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

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 10 2013 13:40
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
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. ;)

Commieprincess, this is what I originally said. This is "unpleasant" whereas you repeatedly calling me a "fantasist" who's "stuck in my head" is apparently acceptable?

I mean, do you not think it's a valid point that Chilli Sauce should maybe listen to people who've been around the block a couple of times?

fingers malone
Feb 10 2013 13:54

Oh God, ok it's slightly against my better judgement to intervene here but....
I think it's this bit of the original post which is maybe causing some of this intractable row.

."Anyone who has worked in the industry understands that..." if that was worded differently maybe the whole argument might not have happened.

And, regarding the points about the organiser training, I'd say there's definitely a debate to be had there, but maybe later when everyone isn't quite so angry with each other?

Steven.
Feb 10 2013 14:20

Just to say thanks to everyone who has contributed their experiences here. Though I haven't done any paid work in this sector myself (I just did some unpaid work experience abroad in my late teens) it is still very interesting.

To keep things on topic, Caiman and Chilli please desist your more off topic conversation. I think you're both made the points you want to and are now just going in circles.

In general Akai has made the important point that the sector is very broad, and the article above is about a specific area of TEFL, and I do think that chilli did sound a bit dismissive of her point on this, albeit probably unintentionally.
On this point I just want to say one thing:

Caiman del Barrio wrote:
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

now, I don't want to continue derailing talking about the Solfed organiser training. However it doesn't say people should go and lecture their workmates. I found the training basically suggest things that I picked up through my personal experiences. And in my job I was the youngest person there of an extremely diverse and in general much older workforce, and did "organise" it after a couple of years, and my age/inexperience was never an issue. It depends how you do things. If you are tactless, patronising and arrogant, then people won't pay any attention to you. But if you listen and try to help people clarify their own ideas on things and workout themselves what to do then you can make progress. And IIRC the organiser training specifically says you should try to only spend 20% of your time talking, and 80% of it listening.

Steven.
Feb 10 2013 14:31
fingers malone wrote:
I think it's this bit of the original post which is maybe causing some of this intractable row.

."Anyone who has worked in the industry understands that..." if that was worded differently maybe the whole argument might not have happened.

I think you are probably right

Hieronymous, I know we spoke a few years ago about you writing up that strike. I still think it would be worth doing. And you could remove the name of the school and even remove the name of the city or even state if you wanted to (or deliberately move it. For example McDonald's Workers Resistance in the UK always said it was based in Glasgow, whereas in fact it was based in Edinburgh).

Devrim, would you care say anything more about the disputes you were involved in?

akai
Feb 10 2013 14:53

Maybe I shouldn't comment on this one but while I did think it was slightly dismissive, I think that it was more defensive and the debate the followed it as well. I did not comment for two reasons: Libcom is largely an insular community in my opinion, whether or not you agree with it, where being dismissed or ignored is quite common. In this case, I felt that it was more a bit of unfortunate wording and maybe trying to defend the original text. I wasn't offended by it. And I wanted to talk about the issue.

I am curious though about organizing programs that assume you are dealing with under 35s. Right now, in our local situation, we see the sense of specific organized targetted at younger works, even 25 and younger. But we'd never invest too much in anything that assumed that this sector would be leading some organizing campaigns. If anything, here the people under 25, or under 30, are particularly problematic and if we target them, it's to try to spread awareness about issues amongst them. Well, different strategies and actions are needed for different situations and if your workplace is under 35, you have to be talking to their experience and mentality, but I am quite surprised to hear that any training which presumably should be more general decided to target under 35s. I have some of observations about some under 35 activists who seem to have come off some motivational program about building "leadership skills". Not talking about any of the authors here, but some American activists who went through some training program in different organizations. Personally, have no problem and welcome the ideas and efforts of younger workers to organize whenever it happens but I would have to agree a bit that some people who go through organizer programs come off as arrogant and brainwashed with some organizing formula. Again, I didn't perceive the author of this piece to be like that. This is not an age issue but it is something like, aha - I got theoretical training in how to organize YOU, so you should listen to ME. In its worst form - and this is something that has been a big issue in E. Europe, you get Western activists coming who know absolutely nothing about local conditions and want to press their proven formulas...Well, this is something you get to learn a lot about if you spend longer periods of time anywhere else. It is also relevant for teaching work, because it is a job where cultural expectations can surprise you.

