Education, Regulation, Worker's Rights

Bullying, harassment and workplace abuses: Kieran’s story

At present in the international media, issues of bullying and harassment have come to the fore as being subjects of great concern. Equally topical here in Dublin is the question of the appalling treatment of teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages within the private English language school sector. Thus, problems with low levels of pay, poor conditions and insecurity of tenure of English language teachers are widespread within our industry. Fortunately, moves are now afoot, thanks to ELT Advocacy, Unite the Union and other bodies, to attempt to begin resolving these endemic problems, so that it is to be hoped that the role of English language teacher in Ireland will enjoy much greater security in the future.

Having taught English over the past few years at various private English language colleges throughout Dublin, I’ve experienced all of the above serious employment-related problems. However, in this article, I specifically want to bear witness to my experiences of serious bullying and harassment in my last English language school. I wasn’t the only teacher in that school to be consistently psychologically terrorized and  brutalized by both the Director of Studies and some students,  and I have no doubt that teachers still unfortunate enough to be working there are still being treated abominably. Nevertheless, I hope that in sharing my experiences, other teachers may in the future be safer from such tyrannical treatment.

I began teaching in this Dublin city centre private English language school – for obvious reasons, I’ll call the school English Quicklearn –  in February 2017. In my previous work in a university language centre, as in all my previous English language schools and university lecturing posts (I used to lecture in French, Spanish, Translation Theory and research methods temporarily, including in the UK), I had gotten positive feedback on my language teaching skills, both informally from students, and formally by means of student feedback forms. In addition, I’ve regularly been observed by peers and supervisors, formally, when teaching in the university sector and in the English language sector, and there again, I’ve always gotten very positive feedback.

When I started at Quicklearn for the first couple of months I was doing various cover hours at all levels as well as a lot of administrative work to assist the Director of Studies. Eventually, in about May 2017, I was given my own full-time class. After two days teaching this intermediate-level class, I was shocked when the DOS told me very menacingly and nastily that he had been receiving complaints from several students about my teaching – they found me boring and didn’t want to be in my class. He gave me a warning that unless things improved I would be dismissed. He then marched me into that class and invited the students to say what they found wrong with me, and comments included that I ‘wasn’t writing enough on the board’, ‘wasn’t doing enough grammar’  ‘wasn’t familiar with the course book’ and was ‘spending too much time on language games’. This was after two days. I honestly felt that none of these complaints were well-founded and were unfair.

I’m a teacher who has always written a significant amount of language on the whiteboard, who does lots of grammar using various methods, who is very familiar with the various course books as I’ve always spent hours and hours of (unpaid) preparation, both at weekends and throughout the working week, familiarizing myself with all course book materials and also sourcing lots of authentic material in order to supplement the course book. I’ve never spent too much time on games, but have occasionally used them as a break and with pedagogical motivations. I was experimenting with language games in a bid to satisfy these difficult, demanding customers who found me boring, but it evidently wasn’t working.

When I tried defending myself to the students with the above points, the DOS didn’t make any comment or try to defend me, but anything the students said, he replied with ‘Oh yes, that’s a very good point’ etc. The customer was always right – the teacher was an overhead.

Over the next few months, this pattern of threatening and intimidation, giving me warnings and so on, continued. There were weeks where the DOS would be all smiles, telling me that my classes were very happy with me, and showing me some of their positive evaluations on feedback forms. The whole situation left me – and other teachers who were being treated the same – in a baffling position. The DOS’s treatment of us was full of contradictions.

It’s important to note the DOS’s modus operandi was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in any other language school or university. It was like a toxic micromanagement style: he would go to different classes – and to individual students whom he had apparently planted as ‘moles’ within each class – asking them if they were happy with their teachers, and would tell them that if there was the slightest aspect of the teaching that they weren’t satisfied with, he would punish the relevant teacher and take them off the class (in my case, after two days). The teachers’ heads were basically being put on a plate for Quicklearn students to dispose of at will.

This DOS would sometimes listen to teachers outside the classroom door, and one day he hauled me over the coals as he said he had been listening to me and that my ‘Teacher Talking Time’ was too high. He used to tell us that he had over 20 years of a brilliant teaching record behind him and that none of us could hold a candle to him. I would often work a six-day week for him, and sometimes after teaching all day I would be asked to take an evening class as well, which I would always agree to as I wanted to be flexible and helpful to my employer, despite his brutality. I remember some very long, tiring weeks where he would say to me at the end of the week that he had got some ‘boring’ comments about me. He expected 100 per cent positive feedback and apparently paid bonuses for such.

At one meeting, when I told him that I felt that some of these student  complaints were not well-founded pedagogically, he shouted at me that he ‘didn’t give a flying f— about pedagogy‘; when I put it to him that he didn’t have the basic classroom technology that other schools had, such as a PC and overhead projector, he shouted that he ‘didn’t give a flying f— about technology‘. At another meeting, he criticized my clothes and appearance, telling me I ‘had this whole homeless thing going on‘.

Quicklearn, though mainly a school for adult learners, sometimes took short-term groups of junior learners from Spain and Italy. I was always given those groups when they arrived, and in general, the behaviour was extremely disrespectful, plus the group leaders were disdainful and unconcerned with behavioural issues. I had to walk out of one class where the shouting and banging on tables became too stressful after several weeks of putting up with it. I had told the DOS several times about it and requested help but he did nothing.

As a sensitive and conscientious teacher, I was devastated by the aggressive, intimidating and threatening meetings and the general working atmosphere. I would have sleepless, tearful nights, going into work with a knot in my stomach, and always feeling very tense in class in case students complained. All the other teachers felt the same.

In October, after long months of this harassment, I finally snapped. One morning he came into the classroom and suddenly removed me and told me there were more complaints. These complaints came from two students who were always coming into class twenty minutes late and were always on their phones. These two blamed my teaching for their unwillingness to come into class. Upset and angry, I told him that these students were ‘dickheads’ whereupon he fired me on the spot.

