So we take a look around us and we see that everything in the world of TEFL is not good. We ask ourselves, how did we ever get into such a sorry state? Who is to blame? Who can we rant and rail against? Who can we throw cream cakes / pies / rocks at?
So here are three scenarios:
(1) Francis pays 150 euros and gets online access to a TEFL training course. He completes the assignments and is awarded a TEFL certificate. He uses the the website jobs boards gets a job teaching in Asia and off he goes. The school he works at pays him €800 a month with an immediate start and a ten month contract, but deducts part of that salary for accommodation costs and makes him pay a materials fee deposit, which he probably won’t get back.
(2) Hadley pays €1500 euros for a 4 week CELTA course. She completes the assignments and passes the teaching practice. She has a few issues during the course and has to resubmit once or twice but comes out of the course with a C grade. She talks to the tutors at the centre and gets a job at a language school in bailout Europe at €1000 a month (on probation) on a nine month contract.
(3) Andriy did an undergraduate degree in English with his university and went on to do a Masters in linguistics. He applied for a language teaching job but was then told he needed to do a CELTA (or equivalent) which he did. Total cost is somewhere around €10,000 – but it’s difficult to be precise. Andriy is now on the equivalent of a zero-hours contract at a rate of €10 per hour. He probably works around six hours a week on average – at least in that particular school.
Which of these people would you hire? Now take a look around your teachers’ room – what proportion of these people can you see in your staff room?
(Caveat – all of these scenarios are set within the private language sector and don’t consider the millions of people who teach English within their state sectors. Sorry. It’s not to exclude you exactly, and if you’re reading this and want to let me / us know what it’s really like for you – please do! I would welcome the input and insight.)
Alex Case identified a quite considerable set of people who are to blame for the state of ELT in his original post “The TEFL Blame Game“. And in so doing prompted this post…. (so you know who is to blame…!) But he in return was reacting to the discussion that followed on from an ELTJam post about the state of ELT.
The ELTJam post was provocative. Basically it said – don’t bother doing proper training to be an ELT teacher, you probably don’t need it anyway and it’s not worth it unless you’re sure it’s what you want. It generated quite a lot of comment from quite a lot of people who think a lot about ELT. Guys, you got suckered. You were the wasp’s nest and you got poked with a stick. But also – fair play to ELTJam for actually calling us all out; we are the emperor and we are not wearing very much!
What neither ELTJam nor Alex Case mention is “the market”. And it is the market that is ultimately to blame for all of this. We can argue from here to eternity about whether a native speaker has the same value as a non-native speaker. We can argue about the value of standards and the extent to which qualifications are important, but because we are talking about the private language school sector, we are talking about market forces. And as such, none of our much vaunted professionalism matters. What matters is supply, demand, price and quantity. This is economics, not education.
If my school does not have enough students walking through the door and signing up for lessons, then I have no job. My school wouldn’t be able to afford me. Schools brand and market themselves based on the product they seemingly deliver. I have been in a teachers’ room, planning lessons and have been interrupted by the school director showing potential clients around. The message on the surface was “And this is where our teachers work” but the subtext was “look, they’re all English!”. We were being branded as high quality, professional language teaching provision (we were wearing ties).
There are any number of reasons why the TEFL game is unfair. Probably, chief amongst them is the erroneous belief that we are a profession. We aren’t. When a school markets what it provides – what do you see on the advertisement? We are the product – not the classes we teach, but us. The teachers. And if we are the product, then this helps to explain the shocking lack of parity between the highly qualified Andriys of the world and the Francises.
Like many of you reading this, I find this realization somewhat depressing. I quite like the idea of myself as a highly qualified professional. I believe I have a value beyond that of my salary. I believe that I give extra value to my students as a result of my years of experience and training. But the sad truth is that I could quite easily be replaced tomorrow. Actually, my DoS might need a week or so to find a suitably qualified (CELTA +min. 2 years experience) candidate, but they would be cheaper than I am and they would probably have more to prove.
To go back to our original scenarios:
The school that hires Francis isn’t interested in the quality of his teaching. What they want is a native speaker who knows just about enough not to damage the students and who doesn’t know enough to be able to complain about the working conditions or materials. One former colleague who was freelancing told me that the only question he ever got asked by some of the schools he worked at was “Do you have your own materials?” His reply was “Yes, do you have a working photocopier?”. This is the “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap” model of language teaching. Offer lower prices, don’t market the quality but market the foreign teacher, get enough students through the door and milk all concerned for as much as you can for as long as you can.
Hadley is probably luckier in as much as the school that has hired her clearly has an interest in the quality of language teaching that they provide. As such, they have an interest in helping her to improve the quality of her teaching and no doubt she is subjected to observations, development courses and regular seminars. Hadley is an example of the attempt that TEFL makes to be professional. The industry found it had a problem with too many people teaching English without any idea of what that entailed. Schools that believed in delivering high quality language provision came to realize that this meant they had to train their teachers to teach effectively. Thus in 1962, John and Brita Haycraft launched the International House Certificate, which eventually became the CELTA. But make no mistake, what is now a “professional standard” has its roots in quality control. What the CELTA offers is not necessarily any better or worse than any other language teaching qualification, the content of the courses is probably mostly the same, though delivery modes might vary. What the CELTA offers has nothing to do with the teacher holding the certificate, because the certificate isn’t for the teacher. It’s for the Director of Studies who wants to employ them. The CELTA is a guarantee of standards – it says that the bearer knows these things and can do those things. It meets tests of validity and reliability that other qualifications might not.
It is Andriy that you have to feel sorry for. Andriy started learning English when he was ten and went on to dedicate six years of his life to learning all about English – he can parse a sentence in a heartbeat and can describe the sociolinguistic appropriacy of a rogue collocation at the drop of a hat. All this knowledge doesn’t let him teach English though, for that he needs a CELTA. So having sat through four weeks of native speakers not knowing the difference between “must” and “have to” and having passed the course, Andriy then finds that because he’s not English, he can’t get a full-time job anywhere within the private sector. For the record, I would like to categorically state that if you have the qualifications and experience then I see no reason why the nation of your birth should make any difference. However, I have yet to see that in practice. Mostly, I see non-native speakers either co-teaching classes with native speakers or only teaching lower level classes. Non-native speakers get a very raw deal in the private language sector – to find out more about how you can help change that, visit http://teflequityadvocates.com/.
Andriy and Francis are opposite ends of the scale, but both point to the reason why TEFL has no right to call itself a profession. No matter how professional people within TEFL try to be, it is a business, it is an industry, and it operates according to economic principles, not pedagogical ones. And as long as students pay money to come to classes, that is unlikely to change. So if you really want someone to blame for the state of ELT? Blame the market.