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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Putting One`s Feet Up Without A Permission

Robin Usher, Saudi Arabia

Robin Leslie Usher PhD wrote a doctoral thesis `Jungian Archetypes in the work of [science fiction writer] Robert A. Heinlein`, 1992. Teacher of English language and literature since 1994. Has taught in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Oman. Science fiction writer, published also in Hungarian. Stories include `Out of This World`, `Ride!` she said, ‘Special Angel Service`, `Valhalla for Starters` and `MAP`. Published in the British SF academic journal Foundation, `Robert A. Heinlein: Theologist`, and the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research Educatio, `Learning To Study`. E-mail:

Fifteen years as an English language teacher and you would expect some reward, wouldn’t you? In 2000, after five years of teaching, I’d amassed the princely sum of €12,000. Largely thanks to a year spent in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, being bussed from work camp to work place and back again every day in a rattle trap vehicle with no suspension and a complete inability to cushion its occupants from the impact as it ran over those little hillocks the imported non-Saudi engineers (Westerners) and labour gangs (wage slaves for peanuts from the Philippines and points Far East) had put in the roads every hundred metres or so to slow down the almost non-existent traffic and prevent the foreseeable accidents that could never possibly be seen by anyone other than the drivers who fell asleep from boredom at the sight of yellow sand, blue skies, grey tarmac, and a lack of anything else (including other vehicles) to keep them interested in their eventless progress. Only in the Middle East do you see the individual car crash where the driver, experiencing terminal ennui, somehow contrives to miss the road in front of him completely and skews his transportation through several hundred metres of empty desert because he lost interest in driving and fell asleep.

The bus never presented me with the option of sleeping, and I knew it wasn’t lulling me into Heaven (breaking my back in order to get me into it - possibly). I suffered repetitive strain injury to my lumbar vertebrae because of jolts from the bus that began as a jarring, then became pained anticipation of previously experienced nighttime discomfort to one’s spine as a consequence of the bus’s lack of shock absorbers, then regular wincings as the bus jounced on, and finally the desire to stand for twenty minutes or so staring out at the yellow sand and blue sky while one’s legs and feet took their share of the punishment. I had a germane illness in that area too. It’s called osteomyelitis, and bones crumble because of any strain or stress to them because of it. The doctor at the hospital inside the King Khalid Military City where I worked at the English Language Training Centre told me to buy a bicycle to keep me fit because I had high blood pressure also. Any other form of locomotion would be preferable to the bus ride I thought, so off I launched myself into Tabuk proper and bought one for 300 SAR (about 60 GBP). I rode it back to the camp of the wage slaves (foreign workers) and rode out on it again the following morning to the Military City where the guards made me dismount at the main gate and called my manager to have him explain to me that I didn’t have a permit to ride a bicycle on the premises. I laughed incredulously (but good naturedly) and sold my exercise machine that same day to one of my colleagues for 150 SAR so that he could wobble around the work camp on it and get the shopping done for his missus. I never saw the doctor again and only cried over the 150 SAR I lost. Huddled down in my seat on the bus, lest the guards recognize me as their health-crazed bicycle owner, I pondered the life-expectancy of my still-beating heart. Ten years later on it’s still unbeaten but the humdrum is the beat to which I’m forced marching on.

Standing on the bus to save me from the heart attacks the painful sudden jarrings to my back were promising, I bumped predictably along atop the sleeping (but ever wakeful) policeman of the manufactured hilly road. Not that my feet and legs weren’t used to it. If you’ve been teaching for a while, you’ll know that the teacher is expected to be upright the whole length of the lesson; preferably bellowing at the top of his voice and writing ferociously the entire time. `We want examples. Please write.` This is what the students ask of me mostly. `The chair is blue,` I tell them. `What colour is the wall?` `Red,` they say. `How many more examples do you want?` I inquire. `Please write,` they tell me, `The wall is red.` I write `The wall is yellow.` `It isn’t,` they complain. `It is in my universe,` I reply smugly. `What colour are my eyes?` I ask. `Blue,` they reply. `The eyes are a phantasmagoria of iridescent rainbows,` I write. `What does it mean?` they want to know. `Buy a dictionary,` I enthuse them. `A greater part of learning English is finding out the meaning of words by yourself without any help from your teacher,` I lie wholeheartedly and with true strength of feeling for it.

