My other job is teaching English

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The National Council of Teachers of English looks like a CPD and lobby group for teachers, which, of course, includes ELT people. They caught my eye recently after Stephen Krashen (yes, I twitter-follow him) tweeted a mild complaint because their blog posts are written by professional writers instead of by teachers. To me it made sense: many arts and language teachers aspire to being professional writers and respect those who break through.

I wondered if there was a parallel in my local ELT context.

Here in Ireland, just looking in the staff rooms of our private ELT organization, I can see a couple of ELT subcultures. On the one side there are the artists (including writers), doing ELT as a necessary day job. On the other there are down to earth, positive types who also see this as a job, but one they have a special fondness for. They often see IATEFL/TESOL membership politically, as ‘a good move’ and also as a chance to talk to other like-minded people. But I feel there is also a third group, of people who are just on the run. These people have been stung and don’t feel up to… well, anything else. For them, the nice thing about ELT is that a CELTA is a ticket away from that place they happened to be born in, away from that life they happened to be leading, a ticket to go almost any elsewhere they choose. They are on the run from any culture at all, including the culture of joining associations.

Some never return. I remember a post from Hugh Dellar (yes, I twitter-follow him, too) about his conversations with young adults he met on his trip to the US Pacific Northwest last year. In it he expressed some shock at the ‘drifter’ culture. He wasn’t talking about ELT workers. Just kids who had breezed away from everything and were at best ambivalent about falling off the edge of the continent into the deep. That reminds me of some of the ELT people I’ve met. But not the ones who love what they do.

Joining an association may be something that comes only after self-identification.

Many of us ride into ELT on the back of a very romantic vision that we feel we desperately need… maybe this is a need that has existed throughout time… the innate ability to make a break for it and start again on our own terms. It’s a self-respect thing: ‘I can survive on my own’. I think as we mature a bit, and as we learn how to survive alone and what its like, we realize that vision will not grow to be big enough for our future selves. Our more mature dreams eclipse the romantic one we entered ELT with, we begin to grow into ourselves. As we mature we learn that life is about living and working with other people, not despite them.

Living with ourselves as teachers – just as teachers (not ‘teachpreneurs’, ‘managers in training’, ‘the next DOS’, ‘future coursebook author’, ‘learner coaches’, ‘corporate trainers’ but just as ‘teachers’) may be the hardest basic lesson we learn once we have decided to stay in ELT. It’s who we are and always will be, no matter what adventures or accolades may come. It’s ELT’s crossroads of community and common cause. We all need to remember this. Just because we entered ELT in our misadventure and youth, it should not be ‘despised’ as Paul reminded Timothy (yes that’s a biblical reference in an ELT blogpost: 1 Tim. 4:12). ELT grandees should never snigger along when a tired school owner says ‘Ugh… teachers’ at management meetings or ELT events. In the end it’s what we all are. Teaching is the basis. It keeps us all going and it always should. It’s what the world needs from ELT. It needs teaching.

That’s why Krashen is right to note that ‘teachers’ are absent. Why should a teacher on a teachers’ blog for teachers run by an association for teachers give top billing to the fact that they are actually a writer now? Why at IATEFL conferences do speakers list out the myriad non-teaching roles they have held when they speak about teaching to teachers? Are we all supposed to move on? If a speaker doesn’t ‘teach’ any more, why? If they don’t teach any more is the speaker really just self-promoting?

Why do we fail to celebrate teaching and working as teachers? TaWSIG talks about this. Teaching in ELT isn’t the ‘initial’ phase of an ELT career. Teaching well and teaching sustainably is what we are all about.

Now go prep for your lesson. It’s worthwhile. But make sure you are getting paid for it.

John Benjamin Whipple has been working in ELT in and outside of the classroom since 2002 in Dublin, Ireland and the Marche region of Italy. He was a founding member of ELT Ireland, ELT Makers and ELT Advocacy Ireland.

 

4 Responses

  1. Julie kacmaz

    January 19, 2017 5:41 pm

    I disagree that there is some kind of ‘stigma’ to just being a teacher. All professions have pathways that can be seen as either career ladders or just a slightly easier job in the back office. There is always discussion about the joys of being a teacher or being in the back office. On the one hand it is nice to be able to ‘just go in and teach’ instead of sitting looking at a blank screen when you have a deadline looming. The other side of the coin is that sitting at home with a mug of coffee would be comforting on days when you just don’t feel like facing the elements or a tricky group.
    Don’t the posers and the would-be social climbers exist in every profession?
    But for most of us the teachers and the teaching counts and the Legacy it leaves behind. Respect.

