To the senior English language teachers of Ireland…

This one is for you, the ‘lucky’ English language teachers. You know who you are. You’re that teacher trainer that everyone on the CELT/A course admired and wanted to be like. You’ve got your DELTA, you’re highly active on social media with other teachers, talking about conferences and the latest research insights. To look through your Twitter feed, an outsider would assume that the ELT sector in Ireland is a wonderful place to work. You’re able to do research in your non-teaching time, indeed, you actually have ‘non-teaching time’ allotted in your schedule. Should you wish to go, your school will fund you to travel to a conference to discuss the results of your research. You’ve got a family and children that you can support. You took ma/paternity leave and your job was still there when you came back. You’re treated like a professional and you’re a shining example of ELT done right.

You love your job, as do most of us. But you know not everyone is as lucky as you and it’s something you try not to think about too much. Certainly not something you’re going to tweet about. But still, you can’t help but feel uneasy about the hundreds of thousands of euro that the school earns in CELT and CELTA fees every year. You see how hopeful the new teachers are at finding a ‘full time, permanent job in a good school like this’. It’s your job to buoy them, to get them through those gruelling four weeks and out the other side where they can become the newest members of the grand old Irish ELT conveyor belt complex. To be useful in the summer, discarded in the winter, over and over until maybe a full time job opens up. Unless someone else who’s a ‘better fit’ comes along and they’re shown the door again, “but do come back to us in the summer!” Yes, maybe the system is dysfunctional, and yes, admittedly, you do get extra money for teaching on the exploitative CELT/A course, but you need money too, right?

You used to be so friendly to the ‘summer teachers,’ showing them where Murphy’s Intermediate Grammar in Use was or pointing out a great past continuous activity from the old Reward books on the shelf, but you’ve grown tired of answering the same questions every June, July and August. How does the printer work, where’s the paper, where do the lesson plans go, how do you photocopy double-sided, how does the coffee machine work, what can I do to get full-time work here. There’s always so many of them, crowding up the already jam-packed staffroom. It’s easy to be irritated with them. Nameless and faceless, eager and determined, but ultimately doomed. They’ll all be gone by September and you won’t have to answer their annoying questions for another 9 months. Some will be back briefly for the substitution period in September/October when the permanent teachers go on holiday. Like little dogs on short leashes, if the Academic Manager calls them, they’ll show up, no matter how inconvenient or measly the hours are. They’re just so grateful and hopeful that they might have a chance to be like you and to have steady teaching hours. A foot in the door. A foot in the door. But then one Friday that’s it, and they wistfully leave, glancing back forlornly, saying goodbye to nobody in particular because what’s the point in being friends with the summer teachers anyway? While you pop to Fallon and Byrne for a salad, they’re going directly to the social welfare office. And you watch this happening to these people, year in and year out.

But what can you be expected to do about it? You don’t want to risk your job, or your favour with management. Maybe it’s not your fault because maybe you’ve been in a ‘safe’ job for so many years you don’t know what the reality of being a new ELT is like nowadays. From all accounts, it seems that the industry used to be much smaller, the pay was higher and relationships between teachers and school owners were nurtured as in other small business. Bonuses were given, career longevity was valued and financially rewarded. On the negative side, facilities weren’t of a high standard, computers didn’t really exist and continuous professional development wasn’t really a ‘thing’ because the industry was nowhere near as research-driven as it has become today. So when the industry exploded in the 2000s, it brought with it some great positive developments like TeachThis.com and online vocabulary test makers. But sadly, the lucrative nature of the industry opened the door to exploitative work practices and the devaluation of the teacher.

So maybe it’s not your fault. It can be hard to empathise with experiences that aren’t happening to you. And so when you see the press coverage about English language teachers demanding better employment conditions, you think to yourself that you might just keep your head down while members of ELT Advocacy and Unite the Union are out at organizing meetings, protest rallies and briefings with TDs and senators. You stay quiet when individual teachers are giving up their anonymity so that they can give voice to the horror stories of thousands of other teachers. Wait-and-see-how-this-plays-out.

