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The hitchhiker’s guide to the (Tefl) galaxy

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Dodging bullets in a civil war was one of the scarier moments in a long and intrepid career, veteran Peter Harris tells Claudia Civinini

Are you embarking on a Tefl adventure? You may not need to bring a towel, but sound qualifications, open-mindedness and a sense of humour are essential, says EFL industry veteran Peter Harris, who has spent forty years in the game.

Peter started out in the mid-1970s as a marketing manager for Bournemouth-based King’s School of English. His first business trip was to El Salvador in Central America, and it threw him into the deep end.

‘A civil war had been raging,’ Peter says. ‘My taxi’s windscreen had a bullet hole and the driver assumed I was an American gringo. Fortunately, I was able to show my New Zealand passport and he agreed to take me to my hotel.

‘As we approached the central square, we were fired on and I ducked as the glass from the rear window cascaded down on me. The driver skidded to a halt outside the Sheraton Hotel, where I was given an armed guard.’

Peter realised his life was going to be ‘different, but interesting’.

His next trip took him to Tehran shortly after the Shah had fled and Khomeini had taken power. ‘I soon developed a “Boy’s Own” attitude to war zones,’ Peter says.

In pursuit of recruiting students for UK language courses, boarding schools and colleges, he travelled through many ‘challenging’ parts of the world, from Nigeria to Kurdistan. In the early 1980s, he switched to the British Tourist Authority (Visit Britain) and became its representative in the Middle East and Africa.

Peter said that Saudi Arabia was a different country back then. ‘My literature was confiscated because the brochures contained pictures of churches, men in kilts and women showing their arms.

‘Public executions took place on a Friday in the central square. Men did all the speaking and women stood three steps behind.’
However, he adds that it can still be a challenging place for a woman, and anyone working and living there should ‘not fall foul of the religious police’.

After his time promoting British tourism, he set up his own language schools in Australia and New Zealand, which at that time focused primarily on Chinese and Japanese students. He then returned to the UK in the late 1990s to found the King’s International Study Centre in Ely.

Of all the places he saw around the world, none was more meaningful than the Centre for Children’s Happiness (CCH), an orphanage for children from the Phnom Penh (Cambodia) rubbish dumps. ‘I travel all over the world and I am often in Asia,’ said Peter, ‘but nowhere has quite touched my heart like the CCH school.’

Many of the teachers at the school are Teflers who volunteer their time while teaching in Phnom Penh. This is something every Tefler can do: find their mission while teaching abroad. It can be hugely rewarding, Peter says. In this case, six former pupils of the school attached to the centre are now studying at university in the US. Peter recently published a book titled A Wayward Spirit to raise funds for the school. In the book, he recounts his adventures around the world as a member of the EFL industry.


What does it take to be a successful Tefler?

First of all, a sense of humour and open-mindedness. ‘In order to survive in this industry you must have a sense of humour, be able to deal with the unexpected and preferably speak a language in addition to your own,’ Peter Harris tells Claudia Civinini.

‘In some countries you need to turn your clock back 500 years, in others the communication technology will astound you. Some of the parents you meet will be aspirational, others will have less lofty ambitions for their offspring but believe that fluency in English will enable growing exports for the family business.’

Then, of course, you need qualifications. ‘A decade ago, if you spoke English you could get a job to teach the language somewhere in the world. Those days are fast disappearing.’ Now most EFL establishments worldwide require a Celta qualification or similar.

Finally, flexibility and a healthy dose of wanderlust. While in the past Teflers used to spend the year abroad and then go back to the UK to teach in the summer, contracts abroad have now become longer in duration – but ‘the terms and conditions aren’t necessarily that attractive compared to jobs in the UK or in international boarding schools,’ Peter warns.

However, working abroad is still a fundamental part of the job. ‘To travel and be immersed in different cultures and languages is an integral part of becoming a rounded Tefler,’ he explains. ‘Be curious and seize opportunities!’

Peter Harris photo

Peter Harris
His book A Wayward Spirit is available on Amazon, all proceeds will go to CCH in Cambodia.