Paradoxically, I felt deep relief at having been removed from this hugely stressful atmosphere, in which my self-esteem had been torn apart by the relentless bullying tactics of this Director of Studies. As luck would have it, I immediately started work at my present school where I’ve been so much happier, and much more valued, appreciated and respected, since I began there.

I agree with ELT Advocacy that this prevalent model (in Dublin) of for-profit private ELT schools is a structure which seems to foster problems for teachers – for instance, in Quicklearn, the DOS I’ve been writing about was recruiter, supervisor, HR function, management and owner all in one, so that he had the power to hire, fire and bully without any oversight. The staff had no recourse to anyone if they had grievances. I felt his treatment of me and my colleagues amounted to workplace abuse. This model is not conducive to fostering a safe working environment for teachers. The current moves on the part of Unite the Union and ELT Advocacy, to achieve regulation of the sector, are to be greatly welcomed and supported by all of us teachers and other stakeholders, including our students.

Because this DOS clearly subjected me to unfair dismissal, I am currently seeking advice on the options open to me for redress. And I would encourage other teachers who have been treated badly to look at legal options. But apart from issues of bullying and unjust termination, there now needs to be a root and branch reform, overhaul and proper statutory regulation of the ELT industry. I’m glad to now be joining the campaign for better conditions for Irish teachers of English as a foreign language, including proper sick pay, holiday pay, payment for the many additional hours of preparation and marking, security of tenure, and, as I’ve been arguing for in this testimony to my own experiences, protection from unfair dismissal and from harassment. Not to mention much better wages.

And, at the end of the day, I love what I do – I love languages, teaching, translation, reading, and research within translation studies and literary studies. I would say that, while far from perfect, I’m reasonably good at what I do, and 110 per cent committed and passionate about language pedagogy and research. And so, like my colleagues in this industry, I deserve to be properly treated and respected.

I would finally like to thank ELT Advocacy for their support when I recently contacted them, and for giving me this  opportunity to bear witness to my own bruising experiences – though the future looks brighter.

by Kieran O’Driscoll

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Education, ELT Associations, Regulation

Teachers’ Associations are not the answer yet

Myth: “We don’t need unions in ELT in Ireland – that’s what ELT Advocacy is for.”

Why can’t teachers’ associations, like ELT Advocacy Ireland – or even ELT Ireland – speak up for us as teachers when we are in trouble with our employers or need to address problems regulating our employment?

Well, there is an important reason: associations like ours have no official standing under Irish law, but unions do. Unions exist to be accountable to – and representative of – their memberships.

Some associations don’t want to engage with real world issues even if that would make teachers feel safer from exploitation at work and thereby keep knowledgeable, experienced ELT pros in the sector. Anything you can learn at a Teacher Association conference is great, but at the end of the day, it’s non-essential in a world where we have to pay rent and get by. Remember, qualifications, experience and CPD are widely not recognised by language schools in Ireland as being important because pay scales do not exist. Yes, conferences are great, but being properly paid for your skills and expertise is more important.

A decent level of pay (provided for through a contract) with fair terms and conditions of employment: now that’s essential if you want to do more than survive for a few fun, nervy years of your ELT career.

Unions are about work. They understand your pay and prospects as the real nuts and bolts of what brings you to your workplace day in and day out. Thus union membership is part of assuring the development of professionals, a profession and professionalism. If a teacher is unsafe at work because of bullying, coercion or poor/illegal management and pay practice, they will quit when feasible. Good teachers sometimes are forced out or fired because they stand against a policy which may be financially clever but pedagogically unsound or plain old exploitative. Unions can work to fight and hopefully pre-empt both.

Union membership is different to teacher association membership. It’s more than social media and the shiny, glossy bits like conferences, networking, papers and talks. It’s about the nitty gritty of working life. For that reason, don’t expect your union rep to get as excited as you when you get published or run a good workshop or develop a new course or book. Because that stuff only happens when teachers feel safe and hopeful and supported. As educators we remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Safety and security come first. And too many times we have to pretend to have a feeling of safety and security. We feel that way because when we let the smile slip we find our hours being cut. Right now, this is the situation in Ireland. This is not abstract.

We need to stand up in a real way for English Language Teachers and Teaching. Teachers’ Associations can’t do that when it really matters. For example: when bullying or unfair dismissal occurs how do TAs react? What can they realistically do? For example, is ELT Ireland talking about how to get teachers’ voices heard as the new Quality and Qualifications Assurance Amendment Bill and its regulations come through the Dáil Education Committee? How can we legally engage in that process without joining a union? We’ve asked the TDs. They said join the union. That’s how you can stand up and be counted.

Unions aren’t ‘bad boss insurance’- they are your only real representative voice. That’s a hard fact. This is especially important as government is regulating our sector, and they are doing so right now. And so we all need the union now.

Unions are the only organisations that can cover teachers in every ELT school in Ireland. Marketing English in Ireland doesn’t represent teachers in ELT schools – just its member schools. Just like QQI, it has no elected English language teachers’ representatives. ACELS is little more than a logo. ELT Ireland’s committee facilitates regular Manager Meet-ups for a percentage of their members yet they seem unconcerned about the upcoming regulations which will affect all of their members each day they work at an ELT school in Ireland. Why so blasé? How did it come to be that we can be concerned about the truth about learning styles but not the truth around our own employment styles? Can the importance of real regulation be slipping by all of the committee? Are teachers’ lives so shameful that they must be hidden? Seriously? This is important. Why the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil routine about English language teacher poverty and precarity?

Who should do the time-consuming work of representing teachers in ELT schools across the country? Who should submit legally-specific proposals related to the regulations proposed in the Dáil? Who should coordinate and discuss our needs across our sector?

We’ve asked the TDs. And all of them said join the union. That’s the only way you can have your voice heard at the level of government in order to make positive changes in ELT and eventually make it a viable profession.

The answer is not ‘Advocacy’. ‘Advocacy’ is asking the question. The answer is unions.

My parents always told me: People only respect you to the degree you respect yourself. That lesson applies here now. As a sector we need to union up to demonstrate that we exist and that we take our sector, our jobs and our lives seriously.

