Can you have a normal life and work in ELT?

29 May

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.


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!


34 Responses to “Can you have a normal life and work in ELT?”

  1. mrchrisjwilson Tuesday 29 May 2012 at 19:31 #

    Great article. I’m SURE it is possible to have both and I know I certainly can relate to the 8:30 to 9:30pm days (including travelling to and from a business in minus 20). Sometimes I think the problem lies with us teachers. Being a bit of a geek, I love learning about language and teaching methodology and ideas. I love finding out things about language acquisition and I also love the community around teachers. I frequently find myself adding more tasks to my work load of when I’m near breaking point. Sure I moan, but I also love it and bring it on myself.
    Even right now, I have work today (pretty pressing stuff actually) and here I am…commenting on a blog 🙂
    P.S. I have also witnessed teachers who sometime manage to come into the staff room just before their lessons and teach them. They seam to have plenty of spare time, so perhaps they have found ways to skip these extra duties.

    • David Petrie Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 23:09 #

      Hi Chris,
      yes – I’d forgotten about travel time! You’re also right when you say that committing to professional development inevitably adds a layer of professional stress to an already heavy workload. Blogging adds yet another, yet here we are!
      I was interested by your postscript – I’ve also known teachers like that and without wishing to cast aspersions, I wonder whether the problem is not the job, but caring about the job?

  2. Ashley Tuesday 29 May 2012 at 23:14 #

    I’ve been lucky in my career to have a full-time faculty position at a university in the States, so I don’t deal with much of the hassle you mentioned in your post. But you’re right – it’s a huge problem in this field. My schedule is a little more regular, but I still often don’t know what classes I’ll be teaching for a session until the day before. You get really good at thinking on your feet.

    I don’t think we’re crazy to want a more normal life, but I do think that’s difficult given the people we often work with. I love my students, but they generally overestimate the ease of learning another language. They’re sure that just by living in an English-speaking country, they’re going to pick up English in a second. And if they don’t, it becomes my fault. Employers (not where I work, fortunately) often take for granted the skill and effort it takes to teach a foreign language. I wonder if we’re often overworked because people truly don’t understand the complexity of second language acquisition.

    Not to whine, however. Like you, I love my job. It’s good to be reminded occasionally that we’re all in the same boat. Twitter and blogging keep me from getting too burned out – a real concern in our field.

    Great post!

    • David Petrie Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 23:22 #

      Hi Ashley,
      So 24 hour notice of classes is the norm for you? How do you cope? Also, how is that possible in a university faculty? I’ve worked for schools where classes and teaching schedules changed weekly, but daily?
      I think that the overwork of teachers is largely as a result of the commercialisation of education – in which ELT leads the field. English is a product, there is the assumption among learners that they can walk into a school and “buy” a level’s worth of improvement in their English. Schools don’t dissuade learners from this, because otherwise we’d all be out of a job. So then we, the teachers have to deliver.
      A thought anyway.
      thanks for commenting,

  3. Mark Chapman Tuesday 29 May 2012 at 23:47 #

    Working in ELT is not normal, but what Mike writes about is normal for lots of people. He chose to live in the UK where working long hours for a low salary is quite normal.

    I think that outside of the UK – I don’t know the situation in the USA – most EFL teachers have quite a lot of free time, if very little money.

    • David Petrie Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 23:30 #

      Hi Mark,
      I’ve worked in China, Poland and Portugal – I notice from your blog you’ve been in China and Portugal too and are currently in Taiwan? In all of those situations I would say I’ve worked the long hours in all of them, not all the time, but generally – but I’ve never had cause to complain about my salary particularly.
      I’ve heard that what you say is maybe truer for people teaching in higher education situations, but I’ve never heard anyone in the private sector say that!
      All the best,

  4. Neil McMillan Tuesday 29 May 2012 at 23:50 #

    Another massive issue behind this is the lack of collectivisation/unionisation of private school teachers in the various elt hotspots. The tradition of transient or non-career English teachers around the world tends to work against greater progress in this area, if we got ourselves even half as organised as our public sector colleagues often are, we might make some progress.

    • David Petrie Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 23:33 #

      Hi Neil,
      yes. totally agree. Been having some thoughts in that direction too – it’s not a new idea, but possibly we are too disparate a group to actually make it happen?

