[This started out as a comment in reply to To the senior English language teachers of Ireland… on the ELT Advocacy Ireland blog. However, it got so long that I decided it was more suited to a blog post.All quotes are taken from that post. All views expressed in this post are entirely my own, and I am willing to be talked around if you believe I’m wrong and have the evidence to back it up.]
I do sympathise with posts like this on conditions in the ELT industry, and know how lucky I am in my job, my career path, the opportunities I’ve had, and the wonderful schools I’ve been lucky enough to work at. However, I have to take issue with sentences like “How can you conscionably earn millions every year and treat your staff so despicably?” which don’t have any evidence to back them up. Running a language school is an expensive business, and although I know there are obviously people who deliberately exploit the teachers and the staff, I don’t feel that it is always done on purpose.
For example, I used to work in a school (outside Europe) which really was running hand-to-mouth. We ran a CELTA course in the summer: if we got 6 trainees we could afford to pay rent for the school that month and pay the tutors, one of whom was the director of the school. If we didn’t, she would go without pay that month. If we got 8 trainees, that was rent for the following month too. 10, and we had two months rent. The magic 12 meant we were fine until the end of November, but neither of the two courses I did even hit 10. The rest of the year, we struggled to get enough students to cover the pay of myself (the DoS) and the Director, plus wages for 3-5 freelance teachers who did a few hours a week each. There was no question of sick pay or holiday pay for the freelancers: if there were no lessons, there was no money. In an ideal world, yes, all of those things would have been covered, but if you wanted to run a quality language school with trained teachers working legally with visas if they needed them, you had to charge more for classes to cover your costs than the ‘cowboy’ schools did, but the students wouldn’t pay our prices if there was a cheaper school down the road, a school which to them seemed exactly the same.
I’m not saying this is a typical situation at all, and I strongly believe that professionalism is essential, but ranting about these ‘rich’ language school owners without having the facts and figures to back up the rant is, I believe, not going to get us anywhere.
There’s enough room in the boat for everyone, but only a select few are kept in the boat at all times. The owners choose which ones to keep in semi-permanently and which ones they’ll haul aboard when they need to power through the summer months, before flinging them back overboard again when costs are at an optimum level. It suits them to have us grasping, it’s amusing to them.
This, I believe, is an unhelpful black and white picture which uses an over-dramatic metaphor without taking the reality of the situation into account. At schools in English-speaking countries, numbers in the summer can be vastly different to numbers in the winter. What to do when you have all of those extra teachers? Where do you find them? How do you pay for them all in the winter when you only have 100 students, compared to 300 in the summer? Recruitment procedures should be more transparent, and we should be able to question decisions that are made and speak about them honestly. Recruiters should be able to back up why they have chosen to (re-)employ teacher A over teacher B. That way, teacher B will have a better idea what they need to do next time to try and get the job, in an ideal world of course. I do not believe these decisions are always made easily, though I do feel they’re sometimes based around favouritism and drinking buddies, rather than experience, which is very wrong and should certainly be challenged. If you need a regular, year-round job, and have chosen the ELT profession in an English-speaking country, perhaps you are in the wrong place – we need to be making this abundantly clear to those entering our profession so that they know exactly what it is they’re getting themselves into.
I also know that in schools I have worked at where I have had discussions about money, at least half of what comes into the school normally goes on teacher wages, even without funding CPD or paying for administration time worked. In reputable schools (which I’ve been lucky to spend most of my career at), this includes taxes, national insurance, etc. Then you factor in administration staff, rent, utilities, building upkeep, materials, and it’s hard to see where all of this magical extra money to pay for these things is going to come from, if the students won’t pay higher fees. Perhaps the first campaign should be to encourage schools to publicise their account books, so we can see exactly where the money is going and question them in a mature and adult manner about what happens to any excess cash there might be.
To be considered for a position at an ACELS accredited language school, you need a minimum of a Level 7 degree and the investment of a four week training course which costs a minimum of €1,000. This level of investment is not reflected in an ELTs take-home pay, nor in the respect shown to them by the industry. Perhaps the most galling thing is that we are not even considered to be teachers by the government or The Teaching Council because the CELT/A is not a recognised teaching qualification. Students are sold courses taught by ‘world class’, ‘qualified’, ‘experienced’ teachers.
I strongly believe that we need to support teachers to improve working conditions, but we cannot do this with our heads in the clouds, imagining that the money is going to come from nowhere. Education is our business, and it’s not just the school owners who need to learn. We also need to train students that cheaper doesn’t mean better, and in fact they should be paying for this higher quality of teacher/trainer/school. Who, after all, outside the private language school/ELT bubble, really knows what CELTA and Delta are, how much they cost teachers (generally out of their own pocket), and what they mean in terms of professionalism? And that’s without taking into account the qualms of those people within ELT who knock those qualifications. How do we expect students to be able to make a reasoned decision about which school to choose if all they have to go on is potentially spurious claims of ‘highly-qualified teachers’ when they don’t know what they means and when all they really have to go on is price? Sometimes word-of-mouth can help us out, but that takes time to build up, and time without students is time without money, that magical money we can use to pay the teachers with. Inside our bubble, we know that native speakers are not automatically better teachers than non-natives; we know that a professional teacher has to work hard and invest a lot of time and money to create their professional identity. But where is that awareness outside the bubble? Where are the ELT teachers in popular culture? Where is the discussion of professionalism in a multi-billion dollar industry in the wider media? And it is our job to train up our students to be able to communicate across cultures, surely an essential act in our globalised world. I, for one, had no idea English-language teaching even existed in this form until I was an adult, having grown up in the UK, where it is nowhere near as obvious as in non-English-speaking countries, where you can’t turn around without seeing an advert for English lessons.
Why should school directors make an effort to share information with us if we attack them and put them on the defensive? If our bosses are distant, we need to bring them in and call them to account. It is our responsibility to build relationships too. If we cannot feel loyalty to our schools, and do not help to build a feeling of community there, why should our employers care about us? If they do not see us day to day, how should they know what we need from them? Intuition? Telepathy? I know this is an idealistic view, but we work with people, and those people are not just our students. We need to be in contact with our managers too, right up the food chain, and they need to be trained in communication skills so they know how to work with us, another thing that seems to be sadly lacking in a lot of ELT schools.
Finally, as long as the discussion remains inside the bubble, things will never change. Why should they try to change things if the pressure is only coming from below, and not from the governing bodies of the profession?
There are a lot of questions here. I certainly don’t have the answers. Maybe you do?