Or maybe you feel sorry for the school owners and the DOSs. It’s understandable. The majority of DOSs and ADOSs are people just trying to get through the week like you. They’re not raking in the profits, certainly. They work long hours, they’re under huge stress in the summer, organizing a frightening amount of schedules and activities, being the point of call for thousands of students and hundreds of teachers, often working from 7 in the morning until well after 7 in the evening.

Perhaps you think the union’s methods are ineffective, that you would do something differently. Perhaps you think people just need to quieten down and get on with their jobs. Maybe you’re just the type of person who will never join a union anyway, and quietly scorn those who do. Maybe you’re the type of person to watch wordlessly as a devoted teacher is told on Friday that there’s no more work Monday. The type of person who is motionless when that same teacher asks for support in challenging their dismissal. The type of person who smiles indulgently at new teachers spending hours and hours on unpaid lesson plans and admin work at home. You’ve been doing this for so long it barely takes you five minutes. A knowing chuckle. It’ll get quicker! you reassure them. But their unpaid labour costs won’t improve. The basic work materials that they bring from home like scissors, glue, tape, paper clips, folders, notebooks will never be remunerated. The ACELS-required lesson plans, the end-of-course certificates and reports, having to create weekly tests and record results, correct tests and give feedback, set and correct homework daily, correct exam writing homework, having to do extra speaking practice with exam students, provide extra online resources for students, provide emotional support for your students in class – none of this, none of it, is properly paid work.  It’s just the way it is and if you question it, you’ll be denied, ignored or red-flagged. If you’re in a ‘better’ school you might be getting an insulting token payment of 16 euro extra per week for the 10 hours of the important administrative work you do on the bus/ the train/ at home/ in a library because the staff room has 2 computers from 1997 and over 50 teachers. Insert shrugging emoji.

What I’m trying to say is that I understand your position very clearly. If the situation were reversed and I was working in a school earning a good wage and being treated relatively well, I doubt I’d be too excited to rock the boat in aid of other people who might benefit from teachers collectively organising. But you should recognise that you are in a boat. And you need to look around you and look at your social, political and economic context. Don’t pretend that it’s not happening. There’s enough room in the boat for everyone, but only a select few are kept in the boat at all times. The owners choose which ones to keep in semi-permanently and which ones they’ll haul aboard when they need to power through the summer months, before flinging them back overboard again when costs are at an optimum level. It suits them to have us grasping, it’s amusing to them. And at any moment, they can tip the boat over and take everything away from you. Your comfortable position in that school will not transfer to another school. Your individually negotiated wage and employment conditions will not transfer to another school. There is no “teacher protection scheme.” You see them doing this to the unlucky ones every year. So why do you think you’re special? It might not happen to you today or next week but eventually, you will be tossed out of the boat too. We’re all disposable to them.

But that’s the nature of the private sector, you weakly murmur, and our hourly wage is higher than other sectors. Well, let’s have a look at that claim. In a soon to be released report, Michael Taft, economist, has provided a wage analysis on the actual hours worked by an English language teacher in Ireland, using figures published by Marketing English in Ireland (MEI). Hearing that English language teachers “typically earn €18 per hour” has for a long time skewed the reality of what we really make. Taft states that the actual typical wage of an English language teacher in Ireland is €448 per week, assuming that employers are paying PRSI and these teachers are on full-time hours (Taft notes that “the numbers above are broadly reflective of workers’ wages until Marketing English in Ireland clarifies further their data”). The weekly unpaid work of an English language teacher is estimated to be 7.5 hours per week. This amounts to 46.5 hours of work per week at €9.63 per hour; totalling just under €448.00 per week. Taft contrasts this with the weekly ‘living wage’ in Ireland which is currently €448.50.

To be considered for a position at an ACELS accredited language school, you need a minimum of a Level 7 degree and the investment of a four week training course which costs a minimum of €1,000. This level of investment is not reflected in an ELTs take-home pay, nor in the respect shown to them by the industry. Perhaps the most galling thing is that we are not even considered to be teachers by the government or The Teaching Council because the CELT/A is not a recognised teaching qualification. Students are sold courses taught by ‘world class’, ‘qualified’, ‘experienced’ teachers. But in terms of working rights or pay, nobody actually believes that we are anything other than nominally qualified puppets who satisfy basic requirements. The professionalisation of English language teaching is something that needs our urgent attention and it is not in the interest of language schools to lead the way. It has to be teacher-driven.

