Improving EL teacher pay and conditions: joining forces, joining unions and finding a place to start…..the discussion

>Critical mass (noun)
Definition 1. point of change: a point or situation at which change occurs


An Introduction of sorts…
This is not an easy post to write. The reason is that I cannot apply the same approach I would have done half my life time ago (that’s when I was 20). Back then, I was a bright eyed and bushy tailed super active leftie bolstered by the like-minded people in the political groups I was a member of at the time. The pleasure at meeting similar souls never lessens, I am happy to say, though their profiles have evolved a bit since then. Some of the groups didn’t survive the challenges of the modern world and disbanded, or disappeared into sectarian infighting, so I left them behind – I have always been interested in linking up, not fragmenting. But some did survive and being part of organisations that promote the real potential for change is certainly a crucial part of my life. I am sure you’d guessed that already.

This blog is is a personal challenge as the readership is more diverse, so I have to pay careful attention to all the different relationships people have with the idea of collective political action. I am pretty sure I won’t convince everyone so there’s no point pretending. And perhaps the difference is that I don’t see my role as convincing anyway. I would have said at 20, with all the enthusiasm of the newly converted, that you *must* join a union because it is your social(ist)-anarchist-revolutionary duty (no clues as to the organisations I have been involved in as it will change how you read this post). I stood up for what I believed in (still do) but my courage was a faster runner than my need to explain. I still feel it is a political responsibility and to me that is self-evident, but it is no longer always transparent what that means as unions have come in for a lot of flack over the last 15 years or so (more on that later). Plus, sometimes people resist things outside the structures of a union and succeed, so its not an all or nothing situation. And of course for some, risking being part of a union could mean losing their job or worse.

Shuttle forward to the present. I am OK about the fact that a discussion like this needs time and patience, and the purpose of my posting is to hear what you think as much as to tell you the right way to go. This is a shared process and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I am now more likely to be found talking to individuals at the back of the political meeting room or demonstration – filling out the details has become more and more crucial to me in recent years. But I am still very much present at those events, and unlike people I met along the way who gave up, I still think (to nick a slogan from the anti-globalisation movement) another world is possible. Not just tinkering, but changing. There is a difference.

Supporting Collective Action
This post is about why I still believe that collectivising our problems is the right thing to do for EL teachers if they want to stand any chance of improving the profession for themselves and others. I would argue the same for all workers (because I do see myself as a worker even though we don’t like those sorts of words in ELT) and despite all the problems with unions and other collectives that I have experienced first hand through the struggles I have been involved in – which are many and various. Unions/collectives are organisations of people and in their current form often provide a home to the same old power-hungry career seekers (in the upper echelons) – they need to be held to account by members a lot of the time as it is quickly forgotten once voted in whose interests they are there to represent.

But the truth is, when they work, those collective experiences are truly memorable. The fog is lifted and hope is felt that cannot be achieved through the routine of every day experience, but only when people come together and join forces to change something they all believe is wrong. People do this all the time, in all different ways, so I am sure you’ve all felt it and know what I am talking about. We won on more than a few occasions and it changed our lives a little bit forever and made us walk a little bit taller thereafter. The powers that be would hardly invest so much global energy on making unions illegal or curtailing their rights if they weren’t effective now would they? But because unions are not possible in all contexts, this post is also about organizing collectively in other ways to improve our profession/conditions/pay.

A few givens…
In this post, it should be taken as read when I refer to EL teachers, I am talking about NESTs and non-NESTS. I don’t think NESTs should be paid more because of their passports, market driven demands, or because they are seen to be representatives of ‘authentic’ English. I think EL teachers should be judged on their experience and qualifications, whether NEST or non-NEST. But I disagree with qualifications being used as a replacement for continuining professional development opportunities as they are not affordable for all. The criteria for deciding how much someone gets paid should be transparent and equal, so everyone has the chance to move on. I think male and female EL teachers should be paid the same, and I think those that work part-time should still be entitled to rights that are often denied them when they are not full-time (and as we all know, there are less and less full-time jobs around these days).

I also think we stand a better chance of changing things if we stop focussing on each other’s differences. For this reason, I would widen teaching as a job to include writers, teacher educators and forward thinking educational managers. This probably sounds light years away from the place where you work? Well the situation is far from perfect for many, especially when so many teachers work in the private sector, often the most difficult to change. Well what I have described is the goal, the discussion is about how we could get closer to that ideal.

Why reason doesn’t often work
Over on Alex Case’s Blog there was a recent discussion on whether it is possible to convince those in control of the purse strings of education to invest in teachers and pay them more. Is it possible, we discussed, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that paying teachers more will make them happier (and therefore better at their jobs)? If we provide pedagogically researched evidence of improved student performance and satisfaction, as well as increased teacher investment in creating sustainable structures, will we be listened to? Well the simple answer is no – and that is the conclusion we drew.

