Stephen 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.