Underneath the pavement, the beach

This is the follow-up to my previous post, ‘Find someone who‘ which detailed several problems with the TESOL sphere. The title for this post comes from the Situationists, and is a reference to the sand found underneath the paving stones torn up in the Paris 1968 revolutionary clashes.

There is little to be achieved by only complaining about one’s problems. Certainly, it is relieving to vent. After the venting, however, we have inaction, a restored status quo. There needs to be some sort of action, no matter whether it is a tactical advancement or sabotage.

A lot of us work outside our contracted hours. For those of us creating material to be used in classes and where we retain copyright, I would absolutely advise you to sell this on. Could you sell it as an ebook? As a zip file of materials? If you don’t retain copyright, could you subvert laws and means by only using Creative Commons Share Alike media in your materials? This means that anything created must be shared with the same license. It would also mean that your organisation doesn’t benefit at the expense of everyone else, even if they do stop you from selling it on yourself. If not, totally ensure that you provide only a paper copy to your organisation so that they cannot make a digital version without some effort. Mostly PDF scans look like PDF scans. Remember to add your name under the title or at least somewhere that is a pain to cut it from. If your materials are good and you get acknowledgement without any kind of benefit other than kudos, you might as well be paid in social media likes.

Working to rule is still a thing that feels a bit mean to some of us. I disagree, though I believe I ought to do it more. It’s doing what you are contracted to do. Essentially, anything else is a freebie. If you are freelance, you probably think that freebies are horrible. If you work for an institution, these are often disguised as ‘Everybody normally comes in early to prep and leaves late after marking’. I bet everyone did it because everyone else did it before. Do you know whether everyone else has the same contract? Have you considered that working those extra bits normalises working for free? If you can afford to work for free, lucky you! Just don’t help bring about a culture where everyone else does.

For some of us, we do a phenomenal amount of CPD, including paying for our own qualifications which our organisations benefit from through bragging rights to students. If it isn’t recognised, don’t do it, or if you want to do it, don’t declare it. If your employer wants to parade your CV around, they ought to damn well pay for what’s gone onto it since you’ve been with them. This is one of the reasons I stopped working for one agency: they wanted an updated CV, but there was no extra to be paid as a DipTESOL holder. It doesn’t have to be a diploma or degree, though. Courses, conferences and even webinars take time away from our families friends and chances of getting a nutritious meal instead of being too tired to cook.

If employers are trying to deskill the profession, we need to fight back, and perhaps even fight dirty. Abandon new syllabi and teach better, knowing its better for students to not get the advertised ‘product’. Or transform the materials in such a way that only the highly skilled can use the supplementary materials. Make lesson plans unintelligible except to the initiated. You might get a stern talking to, even a warning. I might advise you, however, that the writing is already on the wall in this case and that you should probably be seeking alternative employment.

The social side of things is a different beast. Staff rooms not being safe, well, I have no idea beyond hoping others will call out bullshit if you can’t. Sometimes, even this doesn’t work. If you can keep a diary of anything, get it down on paper, or even have sympathetic witnesses who can vouch for you it might help (but equally might not). If you really can’t take it, you could consult your union if you have one if your employer is unwilling to act. If you don’t have one or get no joy, and you don’t mind burning your bridges consult the department of employment or similar. You might not have a job to go to for that employer and there would be no good reference, but there would be some kind of record of complaint at least. A declaration that there are problems. I don’t have any easy solutions here.

Similar to the invisibility of LGBTQ+ identities because it can be risky. Does one out oneself to make a point of visibility or look after oneself? I think it’s a personal decision, and you might have to go the union/department-of-employment route here, too.

I started with the Situationists and I will end with them. “Be reasonable, demand the impossible.” What is ‘impossible’ for employers and the industry at large is frequently not; it is only ‘reasonable’ and therefore right.

Find someone who…

Find someone who works more than their contracted hours without monetary compensation.

Find someone who hasn’t had a pay rise for the last five years.

Find someone who can’t afford to buy a house despite home ownership being common among people their age.

Find someone who works in a place where the staffroom is smaller than a classroom yet caters to the same number of people.

Find someone who is praised for their preparation and achievements without any recognition in job security.

Find someone who is constantly job hunting in order to transcend precarious employment.

Find someone who has made sacrifices for their workplace in spite of there being no reciprocation.

Find someone who is expected to conduct research despite having no allotted time nor payment provided to do this.