Personally I think this is the sort of question that would have probably felt completely out of place had it been asked 20 years ago – it fits now because of the way things have dramatially changed as global capitalism has magnified so quickly. The pursuit of short-term profit is at complete odds with sustainability, and reasoning with the best arguments in the world will not be able to bridge the gap that occurs when public services are run primarily for their ability to make profits. Matters of pedagogical concern are always left waiting in the queue in this equation. Teachers are being asked to perform at higher and higher levels, with lower and lower investment, both in terms of their pay and the resources around to support them in their work. There may be some exceptions, and if there are please let us know! So realistically what are our options as a profession if we want to improve things for all of us, rather than focusing on improving our own individual circumstances? Over to you!

Why are people afraid of unions and collective action?
This is a very difficult question to answer but in brief, it is a scary thing to stand up to those in power and to take the first steps out of the individualised way we are all encouraged to behave and ‘negotiate’ our work conditions. For anyone reading this who has always worked in unionised workplaces, you probably won’t get that. Especially in ELT, which has a tendency to present itself as one big happy family (of free-floating individuals), the mere mention of collective action is enough to make people run for cover sometimes and that is presumably why it is a total absence in terms of discussion in most professional development contexts. There are exceptions to that rule of course and I certainly want to hear more about this.

On a more general note, in the last few decades, unions have been given a hard time by the media and by the global capitalists for making unreasonable demands (well hasn’t that always been the case), for not keeping up with the times, for not modernising. What has been the response from the left? Well it was no surprise to me to read on a blog run by a labour party (UK) member, that the postal workers who are being threatened with job losses are making it worse for themselves because they refuse to accept they need to change with the times (subtext: take pay cuts and work harder, so the postal service can maintain its profit level).

This reaction is relevant in many settings and countries and is probably a line you are familiar with. When you hear this from so-called ‘socialists’, you can imagine the sorts of attacks unions have faced from the other side of the political spectrum. So, in short, the way in which the world is understood in popular terms discludes the hope of change, and discredits unions for being old-fashioned institutions. For this reason, saying you are a member of a union, in the same way as saying you believe in revolution, is likely to be greeted with a wry smile and a “yeah right” response as it has become a bit of a taboo in the mainstream of life. This is an era of adjustment rather than challenge, or so we are led to believe….or is it?

What I have just described is undoubtedly affected by my own experiences – and I don’t want to forget that for some countries, unions also represented forced political loyalty which means that people distrust them for their potential to manipulate. It would be naive to claim that these historical developments can be overlooked, and for some it may never be possible to forget their experiences of being forced to show allegiance to a ruling party via unions in a one-horse political race. Other examples from round the world are very welcome. What unions signify to people must be taken on board cross-culturally if we are to have any hope of creating new, more open structures for people to become part of. Please share here.

ELT Hurdles

There are multiple hurdles to be overcome, but then when are there not, and this is where the discussion part becomes so important. It is true that as such a diverse and disconnected industry, ELT seems very difficult to organise within, as it is spread across so many sites of interest, public and private, home grown and abroad. Where would we start is a question that has been asked on quite a few blogs of late. What’s the point, say others – perhaps we should all just go free-lance. Personally I am not sure if the latter is the answer, though respect that choice. What we know is that ELT makes a lot of money for a small amount of people and none of that would be possible without the teachers, writers and other folk.

For me it has always been a case of examining local realities and gathering together like minded people where you live first and foremost and then discussing what *could* be achieved and how you may do that. In my lifetime, that has included being involved in setting up a union of oral examiners (and several levels of related action), collectively complaining about pay and conditions with other teachers in numerous jobs and sometimes having to assert my rights on my own (my least favourite option as it does not come naturally still). A good rule of thumb is to pitch your possible activities a bit beyond the comfort zone of the most risk-taking individual in your group, and then that is probably a good start! As educators, teachers often feel that they are letting their students down when they consider forms of action such as striking or refusing to release marks. I would be very interested in hearing your views on this. What have you been or would you be prepared to do?

Other forms of action: the role of Teacher Associations
Another important aspect of this issue is making the discussion more public. Why isn’t there more coverage and debate? Why are the exceptions to the rule seemingly so rare? How do we find out of instances when teacher action was effective? Well the short answer is becoming part of networks of information that can boost confidence in a shared cause. Blogging is good for this – in the opening thread to this blog, some great details of teacher strikes were posted which I would otherwise not have known about. Please post more!

Teachers’ associations are also important and they clearly do a lot of crucial work in ELT, not least of which is (in localities around the world) providing reasonably cheap professional development opportunities which may not be accessible for many teachers elsewhere. In a recent survey I carried out in one of the countries of the Former Yugoslavia, I found that for many EL teachers, their association was much more important than a union. Likewise, I noticed from my own contact with TAs, that increasingly they are being asked to take on an advocacy role – some embrace this such as TESOL but some TAs shy away from it claiming that they are a-political and that this is not their role. What this means, in real terms, is that their ‘neutrality’ masks an undeclared allegiance to global EL interests and their efforts not to upset them as they are dependent on sponsorship for survival. Another financial arrangement which seems to subsume the important question of whose interests are being represented. I am interested in knowing why teachers’ voices are not heard talking about their working conditions more, as well as talking about teaching the present perfect? Speaking as a person who has tried (unsuccesfully thus far) to promote a more open agenda in the TAs I have been involved in that supports teachers’ right to fair pay, I can say that sadly it has not gone very well. But I am pretty sure that there are TAs in localities around the world that may well be involved in advocacy – please let us know about them.

