Why the English Language Teaching industry needs a #MeToo campaign

Not long ago, I stumbled across a game that went viral on Facebook, which most language teachers will know as ‘Two truths and a lie’. For anyone who doesn’t know this game, you tell 2 truths about yourself and make up one lie. The person that you are playing with needs to decide which ones are the truths and which one is the lie, for example you might say:

I once went Skydiving.

When I was 16 I spent a year in Russia.

I am fluent in 6 languages.

Your partner will ask you questions which you have to answer (lying sometimes of course), and they have to catch you out in your lie.

The version that swept Facebook was decidedly darker. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, women posted statements about a time when they had been discriminated against because of their gender, harassed or otherwise treated unfairly because of being female, alongside two lies in the same vein. The shocking thing was that for some women sometimes all of the statements turned out to be true. The funny thing is that women have been discussing inequality for years but it is only really now that people are starting to get shocked about it.

It got me thinking about the ELT profession and the inequality that often exists there. More and more these days, grassroots activism movements are cropping up all over the web that address these issues. TEFL Equity Advocates is an organization that shines the light on the wage inequality and unfair recruitment processes against non-native speakers of English that are prevalent in the profession. Any teacher who has been in the industry for any length of time also knows that racism is alive in the industry and that non-Caucasian teachers may encounter prejudice from both students and employers. Gender Equality in ELT is a blog documenting gender issues such as the imbalance of male to female speakers at ELT conferences, and Teachers as Workers addresses the issue of poor contractual and working conditions that plague ELT worldwide.

It goes without saying the race, gender and deteriorating labour conditions are issues across all sectors, not just ELT; however for anyone in TEFL, the horror stories do start to become all the more familiar; the well-qualified teacher who did not get the job whilst another lesser qualified teacher with a different skin colour did; ELT management teams that seem to be formed purely of men whilst classrooms seem to be filled by females; being offered a ‘zero hours contract’ where your hours are not fixed and may go from 6 hours one week to 15 hours the next. These are all things that get whispered about in the staff room routinely, the question is, why are they so prevalent in ELT?

The question is not an easy one to answer and I don’t pretend to have the solution, but my intuition tells me that it has a lot to do with harmful stereotypes of the ‘backpacker teacher’ that have been around for a few decades. Talk to people back home (well at least in my home, the UK) about teaching English abroad and one of the most common responses that you will get is “But what are you going to do afterwards?” like teaching English is not a final destination but something that you do as a means to live abroad. For decades, there was a lack of professionalism within ELT and the idea was that being a native speaker was enough to just rock up in a place and start teaching without any experience. Slowly that is changing as more and more countries now require an introductory teaching qualification such as the Cert TESOL and higher-level qualifications such as the DipTESOL and MA TESOL being more and more sought after by prospective employers. ELT is now formalizing in terms of entry requirements, but in terms of working conditions and attitudes within the sector, I still think there is a way to go.

You only have to look at the Spanish market as an example. In Spain, most ELT professionals fall into the “enseñanza no reglada” sector or ‘non-regulated teaching’ sector, which pretty much means that ELT teachers receive considerably sketchier benefits legally than teachers employed as state school teachers, such as the ratio of contact time to preparation time being recognized as only 3 minutes of lesson prep for every one hour of teaching. This then has a knock-on effect on the amount of social security paid towards pensions being horribly undervalued. I think the key here is the use of the word ‘non-regulated’. When something is ‘non-regulated’, by definition there is not the same impetus to ensure that standards and quality are upheld, aside from the market forces at play that govern supply and demand, or as many of us have heard ‘bums on seats’. I suspect that it is this rather than any other innate quality of the industry that is at the root of most of the unstable working conditions that can be found here.

So back to the 2 truths and a lie, here are a few of my own:

1) After a year working for one of my very first employers, as a new cert graduate, I found out that my employer had not been paying social security contributions for me. When I asked they said “Didn’t you know?” despite it having never really been explicitly communicated. After conferring with a few other contacts in the area, several informed me that they suspected that what the school had done was illegal.

2) During a UK-based summer school that I was working at, accommodation was included for a few hours of extra work (on top of the teaching hours which were paid at a measly 12 pounds per hour with no extra payment for planning). What wasn’t stated in the contract was being required to be on call in the student residence most nights and one weekend day to deal with students setting the fire alarm off, students needing an extra cleaning of their room and students knocking on the door when they needed extra toilet roll.

3) One summer, I was lured away by the exotic promise of working in a faraway land (I won’t say which one but it is famous for its Eurovision tributes, oil and extremely high levels of corruption). Whilst there, I met a colleague who had been cheated out of part of his wages but did not have a leg to stand on about reclaiming them as he was there on a tourist visa and did not have a formal contract.

Like the posts on Facebook, I have to say that all three are true and yet I feel that my experiences are not atypical and are (luckily for me) relatively tame compared to the stories of many others. Nowadays, I could advise my younger self (and my colleague) about how to avoid the situations above, but to teachers who are new to the field it can seem like a minefield in terms of knowing how to avoid these situations, and obviously in the case of issues such as industry-based racism and native speaker bias, the focus must be on trying to get the industry to change, rather than implying that these are things that can somehow be avoided ‘if we are smart about it’.

