2019 Resolutions for ELTs

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You’ve made it mid-way through January, congratulations! If you’ve made any resolutions, have you stayed with them? It’s possible that, like me, you’ve forgotten about your resolutions entirely, so here is a fun article to add more to your life.

Why bother with resolutions?

Excellent question. Today, January 21st, is dubbed ‘Blue Monday’ in order to give clickbait headlines a chance to shine in the dreary post-Christmas gloom of winter.

I hate maths. Photo credit.

According to The Telegraph, these confusing and horrible reminders of Leaving Cert Honours maths represent the following:

W = weather

D = debt

d = monthly salary

T = time since Christmas

Q = time since failing our new year’s resolutions

M = low motivational levels

Na = the feeling of a need to take action

I’m already feeling crap, do I have to do maths as well?

Yes, it’s marketing nonsense, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining and informative. Let’s look at this formula more closely to see how it applies to ELT in Ireland

Weather: Pah, as if anything can be done about the weather in this damp and marshy isle.

Debt: See next point

Monthly salary: Now this one is where we can help. For the last 3 years, there has been a concentrated effort by teachers, driven by Unite and supported by ELT Advocacy to improve working conditions for English language teachers in Ireland. Some remarkable events have transpired lately, including the appointment of a mediator by Mary Mitchell- O’Connor to discuss issues in the unregulated ELT sector. Mitchell- O’Connor stated:

My key objective is to ensure that Ireland has an English language sector that we can all have confidence in … Teachers and staff are a central element in ensuring the quality of that educational provision.

MerrionStreet.ie, 13th January, 2019

We are being acknowledged as actual stakeholders in our industry now! From the former education minister refusing to even acknowledge that we were teachers, to being a driving force for a mediation process in which school owners and teachers will finally be on a more equal footing. When one considers the history of ELT in Ireland, and the unchecked power of the language schools over teachers, this is a big, big win. Next stop – better wages?

Time since Christmas: Yes, it’s very sad, but there are Easter eggs in Tesco already.

Never resolve to give up on chocolate

Time since failing our New Year’s Resolutions: Fear not! As mentioned, this post will bestow 7 brand new resolutions on you, whither wanted or not, in a beautiful infographic format, to make it easier to remember.

Low motivational levels: This one can blight us all. What’s the point in trying to change things, it’s not going to improve, etc., etc. Well let’s look at the example of Grafton College in December. Teachers whose unpaid wages amounted to €75,000 were literally abandoned by the school owner and left unemployed just before Christmas in a city with one of the highest rents in the world in the middle of a seasonal dip in employment. We were furious. We protested. We made a huge noise. A fundraiser was set up, and we donated in droves. A fundraising quiz was organised by Unite which was well-attended and raised a lot of money. We wrote and shared articles, we urged our colleagues to get involved. And this did not go unnoticed. Unite’s stellar efforts in lobbying the Seanad over the last two years on the QQI legislation meant we had many allies who fought our case on the legislative floor – against the government who voted us down.

And it worked. The Grafton teachers, some of them new to campaigning, some of them not, were present in the public gallery when the bill passed by a single vote and moved on to the next stage of Oireachtas. That’s pretty fucking motivational, in my view. That a group of teachers can achieve actual legislative change to ensure that the industry stops treating its workers like disposable nothings.

It doesn’t take much to set things in motion

Last one- Need to take action: Well you know what you’ve got to do now, right? Start by looking at the resolution chart to see what you’ve done and where you need to begin. Join Unite here. Go to the branch meetings, vote on issues, bring forward motions, use your skills to enact change. Put in the work now to ensure you’re never in a situation like the Grafton College teachers, or like the other 20 plus schools that closed suddenly. It takes sustained political action to make our industry secure, decent and viable.

Have conversations in your staff room (if safe to do so), with other teachers, including newly-qualified teachers and teachers new to teaching in Ireland. Start taking detailed records of the work you’re doing outside the hourly wage that you’re paid. Admin work, planning, printing, researching – that is work, and if you’re not on a salary, you deserve to be paid for it. Is your school’s “admin rate” enough for the work you’re doing? Take notes, encourage other teachers to do the same. Go and read The Payment of Wages Act 1991. Be informed on your rights.

Get involved with ELT Advocacy – we’re always looking for people to get involved in the work we do supporting the branch. Writers, artists, advocates, people who get shit done – if that’s you, we want you.

My ELT resolutions

Print this off, put it somewhere you can see it regularly, and monitor your progress throughout the year. Apparently it takes only 21 days to make a new habit stick, so if you can keep up any of these resolutions until at least the 11th of February, you’ll be doing well. We’ll check back in then to see how things are going.

