Finding a place to start. Guest Piece by Sara Hannam

Below is an extract from Sara Hannam’s Improving EL teacher pay and conditions: joining forces, joining unions and finding a place to start…..the discussion. The full article can be read on her blog. We invite you to further the discussion here or on Sara’s blog about how to campaign for real change


An Introduction of sorts…
This is not an easy post to write. The reason is that I cannot apply the same approach I would have done half my life time ago (that’s when I was 20). Back then, I was a bright eyed and bushy tailed super active leftie bolstered by the like-minded people in the political groups I was a member of at the time. The pleasure at meeting similar souls never lessens, I am happy to say, though their profiles have evolved a bit since then. Some of the groups didn’t survive the challenges of the modern world and disbanded, or disappeared into sectarian infighting, so I left them behind – I have always been interested in linking up, not fragmenting. But some did survive and being part of organisations that promote the real potential for change is certainly a crucial part of my life. I am sure you’d guessed that already.

This blog is is a personal challenge as the readership is more diverse, so I have to pay careful attention to all the different relationships people have with the idea of collective political action. I am pretty sure I won’t convince everyone so there’s no point pretending. And perhaps the difference is that I don’t see my role as convincing anyway. I would have said at 20, with all the enthusiasm of the newly converted, that you *must* join a union because it is your social(ist)-anarchist-revolutionary duty (no clues as to the organisations I have been involved in as it will change how you read this post). I stood up for what I believed in (still do) but my courage was a faster runner than my need to explain. I still feel it is a political responsibility and to me that is self-evident, but it is no longer always transparent what that means as unions have come in for a lot of flack over the last 15 years or so (more on that later). Plus, sometimes people resist things outside the structures of a union and succeed, so its not an all or nothing situation. And of course for some, risking being part of a union could mean losing their job or worse.



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8 responses to “Finding a place to start. Guest Piece by Sara Hannam

  1. Looking forward to reading comments here.

  2. alexcase

    Talking of comments, could you put the recent comments widget on Marxist Elf? It’s quite easy to do on WordPress and helps get a bit of debate going and makes it easier to navigate

  3. marxistelf

    Fair point Alex, we will get the “technical department” on it straight away. No seriously, anything which assists debate.

  4. marxistelf


    We were hoping more people would join in here. Been following the discussion on your site and would make the following (rather random)comments:

    It’s not easy speaking up in TEFL, especially this time of year when schools around the world will be deciding hours and timetables. It’s rather like workers queueing for work down the docks in the dark old ages, very depressing!

    Picking up on some of the contributions from your site, they appear naturally inclined to professions rather than unions. We would argue that this not an either or situation.

    Yet we must confess, however, Marxists are not interested in building professions but associations of workers and users. We also understand that, in the present, service users might want to organise separately as workers might need to organise themselves into trade unions.

    The drive for professionalisation has failed in TEFL but the trade unions have not filled this gap. This is largely due to the dominance of certain vested interests in accreditation, exams and teacher training, which ensure low quality English courses and an endless supply of “gap year ” students to service the industry. This has meant that trade union organisation is itself difficult given the nature of this ever present “reserve army of labour” and working in countries where being a “foreigner” makes it more difficult to act.

    At Marxist TEFL we want to agitate for change. To make voices of discontent heard more loudly and explore how we can collectively challenge the aforementioned vested interests. As we make those demands, it will hopefully become clearer how trade unions, student interests and “the profession” might act in unison to bring change.

    That is the reasoning behind the alternative TEFL conference, which we hope, given your considerable talents both as a communicator and activist, you will take a prominent role in building.

  5. OK not a problem marxistelf (tho it would be great for me if you could also post your comments to my blog so they are reflected there too?). There is probably a really simple way of doing this technically, but it is beyond me if there is so apologies for that : )

    I agree with a lot of what you say marxistelf and your theoretical understanding helps to clarify things that may otherwise seem pretty hazy and often cause conversations to lose direction. Further evidence of the importance of a solid economic understanding of society as a starting point – without this, discussion feels un-navigatable and liable to get lost in the detail (which is after all how much political discussion is promoted these days when you consider the contradictions within neo-liberal logic). I still feel that a marxist understanding of the current economic climate is the best we have, despite some of my reservations about other areas of marxist politics which we can discuss as we both post on our respective blogs along the way.

