The website for EF Oxford’s ‘International Academy’ (which I am sure was only very recently a ‘Global Village’) invites us to “Study in the footsteps of famous thinkers and leaders”. It somehow manages to leave out the fact that those who unwittingly choose the summer programme will actually be studying in a football stadium on the outskirts of town, where foreign students are becoming increasingly targeted for muggings.
Of course, I only learned this crucial piece of information at my interview. The then ‘Town Leader’ finished up with “and of course, none of the classes will be here. They’ll all be at the Kassam.”
“The football stadium?” I exclaimed. “Is there… a photocopier?”
The Town Leader seemed to find my reaction of shock quite inappropriate, and replied that there wasn’t a photocopier. However, the friendly Course Directors would be happy to photocopy for me if I gave them ‘one or two days notice.’
This was my first glimpse into the Empire of Evil that is known as EF, once English First, now Education First. Once you are familiar with the blue logo, you will never escape it; it is there, emblazoned on bags, pens, wallcharts, even a Routemaster bus.
The first thing we were taught at the EF training day was the importance of the wallcharts. These, they told us, were fundamental to the learning experience: even more so than, say, a classroom, with desks, or (heaven forbid) a whiteboard.
I arrived at 8:00 am to be presented with my all important wallcharts and some blue tack, to affix the said posters to the walls of the corporate football box that was to serve as my classroom. It soon became apparent that the blue tack would not take to the walls, and despite our efforts none of the posters stayed up for more than five seconds.
But this was not the most pressing matter.
I had, as the register that I had been given said, 17 students arriving in ten minutes, to which I would have to administer a test. I had 14 chairs with tiny, fold-over arms rests that served as desks and kept falling apart, no whiteboard, no pen, no CD player. When I went to the corporate meeting room assigned as the ‘Staff Room’ to ask the Course Directors where I could get these seemingly unimportant things, I only found some Activity Leaders being disciplined by their blue t-shirt-clad overlord.
17 students and a teacher in a corporate box is not a happy picture, especially in the height of summer and with no air conditioning or window to open. The only way I could fit everyone in was to put one student obstructing the door, and of course there was no desk or chair for me- only a flipchart whiteboard balanced at the back of the class.
When the students arrived they were all dehydrated, having been on a coach for two hours without any stop for refreshment. When I asked the Course Director where the water fountain was, she told me to ‘send them to the vending machines,’ as she wasn’t sure where the catering staff were, and that they usually provided us with jugs of water.
I ushered them down to the vending machines, which were all empty. When I returned, the Course Director had vanished again. I found an empty jug and some plastic cups on a table, gave it a rinse, and went to fill it in the toilets. It was that or let them go thirsty for the next 90 minutes of placement test.
It soon became apparent that the school was operating on a policy of lying and exploitation. None of my students had known that they would be studying in a football stadium on a housing estate - the website had lead them to believe that they would be amongst the ‘dreaming spires’ in EF’s main school.
They were also told that they would have an ‘international’ class, but this was a loose concept. One of mine had 14 of one nationality, with a couple of others chucked in.
Our Course Directors used bullying and emotional manipulation as a means of managing us. I was asked if I wanted to teach intensive classes over my lunch break. This would mean having no lunch break at all - teaching for 7 hours straight with only the ten minute breaks that always got taken up with the needless administration and student policing that EF seems to hold more important than having access to books, computers and a photocopier. I refused, and then was told that it ‘wasn’t fair’ on my colleagues who would consequently ‘have more work’ which we should ‘all share out’.
The same policy was employed for the discos and weekend outings. The CDs and Town Leader would routinely say at meetings, ‘teachers, we KNOW you’re tired, but you ALL must come to the megaparty. And don’t forget to learn the EF Dance! Everyone must know the EF dance.’ Apparently being able to wave your arms in time to a song (which, coincidentally, I am quite certain is about underage prostitution) is more important than having a TEFL qualification when you work as an EF teacher.
The after-school meetings generally involved the teachers being told off for not collecting enough sign-ups to trips or selling ‘fun packs’. We often raised the issue that teachers were not getting drinking water and were consequently getting dehydrated, but this was never resolved. I soon gave up on the idea of having any kind of support as the Course Directors were often nowhere to be found, or busy barking orders into mobile phones.
One of the most laughable things about EF’s curriculum was the ‘Project.’ Each class was assigned 3 netbook computers on which they had to, in groups, make movies about their ‘ Fantastic EF experience’ and then upload them to youtube. The best one was to win an Ipad. They had to start this shameless marketing ploy in their first week, when they had barely had any EF experience at all, and the netbooks kept crashing.
These sessions generally involved three students working on the netbooks, while the rest asked me repeatedly why they had to do it, and whether they could include something about getting mugged on the way to the stadium, or how their host families were not feeding them enough.
What I found most disconcerting about EF is its use of questionnaires. EF Oxford had previously received a high student satisfaction rating from last year’s questionnaires. When it was our turn to give them out, our manager had some valuable advice for us. “If you see that they have put a sad face, try to get them to change it”, she said. “Remind them about how much fun they’ve been having. Teachers, we don’t want to see any sad faces. And remember to put your wall charts up - there’ll be an inspection tomorrow.” We were urged to make the classes as enjoyable as possible, to avoid the sad faces of shame that would mark us out as unworthy teachers.
However, my lessons often became devoted to fixing chairs, finding water for thirsty students, and listening concerned for my students’ welfare as they told me the dubious details of their living situation, or vented their anger at having been misled by the EF website. Having no projector, no photocopier, very limitedspace and only EF’s course books, filled with errors, senseless exercises and trashy topics, this was a quite a task. However, once you have taught in these conditions, anything seems possible.
In short, it was a true TEFL baptism of fire.
OK, so a true horror story there, the sort that only EF can inspire. Does anybody else have similar tales of woe to tell about EF? I'm sure there must be hundreds!