Enough of that. I would also welcome any account of struggles in this area, successful or unsuccessful. I am quite excited now at the possibility that stuff has been going on in this sector that I never new about.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 10 2013 16:29

The first thing I'll say is the the vast majority of the posts on this thread have been fantastic. It's the exact sort of conversations I think we should be having.

I'm more than happy to draw a line under the beef on this thread. I will say, however, that there's a good and a bad way to make criticisms. I'm certainly not perfect at this, but it's generally a good idea to quote the part you disagree with and constructively explain.

admin: removed

On the SF OT stuff, I'll start another thread.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 10 2013 16:09

Split the organiser training discussion here:

http://www.libcom.org/forums/organise/demographics-sf-workplace-organiser-training-program-10022013

Moved over one post from me, one from Caiman, and a bit from Steven and Akai, too.

commieprincess
Feb 10 2013 16:11

edit - caiman, we're clearly not going to agree. I think you were way out of line, you think I was. If I was, it wasn't my intention.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 10 2013 17:10
Quote:
Anyone who has worked in the industry understands that TEFL is a business run by and for global corporations.

Is there seriously anyone here who doubts that the TEFL industry is there to make it easier to conduct business on a global level with English as a universal language?

TBH, of all the points in the blog this would be the one I'd imagine would be the least controversial on libcom. And, as I said in post number five, the point is not that all TEFL students are corporate scumbags, it's about the nature of the industry. It's that companies try to paint this feel-goody picture of TEFL as this great happy-go-lucky industry when in fact it plays quite a large role in the global functioning of modern capitalism.

But, based on some private conversations, I guess I can see where the confusion comes from. That first section is supposed to be general (i.e. the nature of TEFL) and then the article narrows down to my specific experiences.

I think that demarcation is pretty clear and I don't think it implies that anyone who's had a different experience is somehow objectively wrong. And I do think that I've been pretty open to the experiences of others. If others feel I've been dismissive, my apologies. I assure you it wasn't my intent.

My explanation that I'd consulted other was just that: an explanation. Perhaps it came across as a bit defensive, but I actually think it was quite measured--openly acknowledging both the personal nature of my account and the fact that those I'd spoken to while writing the article are from the same section of the industry as me.

Maybe I could've or should've included that TEFL classes aren't just managers and students--that they sometimes include working people. I guess for me, though, the larger point was the "leg up" in the job market--that TEFL fundamentally exists to serve the global job market.

Steven.
Feb 10 2013 17:12
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
Anyone who has worked in the industry understands that TEFL is a business run by and for global corporations.

Is there seriously anyone here who doubts that the TEFL industry is there to make it easier to conduct business on a global level with English as a universal language?

I think these are two slightly different points. I would disagree with your first statement. Partly on factual grounds. It's not entirely run by global corporations, for example. Lots of it is run by different governments. Lots of it is run by small businesses or large national businesses, and a fair bit of it is done by private individuals.

And also I don't think it's fair to say it is run just "for" global corporations either. Loads of people want to learn English for loads of reasons - just as many English speakers like to learn other languages.

Of course, the global importance of English is largely to do with capitalism as it is at present. But this doesn't mean that it's run by or for global corporations as such.

Anyway, I don't think this was the most important part of your text, I would much rather hear the experiences of other people in the industry

Chilli Sauce
Feb 10 2013 17:22

Steven, fair enough. In my first draft, it read that "TEFL teachers are fodder for global capital". I changed it because I was hoping to make the language more accessible to those who don't already have a developed class analysis. Would have made this thread a lot f*cking less contentious if I'd just left it like that...

EDIT: Also from a purely pedantic point of view, there is a difference between ESOL (which is predominantly run by gov'ts and third sector organisations) and TEFL which is overwhelmingly a private enterprise. Of course, the lines between the two are increasingly blurred, which makes for an interesting topic of conversation in itself.

akai
Feb 10 2013 17:21
Quote:
Is there seriously anyone here who doubts that the TEFL industry is there to make it easier to conduct business on a global level with English as a universal language?

It is one of its functions, but I seriously think it is an oversimplification.

Why?

Obviously, things being as they are, English is widely used in business on a global level and therefore there is a large corporate market for the TEFL industry. There is also a portion of students who would like to use English for work, although only a part of them need it to "conduct business on a global level". Somebody going to work sweeping floors in a London office building is hardly "conducting business on a global level". It's a different thing.

