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August 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

30 Years TEFL

Lorcan Flynn was born in 1953, in Dublin, to a family of 9 children. He became a full-time TEFL teacher in Germany in 1988 and part-time storyteller in 1998. In this article, he shares with us his TEFL journey.


It is hard to remember now, but I did have a life before TEFL. For example, on completing school I joined the family insurance business and began studying for my ACII. (Association of Chartered Insurance Institute) It was a good, safe job to have in the early 70s when jobs of any kind were scarce in Ireland. But Fate did not want me to stay there.

One day, I met some school friends who were home from the exotic, faraway country where they had found a well-paying job and millions of pretty girls. (For Irish youth at that time all countries were faraway and exotic :-) My boss saw the advantages of having some foreign language skills in the company, so.he agreed to let me take a year off, without pay of course.So, in January 1973, I joined my friends in exotic Kalkar in Germany.

It was much more difficult then to survive without German here in Germany, even for English speakers. It had indeed proved very easy to find a job in a local shoe factory. Nobody around me spoke English  so happily, I was forced to learn some German. Less than three months later, I spoke enough basics to land a job in a hotel in Bonn, where unfortunately, I met more people who were eager to improve their English. Nevertheless, I could hold my own by the time I left a year later.

In January 1974, I returned home to continue my studies in the insurance business. When, in late 1976, the insurance brokers I worked for shut its doors I was able to use my language skills to get a job representing an Irish company in Germany. On my earlier meanderings around Europe,, I had met and married a beautiful girl from Uganda. She had been adventurous enough to give up her life in London and join me in Dublin, where she was the only black face in the whole area. Now, a year after our marriage, she was more than willing to give up her well-paying job to experience life in another country. So off we went.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, the German economy was booming and there was a shortage of skilled labour in the building sector. Our company  imported workers from all over the British isles and hired them out to building companies around Germany. If anyone is familiar with the old Dubliners song “MacAlpine's Fusiliers”  or with the old TV series Auf Wiedersehen Pet, they will have a slight impression of the atmosphere of the period. PS The series has some  wonderful examples of regional British accents.

Before passing into the dangerous world of TEFL the storyteller in me cannot resist telling an anecdote to give a flavour of the times and place to those who have not enjoyed the above-mentioned song and series.

In the early 80s, there were armies of so-called agents around Germany who were competing to employ the best staff and who were not unwilling to try to take over an opponent's contract by any means possible.

On one occasion, one of my teams was building huge cooling towers at what later became a nuclear power station. One day the grapevine told me that a rival agent had offered my guys and extra 2 marks per hour if they were willing to take the contract over to him. One of the gang (as it turned out, the agent’s brother) was willing. He persuaded the others to go on strike in order to force the company management to change agents.

I got a panic-stricken call from the company and was told to sort out the situation immediately or I would lose the contract. I dropped everything, drove there immediately, and climbed the scaffolding to the 14th floor level where the guys were pouring concrete. I told them I was not willing to increase their wages but that they would be foolish to change agents because many such were only gangsters who regularly absconded with the money owed to building workers. The guys knew this to be true. They also knew my reputation, which was good.

At one point, the brother of the agent in question pointed out that it was a long way down and that accidents did happen. I just laughed at him and pretended to treat what he was saying as a joke. The streets of Dublin had taught me the truism that barking dogs do not bite. Eventually the guys agreed to stay with our company and the situation was saved.

Later I heard that the rival agent tried the same stunt i.e. climbing the scaffold up to the 14th floor but he was shaking so badly when he got there that he failed to impress the tough guys on the building crew. Neither they nor he knew my secret. In one of my previous lives I had spent some time working as a scaffolder and had overcome my fear of heights.

Eventually that gravy train came to a stop and I spent the next few years working in various jobs where I could use my language skills - including freelance translation. The money was good, but I  was never convinced that I had found a job that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. In 1983, I retrained as a computer programmer, but it was not for me. Then in the late 80s a friend who later became a professor of English in Constance University suggested that I try TEFL.

I didn't know it then,  but I had found my calling. “Look,” said Seamus, Most of what you need is the ability to talk to people. With your training as an insurance salesman and your personnel management skills you are a natural. I did some classes under his supervision,  got some invaluable tips and went for my first interview.

The Helliwell School of English where I worked in Dusseldorf was owned by two old professionals, who paid a fair rate and, more importantly, provided ongoing training to their staff. In cooperation with the University of Sheffield, we created the first university level TEFL certificate. More importantly still, the two owners had extensive contacts in state and local government and so we had a constant flow of students from various ministries.

I remember how terrified I was when I was told that one of my first students was a Professor Doctor Manfred XX of the Finanzministerium. I couldn't imagine what I was going to teach Professor Doctor Manfred XX of the Finanzministerium and realised I would probably be exposed as the fraud I felt  myself to be.

