Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Who’s the Wolf in ELT?

Sugata Mitra’s IATEFL webinar last week, a Q&A type session, did comparatively little to change the ELT community’s mind about his IATEFL plenary. Those who saw his ideas as a threat to teaching and an inadequate solution to the lack of teachers in developing countries felt they had been heard but not listened to. His fans waxed lyrical.

The reactions are as extreme as they are opposed. Anger and name calling on the one hand, deification on the other. He was called a madman, evil and a wolf in sheep’s clothing but got a standing ovation (OTT in my opinion) at IATEFL and you can practically Google the word inspiring and end up at one of his TED videos.

Sugata Mitra himself veers from teacher alienating to teacher pleasing.

He says teachers will be obsolete one minute but the next that the idea children can learn by themselves doesn’t exclude teachers. Teachers I know in mainstream primary education are generally fans of both Sugata and Ken Robinson, who is heavily critical of current education in broadly similar ways. Both see children as having greater potential than the school model allows for. However, the difference is Ken Robinson didn’t say it at an IATEFL plenary and as such has not crossed the baffling gulf between the two educational fields. ELT barely knew Sugata Mitra existed prior to Harrogate.

Now ELT knows and the reaction is fear, mistrust and immediate conflation with the other Big Threat to teachers: Adaptive Learning.

The current threat to ELT (and the promise) is slowly coming into focus […] I believe that teachers of all kinds are and will be increasing replaced by computing. Who will be doing this replacing and for what reasons? Will “we” invest in people plus computers when we have the chance or will we only invest in computing? Are semi-intelligent computing and Holes-in-the-wall really the panacea that some might like to claim? […] Like I think I said before, I don’t think technology is just responding to the market; I believe it is actually making the future…..our future. Michael Butler on

There’s a sense of proportion missing. Poor African and Indian villages with a few computers in places where there are no teachers and teachers do not want to go is not the end of EFL teachers. Children learning to find the answers to questions from the internet and picking up a “smattering of English” along the way is not a threat either. How insecure about your profession would you need to be to think it is?

Or, more importantly WHY would you be that insecure?

The answer to that lies, not in countries where it’s hard to get teachers but in places where it’s easy.

There are two kinds of English teachers. Holiday TEFLers and Lifers. Most of us start out as the former.

To avoid offending, I’ll use my own path as the example. I wanted to live abroad, l had no idea what to do after university – a Philosophy degree will do that to you – and was quite happy to work 20 something hours a week with no responsibility. I sneered at my friends in graduate jobs who were putting in 50+ hours a week and were too stressed and busy to enjoy their, admittedly much bigger, wage packets.

I was a crap teacher for the first year; I had students with better attendance and timekeeping than me. If I wanted a week off to go travelling, my crappy language academy got someone to cover the class. I dossed around at a crap summer school for a month and then travelled a bit more for the other month I had off while picking the next cool place to go. I never considered money, professional development, pension, holiday pay, contracts for more than a year, worker’s rights etc.

I also never considered my escape route so ended up having to become a Lifer.
Suddenly I cared. I soaked up CPD, I made my own materials to make sure my students got lessons suited to their needs and I paid my own way through an MA ELT.

Language schools can and do exploit both these types of teacher. The first group because they don’t care, won’t stay and their reason for being there is to be able to live in the country. The second group because they find reasons other than their working conditions to stay; they marry a local or just love the country too much to leave but teaching English is their only way to make a living. They might find a “better” academy but the competition in that respect is dire.


I work with people who have degrees, postgraduate degrees and years of experience in many different contexts. Some of them have families and mortgages. Some of them are employed on zero hours contracts – which means we pay them for the hours we get them to teach, but there our relationship ends. We have no commitment to them, we pay them a starting salary that is marginally higher than what an unqualified school teacher earns in the UK and we never increase this. We are not the most exploitative company that exists. The Secret DOS

There’s a school here in Madrid with a very prestigious sounding Cambridge name and fairly high fees that pays its teachers what works out to € 8/hr. They have it set up in such a way that a teacher on 24 contact hours/week earns € 800/month. If the teacher wants to earn more, say, to save up for hot running water or heating in winter they can up their hours to a 30 hour week contract, and take home € 1000. |That’s half a week’s pay extra for one extra week’s class hours a month.

