Monthly Archives: April 2010

Taking the Time to Read

We have recently been criticised for our overly long articles and the inclusion of poetry on these pages; the suggestion being that “busy people” have no time for such things. By way of reply, we feature this intriguing piece by the American poet, Stephen Dunn:

Poem For People That Are Understandably Too Busy To Read Poetry

Relax. This won’t last long.
Or if it does, or if the lines
make you sleepy or bored,
give in to sleep, turn on
the T.V., deal the cards.
This poem is built to withstand
such things. Its feelings
cannot be hurt. They exist
somewhere in the poet,
and I am far away.
Pick it up anytime. Start it
in the middle if you wish.
It is as approachable as melodrama,
and can offer you violence
if it is violence you like. Look,
there’s a man on a sidewalk;
the way his leg is quivering
he’ll never be the same again.
This is your poem
and I know you’re busy at the office
or the kids are into your last nerve.
Maybe it’s sex you’ve always wanted.
Well, they lie together
like the party’s unbuttoned coats,
slumped on the bed
waiting for drunken arms to move them.
I don’t think you want me to go on;
everyone has his expectations, but this
is a poem for the entire family.
Right now, Budweiser
is dripping from a waterfall,
deodorants are hissing into armpits
of people you resemble,
and the two lovers are dressing now,
saying farewell.
I don’t know what music this poem
can come up with, but clearly
it’s needed. For it’s apparent
they will never see each other again
and we need music for this
because there was never music when he or she
left you standing on the corner.
You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I’ll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.
The poem is saying that to you now.
But don’t give anything for this poem.
It doesn’t expect much. It will never say more
than listening can explain.
Just keep it in your attache case
or in your house. And if you’re not asleep
by now, or bored beyond sense,
the poem wants you to laugh. Laugh at
yourself, laugh at this poem, at all poetry.
Come on:

Good. Now here’s what poetry can do.

Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
There’s an awful shrug and, suddenly,
You’re beautiful for as long as you live.

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Tribute To Mark Twain: A hundred years (and a bit) since his death.

When I waked up, just at day-break, he [Jim] was setting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. I didn’t take notice, nor let on. I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hasn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.

(Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

The 21st April 2010 marked a 100 years since the death of the great American writer, Mark Twain. We were somewhat too engrossed in the events (non-events) of the IATEFL conference to pay our particular tributes. We wish to do so now, not only because of his powerful anti-racist and anti-imperialist voice but also because of the particular legacy he leaves us as language teachers.

By this we mean, the manner with which he played with dialect and intelligibility. For Twain, dialect was never about mere variation but how it contained within itself different world views. Quite remarkably, Twain captures complex dialects and makes them sufficiently intelligible to a wide audience. But he plays with language constantly throughout his work to show how meaning is not transparent and that there is no such thing as a standard English but many Englishes with many different ways of constructing the world. If this appears contradictory (mutual intelligibility/mutual unintelligibility) then such a contradiction is at the heart of language itself. This idea is well-explored (though not particularly easy to read) in David R. Sewell’s book 1954 (available on-line)

We do not wish to suggest any easy solutions to the idea of what English we should teach our students, how we can enhance intelligibility, but we do want to say that by interrogating language and the nature of dialogue (and their relation with power) we too can help transform ourselves as did a fictional teenage boy travelling down the Mississippi.

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PLNs and The Grapes of Wrath

No ELT teacher with any affection for their job and a reasonable amount of social conscience, would not be moved by Nick Jaworski’s post about the way certain ELT conferences  (one conference in Turkey in particular) are organised. Nick is undoubtedly a social activist committed to improving the world both inside and outside of ELT. He has used his position as a Director of Studies to tackle key inequalities that exist in pay and conditions between NESTS s and Turkish ELT teachers. He has also implemented “outreach work “, where women in a domestic abuse shelter in Istanbul receive free English classes.

He is rightfully angered, therefore, that:

At this particular conference, however, almost exclusively foreign presenters were invited to special conference parties & events.  Local teachers who were Turkish or who worked in Turkey weren’t considered important enough.  Incredibly unfortunately, local people don’t bring the same prestige to one’s reputation as foreigners do here, a problem that holds true in many countries.  These parties and events were funded by the organization running the show and in no way were private events.

