On World Mental Health Day – We can and should do better

When the rather compelling Hollywood film “A Beautiful Mind” hit cinemas, millions upon millions of people were treated to a convienient mistruth. John Nash the Nobel Prize Winner on whose life the film is based, is shown coming off anti-psychotic medication (a treatment he is given for a condition known as paranoid schizophrenia) then returning to medication once he becomes aware that it is the only way he can live a normal life without the intrusion of his illness. The reality is that John Nash stopped taking anti-psychotic medication and never returned principally because the medication dulled his intellect. Rather than his life collapsing around him, he and his wife, the physicist Alicia Nash, enjoyed a commited and mutually supportive relationship up until their tragic death together in a traffic accident, and Nash continued to write and teach after abandoning the anti-psychotic treatment (something he felt he couldn’t do on the medication). The mistruth (much to the chagrin of Nash himself) was introduced by the director, on the advice of her psychologist mother, to avoid encouraging those taking anti-psychotics to abandon their medicine.

We can understand that decision entirely though we don’t agree with it. We at Marxist TEFL would not recommend anyone refuses or abandons treatment with anti-psychotics unless with the advice and support of a close network of people and a trusted medical practitioner. We must remember that John and Alicia’s son, who also has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, has not managed the condition as well as his father. Sensitivity to this issue is to be applauded even if the final decision of how to handle it was in our view erroneous and disrespectful to the actual experiences of John Nash.

Yet the unfair portrayal of John Nash’s struggle with his mental health does not end there and there are are those, none more spectacularly than Adam Curtis in his seminal documentary, “The Power of Nightmares”, who reduce Nash’s work to his mental health condition. Now we have no problems in drawing the parallels between paranoia and Nash’s game theory as Curtis does. Game Theory treats us as isolated with everybody else trying to maximise their interests at the expense of our own, co-operation being an unintended consequence of selfish convenience. However, such theories have a longer historical heritage within classical liberalism and Kant’s moral imperative that people should be treated as an end in themselves rather than a means to an end was quickly abandoned by nearly all moral philosophers who saw such an idea as putting unecessary fetters to the expansion of capitalist production (otherwise known as individual choice). Nash was merely transcribing this view, that we are all a means to someone else’s ends, and vice versa, into brilliant mathematical proofs. Indeed, there is a school of Marxism, Analytical Marxism (or “No Bullshit Marxism”) that uses Nash’s work to argue for the logical necessity of happy cooperation and socialism . To reduce Game Theory to paranoid schizophrenia then is neither accurate nor productive but rather a device to silence someone on the basis of their mental health diagnosis “Keep on taking the meds” is such a popular and disgusting refrain.

The responsibility of progressive forces wthin TEFL

There is some truly appalling treatment of the issues of mental health in TEFL literature and practice. However, we don’t want to begin there (as we doubt the worst offenders amongst material writers and teachers are visiting these pages) but rather amongst the more progessive elements of the community. Indeed, amongst the marxist left generally the treatment of mental health issues is shockingly bad (although much better amongst the anarchist movement with their anti-psychiatry focus) so we wouldn’t want to excuse ourselves from this polemic and we know we have much work to do to put our own house in order. In fact, we would draw parallels with the left’s slow and painful journey to incorporate Gay Rights into its focus and political organisation (now we just asume Gay Rights is an automatic part of Left politics but this was not always the case). For an excellent account of this see Lucy Robinson’s marvellous “Gay Men and the left in post-war Britain”.