I heard of a case at a well known school where a long standing teacher suddenly started getting complaints from students. Firing her would have meant having to pay her an end of contract fixed 45 days pro rata pay. Reducing her hours would push her out with no need to pay it, so that’s what they did. And this happens all the time.

I had a timetable at a smaller school which featured another common teacher screw over for hourly paid teachers. Cancellations for which you’re not paid. The school doesn’t bill for those lessons – but that is a marketing benefit which enables them to hook big business contracts so shouldn’t be a cost that is borne by the teacher with fickle or busy students clogging up their timetable.

A very well known chain here is run by a savvy businessman. When the Committee rep listed all the reasons why good, experienced teachers wouldn’t want to stay there, his reply? “I know”. Experienced teachers are paid more than fresh off the internationally recognised CELTA course that they run. Students are lured in by the promise of experienced teachers but you don’t need to keep the same ones around, with their inconvenient demands for long term contracts that you might later regret having given such generous terms.

I interviewed once in London with another big chain, EF, for a Senior Teacher job, got it and turned it down as the salary was unliveable – around £17,000. I told them why. Then they had an ADOS position come up and asked me back for interview because they’d been impressed with me and thought I would fit in. At that point I had an MA in ELT, ten year’s experience and a summer Academic Manager job which I had been f*cking amazing at. (Once I stopped being a holiday TEFLer, I big time redeemed myself professionally). They said they knew salary had been a concern and were willing to discuss it. Great, I thought!

They weren’t willing, however, to cover expenses for me to take the day off my hourly paid teaching job and get the train from York, even though this was a second meeting and at their request as this second position wasn’t even advertised yet. It cost me about £100 in all.  I played nice at the interview which was more of a chat – until they told me the salary.

Around £19,000.

For anyone who doesn’t know, that is impossible in London and lower than any mainstream teacher’s starting out salary by a few thousand. I asked (with impressively concealed contempt) at what point the salary became commensurate with an MA, ten year’s teaching plus management experience.

I didn’t get the job, of course. When they wrote and told me this very obvious conclusion to my £100 waste of time, I replied that they had made the right decision as I would only have stayed in such a risibly paid job long enough to find a better one.
Thank God, then, in a job market saturated with money grabbing, as bad as bankers, exploitative Fat Cats, that there’s the British Council!

Once you’ve got two year’s experience and have stopped viewing TEFL as a filler between jaunts and jollies, as long as you meet their standards of excellence and pass the rigorous recruitment process, you’re in.

As the world’s leading cultural relations organisation, the British Council touches the lives of millions of people each year. For every single one of them, the way we conduct ourselves speaks volumes about who we are, and what we stand for. Our Code of Conduct sets the standards for the way we work in all our activities and locations. These standards are designed to help us behave in ways that earn people’s trust, create understanding and build mutual respect. British Council Code of Conduct, Feb 2014

They have gleaming codes of conduct for everything:

Integrity: Being consistent in what we say and do, builds trust. We are always honest and take responsibility for our actions.

Mutuality: Effective relationships are the heart of our work. It’s a two way exchange.

Professionalism: As leaders, we understand our responsibility to deliver excellence every time. Setting the highest standards for ourselves and expecting the same of others means that we’ll stay true to our values. British Council Code of Conduct

Of course though:

…The code [of conduct] can’t cover everything. So, when dealing with an issue that it doesn’t address directly, we should use our values to help resolve it, speak to a manager or consult the Human Resources, Finance or other relevant intranet site. British Council Code of Conduct

That must be how, in Spain, they have got away with this: A reasonable hourly rate (for ELT) but Social Security contributions and, therefore pensions that are tied to a part time contract as they only count the contact hours ie 24. Not planning, marking, report writing, attend in-service training,  offer internet availability to students and all the other things that make that a full time job. As it stands teachers would need to do 34 contact hours to qualify as full time workers and get full Social Security payments.

Probably cooked up somewhere between Human Resources and Finance. Probably not resolvable by some relevant intranet site.