I’m writing this to you, the senior EL teachers, the ones in relatively secure jobs. I’m not writing it to you not because I’ve got an axe to grind or because I think you’re a lost cause. I think that it would take a particularly soulless person to honestly believe that ELT in Ireland is working for its teachers right now. I’m writing because you are instrumental to the union movement going forward and you have so much to give to the fight for decent employment conditions, if you choose to join it. But it will be a long and difficult fight. Have you asked yourself why you’re afraid to speak openly about radical change? Why do you feel that it’s dangerous to retweet links or to share articles about the myriad abuses in the ELT sector? Take courage from the great educator Paulo Freire and today, name your oppression and your oppressor.

However the reality is that if a lone senior teacher starts to speak up, they might lose some of the privileges they enjoy at work and they wouldn’t be the first, the second or even the third. Countless brave teachers have lost their jobs for asking questions that the DOS and owners will not tolerate. Richard Bruton recommends that we take up our grievances with the Workplace Relations Commission, like employees in other sectors do. How do you prove to the Workplace Relations Commission that you were unfairly dismissed when you didn’t have a contract? Or that the contract you did have wasn’t renewed because the owners suddenly didn’t like your questioning attitude at the unpaid staff meetings? Does Richard Bruton believe that by taking a case to the WRC, no matter how well-founded your complaint, that your employment prospects won’t be severely damaged? How do you prove that you’ve been blacklisted by language schools? We lack basic rights such as contracts, permanent contracts, pay for non-contact hours, parental or carer’s leave and holiday pay. Coming from a position of such weakness, we cannot hope to successfully win cases at the WRC. The school owners are in positions of power, we are not. And unfortunately, the current governing parties are not in favour of worker’s rights. Why did Richard Bruton meet with MEI and then refuse to meet with our union representatives? Well, because we’re just the nominally qualified puppets who satisfy basic requirements. Who cares what puppets have to say about the upcoming IEM legislation? Don’t delude yourself into believing that we are considered to be anything more than this by those in power.

You have successfully avoided confrontation in the ELT industry for a long time. But now it’s time for you to decide if you want to continue on with the way things are, or to start questioning everything from the bottom up. It’s time for collective action. Time to stand with your colleagues, the new teachers, the summer teachers, the part-timers, the teachers who have learned English as a second language, teachers in minority groups and insist that the DOS and owners answer those questions. Why are we not paid properly for administration work? Why should we do 10 hours of administration work that we are not being paid for? Why are some teachers discriminated against because of where they were born? Why was that teacher let go? Did you follow a disciplinary procedure? Is there even a disciplinary procedure in this school? How are you distributing the extra working hours among the teachers? Is it systematic or based on personality politics? Why don’t we have proper contracts? Why don’t we have sick pay? How are you choosing which teachers are kept on in winter and which aren’t? Why aren’t our staffrooms fit for purpose? Why aren’t there enough computers or printers? Why isn’t there an adequate amount of toilet facilities? Why should we have to pay for board markers and coloured paper and scissors and staplers and paper clips? How can you conscionably earn millions every year and treat your staff so despicably?

The union is the place for you to organize your staffroom so that the staff are in a position of power to ask these questions. Right now, it can be very dangerous. But it shouldn’t be. The government cannot celebrate James Connolly’s memory in one breath, and with the next, demonstrate a shocking indifference for the conditions of English language teachers and other precarious workers like childcare professionals. You don’t have to continue looking in at this movement from the outside, derisively, furtively, knowingly, curiously. You can join today. Nobody in your workplace needs to know you’ve joined. But you’ll know, and you’ll have that protection, and a new confidence that when something eventually happens, you have someone to support you and to fight for you. I can guarantee that you will feel a new anger at realising that you’ve put up with abusive treatment for far, far too long. Come to the meetings, decide on the direction of the fight. The concentrated effort that has been growing in recent years is not going away. Yes, it’s been done before, and with mixed success, but not on a scale like this. We have a union branch dedicated to English language teachers. That means an elected committee of fellow English language teachers who are beholden to the votes of the membership on every issue. This is no fly-by-night, career-advancing, tokenistic, virtue-signalling movement. It’s a difficult industry to organize because we’re spread out across the city and across the country and we don’t have many opportunities to meet. The union meetings are your physical spaces in which to organise concrete actions. ELT Advocacy is your space online. These blogs are to give voice to what’s been happening silently for years, and to stand for posterity when we look back in 20 years at how terrible things used to be before teachers decided enough was enough.

