Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

[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?

Comments on: "Professionalism v. the ELT industy" (20)

  1. Gerhard Erasmus said:

    I had my own school in Taiwan. We put quality before money and ended making a good living, but nothing spectacular. In light of my own experience, this is a fantastic post.


  2. Well said, Sandy. I thought about this a lot whilst I was working in Madrid. Auxiliares who were unqualified and inexperienced were charging 10 euros an hour for a private class, far less than a qualified freelance teacher could. I realised the problem is as you say – to the power-holding students, it all looks the same. It doesn’t help when language schools decide to compete on price, rather than advertise and emphasise the quality of the teaching at their school. (I know of one formerly great school that’s gone rather downhill following this route.) I suppose quality is hard to judge, though, unless it’s standardised test and results-based, and that can lead to other problems.

    Regarding ELT in the UK, I wonder if there shouldn’t be a connection made (by official bodies) between CELTA, or preferably DELTA, and EAL. It’s a sideways shift, as EAP is, and it could do with a short course – its taken me a year to understand it and get to grips with it as far as I have, and that’s only in a private boarding school setting. I’m often asked to have a chat with PGCE students (“proper teachers”!) about EAL, and I’ve learnt that there’s no formal route to becoming an EAL teacher – you can’t specialise in it. This might be why schools often have low-paid EAL assistants, rather than teachers. I’ve also noticed that some schools, teachers and international students themselves don’t place value in EAL classes and this is something I’m trying to change next year. I guess it’s all about raising the profile – and word of mouth, as you say.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Sandy,
    My name is a Keith Murdiff. I’m a committee member of ELT Advocacy and the chair of the Unite ELT branch here in Ireland. Thank you for your post. I’m not sure if it was your intention, but you’ve illustrated exactly why the industry needs regulation. Aileen’s claims of schools run by millionaires and schools making millions is based on investigations carried out by Unite the union into language schools in Dublin who, to take just one example, refused to increase the hourly rate for teachers who had been working there for over 5 years, and refused to give contracts, but was found to award their two school directors pay packages that exceeded €160k per year each,(including huge medical insurance and pension contributions) not including shares in the company totalling more than €1m each. That was a small school.
    Our investigations into publicly available records on schools and their profits show that they CAN afford to pay teachers decent wages and still make a profit.

    In relation to schools not being able to afford to keep teachers on in winter, again, it doesn’t happen in Ireland. I work in a school with a huge number of teachers, and we operate year round without anyone being laid off for the winter. I’ve worked in a school in Spain where they closed in summer, but the (excellent, decent) owners paid us for those three months throughout the rest of the year as bonus payments.
    Our heads are not in the clouds. Aileen’s head certainly isn’t! We are ELT Advocacy and we work voluntarily year round to have this conversation with teachers, DOS’s, school owners, the regulatory bodies, Irish TD’s (politicians) and the ministers of education and justice. We hold talks on employment rights, lobbying strategies and charter building workshops, quiz nights to build rapport and trust in our sector, rallies to end the injustice of our current situation and we encourage people to join a trade union. The solution is simple- We Need Regulation. We need to organise, collectively bargain with employers and we need the department of education in Ireland (and then the EU) to introduce regulations into the ELT industry that guarantee safeguards for employment rights, sick pay, holiday pay, paternity and maternity pay as standard, payment for mom-contact hours and CPD and pay scales based on permanent contracts. Aileen’s article is about what’s holding is back. We know what we need to do, but we need teachers on board, joining the union and fighting for their rights. You should find out which union supports ELT where you are.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I don’t know the business model for language schools. What percentages Is usually allocated for wages, premises, advertising, maintenance, net profit etc. With a model to work from it is then simple to see if business owners are paying a disproportionate chunk of revenue to themselves. It would also show which schools are paying as much as the business can afford.