The demand for English language lessons is driven by many other things. In this part of the world, the original demand for it was to have access to sources of information and culture other than that provided by the state. Some years ago people hardly imagined they would need to speak English at work one day, but many still wanted to learn it. Nowadays I meet quite a number of people who just think, yeah, it's good to speak a foreign language. (NB for native English speakers this is sort of a hobby that not everybody in your country has, but here, most people think it is good to learn 2-3 languages.) Some of this is due to ideas of what an educated person should be able to do, sometimes it is considered something you will need if you travel, or if you want to study abroad or listen to music... only a certain portion of people studying English use English at work, unless they work abroad.

Now, if your TEFL school is focused on corporate clients, you see this part all the time. I absolutely do not disagree with the fact that there are many schools that make money off this market. Nor to I disagree with the fact that the industry is bigger because of this demand. But I think we cannot discount the fact that the global popularity of English has other reasons, not only business and a good part of the demand for English is the knowledge that so many people speak it, so if you bother to learn it, probably you can use it.

I know people here grew up in a lot of places, but think about languages that English speakers choose to learn. There are always people with unusual hobbies or interests, but, for example where I lived and in those times, if you wanted to study something, most people chose Spanish over say French because they just thought they'd have more opportunity to use it. I think this principle also holds true for English. People think practically. Over here, there is a very developed industry of language schools, but English is not the only language. There are some languages which are very popular that just have little business application at all. So you can see that there are lots of people studying just because they like a country, or its people, or something about its culture, or because they have friends... It's the same for English. The schools, they are just trying to earn money where there is demand. Not all courses are tailored to business. Over here it is quite popular now to send kids to schools with a little English, with games, singing etc. I am sure some of the yuppie parents are thinking, aha, maybe my kid will use this to be part of the global business community in the future, but probably it is just an assumption that all educated people speak a language that drives them to send kids there.

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 10 2013 17:26

admin: removed

commieprincess
Feb 10 2013 17:48

admin: removed

Hieronymous
Feb 10 2013 18:04
Steven. wrote:
Hieronymous, I know we spoke a few years ago about you writing up that strike. I still think it would be worth doing. And you could remove the name of the school and even remove the name of the city or even state if you wanted to (or deliberately move it. For example McDonald's Workers Resistance in the UK always said it was based in Glasgow, whereas in fact it was based in Edinburgh).

Well, the account is about 3/4 finished. It's been easy because in the 3-month run-up to the strike we met every week and kept detailed minutes, which I still have, and I took copious notes. And I'd been to an IWW organizer training about a year before and have to honestly say that there was very little I took from that except to be a good listener. The problem is the IWW training said almost nothing about strikes, since no one doing the training had ever experienced one -- some Wobblies even tried to discourage us from striking, lamely telling us to sign up workers with red cards instead!. Also, it laid out a rigid formula for organizing that amounts to a one-size fits-all approach. I personally think that there's more to be learned by spending some time in the industry and researching its dynamics and how it's been changing due to market forces. Also, the greatest impetus for apolitical co-workers to strike was using the GuideStar website to look at the 990 IRS tax returns to see how much the non-profit's absentee director (he did nothing more than coming once a month to the school to sign checks and pick up his own) was taking home in salary. Before he took away our healthcare it was around $80,000 a year. Afterwards, he and his girlfriend (who did absolutely nothing for the school) were taking home a combined $250,000. Anger over this catalyzed the strike.

I have no problem using the school's real name since it's attempted blacklisting backfired in some ways. During the strike, our students self-organized and got neighborhood businesses to put strike support fliers in their storefront windows, doing this based on ethnicity: the Thais got Thai shops to advertize the strike, the Chinese with Chinese shops, etc. The students also took staplers and posted fliers on all the telephone poles in the neighborhood. When the strike ended, some students transferred to other schools and returned to our school with stacks of transfer applications to try to encourage the students to leave en masse. Management threatened to report them to immigration and have their student visas revoked, only stoking more anger and further defections to other schools. These days, you can look on craiglist and see that they had to raise the hourly wage nearly $5 an hour to attract teachers, so despite losing our strike hurt them in the end.

And I agree with Steven that the EFL/ESL isn't just a tool of global capital. Many church groups in my neighborhood offer English classes so the parishioners can read the Bible in the same language. I think this is true throughout the U.S., where most ESL is taught by churches and non-profits. The earliest proponents of ESL in the U.S. were the Settlement Houses that were teaching English for the purpose of assimilation.

When I mentioned new technology, I meant interactive whiteboards. Anyone have any experience with these?

This is an inspiration to finish writing the account of the EFL/ESL teachers strike I participated in. I'll post it here on libcom when I'm done.