Happy retirement suckers! Hope you’re loving your Menu del Dia, smug weather Facebook updates back to Blighty and free entry to the TESOL Spain conference once a year (in your free time not work time).

Whenever anyone asks me about taking a CELTA and becoming an English teacher, I always say do it for two years with your exit strategy planned. Go freelance as soon as you can. Work for language schools as long as it takes to poach students from them.

The threat to teachers, the disgusting lack of respect and the abuse of teachers’ circumstances doesn’t come from Sugata Mitra, SOLE, Adaptive Learning or any other tech that can be invented or used. It comes from the industry of language schools.

Why aren’t we challenging language schools as evil wolves in sheep’s clothing? Why aren’t we up in arms on internet forums, organising mass walk outs and generally kicking up a huge stink?


UPDATE: And in that vein, want to see what Paul Walsh and I are going to do about it?



33 comments on “Who’s the Wolf in ELT?

  1. Nick Robinson
    May 1, 2014

    Reblogged this on The Editor's Kitchen.

  2. lclandfield
    May 1, 2014

    I think both are different kinds of threat, in a “big picture vs immediate reality” kind of way. The private language school industry can easily be called a racket for all the reasons you mention. You’re right on the money there. Although this is one aspect only of the English language teaching worldwide, of particular concern to those kinds of teachers you mention (holiday-ers and lifers). However, there are other big segments of ELT (secondary school teachers, tertiary level teaching, primary teachers) that don’t always have to suffer the same fate. They tend not to be the native speaker travelling teachers though.
    Incidentally, were you living in Spain when the Opening School and Brighton School chains went belly-up in the early 2000s? There were EFL teachers mobilizing against really crap conditions. Pity it hasn’t happened more since (and didn’t change much in the long run). Sigh.
    What are some good exit strategies though? Any tips on that? 🙂
    In terms of internet activity against crap schools, you may wish to check out the TEFL Tradesman ( and the TEFL Blacklist ( Those were the only sites I know about that report on this, although they are not without their own controversies! 🙂

    • Nicola
      May 1, 2014

      Thanks for this comment. Lots I did not know about. Early 2000s no I wasn’t here and know nothing about it. TEFL blacklist I know but felt it was often just individuals with petty gripes and no way of telling if they were presenting the real story of what happened to them or just axe grinding. Will check out the other links. Think though, we now have social media and how about a TEFL Spring uprising!

      You’re right about non PLS teachers. They tend to have unions though as they’re mainstream teachers and so are better protected in lots of ways but I don’t pretend to know anything about it. My knowledge and concern can only be for the sector I know and so for me, the debate about Sugata is another one and I only really used it to link to something I’ve been wanting to write anyway, topical like.

      Exit strategies…ooo taking the transferable skills and getting just about any other kind of job!

  3. dingtonia
    May 1, 2014

    I am so pleased someone with your writing expertise has put this into words, Nicola. I never planned to go into ELT, but was offered a job that at the time was exactly right and ON PERMANENT CONTRACT that I snapped it up. 13 years later, the company was taken over and as I was paid more than the paltry sum you mentioned an ADOS would receive (not at the school you were invited to interview at, by the way, but seems pretty standard offering to degreed, diploma’d and experienced teacher/managers in this field), I was ‘made redundant’ – ho hum. It’s the same old story across the world of ELT. Thank you for telling it like it is.

    • Nicola
      May 1, 2014

      I am quite shocked by that! Even at the same time as being completely, cynically unsurprised. Name and shame them?

  4. Natalie
    May 1, 2014

    Part-time contracts for what, in reality, are full-time hours, are a big problem in language schools in Spain. However, there are organizations out there that respect their teachers and will give them full-time contracts, and, therefore, all the benefits that go with that. It’s just finding them! If you have the qualifications and experience, and aren’t too desperate, you can stand your ground and try to get what you want. If they are that unwilling though to treat you with respect, do you really want to work for them?

    • Nicola
      May 1, 2014

      I think you’re right.But a lot of people assume they’re getting the best deal just because it’s the British Council and the British Council trade off their reputation for excellence which they do not deserve to do in all cases.
      Can you list some schools which treat their teachers fairly in the way you say so people can see their options or at least give them some leverage in negotiations?

