Language teaching, open plan education, and organising prospects in the industry

Language teaching, open plan education, and organising prospects in the industry

A blog entry detailing my recent experiences as a language worker--examining the structure of my particular workplace and potential opportunities for organising in the industry.

For a little over a year I've been employed teaching English at a school in Eastern Europe. The company I work for is part of a massive global chain. Although ultimately owned by a major multimedia company with stakes in newspapers, textbook publishing, and online media, the 'brand' is franchised regionally.

Anyone who has worked in the industry understands that TEFL is a business run by and for global corporations. This means that, as language workers, we have two main functions. One is to improve the English of students looking for a leg up in the job market. The other is to teach “professional” English to executives and those who aspire to such positions.

Nor is it just individuals who are are interested in becoming more fluent in the “language of business”. My school offers corporate accounts where employers can purchase lessons in bulk for their workforce. In some cases, teachers are sent directly to company offices armed only with a lesson from the large catalogue of courses dedicated to business English.

Although much lip service is paid to “student learning” one other thing is abundantly clear: TEFL is a sales-driven business. My employer's public website boasts of a “business model based on intensive sales and marketing to generate profit”.[1] All employees—from teachers to receptionists—are expected to play some part in the sales process. We even have monthly sales targets, complete with crappy little bonuses, to keep us motivated.

Labour discipline, TEFL style

Upon starting the job one thing immediately struck me: all the walls inside the building are made of clear glass. Why? According to my manager, the set-up provides a truer speaking environment as background noise travels from room to room. He then explained how they hoped to do away with the glass and just have half walls instead. Welcome to open plan education.

While my manager's justification may have some truth to it, there's something else going on here and it has nothing to do with the students. It's about us, the workforce.

Glass walls provide two distinct advantages for management. First it provides constant visual and audio surveillance. In my “learning centre”, for example, the manager's office is right next to the teacher's preparation area which is, again, directly next to the student social space. Real privacy—the ability to speak to your workmates without your manager knowing—does not exist in my workplace.[2]

Coming from state sector education, we had the privilege of closed doors. There was always a room out sight and out of earshot of the boss. And we used it to our advantage: discussing problems at work, as a place for activists from different unions to meet, and as a space to prepare for disciplinaries and grievances.

Second, such a set-up increases workload. As explained by my manager, glass walls encourage students to ask us questions. Come in early to spend some (unpaid) time preparing a lesson? On a break between classes? Too bad, you're still expected to be available. One can imagine this will be even more pronounced once walls are removed altogether and students—“customers”—only have to lean over a short divider to get your attention.

Management's intentions can also be seen in the division of the workforce between “natives” (an industry term which refers to teachers whose first language is English) and the rest of the staff. Quite simply, native teachers have an entire position reserved for them which comes with higher pay and significantly better benefits.

Management reinforces these divisions in other ways, too. For example, by having a specific staff area for the natives. The turnover of non-natives is massive as well—unsurprising given their pay and conditions. None of this is insurmountable in terms of friendship or solidarity, but combined with the language barrier, it means that bonds of trust are not as easily formed as those which develop amongst the more long-term, native-speaking staff.

The education factory

For good reason, radical critics often refer to schools as education factories. My current employer, however, takes this to a whole new level: it is an assembly line of language education. In particular, the role of teachers is greatly reduced. We have students only for a short time to deliver what basically amounts to practice sessions with pre-fab lesson plans. While not having to prepare lessons from scratch certainly saves time, it limits opportunities to exercise our intellectual creativity and tailor lessons to the interests and aptitudes of students.

All this is sold to pupils—and staff—as “student autonomy”. In reality, it means that students pay exorbitant amounts of money to have new material taught to them on a computer. (This, of course, saves nicely on total teaching hours on the payroll.) Students then practice with us before finally being delivered to other members of staff who are employed fundamentally in sales. While these employees have certain educational responsibilities, it's hitting their monthly sales targets that keeps them paying the bills.

Now, I have no love for state education. It's regimented, boring, and is not geared toward teaching critical thinking. Rather, it designed to prepare students for work—both in terms of skills and deference to authority.[3] But at least in the state sector there's the pretence of education for education's sake.

Not so in this job. Although the company loves to claim their classes differ in purpose and structure to a “traditional classroom”, their model succeeds only in making explicit the commodity relation embodied in the very notion of schooling.

Furthermore, our job descriptions are written to emphasize the fact that we're “tutors” not teachers. We “deliver” lessons in order to “verify” students' knowledge. After all, teachers are skilled professionals and—private or public sector—expect a certain wage for that skill. If management can downplay that skill, they can pay us even less.

Organising Opportunities?

Despite the deepening global crisis, the TEFL industry is booming. And, structurally, TEFL teachers have a lot of power in the workplace. We're skilled. We have the abilities, fluency, and qualifications to teach English. While we shouldn't overestimate our power, it's generally not easy for our employers to find quick replacements should we, say, go on strike.

The flip side of this is that TEFL is an increasingly casualised industry. I'm lucky that I have guaranteed full-time hours (although since prep time is not included, unpaid overtime is part of the job), but zero hours contracts are becoming increasingly common. In some sections of the industry, agency work is even beginning to make an appearance.

Similarly, it's a massive industry spread literally across the globe. Concentration of language workers tend to be small with most schools having, at most, a couple dozen staff. This means that finding and maintaining a core group of militants can prove difficult.

However, this could be compensated for by the fact the TEFL teachers (especially the younger ones) use the job to help fund our travels. This means we communicate with lots of other teachers who've taught in lots of other cities around the world. Already there are websites run by and for TEFL teachers which warn of fly-by-night employers and share stories of abuse at the hands of management.[4] TEFL networks already exist. It's just a matter of using them to organise.

Additionally, in my city there is a 'language school corridor' where well over a dozen language schools are situated, sometimes with two, three, or four schools in the same building. A dedicated group of militants could begin by brushing up on local labour law and quietly offering to review contracts. This way we not only show that there are active and informed language workers in the area, but we begin to see the disparities in pay and conditions in the city while building contacts, discovering grievances, and sharing information.

And of course it goes without saying that we don't want to support just TEFL teachers, but any language worker, whether they teach Mandarin or work in reception.

Nor is language teaching any longer strictly something you do in your twenties if you have a degree and want to travel. As the job market continues to tighten up, it's becoming a long-term career. People teach English to feed their kids, not just for beer money. As workers gain experience in the industry, they are less likely to accept lousy (and often declining) conditions lying down.

But I don't want to paint too rosy a picture. The TEFL workforce is still a predominantly young one. In my experience, TEFL teachers generally have a liberally-lefty outlook. However, without the confidence to collectively challenge management, this doesn't mean much. With little experience of workplace organisation or industrial action, the TEFL workforce is one which is largely at the mercy of the boss.

Likewise, the default response of TEFL workers to problems at work is to find another job, using the experience acquired at one job to move to a different city where the wages of a TEFL teacher go further. My job, for example, runs year-long contracts. Far more often than not, teachers choose not to renew. This means that even in the face of crappy working conditions or nasty managers, the focus is on completing the year, securing your 12 month bonus and getting the hell out.

So the opportunities are there, no doubt, but there's a lot of groundwork to be done. Whether that happens will depend on a lot of factors—not the least of which includes devising a strategy which can account for the challenges unique to the world of TEFL.

Do you work in TEFL? Please feel free to share this on other sites. Are you a language worker who'd be interested in writing a piece about your experience in the industry? Please PM me as there is a tentative idea to collect and publish articles by radical language workers.

Footnotes:

[1] Internal document are just as open about this. In fact, my training pack made the identical point. Then, shortly after, it went on to credit Chomsky with influencing the school's pedagogical model. Any non-linguistic comments Chomsky has made about education are conveniently ignored.

[2] See the panopticon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon

[3] Or to put it another way, that the primary goal of state schooling is to supply employers with a workforce equipped with the skills and demeanour required for the continued reproduction of capitalist social relations. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

[4] My favourite: http://teflblacklist.blogspot.com/

Comments

commieprincess
Feb 6 2013 12:56

Just to briefly add some personal experiences of TEFL -

-hilarious sexist jokes from my boss. What a funny guy.

-teaching "business English" - topics like 'how to fire someone', 'what makes the perfect employee?', and role plays of cynical marketing projects. Urrgggghh.

-absolute lies about certain aspects of the job and area of the city I would be working in before I started.

-"motivational" pictures on the walls. Make me want to be sick all over myself and anyone who happens to be nearby.

-teaching some lovely students, but plenty of disgraceful, bigotted, horrifically warped human beings and not being able to tell them they're scum. Like racist bosses who make jokes about their illiterate employees who've been injured on the job. And then do racist impersonations of Indian people speaking English and giggle like an idiotic child.

akai
Feb 6 2013 13:37

Hi. There are a lot of interesting things you've said about your work place and how you see your situation. However, there are some things I think you are inferring from your local situation that may be very different for other workers in that industry.