My Best Union Moment
To finish off with I wanted to share one of my best union moments which involves the oral examiners’ union I told you about that I helped to initiate, along with many others. We set out to take on one of the largest international EL entities because we found out that a) they were paying us less for the job than other European colleagues and b) they were trying to reduce our expenses. We also predicted (rightly as it turned out) that they were going to stop paying us for training. It was a great success in that we got a pretty high percentage of the examiners interested in the cause and were quite solid across two cities in Greece (with exceptions of people who chose to stand alone but that will always be the case).

My most memorable moment was when a big cheese was called in from a large capital city somewhere in Europe to sort us out as all the local managers had given up, and came armed with the inevitable powerpoint presentation about why the cuts were necessary. What he and his team didn’t realise was that we had prepared our own powerpoint presentation which demonstrated the measly rise in our wages when compared with the enormous rise in the exam fee and local parity across Europe. After said cheese had completed his presentation and sat down, crossed his legs and prepared for questions, one of our members got up and approached the OHP (well it was a while back) and did a presentation from our perspective. The cheese-team were speechless and didn’t know what to do. What I felt in the room was a visible shifting of power from them to us.

Following our presentation we were invited for refreshments (as of course they told us they couldn’t address any of our questions at that moment, but we could all socialise and make chit chat anyway) and we decided, en masse, to leave as they weren’t willing to negotiate with us. Not all of us left, and the doubters who weren’t members stayed and ate their biscuits and sipped their tea – I suppose it must have been pretty uncomfortable. But for us as a group we made some significant gains from taking that stand including an increase rather than a decrease in our expenses (which of course those who stayed for the tea party were happy to take and I don’t recall a single case of them handing it back to us for the union funds). Sadly it didn’t last, because said large entitity outsourced the responsibility to an employment agency who made it harder and harder for us to organise collectively. But for a while there, we really had them, and we made significant gains in the process. Please share your stories too!

Tell me what you think

So to finish up, I would like to hear from you with your thoughts, feedback, stories and links – plus any other further reading that you think may be of interest.

What do you think we should do, if anything, and how can we widen this debate a bit further than it is now?

Further Reading

The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and their Unions
Stories for Resistance, Edited by Mary Compton and Lois Weiner
Palgrave Macmillan, March 2008
ISBN: 978-0-230-60630-2, ISBN10: 0-230-60630-X

32 thoughts on “Improving EL teacher pay and conditions: joining forces, joining unions and finding a place to start…..the discussion

  1. A great posting, Sara – but marred by the prevarication of “one of the largest international EL entities”. Why not name the buggers – they deserve it, and are not likely to deny it, surely, with so much evidence?!

    Come on – who was it? We need to know!!

  2. Thank you Sandy. Sorry to disappoint, but unless I invite for the right to reply, I have decided not to name the entities whom I criticise (as I said in my opening blog when I set up Critical Mass ELT) or to focus on named individuals. I know this is a very different approach to your own. That does not detract from the analysis I hope and is largely to do with the fact that I am using my real identity rather than a blog ID which means I need to be a bit more careful (perhaps the pay off for being prepared to write under my own name) plus if I am going to discuss these issues with named organisations I would rather do it in a different sort of forum. I’m glad that you enjoyed the post and would very much enjoy hearing something about your own experience in the locality where you work. What are teachers up to there in terms of their pay and conditions?

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Improving EL teacher pay and conditions: joining forces, joining unions and finding a place to start…..the discussion | Critical Mass ELT: Reflections on the World of English Language Teaching --

  4. Our problem is that we do not yet work in a profession. Many years ago I trained as a chartered accountant. That profession rigorously upheld standards, training and entry requirements. Accountants are extremely well paid. In my years of teaching, I have come across hundreds of superb teachers who were considerably more professional than my former accounting colleagues. I have been extremely fortunate to work with and be affected by countless brilliantly creative, dynamic, caring and unbelievably professional educators. Obviously, they are not in it for the money. There is no umbrella organization that sets and maintains professional standards and protects these teachers. Sadly, EFL employers know this, which is one reason for the low pay in EFL. The lack of a professional body to create, enforce and oversee standards of teaching and employment means this will probably never change. It will continue to be, as many describe it, a trade or an industry. I started teaching in Japan in 1993. I was disappointed (naively) that the big ‘famous’ chain schools there were pretty much cowboy operations. It was obvious from being an employee that profit was the single-most important objective, and that very little money was spent on curriculum and teacher training. The minimum legal wage allowable for a full-time teacher was 250,000 Yen per month. When I left Japan in 2006, it was the same. I have heard reports this has actually gone down to 230,000 Yen (this perhaps needs clarification). There is a union for EFL teachers in Japan (a sub-branch of the General Workers Union) but I don’t think it ever had success in improving employment conditions for teachers. As with any business, EFL schools, be they one-branch affairs or international chains, rely on image. It is perhaps time, as Sandy says above, to “name the buggers”. Make schools aware that teachers can bring about change. The Internet can be a great vehicle for naming and shaming. I suspect most teachers are just too nice to do this.