  4. Well said, Sandy


  5. Hana Tichá said:

    Sandy, I know how hard you’ve worked to get where you are and how humble you are given your abilities as an ELT professional. So I see why you felt an urge to react to that article. Although I understand all the grudge, there seems to be a lot of generalizing (in the original post). What we shouldn’t forget is that there are always two sides of the same coin. That’s why I’m glad I read both stories and I hope the discussion will continue because the problem stretches far beyond the ELT bubble (to borrow your expression).
    By the way, you’re right, none of the people I work with here in the State Sector of education have ever heard of CELTA or DELTA or how much they cost.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Thanks for posting this response. My position has always been that this realism about the state of play in ELT in English speaking countries means it’s not as simple as better pay/ contracts for teachers. But professional expectations of staff should also be realistic. Reducing admin time/ the need for lengthy plans/ pressure around inspections (where most teachers rated excellent will have left within 6 months anyway)/ pressure to commit to social programmes etc should be prioritised. Inspection bodies care little for the degree to which their expectations contribute to the exploitation of staff. It differs school to school of course but the external pressure is always there.

    Also agents should be mentioned in all this – if money is being sucked up it is by the powerhouse agencies demanding up to 40% of a students fee. Rather than pandering to them schools should be working together in union to agree a system whereby this system is undermined. This would free up much needed capital to support teachers and directors alike.


  7. I’m going to pour scorn here so apologise in advance.
    ELT is a hugely competitive industry – and as far as I see it anyway , hugely unregulated.
    In a world of competition there are natural winners and losers.
    I’ve been “in the game ” for a long time. I don’t do it for the money. Now , you’ll all no doubt be chirping ” well it’s alright for you ” but I have made that choice. If my choice were of greater remuneration , if I truly had ambition then quite simply: I would be in ELT.
    I’ve had to endure the persistent grind of colleagues’ moans about this issue for many years but my response is always the same : leave.


    • Error ; I wouldn’t be in ELT


    • roberttaylorefl said:

      Are you insinuating that ambition and wealth must coincide?

      I imagine you were anticipating some gripes about your comment, though in my case it’s that last line that’s irked me because I’ve heard it so many times thrown at so many people. It’s a, frankly, lazy evocation of Locke reasoning that has only ever served to maintain unpopular and unjust status quos. To tell people to “leave” is to acknowledge a problem and then embrace failure to address it.

      Whatever your own ambitions may be, would it not help your own ends to support your colleagues and stand up for better conditions?


      • Let’s take your first question: would this thread exist if the distribution of largesse was more benign? IMO: not ( see economic determinism )
        So the answer to that question is indeed ‘yes’.
        Have you worked in industry other than ELT? In can tell you I have , and have never experienced people , by comparison, to be better treated- money aside – than they are in ELT.
        Most teachers are hugely capable with a skill set that is transferable.
        We are responsible for ourselves. Markets decide – you’ll no doubt demur at that utterence but it’s where we are.
        I am with Locke and make no apology for my empirical view.
        I do support my colleagues. I do that by encouraging them to move on out of the business because it’s very sadly heading in the wrong direction.
        I’ve no doubt you are hugely more capable too so extend to you that same advice and urge you to make the first move and stop waiting for others to make it !


  8. Theresa Gorman said:

    Hi Sandy, I’ve worked on the management team (3 people) of a small private language school for over a year and can definitely back up what you’re saying about the small margins and other challenges faced by small schools. We also pride ourselves on high quality courses, and well-qualified teachers whose development we support financially as much as possible. At the same time, as someone who has been a low-level and freelance English teacher around the globe for the past 12 years, I also support struggles like those of the Irish teachers right now. As messy as it may seem at times, its the work of groups like ELT Advocacy that will create positive change. Yes, we need to educate the customer, absolutely. Yes, teachers need more information about the financial side of ELT to understand exactly where the money is and *isn’t*. But if we step back and leave aside our emotional reactions as language school managers, we have to ask ourselves, what does it say about our business that CELTA courses are an essential part of our revenue stream? ELT is both an industry and a profession. Does the proliferation of CELTA-trained teachers serve the ELT profession, as opposed to the industry? I also don’t have answers. My school wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for our teachers who work part-time for us as freelancers. They don’t earn enough from us to make a living. So if small private language schools cannot provide a living for teachers, would the profession and the teachers themselves be better off without these schools? Who would win? who would lose? I don’t know the answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] many times. Previously on Facebook, recently on Twitter from Tyson Seburn, and now Sandy Millin accuses ELT Advocacy of the same crime. Even Scott Thornbury once accused TaWSIG of “hectoring rhetoric” […]