    Reply
    • John Whipple

      January 19, 2017 9:15 pm

      Thanks Julie. I’d like to hear more ‘just a teacher’ types talk. I would like more of them to write their stories. It feels conference programmers and websites believe teaching readerships don’t want to listen to teachers. Why? Do teachers really believe they don’t deserve a place at the podium? Are real teachers supposed to be too embarrassed to talk? Are we supposed to feel embarrassed for not having managed to find a way out of the classroom? While accomplishments and accolades are merited (and appreciated! especially ones with bonuses!) as teachers we could really start something by firmly asserting the primacy of teaching in working lives– especially if ELT is your main money maker. Writing is certainly cooler but it isn’t what learners, schools or your landlord/bank manager really needs. They need you to teach if that’s where the money comes from. Your teaching really is more valued (and valuable) than anything else. That’s my extra two cents. Thanks for reading and commenting. -jbw

      Reply
  2. Paul Walsh

    January 20, 2017 12:01 pm

    Well, if you look online that’s no shortage of teacher ‘rebrands’ – my favourite being the Edupreneur. At a local level, in Berlin schools now label their teachers ‘trainers’ even though they’re doing an job of education: teaching a language. (Though Business English also includes other skills, granted.)

    Teaching is certainly a respected profession but only in certain countries – and interestingly – where teachers have autonomy, such as in Finland. But in the UK, I think many teachers are leaving mainstream education.

    In ELT, I don’t think we’re respected at all.

    Reply
  3. John Whipple

    January 20, 2017 1:26 pm

    Many of these new names are accidental announcements of poor conditions these teachers have been working in. They are announcements of an end of a period of belief. No one grows up wanting to be an ‘edupreneur’ or an ‘education consultant’ or ‘learner coach’. They are signs that teaching isn’t paid sustainably. They are signs that the system these teachers worked in is not inclusive of them… the teachers themselves and that’s because these teachers’ lives and roles in their communities and families are not accounted for.

    Owners love to cast ‘Teachers’ in ELT businesses as savvy ‘service providers’ who are in a service market place and chose ELT as the hot place to be. Fantasy. English language teaching is a job offered as an alternative to poverty where salaries at competitor schools are secret, vary wildly and are based on the terms the owner establishes on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Most schools in Dublin don’t offer more to a better qualified teacher more experienced one (or one who knows how to write or dance the cha-cha). And wages have mostly been flat or even declining if you listen to ELT workers from the 90s.

    If teachers terms and conditions are not established or at least negotiated for by teachers themselves, those teachers are just like any other workers being pressured by their business operator. (I believe ELT ‘professionals’ working for ELT Schools/Colleges/Organisations are really ELT ‘workers’ because they are in the secondary labour market characterised by short-term precarious contracts and minimal or no benefits. The debate about worker or professional is should end. A career teacher a private language school is a worker.) How can a teacher escape this feeling of being ‘just a worker’ in an English language teaching business? I would argue you shouldn’t. You should embrace it along with your fellow teachers, very slowly, and aim to push for change through legislation.

    But if you have some money and no other alternative interests being part of a cooperatively owned school, as the SLB Coop has established in Spain, is a possibility.

    But most end up making an adorably positivist attempt at rebranding and thereby changing the goalposts of success. Do successful eduprenuers call themselves eduprenuers? Do they have to make any money? Is English language training like physical fitness training? Is English a behaviour?

    It is hard as an English language teacher in Dublin to say ‘I am a teacher’ because my work is precarious and there is no pension plan, or sick days, or maternity/paternity guarantee, or hope of dental or medical insurance or even a permanent contract. And I have no idea if I’ll have work all year. That doesn’t sound like a real teacher’s set of conditions. Should my kids have some one who settles for that providing for them? Would I want my grandkids provided for by someone like that? Naturally ELT workers want to be better paid and respected but monetary respect is won not earned in ELT.

    As people purporting to be teachers we need to stand up for our work early in our working lives. Our working conditions, as they say, are our students learning conditions. Be smart: There is a strong imbalance of power in an ELT business. So standing up takes unity. But first we have to be proud of who we are. Be a teacher – a badly treated one- but be a teacher – writing, project managing, translating… whatever gigging you have to or want to do is second or other. Don’t ‘TEFL’ lightly.

    Fewer full-time employment opportunities exist since the Great Recession. ELT remains one though. So ELT teachers built ELT ADVOCACY IRELAND for themselves. They are talking with unions because real teachers are in unions and our government needs us to be in unions to communicate with them.

    I want to do what real teachers do: train more and collectively organise and negotiate democratically across the profession. Like mathematics teachers. Like primary school teachers. Like real teachers. Fear of management bullying was the only real fear but in Ireland we have a constitutional right to union membership. So membership is not the crime. Bullying is. And wasting a career is a type of crime too. Organising is not a crime and organising works. Don’t be afraid. Just be a teacher. Your colleagues and students need committed teachers and if you are reading this you are one.

    I think you are right Paul. In ELT we aren’t respected. This is why the writer and presenter must clothe themselves in their other roles to be worthy of presentation.

    Maybe the degree of respect we will get in the future will be proportional to the number of organised ELTs in our city.

    Reply

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