  5. Thanks for this reply Sean and for providing some more info on different localities. Couldn’t agree with you more about the lack of a coherent set of professional practices in ELT. I think its to do with the fact it was artificially set up as a discipline once it was realised (post WW2) that it was a great big cash cow and there was a rush to give it credibility in the academic world. Hence the strange confusion between ELT and its academic counterpart, applied linguistics. A lot of AL departments were just stuck on to existing universities and didn’t evolve naturally – the uneveness can still be felt today. Hmmm…the subject of another discussion!

    I take your point about accountants, but where I live, accountants operate much like private language schools so there are differences across countries. You graduate from university and take a few exams and then the usual progression is for people to open their own accountant office (shop) as GR is still a country of small businesses (tho changing fast with the onslaught of multi-nationals). This is also a highly competitive world and is governed by the rules of capital – I imagine that this is probably also the same even in settings where there appears to be a stronger professional organisation. Dirty dealings inevitably exist wouldn’t you say?

    I am not sure I would agree that ELT is not a profession, but then defining a profession is really difficult. It is certainly true that English teaching has been delegated to the “skills” sector in many settings, along with learning computer skills, rather than being seen as a proper subject. Both should be considered the same as any other subject IMHO. And that surely affects what people think about its importance.

    I agree there is always a place for naming and shaming – I just don’t think it will be that widely affective in changing things for that many people – but it will ensure that there is one less corrupt school owner amongst us and that is something I definitely support. I am not sure teachers are too nice to snitch on dodgy owners, I think they are probably scared as to the consequences for them and their futures.

    Personally I think there is safety in numbers for larger scale action which has to begin locally, or anonymity if you want to go for individual attacks. Both are important and I have been involved in both in my lifetime with successful outcomes. For me tho, as the question I asked was how can we widen this discussion/action beyond blogging and individuals, I would say there probably is potential for some forms of collective action in all contexts – it may be within or outside a union structure – it may involve striking, or numerous other forms of action. But it would involve the coming together of people to talk about how to change their circumstances. In some of the most ‘repressive’ workplaces I’ve worked in that has started by a few teachers going for a coffee and getting things off their chest – the joy at not feeling isolated anymore is sometimes the first step? After that people may feel more confident about taking things further. It is important to remember, perhaps, that our beliefs about the potential of action are always shaped by how involved we are at that time. But that gap closes very quickly in my experience, once the ball starts rolling.

  6. Thax Alex. Not a problem. Gonna leave this one up for a few weeks and let it mature as blog v. long so will take time for people to read it (if at all!).
    Re: Alan Waters. Yes would be happy to join in. If you look at the links to other critical discussions on my blog home page, and go to the Scott Thornbury hosted BC discussion on ideology and language teaching, you will find a pretty lengthy response from me about Alan Water’s recent contributions to this debate. I would agree with quite a lot of what the summary you posted above says and am in disagreement with Alan over his position. Let me know what you want me to do in your future blog post after you’ve had a look at that discussion that Scott hosted (note also great input from Diarmuid Fogarty).
    Looking forward to your thoughts when you have time on teachers and unions.

  7. Pingback: Finding a place to start. Guest Piece by Sara Hannam « Marxist TEFL Group

  8. Hi Sara
    I’m in two minds about unions, but in one about the value of working together as a united front! The problem with unions is that people (here in the “U”K) tend to see a union as an external body that serves to manage their relationship with their employers. It’s only when they are really hurting that the union becomes important to them.

    There are teaching unions in many countries, but very few EFL/ESL teachers boher joining them. In some cases it might be because EFL/ESL teachers are getting paid considerably higher than local teachers.

    As far as unions go, I think that the slogan “The local is the global” is applicable here. If people work hard to set up groups at work – official or not- and let these become collective decision-making groups with no hierarchies, then there’s a chance that people will begin to identify common concerns that need addressing; or even begin to identify individual concerns as common concerns.

    • Diarmuid thanks for stopping by. Can’t find anything to say other than I agree with you (as usual!). I am also in two minds about unions but not about the potential for people to collectively overcome their difficulties – and in my experience groups set up by individuals outside the official structures of a union are more democratic in the true sense of the word. But if a union exists, I will join it, IF that is where most of the other workers in my workplace are to be found. And if others want to set one up, as was the case with the oral examiners, I will help set it up. I was amongst the few who said let’s just keep the structures informal, but most wanted it to be “legal” – of course that brought another set of problems but when things were moving, that didn’t show so much as the differences in the hierarchy were ironed out in action. Once the action subsided, the hierarchy became really obvious again.