Don’t disappoint the beautiful infographic
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Snap Closures: My Story

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Following the closure of Grafton College, we have decided to publish stories from teachers about the effects of these closures on their lives. If you want to contribute your story, please email eltadvocacy@gmail.com in confidence. 

This is my story

My school closed suddenly in 2011. I had been working with them since 2003, it was my first school. As teachers, all we knew was that the numbers were dropping – the owner claimed that the Brazilian market had shut down (clearly not the case) and the Saudi Arabian students that we had were known for leaving schools as a group and going to a new one.

They had also made redundancies not long before it happened, which they did via a points scheme. Everyone gained or lost points depending on length of service, qualifications, whether they’d ever been in trouble with the manager etc. Some people quit straight away because they knew they wouldn’t have enough points to stay. This was mainly due to the new regulations at the time saying that evening classes were no longer allowed.  

Out of nowhere

Then, in the middle of the school day, a manager went around asking us all to stay for a meeting that it was “important” for us to attend. She didn’t give any hint of what was happening. During the meeting, the owner announced that they were closing – effective immediately – and not to come in the next day. We were all pretty stunned. I don’t even know how the students were informed but I met some of them over the coming days and although the office staff continued working for a while to get their certificates out to them, they were all upset and worried as well. It seemed to take a long time for some of them to even get proof that they had done a course with us.

We had to attend several redundancy meetings where the manager “gave notice”, attempting to follow some kind of employment law, but not doing it in the right way. We were told we had no right to be at any meeting of creditors. We were paid wages up to the last day, which at least was better than some people’s situations, but waited several months for the notice pay and longer for redundancy money to come through. There was no external support of any kind and the ‘meetings’ were 2 minutes each where we had to take care to go in in pairs or groups and take notes for each other because we couldn’t trust the manager not to get us to agree to something not in our best interests. We knew she was trying to rush us through the process and none of us were really thinking straight. As for the owners: one of them had already quit during the ‘points scheme’ and he opened a new college which has also since closed. The remaining owner, according to LinkedIn, is in San Francisco, and the untrustworthy manager now has a cupcake business.

Lightning strikes twice

It was May and I was lucky, I only had to sign on the dole for a short while before I got some summer cover work and something semi-permanent at another school – until that too closed down in September! This time we were informed at the start of the month, so we were prepared. It was a small school and there were only 11 students. The students were absorbed by one of the bigger schools, we were properly paid, and I signed on again until I was lucky enough to get work with two schools in October. I know many of my colleagues were not so lucky and some have left the industry entirely.

Another school that I worked at was almost as bad at first. On my first day the DoS quit suddenly and there were 3 of us new teachers that nobody knew what to do with, so it didn’t seem like that was going to last long, but luckily they did manage to sort it out and it seemed more professionally run, at least from my perspective, although a later DoS thought otherwise. I was there about 2 years, one school in the mornings and another in the afternoons, until I got a promotion and worked with one school full-time. 

My situation now

I’ve since moved to another school as a DoS. The owner here is much nicer and at least seems genuine when he expresses shock at the snap closures. But it’s still difficult to see a long-term future in the school (in any school), and very difficult to feel anything other than resignation when a teacher gets a better offer and leaves without notice. The owner makes noises about ‘loyalty’ but I’ve learned that none of us can afford loyalty, we’ve been through too many schools that haven’t been loyal to us in any way. How can we expect teachers to give their best work when they’re not feeling secure or paid well?

Teacher protections, or lack thereof

I really feel there should be as much protection for teachers as there are for students. So many of the ILEP and QQI rules seem designed to discourage schools from operating at all, rather than to improve things. They’re focusing on having the right number of hours and which levels we aren’t allowed to run, and making sure we discipline students for having low attendance and make them do a TIE exam – and then none of it matters when the student goes to GNIB because they don’t face any consequences there, but any little breach of a small rule will get us tossed off the ILEP. There’s no focus on making sure employers treat teachers well, pay them properly, give them sick pay or holiday allowance, contracts, etc. No focus on making sure the teachers don’t get all the blame when an inspection goes badly (this being mainly focused on the management area). Not even focus on making sure students don’t get thrown in the wrong level because “it’s a business and we’re not providing a class of a suitable level for less than 15 people”. Owners won’t focus on any of those things until regulations and inspectors do.

Looking ahead

I do still want to be part of the industry but it’s very difficult to feel secure in any job. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from getting into ELT. It is still a rewarding job in spite of it all. But I’d make sure they know that in a lot of cases, you do it for the students and not for the pay. 

By C.K.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

‘So, do you have any questions for us?’