We also see mental health as part of one of the most important struggles facing us today as we seek to redefine and reimagine a world not dictated by blind accumulation of capital, environmental destruction and the creation of useless jobs rather than increased leisure time. We refer readers to an earlier piece on “Capitalist realism” where we raised these issues. Ironically, in the field of mental health there has been much focus on the importance of meaningful social acitivies as both an expression of recovery from mental health issues and a means of recovery from those same issues. Moreover, researchers have developed a measurement, EMAS (Engagement in Meaningul Activity Scale), to identify the opportunities of marginalised groups (like the elderly or people with a mental health diagnosis) to participate in meaningful activities. This scale is then used to suggests certain positive correlations with general health and life expectancy levels. We would argue that capitalism is indeed largely meaningless and becoming more meaningless by the day, as it robs us of the possibility of creating meaningful collaborative lives outside the sphere of commodity production. Indeed, capitalism’s answer to the emptiness and chaos it has created in our social and psychic fabric is to guarantee large profits to the pharmaceutical industry selling us tranquilizers which it markets as anti-depressives, mood-stabilizers or anti-psychotics.

Schizophrenia is not a split personality

One of the irritating and unfortunate practices many people have, and this is growing, is to use psychiatric labels to describe a behaviour which is so far down the range of behaviours to be insulting to the people who do actually exhibit behaviours which are deeply painful and upsetting both to them and the people around them also affected. We are thinking here about Bi-Polar Disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Disogenes Syndrome. Something similar is in operation around the neural degenerative condition alzhiemers, where people are quick to use the label to describe the most mundane aspects of memory failure. We very much doubt someone would openly declare they had bowel cancer because they had somachache or Multiple Sclerosis because something slipped from their grip, so why use serious pyschiatric or neurodegenerative terms to describe other mundane happenings.

In the case of schizophrenia this is doubly unsettling because the common non-medical use couldn’t be further from the experience of those diagnised with schizophrenia. Put simply, schizophrenia has nothing to do with a split personality.

We should therefore be careful when citing Peter Medgyes classic 1983 paper on the experience of NNESTs (Non-Native Speaking English Teachers) where he implies that such teachers experience “schizophrenia” because they are both teachers and learners (aren’t we all??) and struggle to reconcile the two roles. Now not only is Medgyes an early pioneer for NNEST recognition he can be forgiven for his political incorrectness when we consider he was writing in another centrury. What is more difficult to accept, however, is when ELT practioners today quote his work using such a label as both accurate and acceptable. For example, on one blog we can read:

The first thing that caught my attention in this article was the author’s choice of title: The Schizophrenic Teacher. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, a schizophrenic is “someone suffering from a major mental disorder of unknown cause typically characterized by a separation between the thought processes and the emotions, a distortion of reality accompanied by delusions and hallucinations”. And in the same dictionary, a teacher is defined as “a person whose job is to teach students about certain subjects”. How come did these two words come together and what was the author trying to communicate? These were the two questions that intrigued my mind while reading the article.

In the article, the author shares some of his own experiences as a Non-native speaking English teacher (NNSET) and states that most NNSETs feel unsafe about using the language they have to teach and therefore they might tend to have either a deeply pessimistic or an aggressive attitude to ELT. The author states that by being both teacher and learner simultaneously, NNSETs are driven into “schizophrenia”. He also points out that sooner or later NNSETs might tend to regret having chosen this career because there are not many options apart from having a nervous breakdown. One of the options is total resignation, and another is restricting the language to those rules which he or she has learned or mislearned. He argues that NNSETs should admit that they are students of English too. This would be the best way to take a more confident stance in the classroom.

Really, would the author of the article look up the meaning of cystitis or hemorrhoids in Webster’s New World College Dictionary?

The whole piece lacks any critical reflection on the use or accuracy of this psychiatric label.

On Paul Walsh’s blog Decentralised Learning, however, we do get a more serious engagement with the actual diagnosis of schizophrenia, as we would expect from such a serious thinker. Unfortunately, on this occassion, it is simply not deep or critical enough and we say this as huge admirers of the author and particularly his campaign for recognising teachers as workers inside the IATEFL structure of working groups. To be fair to the author he does immediately print a disclaimer:

Disclaimer: Schizophrenia is used here in this blog post as a trope, a metaphor; in no way do I wish to demean the experience of mental illness.