    We are after all in a period of what Marxists might call “overproduction” so hardly surprising that people are afraid to speak up as the image of hundreds of eager teachers wishing to replace us is one we all live with daily. On this point I agree, as well as also recognising the limitations of discussions that get stuck down the road of “professionalism”. I am not sure though that my post is primarily directed at NEST teachers (were your comments, as you mention that it is hard to organise as a “foreigner” in some countries??). I think our strength lies in uniting but agree this will happen in a variety of ways, and that it is not the case that teachers automatically identify with unions as the place for that to happen at this point in time (tho today I heard that thousands of teachers in Romania are on strike, so there are examples to the contrary).

    I am certain, as you seem to be, that allowing more coverage of the voices that disagree is an important first step in making sure this becomes a more widely discussed topic and that people gain confidence, rather than feelings some of the hopelessness that has come across recently in the discussions I have been having. Stripping the ‘vested interests’ of their sometimes cleverly concealed intentions is a crucial first step, and requires a variety of means.

    As Brecht said “sometimes the enemy wears different masks, and we must be prepared to strip off those marks in different ways”. I support Brecht’s sentiment, and am willing to try a variety of means to help bring the profiteering, corruption and real intention of these international entities as much into the open as possible.

    Thank you again for your sharp analysis.

  6. alexcase

    While I really always appreciate Sara’s efforts to point out our (especially my) unthinking NESTs biases, NEST is not the same as foreign teacher. While there are NESTs in India and the Phillipines, many of the Indians and Filipinos working abroad are not. Ditto for the Europeans told by their employers to pretend to be British in East Asian conversation schools, and of course foreign teachers of other languages. As I was trying to say in my Solidarity post, I think “foreign teachers” are our most natural allies unless we are permanently settled in one country.

  7. I appreciated this clarification Alex. Thx.

  8. marxistelf

    The following was posted on Alex’s thread,
    and is a response to the discussions currently underway on Alex’s site, Sara’s site and here:

    It is absolutely wonderful to be having these discussions, here on this site, Critical Mass and Marxist TEFL group. Indeed, the pace of the discussion and issues raised are rather bewildering given the inadequate space which had been given to them previously.

    We will have to content ourselves with being rather random and spontaneous for the moment, but there is a need to take each issue much more slowly and in greater depth (what is a profession? What is the role of the native teacher? What is the role of a trade union, which should we join, who should be a member? How should we relate to the state language teaching sector? How should we relate to wider issues, say climate change?

    Here Alex, has tried to identify a “we” from which talk of solidarity can emerge and elsewhere Sara has tried to avoid NEST perspectives which artificially separate teachers.

    For our part, the name Marxist TEFL, is deliberately premised on the basis that there is an industry called TEFL, that it exists and is not some artificial construct. Have a look on the bookshelves of the private language schools, the university departments dealing with overseas students, the ESOL department in the Further Ed college and you will see the same books (this is not necessarily the case with the state primary and secondary education sectors.)

    The word foreign is itself rather repugnant, but this does not mean it isn’t an active concept exercising unthinkable power. We can simply not use it, or we can appropriate it for ourselves, as an “honest” description of the state of affairs in a world which is divided between inter-national rivalries. Where the IMF can wreck the local education systems of developing countries and the British Council can step in to train the more advantaged members of the population how to speak English and access “hard-up” British universities.

    So, without doubt, something exists which we call TEFL. People have an uneven relationship to it (ESOL teachers, researchers, writers, private language school teachers, university language school teachers, students in academies, students in inhouse company classes, NESTS, NON-NESTS, middle managers, directors, receptionists) but it is an entity which finds expression in professional bodies and publishing (Cambridge ESOL, Trinity College, British Council, UK English, IATEFL, Macmillan Campus, Cambridge University Press etc).

    It is an industry that is dominated by considerable profits but low pay and questionable quality. Up until now a group of what we affectionately term “Cyber Knights” (namely Sandy McManus and Alex Case) have worked tirelessly to expose the worst abuses of this industry. With new sites appearing like our own and Sara Hannam’s, we feel the time is right to pull together as many of these voices of discontent as possible and direct it at the vested interests which dominate the industry (ie our call for IaltTELF- building an alternative to Harrogate 2010).

    Of course, with a “them” we have a “we”. All those disenfranchised by the actions (or lack of actions) of those industry leaders.

    What we need prior to the IaltTEFL, is a simple manifesto of “we”:

    We have called this alternative conference because …..

    Solidarity must begin with small steps such as these.

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