I’m a tremendous advocate of the transparency and the OHP (I’m a poet an` I know it). To avoid the copious amounts of chalk dust getting in my eyes and throat I’d spend a few minutes in the afternoon preparing classes that revolved around the students staring at the material projected onto the nearest convenient spacious flat surface while one or other of their number struggled to complete the gap fill exercise I’d cunningly contrived.


Use these words to complete the given sentences (sometimes no words are required, so leave blank, and watch out for the `trick question` that, in reality, never arises; but the student is always certain that there’ll be one so I’ve put one in to let them feel wholly vindicated). The answer key is at the end of this article, after the notes.

perpendicular, isn’t, Brasiliass, too, bigger, fat

Q1. The grass is and the sun is .

Q2. The teacher is and the students are .

Q3. Each morning I eat and each evening I eat .

Q4. Brasilia is the capital of and Sydney .

Q5. Robin likes to go but Christine likes to go .

Often I’d leave the trainee male Saudi nurses to study it as a group and put my feet up on the desk - or at least I would have if I hadn’t been informed (a useful tip this to the ELT professional) that one should never show the soles of your feet in Arab company because it’s a mortal insult. Actually, I spent a lot of mental energy reminding myself to keep my feet flat to the ground in Saudi Arabia; only to discover later that the Saudis don’t care: it’s the Egyptians and other Arabians that have that weirdness to their aspect. So, always check with Wikitravel if you’re concerned about local customs ( I found that to show the soles of your feet is disrespectful as it means that the other person is `dirt` to you. Consequently, on the evidence of the numbers of those displaying their feet to me in my classroom, I conclude either that the taboo doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia (the guidebooks say it does), or I am dirt to them. I leave it to the learnéd reader and intrepid ELT traveller to verify the truth of it for themselves.

Sometimes the students will encourage you to sit and `relax`. So you gratefully sit and then find that the room has shrunk to the size of your desk as the horizon is swallowed up by looming figures seeking to have you give them individual explanations on the role of some esoteric point of grammar that they’ve been waiting to catch you unawares with for almost the entire semester. `Why is a comma not an apostrophe?` they implore. `Because it isn’t,` I respond tetchily. `Is your brother a sister?` They consider that one before telling me: `You are a great teacher.` `Yes,` I say, getting to my feet as the immanent storm clouds recede to their own chairs, `and I got that way by learning to stand up in my shoes for fifty minutes at a stretch.`

One of the great events of the week was my giving a lesson on listening. We’d sit in the language lab with our headphones on devotedly straining to comprehend the numbingly inane meanderings of the Headway interactive video. Imagine my surprise when the red London bus lurched into view. The best one I’ve ever seen sits in inactive solitude outside the MacDonald’s in Budapest’s 3rd district, whimsically named `Frog Meadow` (Békásmegyer III, Bp. 1039)). The kids swarm all over it while watching the Headway video on their i-pod supafones and chuckling delightedly when the big red London bus looms into view. I jest. Not many London buses on the way to Ealing in Tabuk though. Clearly it’s where the money-laden Arabian foreigners should be. `Blondie` my students tell me when the Headway lead actress appears. It’s a matter of some interest to them, if to no one else. Blondes are rare in Arabia, but they know their name.

As the tape wears on it becomes clear that something is troubling the soundtrack. I switch on the room lighting and observe that no one is present at the booths provided; although their caps with the Saudi army emblem are prominently displayed at the corner of each. Feet sticking out from behind the last row indicate the source of the overdub. Loud snores from the students piled up at the back of the classroom with their feet in each others` eyes, nose, and mouths. I inveigle them all back into position and make them place a tick in the appropriate box.