Just to say, I have a few decades of experience, one strike and an interesting but unsuccessful conflict under my belt. We have a union here, some people are foreigners, some work in the TEFL industry and others in other foreign languages. (Because here the language education market is quite diverse. Currently one of the most exploited category of workers is from Spain.)

(You can check out our bulletin here: http://www.zsp.net.pl/files/zsp_education_workers_bulletin_1_jan_2013_en.pdf We have different types of workers, but one article refers to a type of contract being used for language teachers.)

A few comments. The first thing is that the TEFL industry is more diverse than you suggest on a global level, although I don't question what you are saying about your location. (We could include all the different language workers, not only TEFL.) In this country we have several sectors. There is the business sector you mentioned. In this sector, we find different types of workers: freelancers with their own businesses, ones that are hired through intermediaries or small, non-corporate providers, locally-owned providers and international corporations. The working conditions and issues such as delivering standard courses or tailored courses (with loads of prep time) can vary tremendously. Then there is a very large sector of adult private education,(not for business). private education for teens and children, including very young ones. Further, there are courses delivered in schools, both private and public, but where the teachers are not full-time and contracted. There are courses delivered in publically-funded cultural centers. These include both local institutions as well as international ones. Then there is private tutoring. The range is very wide and working conditions really vary.

The other thing is that some of the descriptions about conditions in your area may not be true in others. For example, some countries have saturated markets in terms of teachers. In these countries, there may not be such a strong division between native teachers and non-native. In any place where you have a large number of good non-native teachers, the demand for native teachers who want to earn more money goes down. Here, having different wages would have been common 20 years ago, but now it is not a matter of being native or not. A large amount of foreigners also means more applicants and depressed wages. That doesn't mean that wages don't vary wildly, but this has to do with the ability of schools, etc. to find cheap labour. As long as there are more workers than demand, there is downward pressure on wages. I have worked in other situations where it wasn't so easy to find skilled teachers and then the workers had more power to demand decent conditions. We really cannot assume the market is the same everywhere.

Other things that affect the market is the level of education in public schools and things like state subsidies. When I worked here almost 25 years ago, there were so few trained English teachers that they literally gave me a job to retrain Russian teachers to be English teachers. Not every public school had an English teacher, or enough of them, so there was a huge demand for education in the private sector. This was especially true for adults who had no English at school. Nowadays, in big cities most schools provide 5 hours of English a week, with children starting at age 7. 10 years ago, teenagers were finishing school with intermediate proficiency and would continue private education for some years, but nowadays, public education prepares them much better. Some markets that were booming 10 or 20 years ago are saturated today, so the jobs have moved to new locations around the globe.

Enough about the nature of the industry and something about labor organizing. As you said, where there is a large percentage of the staff that have one-year contracts or see the work as a temporary job, you have some challenges for organizing. A lot of them will just say fuck it and move on to the next job. Occasionally you meet some folks who might fight a little, but they will be gone soon anyway. So it is interesting what ideas you have for maintaining a presence and demands in such a situation.

I will talk about one situation where I used to work. This place is quite well known, general English courses and with a staff of well over a 100 at that time. One of the really bad things about the working conditions was that when you first came in, you had to say what salary you wanted. This is a common practice in this country, where speaking about salaries often ends up with dismissal for disciplinary reasons. If you had some very good qualifications and could teach specialized courses, you could get a better salary, but if not, the tendency was to hire the cheaper ones. Having a staff getting different money for the same work is of course a recipe for anger. And they tried to replace more expensive teachers with cheaper ones on a regular basis, provided they were not on the specialist courses. I think you can get the basic picture.

One spring the management announced that in the summer, when there is less work, they'd only give courses to those who would lower their rates significantly. I set about warning everyone that once anybody drops their rates, the school would see who is willing to work for less and try to put wages down permanently. A large number of the staff agreed to do something and had demands for the management. (There were other problems besides the rates.) There are several reasons that these actions failed. There needed to be more decisive action. Agreeing to negotiations that were going to drag on after it was clear that the school was stalling, instead of taking immediate action, was a mistake, but it reflected the fact that most people wanted to keep their jobs and for them, even making demands was something like a brave step.

What the school started doing was targetting single mothers and offering them minimum guaranteed hours – which they hadn't got before – but at reduced rates. A number of them broke ranks – although not enough for the summer staff. At some point, people started getting individualistic, trying to make their deals or move on and find some new job. With this lack of solidarity and joint action, and due to the timing of this situation (summer, when not all the staff were employed), this went very badly indeed. In the end, myself and 2 or 3 others refused to lower our rates at all and we managed to do this only because we had the most difficult and specialized work and couldn't be replaced easily. But it was clear that the school was searching for our replacements and mobbing started. I believe that all of us were earning about twice the rates that some people went down to and the managers were trying to get people to resent us, because we, in their opinion, thought we were worth more than other people. (!)

Needless to say, this whole situation made me angry and I quit this job.

I reflected on this and for me, the reasons why we didn't win are clear. I strongly believe that the action could have looked different if the complaints about the school were made in a public campaign, because the image of the school is its most important asset and it is marketing that it has well-qualified staff. The students would be interested to know that the well-qualified staff were often forced out to make way for cheap replacements. But there is not much of a fighting mood here, especially in the private sector and the jobs were getting scarcer and scarcer. My thoughts as an activist then is about how to motivate people to take actions that might indeed risk their jobs during a struggle and how to build solidarity structures strong enough to support the struggles in concrete ways, even monetarily. It seems rather clear to me that a period of building up is necessary, especially where there is no tradition of organizing in a particular sector. But there are also real challenges to the particular local situation and high levels of unemployment certainly don't help much.

I'd welcome thoughts from the author or others.

Also, what about anarchosyndicalists in the place you are working? Are they organized at all and, if so, are they at least pursuing some strategies to at least get some presence or make some propaganda in places like this?

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 7 2013 13:39
commieprincess wrote:
-teaching some lovely students, but plenty of disgraceful, bigotted, horrifically warped human beings and not being able to tell them they're scum. Like racist bosses who make jokes about their illiterate employees who've been injured on the job. And then do racist impersonations of Indian people speaking English and giggle like an idiotic child.

I wouldn't stand for that in my classroom. I've sent students out for bigotry before, or dressed them down, either publicly or outside in private (if I feel they're young enough to be spared).

Mind you, the place where you're working sounds especially horrible and I've managed to find a semi-regular school near my flat where the staff are just about angry enough to keep immediate management on their toes and exercise damage limitation (ie concessions) most of the time.

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 6 2013 14:36

A couple of extra points to add to this interesting article from my (mostly UK-based) perspective:

-many teachers will be holding down more than one job, and often at least one of those will be self-employed too, which is a massive spanner in the works for organising. This also means that who's in on any given day is rather unpredictable.

-the point about 'native' speakers is an interesting one which plays itself out in different ways across the sector. I've certainly seen plenty of job ads which specify 'native speaker' (which is illegal in the UK, and presumably the EU too?), and most students are prepared to pay extra for a native speaker. However, TEFL in London is no different to any other job market here inasmuch as there's been a huge influx of East European teachers, who are on the same T&C as the native speakers.

-in my experience, language colleges also rely on a huge amount of intern/unpaid labour, especially for admin tasks. This all adds to the 'holiday camp' atmosphere, where all the staff are supposed to feel like they're part of some amazing happy family of social fun (teachers are strongly encouraged to participate in the school's 'social programme', ie a free tour guide/chaperone round London!).

-you say that all the students are headed for the corporate world, but this is untrue in my experience. Indeed, most Business English materials will talk about conference calls, expanding to China, etc, etc, but I've found myself teaching prefab BE courses to people preparing to work as hotel cleaners! The flipside to this is that you can always break away from the prefab materials and offer them something useful, assuming the surveillance isn't too intense. Do you have to complete ILPs at your place?

Ed
Feb 6 2013 22:00
akai wrote:
I reflected on this and for me, the reasons why we didn't win are clear. I strongly believe that the action could have looked different if the complaints about the school were made in a public campaign, because the image of the school is its most important asset and it is marketing that it has well-qualified staff. The students would be interested to know that the well-qualified staff were often forced out to make way for cheap replacements.... It seems rather clear to me that a period of building up is necessary, especially where there is no tradition of organizing in a particular sector.

Fuck me mate, we just had a dispute at my work with similarly negative results and these were basically my conclusions as well.. will try to find time to write up what happened with us as well (some background here)..

Also, for future articles, I've added a TEFL tag under the education sector heading..

akai
Feb 7 2013 19:48

Thanks for pointing that out; I hadn't seen that article.

