Above: some of my Omani students on their National Holiday in 2014
In solidarity with the teachers in Grafton College who have abruptly lost their jobs, here are my thoughts, from an English teacher who also got made redundant weeks before becoming a parent.
- Johnny Rayge, my friend and erstwhile colleague, has always described English teaching as ‘the best shit job’. The working conditions are brutal but the actual work is often really interesting and fun. Unfortunately, the flow of students is seldom regular and this means that the work is not regular enough. As a result, the industry tends to attract people who are trying to carve out a career doing something else. Johnny is a musician and other colleagues have included writers, actors, film people (is there a word for them?), and the likes. You teach for a bit and then edit a film or act in a play. Then it’s back to class a month or three later.
- But not everyone teaches English as a side hustle. Many teachers just like teaching English and do it as their career. Our conditions are nothing like those of primary or secondary school teachers.
- In my case, I have been both kinds of teachers. I first started teaching English twelve years ago, filling in for Johnny. Teaching soon became a regular nixer to fund slash supplement my PhD research. Teaching English is now my sole job and I want to continue in this industry, talking language with people and writing about it. That could be in private schools or through universities, but the latter is even more shambolic in its treatment of our young academics.
- English teaching is a huge industry which does not look after its employees and does not allow them to live profitable lives. Many students fork out their life earnings to come to Ireland, learn English and then forge a better career for themselves back home. They cannot believe that teachers get so little given how much the students pay.
Goodbye and good luck
- Over the years, I’ve worked in a dozen or more establishments, and my jobs have finished in many different ways. But the most common theme is this: we’ve run out of students. On your bike, mate.
- The first job I lost was in a private school in 2011. It is a familiar story. I was to be employed for the summer season and was told I’d be working til September. I had no contract or clue. Then one day in late August I got chucked out on my ear cos they didn’t have as many students as expected. Like a miniature version of what is going on in Grafton College.
- After that I learnt my lesson and I generally jumped ship before I could be bitten on the ass. I managed to use the industry to my advantage, getting work when I needed it and they needed me. This happens all the time. But a new situation always arises and there are many different ways to lose you job.
- In 2017, I was working in a new language school that functioned inside a university structure. There were four teachers and I was the last to join so I was told that I would be the first against the wall, if there weren’t enough new students.. One of the teachers was assigned the job of finding students, so he was expected to teach in the mornings and then do a big switcheroo after lunch and get on the blower to Brazil and India and wherever potential students might be lurking. If he didn’t get them then my job was caput.
- Sure enough, there weren’t enough students coming (another story in itself, and not that teacher’s fault), so I actually volunteered to take a wee break, seeing as my partner was almost nine months pregnant (ring any bells?) and my PhD revisions needed to be completed that summer.
- I never heard back from them. No summer work. No work in the new academic year. Like the guy on the news in Grafton college, I was an unemployed new father. I didn’t even get my two weeks of paternity leave because I wasn’t employed at the time of birth.
- I managed to get a jobski for that July and August. This was a major upgrade, responsibility-wise, and it involved setting up and running a new franchise summer school. I was only paid for the six weeks of actual class, and yet part of my remit was to plan and organise the running of the new school in the weeks leading up to it. I don’t even want to go into how stupid that was, in hindsight, but bear in mind I was freshly unemployed and living in rural Ireland, so I was taking what I could get.
- In 2016 I was working inside a different university structure. Our pay was advertised in the job alert but the powers-that-be decided that that was too high. So they took us in one by one and told us our new rates, based on various parameters. Divide and conquer. They did at least have criteria.
- In May 2018, when I moved back to Dublin, I had the good sense to find two jobs. So when one of them went in September, the second one expanded a wee bit to fill some of the space.
What class is like.
- Teaching English can be very enjoyable. Classes are small (max fifteen) and the students are adults from all round the world. In Ireland, we get long-term visa students from afar (you’ve got your Arabs and your Brazilians, your Japanese and your Chinese, while a lot of my current students are exceptionally well educated Russians). It’s a great bunch to be teaching and the craic is about seventy three. You learn a lot about the peoples of the world.
- One teaching method is to get everyone talking as much as possible by getting them to tell each other about their respective lives. You mix this with tasks targeted at a particular language point. As in:
- “Ok, everyone, make a list of five things you were not allowed to do as a teenager.”
- I’ll have already written a list of words on the board, such as smoking, drinking, discos, parties, table manners, etc.
- And then I’ll be like: “Marco, you compare your memories with Hiroto and Beatrice” (she’s the nun from Haiti). “You three guys work together, and you two Brazilians split and find a non-Lusophone.”
- As the groups get going, I’ll be writing things like we couldn’t and we weren’t allowed to on the whiteboard, so they can refer to them. And then as the chats start to flow, I’ll start mooching about the classroom, answering individual questions and listening in for potential feedback.
- Afterwards, when they are dunzo with the yap, you might get them to tell the class about a partner’s experience, or to write about their own youth.
The structure of the year, the structure of the day
- The visa students keep the schools alive in the Autumnwinterspring. They study for six months and can holiday another two. During study time, they can only work for twenty hours per week and during their anti-holidays, they can do up to forty. They live busy lives and, to give you an idea of what their lives are like, one of my advanced students is currently enjoying George Orwell’s memoir Down and out in Paris and London, in which he washed lots of dishes.
