TESOL Transformed; From Job to Career?
I would like to begin by drawing your attention to the fact that there is a question mark at the end of my title. I want you to “notice” this, in Kaplan’s (2005) sense of the term. The question mark is important.
This presentation will not be a triumphalist assertion of the type that we so often read in the press of the Arab Gulf States – every day, in every way, we are getting better and better. Neither is it one of those sub-Stalinist calls to arms – Onwards with the March of Progress – that are issued by enthusiasts for one particular approach to language teaching.
This paper will be a personal examination of some of the changes that have taken place in our profession in the past 35 years. I will start in the year 1974 simply because that was the year when I started teaching EFL, but I did not begin until September 1974, and so we are still, just, within the 35 year limit.
The paper is based on the principal of WHO does WHAT to WHOM, and so the paper will reflect on changes so far as they have affected teachers, the curriculum, and students. All, I would suggest, have changed dramatically in the last 35 years.
Then - The 1970s
L.P. Hartley (1953) begins his novel The Go-Between with the statement “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
In 1974, I started teaching EFL at Southampton Technical College. It was like entering Jurassic Park. It was a place where time had stood still. I was 24. My Head of Department had worked at that college for longer than I had been alive.
Having served in the Armed Forces during World War II, he had completed a degree and had taught for one year at a boys-only Grammar School in a small market town. After that he had moved to the Technical College, slowly advancing through the positively Byzantine layers of titles that went with teaching in Further Education – Assistant Lecturer Grade B; Assistant Lecturer Grade A; Lecturer Grade II; Lecturer Grade I; Senior Lecturer; Principal Lecturer; Reader; Assistant Head of Department; Head of Department – but he had still worked in only one institution.
He never saw the drawbacks of the system. It actually encouraged people with professional ambition to move frequently; to apply for an even higher grade job almost as soon as they had moved into a new post. Those who did not move, could get stuck, and many of my colleagues were in that position. They had given up. Only one of them had ever published an article; none of them ever attended conferences, and the Senior Lecturer in change of EFL was completely unqualified.
Although she claimed to be Swedish, she was actually from somewhere in Central Europe, and had started as a part-time teacher of German. From that she had moved into EFL, because as we all know, anyone who can learn English can also teach it. For some reason that I never understood, she been allowed to branch out into teacher training, and ran courses for both the Royal Society of Arts and Trinity College, London.
At Southampton Technical College we had two types of EFL students – full-time and part-time. It is, I think, significant that they were so labeled. They were accorded and administrative category rather than being regarded as people who had specific educational needs.
The full-time students were both a minority, and a new development. The College had started accepting these students in 1972, when the raising of the school leaving age from 15 to16 had caused a crisis for Further Education. So far as the Department of General Studies was concerned, change was almost automatically bad, and the full-time students who required EFL teaching were a double inconvenience. Their parent department was Mathematics and Science, and they were studying English for purely instrumental, matriculation purposes.
In order to enter British universities, these students were required to pass “A” Level examinations in two or three subjects, but they were also required to pass “O” Level English, Cambridge First Certificate, or the JMB Test in English (Overseas). Today, of course, those students would be placed on an ESP course, but in the 1970s, ESP was in its infancy. Robinson’s (1980) pioneering study was years in the future, and so these scientists were left with standard “general English” courses which spent a great deal of time on pronunciation and phrasal verbs, but gave them few of the skills that they would need later on.
In my first year at the College, the full-time students were exclusively Greek and Iranian. In 1975 there was an influx of Lebanese fleeing from civil war, and then a large number of Malaysians. The Malaysians were significant, because they forced the college to reassess some of its standard working practices.
Full-time students were often taught by people who had little, or no, EFL training. The College Principal was of the opinion that if students had registered for “A” Level courses then they were “A” Level students and it was impossible for them to have learning problems. Following this half-baked logic, it was accepted that any teachers who were short of teaching hours could be allocated an EFL class and just left to teach that.