N.B. If anyone wants to argue against the points raised here–you’re more than welcome–but to save me time and hassle please:

1) Respond to the arguments put forward

2) Don’t sidetrack the discussion by nitpicking or getting bogged down in tiny points or details

3) Refrain from personal attacks

Thanks!

Paul

However, we would ask why such a metaphor is at all necesary. Why not just ask whether we are delusional in seeing ourselves as a profession or exhibiting low self-esteem when not seeing ourselves as such. The title could be “Delusional or having low self-esteem – the two horns of of an ELT dilema”. Put simply, and we mean this in the most fraternal way, schizophrenia is no more an apt metaphor for talking about such issues than breast cancer is.

Like this, one could avoid the use of terms like “mild schizophrenia” (a contradiction in terms) and unwittingly introducing a highly controversial image which is like a red rag to a bull to those of us involved in mental health campaigns

We are presented indeed with two images which are generally purported to show the difference between a “normal healthy person’s” brain structure and that of somebody suffering from schizophrenia. Now such an image suggests that schizophrenia is something other than a diagnosis made by a psychiatrist on the basis of concordance between a patient’s symptoms and those listed in a diagnostic manual. We can assure people, however, that there is not one recorded case of a person undergoing a brain scan who has later been referred to a psychiatrist on the basis of the image produced.

Now crucially there have been important and rigorous studies which show that people with schizophrenia are often found to have smaller brains and larger brain ventricles than normal. However, we must be careful not to confuse cause and effect. Indeed, studies in social isolation have shown that social isolation causes changes to the hippocampus, it is smaller due to the life experiences suffered (just one example). Similarly, therefore, we may not be seeing schizophrenia as such but the effect of suffering from the symptoms of schizophrenia and the isolation which that usually involves. But more worryingly, and this is why we choose to be both hard and comradely, a significant number of studies show that it is the anti-psychotics themselves that are producing this damage and nothing to do with a physical illness. In short, the preferred method for dealing with schizophrenia, does not cure (it never claimed to) but it does cause long lasting damage to the patient’s cognitive capacity. A point that John Nash was more than aware of. “Keep on taking the meds” sounds even more sinister when we take this possibility into consideration.

Don’t tell tales about PTSD.

Again, our “target” here is someday we greatly admire, Frank Brennan. Brennan is the author of popular graded readers like “The Fruitcake Special and Other Stories”, “Joe Faust” and, pertinently here, “Windows of the Mind”. Now not only does Brennan have a way of creating engaging stories accessible to English learners but his stories are often packed with a respect for the underdog and a critique of people who abuse power. Indeed, the story we want to critique is in fact a searing attack on those who put corporate interest before a person’s welfare. What is there not to like?

Well, in this story, “Arlo’s War”, we are presented with a war veteran with an oversensitivity to loud noise and taking medication as result of traumatic war experiences. However, after a series of unfortunate events Arlo stops taking his medication and declares war on the sources of noise in the city, injuring innocent people when his radio controlled bombs strike their targets. Brennan doesn’t use the term PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but we can be sure what he is referring to in his description of sensitivity and war experience.

What we would like to say is that 1) the treatment of PTSD with medication has proved to be not very effective (especially in the long term) and certainly not as effective as non-pharmacological alternatives 2) while there have been studies linking PTSD to an increased risk of anger management problems and domestic violence (especially with the comorbid problem of alcohol abuse) there has been nothing to suggest increased risk of waging terrorist campaigns or any other planned violent acts. No, the most striking thing about PTSD (and other psychiatric disorders) is the increased risk of suicide. Indeed, certain so called anti-depressives and anti-psychotics list suicidal thoughts as possible side effects of taking the medicine.

In conclusion.

We would like to repeat that we do not advise anyone to cease use of anti-depressives or anti-psychotics without seeking professional advice and support and that of close friends and family. We do not deny either that such medical treatment has helped many people cope with debilitating symptoms and live as close to a “normal life” as possible. However, such treatments are not cures but deal with symptoms, and such treatments have serious downsides.