  5. Thomas Ewens
    May 1, 2014

    Wow, thank you for this honest post.

    I think we might forget sometimes that every field of work has its problems, not just ELT. And it’s hard for us to understand the problems other people have because we am not in their shoes. We are stuck only with what we know.

    You are absolutely right in what you say, Nicola, but let’s not feel too sorry for ourselves.

    Am I being totally naive and over-optimistic? 🙂

    • Nicola
      May 1, 2014

      But this is part of the problem. There is too much “feeling sorry for ourselves” and whingeing. Far too little exposing of the exploitation and far, far too little ACTION. These schools need taking to task, publicly, and behind the scenes – difficult when the accrediting body looks to be the British Council themselves even though their accreditation is only for the UK – and teachers should be staging mass walkouts – the TEFL Spring could happen through social media. Why not?

  6. Thomas Ewens
    May 1, 2014


    I don’t really know much about the Arab Spring, I must admit. But, as I understand, it hasn’t brought about lasting change……nevertheless, I understand what you meant.

    No, I can’t think of a good reason why that couldn’t happen.

  7. Nicola
    May 1, 2014

    I am not claiming indepth knowledge – I suppose all I really meant was organised uprising – so strikes in the ELT case rather than revolt against the government – using social media to make a statement and urge action to draw publicity and unwanted attention to force change. Unionising and endless talk and even fairly pointless blogging is not going to do it. If I actually worked for the British Council, I’d get on it from the inside.

    But it is hard for teachers to strike as most are on short term contracts and so are worried about doing something like that I should imagine. It would take EVERYONE together and then why restrict it to the British Council? Half an hour global walkout during kids classes? I think that would cause mayhem. Also bombarding the British Council’s social media with a call to change. Just about to post on their Facebook page now….

  8. Natalie
    May 2, 2014

    Hi Nicola, My experience in Spain is with small private one school organizations. The first school I worked at ‘full-time’ did the part-time contract thing. So basically, when summer came around and they didn’t have work for us, we could really only get half the paro that we were really entitled to. It was only then that we realized that we were being short-changed. We were new to the business and naive, so didn’t check this out before accepting the contract. However, the next school provided a full-time contract, paid overtime and cover, and paid a good hourly rate for early morning in-company classes on top!

    I have never worked for one of the ‘big’ companies such as the British Council, IH, etc in Spain, so can’t really comment on those. The problem is EFL teachers are dispensable. There is always someone to replace you. Before you accept a contract you can only find out everything you need to know and then decide whether it’s for you or not.

    • Nicola
      May 2, 2014

      Yes, I think this is absolutely the case. Part of my purpose in this post is just to help people realise that here are some things they should not assume the school has their best interests in mind. And therefore, which questions to ask and base a decision on.
      If enough people reject these kind of screw-over contracts, maybe schools will slowly change. Especially the big ones that should be downright ashamed of themselves. I would hope that shame will push a faster change than one over the attrition of new recruits.
      As you say teachers are dispensable but if enough teachers stand up for everyone, it no longer matters which individual is being hired as to how fairly they are treated.

      • Natalie
        May 2, 2014

        I hope I didn’t sound as if one shouldn’t speak up when offered a bad contract! I agree. We should speak out about why we’re turning it down, and if enough people do it, maybe the powers that be will think again. If we can educate people new to the business, so they know what kind of contracts/salary/benefits, etc they should be expecting, then maybe enough people to make a difference will turn them down.

      • Nicola
        May 2, 2014

        Not at all. We agree with each other completely here!

  9. paulwalsh
    May 4, 2014

    Hi Nicola,

    I blog about similar points that you raised – bad schools, contracts, the industry. My answer is a Creative Commons crowdsourced contract – that both teachers and (some) schools sign up to.

    Like I say in my post – why isn’t there a ‘Teachers as Workers’ SIG to tackle these issues? These things come way before anything else for a lot of working teachers.

    But I’m not sure that enough people REALLY want things to change. Because change would involve killing some sacred cows. And that’s what is really sad.

