'Is the TEFL industry in Ireland a meritocracy?' by Stephen Bruce

stephen bruceStephen Bruce has been a teacher since 2001, working in Italy and Dublin in that time. He has gravitated towards the areas of EAP, ESAP and exam preparation and wrote about Silence in the Classroom for his M.Phil. in English Language Teaching. At present, he is the EAP coordinator for Dublin International Foundation College. He blogs at eaping.blogspot.ie and is a member of ELT Ireland.

The TEFL industry has been good to me. It has fed, clothed and housed me for the last 13 years. It has allowed me the chance to develop as a teacher and to meet hundreds of wonderful people. I love this industry and feel blessed to work in it.

For a good chunk of those 13 years, I viewed our industry as a meritocracy. If you were a good teacher, if you were professional, if you cared about your students and if you worked hard, then you would do well. I took pride in that; I was working in an industry that compelled me to improve, that would leave me behind if I ever got too complacent.

And it would seem to be in our interests for the industry to be a meritocracy. If we reward the best teachers, if we offer them a career path and a chance to improve themselves, then, in turn, we create the best possible environment for our students. The problem is that, in Ireland at least, there are two obstacles to this notion of a TEFL industry that values and rewards its teachers.

The first is vulgar: money. As in every other industry, a valuation of our time is made based on our qualifications, experience, the amount of money our work can generate and the number of people capable of taking our place. This is fair. 15 satisfied students in a classroom will never make someone a millionaire, but they can generate a decent amount of money for a school. However, this week, I have heard of a school in Dublin offering teachers as little as €13 an hour. If €13 is the valuation for an hour of teaching, then that doesn’t suggest the school thinks much of its teachers. On average, I would spend about 3 to 4 hours preparing for a day’s worth of teaching, along with correcting work and admin. This seems like a fair investment on my part, a proper balance of class time and behind the scenes work. If we split the difference, then a 5-hour teaching day would amount to 8.5 hours work. So the €65 for the day would work out, not at €13 per hour, but €7.64. The minimum wage in Ireland is €8.65.

I cannot for the life of me understand why any school with a real stake in this industry would offer such a low salary. Yes, there is more competition for jobs since the recent closure of so many schools. And yes, lower pay for teachers would seem to offer greater profits. But it is also extreme short-termism. Anyone starting out in this business and seeing those wages wouldn’t stick around for long. Why would someone do the DELTA or an MA if the minimum wage was all that was waiting for them on the other side? The result of this is high staff turnover, to the detriment of everyone involved.

The second obstacle is discrimination. Despite the often low salary, there are people who do want to work in this industry. People who want to forge careers for themselves. Some of them are native speakers of English. Some of them are non-native speakers of English. Unfortunately for the latter group, a small number of schools in Ireland still advertise for native speakers only. So a degree in Geography, a 100-hour TEFL course and an Irish passport trumps your degree in pedagogy, your MA in Applied Linguistics and your flawless English.

I don’t think this is right and I don’t think it is good for our industry. If we are in an industry where supply of teachers outweighs demand, and companies must make decisions when hiring, then base them on things we can control – our experience, our qualifications, our knowledge of the language, our ability to impart that knowledge. Throughout my career I have taught alongside non-native English Language Teachers. I have learnt from them just as I have done from Irish colleagues, English colleagues, American colleagues. If we want to develop as teachers, we can’t be fussy about who we learn from.

The argument is often made that students want native speakers. Perhaps some do, I don’t know. But for sure, all of them want good teachers. We throw graduates fresh off CELTA courses into classes and wait for them to sink or swim. We don’t know if they will succeed or not but we give them the chance. We put them in front of the students, our customers, and we let them decide. Surely that is the very least we can offer all teachers, regardless of their mother tongue; the chance to prove themselves, to show that they are capable of doing the job well. And if successful, to reward their efforts, to value their work.

I do not wish to paint a bleak picture of Ireland. There are many, many excellent schools that value their teachers, irrespective of nationality, and pay them a fair wage. Those schools are building a long-term sustainable business that will benefit their students, their staff, and their shareholders. Ireland too benefits from an industry that enjoys a strong international reputation for excellence. My concern is that after the hit our reputation took in the last year following multiple school closures, all this good work could be undermined (and further damage caused) if discriminatory hiring policies and exploitative wages are allowed to edge good people out.