Your story has another category of worker which I grouped into "freelancers" but didn't mention specifically: those who are forced to open their own business and are used as outside contactors. In fact, such people are growing much less popular to use because once they are forced to pay their own benefits, taxes and do their own paperwork, they try to get their own clients and are competitors to schools and intermediaries. But we can say that this type of fake entrepeneur is common in other branches and you may have heard that ZSP is really the first to take this on in a big way, with a battle against a large multinational. So, in a way, this type of false outside contracting can be also fought across branches, against the practice, regardless of the job.

As for TEFL and other precarious teachers, it is really high time we were organizing on the international level. Nobody answered when I inquired about other local anarchosyndicalists, so I take it that nobody really had been dealing with this in your location before. So, somebody has to start. I think some serious work really has to be done with this, because it really is getting worse and worse.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 7 2013 20:06
Quote:
Nobody answered when I inquired about other local anarchosyndicalists, so I take it that nobody really had been dealing with this in your location before. So, somebody has to start. I think some serious work really has to be done with this, because it really is getting worse and worse.

I agree! Like I said there's a tentative idea to get radical language workers to begin writing about their experience in the industry. And a number of IWA anarcho-syndicalists have been involved in disputes/organising in their workplace (with varying degrees of success), that seems like the logical place to start.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 8 2013 09:49

Thanks for the feedback everyone. I'll try not to make this too long and rambling...

Akai wrote:
There are some things I think you are inferring from your local situation that may be very different for other workers in that industry.

I mean, that's true of course: there's going to be some generalising. But I did run this by close to a dozen other TEFL workers before publishing it. Although I present as “my” experience, it's been tweaked to incorporate the experience and critiques of others. I'll grant that many of the people who provided input work in the same for-profit section of the industry and live in major European cities, but the piece does actually bring together a variety of experience.

Quote:
what about anarchosyndicalists in the place you are working? Are they organized at all and, if so, are they at least pursuing some strategies to at least get some presence or make some propaganda in places like this?

Now this is an interesting question. In the country I'm living (and certainly in my city), there is no active anarcho-syndicalist presence. However, a sizeable minority of my non-managerial workmates identify as anarchists. However, for most of them, this is just a matter of ideas. In terms of implementing anarchist practice in the workplace, they either don't have the skills or the inclination—they'll “only have this job for a short-time” and “it's not worth the trouble to fight a company who 'has more lawyers than teachers.'”

This is actually part of the reason I included that bit that simply having “liberally-lefty” inclinations isn't enough; workers need to have the skills to organize and the confidence and experience to stand up to the boss.

And lest I sound like I'm being too hard on my workmates, I do want to make it clear that a basic sense of solidarity and 'us vs. them' does exist in my workplace. The majority of my workmates don't swallow management's line and low-level, but active disagreement with the boss—both individual and collective—is the norm.

Caiman wrote:
my experience, language colleges also rely on a huge amount of intern/unpaid labour, especially for admin tasks. This all adds to the 'holiday camp' atmosphere, where all the staff are supposed to feel like they're part of some amazing happy family of social fun (teachers are strongly encouraged to participate in the school's 'social programme', ie a free tour guide/chaperone round London!).

That sh*t's the same at my school. Especially for the 'non-natives', they're expected to organise and attend non-paid social activities for the students. FWIW, I think there's a similar dynamic even in the public sector education: this idea that since we're doing some sort of 'worthy', socially useful work, we should be willing (or rather, we're obligated) to put in that little extra.

F*ck that. I think it might actually be a really good place to start when it comes to organizing. One of my other TEFL friends did work at a summer camp and tried to agitate exactly around the resentment that stems from being an unpaid tour guide. Maybe I'll try to get him to do a little write-up.

Caiman wrote:
you say that all the students are headed for the corporate world, but this is untrue in my experience. Indeed, most Business English materials will talk about conference calls, expanding to China, etc, etc, but I've found myself teaching prefab BE courses to people preparing to work as hotel cleaners!

Yeah, you're not the first person to say that to me. And, to be honest, when I first wrote the article it read that “TEFL teachers are fodder for global capital”. I changed it to the corporate language as I wanted to make it a bit more accessible.

Anyway, here's my thinking: when we teach people like cleaners, it's generally because they want to learn English to get to an English speaking country for work. They're still trying to get the skills which will give them an advantage in the global labour market; it's still capitalist diktats that drive most of our students to our lessons.

Caiman wrote:
The flipside to this is that you can always break away from the prefab materials and offer them something useful, assuming the surveillance isn't too intense. Do you have to complete ILPs at your place?

No ILPs, but I adapt like a motherf*cker. The problem is that, again, since we don't get paid for prep time, I still end up resenting even the time and effort it takes to subvert their sh*tty pro-business bullsh*t

Quote:
It seems rather clear to me that a period of building up is necessary, especially where there is no tradition of organizing in a particular sector.

Yes, yes, and yes! It's of utter, utter importance to not wait until a big issue comes up to start to organize. It's about picking small fights—on our terms—as a means to build up solidarity and confidence.

This is, btw, one of the basic points of the SF workplace organiser training. It's that fundamental skill—how to strategically pick small, winnable fights—that forms the basis of the training.

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 8 2013 14:41
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Thanks for the feedback everyone. I'll try not to make this too long and rambling...
Akai wrote:
There are some things I think you are inferring from your local situation that may be very different for other workers in that industry.

I mean, that's true of course: there's going to be some generalising. But I did run this by close to a dozen other TEFL workers before publishing it. Although I present as “my” experience, it's been tweaked to incorporate the experience and critiques of others. I'll grant that many of the people who provided input work in the same for-profit section of the industry and live in major European cities, but the piece does actually bring together a variety of experience.

Sorry mate, not meaning to butt in, but isn't this your first TEFL job? Shouldn't you maybe defer to someone telling you that they may have had a slightly different experience? I mean, it's an authentically global sector with a huge variety of conditions and environments. I've worked at <5 schools in London and each one's been quite different in a number of ways, not to mention the places I've been to 'abroad'.

This is a good article but IME there's nothign teachers hate more than an uppity newjack telling them black is white in the staffroom or anywhere else. wink

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 8 2013 14:49
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Caiman wrote:
you say that all the students are headed for the corporate world, but this is untrue in my experience. Indeed, most Business English materials will talk about conference calls, expanding to China, etc, etc, but I've found myself teaching prefab BE courses to people preparing to work as hotel cleaners!

Yeah, you're not the first person to say that to me. And, to be honest, when I first wrote the article it read that “TEFL teachers are fodder for global capital”. I changed it to the corporate language as I wanted to make it a bit more accessible.

Anyway, here's my thinking: when we teach people like cleaners, it's generally because they want to learn English to get to an English speaking country for work. They're still trying to get the skills which will give them an advantage in the global labour market; it's still capitalist diktats that drive most of our students to our lessons.

Yes of course they're motivated by 'capitalist diktats' (I struggle to think of many jobs where the people you deal with aren't!), but they're not just boorish right wing yuppies with too much aftershave (although far too many EFL students are of course!).

My point was also related to a specific programme my employer's involved in, which recruits often highly-qualified, experienced EU students to come over to the UK with promises of high-flying careers (and we are recruited to give them a week's BE prep as if that's what gonna happen), only to siphon them off into menial contracts in local copy shops, hotels, shops, etc (ie the same job they woulda got if they'd just jumped on the next Ryanair).

akai
Feb 8 2013 16:15

First a bit of breaking news from here. I was quite surprised surprised to learn today that after we outed a few language schools for using "author's contracts" (described a bit in our bulletin), the social security office announced now that it would investigate the schools, since this scheme denies workers their social security payments.

I have mixed reactions, because lately the authorities have been somewhat active on some issues, usually to pretend to be doing something, or to stop some issues from snowballing. That's how I interpret some reactions they've had to some other issues we were involved with. On the one hand, it would be sort of good if they managed to crack down on one form of abuse, on the other hand, the state is a rather selective enforcer of laws and sometimes use crack downs to do something else completely. For example, when they cracked down on "illegal working conditions" in a school I worked with, the brunt of their actions were borne by non-EU citizen workers who were found to be working without the proper permission, etc. In terms of selectively dealing with issues, I suspect that they will have no problem going after the school operators that do this. This type of scam is not being used by the large and corporate schools. Furthermore, plenty of avoidance of social security can be seem in various sectors and nothing is done about it. We have a big case against a powerful multinational going on and they cheated hundreds of people out of social security and other benefits, but we see how all the state-controlled authorties are shitting in their pants when it comes to that company.

Back to what Chilli and Caiman were commenting about... listen, don't get into this nonsense about being a newbie or whatever. But we have to be careful when describing things, even if many people have similar experiences, that on an international level, or sometimes even locally, things can look differently and we have to take these things into account when thinking about work campaigns. We need assessments of the different realities.

About the students then, I have a comment. You know, we can talk about the dictates of capital, etc. etc.... but it is not the most important thing. To a certain extent, most all of us are fucked and have to bend over to its dicates, But we have to recognize that there are really different students, even inside the corporate world.