Find someone who has their working hours cut due to undersubscribed courses while their employer looks to finance new campus buildings.

Any other ideas, add them to the comments.

Making Work For Yourself

Well, first a famine and then a feast, that is, if self-indulgent nonsense is at all a signifier of a festival atmosphere. 3 posts in 36 hours!

Sometimes I think of expertise in teaching as the intuition that being time served gives to you. It’s not the sleepwalking through a class but that you can do everything through habit and stay alert to the novelties of the day. Other times I think of it as the way that you can get through a lesson without needing to plan a rationale with a 3000-word literature review and a methodology section. You already have the skills to pay the bills, as it were.

img_1991

However, comfort zones are made to be broken out of. This year I am teaching a listening module (yay!) with endless amounts of faff for the resources (no way!) but which I chose to do myself (ey?) in the name of pedagogical thoroughness (hmmm!). Where do we draw the line between martyring oneself to The Absolutely Correct Way Based on Proper Scientists of Learning and being a heretic to the cult of Maybe This Is Good Enough and The Students Will Never Bloody Notice?

“It’s why they pay us the big bucks,” said a person (this very week) that would be unlikely to read this blog. Except, I feel that part of me in the standardised parts of my job feels very frustrated that some of what I do is not The Absolute Correct Way but is definitely only Maybe Good Enough. The bits of my job where I have designed the syllabus and where I have lots of independence make me really happy, although for a few of those there were some marathon reading sessions on good practice for reading and writing pedagogy.

“That book basically teaches itself,” said someone in a staff room this week. I didn’t even have a small aneurysm. I sat on my hands and did nothing; no arguing, not even a grumble. I just disagreed, felt that I understood the time pressures but wondered why they even had a Master’s degree if they enjoyed being deskilled so much.

Anyway, there’s assessment as well. Not being much of one for exams, them being a single event that might not be representative of learning development, I sort of eschewed them as much as possible until this year going with portfolios and ongoing assessment. Unfortunately, I don’t think portfolio assessment is the way to go unless you are teaching a light load and have plenty of time for painstaking assessment necessary. My portfolio assessments make up a much smaller proportion of grades this year, but I do have exams to give but they are smaller, less stressful affairs. I would much rather be able to conduct task-based tests more often, but 30 in some classes and I teach 30 hours a week at different places and with different systems. The Absolute Correct Way is toast again.

Am I a bit sorry? Well, I have the flail out, yes. Is there any way around it? Well, probably not until I start a Patreon or something (joke).

So, what can be done? Well, at best, I can probably plan my time a bit better, which should be easier now I cancelled Netflix. I could do a bit more assessment in down time and use time at home as down time instead. I also have a lot of repeating classes next semester, so that is a small mercy and I won’t need to mess about with video editing software on a crappy Linux computer with insufficient RAM at midnight next autumn or winter.

 

excitELT: workers rake the coals

night-of-the-living-dead-group

Image from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, 1966. Public domain. Could it be a group of teachers worrying about whether they will survive the industry/profession dichotomy?


OK, I know. “Marc, you are one of the people that are involved in Teachers as Workers, aren’t you?”

Actually, probably less than you think but, you know, I support them. I just don’t know how much I actually do apart from I’ve wrote a blog and struggled to archive some stuff for the group.

Anyway, yes, I could have submitted a presentation about how ELT is less exciting and more exploitative. However, I did a bit about listening, and other people did stuff about working issues for teachers.

***

Peter Brereton presented Teacher Low Points: Disillusionment, Demotivation, and Burnout. Sadly, I ended up walking in halfway through the 10-minute plenary because I had other stuff to sort out upstairs, but what I did see was good, engaging and made me happy that somebody is talking about this.

Bill Snyder talked about the notion of isolation in teaching, despite being part of a community. There was also the difference between isolation and solitude, and the amount of anxiety and how we can help each other by talking and stuff.

Sam Morris talked about emotional authenticity in teaching, and the issue of rife fixed-term contracts and the massive amount of part-time teaching (in universities) happened to crop up, because teachers sometimes become more “emotionally authentic”, or ‘themselves’ close to the end of a contract. Basically teachers who know they are getting to the end of the contract, with job anxiety and such, stop worrying about masking their feelings and let them out. I raised the question about whether there was a link in the research about whether there was any link to teaching quality by keeping teachers precarious. He said he’d read research and it pointed to the opposite. I think I also had a longwinded comment-question thing (yes, I can be am one of those people) about feeling guilty for being open about my feelings with adult students. I think the crux was: students are adults, they arguably need English of the real world, feelings are the real world, why hide feelings (though, don’t be weird, you know).

