Working conditions in ELT

LOGO FINALIn this episode of The TEFL Show podcasts we discuss working conditions in the ELT industry. While there are certainly some regions where the pay and conditions are very good, it seems to us that in many countries teachers in language schools are not only severely underpaid, but may also lack basic insurance or sick pay. We discuss why this is the case and suggest several ways to overcome this situation.

What are the working conditions like in your language school? What could be done to improve them? We’d love to hear from you, so please leave us a comment below.

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10 thoughts on “Working conditions in ELT

  1. I work at St James Language Academy in Mairena del Aljarafe, Sevilla, SPAIN. This academy has just celebrated its 20th anniversary, so it is a good bet!! Although the pay is not great – there are many other academies in and around Sevilla that pay quite a bit more, we do have all the necessary insurance, sick pay etc, etc. Staff training is REALLY promoted and supported, with various optional courses being paid for, plus in-house training once a week. The atmosphere is very supportive and most people share lessons and ideas freely – this is actively encouraged.

    I know that there is a lot of competition between English Academies here, and to be able to charge students competitively, and not go out of business in a couple of years, most long-standing academies have to pay fairly low wages.

  2. To Fiona above,

    The argument that “long-standing academies have to pay fairly low wages” is one that’s been in operation for a long time, and is the same argument used to keep children working down mines, stop workers from getting the 8-hour day: TINA–there is no alternative. Neoliberal claptrap.

    This is great stuff Marek. You mention the problem of being treated unfairly in the industry. This is a key one. Why should any one of us get a Diploma, a Masters, a Phd–at our own expense–if this does not bring any financial reward, or career progression?

    This whole problem would require stakeholders to get together with teacher representatives and have an open discussion on what could be done. For one thing, having a four-week course as the gateway to the profession just serves to create a reserve army of low-skilled, low-waged workers, some of whom have no intention of staying in ELT.

    And in some senses it creates a pedagogical bottleneck. How is ELT progressing? By producing innovative pedagogy or innovative products? We’re drowning in lesson plans, edtech, and coursebooks. But pedagogy?

    However, I don’t see the British Council, IATEFL, Cambridge, or others doing this anytime soon. Most of the institutions seem to be burying their heads in the sand, or ignoring the conversation altogether.

    And if the institutions that are meant to represent us take a neutral stance, then all they are doing is allowing the status quo to speak through them.

    There’s no such things as neutral.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Paul and Fiona.
      I have to agree with Paul that the argument of schools having to pay low wages to stay afloat doesn’t really hold water when we examine it more closely. For example, there are other professions were in the private sector the workers are paid very well, e.g. doctors. Also, not all schools have to market themselves with cheap courses. You can also attract customers with high-quality service. Finally, another problem, is that most teachers in our industry are willing to accept low wages, while at the same time, the industry has a ready supply of newly qualified teachers to replace those who dare question low wages. What I’m suggesting is that the entry requirements are far too low in ELT.
      This, as Paul pointed out, leads to a situation where many driven, motivated and highly qualified professionals leave teaching in language schools because of poor working conditions. Personally, I will never again work for any language school unless I had absolutely no other choice. What’s the point if I’ll be given practically the same deal as somebody fresh off CELTA?
      It is sad that big players remain silent and indifferent. TESOL International is a very lonely exception. But at least they do try to address working conditions and inequality in ELT, see this post:

  3. “..most teachers are professional enough to enter the classroom and leave all that (poor payment etc) behind.. and do as good a job as they possibly can…”

    This is the catch 22. The teachers are told that unhappy students = no job. So if we work to rule, we may not be able to provide what the students need and they (and their cash) will go elsewhere. But if we do the job as we believe it should be done, the school owners are reaping all the benefit of increased student numbers and lower staff costs. They have absolutely no incentive to pay a proper wage.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Melanie. I also find it strange that ELT professionals are somehow expected to do a good job for wages which at times are below the minimal wage. Most of us are qualified and skilled, but are often being paid unskilled workers wages.