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June is traditionally the easiest month to find an English language teaching role in any of Ireland’s ELT organisations.  The number of teaching roles in Ireland goes from 1000 to 2000 for a brief two and a half months, according to a speaker at recent ELT event in Dublin. That’s a lot of interviewing.
Q: How can we jobbing ELT managers and precariously employed English language teachers use those interviews to turn those 1000 year-round jobs into 1000 real year-round jobs?
A: By asking the right questions.
Teachers in Unite the Union‘s ELT Branch put together this list. Pick a couple of questions below and ask them when the interviewer asks you ‘So, do you have any questions for us?’. If you aren’t changing schools consider this: How would your current school answer them?
(But I’m the hiring manager this year /the DOS/in a good school/getting a Delta/ Helping my DOS and she’s my friend!  Be clear about things. Don’t lose your professional cool if a another professional asks these questions about the role you are offering in the profession. To be clear: whether you are looking for fun fling summer love or an ‘English summer camp’ teacher, be clear about it. And some praise is due this year. It is great to see so many professional ads this year clearly stating they are hiring ‘for the summer’. Well-qualified experienced professionals being misled might (and should) land the offending school in the WRC. It is not ok and it should stop.)
So save this page for your next interview, if they offer you less than €22/hr, there is good reason for you go ahead and ask ’em all. In Dublin, how much are you going to be able to save if you are making less than that?
Here’s to not just breaking even one of these years…
● Is there a pay scale?
● Is there payment for CPD/non-contact hours?
● How many days sick pay are paid?
● How is holiday pay accrued and am I entitled to take it when I want?
● Are my conditions (sick/holiday pay, pay scales, payment for non contact hours etc) specified on my contract?
● Can I see a sample contract?
● How long must I be working for the company before I receive a permanent contract?
● Are my hours stated on my contract?
● Are all the hours paid at teacher’s rates?
● Is there a clear policy on bullying?
● How much notice will I get if hours are to be reduced/classes closed?
● Is that stipulated in a/the contract?
● Would this school contribute to (or pay for) my Diploma or Master’s after a certain period?
● What happens in the autumn?
Bluffer-DOS-2.png
Suggestions? Write to us.
I.T., thanks for your help on this list.

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

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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.

Conclusion

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.’

 

SEE ALSO:
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
FOOTNOTES:
 *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.

What happens now?

LanLearnProtected

The closure of LanLearn in Limerick City will be a test case for learner protection reforms introduced in October 2015. Despite the ELT owners’ eagerness to claim through their lobbying organisations and literature that there is room to expand the industry, there is no discussion as to the precise relationship between employees and customers. I’m using these terms as I have heard and seen various attempts to redefine the role of English language teachers. Learners and students are in effect customers, regardless of how they see the teacher-student relationship in the classroom. Essentially that is what will unfold in the coming weeks as the reforms are tested.

Already the insurance companies have enacted “contingency plans” for the relocation and refunding of students. Owners have recourse under company law to try and cut their losses by a number of measures, one of them being insolvency procedures. The discourse will then shift to regulatory jargon regarding existing or proposed standards “going forward”. One thing is for certain, the teachers left unpaid and out of work will not feature as a main part of the discourse, and this is unacceptable.

Teachers’ rights and protections are absent from the narrative. No insurance company will be rushing to find adequate ELT providers to relocate teachers, however, their students are protected under the regulations and should be relocated as soon as possible. It’s hard to imagine an educational sector with such blatant disregard for the welfare of its employees. This situation seen in the example of LanLearn can happen again and we need to be prepared to assert our role as custodians of an incredibly important educational sector.

We must press ahead with actions and discourse that places teacher’s rights on a par with that of students and owners. Our job title has become synonymous with precariousness and instability, and is in danger of becoming disgustingly cliché. Yet, our role as educators runs parallel with our duty as educational professionals to enact and enforce standards that protect students and employers. Who then protects the teachers?

As ELT professionals we must eliminate all elements within the industry that seek to relegate our role to that of an expendable, interchangeable element of the business model. We must meet the propaganda of the owners as the living fuel that sustains their industry. This year with the upcoming QQI bill we will have the opportunity to establish these standards, and ELT Advocacy and ELT Unite encourage all teachers to analyse and critique the legislation, as well as push for amendments that secure our livelihoods.

Our work already enriches the insurance companies, sales and marketing teams not to mention the countless complimentary industries that survive from the intake of students and their purchasing behaviour. The final product is always the class taught hours, often promised along a chain of marketing deceit, but delivered earnestly and professionally under a variety of  often difficult circumstances. There are no schools without teachers and if we don’t assert our rights then our role will forever be ignored and its precarious nature will eventually undermine the industry itself.