      • Neil McMillan Thursday 31 May 2012 at 17:54 #

        Disparate and, I hate to say it, often selfish and quite willing to undercut other teachers or accept even shittier conditions than everyone else if it means bumping up our hours. However, teachers who stick around certain places have a duty (IMO) to persuade new (and old) colleagues to try and consider the common good, whether through formal or informal organisation. The political awareness raised by several of my colleagues by participating in the recent Spanish General Strike, despite fearmongering rumours that they would all automatically be sacked for even mentioning the word, is a more positive example of what’s possible.

  5. Cecilia Lemos Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 14:25 #

    Great article. It can be quite shocking to see it all written down. Like you and Mike Harrison, I have a very hard time to balance my passion and commitment for ELT and what I do and having a normal life. Without much reflection, I think the answer is yes, you CAN be in ELT and have a normal life IF teaching is all you do and if you are able to say no to giving the extra attention to students or spending time preparing different lessons addressing students’ needs or giving personalised feedback. But if besides being a teacher you are passionate about what you do and you are truly an educator, you can’t. Not if you still want to make ends meet.

    There are those who just come into the staff room 5 minutes before class starts and manage it well but there are those who are always going the extra mile and always trying to study and develop, get involved and improve. The latter is the one who can’t have a normal life.

    And on a cultural note, adding information Mark Chapman might find interesting. Mike’s situation is not unique and certainly not because he chose to live in London. I live in Brazil and I think my situation is the same – or maybe worse. But I agree there are places where ELT teachers make more money and therefore can work less and have more free time.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • David Petrie Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 23:51 #

      HI Cecilia,
      Thanks for commenting and saying nice things! So you’re saying I’m doomed to never have a normal life because I care about what I do? Hmm. I guess from that perspective it’s easy to see why teachers get jaded and cynical (I’m only half way there…!).
      I agree that caring about what you do and going the extra mile will mean the job takes more out of you than those who don’t, but I still wonder whether there aren’t things that schools / employers can and should do to mitigate the worst of these effects? There seems to be a very cynical cost benefit analysis going on in the industry: “the less we work our teachers the better the teaching, the happier the students, the more students we get, the more money we make” vs “the more we work our teachers the greater the returns on the outlay in salaries”. The trick appears to maximise the latter without sacrificing the former – it seems to be a delicate balancing act, no wonder so many don’t get it quite right!

      Thanks for commenting,

  6. Neil McMillan Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 22:55 #

    The idea that only in the UK ‘working long hours for a low salary is normal’ is highly questionable, or at least highly misinformed. To the example of Brasil from the previous commenter, I would add Spain. I know of no teacher here with either money or time to burn.

    • Mark Chapman Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 23:29 #

      In many parts of the world English teachers have a lot of flexibility with the times they choose to teach. It depends on how you work. I’ve usually chosen to work freelance or at a few part-time jobs, and so had more choice over the times I choose to wok.

      When I worked in Spain and Portugal a lot of teachers were working low hours for low pay; but some were working a lot of hours for four days a week, and then having a three day weekend. As I did. I took a less secure job – no full-time contract – in order to earn a higher rate of pay. Yes, I know that some teachers worry about whether they can afford to buy an international newspaper or not that day. I’m not arguing that the life of an English teacher is comfortable – the pay is pretty low everywhere.

      In East Asia, many teachers do have free time to do other things.

      • David Petrie Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 23:42 #

        Working conditions obviously differ depending on whether you work freelance, are contracted in the private sector or the public sector. Personally I’m happy enough where I am in a private language school, I value the security of my position (particularly in these troubled times) and I appreciate the pedagogical freedom I have, which I fear (perhaps unjustifiably) I would lose in the state sector. But from what I know of my colleagues working freelance / state sector – they don’t have much in the way of free time either…!
        Perhaps Asia is the holy grail of language teaching?


      • Neil McMillan Thursday 31 May 2012 at 17:46 #

        In Spain or anywhere else I really don’t see how it’s possible to do low hours AND low pay, unless you have a bit of cash behind you or you’re squatting and begging/borrowing/stealing food. The latter scenario happens more frequently than most would believe!

  7. Mark Chapman Thursday 31 May 2012 at 13:46 #

    Well, it looks like a lot of teachers here do work long hours. I have too, but I’ve also often chosen to work lower hours to have free time to do other things too. In Taiwan most teachers complain of low hours at the moment, but it could change.

    About a year ago I researched an article on teaching English in Greece (which I never wrote for a few reasons) and it seemed that teachers worked very long hours for low pay. I even found a forum discussion where teachers were dreaming of working in Taiwan. I had assumed that the situation there was an exception.