On one occasion, however, an economic historian was given the job of teaching a group of Malaysians, and decided to use excerpts from The Ascent of Man (Bronowski; 1973). It was, she said, “The sort of thing they should be interested in.” Unfortunately, Bronowski’s book was a Darwinist text based on the premise that, through the appliance of science, the world was steadily becoming a better place.
The Malaysians refused to accept this. Firstly, as Muslims they believed that the world had had its best chance at perfectability when the Holy Prophet and the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs were alive, and that things had been going downhill ever since. Secondly, they recognized that this material was doing nothing to prepare them for high stakes examinations, and so they made a formal complaint, and someone else took over the class.
The part-time students, by contrast, never complained. By and large, they were au pair girls, Western Europeans in their late teens who had come to England for a limited period of time, and who did light housekeeping and child-minding duties in exchange for board and lodging, pocket money, and the chance to “improve” their English.
This last task was accomplished by attending classes for one day a week at the College, and then taking Cambridge First Certificate or Cambridge Proficiency examinations. The lecturer in charge of EFL was shrewd enough to enroll these girls for examinations which were generally at the same level, or slightly below their existing level of proficiency – baccalaureate, Abitur – and then praised their work to the skies. They, in turn, enjoyed the classes, socialized with other girls doing the same job, reported favourably to their host family, and ensured repeat business the next year with the new au pair.
Now – 21st Century
What is noticeable about the scenario I have outlined is its anglocentricity.
The students came to Britain. Large numbers of students still come to Britain, but in the last 35 years we have seen what The World Bank (2002) calls the “massification” of English teaching. In the 1970s, only the wealthy could afford to send their children on English courses overseas. This option is still only open to the wealthy, although in Britain it has allowed the private language school sector to flourish.
Elsewhere, however, the policy of teaching English to children from every social level in society has expanded beyond anything that could have been expected. In the Arab World, Kharma and Hajjaj (1989; 2) were once able to report that “There is very little motivation for learning the language…The attitude to English as a Foreign Language is…that it is a ‘school subject’ rather than a means of communication.”
Times have changed. Troudi (2009) and Habbash (2009) recently questioned the justification for using English as a language of instruction in Arab Gulf tertiary education, but this was a surprise development. The use of English as a medium of instruction had never appeared to be controversial.
Writing from the perspective of Saudi Arabia, Habbash (2009) offers a rather garbled argument that “increased reliance on English in the absence of empirical research will not best serve the future of Saudi English learners nor will it safeguard their Islamic values and cultural heritage”(pp. 96-97). On both counts, however, he would seem to be fighting a rearguard action.
In September 2004, English was introduced in Grade 6 of Saudi Arabian schools. This was a direct result of pressure from Saudi parents, who had seen that English was being taught in Primary Schools in other AGCC countries, and who were concerned that their own children should not be disadvantaged.
The decision to introduce English in Grade 6, however, was itself a compromise. The Saudi Ministry of Education had originally planned to introduce English in Grade 4.The religious authorities then mounted a concerted campaign to block this, claiming that Saudi tradition, Arab Culture and Islamic teachings would all be undermined.
In fact, research by Al Haq and Smadi (1996) had earlier concluded that in Saudi Arabia “learning English is neither an indication of westernization nor entails an imitation or admiration of Western cultural values.” The reliability of their findings, of course, is proved by the fact that the Saudi elite have always used private schools where their children are taught English. Such evidence, however, was not sufficient for the Saudi religious authorities, although Habbash appears to indicate that Saudi parents have not given up, referring to “a trend to lower the level of compulsory English to start at Grade 4 as well as to teach scientific subjects through the medium of English.” (Habbash, 2009; 96).
