Sunday, July 30, 2017

In defense of private institute English teaching

Let me make this clear in the beginning: I'm playing devil's advocate here. I have a lot (no really, a lot) of criticisms of the private teaching market, which in Taiwan usually consist of cram schools/buxibans. I wouldn't call working for them a good work situation generally, and if you do so, you lose a lot of the perks of being a teacher. No one-month-salary annual bonuses, no paid summers off, no access to the pension program, few salaried positions available, and very little job security when most of us are on zero-hour contracts. It is possible to get a job as a nobody with no experience, qualification, training or even relevant volunteer experience, and be thrown into work without adequate training.

The work doesn't pay nearly as well as people seem to think it does - better than more traditional teaching in Taiwan (but not necessarily elsewhere) at both public schools and universities, and better than the average twentysomething office worker, but not nearly on par with credentialed mid-career professionals in other fields. Work hours tend to be long and scattered, and you teach a lot because you need to in order to earn enough money. That gives you much less time to put care into planning lessons, let alone doing research, action research, writing, reading, giving or attending workshops or doing all of the other things I associate with a professional teaching career. Everyone encourages their teachers to seek professional development and certification, but nobody is willing to sponsor it.

And, ethically, a lot of the cram schools here, and around the world, treat their teachers like migrant laborers or are just straight-up racist or the worst kind of neoliberal "we can take what we want from you and offer you as little as possible in return" employers.

I can't say I'm "happy" with the way this industry is run nor with what those who work in it get for their efforts.

However, after spending a month among other experienced English teachers from different contexts around the world, I do have a few things I can say in defense of working in a language institute.

One more caveat before I begin: these advantages only seem to accrue to those who have accumulated experience and often credentials, and in Taiwan are often easier to come by if you stay long enough to get permanent residency. They do not necessarily apply to all new teachers.

First of all, it's easier to get uninterrupted vacation time, although that time is almost always unpaid. Many of my classmates had to fly back (I suspect at their own expense) for work-related duties at their schools partway through the program and miss a week of classes - nobody would ever ask me to do that. If I say I need a block of time off, I get it as long as I request it reasonably far enough in advance, with no "but you have to come back for these specific three days to do this specific thing" in the middle of your six weeks off" nonsense. Other than being expected to show up for class, nobody calls me up and says "you must be here for this, this and that" or "you have to do these things". I essentially have no single boss or manager.

It also means I get as much vacation time as I want, which is very useful on a Master's program and was also useful in the aftermath of my mother's illness and passing, and my dad's heart surgery less than a year later. In late 2014 I told my employers and private students that my absence would be indefinite, and that was fine. I had work to return to five months later when my family issues were more stable. When I needed to take off again just a few months later for my dad's surgery, that was fine too. When I finished the Delta, I told them to hold off on all new classes until I was done, and they did. When I decided to do this Master's program, I said I'd need a few months off over the summer and that was fine. I had free reign to choose the dates and arrange things as I pleased. If I had the money and wanted to take a year off to just do whatever, I could, and I'd still have a good chance at having work offered to me when I was ready.

And unlike many teachers, this leave is not limited to school breaks. My mom's situation started getting really serious in late autumn 2014, long before any school break. You can't plan major family upheavals for summer vacation. They happen when they happen.

The fact that this time is unpaid actually works in my favor: when you have paid leave, of course the leave you get is limited. In Taiwan that could be as little as seven days (which I think is cruel, actually), in the US perhaps two weeks, in Europe five weeks. But ultimately, there is a limit. I have no limit, as long as I have the money to finance it.

On the other side, a lot of my classmates have paid leave and don't have to go in - they have months and months of free time with a salary coming in. Some of them are taking off to just hang out in Europe for awhile, which you can do when you're being paid an expat salary in the Middle East but your university is on break (although, again, you don't get to choose when that break is). It would be great to be able to afford that, but I ultimately can't. I could move to the Middle East - there would be work for me and the pay is stupendous - but I put up with the crappy parts of working in Taiwan like the low pay and scattered hours because I want to be in Taiwan.

A second advantage is the lack of administrative hassle. I have no real administrative duties - I don't have to show up for many meetings, I don't have to do reams of paperwork, I don't have to grade heaps of tests (my IELTS classes have tests, but class sizes are kept low so it's not an onerous task). I don't have to sit in on department meetings, nor do I have to spend time doing extra activities like running a drama club or English Corner (which I'd happily do if I were paid for the extra work, but of course we never are, so I won't do them). I may only get paid for the hours I teach - with the expectation that the pay for them covers lesson planning time, though I'm not convinced it does - but I don't have a lot I have to do outside of those hours beyond planning classes.