  10. Hi Sandy. I would say your post surprised me but it really didn’t: why would DoSes get a much more different treatment to the teachers outside management? I am glad that I no longer work in private language academies because conditions boil down to business models. Owners cry hard up every time staff ask for a wage rise to deal with the rising cost of living. Give the management a few minor ‘privileges’ and they’ll keep the troops in line seems to be the owners’ modus operandi here in Japan. Unfortunately they don’t seem to realise that management do actually listen to teachers sometimes. Some DoSes speak out to their bosses; others stay quiet in case they have worsening conditions. It may have been this way for a while but running schools on stupid business models really shouldn’t be happening as more and more workers are taking on freelance ‘side hustles’ and becoming business literate.


  11. Nice to hear your voice on this Sandy – it’s important that people can hear other views and have their own heard on this hugely important and often messy and divisive topic. Without going too much into the specifics of the Irish situation I’d like to say this:

    “Why should they try to change things if the pressure is only coming from below, and not from the governing bodies of the profession?”

    Probably the salient point – unfortunately until we reach critical mass among the workers then employers will not act. Our governing bodies in Ireland make decisions around regulations and accreditation without a teacher (worker) voice at the table. We can’t even get in the room. The ELT Advocacy post was about asking those in comfortable positions to stand in solidarity with those that are not. The tactic is to organise as a workforce, to recognise that all staff in schools need protection and clarity and not to have us segmented and individualised as we are at present.
    ELT Advocacy makes no demands, only that people consider organising – when it reaches the point where people (governments, owners etc.) will listen to teachers’ voices then we can argue about what we want or what’s possible or not, but the first step is to recognise there are problems and if we’re on the outside they’ll never be fixed. We need bodies – good teachers, bad teachers, young teachers, old teachers, freelancers, permanents, DOSs, ADOSs, sales staff, admin staff, anyone we can get. We *are* the industry and we *need* a voice – to claim it we need to stand together.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. roberttaylorefl said:

    I think one issue that has cropped up here is, when one group is accused of something, everyone in that group feels attacked. It’s not obvious that anyone was accusing all senior teachers of perpetuating the issue of unfairness and inequality in EFL. There again, it’s important that all sides of the story can be heard so people have a balanced view of the situation.

    To be honest, I find it hard to gauge these discussions about how workers are treated in EFL because there isn’t some central body that is solely responsible for everything that goes on in the industry. I don’t really know who is being held accountable, precisely. There are schools that supports their workers, DOSes that puts teachers first senior teachers that are actively part of a union, and there are schools, or DOSes, or senior teachers, motivated by greed and profit, and that fact has little to nothing to do with any central regulating body or authority. How could it? How could such an industry as EFL, with its masses of private language schools, diverse national laws, and lack of government interest in many countries, be regulated in any such way?

    It is entirely up to the people in the industry to regulate themselves. It may sound harsh, but who else is going to? The best hope, I think, for the teachers, the workers, what-have-you, is to band together and unionise. Unionise within institutions, across institutions. We need to support each other as teachers, senior teachers, school managers, because those few people raking in the millions are simply that: few people. They are not every senior teacher, or DOS, or school manager, and not every senior teacher, or DOS, or school manager, got to where they are on the backs of other people. They work, they work hard, and they are often lucky to earn more than the teachers working under them. (I remember one case of my senior teacher being paid even less than I was!)

