Strategy Paper One: Barcelona TEFL Teachers’ Association and Learning to Care

This return after a long hiatus allows us to tackle undeveloped themes but it also allows us to review particular strategies ELT teachers might propose in order to improve our lot as teachers. Moreover, distance has also allowed us to refresh ideas by discovering and connecting with wider critical theories. We certainly felt that way back in 2013, the Marxist TEFL Group was moving in a certain direction to the exclusion of other paths – not only was that choice rather dubious but there was no real necessity for making hard choices over other choices. Some years on we can see the development of certain strategies, their successes and failures, and a critical theoretical engagement with those strategies might (we can only hope) help ELT activists in concentrating their energies and focus to help develop their struggles in a positive direction.

We start therefore with a strategy we would hardly have recognised before, namely, for want of a better expression, the “Pastoral Approach”. In short this is an approach which seeks to guide and support teachers, especially those new to the industry, through the many challenges they are to face, not just inside the classroom but outside of it too. One clear example of this was the work carried by Alex Case, TEFL Tradesman and TEFL Blacklist in warning teachers (and students) of the dubious practice of certain schools. There were also occasional references to teacher welfare generally and TEFL Blacklist was alone in the world of ELT/TEFL in mentioning the horrific murder of Lindsay Hawker in Japan. Sometimes, both TEFL Tradesman and TEFL Blacklist risked exposure to legal claims by certain schools which speaks much of both their courage and the obvious downsides of this “shaming” approach to certain schools. We should also note that the blogger, TEFL Tradesman (no doubt for reasons of on-line persona), drifted too easily into sexism and xenophobia.

Another example, however, would be the Barcelona TEFL Teachers’ Association (BTTA) which appears to be organised via Facebook but involve regular opportunities for an incredible 12, 987 members to meet up in person (we assume only a very few do otherwise they would be renting huge premises). Now together with the usual job offers (not just placed by schools but by teachers looking to find a replacement, substitute or teacher for a class they can’t do) there are a whole host of things relating to advice about social security, personal safety and accomodation. Indeed, the quantity of information for people new to the city and new to teaching is jaw dropping. We are not aware of any similar organisation of this size and with this focus in any other city, we have seen smaller groups in Madrid and Lisbon but the focus is just not so “Pastoral,” it tends to be overly-focussed on jobs as if that is all teachers need.

We cannot exagerate how refreshing it is to see an organisation focussed on teachers’ needs as a whole person and someone who is often going through a journey, either just passing through the city and maybe ELT teaching, to those trying to make a life for themselves in the industry and in the city. So many teachers (on line and in classrooms) seem to think that what other teachers need is a lesson plan or a new teaching idea. The practice of sharing lesson plans, while laudable, is perhaps not as important as sharing other basic information and support, especially with relatively inexperienced teachers and teachers new to a certain country/city.


We feel this reverberates with Carol Gilligan’s pathbreaking work on the ethics of care (EoC). The core insight of EoC is that caring in society is both “feminized” (ie asigned to “women” or what “women” are supposed to be and do) and that such activity is relegated in terms of its value and importance in society. She argues for a care-based approah to ethical considerations, how does the situation effect the person and how should we respond (rather than merely what is “just”). Moreover, she puts a heavy accent on having people’s different voices heard, arguing that in a democracy men and women must share the caring role and ensure that different voices are heard and responded to. She critices what she terms “patriarchal relations” for being mathematical and abstract in they way they deal with ethical issues, establishing hierarchies through which we move up or down (think Kohlberg  or Maslow)

There have been criticisms of Gilligan’s work but we believe it throws a useful light on the contrast between much of what passes for a “TEFL community” and the excellent self-managed (ie not commercially or hierachically driven) support network of BTTA. Too much time in “the community” is spent “demonstrating” competence as a practitioner or “networking” in order to advance commercially and professionally rather than addressing the everyday complex heterogenous needs of teachers, especially the most vulnerable and in need.

Of course, this is not to argue that teachers should not organise around issues arising directly in and around the classroom. Quite the reverse. Rather we would suggest that it will be easier to organise around those issues once we start to organise in a more holistic and horizontal manner. For example, with teachers from the UK, advice on how social security operates and how contributions made by an employer might impact on them later, will help them understand their actual wage better (many employers manipulating and underpaying contributions).

Admittedly, there is always a danger teachers (especially NESTs) might be become ghettoised and fail to connect with the communities and struggles in the cities in which they are living but this can easily be counteracted by staying aware of these dangers and providing opportunities to partipate in activities and struggles where and when possible.

So basically the message is that setting up horizontal networks in cities to help and support colleagues, especially those who might just be passing through, is a necessary political moment in us becoming  an effective community of teachers; we should not leave these complex heterogenous needs to one side while  we concentrate on just pay and “professional issues”.

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