The only way to make ELT a real profession is to respect our work enough to organise and not let school owners and government happily ignore English language teachers as soft touch labour for another year. WE CAN’T LET THIS OPPORTUNITY SLIP AWAY. JOIN. And use your voice.

Unionised teachers are making progress with government for English language teacher recognition in Ireland. Be proud of that. Every week they are making the case clearer to the Dáil – including this week, by giving a briefing in the Dáil about the type of contracts, work and pay which we deal with. Support them as they speak up for us.

Join and make your voice heard. Don’t just ‘engage in Professional Development’. Instead, address the real issue: we need to Develop the Profession. That’s what we need first and foremost. We need to regulate our sector through the Dáil. We have as much a right to do so as the school owners.

We can regulate ELT together through the QQA Amendment Bill but only as union members. Advocacy is just a first step. It’s how to ask the question. The action, the answer, is joining and developing a functioning union of ELT workers in Ireland.

Then come back and and we’ll talk about CPD.

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Education, Protest, Worker's Rights

Enough is enough – say NO to vulture employers

Next Wednesday the 18th of October at 12.30pm, Unite ELT branch members, ELT activists and supporters are holding a protest at the top of Capel Street in Dublin against a form of employment abuse that has been going on in the ELT sector for far too long.

There are English language schools in Dublin right now who are forcing their teachers into bogus self-employment. This means some school owners and managers in ILEP-listed schools are forcing teachers to work as ‘contractors’, sending invoices to the school for their work. Revenue Commissioners have stated very clearly that by their definitions, English language teaching work (taking place in schools with a syllabus for a course) is not and cannot be considered self-employment.

Classing ELT workers as self-employed is bogus. It’s also damaging to everyone working in the industry, as better employers are competing with those using coercive employment; and the customer doesn’t know right from wrong. Visa renewal students make their school choice based on factors unrelated to employment law and are mostly unaware of the treatment of their teachers. They will generally believe the sales and marketing reps who sell them the moon on a stick and often have no training or understanding of the treatment of ELTs or the precarious nature of their work.

Though these schools often insist that they are acting within the law, and that it works out better for the teachers, these statements are false. Self-employed teachers will almost certainly end up paying more tax, are not entitled to social welfare or fixed rate expenses, and they are open to investigation and potential legal issues should the school where they are contracted obfuscate their tax affairs. I have personally heard evidence from teachers in bogus self-employment that this is the case in many schools across both Dublin and nationwide. This is both alarming and sadly reminiscent of the situation which preceded the closure of 16 language schools in 2014. Failure by the authorities to listen to one of the major stakeholders in this situation – the teachers – only hastens the next crisis. What is different this time is that we are organising and we have an alternative, put forward by English language teachers.

Some schools start teachers on the payroll, only to then demand that the teachers change their status to self-employed once they have been working there for a period of time. We have to ask, who benefits most from this arrangement, teachers or the school owners? English language teaching as an entity does not. This is a strategy employed by business owners to simply cheat employees out of access to their statutory workers’ rights under Irish law.

Some schools understand the stress and powerlessness caused by bogus self-employment and dishonestly lure teachers in by offering a real contract at the end of the first month as an incentive. A month-long trial period for a low-paid precarious job. Classed as self-employed, despite there being no legal basis for this. The employer can dismiss you when they want or when you are surplus to requirement. Self-employment as ‘probation period’ makes coercion and bullying more prevalent and ingrained in the culture of the company. There are schools in Dublin who have dismissed teachers when they refused to work as self-employed contractors. Citing the ‘nature of the industry’, they leave their employees a Hobson’s choice.

For far too long now, the vocabulary of the industry has been dictated by the vested interests of the school owners. This is happening in more than a couple of schools in Dublin, and not just in those schools without QQI approval. Using bogus self-employment forces struggling English language teachers into even more precarious working conditions, without the safety net of social welfare to protect them should the school close suddenly, as in 2014. We heard of ‘visa factories’ and ‘cowboy schools’ and we were led to believe that after the spate of school closures in 2014 things would change, and they did indeed change – for some connected vested interests. But teachers outside and inside of schools are still an afterthought in the education business. Left out in the cold in 2014, and still left out, today we are dealing with vulture employers who force their teachers into bogus self-employment.

The Department of Education, MEI and ACELS/QQI have all spoken of their intention to achieve sustainable growth in the industry. The plan seems to be to keep this growth for owners at the expense of teacher’s lives and rights. Where are we as stakeholders mentioned in any of the current legislation passing through the Education committee, the Quality and Qualifications Assurance (Amendment) Bill? Unite the Union will fight for the inclusion of the 10 Point Charter for English Language teachers in the planned International Education Mark, and we will fight to eradicate bogus self-employment in our industry. We need your support at the protest and beyond to show these vested interests that we will not be silenced any longer and that our voices will be heard.

The gig economy, so often in the news recently, is an extension of bogus self-employment. Workers from Deliveroo, Uber and Ryanair are standing up to their vulture employers and saying enough is enough. If we teachers tolerate this, our jobs will be next. Join us at the top of Capel Street, beside DCAS, from 12.30pm – 1.45pm on Wednesday the 18th of October. Say no to vulture employers, no to unfair dismissal and bullying and no to bogus self-employment. Let our voices be heard.

Keith Murdiff

Chair, Unite ELT Branch

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Education, Worker's Rights

We need your help

It can be hugely frustrating reading the news lately. So much backwardness coming from the USA, rumblings of nuclear threats, frighteningly random terrorist attacks in European cities, the horrific situation for millions living in the Middle East, and closer to home, the dire situation for so many people living at and under the poverty line.

It is easier to turn to lighter news and frivolities to escape the unending bad news that we are exposed to every day because too much can contribute to poor mental health and anxiety, in part caused by a sense of helplessness. What can one person really do? Small actions in the face of larger systemic domination can feel inadequate. But just thinking about getting involved is never going to be enough to effect real change, and if you find yourself in the position where you are able to take some concrete actions, we ask you to please read on.

