Above: The statue of James Joyce on Talbot St. He was a language teacher too, and certainly showed what could be done with it. Unite the Union are making handy use of this factoid in their memes ahead of the protest tomorrow. Picture sourced from the Wiki Commons.
Every summer Dublin’s streets are chock-a-block with language students. It’s a booming industry but remains largely unregulated with scumbag employer tactics like zero hours and bull shit “self-employment” scams leaving teachers in a rather precarious lurch. Unite the Union have sought a meeting with the Minister for Education Richard Bruton to discuss proposed legislation. So far he’s snubbed them but has happily met with industry lobbying groups like Marketing English in Ireland. Language teacher Aileen Bowe fills us in ahead of a protest tomorrow.
It was around this time last year I was on a fifteen minute break with another English language teacher and we were discussing our dissatisfaction at being in a disused music school. It was an old building, the ‘classrooms’ had broken chairs, dusty musical equipment in the corner, and old whiteboards stuck precariously on the wall. My desk was an actual piano.
As workers in all industries do, my colleague Niamh and I were bonding over our unhappiness with our working conditions.
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked.
Most English language teachers (ELTs) have had a colourful and varied career. It’s a popular industry for short term-work, but there is a significant number of people who consider it to be a career. A recent survey carried out in November 2016 showed that 55% of respondents had worked in ELT for between 6 years and 12 plus years.
The students come from all over the world. Many teenage groups from Europe travel to Ireland in gaggles with their stressed-out teachers during their summer holidays to study on Junior Programmes. But there are huge numbers of adults who use their work holidays as an opportunity to come to Ireland to take 2 to 4 weeks of intensive General English classes in the morning and to take the afternoons and weekends to explore the city and the countryside.
Other students come for month-long stays, and may have permission to study and work while they are here. Learning English in Ireland is an attractive opportunity to many people, and while the summer may be the busiest time, plenty of year-round work is available for teachers.
But let’s get back to my colleague Niamh. We were not in the actual premises of the school where we were employed because schools can have a 100% increase in student numbers in the summer months, and so they have to rent out rooms in other locations, such as hotel conference rooms or private colleges.
Of course this means that as a teacher you are not guaranteed to get any of the basic necessities of a classroom like Wifi, a whiteboard, a CD player, desks, or even windows. That day, Niamh and I were in a nearby coffee shop having a hasty coffee. We suspected we were about to be fired. Neither of us had another employment secured.
Every day, we spent four hours travelling to and from the school, finding it necessary to get to the staffroom (‘box room’ would be more appropriate) at 7.30 am in order to be able to use the photocopier before walking twenty minutes to our makeshift classrooms in the music school.
It is usually the case that the newer, less experienced teachers are turfed out to various city centre locations to teach the less motivated teenagers, while the permanent staff use the school’s own classrooms year round with the older, more motivated students. Niamh and I travelled from the midlands every day, and we planned our classes on the bus on the way up every morning, and we corrected homework and tests and wrote out lengthy end-of-course reports on the commute home.
We had a lot of paperwork to do every week. None of this extra work was paid for, but it had to be done. We taught for 4 hours per day, and if we were lucky, we might sometimes get extra conversation classes in the afternoons. Our wages were 20 euro per hour, which is two euro higher than the average ELT rate in Dublin. The cost of our commute was minutely less expensive than renting a place in Dublin. With our lack of contracts, it would have been foolish to try.
“I’m sick of this,” I said to Niamh, looking around nervously for the centre manager.
We’d heard she’d been to 5 other teachers that morning to tell them they had no more work on Monday. She hadn’t come to us yet. But we had a legitimate reason to be hopeful that we wouldn’t be affected, because there are always some teachers kept on after the busy season passes.
I had been working with the school for almost two months now, and in fact I was a returning teacher, having worked there the previous summer also. We were both relatively experienced, and I was just finishing up a Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Surely we would be in with a chance. “They can’t keep treating us this way though, it’s so wrong.”
Niamh looked around. “There is an organisation,” she said quietly, “who are trying to get better conditions for teachers. If you’re really interested in trying to change the industry, contact them.” She pulled out a pen and wrote “ELT Advocacy” on her napkin.
“They’re working with Unite the Union and they have an open meeting coming up and it’ll take place in their building. But be careful. Managers and Directors of Studies don’t like to know that teachers are involved with this. It can be a dodgy thing to be associated with. Only tell people you trust.”