      In our case, people who had never showed any interest in being part of a union (and had started by being critical) did come and join when push came to shove and management intentions became clear. Some said “don’t let em in” cos they don’t get to join up just for the difficult bits. I always felt that people should be welcomed in, even if at the last minute. People can change after all – what are you thoughts on that? More distressing for me was the ones who were in from the start and left at crucial moments and gave up. Harder to explain really – that people would go almost the full mile but then just throw their hands up in defeat when those around them were at their strongest. Those who stayed out from the start till the end and made it clear they didn’t want to be part of it – well they are easier to understand and deal with (the tea party group in my description above, tho there are other harsher names!).

      As I said, this post is directed to all teachers, NEST or non-NEST – I think we have a lot more to gain by sticking together. Abu’s post below answers some of the issues about NESTs being paid more than non-NESTs. On the whole NESTs tend to see themselves as individuals rather than part of a group – perhaps the reason is that they are singled out and given special treatment in localities around the world? There needs to be more awareness of this disparity, for sure. That’s why I emphasised this point in my post to make sure readers were clear that I don’t think like that about ELT. The local is the global is the only place to start.

      Thanks for the reminder about the “U”.K. – not united at all other than for geo-political window dressing, and a term that ignores past and present aggressions which shouldn’t be forgotten. Hope to see you in here again if you have time.

  9. Virtually everywhere in global TESOL foreign BANA-born teachers are paid more than locals. It seems pretty outrageous. In Indonesia it may be 8x as much. In free-market China these days some ex-pat teachers make oodles more than locals, even in their own departments and schools. In Thailand, the many Filipino TESOLers are regularly paid less, no matter how experienced, than some barely literate BANAnas. But maybe bit more than local Thai TESOLers, at the heap’s bottom in their own country. Why all these invidious distinctions?
    Equity begins at home, and that is wrong. I found an article that agrees with that position: Ex-pats should work for a local salary or get out of this profession. In Saloniki, maybe ex-pats make more than the local Greek economy too. On the Gulf, very definitely.

    Teachers can make local demands without a union. Just open your mouth and press for a review of how your school or university is spending the money it has. Often this is not transparent. So start talking transparency. Maybe a few colleagues begin to agree. There’s an old expression in Aramaic, ‘silence is consent.’ You don’t need a union to break that silence where you work. Sometimes it starts with a majority of one, like Thoreau said: “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

  10. Thanks Abu for this great link. Agree with all that you say and propose. People stand up for things all the time without unions, that is for sure. As for NESTs (or BANAnas as you call them :)) earning more than locals and their awareness of this, well I hope some people will respond to this issue directly here as it certainly explains why so many NEST teachers feel that things are impossible to change – perhaps not figuring their own position into the equation? I agree it shouldn’t be so (see previous response to Diarmuid). The goal of uniting would be for everyone to have a living local wage, no matter where they are from.

    Yes the Thoreau quote is a good one, tho TBH I have my reservations about Thoreau on other levels as a role model of collective organisation. He was a bit too much of an individualist for me (Walden was complsory reading during my UG degree in the American literature module). It’s great to go off and find yourself, but isn’t this in itself a bit of a privileged act?? Most people won’t ever have that opportunity and some don’t want it anyway. Would welcome your thoughts on this as I always struggled with Thoreau for this reason so apologies if I am being overly negative (the teacher of that module was quite upset with my essay on the subject as I recall!). But the sentiment of the quote certainly stands so thx for that.

    Hope to see you again here soon.
    Silence is indeed consent!

  11. Hi Sara

    I have just stumbled across your wonderful blog and this post in particular.
    Loved your paragraph about ‘My Best Union Moment’ .
    We really did have them by the @#LL% and I want to remind you (and let readers know) of when we also disrupted the training sessions en-masse in Thessaloniki, and as a member of the ‘Action-Committe’ I went to the ‘training’ of those brought in to replace us for the exams and we won most of them over to our side.
    What we acheived at that time was quite remarkable really. What we all need as teachers/examiners is more of the same militant action in a collective organisation. If we managed to force a multi-national organisation (well 2 organisations in fact) to beg us to accept their improved offers (we rejected those as well I’m sure you remember), then it really does show what collective action can achieve.

    Thanks for the post(s). Looking forward to reading more.


  12. Hi Paul,
    Thanx for stopping by – yes you are right – there were more than a few memorable moments in our oral examiners union! And you were there until the end, always remaining committed to the fact that we could win. Discussing and convincing people in your calm and dynamic way. We achieved so much and all collectively. I didn’t want to clog up too much space with my own experiences, but those you have described are equally, if not more important than those that I mentioned before. Its good to have someone else writing about this too from a local Thessaloniki point of view. Looking forward to your continued contributions in this blog.

  13. In reply to your question about my views on latecomers etc, I struggled when I came to England to get to grips with Union Mentality.