This is an opportune time for the English language teaching sector. The government is working on a bill (Summary of Bill) that will affect our working lives. So much about the industry has been out of sight of the public, the press and the government, allowing employment abuses to increase exponentially every year. It is reassuring that regulation is coming. But this regulation must be looked at carefully. Will it serve the best interests of the teachers, or will it be tailored to the business interests of the staggeringly profitable language schools and their organisation Marketing English in Ireland? In a recent press release, it has been shown that the industry “is built on poverty pay”.  Why, therefore, would any English language teacher reasonably assume that MEI have teachers’ best interests at heart in the formation of this bill? Teachers and their elected representatives must be allowed to be involved in this legislative process.

The English language teachers who are a member of the Unite ELT branch recently voted to send out the following text to members of the Education Committee who will decide the changes that need to be made to the bill. This bill is an opportunity to put some of the changes we need in the industry into protective legal terms.

So, what can you do at this watershed moment? Set aside 10 minutes of your day today towards positive activism. The submission period for these letters is not infinite, so avoid procrastinating and follow these simple steps:

  • Copy and paste this text into your email account
  • Read through it all. Add whatever information you want, take out anything you don’t want
  • Why is it important to you that legal changes are made to the ELT industry in Ireland? If you want, include your thoughts
  • Include previous experiences you have had in ELT, positive or negative. Make comparisons with other industries. Give anecdotes. These people are your elected representatives. It is their job to set policies and make laws. Laws that affect you at 4 o’clock on a Friday evening when you’re told you’ve no more work on Monday, or at 8pm when you’re at home trying to use the error correction code to correct 25 pieces of writing homework, and wondering why you aren’t paid to do this in a properly resourced staff room. Let them know what it is really like
  • Remember: the most important thing is to request the committee to hold public hearings.
  • When you’re happy with it, email it to these TDs on the Education Committee:

joan.burton@oireachtas.ie

thomas.byrne@oireachtas.ie

catherine.martin@oireachtas.ie

carol.nolan@oireachtas.ie

fiona.oloughlin@oireachtas.ie

maria.byrne@oireachtas.ie

robbie.gallagher@oireachtas.ie

trevor.oclochartaigh@oireachtas.ie

lynn.ruane@oireachtas.ie

(Joan Burton TD, Thomas Byrne TD, Catherine Martin TD, Carol Nolan TD, Fiona O’Loughlin TD, Senator Maria Byrne, Senator Robbie Gallagher, Senator Trevor O’Clochartaigh, Senator Lynn Ruane)

  • You can also CC the following with each email: educationskills@oireachtas.ie; pressoffice@oireachtas.ie; Alan.Guidon@oireachtas.ie
  • Send the email
  • Ask your friends, family and colleagues to help you: send them the link to this post
  • If you are motivated enough, use some of the text to write to your TDs about this issue. The more questions that TDs get about English language teacher’s rights, the better visibility for all of us
  • Use https://www.whoismytd.com/ if you are not sure, and send that email
  • Congratulations! You have taken a concrete activist step
  • There is one last bullet point. Click on over on the Unite the Union Join page, and become a member today. You can come to the meetings, vote, discuss issues and put forward motions. This is real, effective activism, proven over centuries. You are working to improve the employment conditions of a woefully unregulated sector. That is something to be proud of.

 TEXT OF THE LETTER TO BE SENT TO THE EDUCATION COMMITTEE

 

TD or Senator Name

Joint Committee on Education & Skills

Houses of the Oireachtas

Kildare Street

Dublin 2

 

29th August 2017

Re: Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Amendment) Bill

Dear Ms           ,

I am an English Language teacher at a private English language school in Dublin.

It is my understanding that the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Amendment) Bill will be brought before the Joint Committee on Education & Skills in the near future.

The bill will include a section on the formation of the International Education Mark (IEM) which will establish the formal regulatory process for English language schools.

I have concerns about the content of the bill and in particular what I consider to be the inadequate regulation proposed within the bill.

The English Language sector is a hugely profitable business worth over one billion Euros to the economy annually.  Given international developments with the Brexit vote, this figure is certain to rise over the next few years as more and more international students see Ireland as the premier location in which to learn English.

Some of the issues which have affected my colleagues and I as teachers include: overuse and abuse of fixed term contracts; use of zero hour contracts; use of bogus self-employment; failure to supply teachers with proper, legal contracts; failure to pay statutory holiday pay; failure to pay sick pay; a failure to award full entitlement to all leave as guaranteed under employment legislation; discrimination in pay between native born speakers and non-native English speakers; a serious deficit in resources and facilities for teachers and students alike.

Whilst it appears that the proposed International Education Mark (IEM) will go some way towards regulating the ownership and administration of schools, it is my understanding that the bill as currently drafted does not regulate for employment conditions for teachers and other administration staff in the sector.

I feel very strongly that this bill presents the opportunity to address long standing bad employment practices in the ELT sector by provision for a Fair Employment Mark, guaranteeing that schools awarded such a mark offer decent terms and conditions to teachers and other ELT staff.  Whilst some of the issues mentioned above openly contravene employment legislation, many of the poor practices in the sector are not illegal under current legislation, and cannot be addressed using the industrial relations mechanisms of the state.

Therefore, in order to ensure best practice and maintain the international reputation of our English language schools, I feel that every opportunity should be taken through the legislation to ensure Ireland becomes a world leader in teaching English as a foreign language.  This can only be achieved by legislating for basic employment standards in schools.

The ELT sector cannot flourish in a situation where employment rights are not addressed at a macro level, and where schools can continue to regard employment rights as an optional extra.

Therefore I request that, once the bill comes before your committee, formal public hearings are held into the merits of the bill and your committee takes submissions from interested parties.  Given the importance of the ELT sector to the Irish economy it is crucial that this bill is afforded the utmost scrutiny and that all interested parties are heard.  By holding public hearings and taking submissions, your committee will uphold its role of rigorous oversight.

I would be happy to elaborate in my concerns should you require further information.  However I would reiterate our belief that public scrutiny of the bill is crucial and that it is in the best interests of all involved in the ELT sector for your committee to agree to hold public hearings and accept submissions.