 By Ian Temple

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

Enough is enough – say NO to vulture employers

Next Wednesday the 18th of October at 12.30pm, Unite ELT branch members, ELT activists and supporters are holding a protest at the top of Capel Street in Dublin against a form of employment abuse that has been going on in the ELT sector for far too long.

There are English language schools in Dublin right now who are forcing their teachers into bogus self-employment. This means some school owners and managers in ILEP-listed schools are forcing teachers to work as ‘contractors’, sending invoices to the school for their work. Revenue Commissioners have stated very clearly that by their definitions, English language teaching work (taking place in schools with a syllabus for a course) is not and cannot be considered self-employment.

Classing ELT workers as self-employed is bogus. It’s also damaging to everyone working in the industry, as better employers are competing with those using coercive employment; and the customer doesn’t know right from wrong. Visa renewal students make their school choice based on factors unrelated to employment law and are mostly unaware of the treatment of their teachers. They will generally believe the sales and marketing reps who sell them the moon on a stick and often have no training or understanding of the treatment of ELTs or the precarious nature of their work.

Though these schools often insist that they are acting within the law, and that it works out better for the teachers, these statements are false. Self-employed teachers will almost certainly end up paying more tax, are not entitled to social welfare or fixed rate expenses, and they are open to investigation and potential legal issues should the school where they are contracted obfuscate their tax affairs. I have personally heard evidence from teachers in bogus self-employment that this is the case in many schools across both Dublin and nationwide. This is both alarming and sadly reminiscent of the situation which preceded the closure of 16 language schools in 2014. Failure by the authorities to listen to one of the major stakeholders in this situation – the teachers – only hastens the next crisis. What is different this time is that we are organising and we have an alternative, put forward by English language teachers.

Some schools start teachers on the payroll, only to then demand that the teachers change their status to self-employed once they have been working there for a period of time. We have to ask, who benefits most from this arrangement, teachers or the school owners? English language teaching as an entity does not. This is a strategy employed by business owners to simply cheat employees out of access to their statutory workers’ rights under Irish law.

Some schools understand the stress and powerlessness caused by bogus self-employment and dishonestly lure teachers in by offering a real contract at the end of the first month as an incentive. A month-long trial period for a low-paid precarious job. Classed as self-employed, despite there being no legal basis for this. The employer can dismiss you when they want or when you are surplus to requirement. Self-employment as ‘probation period’ makes coercion and bullying more prevalent and ingrained in the culture of the company. There are schools in Dublin who have dismissed teachers when they refused to work as self-employed contractors. Citing the ‘nature of the industry’, they leave their employees a Hobson’s choice.

For far too long now, the vocabulary of the industry has been dictated by the vested interests of the school owners. This is happening in more than a couple of schools in Dublin, and not just in those schools without QQI approval. Using bogus self-employment forces struggling English language teachers into even more precarious working conditions, without the safety net of social welfare to protect them should the school close suddenly, as in 2014. We heard of ‘visa factories’ and ‘cowboy schools’ and we were led to believe that after the spate of school closures in 2014 things would change, and they did indeed change – for some connected vested interests. But teachers outside and inside of schools are still an afterthought in the education business. Left out in the cold in 2014, and still left out, today we are dealing with vulture employers who force their teachers into bogus self-employment.

The Department of Education, MEI and ACELS/QQI have all spoken of their intention to achieve sustainable growth in the industry. The plan seems to be to keep this growth for owners at the expense of teacher’s lives and rights. Where are we as stakeholders mentioned in any of the current legislation passing through the Education committee, the Quality and Qualifications Assurance (Amendment) Bill? Unite the Union will fight for the inclusion of the 10 Point Charter for English Language teachers in the planned International Education Mark, and we will fight to eradicate bogus self-employment in our industry. We need your support at the protest and beyond to show these vested interests that we will not be silenced any longer and that our voices will be heard.

The gig economy, so often in the news recently, is an extension of bogus self-employment. Workers from Deliveroo, Uber and Ryanair are standing up to their vulture employers and saying enough is enough. If we teachers tolerate this, our jobs will be next. Join us at the top of Capel Street, beside DCAS, from 12.30pm – 1.45pm on Wednesday the 18th of October. Say no to vulture employers, no to unfair dismissal and bullying and no to bogus self-employment. Let our voices be heard.

Keith Murdiff

Chair, Unite ELT Branch

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We need your help

It can be hugely frustrating reading the news lately. So much backwardness coming from the USA, rumblings of nuclear threats, frighteningly random terrorist attacks in European cities, the horrific situation for millions living in the Middle East, and closer to home, the dire situation for so many people living at and under the poverty line.

