Preparing For Hot Potato Syndrome

by Clara Harland

Preparing For Hot Potato Syndrome

Tilmann at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

After stumbling my way through a Trinity qualification in Prague during which I’d had to face and start to overcome The Grammar Fear, my first teaching job turned out to be back in a UK summer school. There’s nothing quite like a summer school for that all-immersive, chuck you in at the deep end type of teaching experience and that first season provided what felt like an Everest steepness of learning curves for me.

I was still very much at the stage of staying up until the small hours planning lessons and preparing for every possible spontaneous question my students might throw at me. I became adept at stuffing multiple activities up my sleeves just in case the class arrived comatose after exhausting themselves at the disco the night before and I then had to completely change what I’d planned in order to accommodate their reluctance to move around in the energetic running dictation I might have prepared for them. As the summer went on, this all accumulated into the kind of exhaustion that I still associate with that first residential position.

Summer school fun

Yet there is no denying that summer school is also a lot of fun. The late-night chats with other EFL teachers, sharing experiences, talking of the exotic places they’ve taught during the rest of the year, listening to each other’s escapades and comparing amusing anecdotes. I even swear that it was sunny for that entire first summer, even though I have clear memories of getting completely drenched on a variety of trips and activities. But then maybe that was a later year, when I reacquainted myself with a smell I hadn’t come across since catching the school bus in my teens: the Scent of Fuggy Coach, eau de sweaty, rain-soaked teenagers jumping on seats and generally ignoring requests to sit down and put their seat belts on.

Yes, that first year encapsulated all the elements of summer school for me, good and bad. It also led to the discovery of a condition I’ve encountered at every summer school since: Hot Potato Syndrome. After the residential summer school, I switched to non-res, delighted to find a message on my voicemail offering me another month’s work with a different language school, closer to home. Off I trotted, with my ever-growing folder of materials and worked right through to mid-September, vaguely wondering what I would do next but assuming the language school would come up with something. I got lulled into a nice false sense of job security. This was a mistake.

Beware the hot potato!

In my naivety, I had failed to consider what would happen once the hordes of summer school students exited the UK at the beginning of the academic year. Being dropped by the language school like a hot potato came as a very undignified shock. Suddenly bosses who’d seemed so overjoyed to give me work despite my comparative lack of experience, became very evasive, mentioning tenuous dates when more work might come in until consecutive weeks petered down to the odd day of cover for the handful of permanent staff, to nothing at all and then silence. At which point I really wished I’d got myself organised a bit earlier.

From that season on, I realised I needed to be prepared for Hot Potato Syndrome. I learnt that it is absolutely necessary for teachers to work out in advance what they are going to do in September once summer school is over and language schools start shedding all the teachers they’ve taken on. Start thinking early, start planning the next move, maybe even get sorted before getting sucked into the intensity of summer school madness when it can become very difficult to find the time to look for jobs. Don’t optimistically leave it for things to just ‘fall into place’.

In my case, I ended up leaving it so late to get organised that I had a fretful month of unemployment, worrying about my finances drying up and pondering what I’d do if no work turned up at all, before landing a job in Italy in early November. Since then, I’ve made sure that I’m prepared for Hot Potato Syndrome which leaves me free to enjoy the fun of summer school, adding my own experiences to the melting pot of that particular brand of banter that only seems to pop up within the diversity of an EFL staff room.

Clara Harland is the author of ‘Escape From The Big Green Button’, a novel inspired by her experiences in TEFL.


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