Elsewhere, as in central Europe, “knowledge of English has become a basic skill, comparable with the ability to drive a car or use a computer.”(The Economist 2004; 33). This is a deeply significant claim, because in central Europe, the last twenty years have seen the transformation of political attitudes to English. This is probably best summed up by Prendergast (2008; 2) when she indicates that in Slovakia, English “made the leap from lingua non grata to lingua franca.” Beyond Europe, of course, changing patterns of student migration began some ten years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Iranians stopped coming to Britain immediately after the Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The Malaysian stopped coming at about the same time. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and almost immediately the fees charged to overseas students were raised. This was done on the completely unresearched grounds that British education was so good that it could charge what it liked.
It was a policy that backfired. I would suggest that it actually gave impetus to the expansion of tertiary education in the Arab Gulf, and Malaysia began to send its students to Australia.
This had two very different effects. Firstly, in economic terms, Australia benefited more than Britain when the “tiger economies” of South east Asia began to roar. Secondly, the Malaysians were exposed to a different variety of English, codified in the Macquarie Dictionary (1981).
And this brings me to the topic of WHAT is taught; to the curriculum.
In the 1970s we taught English, but it was the Queen’s English. In 1972 A Grammar of Contemporary English had appeared (Quirk, Leech, Greenbaum and Svartvik) but it had been a prescriptivist work. It was based entirely on the grammar of written English, ignoring the differences that occur when the language is spoken (Pawley and Snyder 1983) and dealt exclusively with the “standard” language used in the South East of England. EFL teachers were allowed to acknowledge that this form of the language had a sort of illegitimate half brother – American English – but they were not encouraged to linger on that theme.
Within Britain, among native speakers, of course, this unquestioning acceptance of a single “standard” form was already under scrutiny. The English Speaking Board, to its eternal credit, was prepared to accept speakers who had local accents, and it was prepared to accept that literature written in local dialects could have merit. In Scotland, the cult of Robert Burns made it impossible to banish dialect from schools, but in EFL older standards prevailed.
When I was retraining as an EFL teacher in the late 1970s, we were still encouraged to measure pronunciation against the forms prescribed in Daniel Jones’ English Pronouncing Dictionary, ignoring the fact that it was based on what were, by then, hyperlectal variants of RP, and that RP had been a dying standard even when the book first appeared in 1917.
Trudgill’s groundbreaking book, Sociolinguistics, was not published until 1975. A full decade after that, there was a public showdown between Randolf Quirk and Braj Kachru at a conference that had been designed to showcase the wonderful advances that had been made in EFL. (Quirk and Widdowson; 1985) Kachru rather spoiled this party by suggesting that it was time to move on from the concept of hegemony in language teaching. Kachru (1985) introduced the concept of “Englishes” and then developed his famous concentric circles model (Kachru 1986).
There were no personal computers in those days, so the concept of CALL did not exist. Neither, of course, did corpus linguistics, which was later to give us the Collins COBUILD Dictionary (Sinclair 1987). In those days, there was no way that anyone could compare the type of language that was being taught, with the language that was actually being used. Nor was it possible to analyse that language and arrive at the concept of a genre. Genre analysis (Swales 1990) lay in the future. Even the concept of frequency, which can be tested today in a quick and dirty way by using a Google search, was beyond the scope of most teachers.
Against that background, the economic historian who I mentioned earlier can hardly be sanctioned for showing a lack of cultural sensitivity. Harrison’s collection of papers – Culture and the Language Classroom – did not appear until 1990, and the very idea of linguistic imperialism (Phillipson 1992) would find even later expression.
Remember, IATEFL did not become international until 1971. The original 1967 body had been the Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, and had been based on the assumption that all those teachers came from the British Isles. The Association of Recognised Language Schools (now English UK) had been founded in 1960, and that body is still exclusively British.