I look forward to a positive response to this request.

Best Regards,

____________________________________

 

 

 

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Worker's Rights

Reflections on Teaching English in Ireland: Ben’s Story

When I finished university, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life other than possessing the vague notion that I wanted ‘to help’ people. I worked in public service for a while and rose to middling rank, but I wanted more. I felt that I wasn’t directly aiding people, and in many cases, that my work added an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy which stopped people getting support. In my free time, I completed a CELTA course and while I enjoyed English and enjoyed teaching, I didn’t feel ready to leave my friends and family and move overseas. A few years later and I decided to start a PGCE, which I completed and worked as a ‘real’ – as my friends and family saw it – teacher for a year.

The summer holidays came, and with them arrived the growing realisation that I did not want to return to school in September. I knew I liked teaching, but I also knew that I hated the National Curriculum with a passion. A lightbulb moment occurred when I started speaking to an old friend who I resumed contact with thanks to a marvellous new website called Facebook. After graduating, my friend had completed a CELTA and promptly moved to Spain. My frequently mocked qualification now seemed like a beacon of shining hope.

So, after searching for a few months, I decided on moving to Poland to start my English language teaching career. The school I first worked for was, frankly speaking, a joke. The contract I was issued was worthless, the timetable was disorganised and the workings of the school were Byzantine. As I was soon to discover, this was typical of the TEFL world, but being a rookie, I rolled with the punches. I really enjoyed teaching my students, met some great people and had a ball in a fabulous city. So enamoured by life as an English language teacher, I decided to stay in Poland for another year, but thought it prudent to join another school. As my experience grew, so did my craft. I constantly received excellent feedback from students and superiors, picked up numerous awards, was rewarded financially and given a syllabus development role.

After another happy year in Poland, I moved to Spain. I moved to a small school where I was given more responsibilities and better pay. I was responsible for designing syllabi for general, academic and business English courses, given the title senior teacher, continued to receive excellent feedback and led staff training sessions. All my lessons were taught from self-made materials, which the school incorporated into their courses. Students wanting one-to-one lessons requested me by name. I was promoted to chief internal examiner and completed UCLES modules to qualify to become speaking examiner for Cambridge exams. My star was rising.

Being ambitious, I applied for a job with the British Council – the often-lauded doyen of the English language teaching world – and impressed enough at interview to be offered a full time contract for the following teaching year. I felt that I had landed. Excellent salary, guaranteed DELTA training programme and pension scheme were just some of the perks I’d receive. To fill my summer, I took up a short-term role in a British Council centre in the Middle East where I received excellent remuneration, solid feedback and the offer of a permanent role with higher pay than my agreed role in Spain. I declined, for the Middle East and I were not comfortable bedfellows. However, I was certain that teaching English and I were a match made in heaven. I loved English; I loved teaching; and I loved the freedom of being able to travel the world, explore new cultures and meet new people while getting paid to do so. This was unreal. I was so lucky.

Until tragedy struck. The death of a relative, my being named as executor and family considerations meant that I had to return to the UK. I resigned from my new job in Spain and stayed in the UK while the dust settled. After a few months of living off a modest yet ever-dwindling inheritance, I decided that I had nothing much to keep me in the UK. I applied for jobs again. My old school in Spain offered me a post, the British Council post I had needed to resign from 6 months previously was re-offered to me, I was offered roles in Saudi Arabia and China, I was shortlisted for a role at a school in Tokyo and I had also been offered jobs in British Council posts in Venezuela, Tunis and Colombo. If I sound arrogant and conceited, I apologise. I think I am trying to demonstrate that I was a damn good English teacher. I was well-qualified, driven and innovative. I was ambitious and well liked. My feedback had always been excellent. I was in demand. Then came a Facebook message that would change everything.

I had a friend who was working on the outskirts of Dublin at one of the largest English language teaching schools in Ireland. She knew about my plans, but had an offer of an interview for some summer work at her school. Since the other roles I had been offered weren’t due to commence until September, starting work in June in Ireland would give me some extra cash and something to do over the summer. I had a telephone interview with the DOS and since she liked my credentials, my experience and my references, she was happy to give me a job for, “the summer or as long as you want.” As in all good stories, a romantic liaison flipped the narrative. After being in Ireland for six weeks or so, I met a girl. Things were going well and I wanted to stick around to see what happened. August came and went, and with it, so did many summer school staff. I didn’t. September came and went and I was still there. One Friday, my classes were given to another teacher, and although my students complained that they didn’t like the situation (or their new teacher), their complaints were ignored. Worried because I had started renting a new apartment, annoyed because all of the jobs I could have taken were gone, pissed off because I had been told “you’ll be okay, we’ll make sure you have work”, upset because I really liked the girl I was seeing; my fears were somewhat allayed when I was told that my classes had been taken off me so that I could start teaching a new group. Fast forward three weeks, the course has finished and I am called in to the DOS’s office to be told that while my feedback was excellent, there would be no further work available for two to three weeks.

I sent a few emails, made a few phone calls, picked up a few classes in some other schools and managed to tide myself over. I also managed to get a full-time job offer from another school, only for that offer to be rescinded when the school went into administration after losing their ACELS accreditation over a fire escape. I continued working for the original school in a piecemeal manner until Christmas. One-week holiday covers, 8-10 hour a week courses, two weeks off, three days on etcetera, etcetera. Two things marked my cards as a trouble maker. I pointed out that I was more qualified and had greater experience than 75% of permanent staff members to the ADOS one night in the pub. The second mistake I made was querying why I hadn’t been paid public holiday pay. I was later, erroneously, told that this was due to the fact that I hadn’t been working in the week that the bank holiday fell. Apparently, this was standard practice at this school, particularly at their summer centres. According to a colleague who managed summer centres, temporary summer staff were frequently let go before a public holiday fell and told that they were not entitled to pay for the holiday. After Christmas I was summoned to a meeting with the DOS, HR Manager and Operations Manager and told that I would never work for the school again unless I improved my attitude at work. I was genuinely puzzled, for at that time, I was not aware that ‘attitude’ was actually a euphemism.