Can just point out that some of our anarchosyndicalist comrades can be found working in corporations. You know, there are some anarchists who don't believe in it and would never be caught dead, bla, bla, but in real life, we are everywhere. Some may be forced to work in that corporate culture, but you can find dissidents in all sorts of offices.

Another thing if that there are loads of people learning English or some other language because of problems and the need to emigrate for work. In some areas here there is 30% unemployment or more, officially, and it would be higher if not for the fact that so many people are working abroad. You can't treat all these people as if they have a similar mentality, but it is quite different than working the corporate scene which has some elements of corporate brainwashing.

In any case, our students are our potential allies, because they are the ones who, if we do our jobs, appreciate our work and don't want to be treated like they are in a corporate education factory. They can also help to put the pressure on the schools.

But I would point out one thing here which subverts this. These are the EU subsidies. The EU was subsidizing different language training. So, women over 40 can get free Dutch or Norweigan lessons and corporations can get free business English courses --- using providers selected by the EU. What this means is that, as long as these courses are free, the corporations don't complain too much about the quality. Then these courses are given by a small amount of providers. Other providers cannot compete with the "price" (free), so all the "work" goes to this small group. (This is limited, as not all corporations get these subsidized courses, but it is on a scale big enough to fuck things a bit.) Then, if somebody is looking for work, they find that these providers with the subsidized courses have lots of work, but they don't give a shit really about the quality, because they don't have to be competitive and offer ridulously low wages.

The corporations and students, on the other hand, have little leverage on the providers, because, in fact, they aren't paying the bills. They basically can choose to have free courses with not-to-good quality, or pay. Corporations who get these subsidized courses tend not to be picky.

Of course, the question of professionalism - this is a slippery area for workers' activists. On the one hand, if the customers (students or companies purchasing courses) keep constant pressure on the schools to keep the quality high, it could mean that it becomes riskier for them to hire cheaper workers. On the other hand, it can also be something that just puts more and more pressure on teachers. Finally, we also have to fight in the interests of those who are not ideal workers. Despite all this, the general trends towards casualization in this branch threatens the professional quality and tendencies towards preferring experienced and appropriately trained teachers and this is an argument that can be used to get some students on your side.

commieprincess
Feb 8 2013 19:59

akai, good post.

caiman wrote:
Sorry mate, not meaning to butt in, but isn't this your first TEFL job? Shouldn't you maybe defer to someone telling you that they may have had a slightly different experience? I mean, it's an authentically global sector with a huge variety of conditions and environments. I've worked at <5 schools in London and each one's been quite different in a number of ways, not to mention the places I've been to 'abroad'.

I think that's why chilli explained that he's drawing on his particular experience (with some input from others). I don't think he was remotely disregarding other people's persective, or saying what he's experienced is univerally the same for everyone.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 8 2013 20:37
Caiman del Barrio wrote:

Sorry mate...shouldn't you maybe defer to someone telling you that they may have had a slightly different experience? I mean, it's an authentically global sector with a huge variety of conditions and environments....

This is a good article but IME there's nothign teachers hate more than an uppity newjack telling them black is white in the staffroom or anywhere else. ;)

Sorry mate, but I don't think a smiley face here justifies what you're saying. At no point did I say that my experience was the definitive experience of language workers around the world. In fact, the intro specifically states that it's a "blog entry detailing my recent experiences as a language worker--examining the structure of my particular workplace."

I find this 'you're a newbie' argument really patronizing. Of course it's sensible to listen to people with more experience--or rather, it's sensible not to disregard their experience. But I'm not disregarding anyone's experience.

In any case, the article specifically offsets my experience in public sector education with working in TEFL. I'm not speaking from a void, I do have experience, and I talked with a dozen other TEFL workers over the course of writing this article. And I'm still willing to engage with the experience and opinions of others, so I'm not really sure what you're on about.

Besides, you have no idea the conversations I'm having in the staff room. I can tell you that they're nothing like this.

Also, f*cking hell, you were already private messaged once requesting that you be concious to help keep things as anonymous as possible.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 8 2013 20:47

Good post Akai.

Just on this bit quickly:

Quote:
Another thing if that there are loads of people learning English or some other language because of problems and the need to emigrate for work. In some areas here there is 30% unemployment or more, officially, and it would be higher if not for the fact that so many people are working abroad. You can't treat all these people as if they have a similar mentality, but it is quite different than working the corporate scene which has some elements of corporate brainwashing.

If I came across as judgmental towards the attitudes (or even intentions--in some cases, anyway) of my students, that wasn't what I intended. The school I work at is very much at the expensive end of the spectrum and the overwhelming majority of my students have university degrees. But I like a lot of my students and I totally get why they're learning English. It's not a judgement on them; rather it's a comment on how the TEFL industry largely functions explicitly in the interest of global capital (not unlike the EU example you raised).

Chilli Sauce
Feb 8 2013 22:43

Alright, so I've just re-read my last response. It was a bit snarky, but I think I might understand where the confusion is coming from. Namely, I never said this:

Quote:
you say that all the students are headed for the corporate world, but this is untrue in my experience.

And I certainly never said that TEFL students are:

Quote:
just boorish right wing yuppies with too much aftershave

What I said is that, predominantly, they are either managerial types or individuals (in my experience, mostly students) looking for a "leg up" in the job market. This doesn't mean that they're headed for some position of power in the "corporate world". It just means they're looking to acquire skills--namely some English--which will allow them to work and live in another country.

It's not very different from the qualification I got to teach TEFL. Simply getting the qualification doesn't mean I'm destined to be a manager in the industry; only that I want to work in the industry and that I want to have the best chance of getting a job.

So yeah, if we could sort of keep the conversation focused on what has actually been written, I think it'd be helpful.

akai
Feb 9 2013 07:33

Knowing who the students are sort of can help if you need their support. I PMed about a successful one-day strike I was involved with in another place. There it was primarily young children and teenagers with very supportive and ambitious parents. These people were not very rich though and paying a lot for the courses so when it happened, we met them and told them why we weren't going to work that day, about what the director had planned, and they went and mobbed the director. Because their children were very happy and attached to the teachers and they wanted to keep this quality interaction.

Now yuppie careerists who totally buy the neoliberal mentality and the need for corporate efficiency can be more difficult, but it depends on a lot. One of the biggest factors which influence support is how liked individual teachers are. Here is where the strategy of some schools, which promote the "product" approach or certain methods, undermines the ability of the teacher to be valuable.

Let's take the Callan Method. There is set material and a given methodology. Any teacher working with the method should create more or less an identical experience with the learner. And the teachers are rotated every class. This is supposed to be to stimulate the student and give them new accents to deal with, but, in fact this means that the individual's knowledge, mistakes, personality, etc. are not taken into account at all by the teachers, but just the students get a standard product.

Besides the Callan, some other methods or particular schools tend towards this educational product approach, where the teacher is just a deliverer and is meant to be replaced by anyone. What is marketed in not so much the teacher's skills, but the set product, property of the school.

You mentioned a little bit about some BE courses like this.

Well this really undermines the teachers' abilities to make valuable ties with the students and to have possible support. So one thing that also can be done is to get out a lot of criticism of schools like this. When students are searching for a school, they could take the criticism into account because few of them like to be treated in such a way. The schools that deliver such courses have their propaganda about the efficiency of their methods, but this can be undermined.

Another thing I can mention is about some forms of exploitation relating to e-learning platforms and rights over material. Many teachers make their own supplementary materials. In some courses people make their own materials. Well different schools have very different requirements as to reporting what is done at the lessons. In the one that I spoke about where there was an unsuccessful attempt to do something, you were required to fill in extensive forms in the computer system. The forms were constructed in such a way, with so many obligatory fields (some not applicable to a particular lesson) that it was a real pain in the ass to fill out. Also it implied that all lessons should have certain elements, like homework. So you basically could not think of not assigning homework, because you had to list it in the obligatory field. These forms usually added 20-30 extra minutes to your work time and if you did not fill them out on the day of the lesson, you got a penalty and money deducted from your lesson. In other schools, you have to list all the material used and in some of them, collect and hand in the supplementary material. Some of the schools require this and take this material as their property. In the "best" situation, they create a bank of materials that others can use as well and it could save you time. In the worst situations, you are just handing over what you've had to create in your unpaid time. Regarding e-learning, some schools have platforms now where students can get extra exercises. Some schools require that the teachers give some materials for the e-learning platform, as part of their non-paid duties or that they have to log on and actually interact with the student by email, outside of working hours, as some platforms are not all automated.

Well, teaching has always been a job where you have to spend extra hours, including hours at home, but ideally, this would mean that you don't have 40 classroom contact hours. What is the situation like for teachers in general in this country? The tendency is towards measures to increase the classroom contact hours. We write about it in the Educational Workers Bulletin, although for somebody outside this country, the specifics might not be clear.