- In the summer, schools swell to capacity as buckets of Europeans stall over for a few weeks at a time. Your Italians, your Spanish and your French, mostly. Like your neighbours popping over for a cup of tea and a chat. A lot of teenagers come en masse and this provides bucketloads of work for June, July and August. You know the summer is coming when you start seeing caravans of continental teens marauding down Dame St. The summer work also provides a chance for new teachers to get experience and it is an ideal job for someone who has just finished, like, an Arts degree? You need a degree in order to enrol in the industry-standard 120 hour teacher-training course (its merits can be discussed on a less rainy day).
- The atmosphere in school is pleasant, if a little hectic in the summer. Teachers are given huge trust in how they combine obligatory topics with their own material, a system which largely brings out the best in them and can remove the staleness which might otherwise creep into class.
- Schools are mostly full in the morning while things vary after lunch. Some schools provide extra specialist classes, such as business English or exam preparation. Other schools just rinse and repeat the morning hours, providing an identical afternoon service to mirror their morning hours. You might have three hours of class in the morning, a lunch break and three more in the afternoon. These will be punctuated by short breaks.
- Evenings do be quiet because non-EU citizens are not allowed to study after six. A decade ago, students would often work all day, contravening their work restrictions, and then maybe stall into class from 6-9pm. The daytime freedom allowed them to find a lot more work hours than the permitted twenty. Removing evening classes obviated this problem. Nowadays, evening classes seem to involve a combo of EU workers in the city (e.g. software engineers who need to top up their general English) and au pairs doing what they’ve always done (spending several dozen hours per week with the kids and then do four hours of English class spread over two nights a week).
- Losing the evening classes was a blow to the schools but not all of them were to be outdone. Before the last big scandal, some schools were running three sets of classes per day. They might begin at 8am, run til 1130. Go again from 1145-215 and again from 230-6.
A day in the life of an English teacher.
- The bulk of teachers will teach for three or four contact hours in the morning. After lunch, there are three ways that your day can pan out: go home, teach scraps, or double up.
- Teachers doing scraps might do two or three afternoons per week, so that they end up with 20-25 contact hours per week. Unfortunately, these afternoon classes are infinitely more precarious than the morning classes and teachers can seldom rely on them, making life-planning extremely hard. For a comparison, secondary school teachers max out at 22 hours, unless that has changed since my days as Mr Potato Head.
- Teachers doubling up will have a 30-hour per week. This is doable for a few weeks or months but you get burnt out sooner rather than later. Or you are expecting to double up but half your hours are suddenly taken off you. Furthermore, you might be working across two schools. During your lunch break, you have to hop on your bike and pushpeddle your way to another school, grabbing lunch if you are lucky. As it happens, I played my cards right this summer. I was teaching four hours in the mornings (albeit I wasn’t paid for the obligatory twenty minutes between classes), and then between 3 and 5 in the afternoons. I had enough time to eat, relax, recaffeinate, cycle three miles, prep class and get back to the coalface.
- The other option is what makes English teaching so attractive. You work the mornings, earn your three or four hundred nicker, and then you’re free to do what you want after that. That’s what draws in the artists and the musicians and the semi-retired. I’ve had summers where I’d teach in the morning, stall home to cook lunch while watching the Tour de France, and then knuckle down to an evening’s research, once the mind was sufficiently emptied of bad language. In my current situation, I mind the bambino ar maidin and teach in the afternoons.
- It should be noted that I am not macro-complaining about my current situation. I am well aware that my situation is one that many parents would love, allowing them to juggle childrearing with enjoyable, part-time work. I have several sisters with children and none of them has ever managed to juggle parenting with such as steady part-time job, and that includes the sister who teaches English in a university (another group of severely exploited workers).
The problem for teachers
- The problem with English teaching is that it is extremely difficult to strike the right balance of hours. Either you work too much or too little. If you get lots of work, it might not last. You cannot plan. Your pay doesn’t rise with experience and there is no regulation over pay. Nor are there any requirements for teachers to undergo professional development courses in order to become better teachers. You find yourself teaching a new level or new exam class and you just have to work it out as you go along. Help only comes in the form of a suggestion here and there. Better-qualified teachers don’t get paid more. You don’t get paid for preparing class or corrections. While this is normal in salaried jobs, we are paid by the hour and have to do extra work beyond class. You are expected to arrive before class (again, unpaid) and there are obligatory breaks which are spent doing photocopying and in-house bits and pieces. Paperwork has increased over the years but with no remuneration.
- Despite all of this, students are learning to speak English. Some come out speaking excellent English, most of them become functional. The teaching methods are very progressive and other kinds of education could learn a lot from this industry.
- The life of an English teacher is peripatetic and lacks progression. It is not viable as a career. As a result, people stick it out for a few years and then when life gets serious, they bounce, and get a real job. That’s why English-teaching is a hashtag shit job.
- As for me, I could leave this industry and do something I don’t want to do as much. But there is no reason why I should do that, and nor should other teachers. I”ll be joining the Unite union and encouraging others. And finally, there is a shitload of money in the industry and it is simply a matter of making sure that the cash is divided fairly so that everyone wins. This does not have to be an Us v Them situation.