“Did I receive bad feedback? I mean, I see the forms and if anything, it’s always been better than my partner teacher’s. Have I upset another teacher?”
“No your feedback is fine.”
“So….?”
“We’ve heard that you have been unhappy that you’ve not been given constant work.”
“Well, yeah. I have bills to pay. I have rent to pay. I need to eat.”
“We’re concerned that this bad attitude is being brought into class.”
“But I have excellent feedback, you said this wasn’t about feedback and surely if I was bringing my problems into my classroom, the students would notice this?”
“We can’t have people giving out about not being paid correctly and not working enough.”
“Do you want me to be happy about having no employment security?”
“We don’t want it to affect classes.”

We continued this Kafkaesque discussion for over an hour or so. It was then agreed that if I were to not voice my dissatisfaction, I would be given work. As a further special and ‘unique’ concession, I was told that I would be given a firm four-week notice period of when classes were ending. So, in February, at the start of the teaching season I was given regular classes. As the school got busier, I picked up extra classes, exam prep courses, one to ones and film classes. Things were going really well. My feedback was excellent and remained as good as, if not better than, the feedback of my partner teachers. Then again, I made all my lessons from scratch and used authentic source material rather than photocopying a page from Taboos and Issues. November came. On a Friday, one week after finding out that my girlfriend was pregnant – something the school were aware of because I needed to take a morning off to go to a GP with my girlfriend – I was told that there would be no work available for me on the following Monday.

Understandably, I was furious and informed the DOS of my opinions. I felt cheated. I did have a ray of hope, however. I knew a teacher was going away for a three-month holiday at the end of November and cover would be needed for her classes. The classes were given to another teacher. I applied for any job I saw advertised. I didn’t care whether I applied for English language teaching jobs or not. I needed to work and I needed money. I sent an email to the DOS of the school I had worked at asking for my holiday pay to be paid to me as soon as possible. I received an email back saying that I would be paid for one day’s holiday when the payroll was next run. But something was amiss. I looked over my timesheets and went through old wage slips only to discover I had been vastly underpaid for my holidays. I sent an email back querying why this was the case, highlighting that I had worked X hours but had only received holiday pay amounting to Y hours. I was informed that all the extra classes I had worked did not count towards my holiday entitlement. The only hours that counted towards my holiday allowance were the basic four hours of teaching per day. Afternoon classes, exam prep classes, one-to-one classes etc. did not count towards my holiday leave entitlement.

I was unemployed, looking for jobs, poor and with a lot of time on my hands. I read my terms and conditions of employment. Then I read them again. And again. And again. I read the Citizens Information website. Finally, I read the Organisation of Working Time Act. And then the penny dropped. I had been underpaid holiday pay. Vastly. Basically, holiday pay entitlement is calculated in one of three ways, and an employee is free to choose whichever method gives them the greatest entitlement. The school had used days and defined a day as equivalent to four hours. Although in their terms and conditions of employment, this was never stated. Since they had never defined what a standard day was, all hours an employee had worked were legally classed as contributing towards holiday leave entitlements. To add a spanner into the works, the school paid different rates of pay for different class types. When paying holiday pay, they only remitted the lowest rate of pay. Again, the Organisation of Working Time Act was instructive: in such cases, an employer is obliged to calculate holiday pay based on average earnings accrued in the 13-week period preceding the holiday pay payment. The Organisation of Working Time Act also helped with the issue of payment for public holidays, stating that entitlement is based on hours worked before the holiday date.

In the end, I got my back pay. It took over two months and I had to threaten to go to a labour court, but I received the money I had been legally entitled to. The price was that I would never again work as an English language teacher. According to the school I worked for:

“We are under no obligation to re-hire teachers who have worked for us previously, nor are we under any obligation to explain our business decisions. Your contract came to a natural end in November and we do not envisage having anything for you in the near future.”

Speaking to former colleagues, I discovered that new system for calculating holiday pay was introduced into the school. It was less opaque, far more legal and fairer. I was proud of my one, small and admittedly selfish, act of advancing rights of some English language teachers in Ireland. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. It appeared that some members of staff felt emboldened enough to ask for better pay and better conditions, now being made aware of what their legal minimums were. One such member of staff was given a pay rise, which she was still allowed to keep after her working hours were halved.

I might have sounded arrogant about my abilities as a teacher earlier. I still maintain that I was a very good teacher. I’d go as far as to say I was an excellent teacher. It may sound conceited, but I still have a box in my garage where my old resource books, lesson plans and bumf are stored. Contained therein are a few formal feedback observations that back my claims up. But, I am not a teacher any more. And I never will be again. I found work in December of the year I stopped teaching. I spent five weeks unemployed and knew I could never do so again.

As for the girl who stopped me leaving Ireland, we’ve been together for five years now. We have two children. We’re married and we’re happy. I work in a job where I get paid far more than I did as an English language teacher. But I stare at an Excel sheet for most of my day. And I have a tendency to correct the English usage of those around me. I hate not being an English teacher. It might not have been the only job I have ever been good at, but it is definitely the only job I have ever loved. Yet, I cannot go back to being an English teacher in Ireland ever again. It is too unstable, too insecure, too badly paid and too badly managed to be a viable career for those with families.

That is what is wrong with the English language teaching industry in Ireland. I know many, many wonderful and talented people who work in English language teaching and are barely able to survive. People who put in hours of work, work for which they don’t get paid to make excellent lessons; mainly because they care about their students, but also because they need to get good feedback, they need to fit in and they can’t afford to rock the boat. The English language industry in Ireland suffers such self-harming short termism it beggars belief. Properly paid teachers produce better lessons, which attract more students, which generates more money.

It is too late for me to return to English language teaching, but I hope my story might demonstrate to people that if everybody joins Unite and fights for their rights, the industry might be reformed and staff may be treated more fairly. A small number of people are easy to dismiss as trouble makers (and dismiss from work), a larger movement is far harder to ignore.