Teachers in the public sector traditionally have been protected by something called the Teachers' Card. This helps set some standards including hours. Teachers who are qualified and hired having this card have preparation (at home or school) and other time in the school counted into their hours. The state has been attacking this card the past couple of years and one of the main teachers' union just capitulated on some rights. One thing that they want to do is to require teachers to spend these hours physically in the school. And they increased the amount of hours that the teachers have to be in class, which effectively increases their working time. Now here is a real problem: they are trying to promote ways that schools and other institutions can get around hiring teachers with the Teachers' Card. We are talking about the ability to hire people on specific work contracts or fixed-term contracts without most benefits.

Language teachers are getting fucked left and right here. Our dear European Union gave money to some schools to organize extra lessons after school. The schools bring in teachers, who basically have no benefits and often have to work the same total number of hours as regular teachers.

Another thing is that there are some teachers who are employed outside of public schools, in publically funded institutions. These are called Houses of Culture, or Circles, and they provide various lessons for children after school and on the weekends. In some countries, it is common that public schools offer art, music, etc. but here, it is rather unusual. These are taught in publically funded institutions which run parallely. The people who work there are qualified teachers. The most common teachers are music, art, dance and foreign languages. But now there are moves all over the country to make these teachers second class workers in some sleazy way. It is not so easy to remove the Teachers' Card from the workers of the Houses of Culture, so what they do is liquidate them or change the status of the institution so that it is not covered anymore by the regulations of the Ministry of Education. One of our comrades is an art teacher working in this sector and we have lots of contact from these workers who are getting fucked all around the country. What basically is happening is that the workers lose their teachers' status and immediately have to work 40 contact hours. This is a big increase in their actual working time. With no more money and without the vacation entitlement of teachers, which is more than other workers.

I mention all this because there is increased precarization in the public sector as well. So although the working conditions in the public sector and private are different, we would like teachers to be aware of the fact that they are all going to be fighting the same thing, to a certain extent. It also should be pointed out that the two main teachers' unions here do absolutely nothing with the teachers outside the public sector and nothing really with the teachers from the Houses of Culture. Unfortunately these people so far have not organized to act in a militant way, as the whole labour movement is in retreat, so it's not like just finding an open niche and going in. But it might be that we get involved with some particular struggle later this year, like we got involved last year in the struggle against closing schools and were involved with the only victory in the city. Only one school decided to take more confrontational action against its planned closure, it was in my neighbourhood, we got people together and organized and it is still open today.

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 9 2013 12:28

Sorry but I think some of this is a little ridiculous. Maybe this is an example of where the anonymity of the internet creates a sense of malice or menace that wouldn't be there IRL? I put a smiley in cos I specifically didn't wanna be rude or create a dual-pronged flurry of defensive posts.

commieprincess wrote:
akai, good post.
caiman wrote:
Sorry mate, not meaning to butt in, but isn't this your first TEFL job? Shouldn't you maybe defer to someone telling you that they may have had a slightly different experience? I mean, it's an authentically global sector with a huge variety of conditions and environments. I've worked at <5 schools in London and each one's been quite different in a number of ways, not to mention the places I've been to 'abroad'.

I think that's why chilli explained that he's drawing on his particular experience (with some input from others). I don't think he was remotely disregarding other people's persective, or saying what he's experienced is univerally the same for everyone.

OK that's fine if that's what he's doing but his original response to Akai (which I quote above) seemed to imply the opposite.

It's not just 'patronising' to talk about 'newbies'. It maybe a rather unfair or just inaccurate attitude, but it's a real one that exists in almost every workplace. I think this is actually a slight shortcomign of the IWW/SF Training tbh, inasmuch as it presupposes that (predominantly youngish) militants can walk into a job and 'organise' people who maybe a quarter of a century older and may have been there for decades. I've certainly found it a problem, and I'm in a notoriously precarious & short-term sector. It's insufficient to simply say that people are wrong to roll their eyes when a newly arrived worker starts to talk about organising, cos we both know it's a real dynamic.

Instead of getting on the defensive, it would be good to talk about how to deal with that sort of stuff (and one part of it is respecting people's experiences and learning from them).

And of course you never said that EFL students were all boorish yuppies, hence why it's in my post and without quote marks!

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 9 2013 12:43

Onto some more interesting points:

akai wrote:
Knowing who the students are sort of can help if you need their support. I PMed about a successful one-day strike I was involved with in another place. There it was primarily young children and teenagers with very supportive and ambitious parents. These people were not very rich though and paying a lot for the courses so when it happened, we met them and told them why we weren't going to work that day, about what the director had planned, and they went and mobbed the director. Because their children were very happy and attached to the teachers and they wanted to keep this quality interaction.

Now yuppie careerists who totally buy the neoliberal mentality and the need for corporate efficiency can be more difficult, but it depends on a lot. One of the biggest factors which influence support is how liked individual teachers are. Here is where the strategy of some schools, which promote the "product" approach or certain methods, undermines the ability of the teacher to be valuable.

This is interesting cos certainly in the UK, the amount of shit heaped on education workers 'in loco parentis' who walkout is huge. It's easier with adult students, to whom you can explain the motives behind the strike and even gain an amount of support from (a certain Libcom poster has a lot of experience of engaging students in teachers' strikes, hopefully s/he'll contribute to this discussion).

The nature of my work is a massive problem though: I rarely see students for more than a week (they're usually here on some sort of programme organised via their regular school in their native country) and it's hard to develop relationships with them. They usually come with a couple of teachers from their school (ie their English teacher) who's often had to work pretty hard to convince the school and the kids' parents to organise & pay out for the trip. So any sort of industrial action would also affect them hugely.

Of course, it'd also be hugely disruptive to the fortunes of my employer, cos they'd be bombarded with complaints, almost definitely lose the contract and be thrown into chaos. However, I think teachers would have to battle other workmates who'd also lose out (the agent who booked the contract, for example, cos his/her reputation would be shot in that country!). And, most obviously, the immediate response of the school would be to just call some cover teachers (who maybe the striking teachers would know, but probably not!) and blacklist the strikers (this has pretty much happened to one workmate of mine who's done far less than strike!). The nature of zero hour contracts means that noone has to be fired, they can just find that 'there's no work' ('the numbers are low, sorry!').

Quote:
Let's take the Callan Method. There is set material and a given methodology. Any teacher working with the method should create more or less an identical experience with the learner. And the teachers are rotated every class. This is supposed to be to stimulate the student and give them new accents to deal with, but, in fact this means that the individual's knowledge, mistakes, personality, etc. are not taken into account at all by the teachers, but just the students get a standard product.

Besides the Callan, some other methods or particular schools tend towards this educational product approach, where the teacher is just a deliverer and is meant to be replaced by anyone. What is marketed in not so much the teacher's skills, but the set product, property of the school.

Yes, good points. In addition to this, i think it's worth mentioning that Callan teachers are paid absolute peanuts. Some Callan schools in London pay £7/hour (whereas even the biggest piece of dogshite regular EFL school will offer £11/hr). For reference, minimum wage in the UK is currently £6.20/hr (I think?) and London Living Wage is calculated at £7.45/hr (or has it gone up now?). Some places even give you 'free' training which is then deducted from your first pay packet!

akai
Feb 9 2013 17:00

Caiman, all the points above are things which need serious reflection.

First of all, there is a possible way to react to the Callan thing. Basically, if they are paying those rates, it is very unlikely they are getting good, professional teachers. Students can be leafletted and appealed to, they can be asked if their teachers are worth less than people cleaning floors at McDonalds or something like that. I have seen some pretty big eyes when students learn what their teachers actually earn. Of course, some students choose one school over another because of price and may not be too sympathetic, but might be interested if they learn for example that very little of what they paid actually goes to the teacher.

The ability to easily replace teachers is a big problem for organizing, but a scab is a scab.

The issue with zero-hour contracts must apply to more branches than just this. Again, it is down to their ability to find replacements. And whether people will replace you. They might not be too eager if they think that a win for your demands would be a win for him or her too. It's an uphill battle, if you have workers competing for each others' hours. Which is what they are creating with TEFL.

As to battling other workmates, well, there is bound to be conflict. Especially if the teachers or other staff are financially rewarded for the efficiency of the school. This is why we have to analyse and resist getting caught up in their system.

For example, one old school, a job I happily abandoned and a company that closed up in this country due to not having high enough profits. Some of the workers had coordinating positions - besides DOS and ADOS some program coordinators or coordinators of large clients. There was one way that these people could earn bonuses. The bonuses were never earned for positive feedback of students or students achieving certain results. The bonuses were earned for "utilization" of the teachers.