    • Nicola
      May 4, 2014

      A SIG? Interesting idea!! I like the idea of more direct action but that is still a good idea. It’s a kind of short cut to a Union but I’d have to look at what SIGs are actually allowed to do and how slow they are _ I sense pretty slow!
      Which sacred cows?
      I think next step is a mass deluge of emails to the British Council. I’m going to write one people can cut and paste and then hit send. I just have to find the relevant and most annoyance causing email addresses…

      • paulwalsh
        May 6, 2014

        The British Council have been redirecting their priorities for some years now. A lot of the BC centres in Eastern and South East Europe have been closed or downsized to near extinction (though not through lack of need) and resources directed to more politically sensitive areas (like the Middle East) and/ or richer countries. British Council is after all, a branch of the Foreign Office.

        What is required is just for people to acknowledge that there is a problem and a need for debate. Because from where I’m standing people who bring raise such issues are just labelled ‘moaners’; or they’re ‘not team players’ or not ‘go-getters’ (insert noun as you see fit). Maybe we just all have to stop being ‘nice’ for 2 seconds, tell the truth and see what happens.

        The problem is when you take on BC and EQUALS and you just hit a bureaucratic PR response of ‘of course we take working conditions very seriously…’ And don’t even mention some of the bigger chains fleecing students for thousands of euros a time…

      • Nicola
        May 8, 2014

        I never have a problem not being nice!

        I think the issue of students being fleeced is a separate one. Customers are generally much more aware of their power to vote with their wallets than teachers are to negotiate better contracts or know who is and who isn’t a fair employer.

  10. Pingback: Teachers as Workers IATEFL SIG | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

  11. Andy Hockley
    May 8, 2014

    Seems to me that ELT teachers need to join a union. Those in Australia are typically unionised, and those unions negotiate pay deals and so on (and actually do so on a federal/state basis – minimum ELT salaries are mandated at different experience/qualification levels) The the unions negotiate on a school by school basis for anything above the (reasonable) minimums. Why are ELT teachers in the UK, say, or in other countries so reluctant to get organised? Your post is very true, but t’was ever thus, and it seems to me that only unionisation is going to do anything about it

    • Nicola
      May 8, 2014

      It’s true. I worked in Sydney on a Working Holiday visa and was amazed when she told me my pay rate based on a union mandated pay scale according to years of experience and qualifications. And it was the third year of three in which that rate had gone up in line with union organised action.

      The trouble is that a union can only work within the laws of the country they are in. So a worldwide union could not call for the same legally applicable standards in, say, China and the UK. I think something that empowers teachers not to stand for certain conditions and to know what they should be looking for is a halfway house. Also Spain has comites and they are usually stymied by lack of interest from the teachers they are trying to help or people not wanting to strike as they are only on fixed term contracts. A SIG would perhaps make more people think twice about signing those kinds of contracts.
      Another problem is that the teachers who participate in IATEFL are already much more likely to take action/get informed than holiday teflers. How to bring them in? Well, a SIG could at least start a discussion and that might lead to the setting up of a type of union which teachers signed up to when they qualify. Or something. I think the discussions need to be had first. If we get a SIG together I will look for someone who knows Employment Law to be on the Committee.

      • Andy Hockley
        May 8, 2014

        No, I agree that (unfortunately) unionisation needs to start on a country by country basis .

        IATEFL is reluctant to get involved in the kind of lobbying and advocacy that would be involved in this, as far as I know. But yes, I support you in this effort and I hope it bears fruit. I wonder of something similar to Equity for actors would be the way forward?

      • Nicola
        May 8, 2014

        Good idea. I’ll ask Ken Wilson how actor’s equity works.

      • Nicola
        May 8, 2014

        USEFUL to know! Thanks 🙂

  12. Thomas
    May 8, 2014


    When I taught in Korea people were always talking about setting up a union, but nothing ever came of it, unfortunately. Talk is cheap.

    However, I do feel that there are enough teachers out there who would be prepared to join a union in order to make it worthwhile.

    Andy Hockley is very knowlegeable, and I’m sure he is correct that IATEFL are reluctant to get involved. But perhaps a google group for interested parties to discuss these issues would be a good first step?