When there are good teachers who are afraid to go into work because if they say the wrong thing at break-time, their hours will be cut and they won’t be able to pay their bills this month – as a fellow worker, you cannot morally stay silent. If you’re a new-ish teacher, stop pretending this isn’t your fight because you will eventually benefit from union gains that others have fought for. If you’re a senior teacher, you know that only a grassroots movement of ELTs will ever create the change we desperately need. Turn away from the cave wall – you might like what you see – join today.

Aileen Bowe

@aileentbn

 

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ELT Advocacy Ireland: Origins

ELT Advocacy Ireland started in the middle of a ‘College Closure Crisis’ in Ireland in late 2014.

Following a small school’s surprise closure in April 2014, a second school closed less than a month later. Occasionally education businesses close, just like shops. The first closure in early April was normal. This second one in late April was different.

It was a large school, seemingly legitimate and exemplary in terms of size and prominence in the local sector. It was approved by all the quasi-governmental bodies and owners’ associations until a week or two before the closure. The snap closure of this flagship school revealed the weaknesses and gaps in Irish ELT school governance and inspection protocols. It showed the simple flaws of voluntary regulations. It demonstrated the wavering and optional commitment to standards and ethics in education. The concern for ‘customers’ rarely extended beyond that of any shop owner who was selling a product which he did not produce and did not desire to understand. Perhaps it was this prominent school’s closure helped raise international awareness of the Irish ELT sector’s lack of mandatory standards, raising other questions.

Students are disappointed standing in front of their closed ELT school

A large well-known city centre school in Dublin shuts down unexpectedly. Students are disappointed. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Whether it was the cause or not, two months later Venezuela, whose young people had been flocking to Dublin to learn English, stopped sending support money to its students abroad. Why? There was a strong suspicion that families opposed to the new Maduro regime were using the currency exchange to quietly transfer money out of the country to avoid record inflation. The Maduro regime stopped the flow of Cadivi funds to their citizens studying in Ireland, reducing the size of Dublin’s student market in a matter of months. This was a significant crisis for many newer schools operating in the city who depended on the Venezuelan students’ tuitions. More schools closed. The closures also meant increased press attention and that meant the flawed voluntary inspection regimes were under pressure to demonstrate their worth if only to the press. Inspections duly followed if only to keep up appearances. They were often haphazard and under-resourced. A failed inspection meant stress for newer school managers and their employers. The employers were businesspeople who saw their ELT schools as investments which were now riskier and more troublesome than a few months earlier. Those who were already on the fence about whether and how to keep their language school business moving forward saw this as a time to exit the market.

A series of cold snap closures followed…
http://timemapper.okfnlabs.org/eltmakers/college-closure-crisis-timeline-icos-list?embed=1

Stories of defrauded students, of careless or incompetent businesspeople, of criminality and bankruptcy were in the media every week or every month from April 2014 to May 2015.

The English Language Teachers were rarely featured except holding signs asking for their last month’s wages.

There was no advice or story for them when they, like the old whiteboards, were left out on the street.

One ELT worker, a Director of Studies (DOS) or teacher manager, reacted to the news that her school was going to be closed by standing with her students on the day on the doorstep on the day owners had a sign pinned to the door. The police were there to keep the peace in case students were (justifiably) angry. But they were calm. SIPTU’s Louise O’Reilly was there thanks to one teacher who had a union membership. It was one teacher. It was far too late. The press was there. They could have cut and pasted a story from the closures that come in the meantime. This was October 2014. The coming winter provided no respite from the closures which finally totalled to 17 schools and colleges in the private sector. That was about 1 closure in every 7 year-round private language schools in Dublin.

Students and staff stand in front of the locked door of Leinster College with Gardaí on the day of its snap closure.

