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Is the UK the worst place to teach English?

4 Jul

A little while ago a post by Russell Mayne about teaching English in South Korea caught my attention. The post is a good three years old now, but a quick search through some of the links suggest that the issues that are being touched upon are still very much relevant. Amazingly, it seems that the mandatory HIV testing of foreign English language teachers in South Korea is still being debated, and a quick Google search reveals extensive grumbles about the way English language teachers are treated by their employers (and others) in South Korea.

Russell, however, clearly states that he’s never taught in South Korea. And I can assure you that in pretty much every country with an ELT industry (and yes, I do believe it’s an industry), you will find tales of woe and discontent from teachers who have worked (or are working) there. Is South Korea any worse than anywhere else? Or, as the comments on Russell’s post suggest, is it the usual mix of good and bad employers, and good and bad experiences? Perhaps the demand for English language teaching, and sheer number of teachers, skew the facts, and actually the percentage of happy teachers is no different from anywhere else, but this would require a level of research beyond a quick Google search and some anecdotal evidence.

I would like to propose, however, that the situation in the UK is worse than South Korea for English language teachers. Like Russell, I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, but I do have personal experience, and I can confirm that it was teaching in the UK – not teaching in Asia – that drove me out of the ELT classroom.

To be clear, it’s been 10 years since I was last ’employed’ as an English language teacher, and I use that word cautiously, as at no point in the UK was I ever offered a contract. I returned from teaching in Japan (where contracts, a small amount of paid leave, and assistance with accommodation were pretty much standard) to study for an MA in Applied Linguistics, with the intention of furthering my ELT career. I figured that if I studied full-time, I could pick up a bit of part-time teaching work, and I was right, odd hours here and there, or a few weeks during the summer, were not hard to come by. It was when I started to look for something a bit more permanent that the state of the ELT industry in the UK started to become clear.

Like South Korea, and any other country, some of the employers I came across in the UK were lovely, others, looking back, were miserable, bitter, cave trolls. One of my interviews (for a few hours of one-to-one tutoring) kicked off with a written grammar test, presided over by one of said trolls. It was a crap test, for a crappy ‘job’ at a crap school. But it wasn’t unusual.

Lots of English language teachers eventually find themselves back in their countries of origin, hoping to continue their ELT careers. Language schools, universities and colleges need teachers, but private language schools in particular have work that’s seasonal. After obtaining my MA, I was looking for a permanent, full-time contract, and was repeatedly told that worries about student visas and the number of students coming in to the UK meant that there was zero job security and no commitment to taking on permanent members of staff. I eventually found myself working in a private sixth form – no contract – preparing low-level Chinese students for the IELTS test which was completely inappropriate for their level, but which they needed a magic 6.5 from in order to scrape into a UK university. On both sides, it was sad and demoralising. These kids were great at maths, great at science, but were doomed to forever struggle with English, because instead of being guided towards being better language learners, they were focusing on practice exam papers, supplemented by materials I wrote myself – in my own time – in an attempt to motivate them with level-appropriate texts and activities. After 12 months and regular clashes with a course coordinator I gave up and abandoned the ELT classroom for good.

Now perhaps I wasn’t destined to be a teacher, or I just quit too easily, but what I saw when I came back to the UK was an industry where qualified and experienced teachers where being routinely screwed over by a system that placed little value on what they did, paid only for teaching hours (preparation, marking homework and creating materials, whilst often expected, was rarely rewarded), and was centred around some of the most expensive cities to live in the UK.

Having now forged an ELT career outside of teaching, I get to see a wider range of scenarios, and there are of course plenty of happy teachers, good jobs and fair employers out there, but I’m not convinced that there’s been huge improvements over the past 10 years. UK language schools pop up in the news from time to time when they close up shop and turf students and teachers alike out on the street, a lot of people I know are working on a temporary basis, or juggling several part-time roles, or going freelance not because they particularly want to but because they don’t really have a choice. And the pay, on the whole, is terrible, particularly given the cost of living in many UK cities. Suddenly, a 12-month contract, wage you can live on, help with housing and compulsory HIV test doesn’t look quite so bad.

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