The bus is

red              Australian              marzipan

One student correctly identifies that the bus is all three; it having been constructed in Canberra. `What is marzipan?` one of them wants to know. `It’s the number 32 to Mars,` I tell them. One of the great secrets of ELT is never let them catch you out and don’t let them ask questions you don’t have an answer for. Especially not those infernally confiding `the teacher is my personal friend` style impositions. I often tell my students that `No, I am not your friend. I’m your teacher.` Then they have no excuse. They are not a familiar. The earnestly yearning moué no longer has any place in the language laboratory and one can safely operate without feeling; the coldly calculating instrument of the finest of surgeons. How often I’ve been delivered of a student into my class, from the lower echelons of the language school I’m working at, without the capacity to choose accurately from the indefinite articles. It is so common that I devised this simple exercise to help them.


Use either a or an in order to complete the sentences. Remember, it is a before a word beginning with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) and an before a word beginning with any other of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet.

Q1. There is banana next to the umbrella behind the television.

Q2. There is orange inside the umbrella underneath the window.

Q3. Behind the television, underneath the window, there is potato next to the banana.

Q4. Above the potato adjacent to the banana, on the windowsill, behind the television and the umbrella with the orange inside it, is grape.

Q5. grape is green and red.

You have to explain to your students that you’re not their friend (most institutes insist that you tell them this from the first to avoid the partialities of favouritism and classroom jealousies that can result in perpetual enmity). You are their teacher. Otherwise you start thinking that you have a life. Here are all these people who want to be with you. Suddenly you’re a centre of interest: but only insofar as you’re like Trafalgar Square. All they want is to convince themselves that they `know English`. In fact `English` is a name by which I’m known in many places. `Where is English?` `He’s the square over there by the red wall that he thinks is yellow,` they point me out. Over they come in droves in order to ask me if there are enough camels in Hyde Park? Enough? `I’ve always found it replete with as many camels as I could desire,` I announce; `one has to be careful or one has nothing else to step on.`

I’m a believer in humour means human. I can joke with my students but I maintain respect for my role. It’s important that you display humanity, and that can be done lightly. Once I wore a blue sock and a brown one to class. Some of the students ridiculed my mistake. `I wanted to see who would laugh at me and who would laugh with me,` I told them. Some of the others then laughed. I was the teacher, not their friend.

I was glad to leave Tabuk and immediately I stepped off the plane in Budapest I went to an estate agent near to the guest house or panzió I was used to lodging at in Somogyi Béla utca while I got my Middle European bearings. I bought the first property they showed me for 4.1 millió Hungarian forints cash. It was a subterranean dwelling the Magyar call alagsor, which means `basement`, and mine was alagsor 2, the second of its type in my building at Bérkocsis utca 26 in Kerulet VIII, the eighth district of Budapest or Ferencvaros (the castle of Frank). So I commenced living a life without students and discovered what Victor Hugo had penned so much about in Les Miserables (1862). People out of context are irremediably drab. Being sneezed upon on trams and debating with oneself whether six oranges or two kilos? Stifling incredulous yawns as metroline #2 takes you inconceivably vast distances from Batthyány tér to Blaha Lujza tér (under what would be the Blue Danube [1866] in Johann Strauss II`s Vienna but is a rather muddier brown here) as the other Buda to Pest travellers unblinkingly yawn themselves at your own yawning gormlessness. Then its grey statues in the rain in Statue Park where one almost has a heart attack as one of them moved and you thought it was a resident.

Those were the days I’d surface from my submerged existence. Most days I’d lie athwart my bed aroused only by the sight of footwear passing blearily through the dim panes of my hidden abode. Eventually the light seemed to refuse to enter at all and I remained beneath the blankets for days on end. I told myself I was recuperating but I was having a breakdown. I’d had money to buy the flat but months of unpaid bills meant a visit from the workmen to cut my electricity supply off. In the middle of winter I’d stand by the gas ring on the stove and warm my hands. At the last I sold my home for a fraction of what I’d paid and went back to teaching. I was learning economics.

