The TEFL blame game continued

Last week I came across two posts which tried to pinpoint who is to blame for the working conditions English language teachers in TEFL/TESOL industry have to deal with. There are no doubt many things that are profoundly wrong with our industry. For example, low pay (apart from certain countries in Asia and the Middle East), sham contracts or discrimination NNESTs face. There are also the profit-oriented language schools, which are neither interested in their students’ progress, nor in the quality of their teachers. Finally, our industry is probably the only one I know of that only requires a 4-week teaching course to become a certified and qualified English professional (mind you, in many cases this isn’t necessary either – having been born in an English-speaking country will be enough).

So, who is to blame for the state TEFL/TESOL is in?

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David Petrie in this post points the finger at ‘the market demand’. And so do many others in our profession, to be fair. Since I set up TEFL Equity Advocates to fight for equal employment rights for non-Native English Speaker Teachers (NNESTs), I’ve been told over and over again that the ones that I have to convince are the students. Or their parents. For it is the market that drives the supply.

I completely object to this line of thinking for several reasons. Firstly, it assumes that the market demand is omnipotent and can never be influenced by the supply or any outside factors. Clearly, though, there are examples of how an innovative and cutting edge product, or powerful advertising can shape what the market demands.

It also suggests that since nothing can be done, we should kick back and let the market rule our lives (and working conditions) – a very complacent and lazy ideology, to say the least. Again, it offers no solutions and relegates us to the roles of automata. A rather depressing thought.

Finally, this line of thought also doesn’t address the problem of the origin of the current market demand. Surely, students didn’t just wake up one day to say: From now on, we shall only be taught by Native English Speaker Teachers (NESTs); after which they went to the nearest school to demand exactly that. While I agree that students can and should be allowed to make free choices regarding their education, it is preposterous to assume that the industry and the supply has had nothing to do with shaping students’ preferences.

All in all, while the market is indeed a powerful force that can to a great extent shape any industry, it is not the whole story. There are laws which can be put in place to curb it. The industry can influence what the market wants and educate the customer. So, I definitely don’t think that to blame the market demand is the answer.

The other post on the TEFL blame game I read last week was written by Alex Case. He certainly comes up with a much more comprehensive list of those who should be to blame for the state of ELT which starts with governments, teaching associations, TEFL course providers, and finishes with students. I do agree with the accusations he makes in the post, however, in my opinion there’s a very important point missing from the list, which I think should have actually made it to the very top.

So who is to blame?

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WE all are.

Of course, the teaching associations could do much more to support better working conditions. So could the governments. TEFL course providers could and should probably raise the standards, while language schools could stop employing teachers whose only ‘qualification’ is being a native speaker.

However, when was the last time you – yes, I mean YOU – have done anything to try to change your ELT lot? By the way, ranting in the pub after work doesn’t count.

I’m convinced that each of us is partly responsible for what ELT industry is like, or for not having done anything to change it. Teaching associations could indeed do much more. However, they are only the sum of their members, even if slightly greater than its parts. For example, IATEFL has never wanted to be involved in what it considered ‘polictics’, and might never change this stance unless there is a constant and mounting pressure from its members – and the outside ELT community – to act.

Language schools could also pay us decent wages and start valuing teachers based on how well they teach, not where they were born. However, it is futile to expect that they will do so out of good will or pity for our lot. They might, on the other hand, change their minds if we organised ourselves and stood up to them. Of course, nobody wants to lose their job, but then we shouldn’t complain that some employers use this fear against us.

Students and their parents could also realise that whether one is an English native speaker or not has nothing to do with how good a teacher you can be. This is like expecting a patient to get better by themselves while the doctor looks the other way. Students come to us because they don’t know how to learn a language and because they believe we can help them. As educators – if we ever want the ELT community to become a more equal one – we do have a moral responsibility to educate our clients out of prejudices about learning English they might have.

So – to paraphrase David Petrie’s conclusion to his post – if you really want someone to blame for the state of ELT, blame yourself.

And once you get over it, if you’re still bothered by working conditions in ELT, do something to bring about positive change.

11 thoughts on “The TEFL blame game continued

  1. I agree we need to take action. If the pay is bad, one can (and should) look for a place where they’re going to earn a decent salary or even work freelance. I feel there’s this almost universal truth that if you’re a teacher you’re bound to be underpaid and struggle to make ends meet. It doesn’t have to be this way. The moment recruiters can’t find anyone reasonably qualified, that’s when they’ll start paying decent salaries.

    This is something that really should make people think: “Finally, our industry is probably the only one I know of that only requires a 4-week teaching course to become a certified and qualified English professional (mind you, in many cases this isn’t necessary either – having been born in an English-speaking country will be enough)”

  2. I totally agree with this post! In Berlin our group of teachers has been meeting for just under a year and it’s really really hard to get people to join in and help. A small group of people are doing 90% of the work, and I don’t believe it has to be like that.

    People often say ‘I don’t have the time’ but the people who ARE involved don’t have the time – they’re just reprioritizing their commitments. Perhaps it’s part of consumer culture – people either work, or shop, and not much else.

    If people really want to change things they should DO something about it.

    1. Thanks, Paul.
      Yes. It’s also an easy way out – sit back, complain, watch those few who struggle to change things and complain when they fail to deliver.
      Also, there’s the idea that I can’t change the status quo on my own, which can act as a brilliant excuse to complain, blame others and pretend to be blithely ignorant of the problems that plague ELT.

  3. Good on you for pointing out flaws in arguments. Yes, the market does drive things, but if every employer stopped hiring only NESTs then what is the market going to do, pull out of language learning entirely? No. It’ll get over it.

    Yes, everyone is to blame for bits and pieces. Can you feel good about countering these with positive steps you’ve taken as well? I hope more can say yes to this too.

    1. Yes. I was actually reading an article yesterday and one of the conclusions did strike me as an example of a positive action which most individuals could take against NNEST discrimination, but also other things that are wrong with ELT: “If more NESTs were to respond to specific schools articulating their qualifications but specifically stating that they will not support an institution that perpetuates such prejudice, they could send a message that these institutions may begin to listen to.” Reucker, T. and L. Ives. 2014. White Native English Speakers Needed: The Rhetorical Construction of Privilege in Online Teacher Recruitment Spaces. TESOL Quaterly

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