Looking back to the first ATEFL Conference, Swan (2007; 45) remarks “when I started in ELT, you had to know grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary and the ‘four skills’”. What he does NOT mention is that you had very few aids to help you do this. There were only a handful of graded readers, and those that existed were of poor quality. Cutting edge technology was a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which had to be lugged from class to class, and some very advanced institutions had their own language laboratory, for whose effectiveness over-inflated claims had been made (Moore 1965). The courses used in this language laboratory relied on pattern practice exercises recorded by “resting” actors with cut glass accents:-
Again, at the first ATEFL Conference, “We discussed methodology and the pros and cons of structure drilling and language labs” (Swan 2007; 10) but a lot of the methodology at that time was actually based around structure drilling. Helen Monfries, Chair of the RSA/CTESFL Sub-Committee for Further Education, actually published a book called Oral Drills in sentence Patterns (Monfries 1963) in which she cheerily suggested that ten minutes choral drilling every morning acted as a kind of oral PT.
By the end of the 1970s, however, there were signs of a change. Kernal Lesson (O’Neill, Kingsbury and Yeadon 1971) and the Streamline series (Harley and Viney, 1978; 1979) both appeared in that decade, and they transformed the EFL textbook. Carter and McCarthy (2003) have pointed out that it is easy to mock old textbooks, but it is interesting to note the extent to which some textbooks age.
The first textbook that I ever used was Candlin’s (1972) New Present Day English. For the au pair students of the 1970s, this was a very good book. It featured a supposedly typical upper middle class English family who were actually closer to caricature than reality even in those days, but it provided an undemanding introduction to British middle-class life. The book, however, has not aged well. In Book 2, Susan tells her mother that she wants to buy a birthday present for a friend, and that she wants to get something nice. She also informs her mother that she can afford about a pound. Today, Susan would be extremely lucky to get a birthday card, far less a present, for as little as a pound, and even if she did, she would be unable to afford the postage.
Contrast that scenario with material from the Streamline series, and the difference is obvious. Streamline material still works. It works so well, in fact, that the Curriculum Development Cell of the Royal Air Force of Oman decided to plagiarize several pages for their distastrous Target; The Sultan’s Armed Forces General English Course Book Two (No date). The material they chose to plagiarize was unsuitable for Arab Gulf military personnel, because it was based on unfamiliar scenarios (McBeath 2006) but with other students from different backgrounds, the same material might have worked well.
One instance of this is the famous Art Deco “I love you Fiona” passage, which was instantly familiar to students from Europe or South America, and Hartley and Viney were both working for the Anglo-Continental English Group at the time of the book’s publication. O’Neill, I believe, worked for Eurocentre. All three were certainly working in ARELS institutions in Bournemouth in the 1970s, and all three used their experience of teaching full-time language learners to develop materials that would engage their interest.
This approach had two results. The positive result was an alliance applied linguists and materials writers that culminated in the development of ESP and EAP courses. Recent titles in these areas have been Robertson’s (2008) Airspeak, Emery and Robert’s (2008) Aviation English and Kisslinger’s (2009) Contemporary Topics – Third Edition. It also led to the creation of ESP SIGS in IATEFL and TESOL and to the creation of the Materials Development Association.
The downside of this approach, however, would eventually be the creation of a genre of “general” English courses promoting “a materialistic set of values, in which international travel, not being bored, being positively entertained, having leisure, and, above all, spending money casually and without consideration for the sums involved in the pursuit of these aims IS THE NORM” (Brown 1990; 13. My emphasis).
One fairly recent study (Reda 2003) analysed the content of several textbooks, concluding that all of them “were based on a limited number (24) of ‘general interest’ topics” (P. 262). Reda also discovered that everyday lexis frequently appeared only in the latter stages of some “general English” courses, and she endorsed Bell and Gower’s (1998; 117) criticism that “the language presented in many coursebooks bears little relation to real language use and more to coursebook convention.” Among other things, she cited the fact that “safety belt”; “minus”; “plus”; “decimal” and “ambulance” only appeared at Level Four of the New Cambridge English Course (Swan and Walter 1990-1993). She concluded by suggesting that “general English” should more accurately be described as English for Limited Purposes.
