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Not 'a gap year job' — London's TEFL teachers struggle for recognition

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in Britain is a raw deal. ANNA CLARK of the TEFL Workers’ Union tells Ben Cowles how teachers are fighting back

THE bosses of the Delfin English language school in London must have thought that they had finally dealt with their uppity teachers when they made them all redundant just before Christmas 2019. 

Who were these workers to expect holiday pay, paid meetings, paid prep time, paid training and anything other than zero-hours contracts and statutory sick pay? 

Getting rid of them all during the most expensive time of year would treat them right for involving themselves with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and forming the TEFL Workers’ Union.

Unfortunately for the bosses, the teachers’ new union found the problem with their plan. 

“In terms of the legality of redundancy, you can only make people redundant if there is no longer any work for them,” Anna Clark, a member of the TEFL Workers’ Union, tells me. 

“After Christmas, the school employed agency staff to cover the roles of the teachers, which is entirely illegal. 

“They did offer statuary redundancy, which only kicks in if you’ve been at the company for two years, which is one week’s pay for every year after two years. 

“This was deemed unacceptable by the union, obviously, as it’s completely illegal. So we then held a campaign against Delfin to reclaim the redundancy pay for the teachers.

“That involved a social media campaign and picketing the school. Ultimately that was incredibly successful and they won an enhanced redundancy.”

I was a TEFL teacher for close to 10 years in South Korea and Japan. Right before I started at the Star in 2016 I taught for a few months at a school in east London. 

The boss said he couldn’t guarantee any teaching hours — it wasn’t a  zero-hours contract as there was no contract at all — and paid me cash-in-hand. 

I couldn’t believe what a raw deal TEFL teaching in Britain was. Abroad I was treated better as a migrant worker than in my own country, which generally subjects migrants to a hostile environment. 

Clark, who was a TEFL teacher in Australia for a couple of years, feels the same.

“There weren’t many issues there,” she says. “You either have contracted hours or, if you are on a zero-hours contract, you get 25 per cent more pay. 

“It's a respected profession and you're not treated like shit, whereas here in Britain, there are zero-hours contracts in most schools and unpaid prep time.

“Some teachers do get holiday pay in Britain but there are many schools where you don't. And statutory sick pay is £94.25 a week, which only comes in after four days. So if you’re sick for two days you don’t get paid. 

“The precarious nature of the work is the main problem faced by TEFL teachers in this country.”

The old adage that “those who can’t do, teach,” still prevails in this country, Clark says, especially when it comes to TEFL teachers. Perhaps this is the reason why so many teachers are forced into a precarious existence. 

“There’s this stereotype that TEFL teaching is a kind of ‘gap yah’ job and it’s just not true. A lot of the people I work with have master’s degrees and Delta qualifications — which is a higher level post-graduate qualification to teach English.”

When I first went to Korea in 2006 my employers didn’t actually care about qualifications — which is just as well, seeing as I didn’t have any. 

The only question the interviewer asked me for that first job was: “Do you like kids?” I think they just wanted westerners in classrooms at that time.  

“That’s ridiculous,” Clark says. “In the UK, you’re required to have qualifications but you’re treated worse than if you teach elsewhere in the world.”

And those qualifications do not come cheap. 

“No, they’re not cheap. When I did my Celta” — which stands for Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults, a qualification most schools in Britain require prospective teachers to hold before they’ll even glance at your CV and covering letter — “it was £1,300. 

“That was maybe five years ago now. It’s probably gone up since then.” 

I was only making around £60 a week at my dodgy school. In order to make ends meet I tried to poach my students for private one-to-one lessons, something I wasn’t supposed to do. 

“It’s outrageous. I mean a typical teaching schedule will be 25 hours contact time a week. Or 30. But 30 is quite exhausting. When you factor in 25 hours of paid contact time, there’s also marking, there’s planning, there’s meetings, there’s paperwork. All of that adds up to be a full-time job. 

“Then on top of that you might work two nights a week in a restaurant or teach five private classes; it’s unsustainable. It’s bad for your mental health.”

The union began back in 2016 when an IWW veteran came over from the United States and started agitating at a school here. 

Organising workers in an industry as precarious as TEFL teaching can be difficult, especially when people fear their boss can just get rid of them. 

“But the reality is that employers don’t want to get rid of all of their staff and start from the beginning. Either they get agency staff in, which costs more money, or they start again from scratch. 

“And especially in the summer months, it’s not practical to do that. You can’t do that because you've got hundreds of students coming every Monday from all over the world.”

Paid prep time is one of the issues the TEFL Workers’ Union is campaigning for. 

“For every hour in the classroom there could be 15-20 minutes of prep time. If you’re teaching an academic class, there could be a lot of marking. 

“If you’re marking 14 essays for a class, that’s hours of your life gone and you’re not being paid for it. On top of that there’s unpaid meetings that are prevalent across the industry. 

“All of this adds up to thousands of hours a year of unpaid work. However, in a couple of schools we have won paid meetings and also paid training.” 

But, Clark says, the union is always on the lookout for new campaigns. 

“If anybody contacts us, regardless of whether they’re a member or not, we are willing to help them.

“Whether that be a more material matter like a grievance or disciplinary procedure, or something more general, like contract changes. 

“In general, we’d like to see no zero-hours contracts in the industry. Especially if you are working at a school all year round. There’s no reason why you can’t have a 15-hour a week contract. 

“You know, some teachers just teach in the summer and it makes more sense to be on a zero-hours contract then. If you are teaching there all the time, then there is no reason why you can’t have guaranteed hours. 

“No zero-hours contracts and no unpaid prep time are two of our long-term goals.”

Anna Clark is a member of the TEFL Workers’ Union. You can find the union on Twitter on @TeflUnion. 

Ben Cowles is the Star’s web editor. You can follow him on @Cowlesz.

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