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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