Of the videos, Scott Thornbury painted a vulgar picture of the Spanish ELT employment scene, with pitiful wages and no development to speak of in the language school sector. That would be mainly the same in Japan, though there are a very few cracks of light to be found outside the chain schools.

On a side note – I was a bit worried that it was going to be a bit of a talking shop for people who just work in universities, which kind of happens at a lot of conferences, I guess, and that was the majority of people, but there were some people from language schools and high schools as well. I like talking to people, especially people who don’t just work at universities, because what is a conference for if not to learn from people you might not otherwise meet? (Not wholly a rhetorical question, by the way).

The fabled 40-hour week

When I worked in a language school, I worked my contracted 30 hours a week. In exchange I got a decent starting salary. What nobody tells you from the company is that the salary only goes up a tiny bit and there’s rarely any real career progression.

That’s why I don’t work for language schools anymore. I went with agency work teaching business English and a junior high school. The agency also sent me to teach at a university. I was teaching PPP lessons, mostly with no planning to speak of (being able to wing it through a double-page coursebook spread is not very demanding). I was working about 35 hours a week, not including travelling between several workplaces in a day.

I did my DipTESOL, had my eyes opened to second language acquisition (SLA) and task-based language teaching (TBLT). This is language teaching and learning with purpose and evidence-based foundations, I thought. My planning time went up. It was a bit of a learning curve. My working hours went up to about 45 hours a week, not including travel between jobs.

Between my DipTESOL and my MA, I started working direct hire for universities and reduced my agency work as the agencies seemed to be reducing hourly rates and only get contracts in inconvenient places. With more university work and more ideas about how to support learners, I decided on portfolio assessments. I gave myself tons of marking. I decided to eschew coursebooks. I made my own materials because I couldn’t find anything decent or just what I needed. My working hours went up to about 50 hours a week, not including travel between jobs. Sometimes it’s more.

This new year, I decided to work less. Work what I need to do. I’m not compromising my principles by using stupid materials or going back to only PPP. I may change the portfolio assessments to something less demanding for me, so I am aiming for working about 40 hours a week, not including travelling about between jobs. Other professions do it, so why not us?

If you liked this, you will probably find TAWSIG interesting, too.

Demotivations in Language Teaching

Uber cynical post warning. Consider this warning a warning and your last warning.

So, I’m back after the holidays at one of my places of employment and freelance me has already been out on the road and in cyberspace. This post is mainly looking at the institutional side of language teaching and the demotivations from my point of view as a serial part-timer.

“CPD? Computerized Personal Data? I don’t know.”

There is no continuous professional development on offer; a DIY approach is essential, there are no books available except my own personal collection and that of one of my coworkers. There are limited discussions about teaching, pedagogy or learning of languages, just firefighting conversations about students who do things they ought not to do or teachers who basically can’t teach.

Contrast this with one of my universities that has a fantastic library just for the teachers and a decent library with English books about language teaching and learning in it for the English majors and another university that cries a bit hard up but has kept subscriptions to TESOL Quarterly and a few other journals. Something always beats nothing.

“Align the tests with… the tests.”

I make the tests. This is in my contract. I make the tests and then show them to the head of English for the year group and he (or she depending on the year, but mainly he) approves it. Or not. There was one year that my coworker and I decided to be idealistic and actually attempt to assess the students by assessing what we teach. This is, clearly, madness. What is the most logical idea is to give an essay topic one week prior to the test periods for a speaking course and have students write a page on one of the topics. The week after that they will answer questions or formulate questions based on a list of questions the teacher/assessor will ask and a list of answers from which to formulate a question, provided with the essay topic. After that, there will be a paired conversation based on an everyday situation except that all students will have half-arsedly memorized a script instead of reacting to questions, leading to such gems as:

S1: What are you going to do tomorrow?

S2: I am going to Disneyland?

S1: Where are you going to go?

S2: I am going to go with my friend.

This is purely because language is expected to be taught as a content-subject, not a skills subject. Recalling facts about morphology and syntax, but we are employed to teach “natural English” and “help the students communicate naturally”.

“Oh, can you proofread this?”

