Secret Teacher Guest Post: Professionalism Problems

15 Dec

There are quite a few secret teachers out there in the world.  People who have spotted things that need changing in their environment but whose ideas or suggestions are brushed aside or dismissed out of hand.  This blog was contacted by a reader who needed some help to voice her concerns anonymously.  I’m very happy to do that for this reader and indeed any other!

ninja teacher

So the class is due to start at 9 and you are two teachers short. They are not picking up their respective mobiles and the minute hand is creeping round to ten past. The kids are in their classrooms, or milling around outside and your own class is due to have started ten minutes ago. People here often tend towards mild lateness, but such simple laxness is giving you kittens, week in week out. My emergency lessons are on standby, the trigger-finger hanging over the big green button of the photocopier so that you have something, anything, to start the classes off with before I run around trying to find people to cover the classes. Eventually one, then the other teacher, stroll into the school, say ‘dzien dobry’, and roll into their classes. Five minutes before the end of the class and those self-same teachers are the first out of the door, with a ‘bye’, only if you happen to be standing by the door as they rush homewards. Having looked through the windows of those teachers’ classrooms and registered dull, static book lessons and rows of bored faces of students you feel something should be done. But what?

As a DoS of a Central European language school with an inherited staffroom and with an indifferent local pool of teachers to hire from with a fairly complicated timetable to manage you find yourself in a bit of a pickle. You’ve talked to the usual suspects, they’ve promised to do better and for a lesson or two there was a bit of an uptick, slight improvements in attitude and delivery. But then there is regression towards the mean and you’ve come to face the fact that you’ve got some frankly lazy teachers in your staffroom. What to do?

In a bigger city, in a bigger school, there is more cover, the role feels more impersonal (I know, I’ve been there) and the action clearer. You would, ahem, phase out said teachers, at the end of terms or semesters, rolling in the new (hopefully better) blood as new classes appear. But in a smaller town, where the whole English speaking community know each other rather too well you know that unless handled perfectly such actions will blow up in your face. In such places it’s not good to be too harsh, or at least, gain a reputation for harshness.

The problem teachers moan about some of their classes; they’re ‘difficult’ or ‘sulky’ or whatever. But you’ve taught all the classes in question; these teachers seem to take a lot of sick days, and the classes seem fine when you covered them and you’ve concluded to yourself that the problem classes are problems because the teenagers in question in those classes are very, very bored. The very same teachers are the ones that don’t come to internal meetings and training sessions, that do the bare minimum, which would be called coasting if only they had a little more momentum.

You talk to the teachers in question again. Teaching is a vocation surely and not a well paid one. Teachers, you had thought, aren’t in it for the money.  A laughable idea with salaries the way they are. So if people don’t like the job, why are they doing it? They make the right noises, and small improvements come, and then go again. You wander the halls, hear the students discussing the classes in their L1 (so naïve of them to assume you don’t understand) and discussing how poor they are, and you wonder about when and how turn the heft of the axe into a decisive stroke. You didn’t start this career to be a manager, nor to fire people, but sometimes it is the right thing to do…

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5 Responses to “Secret Teacher Guest Post: Professionalism Problems”

  1. Anthony Ash Monday 15 December 2014 at 11:18 #

    Can the anonymous person respond to comments via you?

    Thank you for the post. It’s come at a time when there is ever-growing talk of dissatisfaction with the industry. See ELTJam for two posts on entry barriers to the profession and this post which has had a lot of attention: http://tefltastic.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/tefl-blame-game/

    Drawing on my own teaching experience in Poland and management experience in ELT, I think there are two clear conclusions you can come to about your situation:

    (1) The teachers who you refer to probably aren’t in the profession for the right reasons. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to read that they live in the town and do the job because it’s a source of income. They certainly aren’t well-trained in YL teaching.

    (2) The working conditions the teachers work in probably don’t merit their efforts. Are they paid 20PLN an hour? Are they paid per taught lesson and not a salary? Are they treat as teachers who pop in to teach the kids for a few hours then go off again? Do you offer them training but with no pay for it?

    On the one hand, it’s easy to say “teaching doesn’t pay well” or “you shouldn’t be in it for the money”; on the other hand, would you go above and beyond the bare minimum if you were on the minimum wage at McDonalds?