More recently, Brennan (2007; 72) offered a more astringent appraisal “the Contents page for this book go for the same usual suspects that we see in elementary and pre-intermediate coursebooks. In fact, the contents look pretty damn similar to the first two books I taught from Streamline Departures (Oxford 1978) and Open Strategies (Longman 1982) and virtually every other coursebook published since then. Teachers are used to this default syllabus because that’s what the authors always have in books. The authors put it in because their editors insist that’s what the learners want. The learners accept it because that’s what teachers have always taught. Is anyone noticing a trend here?”
Brennan’s mention of Streamline Departures supports my contention that the “Bournemouth Boys” had a major influence on EFL teaching and its practices, but it is also interesting that so little appears to have changed since the publication of those ground-breaking books. If some teachers have got “used to this default syllabus”, despite its lack of challenge, that may explain why other teachers have moved away into areas where they are less bound by “general” English, opting to concentrate CALL; EAL; ESP; Learner Independence; Research; Testing and Evaluation or Young Learners instead.
And this brings me to teachers.
A contributor to the Middle East fora on Dave’s ESL Café recently posted this piece of wisdom “ESOL is looked down on by ‘regular teachers’ and puts us at the bottom of the social ladder.” (Norwalski; 2009)
Like so much that appears on those for a, this is a personal opinion, totally unsupported by any evidence, and, I would suggest, probably a gross overstatement of the case. I began my career as a “regular teacher” in British Further Education. I am quite sure that both the College of Further Education and the Technical College in which I then worked were regarded with patrician contempt by the “regular” schools whose rejects we took and educated, but the ironic fact was that all our classes were “examination classes” and in those “regular” schools, “regular teachers” fought tooth and nail for the privilege of teaching an “examination class.”
If we do, in reality, receive snide comments from “regular teachers” they are very likely to be motivated by professional jealousy. An EFL teacher who is reasonably well qualified will have a first degree, a teaching certificate, a further EFL teaching qualification, and these days, the committed professional will have a Masters Degree or a Doctorate as well. Match those qualifications against those of the teachers in a British Comprehensive or an American High School and you are likely to find that the shortfall occurs among the “regular teachers”.
The other point here is, of course, that if teachers of other subjects are regarded as “regular teachers” or, in Gillett’s (2008; 15) phrase “proper teachers”, does that make those of us in EFL “irregular” teachers, or are we simply “improper”?
There is, of course, a problem with EFL teaching. Keith Morrow (2003; 1) has stated that “ELT is perhaps the most international profession in the world”, but at the bottom level, it may be too easy to join. “ELT continues to be seen as a job that any native speaker can do better than a qualified and experienced non native simply because they are a native speaker. ELT is seen as an ideal job for an untrained housewife with time on her hands as she accompanies her husband on a diplomatic posting.”(Hicks 1996; 26).
This is partly the result of EFL’s own success. With the massification of EFL teaching, the demand for teachers has always outstripped their supply, but it has to be said that the accreditation boards have not always acted honourably.
In the 1970s there were very few EFL qualifications (McBeath 1980) The first of these was International House, whose Certificate was well regarded by even rival ARELS schools. The drawback of IH was that it demanded full-time study, and was suitable only for candidates who lived conveniently close to an International House establishment.
There was then the Trinity College Licentiate Diploma. This could be taken part-time, and its demands included a written paper, a practical examination and an oral. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the oral was occasionally used to weed out candidates who were felt to be “unsuitable” – with the suggestion that covert racism, class bias or fairly open homophobia was at work – but this could never be proved. The Diploma was only open to candidates who already had two years’ teaching experience, and so it was clearly a qualification that demonstrated a commitment to continuing professional development. At the same time, taking the Diploma could be a disempowering experience for some teachers, particularly those who had developed their own teaching style and were unwilling to change.
Finally there was the Royal Society of Arts Certificate in the Teaching of English to Adults. This was the forerunner of CTEFLA and DTEFLA, which in turn became CELTA and DELTA.
