objects in the rear view mirror may be more serious than they appear

The car races along the road at 90mph / 145kmph, overtaking slower moving vehicles by forcing them to the side and even causing white vans to leap aside in panic.   As it roars through the outskirts of the town, a police car takes up the chase and eventually pulls the maverick motorist to a stop.  The officer walks slowly towards the vehicle, wondering what on earth could have provkoed such driving behaviour?  A medical emergency?  An imminent birth?

The window rolls down and the officer asks for the documents.

“I’m sorry officer,” comes the reply, “but I’m an English teacher and somebody needs lessons in a hurry.”

“Well, that’s alright then, Sir.  Can I give you an official escort to the school premises?”

*****

It would never happen, which is a shame really because we all sleep in occasionally or something overruns and there are moments when the ability to flout the legal speed limit would be quite handy.  But I can think of absolutely no situation within my own teaching experience, that could possibly be classified as “an emergency”.  Problems – yes.  Plenty of those, frequently hanging around together waiting to mug you when you’re not expecting it.  But an emergency?

Teachers are not doctors, no-one is going to die if they don’t get taught the second conditional.  The fate of nations does not hang on whether extreme adjectives are taught with the right sort of intensifying adverbs.  We are teachers.  We turn up, help our classes get where they’re going for that particular lesson and move on.

Right?

Isn’t that how it works?

So why is our time not our own?

Scott Thornbury, in his recent talk at the APPI conference, talked about the reasons why many teachers enter the profession in the first place and at what point the dream begins to fade.  It’s usually, he suggested, when you have a day similar to the one Mike Harrison describes in his blog.  Mike talks about a working day that runs from 9.30am to 8.30pm at night.  Oh, and you get half an hour for lunch.  Sound familiar?  Mike’s situation seems to be a “typical working day” – I’d be interested to know what his contract states about the hours he’s expected to work because contracts don’t always tell the full story.  I’ve had contracts which only specified the number of teaching hours I was expected to fulfil per week – but the expectations of the school were that I be at work for a set period of time per day and made no mention of the extra-curricular activities the school expected me to take part in.

This for me, is where the ELT industry tries to have its cake and eat it.  The expectations stakeholders have of teachers frequently exceed the job description.  Can I, for example, be requested to teach a new class at short notice (be it a cover class or a new contract) which doesn’t fit into my existing schedule?  (Say that I usually teach a full schedule in the afternoons and evenings and this new class is at 8.30am?)  If the parents of a failing child want me to help their child with extra homework or even extra tutorials – am I obliged to do so?  The answer of course is “yes”.  I am obliged to do all of these things and of course as a consummate professional I do them with a spring in my step and a smile in my heart.  (most of the time…)

But I can’t help feeling that working in the ELT industry seems to be diametrically opposed to the concept of “a normal life”.  I don’t just mean the late evening classes – I mean the expectation that we are always available to do whatever is required of us, whenever it is required.

In his 2004 Daily Telegraph article, Sebastian Creswell-Turner puts it like this:  “OK, you pathetic bums, this is the score. I’m not promising to give you any work at all, and if I do give you the odd hour here and there, you’ll be paid peanuts . . . but, all the same, I want you to be fully available for anything and everything. Plus, you’re all going to pretend that you are immensely privileged to be doing this grotty little job. Geddit?”

Again, there are probably chords being struck around the world with that one, though I’ve always been fortunate enough to work for a decent enough salary wherever I’ve been – perhaps I’ve just been lucky in my choice of employers.  Truth be told, that quote from Sebastian is the only part of his article that resonated.  The rest of it is a fairly jaundiced and stereotypical view of ELT, and fortunately Luke Medding’s eloquent rebuttal in The Guardian deals with most of the serious objections so I don’t have to.  Though I note with interest the bit in Sebastian’s article where he appears to have been turned down for place on a CELTA course by International House London…

Whether an accurate portrayal of ELT or not, and I certainly don’t see myself in Creswell-Turner’s descriptions, what he says does give me pause for thought.  The situation he portrays is not one I face particularly at the moment, but it is one that exists and perhaps even prevails in ELT.  This should not be so.

So why does it exist?  Possibly because there is an unwritten nobility of purpose that pervades the teaching world.  We don’t teach, it is argued, because we want to be rich – we do it because we care.  We do not exist in the realm of material things, we serve an ethereal higher purpose.  We are the ones who meld the minds of the future generations, we challenge and shape opinions, guide our charges to critical thinking, we help our students become more than the sum of their parts.  This view of teaching holds that what we do is a vocation, it is a noble calling and as such there are sacrifices to be made in its pursuit, the rewards of teaching are not pecuniary, they are to be found in what Maslow termed “self actualization” and “transcendence”.  We need to grow as individuals, achieve our full potential and to help others do the same.

As justifications and self-deceptions go, it’s quite a good one.  And I don’t deny that these aspects of the job are rewarding, my point is only that these things are not enough of a justification for the industry as a whole to treat us as less than human beings.  The obvious question simply being – why can’t we have both?

I can cope with the late nights, the extra work, the marking,  the reports, meeting the parents, writing up the lesson records, the required teacher development seminars, the staff meetings, the observations and the cover classes.  I can cope with all of these things because these things are the job that I have chosen to do – but can I please have a normal life as well?  Or am I, like the rest of the industry, trying to have my cake and eat it too?

UPDATE (13 / 06 / 2012):  If you enjoyed this post, or if it struck a chord with you, why not take a moment to complete “A Brief Survey of Working Conditions in ELT“?  The aim is to try and take a snapshot of the situation in ELT at the moment – what are the problems we have in our jobs?

Take a look and add your voice to the discussion!

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