Basically, people with mental health problems are not particularly well-served by current treatments. Worse still, many people misunderstand the nature of these problems and somehow feel that current medication is an acceptable solution. We would argue that it is not, people deserve safer more effective medicines and treatments where possible which cure rather than “dampen symptoms” (dampening so much else too).

As activists and progressives we need to improve our literacy on these issues and not spread ignorance. We need to work closely with people suffering from mental health problems and those who support them to develop whole new perspectives on how to promote mental health for all of us.

Happy World Mental Health Day – Let us try to take better care of each other.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Strategy Paper Two: The Legislation/Accreditation Battlefield

With the ongoing industrial dispute at Delfin Dublin Language school, this is an opportune moment to look at the legislative/accreditive approach to securing and protecting teachers’ pay and conditions. This is principally because the TEFL industry in Ireland is undergoing certain changes (one might say convulsions) in which space has opened up and necessity demanded that teachers respond collectively to this channging landscape. Part of that landscape, is a complex set of negotiations between the Government and Private language school in structuring the market to take advantage of what they preceive to be “economic opportunities” ahead and avoiding the damage caused by language schools suddenly closing (leaving paying international students without courses) and the consequent damage this does to the sector. And, of course, in the midst of this is the Irish trade union, Unite, trying to raise the voices and concerns of teachers in this whole debate. While, the situation is any many ways singular, in that much relates to Ireland only, there is much which relates to other countries “hosting ELT students from abroad” and issues of regulation generally. We confess at the outset to a certain distance from the situation on the ground and are more than happy to be corrected on any incorrect details from colleagues and comrades actually working (or studying) in Ireland.

The Collapse of Grafton College

In December 2018 Grafton College in Dublin closed leaving up to 23 teachers and admin staff unpaid and without work. An event no doubt which would have garnered little attention were it not for the fact also that 470 fee-paying students were left without promised tuition. PIE news reported at the time that this had been the 22nd Language School in Ireland to go into liquidation since 2014. Not only was this hugely embarassing for the sector but it was a situation that the industry had previously sought to resolve following similar collapses way back in 2014/2015. Indeed, Grafton College was part of Marketing English in Ireland (MEI), a recognised grouping of Schools which accredits the quality and standards of courses of its member schools, and therefore fell under a mutually agreed Learner Protection Scheme (introduced in 2014) whereby other schools will step in to offer courses to those students at no extra cost. As far as we can see, however, there is no automatic right to a refund and no appeal system against the alternative course offered. The MEI has no Teacher Protection Scheme for actual staff affected by such closures either.

We might still conclude though that somehow MEI are the still heroes in all in this by rescuing students from an uncertain fate. However, this is to ignore the maneouvres which led to the original school closures in 2014 and the role MEI played in this. Put basically, one sector of the industry, as represented by MEI, was using its greater economic and political muscle against another part of the industry in its attempts to secure greater market share. As we with the case of English UK (the UK MEI equivalent), a prime driver for this a racist scare about competing schools operating as “visa factories” for illegal immigrants. Under the cover of raising standards and “stamping out abuse,” David O’Grady (CEO of MEI) helped lead a government backed task force to close down “sub-standard schools”. The fall out was clearly to reduce the number of schools and ensure MEI increased its market share. Thousands of students were left without courses as our dynamic heroes set about improving standards for the Irish ELT market. There was, of course, no discussion of the pay and conditions of teachers in raising those standards.

Post-2016 the Irish Government has seen a “Brexit Dividend” whereby with the UK becoming less hospitable to students from the EU, it is in a position to grow its ELT sector further. For this reason, it was particulary concerned to see that its friends at MEI had failed them again so miserably. Following the Grafton College collapse it has returned to tightening up its legislative approach to International Provision in the sector, in collaboration with MEI. Of course, MEI is 100% set against any basic provision on pay and conditions for teachers as it against a proper refundable-fees insurance policy for students.