It turned out that he was twice as nervous as me. When the kindly old gentleman walked into my classroom I had to reassure him that I was not going to jump on his every mistake like some previous monster had done. We got along famously. As a storyteller,  I have always been genuinely interested in people and their stories. My students sense this and have always been willing to engage in wonderful conversations where I seem to learn much more than they ever do. On my first trip to Uganda in 1982, I had become a Baha’i and in the copious writings, found a wonderful quotation, which has been my personal motto ever since: “Regard man as a mine, rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” -Baha’u’llah

“Seek and you will find,” is the way somebody else put it. It has always worked for me. For example,  I remember asking one elderly lady to tell me a story from her childhood - we were doing past tenses. As she opened up, I recognised that  I had indeed found a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. The lady had been a child of 5 when the city of Koenigsbourg in East Prussia fell to the Russians. Her mother had been taken as a sex-slave and later a slave-worker and as a child of 5, my student  had accompanied her mother. Strangely, she had no bitter feelings for the Russians.

“They all liked children and would give us kids bread or sweets when they came to visit our mothers.”  It was 5 years before they saw Germany again.

She had never told anyone these stories until I asked her that question. In the 80s, Germany, in fact all of Europe and beyond was full of people with such untold stories. It seems there was a tacit agreement to let sleeping dogs lie. However, I encouraged her to write down her memories and save them for future generations. This advice caused me to lose the 12 hours per week of lessons that I had been having with her. She decided to concentrate on her writing. I did not begrudge the loss as other mothers had sons and daughters who wanted to learn English.

Another student from that period was a doctor XX who was the PRO for the environmental ministry. We had a lesson, which he was forced to cut short, on the day that Chernobyl hit the news. At the time there was real terror around Europe that a cloud of nuclear radiation was heading our way.

What should we do? Should schools and Kindergartens be closed? Are we allowed to eat the vegetables growing in our gardens?

These were some of the questions being discussed on live radio which we turned into during our lesson. It turned out that the ministry was as unprepared to deal with the situation as everybody else. So they also tuned into the radio and when radio stations phoned the ministry and asked them what they should do, the staff fed the information back which they had received on the air.

Fortunately the consequences for Germany were not so bad and a crisis committee was set up for future disasters. I wonder if it still exists.

As that decade closed two wonderful things happened in the world. One was a beginning - the foundation of ELTA-Rhine, the other was an ending

History has been a lifelong passion of mine. So, when the Berlin wall fell in 1989 I sought an opportunity to share this historical moment.  I offered my experience to a  company that was looking for teachers in Dresden. My wife, who had given up a lucrative career in the steel industry to become a full-time mother of three, had no problem with my becoming an absent father. So off I went again

My new friend John from England and myself were the first TEFL teachers, not only  in the company that used to produce Praktica cameras but in the whole of Dresden. On the other hand, the city was flooded with insurance, car porno video salesmen and credit sharks.

John was doing his PhD in Germanistic but had no actual experience teaching English. So, it was up to me to introduce the course to the 25 ex-management level employees who suddenly had to learn the language of their former class enemy.

We  had been told that the group had zero  English competence and it was our job to bring them up to scratch so they could participate in an upcoming computer course, for which they would need at least some knowledge of English. We had 3 months at 40 hours a week to do so. My school in Dusseldorf had kindly supplied me with masses of beginner material so we were well prepared to help these linguistically underprivileged former communists.

It has always been my policy to speak only English with my students, even the beginners. However these people had had no exposure to English at all so I broke my rule and introduced John and myself to the group in German and then asked them in English: "do any of you have any knowledge of English?"

An elderly gentleman stood up and in flawless Etonian English informed us that he and three of his translator colleagues had indeed a certain level of English but were lacking in experience communicating with native speakers. Gunther wished to assure us that he was quite, even very excited at the thought of doing so. The glance John and I exchanged spoke volumes. Gunther was followed by two ladies who were both teachers of English. One of them was fluent and the other was quite adequate. Everyone else in the class had had English up to first year university level except for one solitary individual who only spoke Russian as a foreign language.

The next day I drove back to Dusseldorf (600 km) and filled my car with the material I needed to do an introductory course to the Capitalist West. John and I agreed that everyone in the group except the one guy we managed to place in a different group, would easily pass the upcoming test. We would use the English lessons to answer the questions they had about life in the West. More importantly, we would shield them from all the gangsters who were trying to separate them from their cash.

It was amazing to meet highly educated people who knew as little about us and our ways as someone who had been born and raised in Nepal or communist China. On the other hand, every day we learned how brainwashed we had been about life behind the Iron Curtain.

Eventually, the course was extended twice and, 9 months later, we both felt that we had done these people good service - and we had had a wonderful experience.

