The TEFL ‘Catch 22′ and how we can escape it (part one)

A couple of recent Alex Case articles have addressed the issue of pay in TEFL and its implications. I greatly enjoy Alex’s blog, as those of you who come here regularly will know, but I feel I needed to respond to his quick brainstorm over this issue. This may make for depressing reading but there is substantial light at the end of the tunnel, so bear with me and read until the end.

Alex’s suggestions are italicized:

- Form a union and go on strike, first making sure that the school can’t just sack you all and replace you with another boatload of even cheaper teachers.

For my degree I majored in tourism management and consequently spent a lot of time looking at the hospitality and tourism industry, which shares a number of key characteristics with TEFL teaching, namely there are literally a plethora of small and not so small organizations operating in the sector in practically every country of the world; the pay is generally low; staff turnover is high compared to other industries; there is little if any trade union representation; there are many transient workers trying to pick up casual work literally wherever they can find it. If that paints an unkind picture of our profession, I think you’ll agree it’s not far from the truth. The problems of having low pay and no union representation coupled with a burgeoning workforce willing to take whatever work they can find leads to a catch 22: Why improve conditions if you don’t have to? If one teacher isn’t happy, get rid of them and hire another. What we have at the language school level of the industry (I like to separate the words industry and profession and will further make the distinction as I continue) is a proliferation of poor standards brought on as much by the teachers willing to take poorly paid jobs as those running schools who offer such rates of pay.

So, how to form a union and begin the end of this? Would this union operate in one country? Would it cross international barriers and somehow overcome the myriad differences in local employment laws across the world? Which government departments would be involved in fighting for the rights of a largely foreign group of workers, many of whom have been employed illegally with unenforceable contracts? How would you get the large, transient element, who are merely looking for a little pocket money while traveling from country to country with no intention of staying in TEFL in the long run, to adhere to the policies that would help solve the problem? As with the hospitality industry, there are many barriers to overcome before a union can even be envisaged.

- Embarrass or in other ways ruin the business of schools that pay badly.

In the same way that Tony Soprano and his mafia buddies wouldn’t have taken kindly to a group of strippers trying to mess with his strip club, the undesirables that own language schools will not take kindly to such behaviour. There is an incredible amount of money to be made from teaching English and where there’s an incredible amount of money to be made you’ll have characters who like making an incredible amount of money. If you intend to take this course of action, try to find out exactly who you’re dealing with and who they’re connected to. This can be an effective short-term strategy, but do not end up as part of a motorway overpass as a result of your actions, nor assume that the authorities will back you up. Where there’s an incredible amount of money to be made, there are also people being paid to look the other way by a bunch of evil bastards.

- Cut down on the supply of TEFL teachers going to private language schools, e.g. by using TEFL forums and articles in newspapers back home to persuade as many people as possible (especially underqualified ones who will really undercut us) to think again, by refusing to be a teacher trainer for new teachers, by setting up an organisation to help TEFL teachers find other jobs, or by all becoming freelance.

I heartily agree with this one. Word of mouth is the one weapon we have at our disposal that could truly make a difference. My loathing of the Dave’s ESL café job discussion forums is well documented and stems from the fact that the bugger had the golden opportunity to use his heavily trafficked forums for the greater good of the TEFL profession. He didn’t: he censored the forums beyond belief to the point that no one can share any useful information or offer advice. I’m not alone in trying to redress the balance. As far as freelancing goes, I’ve recently written on the subject and will address it again zoon as it is the preeminent way to make big money in this profession.

- Persuade TEFL course providers to think more carefully about pay when recommending jobs to their “graduates”.

This is a point that could be immediately resolved. I was flat out told that I would be living the life of a pauper when I did my CELTA. This is basically one small but complicit link in the chain. Is it wrong to hope that course providers could offer more support in this way?

- Set up schools based on the principle of well paid teachers being worth the investment (as a partnership, cooperative etc if you prefer) in the hope that it works and puts the badly paid schools out of business or makes them try to steal your business model.