  13. teamslb
    May 11, 2014

    Great post. A lot of what you and the commenters are saying prompted us to form a cooperative of language teachers, translators, writers and other linguistic specialists. The idea is that we share resources and other services and help promote each other’s work. We’ve only just started but it’s already proving to be something between a support group, a union and an agency, but one of our own making – with fair pay and conditions and a share of the profits. We feel strongly that this is a way forward worth considering and we’d be happy to help out anyone who wanted to do something similar.

    Neil, Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona (SLB),

  14. fttadmin
    June 1, 2014

    I am so glad there is someone else out in there who paints the picture as it is! As there is no contact form on your blog, I’m trying to reach out to you here. 🙂

    A ‘Teachers as Workers’ SIG is a great idea, but not really sufficient I feel. Freelance teachers need more support in other areas of their teaching business. In running a teaching business so they can earn a decent living from it. This is the aim of my own website.

    I run a website that tackles running a teaching service as a business: ‘How to find students and why you don’t’. All articles deal with various aspects of working as a freelance teacher in a professionally ethical and legal manner.

    One of the problems that comes up frequently is the chronic symptom of underearning and its causes. There are several articles embracing this problem; why it happens and (motivational) suggestions on how to go about diffusing the issue being discussed.

    Yes — the website is motivational but it’s informative and constructive, too. In fact, I just sent out my newsletter today on this subject: Should I Work For The Competition? (

    It would be good to reach out to more teachers. The more of us who band together the bigger the chance to change our working conditions.


    • Nicola
      June 7, 2014

      Thanks, your site looks interesting. Personally I never had any problems finding private classes but it’s true I could have taken a more business-like approach at times. Cancellations was the only think I put my foot down about and not for the first year or so! I think most teachers can earn more teaching privately and the conditions of most schools mean you’re unlikely to be worse off because there’s no pension or holidays etc anyway

  15. SallyLu
    May 14, 2015

    The British Council is an an anachronism, a remnant of empire, an antiquated dinosaur that has become so heavy its limbs cannot support its own weight. And it exploits teachers just because it can, which is what the strong always do to the weak, surely? Teachers are easily replaced, and BC salaries though not wonderful, are certainly better than other schools, and the professional development opportunities are in all fairness quite good. When teachers find the situation they’re in is intolerable, they usually change centres in the hope that in such-n-such a place things are different/better….or they quietly drift away to a different profession altogether.
    Once about ten years ago there was something called BCWiki where teachers got together and discussed problems around the network; but most of the people who went to that site were already too disgruntled and embittered to do much and nobody was being paid for the hours and hours of volunteer work to keep such a site going; it died on the vine after a few years I believe. Many centres are full of unhappy teachers and desperately need a teachers’ rep to speak on their behalf — but nobody wants to be a teacher’s rep because it’s rarely a paid job, it might be rewarded by hours down but those don’t compensate for the time spent, and the rep can easily get labelled troublemaker by the management….so teachers go for years at a time without a rep!
    Promises are made and not kept all the time. By the time a teacher wises up and realizes that verbal assurances are meaningless and even emails will not be considered binding, it’s usually too late — they give up and go elsewhere …of if they’re really smart and that type, they leave teaching altogether and go up the ladder of middle management till they emerge, smiling, above the clouds!
    Getting organized sounds great — but when you’re teaching 24 hours a week and IELTS examining because your teacher’s salary won’t quite make ends meet, and doing your marking and lesson planning, and probably a Delta or a CELT-YL or something, and trying to be a good teacher and a good colleague by sharing resources and going to joint-planning sessions, trying to provide a bit of pastoral care to your students even though the BC system really doesn’t encourage/allow for that, working on projects so you’ll have something decent to put on your PMPD…. oh yeah, not to mention going home occasionally and spending a wee bit of time with your partner and kids, maybe even buying groceries or doing the laundry because hey, despite all that work-life balance rhetoric your balance is very UNbalanced… you really have time or energy to think about joining a union or getting organised?
    My apologies! This whole thread touched a nerve I guess. i admire your frankness Nicola, and truly hope it will contribute to much-needed change in the field.

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