Teacher trainers: it’s time to talk to your trainees about unions

As colleagues around Ireland return from IATEFL in Brighton talking about the brave/ insightful/ overdue talk by this presenter or another, ELT Advocacy remembers Silvana Richardson’s brave, insightful, overdue talk about non-native English speaking teachers in 2016. Her talk inspired this article originally published in The Teacher Trainer Journal in the Spring of 2017 re-published here with the permission of the Journal. Its conclusions seem worth repeating in the shadow of the closure of our fellow teachers’ school in Limerick this month. It is aimed specifically at teacher trainers and observers on CELT, CELTA and CertTESOL courses.

At the 2016 IATEFL conference held in Birmingham, UK  Silvana Richardson’s plenary brought to light a neglected part of the ELT conversation. Instead of discussing how to help your students get wrong answers right, she asked us to think about the rights and wrongs being done to our colleagues when discriminated against by employers. In doing so she demonstrated that it is safe, and even necessary, to begin coming out about our responsibilities to each other as fellow professionals.

The talk was about employment rights: specifically, the right to be considered for a teaching job without discrimination as to your nationality. Richardson’s discussion commendably recognized the need for local, organisation-level observations and actions. It was perhaps this that made me sit up and pay close attention. This was a very different IATEFL plenary.

Though a ‘native’ speaker of English myself, the content of Richardson’s talk reflected my own experience, having played many roles in ELT in Ireland apart from ownership of a school. In management, in the classroom, and in working with the school’s promotions and activities and training teams, I noticed a constant favouritism towards English native speakers, from which of course I passively benefitted.

Richardson took the opportunity to engage her fellow professionals using European ELT’s biggest platform to advocate for our colleagues who often face discrimination. She framed ELT as work within the context of workplace rights. She talked about professional rights, by discussing the legal, practical and ethical basis of those rights. She also advocated the expectation of professionalism from management as well as respect from paying students. It rightfully earned its place in the history books as a seminal talk.

For those who could not attend the 2015 conference, IATEFL debated a request on their Facebook page to create a Special Interest Group (SIG) on ELT professionals as ‘workers’. That 2015 ‘Teachers as Workers SIG’ discussion has continued in a Google+ group ‘TAWSIG’ where TEFL Equity Advocates organiser Marek Kiczkowiak contributes, along with ELT people from around the world. His work, like Richardson’s plenary, aims to mark a change in global ELT culture.

Dublin college closures reveal schools’ relationship with teaching staff

Students are disappointed standing in front of their closed ELT school

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

From 2014 to 2015 Dublin, Ireland saw 15 ELT school owners bow ungraciously out of the Irish private education market. They abandoned students from all over the world, taking off with their tuition fees and avoiding prosecution. The exodus has halted for the most part. But the students are still out of pocket and will never have their fees refunded. Acrimony and public protest forced new national government regulations to put an end to this for students and owners… but what about the teachers?

Where did the staff end up afterwards? When the schools began to close there was support and pity for cheated students and there were questions for errant owners but for the teachers? Like the old whiteboards, they were out on the street, hoping someone else would pick them up. It was discouraging and de-humanising to see how useless one’s continuing professional development was, when for-profit ELT was free from oversight.

So what?

What is the connection between this string of business closures in Ireland and Silvana Richardson’s pioneering talk in England? It becomes clear when you realise that English language teachers are frontline workers yet are not considered stakeholders in the for-profit ELT sector. During the College Closure Crisis we learned that in our for-profit environment, novice and veteran teachers needed active protection in the form of an informed organization that represents their voice during negotiations. The DoSs and ADoSs were not informed or prepared on how to handle closures or spot the signs that the business might be in trouble. They were either unaware of what was happening or covering for the owners.

Who advocates for the English language teachers?

Part of the reason Irish ELT staff didn’t report their concerns to the authorities may have been fear for their jobs. In other words, their precarity* kept them from doing their jobs properly. Another reason may have been that they didn’t know who would listen or who would give safe advice. This was because local regulators, ACELS, a voluntary semi-governmental body, may have appeared to staff as biased by their very long and close relationship to established schools. The sector’s older schools had always lobbied for ‘self-regulation’ too. So these ‘optional regulators*’ may have seemed to be part of the problem.

Friends in other schools were not a safe option for advice as talking ‘across’ school walls was seen as treasonous from the owner and management’s point of view. ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ How about the top: the government? But government officials don’t have time to talk to every individual who had a suspicion that their employer was conducting business illegally or was about to suddenly close a school. So who represents the teachers in times of trouble or need? When the time came for government action, government ministers expected teachers to be represented as a group at the table. They expected them to be organized… like ‘real’ teachers… in unions. Where were our unions? This was a government question to teachers when they approached their parliamentary representatives.