What if it doesn’t work? Whose income, future and livelihood are we ruining here? If we’re talking about teachers setting up schools, it can work and I’ve seen some very successful examples. I’ve also seen people hounded out of business and been the recipients of death threats from the mafia who don’t want a better school cutting into the profits of their cowboy operation.

- Persuade our students and prospective students that well paid teachers (usually meaning more expensive lessons) are worth it and teach them how to find the right ones, e.g. by writing newspaper articles on the topic (probably in their L1).

A lot of students would really go for this and the lessons wouldn’t have to necessarily be more expensive. It would mean language school owners, I include the big guns like Berlitz and IT here, seeing the value of guaranteeing repeat custom from satisfaction gained from having a good, motivated teacher. What I’ve seen happen too often is the introduction of a pay scale based on experience and qualifications, followed by the non-renewal of contract / firing under flimsy pretences of the most experienced teachers. Believe me, I’ve worked in places where no one in the history of the organization has come anywhere near reaching the top of the pay scale. Bloody sneaky if you ask me.

- Persuade governments or accrediting agencies to set national minimum wages for teachers in private language schools.

This sounds great in theory, but if they aren’t even able to make sure that the people working in these schools have the proper work visas, resident permits, etc., how are they going to guarantee minimum wage?

I’m not finished yet and will be adding my two-penneth worth to the rest of Alex’s suggestions in the coming days, and explaining why there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Stay tuned.

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5 Responses to The TEFL ‘Catch 22′ and how we can escape it (part one)

  1. Alex Case says:

    That was always my dream of how my blog would work- I would do a quick 10 minute brainstorm and then others would do all the serious thinking for me! Good work and can’t wait to read the others, esp. the light at the end of the Marianas Trench

  2. david says:

    Hope you didn’t find the ‘input’ too pessimistic! Like I said, there is a way forward for us all.

  3. bobs12 says:

    Nice thoughts. A lot of what you’ve written here really can really work in practice, especially if you make a concerted effort and focus it in the right direction. The EFL industry and the Web are inseparable, so a decent Anti-PR campaign can easily be orchestrated, but it takes time and persistence. Which is easy if you’re obsessive about disgracing one particular school.

    Another way to weed out the backpacker teachers, maybe slightly counter-intuitive, is to make everyone coming to your country demand higher wages (I did a pretty good job of that, but then discovered I couldn’t hire teachers myself ’cause I’d made such a fuss about wages that I couldn’t afford ‘em!). The result should be that the schools won’t pay the backpackers the inflated wages they expect and they (the backpackers, not the schools) move on.

    Ideally you need people with groups and websites and blogs and all the rest at micro-local level. There are so many general, global ESL sites that you can’t get the message down to teachers plugging away in Almaty or Cherepovets (if there are any there :D ) unless you address them directly.

    I had a pretty good site for my area, it was up for about 5 or 6 years, then a comedy of errors plus my disinterest (I quit teaching for a while) killed it. Starting afresh now though :)

  4. david says:

    Great observation, bobs12. Thanks.

  5. daniele says:


    I have no more suggestions to add, just a bit more pessimism.

    I have quite a limited view (I’ve mainly worked in Paris) but I have the feeling that the problem here would not be mafia-style connections/intimidations, but just brand power.

    Getting students to write letters/articles sounds like a great idea. You might reach a small section of people, and convince some of them. At the same time, millions of potential students take the metro every day and see the adverts for Wall Street English.
    Many people find these adverts quite cringe-making. But they’re everywhere.

    I’ve just realised that, up to now, writing and thinking about this, if I was looking for language lessons I’d probably look for somewhere that seems big, established, dependable, and maybe a bit new/forward-thinking/creative. I’m also quite consciously influenced by brand image/tackiness-rating – so I might not go for WSE – but otherwise, it fits the criteria.

    A co-operative school also sounds great. Maybe it just sounds so good-to-be-true that I can’t imagine them having the marketing budget to compete, or maybe I think they would argue that that would be better spent on teachers.

    On the other hand, maybe I should just go work for Wall Street. I’m actually not sure they get paid less.

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