This is in the contract. I don’t mind doing this, actually, because it is interesting, English teachers essentially having a fetish for odd points of grammar, pragmatics and semantics. Except I don’t like the one person who gives something in the break between second and third lesson and expects it to be done by lunchtime. So in ten minutes. Or 8 if I am teaching far from the teachers’ room. The same person, who is usually considerate except for this time. I do not wish to become overly curt, I bite my tongue, but there is a veritable cesspool of swearwords waiting to be expelled on the walk between the school gates and the convenience store.

There are lovely things about the job, mainly the time off and the bonus (kerching – except actually it could just go on the monthly pay, couldn’t it?) but I would love a bit more of a free rein. Perhaps the worst thing is knowing I have free rein at university and then back at school.

At university there are only a couple of demotivators:

“How many times have I been absent?”

Too many for B but you’re probably OK for a C if you’ve made it and found me.

“I left my homework in El Segundo. I got to get it back. Can you come to university tomorrow to get it?”

No, but there was this amazing invention in the 20th Century called email. Use it!

 

What’s changed? Let’s do stuff!

Three years of writing this bloody blog and what’s changed, really? I have, but that’s not what I’m talking about. How has the profession changed? It hasn’t. Not a bloody single thing as far as I can tell. Glacial. Maybe a few people have cottoned on to the learning styles myth. That’s it.

So, am I going to just continue glowering at the internet or do something about it? Well, there has to be a balance between working for nothing for a worthy project or cause and getting compensated fairly. So what can I (we?) do?

We can complain about how shit things are (like in Jeremy Slagowski’s great post about a listening syllabus here) and/or put forward an alternative.

We can moan about stuff that doesn’t work and/or see about fixing it. Now, my name is not Answer Man. It’s not even my alter ego. Sometimes, when you find something doesn’t do what you think it’s supposed to do, you ask an expert. Sometimes it’s somebody who works in a shop. Sometimes it’s a book. Sometimes it’s your friends. By talking about stuff, we surely get closer to an answer, at least one more step forward on the path to enlightenment.

Doing stuff, though. This is what I think I need to do. It doesn’t always come off right, but it’s going to be, usually, only as bad as inaction, especially if you think hard about potential risks before acting.

What does it all have to do with me? A response 

Image: Critical Mass bike ride, San Francisco 2007. Public Domain.

Earlier today I read Hana’s post,  What does it all have to do with me? You should read it.

She talked about finding debates on how our work, organisations, associations and hierarchies more and more relevant to her and finding it more important to be critical in our profession.

Me, I think I have always been a romantic trapped inside a cynic. You see, I think I am drawn to seeking constant improvement and when others see things as good enough, it sets me off.

There are a million things that I have questions about. Why do so few in Japan’s English conversation schools (eikaiwa) have any knowledge of SLA? Why would you use materials that are designed for a global market if your setting is one with a shared L1? Is pronunciation overlooked because it is difficult to teach well? Is that also the same for listening? Why are Japanese teachers assigned grammar classes and foreign teachers communication classes if the Japanese teachers consult native teachers about grammar so much and native teachers are known for supposedly talking too much? Why do we have a race to the bottom with wages?

It’s talking about these things that gets others going to talk to other people, who in turn talk to others. This can turn into a critical mass. If enough people vote with their feet, change case number come. If we choose to just think things are terrible and say or do nothing, then nothing will happen.

Positive Steps (Vanguards Wanted) 

I’ve been, and still am, disillusioned with the industrial side (as opposed to the professional side) of English Language Teaching. This includes lack of professional development, overbearing influence of coursebooks and the massive global ELT publishers, deskilling by publishers and large chain schools and precarious working conditions. I’ve always tried to avoid being a naysayer in that when I’ve said ‘nay’, I hope that there’s at least one alternative proposed. Being that I believe action is necessary, I am going to propose action that sympathetic parties may wish to follow up on. 

Work in loose, broad-church, accessible Special Interest Groups (SIGs) 

IATEFL and TESOL International do not have the monopoly on operating SIGs. There is TaWSIG but other than that there are others that are SIGs by nature if not by name. The Dogme in ELT forum was such a thing. TEFL Equity Advocates is another. There is also ELT Advocacy Ireland, the Women in ELT group on FacebookThe C Group, and I suppose what we at #TBLTChat have been trying to do and what TLEAP are doing. 