The RSA and Trinity examinations shared what Richards (1998; 46) describes as the “noncompatible view, which is based on the belief that a particular teaching conception is valid, and that others are unacceptable and should be discouraged.” The RSA beliefs were firm. “Good” teaching was presentation-practice-production. No language other than English should ever be used in the classroom. Choral drilling was effective.
The RSA Certificate examiners also applied abnormally high criteria. This much can be seen from the RSA’s own initial reports, which I tabulate here.
(McBeath 1980; 22)
It is not necessary to be an expert in testing and evaluation to see that there is something far wrong with an examination which confers the grade of Distinction on 0.18% of its candidates over a four year period. The figures also suggest that candidates only had a 34.4% chance of passing the examination – one in three – although the use of the referral system renders most of these statistics opaque. Just how many of the 1977 passes, for example, were candidates referred the previous year?
I have chosen 1977 for that example, because in that year Richardson (1977) rather jumped the gun by declaring that the Certificate was “a highly esteemed qualification”. It would have been more accurate to say that the qualification had a certain rarity value, and the praise was hardly impartial. It occurred in the RSA Examinations Board’s report on its own activities for the years 1976-77, and it was soon countered by Cooke’s (1979) description of the Certificate as “dishonest and unfair.”
Whatever the merits of these opinions, Richardson’s contention was soon undermined by the RSA’s decision to introduce firstly, a Diploma, and then a Preliminary Certificate. That left holders of the original “highly esteemed qualification” in the unfortunate position of having to argue that their qualification had been the diploma equivalent at the time of issue, and was far higher than the Preliminary Certificate. In this endeavour, they were not aided by Trinity College’s decision to issue a Certificate, leading up to the original Diploma.
From the point of view of places like Southampton Technical College, this confusion was a godsend. The conflicting boards and different examination demands, coupled with the referral system, allowed teacher training courses to flourish, and brought repeat business. They also cut down staffing bills. Teachers-in-training could be used to teach part-time classes, thus reducing the need for part-time teachers, despite the fact that the teachers-in-training aspired, mainly, to do part time work.
In the 1970s, candidates on RSA and Trinity College EFL teachers’ courses fell into primarily three groups. The largest, by far, consisted of middle-aged ladies who were looking for a part-time job in the local college of Further Education. Then came “regular” teachers whose positions were under some sort of threat – teachers of Russian or German in schools that had gone over to comprehensive education – and finally those who intended to make EFL a career.
This last category was definitely in the minority, because Masters Degrees only started to become available at the end of the 1970s The number of institutions offering such degrees increased rapidly in the 1980s, but this was, in part, a result of Thatcherite policies in education. In the 1980s, universities had to pull in more and more fee paying students. In the case of Aston University in Birmingham, however, another policy was the cause.
During the 1980s, academic staff at Aston University were put on seven year contracts. At that time, Aston was developing its Distance Learning courses in EFL teaching, and so the results could have been foreseen. Firstly, John Swales left for the University of Michigan. Then other academics left to establish similar courses at the then College of St. Mark and St. John in Plymouth. Finally, John Skelton left for the University of Surrey, and the Aston authorities finally realized that they were acting as a seed-bed for their own competitors.
The upshot of this is that in January 2010, the EL Gazette published a list of no fewer than 50 British and Irish Universities which, between them, offer no fewer than 101 different types of Master Degree in TEFL. They also published a short article, in which one person claimed that he had no need of a Masters Degree, and that they were too expensive. Two others demurred. The first stated that he wanted to work in Japan, and for that a Masters Degree was essential. The second said that a higher degree would give her choice.
Even so, there are those who appear to almost relish their position on the margins of true education. When I was retraining as a TEFL teacher, I asked my course tutor for information about IATEFL, and was informed that it was “an institution for senior academics only.” The clear message was “don’t get above your station.”
I recently repeated this to someone who works in education in Dubai, but instead of sharing my exasperation, he said “So? Doesn’t he have a point?” (Randall – personal communication).