    There’s an interesting Yiddish proverb: don’t spit on me and tell me it’s raining. Unless the school pays the teachers a salary (not a wage) which is liveable, don’t expect much from them.

  2. David Petrie Monday 15 December 2014 at 13:17 #

    (A reply from the Secret Teacher)

    Thanks for your response Anthony. I enjoyed that blog link very much. TEFL does seem to be the poor relation in education despite all the benefits it brings to students and economies around the world. An excellent proverb too by the way, but I don’t feel it applies here. I am not the owner, nor the administrative manager of the school but feel that salaries and conditions are between average and good, especially compared with all the other schools in the town which we compete with.

    Of the two teachers I was thinking of when I wrote the post, one is the best paid teacher at the school, on a full time contract. The wage here is, net, probably 1.5 to 2 times the national average wage and is an okay, to good living wage. He is not the worst offender though, has loads on his plate personally and is trying to pick up any hours hither and thither at another place in the town (the University) with a view to getting a full time job there, I think. That’s where his girlfriend works, the students are more the demographic he likes and the pay is slightly better. Of the two, though this is the one I am likely to cut some slack, as when his classes go well, the kids are very involved and learn a lot. To me it seems like he has decided to leave when he can and has one foot out of the door

    The other guy, well, he was full time (before my time at the school) but was relegated to once a week because of, among other things, his unreliability. Now he has few classes, but struggles with even them, though other staff here tell me he’s more than capable. He seems to need the money which is pretty good, despite it being an hourly rate. It’s between 45 and 50 PLN net which I think is fair. He has many other sidelines and teaching seems to be a supplement to his income.

    The school organised events, such as training seminars, staff dinners, social evenings and the like are seen as irksome to the people mentioned above. In the training sessions I give out embryonic lessons which, with only a little tweaking, can be used in many classes. I prefer to do this than the more theoretical type sessions that sometimes happen as teachers have something to take away, something to use, something practical that will hopefully save them time. But it only saves them time if they use such seminars; if they churn through the book then they have zero planning and that’s what they seem to like.

    I suppose I contacted teflgeek with this post because I needed to vent. This is an odd profession ours, falling between many stools, with many jobbers and bodgers getting away with it even now, despite the BC and others trying to introduce qualifications at the margins, my opinions of said qualifications notwithstanding. It’s just sad, when you pour your soul into a job to see that it’s only a means to an end to some, whereas it’s a calling for you.

    ST (Secret Teacher)

    • ashowski Monday 15 December 2014 at 15:46 #

      Thank you for the quick response!

      If I’m terribly honest, it just sounds to me like you just need to let them go. I know that sounds awful but given how good their working conditions are, it sounds to me more like they aren’t pulling their weight.

      For example: if you pay your staff per hour, then of course they can do whatever they want in other hours. However, in your situation you’re paying them (not you personally, the school rather) a salary, and I would assume that means you want them working for the school 100%. Certainly the salaried jobs I have had in Poland demanded that I worked only for that school and that school only.

      You wrote your job is Director of Studies – someone else manages the school and the staff pay etc. So, if I were in your position, I would set down what I expect from the staff and if they don’t produce your teaching expectations, then I’d get shot of them. The reason for that is, like most managers in most lines of work, I would have performance criteria against which the workers have to perform – if they can’t, won’t or choose not to, then this is grounds for dismissal.

      Let me know how you feel about this idea 🙂

      • David Petrie Wednesday 17 December 2014 at 12:34 #

        (A reply from the Secret Teacher)

        Thanks for the input. I do like the idea, and with the New Year coming up I feel I can introduce it (specific performance criteria). There hasn’t been a policy of only working for one school here (in this town) yet, but I think it’s time to introduce one. I feel it was because previously the English market here was so under-developed, the teaching workforce so sparse that it was a case of hire what you can get and share the resources with competitors because neither us nor they could afford to lay down the law and potentially lose the staff. This is no longer the case and hasn’t been so for a while, so that can and should change. Your thoughts an input on this are really much appreciated. It’s nice to have the forum to vent (thanks Teflgeek) and even better to have a response. ST

  3. ashowski Thursday 18 December 2014 at 14:12 #

    I’d like to send you an e-mail further about this topic and some related things. Obviously, the whole idea of writing via David is you remain anonymous, so I won’t ask you for your e-mail address but give you mine and you can send me an email so I can get in touch with you (anthony . ash . teaching @ gmail . com )

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