How did this work? The teachers were almost entirely recruited from the UK and were usually young ones. Everybody in their 20s it seemed. I couldn't believe the contracts that they had. (I was hired on completely different conditions but was the senior member of staff and a specialist.) They had contracts where they had a fixed salary and were expected to work between 30-40 hours a week. On average. So, this meant that if they had 20 hours one week but an intensive course was booked the next, they might have to do 60 hours. Well, such long weeks were not usual, but there certainly were 50 hour weeks from time to time. These differences in hours were mostly due to the intensive courses or having to cover for somebody.

So what was the bonus for? Obviously, the school benefited economically when the staff worked 40 hours, not 30. They made scheduling the job of teachers assigned to be "account managers" of the biggest clients or had the DOS or whoever try to schedule people so they would be working the maximum number of hours. This was a little more complicated than it sounds if you don't know the nature of the job, because the overwhelming majority of the classes are held in the morning and evening, with sometimes something at lunch break. With that type of work, it was easy to guarantee 20 or 30 hours for most teachers, but the extra hours making it to 40 would sometimes depend on luck, creative scheduling, etc. In any case, there was one incentive offered - money for making your colleagues work.

You could imagine my reaction to learning that colleagues had contracts like that. I wonder what they were thinking and asked them why they would sign a contract like that, which means they'd be paid the same lump sum regardless of what they were working. A few mumbled but some didn't feel like doing anything, because they had agreed to this.

Now get the interesting thing, which made a very good argument with the teachers and got them up in arms. After a couple of months, I noticed that some teachers were regularly pulling 40 hours, while some barely went over 30. Then I noticed that the ones who were better at their job and more popular were being scheduled for more hours. So, to the great displeasure of the management, I made one of my famous charts and put it up. Then I announced: teachers, it pays to do you job with the minimum of effort. You won't be fired, just given fewer hours. And, unlike with freelancers, who work hard for more hours and more money, you just get to put your feet up.

The bosses of course had a talk with me, but they had to admit that they had no incentive for most teachers to work better and that forcing the better ones to work 25% longer hours than the weaker ones was a disaster for morale. But the corporate bosses from England didn't care and only wanted to think of ways to discourage "underutilization" of teachers. So they started to push more and more to find ways of upping everybody's hours.

Then I got the bastards because they made a chart for the bonuses for the ones with management functions and it gave the bonus rates for utilization. So 40 hours a week was 100% utilization, and you got a bonus for achieving 100% utilization of your staff in a given month, but you got even better bonuses for achieving 110% or even 150%. Which means they were encouraging staff to schedule in such a way that teachers were being forced into hours not included in their contracts and with no overtime pay. They tried to fight with me on this because I said they'd get in trouble because the teachers could claim overtime and they had all sorts of strange interpretations of the contract. Even they claimed to the teachers that the contract was signed in Britain and the workers were thus "sequestered" to this country and were not subject to the local labour law - which was not true.

As you can imagine, I got into a conflict with management.

Finally, one institution I will name here is the BC. I do believe they changed their policies and just to be clear, the conditions they offer here are better than most. They are subsidized by your tax money, so I think they really have no excuse not to be above board, offer good working conditions, etc. - same as the other subsidized institutions, Cervantes, etc. The reason I mention it is that there was something in their contract which I refused to sign and said was probably illegal. Therefore they gave me a new contract - but the poor suckers brought over from the UK had this in their contracts. (As I said, I think they may have changed it. They didn't force me to sign it and gave me a contract without that clause.)

The contract had a clause whereby teachers contracts could be terminated, with no notice, if a teachers' was ill for a certain period of time. I do not want to lie - I do not remember the time they gave, but it was not too long. (It might have been 2 weeks, I don't remember now.) In any case, the teachers were discouraged from taking any days off, because unlike some of the other schools, actually they didn't like to use subs and really wanted to teachers to do their courses from beginning to end. I was one of the local hires without a full-time contract who had just a couple of courses and would be called to sub for the sick teachers. There weren't a lot; most were full-time on good conditions and only a couple of locals. (Oh yeah, if you weren't British you had little chance of getting on full-time. There might be a local hire working for years who would be passed over for full-time because of nationality.)

So the teachers were pressured to come to work ill. If they were seriously ill, which happens when you work with groups of people in poorly ventilated and cramped spaces during flu season, they were still afraid to lose their jobs, so they came in coughing and sneezing. And it seemed that the staff there get passing their colds and flus on to each other. I would say in this respect, it was pretty bad. Everyone shared the same small staff room and were in contact with each other. It was pretty miserable.

I was getting called in a lot for substitution and one time the boss asked me about my "good health" and how I avoided the flu when all the staff seemed to be ill all the time. So I answer that I am probably the one in best health because I am the only one of the teachers which does not have a clause in my contract threatening to fire me if I am ill.

As I said, other than that, the working conditions were not too bad there compared to other places. But I would bring up the issue of having to work ill as a major problem for workers in this branch. I mean, it is a problem in other branches as well. If the sector is dominated by young workers in their 20s, maybe only part of them consider the larger picture, but simply put, a lot of the casualized workforce is being denied health care benefits, or sick leave. Not to mention retirement.

I talked about one type of contract we started to campaign against and how the Social Security office stepped in, because the schools were avoiding payments. So, basically if any of those people got sick, they would find out they are not insured. Also, the ones on trash contracts which are not subject to the labour law get no sick days. An illness equals no pay, so this encourages working ill.

As I said, this is not the only branch where this is a problem. But it does also create a rather permanent feature of the local industry, which prefers younger people to older and where women have some problems. This is because there is only minimal state sponsored maternity coverage for those on trash contracts and no maternity leave. And for those who were denied social security payments, even the usual minimal is a problem.

Now this is a huge problem if you take a few things into consideration. Locally, if we speak about graduates who might go into language teaching, there is a huge disproportion of women to men. Most local graduates are women. But, when you get into the schools, you sometimes find a large number of men. This can give the wrong impression, one would think that there are a lot of men studying to be teachers, but it is not the case. The case is that at a certain age, women can run into some problems. Although it is illegal, they are routinely asked if they are planning a family, etc. The other thing, which I suppose is a local specific, is that in terms of foreign people coming here, there are more men than women. I could speculate why that is, but it is not relevant.

Anyway, these things create new problems for workers. You have a lot of professional women who either find themselves in a desperate situation when they have kids or get older sort of scrambling to get out of this sector and this helps to keep some schools dominated by 20-something year olds who are more likely to accept the precarious contracts and are less likely to see this as their permanent career.

Of course I accept that there are probably places where this looks different and certainly there are old timers who sort of manage to get into a better situation and continue on, but a lot of them moved on, for example to freelance. Some of them to management.

Here we have a huge problem of consciousness with young workers, which is why in the past we even developed special materials just for them, to get them to understand some issues. Like why they should care about if their boss pays into their pensions, etc. etc. A lot of the younger ones are looking for experience. There is a lot of unpaid work done by students and recent graduates and certainly some are ready to work for peanuts.

Don't know how it looks where you are, but here we realize that we have to have some specially prepared and separate material for the young education workers. And probably we need to make material for the foreigners coming to work for a year or so. Right now we also have to deal with the new influx of Spanish people.

Only some manage to work in education. Spanish courses are quite popular, but times are tough and fewer locals can afford hobbies. This also leads the schools to drop their prices and rates they pay teachers. Some Spanish people are doing other shit work and I have heard about salaries like 450 euros a month for 60 hours of work (illegal) and people from Spain or Portugal coming here and taking this work. I just mention it because this article was about TEFL and seemed to also come from the experiences of native English speakers working abroad, but we here are looking at a larger group of people, some comrades are Spanish teachers and these people are currently being offered worse conditions that English teachers.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 10 2013 08:24
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
It's not just 'patronising' to talk about 'newbies'. It maybe a rather unfair or just inaccurate attitude, but it's a real one that exists in almost every workplace. I think this is actually a slight shortcomign of the IWW/SF Training tbh, inasmuch as it presupposes that (predominantly youngish) militants can walk into a job and 'organise' people who maybe a quarter of a century older and may have been there for decades. I've certainly found it a problem, and I'm in a notoriously precarious & short-term sector. It's insufficient to simply say that people are wrong to roll their eyes when a newly arrived worker starts to talk about organising, cos we both know it's a real dynamic.

Instead of getting on the defensive, it would be good to talk about how to deal with that sort of stuff (and one part of it is respecting people's experiences and learning from them).

TBH, it's late and I don't have the inclination to respond to most of this but, to be honest, I really don't have much of an idea what you're talking about.

If you have more substantive complaints about the workplace organiser training, I'd be glad to hear them. The training, in fact, specifically looks at pre-existing workplace dynamics and has a whole section on social dynamics. As to how to productively respond to the opinions and concerns of longer-term members of staff, I'd appreciate something more substantive than than "it's a real dynamic". What does that even mean?

