Teachers as Workers

The topic of Teachers as Workers came about a few years ago and after a period of stillness, it seems it has returned to the fore. Initially, the website was spruced up and there’s been a couple of blog posts connected to the topic, including Geoff Jordan’s recent one5mz_m06fc9g-roman-mager.jpg

Everyone writing about this topic at the moment is raising valid points about:

  • Working conditions for teachers
  • The rate of pay in the ELT industry
  • The lack of action on the part of supranational organizations

Paul Walsh, Nicola Prentis and Geoff Jordan have done a good job of covering the arguments behind forming an organization which fights for teacher’s right, why an IATEFL Special Interest Group was a good option and some possible reasons for IATEFL’s lack of involvement in this topic.

Reading about all of this makes you realize what a sorry state of affairs the profession is currently in. In a 2004 article in the Telegraph, shared by Geoff Jordan on his blog Critical ELT, the author looks at the then working conditions of English teachers.

With an example of €1,500 a month before tax and deducations, long working hours and dividing your time across several schools as well as private lessons, you’d think the author had interviewed a teacher working in a developing country. Yet, he was talking about a typical teacher in the Italian capital of Rome.

Looking at other European cities, including Prague, Athens and Madrid, the situation wasn’t much better. From my own enquiries, I understand that a teacher working in a former Soviet bloc country at the time of the article’s publication would have earned around £200-£250 a month.

Of course, the argument here is that the salary is relevant to the local economy. This would be a valid argument if the teachers in question were full-time residents in the countries they teach in. However, the vast majority receive fixed term contracts of around nine months i.e. one academic year. This leaves them either having to spend any money they have saved to tie them over till the next academic year, returning to the UK for the summer (where costs are higher) or getting a job as a teacher at some miserable summer-school in Kent, where once again you will be ruthlessly exploited.”

To make things worse, over the course of the last 13 years, since the publication of the Sebastian Creswell-Turner’s article in the Telegraph, the cost of living across the globe has soared, yet inflation has barely risen and any rise reflected in annual salaries is nowhere near enough to make ends meet.

In short, schools haven’t been increasing wages, inflation hasn’t forced any decent increase, and the cost of living has risen uncontrollably. The end result is that the financial situation eluded to by Sebastian Cresswell-Turner is sadly not history: it’s still true today.

For example, two years ago I was working at a language school in Poland. My salary at the time equated to £300 a month. However, I had extras for holding a senior position and for delivering a number of exam courses. Take this away and we’re talking about £250 a month. No change since 2004.

A year after leaving that school I had forked out around £3,000 to do the Cambridge Delta. What I gained from the course professionally as a teacher was second to none, but the promise of more money didn’t really come through. I did get a higher position but I ended up being worse off financially than just a regular teacher. In fact, at one point I found myself in a position where there were days when I had enough money to buy either a ham sandwich or a coffee, but not both!

All of this eventually fed into my decision to leave the industry as a full-timer. In 2016 I moved into the tech sector. Teaching English has since become a side job for me. What’s really strange about this is that I’ve actually started to enjoy it more: now that I have financial security, a stable job and a regular income, I don’t view my teaching as a by-the-hour-value commodity but as a true educator trying to help those to better themselves.

Is the future of English Language Teaching bleak? For those who have been in it a few years and want to remain, I’d say yes, but as Sebastian Cresswell-Turner alludes to, the industry is replenished every with around 14,000 innocent hopefuls. Should we all drop our board pens and walk out, the next cohort of tefl-tastique teachers will just pick up the reigns.

18 thoughts on “Teachers as Workers

  1. One of the other issues is one of pensions. I’m currently working in Morocco, which means I have to pay into the Moroccan state pension system, but obviously I’ll never get anything from that. Meanwhile, I’m not paying national insurance in the UK, which I need to pay for 30 years in order to access a state pension. I believe there’s a way to do so voluntarily, but how many people do? I’m lucky enough to have an employer with a pension matching scheme, but even then, the amount of information out there for English teachers looking for a private pension is pathetic, and obviously you don’t get any of the same tax breaks that you’d get if you paid into a pension back home.

    I think one of the main things that is preventing teaching from being a proper profession, particularly amongst native speakers, is that very few people go into it because they’re passionate about teaching. Even the likes of Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury admit that for them it was the living abroad and travelling that was the main draw and they only grew to love teaching after doing it. And people whose main goal is to live in an exciting new culture for a few years aren’t going to care too much about pay, working hours, benefits or accommodation standards. It’s only for a year or two after all. And as long as there’s a steady stream of people like this (and let’s face it, that was most of us once), there’s no incentive to provide these things to the long-termers, who are in the minority.

    One solution to that would be to raise the entry criteria to something more than a 4 week course (or less in many cases), but I’m not sure that would help, because private schools are in many cases under no obligation to hire qualified teachers anyway. But I do think making a bigger deal of teachers’ qualifications would be a step in the right direction. Schools should be advertising the fact that their teachers have a DELTA rather than advertising that they have a British or American passport. How many DoSs have ever had students demand to be taught by a DELTA or masters-qualified teacher? And how many have had students demand to be taught by a native speaker? That demand has been manufactured by advertising. And plenty of schools in the world pay massively more to hire native speakers than local teachers, because it makes them more money. We need to make it pay for schools to hire teachers with better qualifications, otherwise it will never pay for the teachers who have those qualifications.

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  2. I know that IH Madrid offer full-time, 12 month contracts to staff. You need to have been with them for a few years to score a 12 monther (competition, limited spaces, and all that). But, there is holiday pay for those on 10 month contracts, and it’s actually quite good.

