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The mood was one of dejection: English Language Teachers in the Pandemic

by Adam Blanden
November 25, 2020

The pandemic may have dealt a decisive blow to an already irrational and often oppressive industry, but the sense of solidarity developed between English Language Teachers may outlive that collapse. 2269 words / 9 min read

In March of this year, Charlie* was teaching her usual eighteen hours a week at a private language school in Bristol. Despite years of service, she was still on a zero-hours – or ‘flexible’ – contract. This meant she had to wait – often until the last minute – to find out what and who she would be teaching the next week. Student numbers were steady and she could look forward to a busy spring and summer season – when many UK towns and cities are thronged with English language students.

But then Coronavirus started making headlines. At first, there was a creeping sense of uncertainty as classrooms began to empty. Students slowly stopped showing up to classes. Those who were able to often abandoned the English courses they had spent thousands of pounds on and booked flights home. For the less fortunate – financially and emotionally committed – leaving was not an option. By the middle of March, even their determination was faltering. Teachers were left waiting in classrooms for students who never turned up. Sometimes, one would arrive and sheepishly sit at the far end of the room.

In the midst of this growing sense of unease, teachers began to ask questions. What were the managers thinking? Surely, it was time to close the schools – for the safety of students and staff alike? Some questioned whether they would be paid at all for classes delivered to just one or two brave students. Bit by bit, teachers began to withdraw their labour – refusing to commute in to work due to safety concerns.

Speaking to a variety of ELT workers from across the UK via videocall this summer was a powerfully evocative experience. These conversations served as vivid reminders of the chaos and uncertainty of life in the final days before lockdown. But I was also drawn back into a life I had left for good just last year. For ten years I was an English language teacher – had I not switched sectors, their stories would have been mine.

I asked the people I spoke to to tell me about their situations before the Pandemic. Many had worked in the sector for years, but most were still treated as expendable by their employers. There was little job security and no perks. Training was usually expected to be undertaken on your own time. Good relations with often testy managers were vital for securing hours. Unions were rarely in the frame because so many teachers feared the consequences of making a stink.

Rachel, a teacher at a big London chain, recalled how – as the Coronavirus pandemic escalated – management stayed silent. It was business as usual all the way into March, even as classrooms emptied. Eventually, staff demanded a meeting. When it came, management input was derisory. No clear commitments were given to staff or students. Only the government’s belated lockdown announcement brought things to some kind of a head.

Rachel had spent five years in Spain, where she had grown accustomed to squaring up to management. In the wake of lockdown, some language schools initially resisted furlough – perhaps hoping they could keep zero-hours workers on the books with no pay at all. Rachel had had to self-isolate in the run up to the school’s closure and it had fallen on her to arrange cover for the hours she couldn’t work. Now, the teachers got together via Whatsapp and got in touch with the Industrial Workers of the World-associated TEFL Workers’ Union. Organisers from the latter got to work advising language school staff on how the inevitable redundancy negotiations should be handled. Soon it was announced that the majority of staff would be made redundant.

In the wake of lockdown, some language schools initially resisted furlough – perhaps hoping they could keep zero-hours workers on the books with no pay at all.

Charlie, too, got involved with the TEFL Workers’ Union – although at her school this had started well before the pandemic. In her case, the pandemic had been preceded by “twelve months of hell” as poor communications, unfair treatment, and indecisive management had pushed staff to seek help from the union.

As Anna, an organiser with the TEFL Workers Union, told me, IWW-style organising is less about worker representation in traditional pay and conditions disputes, than advice and support aimed at helping workers’ self-organisation and capacity to make demands and keep their management within the bounds of the law. With its radical, anarcho-syndicalist roots, the IWW adopts this strategy because of the kinds of sectors it works in – sectors like ELT. The latter is a prime example of what might be called the ‘white collar precariat’: qualified or credentialed workers who are in jobs that are permanently insecure and low-paid. Although standards have been lowered across the public university sector, these can still appear enviable to ELT workers – especially those in the private sector.

As the pandemic continued, private language schools – now keen to get teachers off their books before furlough scheme changes required them to contribute any part of staff salaries – entered into redundancy negotiations with their staff. Teachers organised through Whatsapp nominated reps and held their own meetings to discuss demands. I was told time and again that TEFL Workers Union organisers had played a key role in facilitating these meetings and advising teachers on how negotiations should proceed. The TEFL Workers Union’s first big victory had involved the successful negotiation of an enhanced redundancy package for staff at Delfin so it was no surprise that teachers across the UK turned to them in the pandemic.

As the pandemic continued, private language schools – now keen to get teachers off their books before furlough scheme changes required them to contribute any part of staff salaries – entered into redundancy negotiations.

But for many teachers there was little to be cheery about. By mid-July, Dave – a teacher at one of the biggest language schools in Brighton – was back in class. Now though the school was mostly empty as students had fled the country. In one smaller coastal town, a school that had provided jobs to hundreds over the summer months as well as income from students to cafes and homestay families, shed its entire staff and didn’t open for the summer seasons – a decision that would no doubt have a devastating impact on the local economy. With travel at a historical low, however, the sector was bound to be crushed.