0 thoughts on “'Is the TEFL industry in Ireland a meritocracy?' by Stephen Bruce

  1. typtoptokyo says:

    Good writing. I used to work for one of the recently closed schools, who coincidentally WOULD hire non-natives. There was some resistance to this from the students but it never lasted long.

    EFL in the UK and Ireland seems a tough place and perhaps getting tougher, it is totally run like a business. Personally I have never seen ELT Teacher as a job you could do for life, and I think I was lucky to work in a position which kept me sustained for a few years. I was doubly lucky to find such a job in England with very little experience.

    My biggest worry now is that by the time I move back you will need an MA just to get any kind of (probably part-time) teaching job. I wonder what the rise in CELTA etc graduates has been over the last 10 years, and how many of them have continued the career as opposed to 10 years ago?

    The more I learn about learning languages, the less necessary a school seems to become. I want to start learning Spanish, and as I live where I do a school isn’t happening, but do I need one? I can get pretty much everything I need for free materials-wise, and then for conversation practice with an experienced tutor I just need to go to italki.

    My advice to newcomers would be If you want a career in EFL, dont mess around. Get qualified and then go directly for the Master’s. Only do the DELTA if you want to apply it to a Uni which accepts it as a module.

  2. typtoptokyo says:

    What is going on with all those closures anyway? To someone outside it all it seems like the government trying to crackdown on immigration. They dont seem to have much regard for teachers going unpaid nor do they seem shy of leaving the students high and dry.

  3. EAPsteve (@EAPstephen) says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for commenting.

    It’s interesting in your example, that the students quickly got over initial reservations about non-native speakers. This ties in with my own experience. Regardless of who you are, you may not live up to every students’ expectations. You may not be American/British enough; male enough; tall enough…whatever. But in most cases, employers don’t pay too much attention to that and you are given the chance to teach and prove yourself. I would worry that a lot of non-native speakers don’t even make it to that stage and miss out on job opportunities they are qualified for. Or else, they might not be paid as much (this survey suggests this is the case http://blog.slb.coop/2014/11/22/international-tefl-survey/)

    As to whether ELT is a job for life….I don’t know. I have noticed now that more and more people are doing further study – MAs and so on. It wasn’t like that when I started out. Back then, the people ten years older than me just had ten more years experience, no real additional qualifications. You would hope that this would mean conditions might approve across the board. But if people are doing those MAs just so they can compete for the same hourly paid jobs, you’d be right to worry. However, from meeting other teachers, I have met a lot of excellent people in DOS positions here in Ireland who have a more long-sighted vision of where ELT in Ireland could go and are prepared to hire good people and pay appropriate wages. And the government here does seem to be waking up to the potential value of the market so perhaps a stronger industry might emerge that rewards qualifications/experience etc.

    Is a school necessary? Again, I wouldn’t like to say. Obviously, I think it helps. But for many people, a school is not an option so you are right, there are tons of resources available. But I think many people I have met have benefitted a lot from attending classes, following a curriculum, engaging with teachers/classmates and reaching goals. A lot of places now offer online courses but I think that will happen in tandem with face to face classes (at least in my lifetime….hopefully)

    I am not sure what the full story with the school closures is. I think the government is cracking down on schools giving out visas to students with poor attendance but I don’t think it is as black and white as that. And the way it was managed seems a bit off…a lot of teachers and students were left high and dry with no real comeback. An awful situation for everyone involved and why I became concerned about the way things were going here in Ireland. This page has some information for students affected by the closures. http://www.icosirl.ie/

    I would echo your advice to people new to the profession. Get qualified. As well as that, try to get as much experience as possible. It might be nice to have a lovely pre-intermediate class, but don’t stay in it too long. If your employer doesn’t rotate you through the levels, ask for it. Try to get some experience teaching exam prep classes. Funny how many times that experience has helped me get jobs.

    Stephen

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