  4. I enjoyed this. Glad to hear people talking about this openly. I’m based in Ireland and wages vary here widely: 13 in a relatively precarious new city centre school and 17 in newly opened UK chain branch on a leafy Georgian square, 18 in an established city centre school and 23 euros hourly teaching General English or EAP in a university language school.

    All these rates were offered to me in the last 12 months regardless of 10+ years experience in ELT, experience abroad, school and project management, conference presentations, publications and teacher training experience. It reminds me of Stephen Bruce’s (also Dublin) article about meritocracy in ELT featured here previously.

    This lack of merit-based or experience-based pay scales is one of many reasons that unionisation is growing in Dublin. As you noted, traditional school teachers unions and university faculty unions don’t (and can’t) accept us, but big -and small- GENERAL unions have been welcoming and helpful especially as predatory (or inept) school owners operate through our College Closure Crisis which has seen 20% of Dublin’s ELTOs lock out their teachers in the last 18 months.

    —Independent Workers Union helped teachers at EF beat an atrocious and unnecessary paycut and yet local school owners’ representative groups continued to actively promote them as a good place to work.

    —SIPTU in intervened in the closure of school and has been holding meetings for teachers in precarious schools.

    —UNITE, the enormous UK/Ireland union, released a letter of welcome and support to ELT workers in Ireland at the request of members here and hosted a meeting for ELT people with successful campaign activists from other professions.

    Membership and understanding of how unions work is strengthening in Ireland and across the ELT sector. Real teachers (as we call elementary school and secondary school teachers here) have unions. So do university professors and so to hairdressers and building site archeologists.

    If you respect yourself and your profession you will find a way to be fairly paid for a lifetime of work. While merit is not recognized in our profession, organisation always is. Unions help raise awareness, standards and wages. That’s what they do. We have a very clear case to put to school owners. I’m not sure what the UK legal position is on rights to union membership, but here in Ireland -to fight inherent discrimination against union staff- we have a right to union membership ( in our constitution.

    Change won’t come until we bring it- we the teachers in the classrooms… Not generous DoSs. Not understanding Academic Managers. Not clever bloggers chipping in ideas. Only working teachers can make this change. We all need to do our bit: native or non-native, member or non-member, individualist or team player. We all need to be able to look at our colleagues and say I’m a union member now or say I’m alright with low wages and precarious contracts for another summer…

    You’re giving the best years of your lives to ELT. It’s not just the school owner’s school: it’s yours. It’s your living. All of us have a stake in improving the conditions and reputation of English language teachers. Stay committed and keep talking. But this week, consider the history and call a union office and start telling them your story. You’ll find they’ve heard it before.

    1. Hi Whippler,
      Thanks for your comment.
      It’s great to hear that unionising has allowed you to push for better working conditions in Irish ELT. I definitely agree with your final comment that change will not come from generous Academic Directors deciding teachers should be paid more. You rightly point out that we need to be a significant momentum from the bottom up. Once the movement/union is big enough, the employers will not be able to continue ignoring your grievances.
      BTW, if you wanted to write a guest post for this blog about the steps ELT professionals in Ireland have been taking to improve their working conditions, let me know. Perhaps it could serve as a positive example that some change is indeed possible.

  5. You pin some hope on British Council helping with pay/conditions as part of their accreditation process. I’m afraid they probably look enviously at the ability of private language schools to hire, fire and maintain low wages.

    1. You might be right, Jon. It is very disappointing to see how indifferent most big players in ELT are to our working conditions. As we said in the podcast, many schools get accredited by the BC, so in principle it would be quite easy for them to monitor and improve working conditions. Also, if you look at the webinars and conference talks, it seems that working conditions is not an issue for most. It’s never brought up, really.
      On a more positive not, though, I do think change is possible. I’ve managed to get quite positive results in the year and a half that I’ve been running TEFL Equity Advocates. At least there’s an open debate about discrimination against NNS these days, and some TAs, e.g. TESOL France, have decided to support the cause and stop publishing ads for NS only.
      With enough will and persistence some positive results could be achieved when it comes to working conditions.

  6. I hope there’s some way out of the race to the bottom. Maybe when we have hit the nadir it will force a change. I hope it doesn’t have to get that bad for it to happen but I fear it might.

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