However, we were not teaching in a vacuum. At some point the company who was paying us gave us a test which our students had to pass to demonstrate that they were making progress. It was set for people with approx six months of English training so we reckoned that it was easily passable even for our one or two disinterested students. (The takeover of East Germany had not been advantageous for all its citizens. Unfortunately, many took to the bottle)

For example, one of the questions was "what did you do on the weekend?" An acceptable answer would have been: I went shopping. Most people wrote two or three sentences in response. But not our translator Gunther. He wrote 4 pages with sentences like; "while wandering in the woods, my attention was captivated by the singing of a lark. I was quite mesmerised and decided to sit beneath the tree and savour the moment. As I listened, I drifted off and……."

Unfortunately, Gunter’s time ran out before he could answer questions such as: What is the past tense of the following verbs…. :-) We could have failed him but the promise of a large bribe persuaded us to let him pass. (JOKING:)

When I arrived in Dresden in September 1990, my battered old Mitsubishi Colt had attracted many admiring glances. When, after several other courses, I finally left in 1993, I was still driving my  battered old Mitsubishi Colt, but everyone in Dresden was driving Audis, VWs or Mercs. Western values had indeed taken over much faster and much deeper than anyone could have imagined.

I could write several books about the amazing people I met in Dresden.  Some are still friends. But I can't start today. However, I will engage in a bit of name dropping. I actually played chess and went swimming with Mr Gorbaschow. His wife was a student of mine. I always drop this bombshell in class when we are playing the game "who is the most famous person you have ever met?"

Eventually I admit that it wasn't Präsident Michail Gorbatschow, but only a namesake. Jezveni (sp) an ex- military policeman from Russia, was married to a student who had studied in Russia. They both became  good friends.

Fortunately, on returning to Dusseldorf, I was able to return to my old school but unfortunately it soon became apparent that the business skills of the owners did not match their legendary TEFL skills. As time passed, I reduced my courses in the company to one. So, I was not affected too badly when the crash came and was able to write off the wages that I had not been paid. Unfortunately, some colleagues had had all their eggs in that one basket and suffered financially as a result. It was not the first or the last time this happened.

As an ardent first-generation member of ELTA-Rhine, I always tried to persuade my colleagues to join. Most did not listen and paid the price when such volcanoes erupted, as they regularly did. They would always find work eventually but often they would be forced to accept the first offer that was made. In the 90s the hourly rate a freelance teacher could earn ranged from 10 to 40 Deutschmarks per teaching hour. Most ELTA members operated in the higher brackets and were always willing to help their fellow members find jobs that paid a living wage.

The link below is to a ballad I wrote for the 25th anniversary of ELTA-Rhine. Please sing along with tongue in cheek.

As the 90s flew past, I found myself working directly for one of the ministries and also for an organisation embedded in the chemical industry with an unlimited supply of students and the best TEFL library in Germany. When our youngest child hit 15, my wife walked into another high paying job, this time in the oil industry. Life was good. We both love travelling and we took our 3 children to places their neighbours and friends never dreamed of going. Everywhere we went we met fascinating characters.

However because of my wonderful job I didn't actually have to travel very far to meet fascinating characters. When I asked one elderly German Hausfrau to tell me a story, I indeed found another mine rich in gems of inestimable value. The lady had actually been a sailor on real sailing ships, apparently this can be done. She had sailed around the Horn and was full of wonderful anecdotes.

Two other great characters were the guys who were training TEFL teachers in the west of Ireland. Along with 11 German ladies who were school teachers of English around Germany, I attended their enriching 3-week seminar, which was financed by a European fund.

Before I returned home, Jürgen and John invited me to join their team, which taught courses several times a year in Bildungszentrum Sorpesee. Since that fortuitous meeting, I have been doing a week-long total-immersion course in an adult education centre about 150 km away in the mountains. Once or twice a year, I am with a group of learners from 8 o'clock in the morning until about 10pm at night from Monday to Friday. The week always flies in.

All meals are had together. There are six hours of lessons, followed by a 90 minute study period. Then an hour later, there is an evening programme. Each teacher is expected to host one of these evenings. Monday is usually Quiz night. Tuesday Juergen did a slide show showing his walking tours of Scotland and Ireland. Thursday night was John’s famous singalong night when incredibly he always managed to get a crowd of reticent strangers singing along to Folk Hits from the 1960s.

“What can you do Lorcan?” They asked me. “I can tell Stories from Ireland,” I responded. That was the beginning of my second profession. I still travel to adult education centres around Germany and tell “Tall and Short stories from Ireland.”

I learned so much from these creative geniuses that I would need another book to do them justice. But, I will limit myself to a description of one of the innovative methods the guys introduced to me. It is called The Village.

