Hugh Dellar: Falling into a me-shaped hole

by Hugh Dellar

Some people grow up knowing that they want to become English-language teachers. They have a deep love of the language instilled in them at a formative age, maybe by a teacher or a parent, and the trajectory that their career then takes is painless and straightforward. I was never one of those people.

My road to the profession I’ve now spent more than half my life in was circuitous, to say the least. Growing up, I wanted at various times to be a fireman, a professional footballer (ideally, the first-choice Arsenal goalkeeper), a heart surgeon, and finally a musician. I played in bands from the age of 15 and had a record deal soon after I left school at 18. Music was my life to such a degree that when my fellow bandmates decided to do a foundation year in a Hastings art college, I stuck around and worked in a pickle factory and then made charcoal tablets so that I could easily make the regular rehearsals.

At 19, we moved en masse into a shared house in south London, where I ended up going to university to pad out the time I wasn’t playing. By the time I graduated in 1991, my band was on the ropes. Success had by and large eluded us and we were all slowly drifting apart. I’d split up with my long-term girlfriend and had no real idea what else apart from sitting in a pub discussing Keats a degree in English Literature equipped me to do. I half-heartedly applied for jobs in journalism, without really understanding the fact that a complete lack of experience and no friends of the family on Fleet Street were a serious disadvantage.

When I failed to land even a single interview, I then drifted into a life of itinerant employment.

I did everything from building site labouring to making sandwiches in a factory canteen, from demonstrating ‘the ancient Chinese game of Jenga’ (TM) in Hamley’s the Toy Shop to buying and selling old records in the infamous Music and Video Exchange empire, all the while trying my darndest to enjoy the many and varied delights, shall we say, that London’s nightlife had to offer. By 1993, I was 24 years old and utterly rudderless in life. I was reaching some kind of burn-out point and was most definitely ready for a change. It was a fateful conversation in a pub in Soho with an old friend, the splendidly named Julian Savage, that pushed me into the field I’ve been exploring ever since.

Julian was a few years older than me, and we’d first met in a record store, drawn together by our long hair and mutual love of underground music from the 1960’s. He had himself wandered into TEFL a few years earlier as a way to fund his wanderlust and peripatetic lifestyle. Anyway, he was briefly back in the UK following a sojourn in Iran. Or was it Ethiopia? Or Indonesia? Anyway, we retired to a local watering hole to catch up and shoot the breeze, and at some point, I must’ve mentioned I was in need of a change of scene and was contemplating heading off round the world in search of thrills and pastures new, at which juncture a CTEFLA (as CELTA courses were then known) was suggested.

“Why would I want to be a teacher?” I asked incredulously. “I hated most of my teachers at school!” “Well,” Julian countered, “that’s as good a reason as any for becoming a teacher! Look at it as a form of revenge.” And thus my fate was sealed!

With a full set of negative role models from my experience of secondary school to kick against, I saved up two thousand pounds by doing a gruelling six-month stint working in pubs seven nights a week and embarked on a whole new adventure. Now, here’s the thing: almost as soon as I’d finished my first twenty-minute teaching practice, I had a strange and most singular feeling: here was a form of work where being me was not only no longer a profound disadvantage, but where it may actually have been a plus! In every other manner of paid employment I’ve ever had, with the possible exception of second-hand record store work, at some point or other being me had caused problems. I struggled to confine myself to the (often stark) parameters of the job; I struggled to keep my big mouth shut when confronted with idiotic rules and jobsworths; I struggled not to give in to the overwhelming desire to gouge my own mind out in frustration at the sheer tedium of so much of it!

In many ways, teaching didn’t feel – and, to some extent, never really has felt – like real work at all, certainly not when compared to trying to prevent the local apes from ripping each other’s faces off on a Friday night’s pub crawl down the Old Kent Road! As such, it’s probably worth considering why that might be the case.

Obviously, much of the early appeal, apart from the thrill of meeting so many interesting young people from all over the world, was down to the space that teaching allowed for whatever kind of crazed (albeit well-intentioned) attempts to create my own lessons I could muster. It probably took me far too long to realise that not only were my students not massively interested in lessons based around David Bowie‘s God Knows I’m Good or A Clockwork Orange, but also – more crucially – that these lessons really weren’t teaching much of any practical use.

I was also slow to grasp that stumbling into class pretending to be drunk really wasn’t the best way of teaching the present perfect continuous, but I was still intoxicated by the freedom the job allowed me and by the plaudits of being ‘dynamic’ that students rained on me.

In retrospect, I can see that we excuse – and possibly even validate – a lot of poor teaching by a kind of pedagogical relativity, where we persuade ourselves that we teach as we wish to be taught, as though this justifies all, and where rampant experimentation is not only tolerated, but actively encouraged. The point is, though, that teaching is a broad church and one that allows you to explore and work through all of this and more, which is why becoming an English language teacher felt to me – and I’m sure to many others – like falling into a me-shaped hole.

I later learned, of course, that when it comes to teaching, real freedom is free of the need to be free and that it’s perfectly possible to still be both completely yourself in class and yet operate within clearly thought-out and even fairly narrow parameters.

But that, perhaps, is a story best left for another day!