiliated myself in the classroom due to under-preparation.

Rewarding behaviour

I was aware of the more obvious benefits of the course before I started: the ability to speak English is in demand in many countries, making the ability to teach it a useful skill the world over. It can help fund trips to exotic places, can be a fun job in itself and makes for a much more immersed travel experience than just excitedly pointing at stuff and taking photos.

But it was the unexpected aspects that had the greatest impact on me. Firstly there was the growth in belief and self-confidence that came from having to repeatedly stand up in front of a group and perform. Then there was the sense of satisfaction that came exactly because the course was so demanding without being unrealistic.

Finally, there was the solidarity that came from sharing a difficult situation with others: hearing a colleague say they were thinking about quitting was a daily occurrence, but so was the inevitable chorus of reassurance that came in response.

But as I stood facing the whiteboard, it wasn’t the warm glow of comradeship that I felt but the icy grip of pressure. Come on, you’ve got this far – you can do this.

“Okay,” I said with a cheery smile and a gently perspiring forehead, “this is what I want you to do.”

My tutor looked quizzically down at the lesson plan as I lopped off an exercise, handed out homework as an activity and generally squeezed my way out from the tight spot.

No packed lunch required.


Riding Latin America’s Five Greatest Railways

Shoestring Issue #3 [link]

No-one talks about great coach journeys of the world.

Whether it’s due to the technical feats involved, the fact you can get up and wander around or simply the sight of beautiful scenery jerking rhythmically about, train travel has something uniquely special about it. Perhaps it’s just the inherent fun of accidentally scalding your loved one when you return to your seat with hot drinks – train travel is romantic, too.

Whilst many of Latin America’s railways have gone the way of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, the region can still proudly call itself home to some of the world’s greatest train journeys.

Here are five excellent opportunities to see tortuous mountain passes, wide open plains and the various creatures that inhabit these places all jerking about rhythmically for your entertainment.

Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico (Chihuahua-Pacific Railway) (Mexico)

Also referred to as the Copper Canyon railway, this treasure of northern Mexico links the country’s mountainous spine with its Pacific coast.

In tracing a path through the rugged folds of green and copper, the track enlists the help of 86 tunnels and 36 bridges, and takes at least 16 hours.

A real highlight is the station at Divisidero from where you can see three awe-inspiring canyons converge with each other. You can also see succulent ears of corn caramelising on grills, for sale by enterprising locals. Which sight you find more breathtaking probably says a lot about you.

The area is inhabited by the Tarahumara, a people famed for their long-distance running ability, though they probably just take the train like everybody else when there are no anthropologists around.

Riobamba-Sibambe-Alausí (Ecuador)

When this train isn’t clinging to Andean mountainsides or rattling through orchards, it’s hustling its way down the streets of pastel-shaded settlements as though it has jumped the tracks. Which it’s also prone to doing for real occasionally.

The most famous section traverses the monstrous rocky obstacle known as the Devil’s Nose (El Nariz del Diablo) – it wouldn’t be Latin America without a casual reference to the devil’s anatomy.

Said appendage is dealt with by doings lots of advancing and reversing, which would just look indecisive if there weren’t also sets of points and zig-zags of track (‘switchbacks’) involved.

Thankfully there’s no Devil’s Adam’s apple to negotiate: if the technical issues don’t sound bad enough, just imagine the theological ones.

La Trochita (‘The Little Narrow Gauge’) (Argentina)

Immortalised in Paul Theroux’s 1978 book The Old Patagonian Express, this railway is not just a journey through the wild treeless scrub of Patagonia: it’s a trip back in time. Fortunately, it’s only back to the era of steam travel, rather than that of armed railway banditry.

Enjoy the view from your tiny carriage as the train rattles past dotted masses of sheep and the occasional guanaco. Ostrich-like rheas are even known to run alongside the train at times, although they’re not usually packing guns.

The diminutive trains are made up of rolling stock from the 1920s with a wood-fired stove in each carriage for warmth. These are passenger-fed, so the temperature depends entirely on the whim of those sat near the stove. Thankfully, the driving of this vintage train isn’t done by the same system.

Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) (Argentina)

Do people accuse you of having your head in the clouds? Well here’s your chance to prove them right. Strictly speaking, you’ll only prove you’ve got your train in the clouds, but no matter.

This is a high-altitude romp through the gorges, dried-up riverbeds and bunchgrasses of northwest Argentina. The train starts high and goes higher, gaining over 3,000 metres in altitude in its ascent to the Andean altiplano (high plain), ending at a breathless 4,200 metres above sea-level near to the Chilean border.

As with other routes in Latin America, the train has to trick its way across difficult terrain using sleight-of-hand like switchbacks, viaducts and even 360 degree spirals. There are no loop-the-loops, but you can’t have everything.

Panama Railway (Panama)

If you’re not satisfied unless your train journey was founded on a legacy of death and misery, then the Panama Railway is the one for you.

Construction of the original route claimed thousands of lives, many of which were to diseases such as malaria and yellow fever at a time when mosquitoes had yet to be identified as the cause.

The railway, completed 60 years before the canal, suddenly transformed crossing the Americas into a feasible proposition, it being quicker than sailing round Cape Horn and safer than hydrogen-filled trousers.

Though the journey takes less than an hour it effectively spans the entire continent, giving great views of the canal as well as the jungle and swamps that made the project so horrendous. For added realism, pretend to swat things on your skin whilst affecting liver pains.