It is easier to turn to lighter news and frivolities to escape the unending bad news that we are exposed to every day because too much can contribute to poor mental health and anxiety, in part caused by a sense of helplessness. What can one person really do? Small actions in the face of larger systemic domination can feel inadequate. But just thinking about getting involved is never going to be enough to effect real change, and if you find yourself in the position where you are able to take some concrete actions, we ask you to please read on.

This is an opportune time for the English language teaching sector. The government is working on a bill (Summary of Bill) that will affect our working lives. So much about the industry has been out of sight of the public, the press and the government, allowing employment abuses to increase exponentially every year. It is reassuring that regulation is coming. But this regulation must be looked at carefully. Will it serve the best interests of the teachers, or will it be tailored to the business interests of the staggeringly profitable language schools and their organisation Marketing English in Ireland? In a recent press release, it has been shown that the industry “is built on poverty pay”.  Why, therefore, would any English language teacher reasonably assume that MEI have teachers’ best interests at heart in the formation of this bill? Teachers and their elected representatives must be allowed to be involved in this legislative process.

The English language teachers who are a member of the Unite ELT branch recently voted to send out the following text to members of the Education Committee who will decide the changes that need to be made to the bill. This bill is an opportunity to put some of the changes we need in the industry into protective legal terms.

So, what can you do at this watershed moment? Set aside 10 minutes of your day today towards positive activism. The submission period for these letters is not infinite, so avoid procrastinating and follow these simple steps:

  • Copy and paste this text into your email account
  • Read through it all. Add whatever information you want, take out anything you don’t want
  • Why is it important to you that legal changes are made to the ELT industry in Ireland? If you want, include your thoughts
  • Include previous experiences you have had in ELT, positive or negative. Make comparisons with other industries. Give anecdotes. These people are your elected representatives. It is their job to set policies and make laws. Laws that affect you at 4 o’clock on a Friday evening when you’re told you’ve no more work on Monday, or at 8pm when you’re at home trying to use the error correction code to correct 25 pieces of writing homework, and wondering why you aren’t paid to do this in a properly resourced staff room. Let them know what it is really like
  • Remember: the most important thing is to request the committee to hold public hearings.
  • When you’re happy with it, email it to these TDs on the Education Committee:

joan.burton@oireachtas.ie

thomas.byrne@oireachtas.ie

catherine.martin@oireachtas.ie

carol.nolan@oireachtas.ie

fiona.oloughlin@oireachtas.ie

maria.byrne@oireachtas.ie

robbie.gallagher@oireachtas.ie

trevor.oclochartaigh@oireachtas.ie

lynn.ruane@oireachtas.ie

(Joan Burton TD, Thomas Byrne TD, Catherine Martin TD, Carol Nolan TD, Fiona O’Loughlin TD, Senator Maria Byrne, Senator Robbie Gallagher, Senator Trevor O’Clochartaigh, Senator Lynn Ruane)

  • You can also CC the following with each email: educationskills@oireachtas.ie; pressoffice@oireachtas.ie; Alan.Guidon@oireachtas.ie
  • Send the email
  • Ask your friends, family and colleagues to help you: send them the link to this post
  • If you are motivated enough, use some of the text to write to your TDs about this issue. The more questions that TDs get about English language teacher’s rights, the better visibility for all of us
  • Use https://www.whoismytd.com/ if you are not sure, and send that email
  • Congratulations! You have taken a concrete activist step
  • There is one last bullet point. Click on over on the Unite the Union Join page, and become a member today. You can come to the meetings, vote, discuss issues and put forward motions. This is real, effective activism, proven over centuries. You are working to improve the employment conditions of a woefully unregulated sector. That is something to be proud of.

 TEXT OF THE LETTER TO BE SENT TO THE EDUCATION COMMITTEE

 

TD or Senator Name

Joint Committee on Education & Skills

Houses of the Oireachtas

Kildare Street

Dublin 2

 

29th August 2017

Re: Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Amendment) Bill

Dear Ms           ,

I am an English Language teacher at a private English language school in Dublin.

It is my understanding that the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Amendment) Bill will be brought before the Joint Committee on Education & Skills in the near future.

The bill will include a section on the formation of the International Education Mark (IEM) which will establish the formal regulatory process for English language schools.

I have concerns about the content of the bill and in particular what I consider to be the inadequate regulation proposed within the bill.

The English Language sector is a hugely profitable business worth over one billion Euros to the economy annually.  Given international developments with the Brexit vote, this figure is certain to rise over the next few years as more and more international students see Ireland as the premier location in which to learn English.