The answer to that is “No, he doesn’t.” And for two reasons. Firstly, he was a she – and may I say now that I think it is extremely sexist to assume that a teacher-trainer would automatically be male. Secondly, IATEFL has never been an exclusive organization. It welcomes and supports anyone who has an interest in any aspect of EFL, and it has also gone out of its way to make membership affordable for teachers working in countries that have exchange-rate problems.
Teachers – regular/irregular; proper/improper – frequently demonstrate a cynical pessimism that runs completely counter to their supposed intention to stimulate thought and awaken the minds of their students. Nearly 50 years ago, Holbrook (1961; 6), writing of British secondary education, commented that “there are schools where to imply in the staff-room that you enjoyed a lesson, that you like your work, is met with frosty silence”. Much more recently, Gilbert (2005; 164) suggested that “Teachers become very attached to their institutional pain; its ghastliness is their main topic of conversation; its meagre wage is their means of living; its timetable the structure of their lives. It is the hateful drug that is simultaneously destroying and sustaining them.”
Even so, some EFL practitioners become vitriolic in their denunciation of their own profession. Here, for example, is another passage from Dave’s ESL café, this time written by a person who calls himself Deicide, and who is answering a question from another person who is thinking about moving into EFL teaching.
TEFL is a trap and the first way they get you to bite is this “see the world” crap. That is just a line but ultimately TEFL is a dead end, for if you ever want to get a real job somewhere else after years of toiling in “TEFL” (sic) …well, good luck, as your chances are next to none. With a good engineering degree or IT you can get to see the world as well with REAL pay and REAL skills. Moreover seeing the world is overrated and if and when you ever decide to “settle” no one will give a shit about what you have seen and employers even less but they will be interesting (sic) in your programming skills. In short, it is a waste of time, TEFL. We all got stuck in it and many of us just can’t get out of it anymore… I am going to try, these next few years, do or die, but I am just trying to help you. You could well damn yourself for life as you embark on this joke of existence called the “TEFL” (sic) career. You will look back and think, what the hell was I thinking? Back in the day, no one had warned me and I paid the price. I am trying to help you son. It’s all overrated and remember if you want a “normal” life, it will be nigh impossible to attain. But hey, people are allowed their own cockups, so go right ahead if you want to doom yourself….
One begins to wonder why this man does not get off the fence and tell us what he really thinks. In the Second World War, BBC radio had a comedy programme that featured a woman called Mona Lott. Her catchphrase was “It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going.” Mona’s son obviously went into TEFL and my deepest sympathies go out to this man’s colleagues.
But he is not alone. In 2004, The Sunday Telegraph published a 2000 word outpouring of bile (Cresswell-Taylor 2004). Starting with the bi-line “The job is tedious, the salary appalling and the prospects nil, Sebastian Cresswell-Taylor laments that ‘no one with a scrap of ambition’ would choose to teach English as a foreign language” the article carried on with a second bi-line “The lifers are scruffy figures, any style or sex-appeal squeezed out of them by years of drudgery.”
The first question, on reading this diatribe, is what possible motivation Cresswell-Taylor had to stay in the profession for eight years, given that it seems to have offered him so little. The second is why he believed that he should have been earning more than the twelve thousand pounds a year that he received from his Italian employers. He had a degree from Cambridge in French and Russian, along with what he was pleased to describe as a “Mickey Mouse Certificate” in TEFL. In other words, he had little more than native-speaker status to recommend him, and in a sophisticated western European capital city, he was probably facing stiff competition from far more competent and better educated non-native speaking teachers.
But his attack was not confined to the pages of a website, where most readers are likely, in all honesty, to be a small self-selected group of malcontents. Cresswell-Taylor launched his attack in a respectable broadsheet newspaper, and in the Saturday Edition, which probably has a larger readership than the weekday issues.
