>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.
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?
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