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.


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.



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13 responses to “PLNs and The Grapes of Wrath

  1. Pingback: the lives of teachers » Blog Archive » metaphors for teaching – the teacher as geisha

  2. First off, I’m honored to be quoted so extensively on such an intellectual and critical blog as MTG. Thank you very much for that.

    There are so many issues you raised here and I agree with all of them.

    I remember the first time I learned how little the local teachers were getting paid at my school compared to my salary. I felt quite ashamed. It’s something that has always haunted me until my current job. Actually, I had never really dwelled on the negative fallout for NESTs as well as locals on this point, so that was well taken.

    There are so many problems. I’ve met a large number of teachers that want to fight this, but the obstacles are many. You feel powerless because you really have no authority at the school, any change you do make will be minimal at best, and push it with any effort and you’ll find yourself without a job and someone who doesn’t care may be hired in your place, which won’t help anyone.

    This is why I think it’s so important for those of us that attain authority and power either as an invaluable teacher, management, or with reputation to use it in a responsible way and use it to better the situation.

    The other thing I really feel you on is the need to band together. Many of us that do want to take a stand often find a lack of support either through disinterest, lack of awareness, or fear. That’s why I really like this unconference idea Clarissa raised on my blog. It’s a great way to bring like minded people together for free and that can focus on finding solutions and taking action rather than just preparing another powerpoint.

    And the point on people talking about it, but not doing it. Definitely. How often have I heard the NEST/NNEST inbalance decried and how often have I ever heard anyone actually do anything about it? Sometimes the subjects seems talked about simply because it’s fashionable rather than that there is any serious commitment behind the words.

    The big problem comes when you try to take on the organizations with more money like school-corporations or publishers. Like you said, people start to round on you. It’s definitely not an easy fix.

    I strongly support the efforts of MGT in this initiative.

    • marxistelf

      Hi Nick,

      We have a long way to go but your words have opened up a promising space.

      Somehow, we need to reconnect some of the best elements of ELT (committed practioners with great ideas and enthusiasm) with the more demoralised and passive elements. Not only should it improve the ideas of the “best elements”, it should also bring us new “leaders” (from unexpected places) with new ideas and perspectives.

  3. Okay, Marxist Elf, here’s the thing…

    first of all, love the idea you wrote on Nick’s blog about wearing a t-shirt at IATEFL.

    second… you piss me off.

    Here’s the thing… I absolutely support your blog and the ideals you uphold and while I may not comment often (sometimes you simply expect too much or you put it too much out there)… in fact, that’s the thing actually, you think it’s super when people like Darren, David, Alex, Nick, Sara (and sometimes me) are public with our views about the injustices we see…

    But you – who are you?

    How can anything be organized, discussed openly, fought openly when you continue to hide behind a “we”…it doesn’t help really, now does it, you expecting us to put our careers at risk by speaking publicly about the injustices we see in the industry when you won’t.

    You really expected Nick’s PLN to fight against what appears, to me – having not been there – as an act of discrimination… not one of those present at ISTEK have answered that blog post – you really expect them to publicly decry what happened when you won’t even show your face?

    Na, ja… there are those who are brave and those who want others to be brave. Eh?

    Pennies worth, respect your work and all that.