I took the napkin and hid it in my bag. I suddenly felt like my frustrations with the ELT industry had been acknowledged for the first time in four years. There were ELTs who were fighting for better conditions! We drank the rest of our coffee and headed back to the Spanish students.
Today, they were making posters about Ireland, using card paper and colouring pencils that I had bought out of my own money, because the school didn’t supply them. As we were going up the stairs, the centre manager suddenly appeared with a bright apologetic smile.
“Girls. Was hoping to catch you. The main office wants to thank you for your hard work over the last couple of weeks, but is afraid to say there’s no more work after tomorrow. But do please, consider applying again in February. We’d love to have you back.”
We just stared at her blankly. Niamh said a quiet thank you. And then we walked away.
For the next two hours, I thought about how stupid I was for choosing such an unstable career path. In the last four years, I had worked in Spain, the UK and Hong Kong teaching English, but nowhere was more exploitative and ruthless than Ireland.
It had been part-time work here, a four-week contract there, six- hours- a- week- to- start- and- we’ll- see- how- you- get- on- after- that type of nonsense in every single school I worked in.
And then I stopped blaming myself and started to think about the advocacy group and the union that was helping ELTs fight this exploitation.
I remembered why I had chosen this career – because, on a daily basis, I found it to be personally and professionally fulfilling. There is no forced learning involved. People who learn English are some of the most fascinating people I have ever met, and I have learned so much from them.
Being able to facilitate these people in learning a language is a truly rewarding experience, and after having experienced primary and secondary school teaching, I knew that those teaching environments were not for me. English language teaching was my calling. But I was quickly learning that my calling was not going to treat me fairly, despite it being a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide.
I hadn’t chosen a cash-poor career. I just hadn’t copped on to the fact that mixing education and business is toxic for teachers as workers. We must behave as professional teachers do: be trained in pedagogy, constantly update our teaching skills, treat it as a vocation rather than a “job”, do all the attendant paperwork. But we cannot be paid or treated like professional teachers, because it’s a business and we are all at the mercy of the market, after all.
When people talk about “regulating the industry”, it’s often in relation to visa requirements, the hours that students are allowed to work and the basic health and safety standards in school buildings, and these are all important. The Department of Education is planning to publish legislation encouraging schools to obtain the International Education Mark.
There is no mention, anywhere, of working rights for teachers or minimum employment standards. As it currently exists, employment rights for ELTs essentially do not exist.
Recently, Unite published a ten point charter on the demands of ELTs:
- Permanent employment contracts as standard
- Contracts as standard
- End to zero-hour contracts and bogus self-employment
- Recognition and pay for non-contact working hours
- Entitlement to holiday and sick pay
- Entitlement to leave guaranteed under employment legislation
- Equality of pay and opportunity for non-native speaking teachers
- Full support from schools for continued professional development
- Union recognition and representation rights across all schools
- Standardised salary scales across the sector
These demands are so basic that it is almost disheartening to see how far the industry has to go to reach basic parity with other employment sectors. It is shameful that an industry predicted to grow to 2 billion euro in the next five years is unconcernedly allowing its teachers to work themselves into poverty.
But it is absolutely unacceptable that a democratically elected government has chosen to consult with a lobbying group for language school business owners, and yet refused to meet with Unite the Union representatives.
The government’s commitment to growing business profits is clear. Their lack of interest in the welfare of public sector teachers is also clear, given the inequality in pay scales for secondary school teachers. So it is no surprise that they do not want to be concerned with private sector English language teachers.
In the absence of the government prioritising frontline workers, unions have stepped in.All ELTs and other workers from all sectors concerned with the naked contempt shown to us by our government are urged to attend.
That whispered conversation I had with Niamh was just one year ago. Within the last six months, I have lost a job in an English language school because of advocating colleagues to join the Union, and I am far from being an exception.
I am certain that many English language teachers will be genuinely afraid to come out and make their voices heard , but they have to ask themselves, what can the consequences be if all the teachers are united in their insistence on fair employment conditions? How long should this fear be a part of modern Irish working life? When will enough be enough?
There is a rally at the Department of Education between 12:30 and 13:45 on Wednesday, June 21st calling for regulation of the industry. Follow both Unite the Union and ELT Advocacy Ireland on Twitter to keep up with their campaigns. Share your experiences of the industry in the comments!