I’d studied economics at Hull College of Further Education as a part of my British Education Council National Diploma (BECND) in Business Studies where it was called The Organization In Its Environment, year 1 and 2 module (1978-80). But life isn’t about economics. It’s about how much greyness you can bear. I’d found that a void had entered my soul and economically taken root there. It would be ten more years before I’d have the euros I’d need to buy my soul back from the devil of boredom. Teaching jobs that pay $1000 a month don’t cut the mustard and there are lots of them in Europe and Africa. I was living in a flop house in Kingston upon Hull when I got the interview I needed in 2009. The train fare to London was almost beyond my scope but I risked it at over 100 GBP return. I spoke with Mr Khaled, an Egyptian, for a few minutes at a location in Covent Garden, and I was on my way to Riyadh for a salary of 12,000 SAR (about 2000 GBP) a month working for Al-Jazeera International Academy.

A year later and I had € 13,000. Again I stepped off the plane at Budapest’s Ferihegy 1 Air Terminal and found a flat through an estate agent, this time on the third floor of a building (without a lift; the exercise would do me good I was cajoled) – I keep the name of the street a secret in fear of student reprisals at being asked to do some work at home. Buying it was easy, living there was harder. I had to have a residence card, before which I needed medical insurance, and I could only get that if I worked in Hungary: Catch 22.1 The average salary in Budapest is 30,000 HUF a month, about 100 GBP; so who would want to work here? I discovered that I could be insured for 250,000 HUF per annum, which is way out of the reach of the average Hungarian – and me. So the question becomes: who wants you to live here? The answer is no one if you can’t afford it. An alternative answer is: richer pickings for the bigger thieves.

My name is Robin. `Robin Hood` they all come up with after moments or weeks, depending on their thought waves and the inclinations of the local telepaths who control them; then they grin: I understand. These are the Merry Men. They’ll rob me if they can and wish I were richer. This, of course, is the true sense of the tale. First King Rich but then the Merry Men of the Hood, the gangstas with the molls who want a King John – or any John – to allow them to continue molesting unmolested. Maid Marian is the marrying kind and Robin is their pigeon. They didn’t call the nobles of the Magna Carta (1215) the `robber barons` for nothing. This is the nub and the rub. Thieves are people who don’t want to work and they prey on those who have to – or if they’re lucky – like to. They have all their time to think on it too.

I’m a small writer in a small way, but who’s `looking after` the big ones? Who’s the hood in the neighbourhood of J.K. Rowling (1965-), writer of Harry Potter? How long will the men stay merry? For every small fish there’s a piranha and for the big fish there’re shoals of piranha. I’m probably being nibbled at even now. For what it’s worth. Small fry. I don’t want to be King Pigeon so why bother? For me it’s fun and interesting; even entertaining. But for the criminals it’s only robbery – with or without menaces. That’s why the entertainment industry is like it is. People like to be entertaining; and the evil prey on that. But how many of the smiling faces are Merry Men’s? It’s the old story of the Roman Emperor’s Praetorian Guard; they overthrow the Emperor and give the throne to the infant so they can rule by proxy. Who’s going to put bread on the table? Without a big fish the small fish aren’t going to grow any bigger. All we’re going to have are shoals of cruising piranhas and no economy.

I teach business English sometimes. My qualification is twenty-five years old now but it’s mainly about vocabulary for most students. You get the odd one who’ll ask about examinations and I usually explain that there are no such unless one wants to complete the test system on the CD Rom given with the material as a curiosity for the geek-minded among us. My experience is that they don’t want to learn Business English, they want a cheap MBA and they want you to write it for them. Like most ESP, Business English is about the knowledge and usage of terms, like `stocks and shares`. You explain the meaning of the words so that the student is able to place them into sentence structures that they know will make sense to others. It’s the same as medical English ESP. You explain the word `scalpel` and then they know they’re asking the nurse for the right tool when they’re at surgery as a guest performer in New York. ESP Business isn’t about teaching Business therefore. Many students come to a Business English teacher expecting to be given a Business programme in English. I’ve often had to do far more work with what are normally individual student classes than the learners themselves in providing a Business programme that isn’t on the agenda – or even the map – of the language school I’m working for; just to keep things ticking over and not lose a job I didn’t really want anyway.