    Your comments are all interesting, and I’m curious to ask my readers their experiences on this.

    There are a lot of English language teachers in the world with – I imagine – a lot of different experiences. And things change with the economies of different countries.

  8. alexisinha Thursday 31 May 2012 at 13:55 #

    Picking up your point about Asia. My personal experience of working in South Korea was that I frequently had free time, but very little professional support or encouragement to develop. As I was just starting out at that point I would have benefited from more assistance in this area. There was little external pressure as no one seemed to care what I did in the classroom. In both schools I worked for, one private and one state, the contract was for 35-40 hours. In the former I was scheduled to teach almost the entirety of this time, while in the latter I taught roughly half. I did quite well out of the whole arrangement and had a good lifestyle. The snag was I felt isolated dealing with everyday teaching problems such as implementing discipline with young learners, which can be stressful at the best of times. As an experienced teacher I wonder if I could make a better fist of this and reap the financial rewards without as much stress. I conclude that I would miss the expectation of development and mentoring.

    That is a roundabout means of saying that I don’t believe there is such a thing as the holy grail of language teaching. Each job has its merits and pitfalls.

    I also think that the personal life you are trying to have outside your work life affects judgments about what these are. As was mentioned above there is a disparity between the TEFLers who are in it for a ‘gap year’ and those for whom ELT is a full-blown career. There is the erroneous perception that our jobs are something anyone can do, all they need is to take a break from their ‘proper job’/ studies. This de-values the commitment, vigour, and rigour (couldn’t resist the rhyme) of many professional TEFLers. As more and more people view ELT as their career, then the industry should reflect the needs of employees in the long term, such as recognising family commitments, wanting greater security, and, well, having other interests than ELT. I wish I could rely on institutions to consider this, but it sounds rather naive. I wish I had a better answer to questions about the future than ‘F*** it, I’ll worry about that later’. Perhaps I am helping these problems perpetuate.

    • Mark Chapman Thursday 31 May 2012 at 15:08 #

      I don’t think we can rely on institutions to consider the long term plans of EFL teachers. Some of the best may – because it’s in their interest to keep teachers for the long-term – but I don’t think the average ones will. At least not any time soon.

      I think it’s important for EFL teachers to develop other streams of income whilst teaching.

  9. Alexis Blenkarn Thursday 31 May 2012 at 14:43 #

    Night gathers, and now my lessons begin. They shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die in my classroom. I am the boardpen in the darkness. I hang motivating artwork on the wall. I am the voice that cries of perfect aspect, the purveyor of vocabulary, the pointed cough that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men from false friends. I pledge my life and honor to ELT, for this night and all the nights to come.

    No wait…..

    • David Petrie Thursday 31 May 2012 at 14:55 #

      Interesting…. so which Game of Thrones character would make the best ELT teacher?

      • Mark Chapman Thursday 31 May 2012 at 15:01 #

        Well, the Imp would give honest feedback, but probably wouldn’t be too humanistic in his teaching style.

      • David Petrie Monday 4 June 2012 at 11:49 #

        Varys sets everything up and then steps back to watch events unfold – possibly a task based approach?

  10. David Petrie Thursday 31 May 2012 at 18:15 #

    Neil’s point about teachers undercutting each other ties neatly into Alexisinha’s point made about gap year teflers who aren’t as worried about the professional standards or working conditions, because it’s only beer money and they only have to do it for a year.

    Sadly, the labour market is the labour market in whatever industry you work – there will always be someone willing to do your job for less than you do it for. I’m aware of one school (not, I hasten to add any of my employers past or present) that, as part of a cost cutting measure took deliberate steps to “force out” the DELTA qualified and longer term teachers because they cost more. It was in the interest of the school to recruit newly qualified teachers who (a) had lower salaries (b) weren’t as aware of alternative working conditions. Which ties into Mark’s point about institutions only having their best interests at heart – where those coincide with the teaching staff’s, we see progress.

  11. Mike Harrison Saturday 2 June 2012 at 22:17 #

    Hi David,

    First of all, thanks very much for the mention and including it in this very lucid post, and potentially concerning given the comments received.

