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

 

Advertisements