I personally believe this kind of exclusivist behaviour is inexcusable.  The people that were not invited worked just as hard to make the conference a success as non-VIP participants.  They put in the time and the effort, yet rather than being thanked, they were insulted.  Many of these presenters have told me in private conversations how upset and insulted they were by these actions.  Especially in Turkey, a place known for its hospitality, this is incredibly offensive.  My wife was mortified that such a thing would happen in Turkey.

And:

This is even more upsetting when you look at the money spent on organizing these events.  Presenters are sometimes paid vast amounts of money to come.  The most I ever heard was 3000 Euro for a 60 minute plenary.  Also, in Turkey, there is often some kind of show.  Schools and organizations here have paid as much as 20,000 TL (about 10,000 Euro) for an hour’s entertainment.  Now, these very same schools tell their teachers that they don’t have the money for even glue or scissors in their schools much less to pay them more.  20,000 TL could be glue and scissors for every student at the school 5 times over here.  It’s clear to me where the importance is too often being placed at these schools.  They’ll pay to make things look good when outsiders or potential customers are in attendance, but the education, students, and teachers suffer due to this expense.

And

Another problem that’s just as big is that those people who were hurt are scared or unwilling to speak out.  Their voices have been silenced.  They know that if they say anything they will seriously jeopardize their careers as conference organizers and schools have a lot of power and it’s far too easy to get blacklisted here.

Nick even mentions:

also am not sure I will be continuing on the conference circuit next year.  There is a lot of good stuff that happens at conferences, but there is also a lot of bad stuff and there seems to be little critical reflection on the power, privilege, and inequality that lies underneath many of these events.

I have also started the application process for my wife’s visa, so that we will be able to leave Turkey.  I’m not sure if this is the right decision as these problems are common in the world of ELT and moving back to America probably won’t change much.  Perhaps walking away is just as irresponsible as staying and not doing anything about it.  The visa process will take forever, so I still have time to think about it.

If Nick does leave Turkey, ELT conferences or indeed, ELT it will be a great pity. He has spent his time fighting to improve his immediate and wider community in a principled manner.

It seems to us, however, that Nick has been mistaken in believing that hierarchies and inequalities are a conceptual matter which can be overcome by individual intellect and will (of which he clearly possesses plenty). For us at MTG we look at the material relations which underpin hierarchy and for all the talk of PLNs (personal learning networks) amongst, particularly IATEFL members, we see a web of power and domination, closely tied to the vested interests of various institutions in ELT.

For example, Nick speaks about the negativity that can be found in many schools and the liberating effect of finding many out there who are also committed to education.

Before my current job I worked at a horrible school that was incredibly negative.  When I found my PLN on Twitter I was so thankful.  I thought, “here are all these people that are passionate, caring, and serious about education.”  I couldn’t see any flaws in them.  I thought that the best teachers, those most interested in helping each other existed on spaces like Twitter.

We would argue, however, that much negativity stems from the very experience of being an ELT teacher, being ground down by oppressive hierarchies. The hierarchy between native/and non-native speakers for example. Not only is this negative for the non-native speaker, it is also negative for the native speaker. The power of being a native speaker (the privilege it bestows) is indeed largely illusory. The mere fact of being a native speaker armed with a four week training course, allows the NEST to travel around the world and teach English. This English is being purchased because it embodies certain accentual, cultural and idiomatic features (not so readily available from non-NESTs) which appear as a gateway to the “treasures” (customers, work, education, travel) of the US, the UK, Australia, etc. Unfortunately, (fortunately) this tenuous commodity is difficult to yield. Anyone who is a native speaker holds this commodity and the seller knows (as does the owner of the local schools) that there is a limitless supply out there. Ultimately, therefore, the person standing at this “gateway”, rarely represents what is supposed to exist on the other side (wealth, opportunity, security, power). Being a cleaner, for us at MTG is an unpleasant job, deserving of more status and more reward. It is a job which is mundane, unpleasant and laborious and which most of us would prefer to avoid. For this the people who do it should be celebrated and rewarded. They are not. Imagine, however, how more demeaning it would be for these low paid sections of society if they had to wear a T-Shirt every day, proclaiming “Hard Work and Effort is the Key to Success”. It clearly is not. The NEST, however, does this every day. They promote the idea of wealth, opportunity, security and power through English when they rarely have access to any of these commodities. What privileges they do enjoy, are built on unsound foundations and at constant risk of collapse.

