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


5 thoughts on “Bullying, harassment and workplace abuses: Kieran’s story

  1. I’ve only just caught up with this article. “Keeping up was never easy” . It reminded me uncomfortably of my experience in a private language school in London probably about 40 years ago! From that perspective I would say that ., while fully acknowledging that in today’s world a teacher often has little chance of picking and choosing and must accept what is on offer , ideally you don’t work in any institution where you are in total disagreement with those in authority. My heart goes out to Kieran and I’m relieved another post was found. Regulating the private language school area is a serious issue, world-wide but as an 82-year-old who spent virtually his entire TEFL career in the state systems of a number of countries, I’d say: realise, if you go for the private sector, the profit-motive, in all areas, not illogically, will be manifest. Dennis


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