Some of the issues which have affected my colleagues and I as teachers include: overuse and abuse of fixed term contracts; use of zero hour contracts; use of bogus self-employment; failure to supply teachers with proper, legal contracts; failure to pay statutory holiday pay; failure to pay sick pay; a failure to award full entitlement to all leave as guaranteed under employment legislation; discrimination in pay between native born speakers and non-native English speakers; a serious deficit in resources and facilities for teachers and students alike.

Whilst it appears that the proposed International Education Mark (IEM) will go some way towards regulating the ownership and administration of schools, it is my understanding that the bill as currently drafted does not regulate for employment conditions for teachers and other administration staff in the sector.

I feel very strongly that this bill presents the opportunity to address long standing bad employment practices in the ELT sector by provision for a Fair Employment Mark, guaranteeing that schools awarded such a mark offer decent terms and conditions to teachers and other ELT staff.  Whilst some of the issues mentioned above openly contravene employment legislation, many of the poor practices in the sector are not illegal under current legislation, and cannot be addressed using the industrial relations mechanisms of the state.

Therefore, in order to ensure best practice and maintain the international reputation of our English language schools, I feel that every opportunity should be taken through the legislation to ensure Ireland becomes a world leader in teaching English as a foreign language.  This can only be achieved by legislating for basic employment standards in schools.

The ELT sector cannot flourish in a situation where employment rights are not addressed at a macro level, and where schools can continue to regard employment rights as an optional extra.

Therefore I request that, once the bill comes before your committee, formal public hearings are held into the merits of the bill and your committee takes submissions from interested parties.  Given the importance of the ELT sector to the Irish economy it is crucial that this bill is afforded the utmost scrutiny and that all interested parties are heard.  By holding public hearings and taking submissions, your committee will uphold its role of rigorous oversight.

I would be happy to elaborate in my concerns should you require further information.  However I would reiterate our belief that public scrutiny of the bill is crucial and that it is in the best interests of all involved in the ELT sector for your committee to agree to hold public hearings and accept submissions.

I look forward to a positive response to this request.

Best Regards,

____________________________________

 

 

 

Above image source

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.

It’s okay to talk about these things

I’m an English language teacher, so how would I introduce the topic of trade unionism to a class? Maybe some prompt pictures, a short video, a quote, or perhaps we could try a word association game? You know how it works. Of course, I would also ask the students what they know about unions. We actually did a similar activity at an ELT Advocacy open meeting last year. The teachers who were present got into groups and we brainstormed our vision for a better ELT sector. The ideas from that meeting went on to form our Ten Point Charter.

Unite Charter

Unite the Union Charter for English Language Teachers

So how would you complete this sentence? Trade unionists are…? militant! communist! bad! outdated! ineffective! Oh. Really? Those are not the words I would use to describe my mother, yet she was the very first chair of her branch, an organiser who was proud to be in a union. Nor words I would use to describe my father, who as a public sector worker was a member of a union for his entire working life. Nor words I would use to describe myself, a proud member of the Unite ELT Branch, or my fellow members. But yet they are words I’ve heard whispered, used behind my back to describe us or to dismiss ELT Advocacy’s efforts to encourage people to join the union. Lately, I’ve done a lot of talking about teacher’s rights and I don’t think it’s a taboo subject. So let’s talk about these things.

Three weeks ago, I was at a press briefing in Buswells Hotel in Dublin. We were there to speak to TDs and senators (members of the Irish parliament) about the scandal of bogus self-employment in our sector and to lobby for regulation of the ELT sector. We wanted the Ten Point Charter to be included in the bill that will form the International Education Mark (IEM) in Ireland (This deserves and will receive a future blog post of its own).  I was really nervous. I’d never done anything like that before. I’m a teacher, not a politician. I’m not used to having a roomful of legislators asking me questions or being interviewed by journalists. I’m better at answering questions about the difference between made of and made from, or how to pronounce comfortable.

To be honest, I didn’t want to be in that situation. It was nerve-wracking and I started wishing the drive for unionisation had happened long before I joined the sector. But we were there to represent English language teachers all over Ireland as well as my colleagues and friends who I  didn’t want to let down. Once we had all spoken about the reality of ELT in Ireland (Aileen was amazing, speaking from Japan at midnight via Skype!) it was the TDs turn to ask questions and offer advice. What immediately struck me was that everyone there was commending us for the work we had already done, for joining the union and organising. They wanted us to know how crucial it was that teachers were signing up. They wanted to know how many members we had, and when we thought we’d be able to hit critical mass. Irish politicians who care about worker’s rights are happy to talk about trade unionism because they think that’s what we should be doing and because they know that unions work.