    • marxistelf

      Hi Karenne,
      When we used the Word “battle cry”, little did we expect such a well-directed cannon ball to be coming in our own direction. Good aim! Forgive us, however, if we sidestep the full force (avoiding discussions of our own courage/cowardice) by concentrating on our particular role in the ELT blogosphere. It is not our aim to liberate teachers and students from the inequality and wrongs of ELT. That is the collective task of teachers and students themselves. Nor do we envisage our role as building a vanguard of enlightened elements, despite the obvious truth that some are more conscious of the problems and active in their in resolution than others. No, we have a less ambition task of hard critique and collective memory.
      We have chosen to remain anonymous for the purposes of developing an uncompromising critique of the industry. Anonymity has its clear disadvantages, MTG has gone in areas other blogs would fear (quite rightly) to tread. If we felt that at some point that anonymity were counter-productive, then we might change that policy. Regardless of recent events, (namely a remarkable and unforeseen act of courage on the part of a well-known member of the ELT blogosphere) we believe anonymity to be an advantage (currently) and not a disadvantage.
      Indeed, we would take issue with you about what we demand from others. What we demand from others is that they collectively organise on a principled basis. Never have we asked any individual “to stick their neck out”. It is true that we asked Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings to use their position to critique the industry directly, we did so knowing that their positions within the industry were a lot stronger than the majority of us and they were unlikely to suffer serious consequences (probably earn more respect and prestige). We would never have asked Nick to make such a bold statement, but now he has we want to celebrate it and ask people to support it.
      We recently published an update on the Berlitz dispute in Japan. Key individuals are facing ruinous legal action because they dared to fight back. We don’t wish to disguise the possible consequences of fighting back. Indeed, we would generally agree with a cautious response, where collective action is painstakingly built and where people are confident of the support of others before taking such action/speaking their mind. However, sometimes actions and words erupt and we have to go with those feelings, asking others to show their support . We were taken aback by Nick’s post, moved and exhilarated. We were also delighted Karenne that you Gavin and Darren have been quick to show your support.
      We believe Nick’s courage has opened up a space that MTG was incapable of opening up. The issue of MTG’s anonymity is we believe a distraction from the need to build on the space that Nick has opened up.

  4. This anonymity thing has come up before… we have talked about the precedent – the grand tradition of the nom de plume in revolutionary writing. The difference, I think I’ve figured out, is that pamphleteers were not engaging in interaction with their audience or their enemy. Unless you close the comments function on this blog, and stop commenting elsewhere, the MTG are.

    This question is going to keep coming up as those you engage with or criticise are at a disadvantage, and they won’t put up with it. You are going to have to address it somehow, otherwise it’ll finish you.

    Having said all that, this is a great post. I wish I could be as optimistic as you are about the power of the collective, but I think the idea of a ‘global ELT evil empire’ and a collection of noble worldwide teachers and students rising up against it ignores the particular difficulties at local levels. In Japan, for example, universities are fighting against the demographic tide… there is now a university place for every high schooler that wants one. That is not to say that everything else is dandy, but the context makes it challenging for progressive employers to ‘do the right thing’, and it puts teachers in a severely weakened bargaining position.

    • marxistelf

      Hi Darren,

      (Been thinking on this one!!)

      Basically, as said to Karenne, MTG is a bit of a distraction at the moment. The real problem of anonymity is the mass of teachers and students who not only have no voice but have lost interest in having one.

      We need to find some way of connecting with the vast majority of teachers and students. They are the anonymous!

      This mass are too often ignored for their apathy and disinterest when the truth is that the issues that concern them are too often ignored. Ask your average ELT teacher and student what concerns them more, low pay and low standards, or the limited opportunities to develop Dogme in the classroom?

      Nick has opened up a space to act, it’s time to get your thinking hat on. How are we going to involve the mass of teachers and students in a global discussion concerning the current state of ELT? IATEFL has stifled this discussion, but it can’t be stifled forever.

  5. Dear Marxist,

    I think after your posts here discussing IATEFL, your call for the great unconference and the t-shirt campaign and the claim (not backed up by any evidence, I note, despite another novel-length post designed to impress and obfuscate) that IATEFL has stifled the discussion you mention above, well… I think I’m confused.

    On Nick’s blog you admit that ‘many IATEFL members are trying to do an important job’ – so which parts of the organisation work for you? Which of the SIGs and committees and committee members fit into your world view of ‘doing an important job’, and which don’t?

    Will I (oh please say it’s true!) get a thumbs up for being involved in the online conference that takes the conference to over 50,000 people worldwide, free? Or have I failed for not taking it to the globe, personally, perhaps wearing sackcloth and chastising myself for being middle-class and moderately well-paid?

