For the majority of us TEFL is an insecure, low-paid, low-status profession and it is difficult to be able to bargain for better pay, terms and conditions without organised workplaces. Without collective bargaining, there will only ever be downward pressures on pay and conditions in the industry. Nobody can improve their own workplace conditions without first having the support and solidarity of their colleagues. However, organising the profession can be done, and has been done in schools in Canada, the US, the UK, Spain and Ireland. Organisers from TaWSIG and ELT Advocacy Ireland offer this excellent advice on organising the profession:
- Talk to other teachers you know and trust: do your best to organize locally and physically. Get people to real face-to-face meetings where your ex-colleagues and current colleagues can meet. Only a small percent can/ want to/ know how to help you organize ELT better in your city. If you have a lot of new teachers invited to a meeting, have a speaker. Don’t just let it become a rant session. (Everyone knows things are bad). Have a designated moderator. Keep minutes. Have a sign-in sheet. These meetings are the means you need to build a large network- and to structure it- to amplify your voice. You don’t need a bunch of individual needy voices. You need to unite and work together to build policies, strategies and victories.
- Put on events for English Language Teachers: These can be lesson swaps, ELT Maker Nights, table quizzes, drinks nights, TED-like ELT events, weekend conferences or just getting together for coffee and a focused chat on a weeknight.
- Do surveys: Do them and publish the results in (and out) of ELT publications. Comparative surveys help ELT workers get a sense of place in their local economy and the global community. Sometimes ELT publishers will send around your surveys to their contact lists as well if you remind them they can access the results. They like this and it worked in France’s large (300+ teachers) survey. It gives them insight into their work in interpreting your local teaching community (or their market). Take advantage of them. Your goal should be to make every survey include something about THE LIVES OF TEACHERS: (Example question topics: do the participants have/support children, do they own or rent a home, are they caretakers for their parents or siblings, how do they get to school, how much prep and post-lesson time do they spend, do they buy their own ELT books, what type of contract do they have, how long do they plan to spend teaching English, what type of ELT training to they have, what’s their pay rate, how long have they been teaching).
- Meet: set up a city-wide Open Meeting in your union hall -or in a neutral venue like an arts centre or hotel- to listen to teachers from other sectors and hear organization stories.
- Organize outside: Set up an English Language Teachers association outside the union with a primary focus on researching, communicating and advancing the terms and conditions of ELT as work, a job and a career. Ours was called ELT Advocacy Ireland and it provided a way for teachers with no union or in different unions to get together and talk about how to coordinate and unite.
- Organize inside: Be the union rep for your school. Get union training and encourage everyone you know to do so. Get a seat at the union’s decision-making table and present how your profession works to the other union reps from the other sectors your union represents whenever you meet with them. This will help you push for a recognition of what ELT work is and how the sector you represent is exploiting the members you represent. Without this understanding in the union empowerment of ELT workers seems very vague to most general unions. Also, some unions become corrupt or lazy. The solution here is an internal action group which can meet to influence committee decisions in a more radical direction. Pair up with like-minded reps inside the union and form a radical faction which will force the union to consider radical positions and militant action more and more frequently. This is how to influence how your union operates as a conservative or radical force for change in your sector.
- Shop around: Approach other unions with the predicament of language teachers and ask if they would or do represent ELT. If you have the best union for ELT people, talk to your branch organizer’s direct superior.
- Write together: produce a blog, website or newspaper for ELT workers where they can read about other ELT workers positions and see the common ground they share. Make sure teachers do the writing. Keep inviting new people to write. Keep inviting those who have written to write again. Your publication should be free to say the ugly truths about the industry as you experience it in your context. Avoid naming names directly. No opposition from an owner or chain or union or publisher should be able to stop it being published or influence what you write and publish/print. In this way workers can reveal all the issues and pressures wherever they arise from. A forum like this creates a common space for and by teachers. Our publication was a paper-only (no internet posting) newspaper called Photocopy This. Teachers could write for it, photocopy it and then share it individually with their friends at their workplace or former workplace. It is not connected or beholden to any group or union or association and freely discussed dozens of topics affecting teachers’ lives in our city from unpaid prep to crisis pregnancies.
- Reproduce: As soon as you have 3 people talking about things locally, set up a meeting somewhere you like. Meet every week or couple of weeks and plan your next meeting. This group can develop into a core team or committee to organize larger Open Meetings by contacting speakers, managing social media in the lead-in and preparing materials to distribute on the night. The goal should be to organize more of these teams representing more specific types of ELT workers: workers in a specific geographic area, workers on university campuses, in chain schools, freelancers, non-union, part-timers.
- Find a core: In Dublin, we organized around long-term teachers with poor conditions which weren’t improving despite dedication, improvements or higher profits. We organize around precarious contracts for low-paid work. We also organized around events like college closures and new regulations.
If you or your colleagues are concerned about the low status and poor conditions in the TEFL profession, please get in touch. We would love to hear your stories and we can provide advice and signpost you in the right direction. It doesn’t matter what country you are in or whether you are a public sector worker, private school teacher or freelance, we all have an interest in improving the TEFL profession.