Leinster College Closure. October 2014. Photo: Dave Meehan :: Source screen grab: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/leinster-college-announces-temporary-closure-1.1979346

Who else was on the doorstep? Not the owners. The teachers who worked with her were, and most of the school’s students. These were the people too numerous to put in the papers. The scene was sad, cynical and exhausted. Months of work, years of savings: gone. The government was committed to keeping its hands off business. It continues to maintain a no-regulation environment.

Why? Was it because the negative result only hurt non-Irish students and working Irish people, while bringing in thousands of temporary workers for the low-wage positions every Irish business owner needed to have desperate and on tap? Was it because of the millions brought to Ireland annually through international students’ rents and expenses and tuitions? Would there really be serious damage to Brand Ireland if the sector remained unregulated so all these students could continue to flow easily into the low-cost English language learning destination that Dublin’s regulation-free zone had unsustainably created? Not really: the damage done has so far been repaired by the mere promise of reform.

And the out-of-work? They could find lower wage jobs or spend time on Jobseeker’s. But that one DOS decided to find out more and see what she could do to change the mess that she saw her students and co-workers and herself in. Pro-actively she timetabled a meeting at the Irish Council for International Students. She wanted advice for the teachers in College Closure Crisis. After her meeting she decided to found a self-organised campaign to pool mutual experiences of the staff in English language teaching organizations, closed or not. She set up a Facebook group and a month or so later an initial meeting was assembled at the Central Hotel on Exchequer Street from personal contacts and those heard about the meeting on Facebook from ELT friends. It was 5 March 2015. There were teachers and staff from schools around Dublin city all of whom wanted to discuss the ongoing crisis and find ways to help each other through it.

The Central Hotel on Exchequer Street. Site of the first ELT Advocacy Open Meeting 5 March 2015

The Central Hotel on Exchequer Street. Site of the first ELT Advocacy Open Meeting 5 March 2015.

The idea was to form an organization that would address the obvious problems the industry put its teachers in but also discuss the different influences and interests common to English language teachers including cultural experiences, professional development, linguistics and Second Language Acquisition and career paths. But the bulk of the topics people wanted to discuss with urgency were the ones managers had to constantly push into the corners in low-pay for-profit education environments. They were the terms and conditions of contracts, work, and pay. The bedrock of professionalism is being able to spend your working life doing what you claim to be: in our case professional committed English Language Teachers. As the dictionary might define it… Professional: engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation. If we were not able not rely on ELT paying us a fair wage or holding up its end of the contract, as many of us had experienced, then how could we responsibly commit our working lives to it? Even another year? If we were professionals we had to hold the business side to account.

But strategies for doing this are stymied when the practicalities of standing up for oneself or one’s peers includes employer retaliation. The risks were obvious and demonstrated frequently. There are a variety of techniques: reduction of hours, non-renewal of contract, blocking advancement, even blacklisting. Owners have associations where they can share stories about teachers, advice on employment methods and HR agency and solicitor contacts. Individual career-committed teachers, just as much as the new entrants, are overwhelmed by the imbalance of power. Having seen many of our co-workers (and friends) taken off the timetable at the end of a week, many feel justified in their fear to speak even privately about union membership. This is despite the fact that union membership is a constitutional right in the Republic. That night, each attempt to talk about ways to improve the profession led us back to the fundamental need for safety and stability in the profession and the workplace. Any ‘advancement’ in the school system seemed useless: no DOS had ever been kept on until retirement in Dublin. And the DOS is the top academic position in an ELT school. You can not ‘rise above’ precarity in ELT in Ireland.

Doing nothing and even speaking up for yourself alone wouldn’t work either. Teachers had been let go for being too old to be the right fit for the young student demographic. They had lost hours for getting pregnant and ‘spreading poison’ ie. speaking about their fear that a cut in ‘extra-contractual’ hours would make work after the pregnancy a net loss. Standing up as an individual meant a loss of favour and then hours. What could be done? Could you move schools and find a better one?

Perhaps, but the perfect school generally doesn’t have a lot of free teaching places. And the perfect school still has to compete in the unregulated market.  That means with schools which our lack of regulations on teacher contracts allows owners to pay hourly ‘contact-hour’ wages that are ten euro less per hour creating burnout employment, providing an atrocious experience to their ‘customers’. Complaints parried off to the teachers, many of whom never had a written contract with the very school they teach at.