Benjamin P.

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Education, Worker's Rights

It’s okay to talk about these things

I’m an English language teacher, so how would I introduce the topic of trade unionism to a class? Maybe some prompt pictures, a short video, a quote, or perhaps we could try a word association game? You know how it works. Of course, I would also ask the students what they know about unions. We actually did a similar activity at an ELT Advocacy open meeting last year. The teachers who were present got into groups and we brainstormed our vision for a better ELT sector. The ideas from that meeting went on to form our Ten Point Charter.

Unite Charter

Unite the Union Charter for English Language Teachers

So how would you complete this sentence? Trade unionists are…? militant! communist! bad! outdated! ineffective! Oh. Really? Those are not the words I would use to describe my mother, yet she was the very first chair of her branch, an organiser who was proud to be in a union. Nor words I would use to describe my father, who as a public sector worker was a member of a union for his entire working life. Nor words I would use to describe myself, a proud member of the Unite ELT Branch, or my fellow members. But yet they are words I’ve heard whispered, used behind my back to describe us or to dismiss ELT Advocacy’s efforts to encourage people to join the union. Lately, I’ve done a lot of talking about teacher’s rights and I don’t think it’s a taboo subject. So let’s talk about these things.

Three weeks ago, I was at a press briefing in Buswells Hotel in Dublin. We were there to speak to TDs and senators (members of the Irish parliament) about the scandal of bogus self-employment in our sector and to lobby for regulation of the ELT sector. We wanted the Ten Point Charter to be included in the bill that will form the International Education Mark (IEM) in Ireland (This deserves and will receive a future blog post of its own).  I was really nervous. I’d never done anything like that before. I’m a teacher, not a politician. I’m not used to having a roomful of legislators asking me questions or being interviewed by journalists. I’m better at answering questions about the difference between made of and made from, or how to pronounce comfortable.

To be honest, I didn’t want to be in that situation. It was nerve-wracking and I started wishing the drive for unionisation had happened long before I joined the sector. But we were there to represent English language teachers all over Ireland as well as my colleagues and friends who I  didn’t want to let down. Once we had all spoken about the reality of ELT in Ireland (Aileen was amazing, speaking from Japan at midnight via Skype!) it was the TDs turn to ask questions and offer advice. What immediately struck me was that everyone there was commending us for the work we had already done, for joining the union and organising. They wanted us to know how crucial it was that teachers were signing up. They wanted to know how many members we had, and when we thought we’d be able to hit critical mass. Irish politicians who care about worker’s rights are happy to talk about trade unionism because they think that’s what we should be doing and because they know that unions work.

Later that week, I met a historian working at a prestigious university here in Ireland. Despite having a PhD, many years of experience lecturing and having been published in many of her field’s leading journals, she was employed on an academic year-to-year basis, despite working in the same position. As our children played together we discussed the worry of rising rents, house prices and the (in)ability to get a mortgage when you don’t have a permanent job. We compared industries. She was disgusted when I told her that most English Language teachers didn’t have sick or holiday pay and in many cases didn’t have contracts. We talked about what could be done for both our sectors. We both agreed – organise, join the union, collectively bargain. The conversation is happening in academia in Ireland, and people are angry. We now know that, as had been predicted over and over, the lack of basic workers’ rights that exists in English language teaching is spreading to other third level education sectors. People are organising, but it’s up to us ourselves to halt the spectre of precarious work and to mandate change for all teachers and lecturers. We need to stick together.

That same weekend, I was asked to go on the Marian Finucane show as part of a panel discussion on precarious work conditions. I arrived in RTE and met Deborah Reynolds and Clare (surname withheld by request). Deborah works as an early years educator and is part of a campaign to bring together professionals, providers & parents to transform the Early Years Sector, and ensure a professional wage for early years educators. Now we’re in touch and we’ll be working together in the future too. Clare was working for Deliveroo and was pressuring the company into acknowledging that their employees were employees, and not self-employed contractors. All three of us were union members, and had the support of our unions to campaign and lobby and bring about positive change in our professions. We spoke about our lives and our struggles on air with Marian. After we had finished the discussion and were leaving, Marian’s production team were all very supportive and some of them knew of our respective campaigning for our sector. They were all union members.

In some sectors, like my father’s, it’s taken for granted that workers will join a union, but that’s not the case everywhere. The sector we all now work in is becoming more and more dynamic, innovative and professional every year. Things weren’t always this way in ELT. It used to be much worse. Schools were oftentimes run by people who had no respect for anything other than making enormous amounts of money in an inordinately short time. Teachers could be (and were) let go on a whim, or because the boss didn’t like their attitude or they asked for a pay rise.  There were no professional standards in the schools and Directors of Studies were mainly expected to get the school through their inspections every two years. Every teacher knows the drill – before ACELS came in, there were more staff meetings, paperwork was inspected more thoroughly, lesson plans had to be handed in promptly, there might be some nice new posters on the walls, but once it was over, things went  back to normal. In one place I worked in the past, the Director received a bonus if the school passed its inspection. Of course, it didn’t apply to the teachers. Nowadays the standards that are set for inspections are becoming the day to day norm and that is so encouraging. But we have yet to catch up with our colleagues in public sector teaching in terms of union membership.

The regulatory system of English language teaching in Ireland, ACELS, has had a lot to do with this professionalism, as have organisations like ELT Ireland. But why don’t ACELS inspect our pay slips? Or inspect the staff room at 5.30 or 6pm, to see teachers preparing for the next day, doing unpaid work? The new regulation system has definitely improved and professionalised the industry, but it hasn’t professionalised our salaries. The Department of Education are very clear that they won’t do anything to protect us and help us cast off the shackles of bogus self-employment. However, despite their insistence that we are not the same as primary or secondary teachers, we are regulated by the Department of Education and “all teachers working in language schools must have a Level 7 degree and [have] taken a recognised EFL certificate course.” They tell us that we do not come under the remit of the Department, yet we are fully accountable under the law to ensure we accurately record students’ attendance. If we encounter problems in our working lives, they tell us we need to go to the Labour Court, and for that, guess who we need? Yep, the union. In addition, it’s the union who know that it is the department’s responsibility to insist that schools improve our conditions and they know how, who and when to lobby.