Later that week, I met a historian working at a prestigious university here in Ireland. Despite having a PhD, many years of experience lecturing and having been published in many of her field’s leading journals, she was employed on an academic year-to-year basis, despite working in the same position. As our children played together we discussed the worry of rising rents, house prices and the (in)ability to get a mortgage when you don’t have a permanent job. We compared industries. She was disgusted when I told her that most English Language teachers didn’t have sick or holiday pay and in many cases didn’t have contracts. We talked about what could be done for both our sectors. We both agreed – organise, join the union, collectively bargain. The conversation is happening in academia in Ireland, and people are angry. We now know that, as had been predicted over and over, the lack of basic workers’ rights that exists in English language teaching is spreading to other third level education sectors. People are organising, but it’s up to us ourselves to halt the spectre of precarious work and to mandate change for all teachers and lecturers. We need to stick together.

That same weekend, I was asked to go on the Marian Finucane show as part of a panel discussion on precarious work conditions. I arrived in RTE and met Deborah Reynolds and Clare (surname withheld by request). Deborah works as an early years educator and is part of a campaign to bring together professionals, providers & parents to transform the Early Years Sector, and ensure a professional wage for early years educators. Now we’re in touch and we’ll be working together in the future too. Clare was working for Deliveroo and was pressuring the company into acknowledging that their employees were employees, and not self-employed contractors. All three of us were union members, and had the support of our unions to campaign and lobby and bring about positive change in our professions. We spoke about our lives and our struggles on air with Marian. After we had finished the discussion and were leaving, Marian’s production team were all very supportive and some of them knew of our respective campaigning for our sector. They were all union members.

In some sectors, like my father’s, it’s taken for granted that workers will join a union, but that’s not the case everywhere. The sector we all now work in is becoming more and more dynamic, innovative and professional every year. Things weren’t always this way in ELT. It used to be much worse. Schools were oftentimes run by people who had no respect for anything other than making enormous amounts of money in an inordinately short time. Teachers could be (and were) let go on a whim, or because the boss didn’t like their attitude or they asked for a pay rise.  There were no professional standards in the schools and Directors of Studies were mainly expected to get the school through their inspections every two years. Every teacher knows the drill – before ACELS came in, there were more staff meetings, paperwork was inspected more thoroughly, lesson plans had to be handed in promptly, there might be some nice new posters on the walls, but once it was over, things went  back to normal. In one place I worked in the past, the Director received a bonus if the school passed its inspection. Of course, it didn’t apply to the teachers. Nowadays the standards that are set for inspections are becoming the day to day norm and that is so encouraging. But we have yet to catch up with our colleagues in public sector teaching in terms of union membership.

The regulatory system of English language teaching in Ireland, ACELS, has had a lot to do with this professionalism, as have organisations like ELT Ireland. But why don’t ACELS inspect our pay slips? Or inspect the staff room at 5.30 or 6pm, to see teachers preparing for the next day, doing unpaid work? The new regulation system has definitely improved and professionalised the industry, but it hasn’t professionalised our salaries. The Department of Education are very clear that they won’t do anything to protect us and help us cast off the shackles of bogus self-employment. However, despite their insistence that we are not the same as primary or secondary teachers, we are regulated by the Department of Education and “all teachers working in language schools must have a Level 7 degree and [have] taken a recognised EFL certificate course.” They tell us that we do not come under the remit of the Department, yet we are fully accountable under the law to ensure we accurately record students’ attendance. If we encounter problems in our working lives, they tell us we need to go to the Labour Court, and for that, guess who we need? Yep, the union. In addition, it’s the union who know that it is the department’s responsibility to insist that schools improve our conditions and they know how, who and when to lobby.

There is an elephant in the room we need to address. Some teachers went to the unions after the school closure crisis of 2014. One union in particular, unfamiliar with the insanity of the terms and conditions of being an ELT, did not serve its members well, and could not protect workers from the mass closures that occurred. It should be pointed out that by the time the teachers went to them, the situation was out of control completely. You don’t hire a safety officer after the nuclear power plant has exploded and expect everything to be sorted immediately. But of course that didn’t help the teachers who ended up losing month’s worth of wages and who had to sign on in the dole office that year. It’s natural for some teachers to still be wary of the unions, based on what happened in 2014. But the strategy applied by the unions at that time didn’t work, and all of us must acknowledge that. In response to the huge international embarrassment, the government’s response was swift, bringing in legislation regarding the school owners, safety measures protecting student fees, and eligible language programmes. That legislation brought in to regulate the industry has removed a lot of the ‘cowboy’ schools but it doesn’t make any mention of our rights as workers. When Unite the Union became involved with the ELT sector, they encouraged us to grow the movement, through meetings and workshops, partly to find out what workers wanted to change about the industry and to help us formulate plans to achieve those aims. Unite the Union and regional organiser Roy Hassey in particular, have done sterling work with teachers. It’s been a steep learning curve to understand the complexities of our (until now, mostly invisible) sector and they have been instrumental in moving our movement forward and towards legislative protection for English language teachers. This is a now a serious movement.