    I think any school would argue that, with so many people taking on ELT contracts as part of a grander scheme of travel and self-discovery, it makes no financial sense to offer teachers full-time or 12 month contracts. For starters , there is the revenue lost paying a teacher 3 months wages who is neither working at the school nor likely to return.

    The obvious rebuttal to that is what about teachers who do stay on? Well, it’s not often clear if a teacher is going to stay on. Offering 12 month contracts to dedicated staff seems like a fair compromise, but then there’s still the plethora of teachers who are dedicated, can’t afford to get through summer, but have yet to prove their commitment.

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    1. The easiest solution is to offer 12 month contracts and let teachers take 28 days holiday whenever they want and have another teacher fill in when they’re on holiday. Make it more like a normal job.

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      1. Is that feasible for all schools? A lot of them out there struggle to make up the staff numbers as it is.

        As to the bigger schools, having reserve staff to cover holidays surely goes against the EFL industry policy of driving costs down? Granted, you could ask existing staff to pick up the slack, but then there’s the problem of overwork.

        I do believe teachers are not, generally, treated well as workers, but I don’t believe the contract issue has an easy solution.

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        1. Ah yeah sorry I just assumed we were talking about 12 month salaried staff: people who are employed by the school full time. They can cover classes without extra pay. At least in the uk anyway.

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            1. No there’s loads of people on short term contracts in the uk. On those contracts tho you have to paid for every hour – including overtime. But if you give someone a permanent contract (with a 6 month probation period) and 28 days holiday (including public holidays) then overtime every month can be given to them at no extra compensation. So language schools could do that and there wouldn’t be any extra costs.

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        2. I’d be of the opinion that if you are intending to run a profit-making enterprise you should be able to pay people properly and contract them properly, too. I’m sure part of the dedication or lack of it comes down to poor contracts.

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  3. Great post, Anthony. Well, the reality in LatinAmerica is not that different. We have long hours jobs and at the end of the month you find yourself asking if it is really worth it. In spite of that, I’d like to have a chance overseas. I use to dream about teaching EFL in Asia or Africa. Do you have any experience in those continents?

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    1. Thanks Sebastian. I’m afraid I don’t have any experience teaching in Asia. Colleagues teach in the Middle East and earn pretty well. Another friend works in China and earns very well, but it’s with an international university.

      My experiences are only in Europe and South America 🙂

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  4. Great post, Anthony. For me this one sentence (about your post-DELTA financial state) says so much about the way the ELT profession looks after its practitioners:

    “I found myself in a position where there were days when I had enough money to buy either a ham sandwich or a coffee, but not both!”

    The crazy, mixed up world of ELT, eh?

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    1. It’s crazy. I remember at that point we had gone to the director to ask for a pay increase and he didn’t agree. I don’t think he really believed the dire situation we were in….

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  5. Yeah, I’d love to come back to Europe and teach, not on those wages though. A friend has moved back from Asia to Europe recently, she’s really struggling, so this has deterred me further. Regarding other perks, you can get lucky in the industry, e.g . There’s a good matching pension scheme at my school, but that is certainly an exception to the rule. Did find out recently that despite working abroad I’m eligible to join a trade union though as work for a British company. Regarding that telegraph article, lol. I’m happy not to have ‘a shred of ambition’ if it means I spend my holidays on nice beaches in Thailand. I’m generally happy with that choice, but still haven’t achieved my ambition of playing for Arsenal and time is running out… Fair play to him for getting a writing gig for Telegraph though, a lot of talented ppl in TEFL.

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    1. If you like life out there, I’d say stay there, especially if conditions are good. They’re not good here. As mentioned in post, salaries haven’t risen in over a decade. It makes you wonder what the point is.

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  6. Looking from time to time, ELT wages in the language academy sector are a sick joke in the UK and Europe. You cannot professionalise TEFL without professional pay. I do not know what I would do if I were in the UK.

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    1. “Professionalize the industry” is a great term. It’s also very multifaceted: professionalize wages, professionalize training, professionalize performance. I think there’s many things that need to be professionalized in ELT, including the training and qualifications pre-service.

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      1. I’m going to say professionalise the institutions. International House is one of the main offenders for 9-month contracts. Who can afford to live with no wages for two months? They get their British Council inspections and it’s cosy.

        Much like the push for NNEST equality, how about IATEFL give voice against one of its associate members keeping conditions poor? The only option for those two or three months is Summer schools (which not everyone can do), pre-sessional courses (not for new teachers) or signing on the dole (impossible after returning from abroad). It isn’t in their interests so it’s a case of ‘I’m all right, Jack.’ That your DELTA didn’t exactly pay for itself speaks volumes, too. Universities using subsidiary companies to give crap agency terms to adjunct EAP teachers and just letting them go absolutely sucks but at least lecturers see that this might affect them and they act. The academies know they have a pliant workforce with ready replacements.

        My own situation isn’t amazing but I feel bloody lucky compared to teachers in Europe and Latin America.

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        1. International House isn’t a global corporation: it’s a franchised network with schools enjoying quite a large degree of autonomy. So, to just cover everyone’s backs here, it is very much possible that there are IH schools out there which give 12 month, full-time contracts – the organization which oversees the network doesn’t dictate that they can’t or shouldn’t. That said, you’re probably referring to what you’ve widely heard about the organization’s member schools, many of which don’t give 12 month contracts – my own experience with IH schools confirms that, though I’m not saying every IH school out there does this.

          I know others, as well, who have done the Delta and then gotten nowhere with it: no more money, no better job, not even a job in the UK.

          In my own case, you could possibly argue that my Delta has paid for itself, in that it was a factor in getting my job outside of ELT: a job with greater security, better working conditions and a pay rise. However, it’s just so ironic that I had to outside of ELT in order to find myself in a position to pay it back. Crazy.

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