Also, a local labor activist made a 20-minute documentary film about our strike. I'll figure out how to upload it to something like Dropbox so anyone interested can get a version to watch there. PM me if you'd like to get a DVD copy.

commieprincess
Feb 10 2013 18:02

Oops, sorry. C.S.

Steven.
Feb 10 2013 18:01

Thanks Hieronymous, look forward to that article. And documentary we could host on the libcom vimeo, if the filmmaker gave permission?

Regarding interactive whiteboards, again I have no specialist knowledge here but in state schools in the UK I think that most (all?) classrooms now have them as standard. There are also deskilling attacks on teaching as a profession, although I have not heard of these issues being connected.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 10 2013 18:04
Quote:
[Facilitating global markets] is one of its functions, but I seriously think it is an oversimplification.

You don't think it's the fundamental role of TEFL, tho?

I mean, of course they'll be exceptions and people do learn a second language for all sorts of reasons. But there's a reason that TEFL is the largest section of the private language school market and that's because of the dominance of English as (a) the language in which international business is conducted and (b) because those who are looking to get ahead in the labor market see English as a beneficial skill. In this second category we can include students, workers whose employer is paying to have them learn English, those looking to get work in another country, and those who have settled in another country (most likely for economic reasons) and now want to improve their standard of English.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I think TEFL work is primarily and fundamentally there as a result of the way the global capitalist market is currently configured.

Anyway, FWIW, I do actually take on some of the criticism that perhaps some of the language in the article should have been more considered and nuanced.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 10 2013 18:07

Looking forward to it, H!

Steven.
Feb 10 2013 18:48
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
[Facilitating global markets] is one of its functions, but I seriously think it is an oversimplification.

You don't think it's the fundamental role of TEFL, tho?

I wouldn't say so. I mean, if that were the case, you would be saying that in a libcom society there would be far less TEFL, right? As its fundamental role no longer existed? Whereas I reckon that in a libcom society there would probably be more teaching of most languages, as people would have so much more free time and probably quite a lot of people would want to do this for fun. I know if I didn't work full-time and could afford it I would spend more time learning languages

commieprincess
Feb 10 2013 19:23
Steven. wrote:
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
[Facilitating global markets] is one of its functions, but I seriously think it is an oversimplification.

You don't think it's the fundamental role of TEFL, tho?

I wouldn't say so. I mean, if that were the case, you would be saying that in a libcom society there would be far less TEFL, right? As its fundamental role no longer existed? Whereas I reckon that in a libcom society there would probably be more teaching of most languages, as people would have so much more free time and probably quite a lot of people would want to do this for fun. I know if I didn't work full-time and could afford it I would spend more time learning languages

I do see what you mean, but a (I don't know if it's the) key role of state education is to prepare children and teenagers for the workforce, for example. Of course, education in itself is awesome, but under capitalism, it's going to be controlled by and in the interests of capital for the most part. I agree people learn languages for the joy of it, but I would say the bulk of people do learn for economic reasons. Just a thought, but like you say, it's so hard to find the time and money to learn a language, so for a lot of people it's going to have to be (uuurrgggghhhh) an "investment". As in, there'll be tangable benefits if their English is better.

akai
Feb 10 2013 19:54

Don't wanna get into the history of the development of English too much, because I prefer to speak about the working conditions and struggles. It is obvious that the reason that so many people speak English and Spanish is related to the history of economic imperialism. That said, once the dominance of English was established, there may be different motivation for learning it. And I really think that the people learning English so they can converse in a country they live in (and do some shit job in) is not the same as learning English to get a job in a highly-paid, multinational corporate environment. I imagine that Voltarine DeCleyre would have agreed with this. smile And one of her motivations, BTW, was to facilitate communication between radical immigrants and other people.

Back to H.'s story, I still would like to know why you think it failed. It sounds like you had support. So what was it? The motherfuckers just didn't want to bend to show who's the boss?

About interactive whiteboards, I have no experience with them. However, I have a friend who I once discussed this with. Both of us are sort of moderately critical of the overuse of some technology during class. What I mean by that is that sometimes the technology replaces the interactivity with the teacher and the rest of the group. People start staring at the screen and people come up in turns, leaving others passive during this time. From time to time, such things can make a good and interesting change of pace, but over-reliance on computer-assisted teaching is not too good, in my opinion. Especially if the main aim of your class is to improve communication with real people. I personally am a fan of the small groups, although I have taught in groups of 30 or more. The thing is that there is more active time possible if pair and group work is used, at least to a certain extent, then the model where one person is at the front of the room and others observing quietly. I think the use of the whiteboard increases the use of time passively for most of the class. I cannot say what it means in terms of extra work for the teacher, but I imagine it could be a pain in the ass if you are expected to generate your own materials.

akai
Feb 10 2013 21:10

If anybody is interested, we wrote a statement about the crack down on the authors' contracts at language schools: http://www.zsp.net.pl/education-workers-fight-against-shady-contracts

Chilli Sauce
Feb 10 2013 21:22
Steven. wrote:
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
[Facilitating global markets] is one of its functions, but I seriously think it is an oversimplification.