For the non-NEST there is always the plain reality that their English is not valued at the same rate as a native English speaker’s English. That despite often greater qualifications and training they are seen to be selling a sub-standard product. It must be truly galling to know that in many parts of the world they are a paid a fifth of the salary of a NEST, even though that NEST is barely qualified (if at all) to teach. Even where they enjoy better pay and conditions than their NEST counterparts, they will be aware that their students might contract the services of someone barely qualified but better able to instruct them in the “nuances” of native English.

These hierarchies are not simply in people’s minds, but embedded in institutional practices – not least in popular examinations like Cambridge Assessment’s PET, FCE, CAE. They are embedded in the fact, that the UK, Australia and the US do business in native English and not in the abstract notion of International English.

And then there is the hierarchy of work itself. For many it is the precariousness of the contract and the timetable. This presents itself in the “fagging system” where the less favoured have to endure the worst contracts and the worst timetables. Teachers are often employed on a nine-month basis (sometimes worse) presenting themselves at work every September/October (for example) to discover what teaching hours (if any) are available. This is not a condition which builds a natural solidarity but rather reminiscent of situation portrayed, so touchingly, by John Steinbeck about the psychological as well as the material effects of the great depression. Many NESTs work hard to get into (escape to) EAP (English for Academic Purposes) only to discover the same precariousness and hierarchies.

For many teachers the solution is not to challenge these hierarchies but to climb them, to seek the holy grail of decent pay and security in plenary conference speaker, elevated academia or publishing. It is no surprise to us, therefore, that workers are engulfed in a vicious circle. Low morale and low pay lead to people seeking individual solutions, people seeking personal solutions rather than collective solutions leads to further low morale and lower rates of pay generalised throughout the industry (there is only so much room at the top). To climb to the top much energy is put into leading workshops, giving presentations, writing free materials (all in themselves no bad thing) but no time is given to tackling the real issues that effect us generally as teachers and students. IATEFL represents 44 years of wasted opportunities for ELT Teachers, 44 years of letting the industry rule over the interests of both teachers and students.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

The writer Jeanette Winterson, once gave a candid interview on UK television about her experiences before becoming a writer. Winterson was brought up in a closed evangelical religious community, which she describes as a very rich and warm experience. This world was shattered when she wanted to share the happiness of discovering her love (something beautiful) for another girl in the congregation. On hearing her proud declaration, her family and other members of the community, treated her with utter disrespect and anything but warmth. The unwritten rules were that this warmth and love were contingent on following a strict interpretation of biblical texts. What Nick Jarowski found with his fellow twitterers, his PLN, is that there is incredible warmth and affection for each other, provided one  “doesn’t bite the hand that feeds”:

I contacted members of my PLN and was often met with indifference and in a couple cases even open hostility.  I began to feel very isolated.  One person had the gall to tell me it wasn’t my business how others were treated, whether teachers were paid or not, whether people were excluded.  To me, that’s like saying it’s none of my business if the neighbour beats his wife.  This kind of ignorance and complete lack of progressive thinking is the reason why things like discrimination in ELT contexts and domestic violence have persisted for so long – because people just don’t care or are more concerned with the benefits they are receiving on the backs of others.

I sent a letter to the conference organizers and was told in short thrift that my emails would simply be discarded in the future.  This is also the response I got from another former member of my PLN.  These people were not even willing to engage the issue.  I guess the ugliest truths are the ones you see in the mirror.  Too many people prefer to hide from difficult questions rather than own up to them and make difficult choices.

If you actually raise real issues in the ELT conference arena, then you will be quickly rounded upon. The purpose of these conferences is to further self-interest not to find collective solutions. You do not question conference organisers, conference funding, conference format etc. You talk about students needs, but you don’t talk about over a thousand students this year who have paid for courses this year but find themselves without classes because the school has gone bankrupt mid-year. You talk about “native speakerism” but you don’t name publishers or exam boards who institutionalise “native speakerism”, You talk about expanding the knowledge base but you don’t talk about the low standards of training and low pay which make such talk simply academic and useless. Least of all, you don’t talk about the hundreds of teachers who are without jobs either through economic crises or management incompetence (English UK). Those are the unwritten rules.