I also appreciate that, not working in a big institution, I am not pushed into a testing culture I don't support. I don't have to teach to a test - I help prepare some learners for IELTS, but that's not the same thing - and I don't have to teach towards a test that I think has deep validity issues. I don't need to test my private students at all, nor my business students: some form of direct test of the skills we work on (e.g. giving a presentation in a presentation skills class) serves as adequate assessment for final reports. Even my IELTS students' mock tests don't count for anything other than as a way to check their skills against the demands of the test they will ultimately take. It's just not an issue I have to contend with, so I am free to adopt other methods of assessment, and feedback comes not in the form of grades but real feedback in evaluation reports and conferences. It's actually a really lovely advantage to have and a low-stress, high-efficacy way to teach in a more holistic and meaningful way.

Of course, that's my situation - I'm sure at other cram schools there are tests, and the teachers may not care for those tests, trust the results or particularly care to give them.

Although this is not true in all private teaching contexts, I really appreciate that there's no administration breathing down my neck telling me I have to do certain things in class, not all of which I'd be likely to agree are necessary, nor telling me how I must teach. I have a classmate whose administration is insistent that there be no L1 in the classroom, even though current thinking is that limited use of L1 has a place there. This is despite inviting four-star names in the TEFL world to give workshops to teachers there, who reaffirm that L1 can be put to good use in the classroom. It's "not their policy" so teachers are instructed to ignore all of that.

Nobody would dare tell me how I must teach in a similar way. Back when I worked at a chain school in Taiwan they did to some extent, but as I've moved on to take classes at better schools, I am free to implement a teaching style that aligns with my principles as I see fit with nobody looking over my shoulder or breathing down my neck. I even have a good level of freedom over the coursebooks I use, and when they are assigned, total freedom over how I use them.

Another point worth mentioning is that, at least in Taiwan, I do make more money in the private system than I would in the formal education system (unless I were to work at an international school). The gap is not as big as you might imagine, as I don't get any of the perks - annual bonus, paid summers off, a pension program - but the take-home pay for my work is still somewhat higher. People associate cram schools with low pay, but honestly, the public schools and universities, while they offer stable pay, offer less than what I currently earn. The highest figures I've seen outside the international schools are in the NT$70,000/month range, and to be frank, I find that low. And compared to wages in other parts of the world (Japan, Korea, the Middle East) it is quite low indeed. Nobody stays in Taiwan for the great salaries.

And for that better pay, I also seem to always have more free time. I almost certainly teach more in-class hours, but the lack of administrative and other work required of me means that my peers in the formal education system seem to put in longer hours.

Of course, these advantages don't accrue to every teacher in the private language school game, and newer teachers especially are more likely to find themselves in schools that have a set curriculum and way of teaching, with all of the associated tests and administrative duties, and are likely to be trained to teach in that specific way (on the other hand. newer teachers are less likely to have teaching principles formed over a long period of experience and training that they are loathe to set aside).

It is worth noting, though, that not all cram schools are created equal. In Taiwan, not everyone is a third-rate chain school or one-off with a silly name like "Mickey Bear America Funtime English ABC School" or for adults, "Oxbridge Scholar's Engrish Acadamy". The two places I take classes with are both classified for business purposes as "buxibans", but they are run more professionally than one generally , as educational institutions that, while private, are managed by people who actually care about the education they are providing. There really are better places one can work for, it's not all chum.

In short, it's not all bad. People wonder why, after seeking out all of this training and development and being easily qualified to teach in a more formal setting, why I am still teaching for hourly pay. I am not entirely in the cram school system as I take classes where I please and have my own private students, but the structure of what I do isn't all that different.

I do it because of the freedom to teach how I like, the freedom from tests and administrative work, the freedom from limits on my time off, and freedom from a school bureaucracy telling me how to do things.

Perhaps someday I'll move on and work for a university or international school (I can't imagine working with learners younger than high-school age) or more formal educational institution, but if/when I do, along with the advantages (paid summers off! A more 'prestige' job description! Perhaps time to research and publish!), I'll also be acutely aware of what I'm losing.

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