You don't think it's the fundamental role of TEFL, tho?

I wouldn't say so. I mean, if that were the case, you would be saying that in a libcom society there would be far less TEFL, right? As its fundamental role no longer existed?...

Steven, I'm not going to lie, I think this is a bit of a strange argument. I agree that language learning in general will probably become more accessible ATR, but this doesn't affect the role that TEFL plays within capitalism now.

Quote:
I really think that the people learning English so they can converse in a country they live in (and do some shit job in) is not the same as learning English to get a job in a highly-paid, multinational corporate environment.

I don't think anyone is saying they're the same thing, only that they're very much related things, both of which have to do with the nature of international labor markets.

I also think--and again, here's where some more careful language on my end would have been helpful--is that most people learning TEFL are doing so to end up in corporate environment of some sort. That may be very much on the low end as a migrant cleaner or restaurant worker. Or it may be as a skill to put on their CV for jobs in their own country. But it's still about the skills which capital demands/improves your position in the job market.

akai
Feb 11 2013 07:09

So the subject of working conditions and organizing is again derailed to some theory. Hope the discussion goes back to what should be the important topic. Unless we are more political theorists than activists. smile

Hieronymous
Feb 11 2013 08:55
akai wrote:
Back to H.'s story, I still would like to know why you think it failed. It sounds like you had support. So what was it? The motherfuckers just didn't want to bend to show who's the boss?

I've been grappling with this for nearly 5 years. Here are some of the reasons:

    1. No exit plan. We went into an indefinite strike, were overconfident that we would succeed since we knew the students almost unanimously supported us, but we never thought about -- let alone planned for -- the strike failing. Management were spiteful and we learned the sad lesson that they would lose money rather than give in. We shut the school down, but with no progress after a week the 2 strikers with the least political experience quit without notice, making the remaining strikers a minority of the teaching staff.
    2. Hostility toward scabs. We were a small teaching staff of 11, but 7 of those 11 signed our demands letter (it was 5 women, 2 men, aged from early-30s to mid-50s). When the strike started, 6 of us walked the picket line, 2 called in sick and stayed home, and 3 scabbed. They hired 1 scab who started on the day of the strike, but when about a dozen of us accosted him at the end of the first day, he said they lied to him and he agreed to not come back with the promise that we wouldn't harm him. As an act of good faith, we gave him a list of 30 other EFL/ESL schools in the Bay Area, with contact info. By the 3rd day we were increasing the intensity of our heckling of the scabs and this made some of the less militant strikers uncomfortable. 2 of them were the ones who quit at the end of the 4th day. They'd mentioned their discomfort with our hostile language, but in the passion of the struggle we ignored them -- to our detriment.
    3. The cops. By the 3rd day, management hit on a strategy to intimidate us, which was calling the cops at the slightest provocation. So in the last 2 days of the strike, SFPD pigs showed up 5 times. Most of them were pretty indifferent, being that San Francisco has a long history of class struggle (although it's been pretty dormant since the 1990s). But some gave us stern lectures about "law and order," to which we just rolled our eyes. But again, the less militant strikers seemed to get pretty shaken up. We didn't have appointed "picket captains," but informally rotated the duty of dealing with the pigs. This was a mistake, since we should have assigned this duty to those most immune to pig intimidation.
    4. Lack of inclusive decision making. Once the strike started, we just got carried away with its momentum. We did try to have morning assemblies as we began picketing, but this got earlier and earlier as management tried to sneak scabs in around the crack of dawn. So some strikers just straggled in, and we were never able to have an informal forum to hear everyone's concerns. If we had, I'm sure we would have toned down some of the militancy concerning scabs and would also have been able to calm the fears of the 2 who quit. And it would have been important for us strikers to have collectively decided what was allowed on the picket lines, since by mid-morning each day we had between 25 to 60 picketers -- including students and workers from the community joining us in solidarity. But like everything else here, that's just speculation.