Whilst the number of visitors to our modest site is encouraging, it is notable that our piece on IATEFL has attracted less than a third of visitors than our review of Dogme ELT. This clear tendency towards ideas in the abstract disarms us as teachers. Ideas are essential but so is the self-organisation in putting those positive ideas into practice. We need to make this a year of self-organisation of workers and students, away from the patronage of the industry. We need to show a collective and principled response to the serious issues affecting the industry. We need to organise in the locality but to connect those struggles globally. We have to share experiences and ideas on how to organise and resist. This current economic crisis only exaggerates what is rotten about this industry, it is not the cause of this rottenness, but in responding to this crisis we can shape the battles ahead. Nick’s posting should be seen as battle cry for those who really care about language teaching. For all those angry at the self-interest and apathy shown by those who claim to care.

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Now that’s what we call Critical Pedagogy!

There is a marvellous story over on the commune website (see blog roll) about how an ESOL teacher (Sally Haywill) and her students succesfully overturned a college decision to deny them creche facilities. This is a fabulous story, not only of the real possibilities of defending our rights as teachers and students, but also of the empowering effect of taking collective action. When we at MTG think about critical pedagogy, this is exactly the idea we have of it; ordinary people transforming themselves and their lives. Our collective “hats off” to Sally and her students.

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TOEIC and IIBC Update

Following on from a piece on TOEIC in Japan, in MTG in September of last year, James McCrostie informs us that:

…the tax office is now investigating the IIBC the TOEIC administrators in Japan and International Communications School which is the for-profit company connected to the IIBC.

Nice to see these “not-for-profit” profiteers sweat a little.

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The Lessons of GEOS Australia.

Over on his blog, Alex Case raises the important issue of GEOS Australia closures earlier this year. It includes a well-researched piece by Letsjapan.org about the reasons for closure and the possible implications for the Parent Group and its operations in Japan. There is a discussion forum (sometimes painful given its unhelpful tone and occasional outbursts of racism) on the Letsjapan.org site which further discusses the issue. Unfortunately, the article does not touch upon the misery suffered by students and workers in Melbourne and other schools throughout Australia:

The single largest group affected is in Melbourne and has an estimated 530 students unable to complete their courses. Some had just one more week before the end of their course. A total of 390 employees have lost their job.

Now this is not to argue that the Letsjapan.org article is not an important article or that Alex is wrong to publicise it, but to suggest that the Australian context is as important, if not more important, than the “possible” implications for Japan (at least at present).  Moreover, by brushing over the differences between Australia (an operation largely based on the international student market) and Japan (an operation aimed largely at the domestic Japanese student market) important lessons are lost.

Firstly, the Australia (particularly Melbourne) collapse came on top of other important collapses of Australian providers in the international student market:

The GEOS closures follow the collapse of Chinese-owned vocational college group Meridian in November last year, which left more than 3000 students in Melbourne and Sydney stranded after investors lost confidence.

And a drive towards better regulation; as evidenced by the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Overseas Students) Bill 2009 in what is estimated at 15.4 billion Australian dollars, to be Australia’s third largest export market.

This is what an MP for the Greens had to say on the amendment:

I note that Mr Hall was very impressed with the article by Sushi Das in the Age on 24 November. I, too, thought she put things pretty well. With regard to the measures that were announced by the government and are appearing in this bill she made the comment:

“These measures, while welcome, should have been taken years ago — when industry insiders were screaming about major systemic problems in vocational education; when students were lodging complaints; and when news reports were regularly exposing rorts and scams.”
She went on to say that the minister:

“… has presided over a $5.4 billion export industry that has allowed private college operators to grow rich on the back of exploitation of students from developing countries …

she did not lift a finger to improve the workings of the regulator … “

Further, she said that this:

“… approach has allowed people to open colleges without … scrutiny. Operating … are colleges whose chief executives know nothing about education, colleges managed by people still in their 20s, colleges that teach automotive training from the ninth floor of a building … that do not keep proper records and … threaten to have students deported unless they pay fees in advance of the due date.
All this has been well known for a very long time. The government has just allowed it to happen until it became so difficult that something had to be done. Hence we have in front of us this bill which does something, but not very much.”

On 6 August Senator Hanson-Young and I met with representatives of international and postgraduate students. At that meeting a whole range of issues were raised with us, including the issue of overseas agents.

The students said that the agents are not truthful with prospective students about employment and accommodation, housing and potential permanent residency status in Australia. So overseas agents are untruthful and misleading potential students who may come to Australia. The students said there are big problems with private providers. Many said the quality is not good because they are not there for genuine education reasons; they have just a cash cow mentality.

They said there are problems with supervision of postgraduate students due to overworked staff. They mentioned housing; staff-student ratios; safety; visa processes; lack of comprehensive processes at orientation, including use of services — for example, the library; no social functions and cultural inclusion events; and no monitoring of standards and teacher qualifications for private providers.

They mentioned loneliness especially when enrolled in a course with a private provider. They said that English courses for international students are very patchy. They also said standards are falling, not only in courses run by the private providers but also there is no monitoring of teacher qualifications and a lack of comprehensive orientation. They raised the issue of concession fares not being available to international students in Victoria, which is an issue I have raised at least twice in this place. I urged the minister to extend concession fares to international students. They gave anecdotes about the pressures to pass students at all costs and the effect this has on domestic students and general standards; and they commented that the reputation of Australian international education is falling.

Mr Hall spoke about the effect of these failings on the industry and its reputation; although it is a valuable industry to Australia, I am more concerned about the effect on the students which has been caused by this debacle over which the government has presided for quite a long time.

In short, we might say the situation in Australia has more relevance for British ELT provision than for Japan. There is a shrinking International Student market and the scandals of that market are coming to the surface, particularly the parasitic and unaccountable role of Agents. GEOS Melbourne paid roughly the same on its marketing expenses (largely Agents fees) as it did to its teaching staff (click on image):

Students are being recruited abroad for courses in New Zealand, Australia or the UK, when up to 40% of the costs of those courses are in fact agents’ fees. Moreover, they have to trust in accreditation schemes like NEAS (the equivalent of the British Council scheme for English UK) which claim all courses are provided by “highly qualified staff”, when in fact the criteria for teaching in these schools is a four week training course in “TESOL methodology”.

We are not saying that workers in Japan should ignore the collapse of GEOS in Australia but we are saying that workers in the ELT market for international students need to learn the lessons quickly and begin to organise resistance. If a school is “profitable” and only suffers because of handouts to other departments of the industry and agents then no students should be turned away and no job losses incurred. The students should have their courses, at the same college and with the same teacher guaranteed (currently the government has “a responsibility” to find them an alternative course, it has no such responsibility towards the teacher or admin staff). If students and teachers are being robbed mercilessly by agents then that situation needs to be addressed (money for English classes should be exactly that and not a free ride for, what are in the most part , parasitic organisations). The government or some accountable Agency could provide the same service better and for a small proportion of the cost; the savings should go on pay and in-service training.

In view of the changing economic climate, it is now more important than ever that ELT teachers organise and resist.

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Dragging On: An update (of sorts) on the Berlitz dispute.

The Berlitz ELT Teachers’ dispute in Japan, which we have covered here and here on MTG, continues its slow march forward. Readers will remember that Berlitz management are dragging key union activists through the court because, well, because they tried to improve pay and conditions in the industry through strike action. The Berlitz union has its own legal action, which it has initiated against Management for “unfair practices” going simultaneously through Japan’s Labour Board. If successful, it would destroy management’s lawsuit. Unfortunately, the Labour Board seems reluctant to rule before the court case is finished.

The next hearing for the lawsuit will actually call witnesses; up to now the hearings have only been about the submission of documents (which management have consistently stalled on). The union will call as few witnesses as possible to speed up the process but it is predictable that management will continue to drag out proceedings.

As you can all probably imagine, the dispute must obviously be putting an enormous strain on these brave fighters but they have not given in. The union recently gathered outside Berlitz headquarters to distribute leaflets about the strike and the lawsuit.

Our thoughts are with our comrades in struggle.

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