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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