    I didn’t join the trade union at first. I had just moved from Spain where I had been a member of a particularly dogmatic union and I was opposed to the idea of other unions which charged the earth for subs and paid the General Secretary twice what I was earning. But I knew that under the Thatcher laws, I would have to join every time that there was a strike in order to legally avoid crossing the picket line.

    One teacher was quite riled by this approach and couldn’t understand my objections to trade unionism. She told me that the unions were there to protect their members – which struck me as being wrong. Surely, unions were/are there to protect the rights of workers whether they pay the subs or not? An injury to one etc…

    I read my Errico Malatesta more carefully and have since moved away from my rather purist approach. I still have very little time for the union itself – it’s inefficacy has created a particularly apathetic membership who are now standing by and watching the college sack leading unionists, withdraw from a recognition agreement, ban unionists from using computers for TU activity etc – all this in a year when new terms and conditions are due to be drawn up! But like you (and Malatesta) said, the right place to be in the workplace is where the workers are.

    I was the TU rep on our site until I became part of “management’. My wife is quick to remind me that I am not really a manager – I’m a coordinator drone. I don’t have the power of life and death and nobody gives me a budget. But The Powers That Be justify the immense workload and extra accountability (not to mention the fewer holidays) by telling me that I can call myself a manager.

  14. Sorry Sara – I’ve just realised that I began to rant there rather than answer the question! My answer is that I agree with you – people should be allowed to join as and when they realise that they should be joining.

    Collective action will inevitably mean that the action taken will be diluted in its revolutionary strength! That is one of the problems with putting too much faith in things like anarchosyndicalism – they let anybody join and their actions are decided by the membership. So, if you have a group of peace-loving, cheek turners – the prospects of revolutionary change are weakened somewhat (or maybe not!).

    As far as I am concerned, union activity serves the (primary?) purpose of letting people see that change is not only possible, but can be forced. Depending on where they are, it might take somebody longer than another to realise that. And even those who join when victory is imminent are demonstrating an awareness that those who never join appear to lack.

    Now…the question is should managers be allowed to join a union?!

    • OK Diarmuid, ranting is allowed (tho I didn’t think your post sounded particularly ranty TBH). The dynamics of collective struggle are something I continue to wonder about, and each situation is different. You are completely right that a broad platform inevitably means that the outcome is less radical. But not always. And I think it all depends on whether that group is involved in action or not – in times of non-action those differences are much more apparent. In my experience the union leadership are always the most conservative in their demands, and usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming into anything close to action, but sometimes they are forced by an active membership to do their bidding and through that pressure, they will move if forced.

      Your last question about whether managers should be allowed to join – difficult one. I think there is a need to draw a distinction here between top ranking managers who make decisions but don’t have to experience the consquences as they often have little contact with the workers anyway, and middle managers who have direct contact with the teams they are responsible for. I guess it would depend on how much they demonstrated a belief in the struggle itself. In my time I have seen managers sniff around a union to try and find out what is being planned – they are as obvious as plain clothes police on demonstrations in that respect, so no I think they would be welcome and asking them to leave it the best policy. They may say that they want to see if they can help, or faciliate better understanding, but the purpose of a union should be to exercise the right to discuss management without censoring what people want to say and a manager present inevitably changes the atmosphere as they may be one and the same with the person who was also responsible for disciplining or firing someone in the past?? In other cases, their membership during action has meant they have lost their jobs as a result – and then I think it becomes part of the collective remit to defend them as their decision to break ranks with their fellow mangers moves them from “them” to “us” in my mind. These instance are few and far between tho, as managers on the whole do seem to know what side their bread is buttered on and stick together. What do you think? Different perhaps for middle managers??

  15. Hi Sarah,
    Solidarity in English language teaching? It’s a bit of a non-starter, isn’t it?
    The discourse of ‘ELT’ is massively shaped and dominated by (mostly) NESTers working in private language schools and universities. Even the terms ‘ELT’ or ‘EFL’ have been coined by these people. However …
    The vast majority of people teaching English around the world work in state-run primary and high schools, and many (most?) see little commonality of interest between them and the world of ‘ELT’. By way of illustration, there are about 10,000 teachers of English in Romanian state schools. Each year, only about 500 people (in total) will attend ELT conferences, join the national EL teacher’s organisation (RATE) or participate in online ELT events. Many of these 500 are private language school teachers, university teachers, school inspectors and the like … not school teachers. Romania is not exceptional in this sense.
    In Europe, at least, most school teachers are unionized and they fight for their rights alongside their colleagues teaching other subjects. They are primarily concerned with issues such as increased working hours, increased administrative duties, threats to raise the retirement age and discipline. They do not, on the whole, show much interest in methodological issues.
    They rarely, if ever, support or are supported by university teachers, who work shorter hours, who do not suffer anything like equivalent levels of burnout, who are generally much, much better paid, and who are, understandably keen on preserving pay differentials. As for private language school teachers, they are mostly an irrelevance to school teachers. Paid even less than school teachers (although NESTers typically get more than non-NESTers), often without a contract or any form of job security, unqualified as teachers, unable to join a union that is worth joining (when I lived in the UK, private language school teachers were mostly disbarred from the National Union of Teachers and had to join a tiny branch of the Boilermakers’)…
    So, I think we need to be very careful about talking about ‘we’. As Sean says, EFL teaching in language schools is not a profession; school teaching is. There is no reason for ‘us’ to ‘stick together’ if we have nothing much in common. There are certain similarities between what ‘we’ do to earn our living (as there are certain similarities between ballet dancers and pole dancers), but that doesn’t mean that we really have any commonality of interest. And it’s always worth remembering whose discourse the term ‘ELT’ belongs to.