This is what we need unions for; to safeguard us from these kind of things ever happening again, and to advance our rights in our workplaces. We need to get together right now and have these conversations. In the staff room, at lunch, on the night out, whenever there’s a chance. How many hours of unpaid work do you do? Do you think that’s fair? Do you have a contract? Is your contract permanent or fixed term? Do you get sick pay? Holiday pay? Who can help us to get these things? Who can really empower us to make our jobs better, our working conditions better, and make us more relaxed, calmer, happier teachers? You might think that you’re not going to stay in ELT, just like I did 15 years ago. But what if you’re still in ELT in 15 years like me? I’m getting paid 50 cent less per hour than I was when I started. What am I doing about that? Well, there’s only one answer.

To those who will probably think I’m only saying this because I’m the chair of the branch and I want people to join, I say yes, you’re right – of course I want people to join the union because I know it can improve our working conditions. How do I know? Well, my mother, when she first started her job, was told that there was no union for her profession, yet others in her workplace were in a union. It took her a few years but my mother managed to get enough workers to join together to start their own branch of the union. Those of you familiar with ELT Advocacy will know that we were involved in a similar situation last year and we managed to start the very first ELT union branch in Ireland.

How’s my mum doing now? She retired last year after more than 20 years of dedicated service with a public sector pension. My father, who had to take part in industrial action in order to save his pension entitlements, is also retired on a decent pension. Our conversations on this topic are often amusing because they can’t understand why anyone would be wary of joining the union. My mum automatically thinks that everyone from my generation is more liberal than Jeremy Corbyn. A recent conversation went something like this:

Mum: “How can the people who voted for marriage equality be against unions? And ye who welcome people from all over the world. You even married one! So did a load of your mates! What’s wrong with joining a union?”

Me: “Well, I really don’t know, mum.”

Dad: “It’s very simple, remember when you started and there was no union. What happened? Nothing! When you got laid off with a week’s notice what happened? Nothing! Now at least you’re all in it together. Sure look at me and your mother. We’d have never had our entitlements, our pay grades, our pensions if we’d left it up to them (their public sector employers). I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to join one. Where’s the harm in it?”

Me: “I know. I don’t know, dad.”

I want to say one last thing to the teachers who have just finished their CELT/A, or who haven’t been in the industry for long, but who want to stay. Please stay. Have these chats, talk to your friends and family, think about what you want, and how we can achieve it better together. Senior teachers, it’s up to you to educate the new teachers and tell them what it’s really like. Tell them you haven’t had a pay rise in 19 years, or that you have no chance of getting a mortgage, or saving for your pension. Don’t tell them it’s just a matter of getting their foot in the door in a school and they’ll be okay. I don’t know about you, but I can’t continue on wages that have been stagnant for 15 years, earning the same wage I earned in 2002. I can’t go on working in a job I genuinely love, doing hours I don’t get paid for, taking holidays I can’t afford, with a contract that makes it impossible for me to get a mortgage. Worst of all is seeing my children who can’t understand why I have to work late or on Saturdays doing exams just to get by.  Things are going to change and we’re going to change them. But we need everyone to think long and hard about collectively organising in their workplaces. If you want it, you need to join the union. There is no other plan. If we don’t do this, it’s a race to the bottom and we’ll be the ones who suffer most and longest. But if we insist on decent working conditions, we can change an entire industry. Right now, today, when you finish reading this, ask yourself these questions, have this conversation, spread the word – it’s not just okay to talk about these things, it’s imperative.

I’ll finish by remembering Mary Manning and the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike, the 30th anniversary of which fell two weeks ago. The 11 mostly young people who refused to handle South African goods (on a union instruction) and who were indefinitely suspended, eventually brought about the world’s very first countrywide ban on South African goods and services. They were eventually supported by the people of Dublin, followed by the people of Ireland, followed by the world’s first official boycott of apartheid. Ordinary people, ordinary trade unionists, did a truly extraordinary thing. There is now a street in South Africa names after Mary Manning. As Liz Deasy, another of the 11, said at the time, “if you believe something is right and worth fighting for, you’ll get there in the end.”

Keith Murdiff

Chairperson of the Unite ELT Branch

 

Dunnes Workers

Eamon O’Donoghue, Mary Manning, Catherine O’Reilly and Nicky Kelly outside Dunnes on Henry Street on 24 August, 1985
Photo: Photocall Ireland

Keith and Dad

My father and I outside the building where he clocked in every day for 25 years