    I should qualify my post a little, I think. I teach in the further education sector in the UK, which is public sector, state-funded provision. A full time ESOL teacher in this situation is contracted to teach 24 contact hours per week, with a further 13 hours allocated to ‘departmental duties’ – planning lessons, organising the course, chasing up errant students, etc. – making a total of 37 hours per week you’re paid for. There are fractional members of staff, and these are permanent contracts like the full timers. I’m 0.5 at the moment, while I do my delta (but also probably to continue due to other commitments) so I have 12 contact hours and 6.5 admin hours.

    ESOL is relatively well-rewarded financially, especially compared to some instances I have heard of private language school employed teachers in London. BUT (big but) it certainly seems that there is a lot more stress, and requirement to complete the more administrative side of things than in private EFL. Add to this the current slashing of education budget by the coalition, and you have quite a precarious, redundancy-prone, high-stress working environment.

    Timetable wise – teachers are expected in when they are teaching by 9am, and they are required to teach one evening, as I describe in my post finishing at 8.30pm. This means one day a week teachers usually spend circa 12 hours at college. They might not be teaching or doing admin all this time, but still, they have to be there. If you work full time, chances are you’ll have a morning class the next day, and have to be in by 9 in the morning, if not before.

    And then remember you might be teaching students who can’t even read and write in their first language, might be facing danger of deportation, might have learning difficulties, etc etc. it’s pretty tough!

    Once again, thanks for the ace post, and to all who have taken the time to comment.

    • David Petrie Sunday 3 June 2012 at 22:47 #

      Hi Mike,
      thanks for giving us a wider perspective on your day – there are two things that I pick up from your comment, the distribution of teaching hours throughout the day and the balance between classroom time and teachers’ room time.

      I was talking to a colleague who used to work in Madrid and he said much the same is expected in terms of when you teach – in Madrid you might have a 7.30am business class, then something around lunchtime and a bit more in the evening – the total number of classroom hours might not be much, but the day is a long one!

      I was also interested in the ratio between “admin” time (in which I include planning and prep time) and classroom time – 35% to 65% – I wonder whether that is the norm in most institutions? I think I’m right in saying that my current balance is a little more even at 42% to 58%. I wonder what most people consider ideal? It does of course depend on the classes you’re allocated, I know my colleagues who teach primary spend a lot more than that on their preparation!

      Thanks again for the comment,


  12. shahram Wednesday 13 June 2012 at 17:22 #

    Hello friends,
    It sounds like the agony (if I could call it) of language teachers is commonplace and can be found everywhere. I do member that on certain week days I worked twelve hours a day in a language institute , and once I had kidney problems (stone in my kidney); the pain was agonizing. So I gave the boss a call telling him that I was not able to handle the classes and asked if someone else could cover for me. Nobody did, and while the pain was killing me, I had to have my classes myself. After I taught in the institute for about 15 years, I had problems with the management, and they refused to give me any classes. Now i feel that I was really betrayed and exploited because I did whatever I could to help the students and the institute improve its statue. I was at their service most of the time (even on Fridays which is a holiday in my country) and finally I was generously rewarded, admonitory letters one after another, refusal to promote me. In spite of all this, once in a while I meet my former students who greatly appreciate what I did for them, and this is rewarding. I am happy that my students still remember me.

    • David Petrie Wednesday 13 June 2012 at 18:25 #

      That’s sounds like a truly horrible situation to be in – I feel for you! I think if I were in your situation I would have given up on it a long time before – your dedication does you proud!


  13. Thuy Hang Le Wednesday 13 June 2012 at 17:35 #

    What an interesting article!

  14. David Boughton (@David__Boughton) Wednesday 13 June 2012 at 19:32 #

    It’s not that complicated. There are so many teachers out there.

    The market will never change until the supply and demand is better balanced.

    As long as teaching is a “fall back” profession, there will always be too many teachers and not enough money to go around.

  15. shahram Thursday 14 June 2012 at 05:40 #

    As far as teachers are concerned, many would use flowery language to describe them:

    “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”.

    It is implied that teachers are supernatural creatures that do not need care and attention. Therefore, they are betrayed ,exploited ,and treated like slaves (as I was (still am) after working for a long time). But when it comes to management and those involved, they would never use flowery language. What is very important to them is only the business relationship rather human relationship. They simply make irrational judgments about the teachers and issue verdicts convicting them. They see only the negative points and ignore the positive ones. This is what I have experienced myself. In spite of this, what I find comforting and rewarding is that when I meet my former students, they highly appreciate my help. I am happy we are at least valued by our students.


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