Realise it’s a broad church and many people do a range of things with varied experiences and dialogue can help us grow through shared practices, ideas, stories and knowledge. This then creates a culture. What do you care about? What are the itches you’re not getting scratched? Are there people who’ll do this with you? You don’t have to have a lot of people to start with; summoning shared energy shouldn’t be a problem. 

Don’t Like Something? Make Something Else! 

Don’t like textbooks? Try materials light teaching or making your own materials. Tell others. 

Are listening materials rubbish? Could you make your own website? Tell others. 

Do you hate this blog or feel it neglects things things? Make your own. Tell others. 

We can, and I am reluctant to dictate but we should try to make the world how we would like it to be rather than settling for how it is. This change will not come easily but nor will it fall in our laps automatically without any kind of effort being applied. 

We are all polymaths. We all have other skills and interests that can be brought together to build a better environment.


Commit but See Other People

You have your ideas and interests and you are what you are because of them. With other people’s knowledge and skills you can build further and better than you might otherwise do alone. Your loose, broad-church SIG can only benefit from outside knowledge and expertise. 

Some of this, at least initially, may involve working for free

However, the beneficiary of this free work is you and your community, so you aren’t slaving away for someone else. You may even be able to make money from it later because people don’t mind paying for things with value, they just mind being ripped off. You then have a model, with this work, of how things could be. This might take reiteration. Keep looking, even if there are faults. Someone, somewhere might benefit. 

Hopefully this is good for thought for some of us about our place in the world and gives us a more positive idea of where we might go next. 

I’d love comments here, especially if you use the comments to build your own SIGs. 

The Great Gig Economy in the Sky

Cool Lone Wolf Fantasy

dscf4742

The ‘Gig Economy’, or as it used to be known ‘making people wait till you throw them some crumbs’ is one of the continuing shames of our profession. Casual work, often without contracts, with no holiday pay, sick pay, parental leave or any of the other benefits full-time workers enjoy is promoted as freelance work, with that kind of cool image of Tribeca loft apartments and commuting between clients on a bicycle with the wind in your hair. Not for us the waiting outside a meeting room, a bag of books, folders and papers hanging off us, eh?

I know that when I started freelance work and serial part-time work it was to do with better rates of pay. It’s always about better rates of pay. Working full time in a language school wasn’t going to pay enough to support a family. Yet two of the biggest providers of work for me for agency work are language school companies. The full-timers making about ¥2500 per hour get holiday pay and better health insurance and hybrid state and company pension. I forego those benefits to pay my own insurance and state pension but get more money.

This might be decried as me just having a moan, having cast myself as a Job-like figure of TEFL in Japan. Not quite. I earn decent money. What I’m complaining about is this:

If the same company can afford to pay ¥4000 per hour for very precarious conditions, or ¥2500 (or less) for less precarious conditions for the same work, isn’t it true that they can probably afford to pay the full-timers more or give freelancers less precarious work? 

This is before anything like qualifications and experience are taken into account, and generally in Japan, they aren’t taken into account very much at all.

“Oh, but with the gig economy you’re free to do whatever you want to do. Freedom is good!” I imagine people saying.

I say it is not. I say that you’re probably just as beholden to work with the gig economy or even more so because of a fear that work could dry up leaving you wondering if you could adjust to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It’s all about control. Full-time leaves you beholden, freelance leaves you grateful for anything that comes your way. I’m lucky, because now I get none of my work through any of the Uber-for-EFL sites which have the flakiest students who want amazing, bespoke lessons for basically nothing, along with the right to cancel at a minute’s notice (and I am not exaggerating) with no fee.

What are the alternatives?

It may not seem like it, but there is a tiny sliver of light in the unrelenting darkness. There are communities that we make ourselves. Worker-owned cooperatives are the model that I think would be best, but this isn’t easy to sort out when you’re stretched with work already. Just knowing that somebody has your back is enough on some days; on others you need sick cover or a bit of help making some materials that you can’t actually find.

IMG_1582

We need less of the rampant individualist and more small-scale collectivist behaviour. Know yourselves, your strengths and weaknesses. We need to work together, help each other and pool our labour to stop large operators being the only option. Otherwise we keep the status quo: TEFL elites writing million-quid coursebooks, junkets to large conferences and people from supposed non-profit organisations who haven’t taught in donkey’s years being paid ten times more than you to tell you about your classroom practice.