There is an elephant in the room we need to address. Some teachers went to the unions after the school closure crisis of 2014. One union in particular, unfamiliar with the insanity of the terms and conditions of being an ELT, did not serve its members well, and could not protect workers from the mass closures that occurred. It should be pointed out that by the time the teachers went to them, the situation was out of control completely. You don’t hire a safety officer after the nuclear power plant has exploded and expect everything to be sorted immediately. But of course that didn’t help the teachers who ended up losing month’s worth of wages and who had to sign on in the dole office that year. It’s natural for some teachers to still be wary of the unions, based on what happened in 2014. But the strategy applied by the unions at that time didn’t work, and all of us must acknowledge that. In response to the huge international embarrassment, the government’s response was swift, bringing in legislation regarding the school owners, safety measures protecting student fees, and eligible language programmes. That legislation brought in to regulate the industry has removed a lot of the ‘cowboy’ schools but it doesn’t make any mention of our rights as workers. When Unite the Union became involved with the ELT sector, they encouraged us to grow the movement, through meetings and workshops, partly to find out what workers wanted to change about the industry and to help us formulate plans to achieve those aims. Unite the Union and regional organiser Roy Hassey in particular, have done sterling work with teachers. It’s been a steep learning curve to understand the complexities of our (until now, mostly invisible) sector and they have been instrumental in moving our movement forward and towards legislative protection for English language teachers. This is a now a serious movement.

This is what we need unions for; to safeguard us from these kind of things ever happening again, and to advance our rights in our workplaces. We need to get together right now and have these conversations. In the staff room, at lunch, on the night out, whenever there’s a chance. How many hours of unpaid work do you do? Do you think that’s fair? Do you have a contract? Is your contract permanent or fixed term? Do you get sick pay? Holiday pay? Who can help us to get these things? Who can really empower us to make our jobs better, our working conditions better, and make us more relaxed, calmer, happier teachers? You might think that you’re not going to stay in ELT, just like I did 15 years ago. But what if you’re still in ELT in 15 years like me? I’m getting paid 50 cent less per hour than I was when I started. What am I doing about that? Well, there’s only one answer.

To those who will probably think I’m only saying this because I’m the chair of the branch and I want people to join, I say yes, you’re right – of course I want people to join the union because I know it can improve our working conditions. How do I know? Well, my mother, when she first started her job, was told that there was no union for her profession, yet others in her workplace were in a union. It took her a few years but my mother managed to get enough workers to join together to start their own branch of the union. Those of you familiar with ELT Advocacy will know that we were involved in a similar situation last year and we managed to start the very first ELT union branch in Ireland.

How’s my mum doing now? She retired last year after more than 20 years of dedicated service with a public sector pension. My father, who had to take part in industrial action in order to save his pension entitlements, is also retired on a decent pension. Our conversations on this topic are often amusing because they can’t understand why anyone would be wary of joining the union. My mum automatically thinks that everyone from my generation is more liberal than Jeremy Corbyn. A recent conversation went something like this:

Mum: “How can the people who voted for marriage equality be against unions? And ye who welcome people from all over the world. You even married one! So did a load of your mates! What’s wrong with joining a union?”

Me: “Well, I really don’t know, mum.”

Dad: “It’s very simple, remember when you started and there was no union. What happened? Nothing! When you got laid off with a week’s notice what happened? Nothing! Now at least you’re all in it together. Sure look at me and your mother. We’d have never had our entitlements, our pay grades, our pensions if we’d left it up to them (their public sector employers). I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to join one. Where’s the harm in it?”

Me: “I know. I don’t know, dad.”

I want to say one last thing to the teachers who have just finished their CELT/A, or who haven’t been in the industry for long, but who want to stay. Please stay. Have these chats, talk to your friends and family, think about what you want, and how we can achieve it better together. Senior teachers, it’s up to you to educate the new teachers and tell them what it’s really like. Tell them you haven’t had a pay rise in 19 years, or that you have no chance of getting a mortgage, or saving for your pension. Don’t tell them it’s just a matter of getting their foot in the door in a school and they’ll be okay. I don’t know about you, but I can’t continue on wages that have been stagnant for 15 years, earning the same wage I earned in 2002. I can’t go on working in a job I genuinely love, doing hours I don’t get paid for, taking holidays I can’t afford, with a contract that makes it impossible for me to get a mortgage. Worst of all is seeing my children who can’t understand why I have to work late or on Saturdays doing exams just to get by.  Things are going to change and we’re going to change them. But we need everyone to think long and hard about collectively organising in their workplaces. If you want it, you need to join the union. There is no other plan. If we don’t do this, it’s a race to the bottom and we’ll be the ones who suffer most and longest. But if we insist on decent working conditions, we can change an entire industry. Right now, today, when you finish reading this, ask yourself these questions, have this conversation, spread the word – it’s not just okay to talk about these things, it’s imperative.

I’ll finish by remembering Mary Manning and the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike, the 30th anniversary of which fell two weeks ago. The 11 mostly young people who refused to handle South African goods (on a union instruction) and who were indefinitely suspended, eventually brought about the world’s very first countrywide ban on South African goods and services. They were eventually supported by the people of Dublin, followed by the people of Ireland, followed by the world’s first official boycott of apartheid. Ordinary people, ordinary trade unionists, did a truly extraordinary thing. There is now a street in South Africa names after Mary Manning. As Liz Deasy, another of the 11, said at the time, “if you believe something is right and worth fighting for, you’ll get there in the end.”

Keith Murdiff

Chairperson of the Unite ELT Branch

 

Dunnes Workers

Eamon O’Donoghue, Mary Manning, Catherine O’Reilly and Nicky Kelly outside Dunnes on Henry Street on 24 August, 1985
Photo: Photocall Ireland

Keith and Dad

My father and I outside the building where he clocked in every day for 25 years

 

 

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Uncategorized

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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