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”. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
 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.
 See the panopticon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon
 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
 My favourite: http://teflblacklist.blogspot.com/