A Farewell to Teaching

I wrote this a year ago before I made the decision to study a Master’s degree, and subsequently had to spend a stint working overseas as a teacher in order to raise the funds for my tuition fees. Having paid off most of my MA costs, I’m hoping that I can now post this without recourse to going back to teaching in order to make ends meet.

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Me and my class enjoying some birthday cake bought for my birthday in 2007

I’ve been an English Language teacher for about 14 years, and on paper, it can look like quite a good job compared with many other professions. Many people are attracted to the industry when they change career – it requires only a short stint of training and it has traditionally involved working far few hours than most do to earn a supportable, yet modest wage. I use the word ‘profession’ with some consideration, but I’ll return to that point later. It is, and has been a good job for me, and one which I’ve enjoyed – despite never feeling that it was my calling in life. It’s allowed me to travel and work abroad, and to meet people from all walks of life.

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Teaching engineers in Saudi Arabia

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I’ve made friends from all over the world through being in contact with an international community, I’ve become familiar with customs and traditions from countries I’ve still yet to visit, and it’s given me the opportunity to travel and live in other countries and learn (or attempt to in some cases) the language –  and I’ve even met my partner through my job.

On a personal level, I’ve grown. Professionally I’ve learnt how to deal with and respond to people – young kids, 20-somethings in London, managers and executives from an array of industries all with different needs, abilities and levels of communication in English. You learn to build rapport with strangers very quickly, because it’s the easiest way to get your point across and to make a working environment that is comfortable for you and others. You become ultra-aware of the language and register you use every time you speak because you have to adapt to the imperatives of culture and comprehension. Your abilities to proofread go through the roof, and become hyper-sensitive to any written errors for feel that a report, essay or university supporting statement will reflect badly on your professional judgment. The skills you develop are endless, yet sadly employers in other industries don’t see these as transferable as they’re neither quantifiable nor measured.

But I can no longer go back into the classroom, and the idea of doing so is unattractive. I no longer feel I can do it justice anymore, and any passion I had for it has gone – if I were to go back into a classroom I would feel like a fraud. I previously mentioned it with regards to being a ‘profession’. I believe that it is a skilled job and a profession, and not everyone has the patience, charisma or language awareness to be a good teacher. A teacher needs to engage, inform and in some way make things memorable.  Sadly, it is not seen as such, by many of those who run the industry or by the wider political sphere (and political thinking). There are also many others (who have no experience of the industry) who think teaching English is one long exercise in going to the pub with foreign students. It most certainly isn’t.

There are many factors that have made me want to change my career. The primary one is having a yearning for a new challenge and a new job. Secondly, I don’t believe that the industry will exist in the next 5 years. Over the last decade, The UK government overhauled the visa rules and changed the status of many language schools, creating fewer students and fewer jobs.

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The steady commodification and privatisation of the education sector has also seen universities take a greater market share year-on-year since 2008, to a customer base which previously belonged to more informal language schools.  Alongside this, there is a greater need to find the money – from one’s own sources usually – to study the Diploma or an MA in order to, basically keep one’s own career going. If I were to invest £2000 for the Dip –  unto £9000 approximately, for the MA, then I’d want to know that it would at least get me a job with some security. But it doesn’t: zero-hour contracts are still heavily used in an industry that can now classify itself as being ‘seasonal work’ in order to justify lack of guaranteed work throughout the year. And there is also the long-term for the industry in the UK. If it continues to shrink will become a very niche market – and not the £7.5bn revenue stream that it was for the UK economy pre-2008. Thinking of working abroad? Once lucrative markets – the Middle East and Japan – just don’t (in general) offer the same salaries anymore and wages in Europe and the Asia,it is a salary that will keep a roof over your head and bread on the table, but .

In the post-2008 world, many people who had lost their jobs in the recession re-trained as EFL teachers, as many mistakenly believe that it is a recession-proof industry with worldwide opportunities. The influx to the talent pool in the industry kept wages  low and ensured that temporary contracts became a permanent feature.The fact that it is nearly impossible to have any kind of ‘career ladder’ or regular pay-rise within the industry leaves a lot of people facing the inevitable fatigue or burn-out within teaching: when you have nowhere left to aspire to, how can you possibly improve and obtain any kind of job satisfaction? Where is the challenge? I’ve spoken to many teachers who feel disillusioned with the industry and their place in it – even those who still enjoy their role.

I do have some sympathy with the schools who employ us, the teachers – the schools who do treat their staff and students well. The change in visa rules and the introduction of the Tier 4 system into visa application in 2008 more or less integrated temporary foreign language learners into the immigration stats, meant that many business have either bravely struggled on knowing that the day of reckoning will come, or the schools that went to the wall within a year of the new regulations.  Universities are the only winners left in the market.

I won’t dwell on the hard times – having to chase rogue schools up who have failed to pay salaries and wages, or the ones who fobbed students off and left the teacher to deal with the fall-out. I’ll try to focus on the good times, some of the great people I’ve worked with, the teachers who have become close friends – and the people from all over the world that I taught – some of the most interesting and engaging people I could ever hope to meet.

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