Perhaps what TESOL needs is its own #MeToo movement. If more of us shared our stories and tried to hold others accountable by calling out injustices when we saw them, we would begin to see changes and a greater move towards professionalism, more emphasis on experience and qualifications rather than someone’s nationality or colour of skin, greater job security and more stable working conditions. Perhaps the rise of groups such as TEFL Equity advocates means that it is already starting to happen. In the meantime, as a Cert TESOL trainer, I work with teachers at the beginning of their careers. Normally they are from all walks of life, native and non-native, from different cultural backgrounds and often they look to me for guidance on how to find jobs and on how to know which opportunities are worth pursuing. It’s easy to think that the world of TEFL is a jungle and that at any moment you may get eaten by a crocodile, however, it is also worth noting that there are many great opportunities out there too with fantastic schools that will provide stable working conditions and opportunities for professional development. For me, anyway, teaching is inherently rewarding in terms of the interactions that you have with learners and the moments of learning that take place which are often priceless, so I would always encourage anyone who wanted to take this path.

Until the industry starts to change though, there are always going to be a minefield of working conditions to navigate. In terms of supporting my trainees for these challenges in the best way possible, there are a few pieces of advice that I offer them to ensure they don't get themselves into a difficult situation or a job in which they are undervalued:

1) Know your value in the market.

Know what the going rate is for teachers in your city and know where you fit into that. Teachers with a certificate-level qualification like cert TESOL can often get more desirable jobs than teachers without. Nobody goes into teaching for the money but getting a good deal can often make a big difference towards being able to pay the bills and not being able to.

2) Read your contract.

Perhaps self-explanatory, but make sure you check out things such as social security contributions, pensions and whether you are entitled to any end of contract bonuses. These are things that we can sometimes overlook but which have a big impact in the long term.

3) Know what local employment law is.

This can be difficult if you do not know the language of the country you are working in, so if this is the case, try to find a local friend to read the relevant local laws and ensure that you understand them. You may be entitled to severance pay or parental leave or even days off to move house so it is well worth doing.

4) Avoid jobs and schools that perpetuate the myth of the backpacker teacher.

The other day whilst browsing jobs for my trainees I came across a job titled ‘Teach by the Beach’. Such adverts that emphasize the superficial aspects rather than concrete aspects of the job may not be the ideal options in terms of professional development or future opportunities. Instead look for information about the students, the school’s approach to teaching or information about the role.

5) Do not fall in to the ‘native speaker only’ trap.

When schools advertise for ‘native speakers only’, they are demonstrating a level of prejudice in their hiring practices. If they are already doing this at the recruitment stage, it is not difficult to imagine that there will be other types of injustices cropping up later on if you get a job with them. In these cases, try to look for schools that are committed to equal opportunity and diversity instead. TEFL Equity Advocates do a great job of highlighting reputable employers too.

6) Professionalize, professionalize, professionalize.

The more legitimate the job opportunity, the more picky an employer can choose to be. Courses like the Cert TESOL the Dip TESOL or an MA in TESOL often give you an edge, meaning that you can be selective about who you work for and which jobs you take. In addition to formal qualifications, ensure that you take part in some teacher development, whether that is self-directed or in collaboration with other teachers.

7) Set yourself career goals and be willing to change employers in order to achieve them.

When you finish an initial teacher training course your priority may be to get as much experience as possible, so you may not end up in the most desirable schools until you build up that experience. Try to choose a first job which does offer some professional development opportunities and in the meantime set yourself career goals. For example, you may say that after the initial first year of work  experience you really want to try honing your teaching skills in the area of academic English, so you might decide to look for a different post with more opportunities to teach academic skills. Often a move to another school tends to open up new opportunities with it and perhaps even a pay rise.

8) Know when it’s worth it to take a pay hit.

Generally we always think of pay as something that should increase per year of experience, but there are some cases in which taking a pay cut may actually benefit you. Such cases include if you really want to move to a country where salaries are lower (with a potentially lower cost of living), if you have a family and need more family-friendly working hours or if the professional development and career opportunities are so good that you know it will help you to achieve your long term career goals quickly. In the last case, I did that myself and the end result was that taking a pay cut for a couple of years meant that I could progress to a role that I had wanted for a while and with it I got a salary upgrade.

In addition, I think it helps a lot to follow what is happening in the broader ELT context. Follow groups like TEFL Equity Advocates or Teachers as Workers or subscribe to their mailing lists in order to be informed about how teachers are joining together to fight prejudice and poor working conditions. If enough people come together and share their experience, we might find ourselves in the midst of our own #MeToo movement.

Want to meet our team of teacher trainers and writers at English for Asia? Join one of our regular teacher training workshops held regularly in Hong Kong.

About the Author

Eve Conway

Eve has worked in Hong Kong, Spain, Vietnam and Mexico as both a teacher and CertTESOL and TYLEC trainer, and on shorter projects in the UK, Italy, Azerbaijan and Peru. She worked for the British Council for over six years, where she discovered a love for working with children, particularly Early Years learners. Eve holds a bachelor’s degree in English language as well as an MA in Applied Linguistics and a Trinity DipTESOL. Having always loved languages, she is a fluent Spanish speaker and is keen to learn more languages. Eve is a keen conference speaker and occasional writer for ELT magazines and publications.

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