I’ve had English students who just happened to be at medical University ask me incredibly technical questions about the operation and functionality of the eye. I went out and bought a three-dimensional model for ten quid and took it apart under their noses to show them the labeled sections before reassembling it again. This is not the role of an ESP teacher. It’s the function of the medical University, but it’s the sort of thing one is asked to countenance on a regular basis. Often, in fact, it’s these irregular extra-curricular activities that keep you in employment. You get tagged as a `good Joe` and can pick up your cheque at the end of the month. Don’t expect to get paid for it either. I gave an unpaid seminar once to my colleagues on the subject of realia and it included the eye with optic nerve plastic kit, some erasers in a box shaped like hot dogs, hamburgers, fruit and so on. I had an ice-cream pencil sharpener, a knife and fork, and a pair of plastic shoes that had pencil sharpeners in the heel. The last was for kids and was made by the Walt Disney (1901-66) Company (founded 1923). In the shop you could buy individual or shoe pairs and I couldn’t understand why anyone would buy a pair when they could buy one. After all, one only needs one pencil sharpener. I’ve never seen anyone using two at once. Then I saw two children fighting over who got which shoe after opening the plastic packaging. The left hand (and foot) is haram or forbidden in Arabian culture for hygiene reasons to do with which hand you’re supposed to wipe your bum with, and it was then that I noticed that all of the single shoe pencil sharpeners were right shoes. Disney, being a typically American company, were selling two shoes for the price of two but the kids only wanted one, and were prepared to go at each others throats for it.

My seminar on realia went very well and I was lauded by all who attended, but at the end of the presentation my supervisor carefully snaffled every item I`d bought and mumbling inaudibilities disappeared with them off into his office upstairs. Like I say, don’t expect to get paid more for additional ESP programmes you may be expected to deliver. Noone will expect anything less of you than to spend weeks preparing material for a one month Business course on `Creative Report Writing Skills`, `Running a Meeting`, `Leadership and Team Building`, and `Making a Presentation`; components of a company-styled Soft Skills Training Programme I had to provide at Cambridge International Training Centres, Khartoum, Sudan. Note that it’s an entire Business course; not ESP. Accreditation for such programmes is given in the CITC brochure as being provided by the Institute of Professional Managers and Administrators (IPMA), which according to their website provide Business courses leading to MBA opportunities for those who reach the level required. But I was employed as a language teacher, not a provider of English Business course programmes. CITC even published brochures defining me as a `business expert` and this is what you learn to expect in ELT overseas. Beware. You are both undervalued in terms of salary and overburdened as well as overvalued in terms of what is expected of you and what they publicize you as being able to do. It’s a not very fine line between teaching the word for `scalpel` and telling the surgeon where to make the incision and holding onto his wrist while he does so.
But that’s what youngsters just out of University are expected to do throughout the world. I met one who, not even out of University, had been recruited for a Middle East position and a role in Riyadh’s Higher Institute for Plastics Fabrication where he was required to train students in machinery operation using technical instruction manuals in English – and he wasn’t even 18. Just had a nice English sounding voice. To them. Actually, he had a broad West Yorkshire accent, and I should know; I’m from North Yorkshire. His advantage was that he was young; so malleable. Don’t be fooled by `institutes` offering `training` before dropping you in at the deep end of the swimming pool.2 All they do is tell you what they want from you, and often it has little to do with ELT.

I worked with a teacher whose popularity was legendary amongst the students and, one fine morning during exam time, I discovered why. I went into the exam he was invigilating with his class who were sitting in splendour amidst one of the richest feasts it has ever been my amazement to witness; coffee jugs, sweetmeats, sandwiches, cakes, juices, etc. The students busily chewing and drinking all through their exam. This teacher was also much beloved of management, but where’s the ELT training course that teaches you that? Perhaps it’s included in the DELTA now? I don’t know. Another of the teachers followed the institution’s instructions to the letter: no food or drink allowed in the classroom. He lasted about as long as a cup of tea he wouldn’t let them be seen with; management kicked him out after `complaints` that he was running things in a `military style` and wouldn’t let them use the bathroom until after the lesson was over: so it goes. I hung on for twelve months, which is as long as it takes a student at the Riyadh Al-Jazeera Academy to get his Diploma (so I saw through a whole intake) – and all for the pitiful remuneration of €13,000.