  16. Thanks Phillip for your contribution to this discussion. I do like a bit of controversy, and different views are always welcome. You raise some interesting points some of which I agree with, but in the main I found your analysis quite ‘totalising’ and pessimistic. I think I have said several times already that any sort of action has to begin locally, taking into account local circumstances and that it will not be easy to overcome the uneveness of the profession overall. Unlike you though, if I have understood you correctly, I am not quite ready to just give up and say such an important issue is a “non-starter”. A non-starter for whom? For you?

    Phillip I wonder how you feel that you can speak for all EL teachers in terms of how they relate to “EFL” or “ELT” and assume automatically they are disempowered by imagining themselves part of a wider profession, or that they are using those terms in the way you understand and describe them? Isn’t it likely that as with all areas of human thinking, there is difference. Some feel alienated, others empowered, some ambivalent? The terms ‘globalisation’ was not coined by those who resist its worst results, it was developed by capitalists celebrating the development of global finance structures, but that does not mean that it has ceased to be used in discourses that also criticise it deeply for what it might be or recognise its origins for what they are. Language is surely not so disassociated from people is it?

    I agree with you entirely that the EL ‘profession’ was developed artificially as a response to the post WW11 boom in learning English (mentioned in one of my responses above), and I would be the first to agree that NESTs (with power) have controlled how it is shaped thus far which needs to change, but perhaps you are under-estimating local forces and resistances both in the past and present which have always said that very loudly and clearly from a non-NEST point of view (or not really taking the time to ‘hear’ them?).

    I would be really interested to know where you got your statistics on Romania from (can you please provide a reference for that) as my own experience of being in Romania and talking to Romanian teachers tells a different story. As we were both there as visitors, I myself would hesitate in being so very certain about how all the teachers there feel? You are right that many teachers are denied access to formal development structures which favour the privileged, but this does not mean you can conclude that “many (most?) see little commonality of interest between them and the world of ‘ELT’” or that you can be sure they are not finding other ways to feel part of a wider community of teachers beyond those formal structures.

    You say:

    “In Europe, at least, most school teachers are unionized and they fight for their rights alongside their colleagues teaching other subjects. They are primarily concerned with issues such as increased working hours, increased administrative duties, threats to raise the retirement age and discipline. They do not, on the whole, show much interest in methodological issues.
    They rarely, if ever, support or are supported by university teachers, who work shorter hours, who do not suffer anything like equivalent levels of burnout, who are generally much, much better paid, and who are, understandably keen on preserving pay differentials”

    Where is Europe on your compass I wonder? Are you talking about old or new Europe? Firstly, I am not sure it is the case that a) most school teachers are unionised (wish it was so) b) they are not interested in methodological issues (whatever you mean by that – methodology is not a transparent term) or c) that university staff are working less hours and are less likely to reach burn out. I am assuming you have missed the whole Bologna extravaganza which now dictates that for those starting out in univeristy life they are working much longer hours, under increasing pressure to publish or perish, and are getting paid a lot less than 10 years ago. Conversely to what you suggest university lecturers in some countries (in both old and new Europe) earn less than their state school colleagues (and that is citable evidence).

    Would very much like to hear what your solution to the problems you have described is then as you seem to agree there is a problem right? Should we all just accept we are pole dancers and/or ballerinas and do what we can to improve our individual lot, or work on the fact we are all people with collective problems and possibly collective solutions? As that was the crux of my original question, I do hope you might visit again to let us know your thoughts on that.

    Thanks for the chat!


  17. Should managers be allowed to join the union? I’d say that it depends on the manager. I think managers should give more to the union than they may take from it – they have more to give, after all. But the danger is that managership (?) can corrupt and before long, the once militant worker finds themself cursing the fecklessness of their ex-colleagues.

    But the best solution is for “managers” like myself to wise up to the fact that they are not managers – they are cogs entrusted with keeping the machine ticking over. They don’t pull the levers or flick the switches.

    A rushed post, but hope the metaphor satisfies.

  18. Hi Sara,

    Posted this on Alex’s thread:

    It is a response to discussions on Alex’s site, Marxist TEFL group and here:

    It is absolutely wonderful to be having these discussions, here on this site, Critical Mass and Marxist TEFL group. Indeed, the pace of the discussion and issues raised are rather bewildering given the inadequate space which had been given to them previously.