I was the only one who tried to return to work the next week. After the early defection of the first 2, everyone else quit but me. But on the next Monday, another former-striker and myself came back to the school to collect our personal property. Management fucking freaked out seeing us, since they didn't know what to do. But they had talked with their lawyer, and informed me I had been "replaced" and since I couldn't be fired for striking, would be on a "list" to be called back when needed (which was a legal formality, since they would never need me -- or any of us -- again).

We also witnessed the students walking the halls with stacks of applications for other schools, trying to organize a mass exodus. When those students saw us and we tried to show each other mutual support, the executive director called the cops. I was able to return to my former room to get my teaching supplies and had the good fortune to see the new scab who replaced me. He had written his name and e-mail address on the whiteboard, so while collecting it I was able to write it down -- with the executive director yelling at me, while trying to summon the cop who was escorting my fellow striker to her room. It was fucking hilarious, because the more he yelled, the slower I went.

I applied for and received unemployment insurance, which lasted a year. Later I found out that management had spitefully tried to deny me, but it was easily overridden since I was clearly eligible.

Only one other striker, besides myself, returned to EFL/ESL teaching. Everyone else found jobs in other sectors. I'll give more details when I finish and post my article with a complete account of the strike, prefaced by an analysis of the dynamics of the industry locally.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 11 2013 08:54

I'm really looking forward to this account, H. And that video.

I'm sure you'll cover this, but I'm really interested in how the strike was organised. Was it a unionized workplace? If it was, was it the same group of workers who organised the union as organised the strike? Was the larger union supportive?

If there wasn't a union, how did you go about building up workplace organisation that made a strike possible? Did many workers have previous experience of industrial action?

Outside of the hooking up with the students (which sounds awesome), were there other attempts made to make links with the community? How was the done? How did it play out?

Devrim
Feb 11 2013 09:09
Steven. wrote:
Devrim, would you care say anything more about the disputes you were involved in?

There isn't really a lot to say. I was only on involved in one strike in TEFL. The other one I mentioned happened in the same city, but I don't really know that much about it except that it was much bigger than the one I was involved in, and that it was badly beaten.

In the one at my work there was a woman who was sacked for not being white enough. She had been hired when the boss was out of the country. We knew that he would be very unhappy about it as something similar had happened before (before I worked there). A few of us talked about what we would do if he sacked her and we decided that we would strike. He came back, he sacked her, we walked off, and she was back in her job, and we were back in work within four hours or so.

Devrim

akai
Feb 11 2013 09:38

H., that experience was interesting. I think that a lot of the things you said are problems that happen time and again. In particular, how the less militant workers back down. I have, in recent time heard some quite disheartening examples.

So a question is whether prior to such actions, a period of organizing is needed, if this could help to increase militance and awareness of the types of actions that lose strikes.

Another question is about the scab issue. I mean, talking to scabs, OK, but tactically, just can't be soft on them. Any ideas about how to deal with them?

Hehe, a little off-topic, but I know some examples of unionized people who were scabs. In one example, I complained to the union and threatened to expose them and the scabbing stopped. In another, no reaction or action taken. Personally think it is a disaster not to have a strong anti-scabbing policy or tactic.

can of worms
Feb 14 2013 10:35

I must say from a very unpromising start this piece about TEFL has been excellent indeed. However, we should not lose sense of the weakness of the introduction (despite its overwhelmingly positive outcome) and learn lessons from this. I would suggest Chilli Sauce has annoyed many (certainly me) for his tendency to make wild generalisatons on limited experience and (to be brutally honest) limited research and self-reflection on key conepts.

Indeed, it was in reply to such a belief in achieving such absolute knowledge through immediate experience that Hegel wrote of the "night in which all cows are black"

I say all this not to single Chilli Sauce out, (he/she writes in an extremely lively and clear manner) but to caution against this tendency, also demonstrated by Aiki

“Don't wanna get into the history of the development of English too much, because I prefer to speak about the working conditions and struggles.”

No doubt, therefore, Aiki would march with her fellow workers shouting for “a fair day's pay for a fair day's work”.

No we need political concepts if we are to link the greatest ever TEFL strike http://marxistelf.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/the-great-berlitz-strike-2008-2012-absolute-victory/ (shame on you all for not bothering to do the research and rely on the limited experiences you have as a group of committed activists) and the wonderful fightback of education activists in Mexico against the imposition of English in the classroom.
http://derekdurriti.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/a-tale-of-two-mexicos/

Comrades we need politics, clear conceptual frameworks and a commitment to serious empirical analysis if we are to lead revolutionary struggles rather than tail end reformist demands.