As for "seemed to imply", perhaps you'd like to quote? Because, to be honest, I think it's quite clear that it's a personal "account" (check the tags) and at no point tries to be some definitive piece.

Again, where do you get the idea that I'm failing to "respect [and learn] from people's experiences?"

If you can point me to an account or experience of some TEFL militant, I'd be incredibly grateful to read/hear about it. But aside from Akai (who previous to this, I had no idea even worked in TEFL and who I've never actually personally worked with), the vast majority of my workmates in public and private education have been under 35.

The SF/IWW training which you reference specifically states the fact that it assumes it's dealing with an under-35 workforce with no previous organising experiencing. If you have a suggestion for how to incorporate such experiences, I'm all ears, comrade.

Hieronymous
Feb 10 2013 07:51

First, this is one of the best threads I've ever read on libcom, mostly because it is about the sector I've worked in for 25+ years. It also makes the case that all of us here need to continue sharing experiences and -- possibly -- build an international network of EFL and ESL teachers. In all that time, I have almost no experience teaching in the kind of schools Chilli mentions in the opening post. My experience was 80% with adults, on 3 continents (kinda), and involved lots and lots of private lessons, teaching at non-profits (mostly labor and environmental), Vocational ESL schools with state aid, public and private universities, at local, regional, and international chains, as well as at tiny mom-and-pop neighborhood niche schools. And in the U.S., I've taught ESL in what purportedly was a public library literacy program, but since nearly all the learners were non-native speakers it was really ESL. Presently I teach in California's Bay Area at a new, rapidly growing European-based international chain. Like most people in this sector in my area, I have a second job teaching/tutoring freelance at a conservative business union, where my job ranges from teaching genuine ESL classes -- one-on-one and in small groups -- to teaching prep classes for college-level composition for members returning to college to improve their work classification with the union's help. It's fucking bizarre, but the funding for these educational programs are provided by Taft-Hartley provisions of the union's contract with the employer. And my pay is a generous $50 an hour for instruction time, with $35 an hour prep time for each 2 hour session. Ironically, I do all this work as an independent contractor.

And I've been fired from as many English teaching jobs as I've worked at for more than a year. I was part a strike that was launched as an indefinite one over wage demands, for the return of health insurance that was taken away, and for improved work conditions. We lost after 4 days when, despite getting 95% solidarity from our 175+ students who were mostly using their student visas to work in under the table in San Francisco' gray tourist/service economy, a couple demoralized strikers suddenly quit rather than carry on the fight. One positive outcome, though, was that the word raced through the industry and after the strike we had a meeting with 15 other teachers from 5 other schools. Some worked at the schools of the merged Aspect/Kaplan chains and threatened to strike themselves. They didn't have the forces, but pursued a legal strategy and ended up winning a couple million dollars in backpay with the help of pro bono lefty lawyers. I've also been part of quickie job actions, coming from Stan Weir-esque Informal Work Groups, where by threatening to quit on the spot, one of our core forced management to give the entire teaching staff a $2 an hour raise. There's lots of potential for class war agitation where I live. I have never posted my account of the strike in 2008 because we had a mole in the school and once the strike started, our immediate boss starting calling all the other EFL/ESL schools in town warning them about our strike. The core of us who sparked the strike are sure we were blacklisted. I didn't work in the formal EFL sector again until I got hired by my current employer last year and who has had a school here for only 2 years.

Prior to all this, I taught EFL in Northeast Asia for 5 years in the 1990s, almost all of it in and around Seoul, South Korea. I did a very brief stint in the Japanese provinces, but the economy was going stagnant and schools were closing when I passed through there. I saw so many different kinds of conditions in East Asia that if I were to recount them all, it would take volumes. I surfed the teacher shortage in Korea in the 90s, worsened by a revolving door of discontent for native English speakers in the industry, and could earn $50-60 an hour freelancing for chaebols (South Korean conglomerates) trying in "globalize" to expand their international reach and market share. Then in my free time I was able to teach English for free to burgeoning radical groups, including some newly discovering the ultra-left and who translated into Korean, for the first time, texts by council communists, the Situationists, and about Amadeo Bordiga. I was extremely fortunate in having the luxury to simply jump ship if I had a shitty boss, but I also had comrades who were Korean labor militants who -- successfully -- backed me up in pay disputes a few times. Those were heady times.

I taught in Athens, Greece for 1 1/2 years in the early 2000s for 1/4 to 1/3 of what I earned in Korea. It really sucked because not coming from an EU country, I worked as an illegal. One school was run by a decent Greek-American, was in the 'burbs and wasn't bad. I made a gamble and changed jobs and worked for a crazy alcoholic boss teaching Cambridge test prep in the center of Athens. After a year, along with some Greek militant comrades, I negotiated with that fucking boss who ended up paying me only about 60% of what he owed me in wages for the previous several months. It was an EFL market over-saturated with teachers and the antithesis of my experience in South Korea.

Now I'm back in the States and have to say that the austerity and casualization in public sector education is having a knock-on effect in EFL/ESL and all other parts of the education industry. Wages have been stagnant for long time, actually having dropped over the last 10 years when indexed to inflation and against the dramatically increasing cost of living in the Bay Area. Add to this the labor market saturation as state-funded community adult schools have practically eliminated their ESL programs, and semi-private ones like the profitable and highly regarded English Language Program (modeled on the original intensive EFL/ESL school of this type at the University of Michigan) at UC Berkeley closed after 25 years in 2004, laying off 26 well-paid and fully benefited teachers and a staff of 10. The reason: teachers putting in a certain number of years were guaranteed lifetime healthcare and pensions equivalent to those of tenured regular UC Berkeley faculty. They knew what was up: the private sector could provide these educational products much more efficiently with even higher profits. Think here the University of Phoenix model, where the world's largest private McUniversity offers half of their classes online. And forget about semesters, you can start your class on Monday -- as long as the federally guaranteed student loan goes through.

My present adult ESL/EFL school is mostly catering to foreign students who want to take TOEFL or Cambridge prep classes to get into universities, as well as college prep classes generally. Being in the Bay Area, we do get language tourists too, who are students of all ages who want to brush up on their English to improve their travel opportunities -- while partying it up here. We don't do so much business English, except as one-on-one intensive classes. But they've adopted Walmart-like wage policies, like paying for legal breaks (they generously extend the mandated 10 to 15 minutes) at minimum wage. We get a decent allotment for prep time, a half an hour for every 1 1/2 hours of teaching time but at 60% our regular wage -- which is just over $20 an hour. They also contribute a insultingly paltry amount to a health care plan of our choice, which is actually pretty unusual in the U.S. these days. Recently, the corporate head office mysteriously cut back on extra teaching hours. We couldn't figure it out, until we overheard a manager from the European head office saying how they had to budget for interactive white boards. Most techno-fetishizing teachers are elated, but I consider it another form of deskilling with pre-packaged content for classes. Do any of you have any experience with this form of technology? What do you think?

I do balance out selling my labor power to the corporate EFL/ESL industry by volunteering once a week at a workers' center in a nearby city's Chinatown, where I put my Vygotskian and Freireian curriculum ideas to use teaching English to Chinese women working (or recently having worked) in the local electronic assembly, garment, retail, food service and processing, and hospitality industries. Their focus is workplace organizing and they are a pure joy to teach. If only I could get paid to do this as my day job!

I'd like to continue to compare notes with the rest of you and -- hopefully -- build an international network of ESL/EFL workers.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 10 2013 08:39

Good post, H.

Do you think it'd still be dangerous to do a write-up of the account of the strike? I'd love to read more about the ins-and-outs (namely, how was it organised?) and if we get some sort of anthology together, it's be f*cking awesome to have it in there.

I hadn't thought about this in relation to TEFL work...

Quote:
Most techno-fetishizing teachers are elated, but I consider it another form of deskilling with pre-packaged content for classes. Do any of you have any experience with this form of technology? What do you think?

...but in my last public sector job, the school I worked for was f*cking mad for whiteboard technology and the like. My experience wasn't that it was de-skilling, but a way to increase our workload. For example, the school created a specific social network for students and staff to use. Teachers were expected to assign and upload all homework and grades into the system. This information could then be checked by students, parents, and management at will. On top of this, there was a space for students to ask questions about homework or the day's lesson or whatever. Teachers were expected to respond.

Staff were then given the ability to access the system from home and from their smartphones. Although it wasn't explicit that they were supposed to do this from home as well as work, it was understood.

Also, it served as a means for extra surveilance for management. They could check what homework had been assigned and use it as an easy means to pry into the interactions between students and staff.

Incidentally, the resistance to all this came from older workers. In part, it was because of a lack of familiarity with the technology. However, as I said, most of my workmates were young. They didn't have the experience of an education industry where it was normal not to take your job home with you. Most were single or newly-married and the starting salary was more than enough to live--not to mention that a decent number of them had their eye on moving up managerial ladder in one form or another. So while there was undoubtedly anger, the resistance was spotty and largely inneffective. When I left it was mostly taking the form a passive refusal to use technology by certain members of staff.