    We will have to content ourselves with being rather random and spontaneous for the moment, but there is a need to take each issue much more slowly and in greater depth (what is a profession? What is the role of the native teacher? What is the role of a trade union, which should we join, who should be a member? How should we relate to the state language teaching sector? How should we relate to wider issues, say climate change?

    Here Alex, has tried to identify a “we” from which talk of solidarity can emerge and elsewhere Sara has tried to avoid NEST perspectives which artificially separate teachers.

    For our part, the name Marxist TEFL, is deliberately premised on the basis that there is an industry called TEFL, that it exists and is not some artificial construct. Have a look on the bookshelves of the private language schools, the university departments dealing with overseas students, the ESOL department in the Further Ed college and you will see the same books (this is not necessarily the case with the state primary and secondary education sectors.)

    The word foreign is itself rather repugnant, but this does not mean it isn’t an active concept exercising unthinkable power. We can simply not use it, or we can appropriate it for ourselves, as an “honest” description of the state of affairs in a world which is divided between inter-national rivalries. Where the IMF can wreck the local education systems of developing countries and the British Council can step in to train the more advantaged members of the population how to speak English and access “hard-up” British universities.

    So, without doubt, something exists which we call TEFL. People have an uneven relationship to it (ESOL teachers, researchers, writers, private language school teachers, university language school teachers, students in academies, students in inhouse company classes, NESTS, NON-NESTS, middle managers, directors, receptionists) but it is an entity which finds expression in professional bodies and publishing (Cambridge ESOL, Trinity College, British Council, UK English, IATEFL, Macmillan Campus, Cambridge University Press etc).

    It is an industry that is dominated by considerable profits but low pay and questionable quality. Up until now a group of what we affectionately term “Cyber Knights” (namely Sandy McManus and Alex Case) have worked tirelessly to expose the worst abuses of this industry. With new sites appearing like our own and Sara Hannam’s, we feel the time is right to pull together as many of these voices of discontent as possible and direct it at the vested interests which dominate the industry (ie our call for IaltTELF- building an alternative to Harrogate 2010).

    Of course, with a “them” we have a “we”. All those disenfranchised by the actions (or lack of actions) of those industry leaders.

    What we need prior to the IaltTEFL, is a simple manifesto of “we”:

    “We have called this alternative conference because …..

    Solidarity must begin with small steps such as these.

  19. Thanks for the comments here and there Elf. Just a warning to keep multiple postings or blog posts and comments to a minimum as it can cause slipping down the Google rankings or even being Google blacklisted (happened to one of my Japan themed blogs for a similar reason) and so make it much more difficult for people to find these blog posts or even the whole blog

  20. Unfortunately, if you want to say the same thing several times in different places you have to write it out in different words each time (not changing the original, actually writing it again). Google don’t say the actual system they use, but it is meant to spot and automatically block spam sites, e.g. ones that randomly copy blog posts from elsewhere (nowadays usually with a few random words changed). Copying content is probably one of many things that are relevant, but as you can give a first line or two and a link without losing much it is probably best avoided. Wouldn’t delete that comment now it is up though, just something to look out for in the future

  21. Hi Sarah
    Apologies for not responding sooner.
    I think that you have read more into what I wrote than I intended. I don’t feel pessimistic, and I agree with you about local action. Totally. But I don’t see what the wider world of ELT has to do with improving pay and conditions. When, in London a few years ago, we were fighting large-scale redundancies and paycuts at International House, there really was little solidarity possible from colleagues teaching English in, say, Belgian high schools. Now that English teachers in Belgian high schools are fighting extended hours and a later retirement age, there is little that the people at IH London can do to help them.
    All I really meant to say is that it is sometimes convenient to talk about ELT / EFL, but when it comes to industrial action, solidarity and so on, the terms seem a bit irrelevant to me. We have some things in common, but our work contexts vary enormously.
    My information about Romania came from Melania Paduraru:

  22. Thanks for your clarification Phillip. Really interesting to read your thoughts. The difference in context is a challenge that is true and something that needs a lot of discussion and consideration.

    Good to see you here again!

  23. Pingback: That’SLife » Blog Archive » The ELTeacher’s Lot

  24. Well, having arrived late to this discussion and just read through all the comments I don’t feel I have much to add. I agree with Philip about the diverse community that is ELT and how most English teachers perhaps associate themselves more with “school teachers” that with “ELT teachers”. The web could be changing this (with more and more communities of practice developing) and that could be a place to start.

    So instead of calling for a global movement to collectivise and unionise perhaps what we should be working on creating much smaller, practical local suggestions. How to set up a union in X country; Tips from X on how collective action changed Y situation. Know your rights with regard to pay/conditions in X country etc. Through the web people could share these experiences and get ideas from them. And I’m sure that is happening in other educational contexts, perhaps not ELT as we know it.

    Look at this website for example, from my home town of Toronto

    Anyway, apologies if these points have been made above and I have just repeated them.

    Thanks again Sara for this post and to all for your comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *