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.
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.
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.