This whole system cost a f*ck-ton of money (for the software, start-up, tech support, and on-going contract with the private provider) and occurred at the same time as (a) the in-house tech workers where being outsourced and (b) management was finding excuses not to give raises to support staff.

Wow, that post ended up being a lot longer than I expected.

commieprincess
Feb 10 2013 11:39

edit - silly nonsense

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 10 2013 12:14
Chilli Sauce wrote:
I really don't have much of an idea what you're talking about.

Evidently.

Quote:
If you have more substantive complaints about the workplace organiser training, I'd be glad to hear them. The training, in fact, specifically looks at pre-existing workplace dynamics and has a whole section on social dynamics. As to how to productively respond to the opinions and concerns of longer-term members of staff, I'd appreciate something more substantive than than "it's a real dynamic". What does that even mean?

It means that someone bussing into a workplace anew and lecturing their workmates on What Needs To Be Done will often find it difficult, especially when there are people who've been there much longer, understand the workplace much better, have more respect from other workmates, etc, etc. Also, a young buck in their mid 20s should be aware of the dynamic between them & an older worker in his/her 50s or 60s, who will often resent being told how to suck eggs by someone a generation below him/her.

Quote:
As for "seemed to imply", perhaps you'd like to quote?

I did, in my first post. It was your response to Akai where you were kinda dismissive of what she said, claiming you'd consulted 'a dozen' TEFL workers. I can't be arsed doing it again cos you're so far on the defensive about this that I don't think it'd be constructive.

Quote:
Because, to be honest, I think it's quite clear that it's a personal "account" (check the tags) and at no point tries to be some definitive piece.

OK good, well listen to people when they try to add to your experience then.

Quote:
If you can point me to an account or experience of some TEFL militant, I'd be incredibly grateful to read/hear about it.

Well, since you ask, Catalyst - about 18 months ago - had two articles about EFL teaching.

Quote:
But aside from Akai (who previous to this, I had no idea even worked in TEFL and who I've never actually personally worked with), the vast majority of my workmates in public and private education have been under 35.

See, even that is something that's specific to your experience. All of the workplaces I've been in have had a broad age range, including people over 65.

Quote:
The SF/IWW training which you reference specifically states the fact that it assumes it's dealing with an under-35 workforce with no previous organising experiencing.

What are you saying here, that the training is for organisers under 35, or organisers under 35 who work in places exclusively staffed by people under 35?

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 10 2013 12:20
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Akai wrote:
There are some things I think you are inferring from your local situation that may be very different for other workers in that industry.

I mean, that's true of course: there's going to be some generalising. But I did run this by close to a dozen other TEFL workers before publishing it. Although I present as “my” experience, it's been tweaked to incorporate the experience and critiques of others. I'll grant that many of the people who provided input work in the same for-profit section of the industry and live in major European cities, but the piece does actually bring together a variety of experience.

...can we end this now?

I'd like to write up something about my experience over the last 3-4 years, as soon as I get through current work stress.

commieprincess
Feb 10 2013 12:44

What a heap of stupid nonsense.

Firstly, Akai is perfectly able to express whether she felt Chilli was being dismissive herself.

Secondly, if you felt the need to come to her rescue, you could have not been so accusatory. What reaction did you expect? I'm asking genuinely.

Thirdly, it's not clear what your point is. Are you annoyed about Chilli coming across as dismissive? Are you annoyed because in your head you've decided he's come into his workplace and started telling them they're doing class struggle wrong? Are you annoyed because in your head the organiser training encourages people to wander into workplaces, ignore any history of organising and try to dictate to experienced workers and organisers?

To me, it just looks like you misunderstood the original post you objected to (and reacted in a really unpleasant way), and when it was clarified (in a defensive, pissed off way) you decided to have a go at a bunch of other stuff based on absolutely nothing but your own private fantasy of how Chilli behaves in the workplace.

Caiman, I'm sure you see the absolute ridiculousness of this, and what a bloody waste of time this stupid little spat is. I'm sure you'd agree we'd all be better off just focussing on sharing ways of organising, experiences etc. Perhaps drawing a line under this is for the best.

commieprincess
Feb 10 2013 12:46

cross-post. Yes, end this train-wreck of a conversation.

akai
Feb 10 2013 13:01

We can make long posts here. smile

Just wanted to say that what Chilli described was similar to my comments about the elearning platforms. Basically, a lot of extra unpaid work for teachers.

I found Hieronymous's post quite interesting and I think backs up what I was saying about how the situation can be different in different countries, or at different stages of market development and that people work in a vast array of conditions and with many different kinds of people. So, when organizing locally, you have to know you local conditions and internationally, well, information like this is useful and needs to be taken into account.

I actually started this work in the US. When I first started work, you couldn't get a job interview for local positions, which were generally well-paid, unless you had at least an MA in Applied Linguistics, or you were working on it and somehow had got good experience (like student-teaching in your university). Don't know how it is now. This is very different than the situation you have now in someplaces in Europe where TEFL was turned into a type of vacation job for people from the UK and where you could get qualified by doing a rather easy course. And where the market had more demand, you could get hired even with no qualifications. This, I think, certainly makes a difference in how the workers are treated. Not that I am defending the necessity of higher education to actually do this or any other job...

My first jobs were interesting. I found a community-based school run by lefties and you had to go to workshops on the ideas of Freire first and had to prove to them that you had at least some libertarian leanings to work there. Mostly poor S.American students. I also had a job with Spanish speakers who wanted to pass their citizenship test. Many had been in the States for years but could hardly communicate. It turned out that English was not their only challenge as many of them were illiterate in their native language and they needed special care to deal with the daunting task of taking that test. I also had private lessons with an upper-middle class Korean businessman. Couldn't have been more different than my other students. Working conditions were OK, but in each place it was only a few hours, so no benefits or anything like that. Since I was young, I was not too concerned and was just interested in getting experience and doing a job I liked.

In those days, if you wanted to go abroad, Japan and Korea were the big markets, actively recruiting people from the US. As H. said, decent pay. Not like going to Greece where he made like 1/3 the salary. These markets sort of bottomed out. I don't know too much if people just stayed in the jobs and there are not many new openings or whether there were lots of other reasons for a drop in command - I only know that if you are looking for work abroad, you won't see advertisements from there. As I said, the markets change and I noticed in the last 10-20 years that every few years, a different part of the globe is booming or is the place offering the big money.

The amount of people like myself or H., who probably wanted to do this job and spent years at is, is not too many in some places, simply because they cannot find a place to work. Around here there cannot be very many and they try to get the best jobs or create a niche for themselves. In some countries, the best jobs might be considered some university position with good job stability and benefits, but around here, the university pays shit, so best professionals go freelance. Sometimes, like in my situation, they work together, in a cooperative way, 2-3 people. Everybody knew each other and a lot of times shared job prospects, if they couldn't do the work themselves. Importantly, there was general agreement about what our wages should be, so it used to be a matter or honor not to undercut each other's prices. That changed with the recent economic crisis. People I had known for years started to behave very competitively, hunt each other's clients. I was the one who held out on rates for the longest but eventually had to go down. So, that's another thing. I really can imagine like 5 years ago, if any of us had problems, the rest would have been supportive. Like, if somebody didn't paid, word would have gone out and there would have been a boycott. Or if somebody wanted to lower rates, nobody would have taken the job. But the mentality of people changed. This is a very specific situation, with freelancers, but I imagine that the same could be true in some situations in a job with a boss. I imagine that some would feel less inclined to fight if they were on the verge of desperate.

At some point it would be good to learn about the failed strike H. mentions. I don't need all the details, especially if it is a work security issue, but what I'd like to know is why it failed. Was the blacklisting the most serious factor? Or something else?

Speaking of blacklisting, this is a good topic for a new thread here. I have a little problem in some places, because I am known as an activist in a public way. My partner is blacklisted for being a known activist and labour activity. A couple of our comrades in IWA also found themselves in this situation. It would be good someday to discuss this. I mean, people certainly can give advice to stay low, don't let the bosses know you are a unionist, but, well, some of us get in conflicts and just no way to hide it. I am curious about people's experiences and strategies for coping once they have found themselves on the blacklist.

Devrim
Feb 10 2013 13:06

I have worked in TEFL on and off. None of the things about the industry in the OP had any connection with my own experience. A huge variety of different things fall under the title TEFL though.

I know about two strikes, one of which I took part in. One of them won and the other was defeated.

I don't really see the point of a network at all. I am somebody who in general is quite supportive of the idea of these sort of networks, but in this case I can't really see any use in it whatsoever.

Devrim

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 10 2013 13:20

admin: off topic comments removed, let's end this now