This is a tool that can best be used in the course of a week long course. However I have used it successfully on weekend and even on one-day courses. It can be adapted to any cultural setting but in my case I invite my students to spend a day with me in an Irish Village.

  • Step one is brainstorming the name of the village. For about 5 or even 10 minutes students call out any name they think an Irish Village might be called. These names are listed on the board and voted on until one is chosen.
  • Step two: I tell the students that they are the residents of the village so we now brainstorm typical Irish names. Most Germans have very little knowledge of typical Irish names so they sometimes need prompting. First a list of first or Christian names and then a list of typical Irish family names.
  • Step three: the students then choose a name for themselves. For example I might choose Patrick Murphy.
  • Step four: while listening to some music, I usually play Enya, the students now have to create their identity in their heads. There is no writing or note-taking at this stage. For example Patrick Murphy I imagine to be a 72 year old farmer. His wife Mary died 6 years ago and he has recently begun to look for a new wife. He has six children and 8 grandchildren. One of his daughters is married to the local publican. A son works in the local bank. All the others have left for far-away places.
  • Step five: the students now intermingle and introduce themselves. This section is called meeting your neighbours. There is no rigid timeline. The activity stops when conversation begins to flag or when it is time for a break or to start ……..
  • Step six: the students write a one-page autobiography which is then hung or stuck onto to the walls around the class. It often happens that a Love affair like the one between Patrick Murphy and the widow Mary O'Connor has been revealed.
  • Step seven: the students are divided into two groups of three or four and given a blank flip chart page with lots of coloured markers. Their job is now to paint the village or draw a picture of the village. At this stage you will hear protests that I can't draw but this is a team effort and all should co-operate. The results of this artistic endeavour are hung onto the walls.
  • Step eight: A community always has a history. At this stage I get small groups of students to sit together and "remember" one or two incidents that happened in the village.
  • They might need prompting here and you might want to practice some grammar point but your contribution should be kept to a minimum. For example, I might prompt them by asking: do you remember the day farmer Murphy's Bull escaped from his field and wandered down the centre of the village. What were you doing when you saw him? What did you do?
  • Step nine and beyond depend on the language you want to see practiced for example meeting skills. I might get the students to discuss the problems of the village and how to solve them. A typical problem that often crops up is that the young people are leaving the village for far-away places. What can we do to attract jobs to the village without destroying the character of the village?

This activity is where you practice the language of meetings preparing and giving presentations and even writing letters of application to government authorities. You might want to include an election for mayor of the village and have people make electioneering speeches. All these activities depend on the language needs and general level of the group.

The activity lasts at least one day. My own record is 3 days where a group was enjoying the activity so much that they simply refused to stop. The rule they must all obey is that all interactions are in English and in character.

It is quite amazing to see otherwise shy and reticent people blossom when they take on another persona. One memorable lady identified herself as a 75 year old retired prostitute from New York who had come back to her native village to run her father's pub. Normally one of the people who stayed in the background, she was now the life and soul of the party.

The final step is very important. You have to formally say that the activity is ended and tomorrow or this afternoon or whenever, we go back to normal. You then discuss with the students what they liked and what they didn't like, plus any ideas they have for future villages. Doing this helps them to come down from the experience and get back to normal.

In my normal teaching life, the 2000s started with one of the biggest mistakes of my career. A very dynamic colleague whose skill was in sales persuaded me to open a school with her. The idea was that she would bring in the punters and I would make sure they stayed with us. We soon had a thriving business with a growing staff and a healthy turnover. But I was not happy. If I had wanted to sit behind a desk administering things and people, I would have stayed in the insurance industry. After a short time I left the managing team and went back to to what I like to do - freelance teaching.

The 2020s caught me as unprepared as everyone else to face the consequences of the pandemic. My teaching dropped from an average of 30 hours a week to practically zero. Like many others, I didn't believe it could possibly last as long as it has so far. Consequently, I was reluctant to climb onto the online bandwagon. No doubt like many of yourselves, I was eventually forced to master Zoom, Skype for business, Microsoft teams and whatever in house platform my clients were using.  Thanks to the baptism of fire described below I am now zooming away with the best of 'em and actually enjoying it.

My first zoom class was 40 hours with a group from Bildungszentrum Sorpesee. I was as terrified at the prospect as I was all those years ago at the thought of teaching Profesor Dr Braun. But it worked out. However I recognise that I could not have done it on my own. I am very grateful for all the help I received from ELTA people, who generously shared their experience and knowledge. Furthermore, I want to say a big thank you you for all the wonderful YouTube videos put up by so many colleagues around the world.

I am now at an age when all my friends are retired but I cannot imagine stopping doing what I love doing. About 5 years ago I started teaching some courses at the local Ford plant. The colleague whose courses I took over had finally retired at 80. Don't hold your breath if you are wanting to take over mine. :-)


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Tagged  Voices