How accurate is this picture? I would suggest that it is highly misleading. Look around the delegates at a TESOL Arabia conference and you do not see an assembly of doomed drudges; poverty stricken wretches, longing for a way out of their dead end; for something better than their present “joke of an existence”; their lack of style or sex-appeal visible evidence of the tediousness of their toil. No one at such a conference is going to stand up and start shouting “I’m Spartacus!”
What you are more likely to see is designer clothing, the occasional flash of diamonds, the discreet gleam of a sold gold watch, or you will catch the scent of an expensive fragrance.
At the 2009 Musannah College of Technology Conference, Peter Grundy reminded his audience that they were “the cream” (Grundy 2009). We are the true professionals; the people who have invested time, and money, in our own professional development, and have devoted ourselves to both our students and to the improvement of our teaching techniques and to the deeper understanding of our educational enterprise.
I have lost the reference here, but some years ago a spokeswoman for the Centre for British Teachers made the mistake of saying that “Teachers must expect to ‘pay’ for the privilege of working abroad.”
That is pernicious nonsense. There is a large body of academic opinion that would dispute that working for a living was a privilege in any sense, and teachers who wish to donate their services can easily apply to Voluntary Service Overseas or the Peace Corps. They have no need to supplement the profits of an educational enterprise, and thereby subsidise its spokeswoman’s lifestyle.
There are, of course, even more unscrupulous organisations, and there is nothing much that can be done to stop their exploitation of both teachers and students, because there are always other teachers and students who will put up with shoddy service and conditions.
What has changed from the 1970s, however, is that a growing number of people in the TEFL profession now have a choice. In the 1970s there was really no choice. EFL teaching was a job. You could work part-time in Further Education or full-time for ARELS schools, but there was very little chance of anybody making very much money, or being able to stay in the EFL teaching world for long.
That has now completely changed. Many of the delegates at TESOL Arabia conferences have been in the Arab Gulf for years. Some of them have moved from post to post. Others have worked for the same employer. In both cases this has been a matter of professional choice. In January this year, one of my former colleagues was being interviewed for a post with the Qatari Air Force. The Qatari officer conducting the interview was extremely discourteous, and to his utter amazement, the interviewee terminated the session. He stated that he no longer wished to work for their organisation and walked out. It was their loss.
There are still problems. There are stakeholders in the education process, like the Qatari officer, who believe that they are hiring people who are desperate for work. In the tertiary sector there is still the ludicrous distinction between people who work in Language Centres and those who work in Faculties. For some reason, a PhD and a body of published work counts for less in the Language Centre than it does in a Faculty. With growing numbers of Gulf states’ nationals in both, this disparity might end, but I rather doubt that it will.
For expatriate teachers, the days of truly large salaries have also gone. It is no longer possible to earn three and four times the rate that was going back home. At the same time, the suggestion that parts of the UAE or Oman are “hardship locations” has also gone. Dubai is a holiday location. Bahrain boasts its Grand Prix. When I first went to Dhofar, the last remains of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Occupied Arab Gulf (PLFOAG) were still hiding out in the hills. They have now abandoned their armed struggle completely, and Salalah is a major destination for Intra-Gulf tourism.
With these changes, moreover, has come an ever increasing demand for EFL at ever higher and more specialist levels. Those levels demand expert teachers, and expert teachers are not native speakers who have spent a week mastering a few “tips for teachers” (Hobbs 2006). In the short term, therefore, our profession is secure. There are still jobs, if you want to go for a short term, low paid contract. There is also, however, a career path if you are prepared to invest the time and the money required to turn yourself into a complete professional.
For nearly 40 years I have been teaching different versions of EFL. There have been some disappointments, most notably when politics took precedence of pedagogy in the Royal Air Force of Oman (McBeath 2006; 2007; 2008). Like every teacher, I have had bad days and uncooperative classes. 99.5% of the time, however, I have had no regrets that I entered EFL teaching. Teaching is what I do. It is not my job. It is my career.
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