    Because, whatever you may think of them, a senior teacher may have earned their wages as easily as they may have taken advantage of teachers, and if we’re going to point fingers at people, those fingers should point down (at the feckless, callous teachers, and the learners who want cheap lessons) as well as up (at the senior staff, publishers and institute owners).


  13. Thank you Sandy for your details. Teachers need to be paid better when we expect quality education. In my country India, the teachers working in private schools are poorly paid compare to their counterparts who are working in government schools. There is no any regulating authority to fix the pay for the private school teachers. Across the world the situation remain same. As you said, the International Professional bodies should also think about their pay along with professional development. Professional Development should look after by the institutions where they are working….


  14. paulwalsh said:

    Hi Sandy,

    It seems like you’ve come through International House, and IH teachers tend to me quite loyal. Fair enough. But many teachers have had different experiences, they’ve had bad experiences in ELT, and I think they sometimes feel that they’re not listened to.

    You also make a fair point about small schools. But teachers that I know recognise the good schools out there – that’s not the problem. The problem is a systemic one. It’s the whole ELT system that’s at fault.

    The system that means with a four-week certificate you can go and teach anywhere in the world: teach children, teach teenagers, teach business people without – let’s be honest – the tools and experience to do the job effectively.

    And that’s the system I think ELT Advocacy are talking about. And without wanting to jump in and defend their case for them – it’s a system operating at a local level that they know very well. Do you know how many language schools have gone bankrupt in Ireland recently – leaving both teachers and learners in limbo? (ELT Advocacy have quoted figures too in their blog post.)

    And you’re part of that system because you help to deliver the CELTA – which internationally, produces a whole reserve army of ‘teachers’ which means that wages are kept very low. And which suits the profit margins of many language school owners. (Notice I didn’t say ‘all’.) I’m not saying YOU are personally to blame Sandy, no – that would be unfair because again, it’s a system problem. But neither are you, or ANY or us, blameless.

    i) “Why should school directors make an effort to share information with us if we attack them and put them on the defensive?”

    Have you ever tried to ask your boss for a raise? I have. Try it – see what reaction you get.
    Teachers and workers have different interests. If they didn’t, then why do they have different organisations to represent their economic interests? (Some unions like the IWW will not even accept members if they have hiring/ firing power.)

    It’s simply not about ‘putting people on the defensive’ or otherwise. What you’re outlining is symptomatic of what we might call ELT ‘organicism’. Organicism is basically a Tory philosophy (read Edmund Burke, a Whig who did everything he could to keep the French Revolution from infecting England) and it states one simple belief: “we’re all part of the same group – so what’s with all this trouble”? But it’s simply not true. The divisions that have been highlighted by TaWSIG, TEFL equity, and Women in ELT were already in existence. It’s not fair for all of these voices to be labelled ‘rants’ – that hardly advances the conversation, does it?

    We’re not all the same. Some people get to feel good. Some people get paid more. Some people get listened to more than others. These are just facts.

    ii) “We also need to train students that cheaper doesn’t mean better…” To claim that students have “the power to change the system” is a form of consumer determinism.

    Let’s compare it with an analogous situation. Can consumers can stop global warming? No, of course not. Most pollution is caused by big companies. And the polluters are us – the capitalist countries of the West. Yes, personal consumption has an impact. But unless you change the system in which consumption operates – nothing will change.

    iii) The bubble – as in “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?”

    But who created the bubble? What kind of bubble is it? The bubble you talk about was not created by grassroots teachers – it’s an industry-led bubble, just as CELTA is an industry-led qualification. (See David Block and John Gray: You seem to be missing the point that the reason for the poor image of ELT teachers in popular culture is directly related to the do-your-CELTA-and-have-a-holiday-too ELT system that creates a massive pool of cheap labour.

    The problem in ELT is a system problem. To call it anything else obscures any possibility of reaching a solution.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Hi Sandy Millin Team,

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