I’d been staying on a monthly basis at the Azizia three star hotel a mile or so up the street from the Academy. It had twin beds but a prison sentence in the offing if even the presence of a woman had been smelt in there. I was there for a few hours before I detected the sound of the little man with the hammer that seems to follow me about everywhere. Does anyone else notice that? It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, after a few hours I begin to hear the little man with the hammer somewhere close by in some room making desperate alterations to the contents that’ll take at least all of the time I’m due to be staying there for their completion to be assured. Consequently, my usual modus operandi is to rush pack everything in the last fifteen minutes I have before leaving for the airport in the hope I can smuggle myself out without the little man with the hammer sneaking off with me in the luggage and planning fresh outbreaks that’ll keep me awake into the wee small hours of the dawning at my next port of call. If I ever find him I’ll hit him with his own hammer: I promise you.

The staff of the hotel were a bit robotic and glum, mainly from Pakistan I guessed. Most of the foreign taxi drivers were, because Pakistan is a similarly Muslim country. They didn’t like Riyadh either. It was the one thing I could always be sure they’d tell me. `Money,` they’d say, and rub thumb and forefinger together. It was March when I left and the Saudi winter was coming to a close. It'd been about as warm as a typically English summer so I’d needed the extra blanket and an electric fan heater from the local supermarket. Also surplus to excess baggage was the electrically heated water jug. I gathered the entirety together with some couple of dozen or so spare oranges I had in the fridge and handed them over to the reception. It was the least I could do; so I was glad to do it. I left 100 SAR on the room table and left. The staff still looked glum but they were pleased I was leaving. I was the one that used the prayer mat provided in the room for sopping up excess water as I defrosted the fridge.

So, once again I have an abode in Budapest and am awaiting permission to live. What if I’m refused? Is it a sentence? On my passport it says: `Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.` It’s an exhortation that’s made me a rabbit in a hutch more times than I like to admit so far. If you’re in ELT you’re pretty much defenceless. In a few days your bones are picked clean and they’re wondering what to do with you. I had a job in Kuwait once and they’d finished with me before I arrived. I taught one class before being told I was surplus to requirements and could go: I minded. They’d offered a year’s contract and I’d turned down other offers. That was in 2004 and I had to wait another six years to buy somewhere to sleep. ELT is more often than not a rat’s maze for any other than the dilettante. It’s not about professionalism: it’s about who can afford to waste their time. I hate to say it, but who on Earth is going to work for $1000 a month if they’re professionals. Most jobs in Eastern and Western Europe as well as Africa are clearly meant for holiday workers and wet-behind-the-ears school leavers. These are all that should be interested and, until ELT’s a valued and comparably paid profession, there’ll be no professionals. Writing, teaching and sounding professional isn’t ever going to be enough if all you’re ever going to be paid in are brass coat buttons for the uniform.


1 Catch 22 (Simon & Schuster, 453pp) is the name of the 1961 novel by Joseph Heller in which the hero, Yossarian, is told that he can’t be invalided out of the US airforce in WWII on grounds of insanity, because he was crazy to be there in the first place. `Catch 22` became a sixties` iconoclastic buzzword for `Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.`

2 The shock when this actually happens is murderous. I carefully read 6" before stepping in at the end of one public swimming pool. It was 6` 6" and the first number had been erased over time by the abrasive soles of the feet of the myriads of visitors. I hit my head going down and was unconscious before my feet hit bottom. Fortunately people float and I was found being blown around by the wind on the surface. I was 15.

Answer Key

perpendicular, isn’t, Brasiliass, too, bigger, fat

Q1. The grass is perpendicular and the sun is bigger.

Q2. The teacher is fat and the students are too.

Q3. Each morning I eat and each evening I eat.

Q4. Brasilia is the capital of Brasiliass and Sydney isn`t.

Q5. Robin likes to go but Christine likes Togo.


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