Key to understanding the TEFL workplace is the concept of the hourly rate and contact hours. There is a common argument between employers and unions about how wages should be calculated. For the employer there is the obsession with contact hours. Those hours the teacher is in the classroom. Even in the workplaces where contact hours do not appear central, the process of competition means contact hours become the market norm and remain the key concept in the industry.
The employers argue that students pay for hours in the classroom and it is, therefore, natural to pay teachers per contact hours and not a generalised rate for all teaching duties. This disadvantages many workers throughout Europe as the hours actually worked are rarely calculated for the purposes of social security. Indeed a full contract is deemed between 21-25 hours as it is assumed preparation time, attendance at meetings, training, correction will subsume a further 14-15 hours. Indeed International House, the worldwide English language teaching franchise usually stipulate in full-time contracts (21 hours per week) that workers ask permission if they wish to have other jobs as this may impact on their ability to perform their responsibilities under a full-time contract,
There is of course a logic to this as we can see by looking at the following figures.
If for every three contact teaching hours 2 hours non-teaching hours are required, we can safely say that a 21 hour contract represents 35 actual teaching hours. Thus, if the teacher is remunerated at 20 dollars per hour, then, in reality, this figure is truly only 12 dollars per hour.
(contact hours) 20 x 21 (pay per contact hour / 35 (actual hours) = 12
The pressure is then placed on the teacher to lower preparation time in order to free themselves from these full-time responsibilities and perform work elsewhere (i.e. the infamous privates where work is done on the black market or translations). Clearly the winners here are neither the learner nor the teacher but the academies. Indeed, some academies present themselves as enlightened because they offer block hours with teaching the same level and the same book.. This, of course, is far from enlightened. The first is that all hours should be in a block. Here we mean that a worker should be able to enter a workplace and work seven hours, or, if they are out of that workplace, then the time travelling should be taken as performing those hours. This is how most workplaces function so why should TEFL teaching be different? Similarly, tea breaks, visits to the toilet, collaboration between colleagues are all paid but not TEFL. Furthermore, the argument that the same level or text book should reduce preparation time is testimony to the disregard in which these academies/universities hold their clients.
To demonstrate the falseness of the employers’ argument we merely have to link teachers pay to what students pay. Now most academies charge 60 dollars upwards for a on-to-one class and most classes open at a minimum of six students. So six students if they pay 900 dollars for an ordinary 90 hour course are paying 10 dollars an hour. Moreover if a teacher is paid 12 dollars for one-to-one or 12 dollars for a class of six students then the teachers percentage is 20%. So how do the employers raise their profits. The first is that most one-to-one classes tend to be off-site or in tiny classrooms so the employer can raise the level of profit. Indeed, the compensation for travel to one-to-one classes is often derisory given the clear savings to the academy/university in terms of classrooms. Not paying travel at an ordinary working rate is, in fact, unthinkable unless one begins with the illusory concept of contact hours. Even more significant is the class size of fifteen upwards. If the class size is fifteen then the teacher percentage at 12 dollars an hour is a mere 10% of the cost. Evidently, the employers are “disinterested” in a teaching percentage as they wish to exploit both the student and teacher at a greater rate. Now clearly the electricity, the room and the furniture are fixed costs but teaching six or fifteen students is not fixed. There is much more pressure on the teacher to try to meet the needs of their students in and outside the classroom.
It is quite comical that many academies become quite obsessed with the quantity of paper used in these increased class sizes but take it as given that a teacher will happily correct extra homework generated by these classes without extra remuneration. This comedy reaches its extreme when the industry demands that there is a shift from paper to on-line exercises or the workbook in order to reduce global warming. The teacher sat at home correcting exercises on their own computers in their own home using their own electricity is apparently not such a problem for global warming.
And it is here we can see another aspect of the super-exploitation of contact hours. Now if workers’ hours are blocked 7 days per week employers lose flexibility of course programming. At the moment a teacher will have a typical timetable of five evenings plus Saturday mornings or a split timetable including evenings and the day. The teacher will be expected to make a great number of trips into the workplace during the week or travel extensively to off-site locations. Rarely, if ever, are there sufficient resources in the school to allow for all teachers to plan their classes together. This allows the language service provider to off-set considerable expense onto the teacher.
Moreover, talk of virtual teams in teaching where people remain in contact through the use of mobile phones and internet connection means the worker is on-call seven days a week for 16-17 hours per day. Could you imagine a situation in mainstream education where this became the norm? The teachers’ unions would clearly fight it tooth and nail and would be right to do so.
It is against this background that we also see blended learning initiatives as just one more method of increasing the rate of profit for the employer at the expense of the teacher and the learner.
Now, it would be interesting for the learner to receive a breakdown of their language learning cost (energy, accommodation, materials, teaching, administration and supervision, other overheads). If hourly pay should be calculated on the concept of contact hours with students then students should have a right to know the percentage of their money which is spent on teaching. I’m sure it would be a surprise to those learners crammed into those rooms looking for teacher support to discover the actual remuneration for that teacher is 10% or possibly less. But that is not important to the industry, there is no transparency over pay because this exposes the basis of a profit system that is antithetical to worker and learner needs. Schools will invest in new computer suites and expensive marketing but ultimately they know real profits are derived from driving down the teaching percentage.
The concept of contact hours allows employers to do this most effectively and so must be vehemently opposed through our unions. This also includes not being soft on employers who stipulate preparation hours but fail to recognise travel as working hours or fail to block hours accordingly for their employees to ensure they work only a 35 hour week. If this is too costly for the language service providers, then government and industry must decide whether they truly want to encourage “plurilingualism” and “lifelong learning” and, if so, how they are going to finance it. Currently, language learning is run in the interests of the few against the interests of the many. It is time for change.