The snap closure of DSE, Dublin’s oldest private ELT school, in October 2016 illustrated two important points to teachers who have worked in ELT in Dublin, as we come up to the current year. Firstly that the ‘end’ of the College Closure Crisis in May 2015 did not mean any real change for the sector’s teachers or any real regulation. Schools stopped closing for a year but conditions did not improve for teachers. Secondly, being in a ‘good’ school with owners who smile at you and know your name is demonstrably not guarantee of healthy, long-term fair employment. Even with a permanent contract.

Front door of closed college DSE, revealing a map directing students to their office on the other side of Stephen's Green.

The last home of DSE on Harcourt Street. Their friendly memorable bird-branded door front door is still open in this photo.

DSE was fully approved and a member of the school owners’ marketing association for years. Many teachers had decade old links to the school and its staff. When they closed last autumn, the teachers were given less than a day’s notice and some took a 40% pay cut to start working at a different ELT school the next week. Why? Because teachers have parents and children to support and the sector has no pay agreements. As a result wages vary tremendously with no agreement on what your qualifications or experience are worth. Offers are take-it-or-leave-it. There are as many skilled experienced teachers as newbies. Hiring managers often prefer teachers with less experience. They keep labour costs down and look better in the marketing materials.

The competitive sector means that quality can and does come second, despite the sales brochure boasts about quality, excellence, and success. Ask how teachers are paid and contracted and you will find a language school’s real level of respect for basic principles of education. (Maslow’s Hierarchy) The resistance to, and continuing lack of, real regulation for teachers by owners and government means that quality and safety for students and teachers is still optional in 2017, three years on from the close those schools back in the spring of 2014. Caveat emptor: Buyer, beware.

The buyer is not just the student customer, but the worker who ‘buys into’ the idea that their employer will take care of them. The facts just don’t bear that out in the Irish ELT sector. And the regulations aren’t there for teachers. How do we get them there? How do teachers get a real elected voice at the table writing the regulations for our sector?

We grow.

We talk together.

We organize together.

We are ELT. This is our profession. We are a world-class ELT destination because of the teachers, writers and managers, and despite the abusive employment practices which have seen actual wages decline noticeably since the 1990s. The International Education Mark legislation which is currently being discussed in the Dail has not yet become law. The future of ELT in Ireland is not a foregone conclusion and you can help shape it. The government says that employment standards are a matter for the language school and the teacher. Yet these proposed regulations will dictate the minimum standards for the physical spaces in which we work. Why can it not dictate minimum standards of employment terms and conditions for which we work? This legislation will affect your working life, yet the education minister refuses to meet our union representatives. Why have MEI or the Department of Education not sought to work closely with teachers in relation to this legislation? This is part of the task of ELT Advocacy Ireland. Making teachers’ voices heard in places where it counts.

Since that meeting in 2015, some of those teachers have left the ELT sector, some with joy, some with frustration. That founding ex-DOS has left too. But most have remained. And now all of us who do remain have an organization which we continue to shape through talk and action. It represents teachers and says that English language teaching is work. We have learned that it is worthwhile to organize ourselves around that simple idea. We believe we should hold our own discussions, work out our own views and solutions to issues which affect us in our workplaces across the Irish ELT sector and in our professional lives. For us, a lot depends on our work as English language teachers. But in turn, we depend on how ELT is perceived across Ireland, in the government, in our workplaces, and most importantly in teachers’ own attitudes. Is it a career worth taking seriously? Can you see yourself doing this long term, if conditions were better? Are you willing to join the conversation? Will you help to improve our sector for ourselves, our students and future generations of teachers?

Join us on our Facebook page and let’s talk about the issues that are important to you. Send us a private message and we can publish anonymously. Whether you work in ELT or have experienced work in ELT, your views matter and your support counts. Follow us on Twitter and help us make ELT in Ireland work for its teachers.

There’s lots more to discuss:

You have a story, too. And we need to hear it. You have a view and we need to see it. The Lives of Teachers are major impact factors on education quality. So this is our space online. Use it and write. Your story matters.

ELT Advocacy Ireland has been ‘a thing’ for all English Language Teachers since that meeting in March 2015. We’ve only just started this blog. Comments on the FB page please. Submissions to eltadvocacy@gmail.com

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