The big question

So, why weren’t the Irish teachers in unions?

There were many reasons why.

Sometimes it was because if the bosses found out, there was a legitimate fear that you would slowly be given fewer hours until suddenly you weren’t needed any more. Using your rights to union membership can increase your chances of discrimination in ELT. Open union membership or an attempt to unionise colleagues, perhaps even more than a ‘non-native’ passport or accent, can be a serious mark against you in most Irish ELT staffrooms, and I would bet the same can be said of the UK too.

So is our right to union membership in the UK and Ireland any less of a right than the right to equality in the hiring process which Silvana Richardson championed so gracefully and boldly and to so much applause in 2016? This is the question we need to discuss because increased professionalism, equality and better conditions will ultimately follow from widespread union membership.

Unions promote the equality Richardson and Kiczkowiak both talk about. Unions provide the expertise and standing under the law to address and advise on a lifelong career in ELT beyond the hiring phase. Unions representing ELT do exist: see TEFL Guild’s advice on unions for the UK, Ireland and Canada. And don’t forget the American Federation of Teachers, a union which was a major sponsor of the 2016 TESOL Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

 Join unite website banner11-33255

I’m a teacher trainer/ educator/ mentor. What can I do?

My request to those who work with teachers in a training capacity is this: please talk to these teachers about joining a union. In Ireland, ELT ADVOCACY have put in many hours informing unions about our sector and unions have won victories for ELT workers here.

Trainees often spend a year or so with a less than reputable school in an effort to gain experience in their first years of work, with little more to protect them than a smile and good will. ELT can’t just mean Exploiting Language Teachers, but change will only come when ELT workers take themselves, their profession and their colleagues seriously. Individual degrees and training gain entry but what will ELT professionals find when they get beyond the gateway to the field?

How trainers are key: a story of success

Here’s a parallel from another field. Archeologists working on building sites in Ireland were subject to contracts with pay below the living wage. The Living Wage in Ireland is €11.50 while minimum wage is €9.55. Site archeologists were earning slightly more than the minimum wage. These were archeologists who had Masters’ degrees and PhDs.

Why was their highly skilled work being paid so poorly? Why were the digger drivers on the sites being paid better? The answer was that the digger drivers were in unions. Getting enough archeologists into a union was a problem but it was resolved when the archaeology lecturers in the universities and trainers started playing their part as local advocates. When they encouraged their students to join a union, numbers swelled and union membership was normalized. The union was then able to use the courts on the archeologists’ behalf. The benefits were felt on all sides. The archeologists continued their professional practice for the good of our national heritage. The building site operators who planned for and hired the archeologists raised their rates commensurately. And the wonderful people who trained the archeologists anticipate a small rise in the number of course applicants because those would-be professional diggers can now say ‘yes’ to following their dream since the wages now match the level of commitment and training their profession requires. The same thing can happen in the English language teaching industry.


It’s time for trainers, educators and mentors to join a union. It’s time to talk to the teachers we work with and encourage them to use their legal rights to unionise too, to make ELT a safer place to work and develop in. It’s time for us all to join a union – just like public sector teachers – so that we can all have real contracts and wages.

ELT is good work. It should be respected. But it is up to us to earn that respect through organization. Continuing Professional Development won’t do it. PhDs don’t get better contracts – union members do. Consider the duty of care you have for the teachers you’re training. Take a page out of Silvana Richardson’s book and stand up for teachers as professionals.

As Philip Kerr said at IATEFL 2016, ‘Things are changing. Join a union.’


Irish Council of International Students webpage on the Irish College Closure Crisis
‘Welcome to the precariat: a new class born’ by Paul Gillespie in The Irish Times 8/11/2014
‘International students hold protest in Dublin city centre’ by Sorcha Pollack in The Irish Times 5/5/2015
 *Precarity is a precarious existence, lacking in predictability, job security, material or psychological welfare. The social class defined by this condition has been termed the precariat.
 *Optional Regulators
Here I am referring to ACELS, but also to MEI and IEM Providers QQI under the Department of Education and Skills.
MEI [See http://www.mei.ie/ ] promotes membership as a further mark of quality while working as a coordinating body for established school owners through which they can lobby government and coordinate efforts. It is thus not unlike a national union for local ELT organisation owners.
The Irish Department of Education and Skills operates QQI who set the International Education Mark which licenses schools to provide courses to students who will require visas. An inspection regime is in place to facilitate their work. But surprisingly, a school can still choose to operate outside all of these optional regulators as a small service provider for EU or resident students  customers. This leaves those students, and teachers, at risk.


Reprinted with the kind permission of The Teacher Trainer where this article originally appeared as ‘Time to talk about unions?‘ in Volume 31 Number 1, pages 20-21.

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