    What of the Wider Membership Scheme and the Wider Membership Individual Scheme (you do know what they’re about, right?)

    What of the new column on ‘issues’ in the IATEFL periodical? Is that good for you, or not enough?

    And, lastly but not leastly (!), do you ever do anything other than talk and pick things apart? Do you contribute anything to the broken profession you love to examine so closely? Do you volunteer, donate or make a difference? Or is it just so much clever talk and not much else?



    • marxistelf

      Thank you very much Gavin for taking the time to comment on this blog. Whilst it is highly unlikely we will agree on much, it is important that your views are clearly represented.
      As we have been criticised for posts of “novel-length proportions”, we shall try to keep our answers brief.
      Firstly, we cannot claim that the unconference was our idea nor that we have actively supported it. It is an interesting idea which should be seriously explored by all of us seeking to raise a different agenda to that currently offered by IAETEFL. We did suggest, however, that wearing a T-Shirt at IATEFL 2011 saying “Time to Address The Issues” could be the “very least” of possible actions.
      Secondly, you ask us, given our recognition that many IATEFL members are trying to do an important job to name the SIGs and committees and committee members doing an important job and those who are not. Quite simply, any IATEFL member trying to do an important job will be frustrated by the institutional basis of IATEFL and their efforts will, ultimately, be in vain.
      Put simply, IATEFL has no advocacy role for teachers. It has no committees dealing with low pay, inequality between NESTs and nonNESTs, freelance workers, new teachers, equality, materials writers etc. It is an organisation built around conferences but has no mechanism for canvassing the views of workers and students out there. Like TESOL, IATEFL membership is a tiny drop in the ocean compared with the number of people actually employed in the ELT Industry (both private and state). Its agenda is set internally and it is an elitist agenda which does not reflect the needs or interests of the mass of teachers or those they teach. To do an important job is to effectively represent teachers and not simply provide proscribed conference discussions.
      Yes, IATEFL did broadcast free interviews and plenaries from the conference to around the world. Unfortunately, however, for those watching around the world they would have been struck by the contrast between the one big happy family image it broadcast and the realities of the industry outside. You yourself describe it as a “broken profession”. We believe that IATEFL lives in a bubble, with too many members frightened to burst that bubble for fear they will be discriminated against at future conferences.
      Thirdly, we have to accept there is no current alternative to IATEFL; that in the absence of an alternative many individuals are drawn towards it and will continue to be drawn towards it. Moreover, they will be told that if they join they can help change it. This is one huge deceit and it merely dissipates the energy of those with something real to add.
      We shall continue to engage in a dialogue with IATEFL members but know that a new advocacy organisation must be built in its place. An advocacy organisation not dependent on the people and organisations it is trying to defend itself against. In the mean time we will work with others (including IATEFL members) to build a platform that pushes a different agenda to the current one on offer.
      Finally, instead of being offended by anonymity (see posts on Nick’s site) Gavin, you should embrace its possibilities. How about an anonymous questionnaire to conference goers on issues of equality and how well issues affecting the industry were tackled? How about organising similar questionnaires in workplaces around the world asking why people don’t join IATEFL?
      Thank you for your tremendous efforts Gavin (meant in complete sincerity), but through the fault of the organisation of which you have made yourself a prisoner, they are simply not good enough

  6. Ah bless,

    You do make me laugh with your pomposity. Better a prisoner of an organisation trying to do something for teachers, than a free man (woman? collective?) standing on a street corner moaning about how terrible it all is and why, oh why doesn’t somebody do something about it?

    As you say, we’re unlikely to agree…


  7. marxistelf

    We would also like to take the opportunity to suggest readers visit this early piece about IATEFL Special Interest Groups appearing on MTG in October 2009:

  8. Pingback: “This week in TEFL blogs” – PLNs get gnarly! « $trictly 4 my T.E.A.C.H.E.R.Z

  9. Pingback: The Myth of a Silent TEFL Equity | teflequityadvocates

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