The ELT economy in smaller UK towns can be less cut-throat than in the big cities. I spoke to jobbing teachers whose days – prior to the pandemic – had been spent shuttling across central London to teach an hour here or there. In London, competition for hours is high. There are high-end, exclusive schools where it is hard to get work and far more where standards are low and the pay even lower. Some of the private language providers had been bought up in previous years by private equity firms whose main interest was in the school’s tangible assets – particularly its property – rather than its functioning as a profitable firm. Other umbrella companies operated a complex system of subsidiary schools for tax minimisation purposes. Gareth taught at two different schools that operated out of the same building and were owned by the same millionaire. At neither school had pay risen in years. Moreover, student numbers were already dwindling before the pandemic, which meant fewer teaching hours and more teachers scouring the city for other schools – all equally dubious.

ELT is a sector whose history mirrors that of British capitalism. Despite its global reach, ELT was ‘centred’ on the UK in the wake of World War Two. Its major theoretical innovations had been experimentally introduced in places like China, Japan and Bengal in the pre-War years. Its leading lights had returned to the UK and their methods had been adopted in the Golden Age of postwar growth, European integration, and early globalisation. When I first started teaching, there were still teachers around who recalled – with a sort of colonial relish – going abroad to teach ‘deferential’ Asians or ‘unruly’ Arabs. The UK was the hub of the sector, which cemented itself in university language departments and fed teaching methods into a private sector that catered to the world’s growing middle classes. What came to be called ELT was a peculiar combination of a pedagogical science, a post-colonial diplomacy (spearheaded by the British Council), and an often unscrupulous, unregulated private export.

What came to be called ELT was a peculiar combination of a pedagogical science, a post-colonial diplomacy (spearheaded by the British Council), and an often unscrupulous, unregulated private export.

With the expansion of UK Higher Education, the sector inevitably diversified around its edges. Younger graduates entered the sector – sometimes out of necessity, sometimes as a means to travel. For many, the job became permanent. Much of this work was concentrated in a network of UK and international private language providers. Some teachers report that conditions were always worse abroad, but that wasn’t my experience. I taught in rewarding and motivating environments in Poland and the Czech Republic. It was in the UK that I was hired with the promise of stimulating and exciting work only to be confronted with a semi-derelict building with no receptionist and no in-house management. The UK private ELT sector is often chaotic and irrational even by capital’s narrow standards. Its leading lights got rich in the boom years through exploitation of an unprotected workforce. A lack of unionisation has left no pressure to raise wages. Rentier behaviour has spread while less and less attention has been paid to innovation of new teaching approaches or the development of skills. The fragility of contemporary globalisation – and of the UK’s model of financialised capitalism in particular – has created profoundly skewed incentives, with private language schools barely able to turn a profit on their primary activities turning to leveraging their assets to make money. A long capitalist downturn since 2008 has weakened the international demand for short English language courses among the world’s global middle classes.

The UK private ELT sector is often chaotic and irrational even by capital’s narrow standards.

It is no surprise, then, that new technology was already starting to undermine the flimsy base of these companies. Not long after the announcement of lockdown in March, the online learning platform Preply announced that it had raised £9 million in venture capital investment to expand its operations. Preply claims to match tutors in a vast range of subjects to students who are willing to pay for their services. But teachers I spoke to who had interacted with the platform took a dim view of it. Teachers’ performance is ranked by students, with a higher public ranking apparently allowing teachers to charge more. The platform allows teachers to set their own rates, but these start at as low as $1. Teachers can find themselves offering hours of classes at pitiably low rates in the hope of boosting their public ranking and allowing themselves to climb the rate ladder. One teacher I spoke to was offering to teach at $35 an hour and had not taught a single class.

Perhaps this won’t be drastically worse than the world ELT teachers previously inhabited. Charlie also reported a ranking system for teachers introduced at her school. ‘Students always chose on likeability, rather than how good we were,’ she reflected. Others told me that life before the pandemic had been ‘utterly knackering.’ Nevertheless, the prospect of an atomised workforce competing anonymously with each other whilst locked to a screen is a bleak one. Not all teachers faced such fierce competition from their peers under the old private language school system. Keeping a lot of teachers under one roof could at times lead to organising successes. Some schools did ditch zero hours contracts under union pressure. A workforce unified under a single roof also made defensive action by teachers - such as the protection of skills and basic workplace decency - possible. It is hard to see the new world of ‘platform teaching’ providing the same organising opportunities.

A workforce unified under a single roof also made defensive action by teachers. It is hard to see the new world of ‘platform teaching’ providing the same organising opportunities.

Among all the teachers I spoke to, none felt the industry was headed for a quick rebound. With their livelihoods shattered at a time of rapidly rising unemployment, the mood was one of dejection. The most anyone could hope for was simply to be treated fairly by employers who were now terminating their employment – sometimes after years of service. As Charlie found prior to the pandemic, there was some hope to be found in the collective experience of signing up colleagues to the union.

When I suggested that public-sector English language education – for children and adults from a migrant background – could rebound if Conservative cuts were reversed, teachers were understandably sceptical. But if English language provision can be separated from regressive colonial and ‘integration’ narratives, it could one day become a vibrant public service. Such thoughts remain a distant – if not utopian – prospect. ELT workers may have lost their jobs - but many did win the right to a fairer redundancy settlement. It can only be hoped that the sense of solidarity teachers felt during lockdown - when many took independent action for the first time - outlives the industry’s broken model.

*All names have been changed at participants’ request


Author:

Adam Blanden (@Adam_Blanden)

Adam Blanden lives and works in London.