ELT Advocacy Ireland

The excellent initiative ELT Advocacy Ireland is a campaign to improve teachers pay and condition in Ireland. It has a clear and achievable ten point charter of demands. These demands would immediately raise the quality of ELT service provision in Ireland. It is for this reason we talk about an opportune moment for workers to press for their demands and seek improvements to their pay and conditions. ELT Advocacy Ireland has shown clearly that it believes collective action, including and beyond trade union representation, is the key to improving ELT provision.

There are issues about whether a Sectoral Employment Order (a peculiarity of Irish Labour Law) stipulating certain sectoral labour conditions, like standardised salary scales, can deliver the change we need but there is no doubt that union recognition and basic industry standards are the way forward at present.

Regulating the Regulators???

Previously at Marxist TEFL we have been at fault for recommending changes to accreditation which might cause division amongst the teaching body (see our 60% position) by prioritising experienced teachers over less-experienced teachers. Indeed, such positions while perhaps raising pay and conditions in certain areas might close off opportunities to others and shape the sector in an unintended manner (more bureaucracy/managerialism, qualification inflation etc).

Nevertheless, we can see here that in an “organic situation” where teachers (and students) are coming together in a concrete situation it is possible to develop a genuinely democratic and positive perspective on basic rules to be followed in ELT provision. Teachers need to be part of this debate on how the industry should be “regulated” and to challenge the emphasis on profit before people. Whether you can regulate a decent system of ELT into existence is another question entirely, but we can use this as an opportunity to have our voices heard and our interests represented.

Put basically, MEI are not going to improve or guarantee decent standards for ELT students visiting Ireland, that will be down to the courageous striking teachers at Delfin Dublin and elsewhere

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Victory to the Striking Delfin Dublin Teachers: Their Fight is Our Fight

Today Teachers at Delfin Dublin Language school are on strike!!

This is an escalation of their struggle for proper union recognition and a campaign over pay and conditions.

Here is an interview with the Unite convenor which explains the situation:

Unite regional officer Brendan Byrne explains the reasons for the dispute.

He says: “The workers have been left with no alternative but to take industrial action as a result of the approach taken by management.

“They have totally failed to address the concerns of the workforce in relation to three main areas of contention: the need for pay to reflect the increased cost of living, the volume of unpaid work done… on a daily basis, and the fact that teachers are left with no choice but to sign on for social welfare payments over the Christmas period.

“The workforce has attempted continuously to engage with management through Unite’s best offices.

“Unfortunately management has adopted an approach of refusing to recognise or negotiate with ourselves.”

He adds that staff regret that things have come to this point.

“The teachers want to do their jobs but working conditions in the sector are just unacceptable.”

Quoted here

Sound  familiar?? Fortunately, these teachers have a union which can give them the necessary support and advice in this crucial battle. Unfortunately, there are so many of us out there without such support. A victory for Delfin Dublin teachers can help secure better working conditions for them and TEFL teachers throughout Ireland, it will also show the benefits of joining a union to workers in other countries (though such organisation clearly faces different but not necessarily insurmountable challenges).

We would also ask readers to remember the heroic struggles of those Berlitz Teachers in Japan (2008-2012), who won against all adversity (here and here

The TEFL Workers Union in London have called for a solidarity protest today outside Delfin Language School in Holborn at 5pm.

Send messages of support here

Join the protest at Delfin Language School if you are London based

Stay informed

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Meaning of Scott Thornbury

As we update ourselves on the development of ELT during the last seven years, we find ourselves again and again colliding with the name of Scott Thornbury. This puts us in a rather uncomfortable position, for it appears “we come to bury Thornbury, not to praise him” (to paraphrase a certain wordsmith). This certainly leaves us a little uncomfortable because (and we wouldn’t collide with him otherwise) he represents a more progressive wing of ELT and is, at the end of the day, a real human being with friends, family and colleagues who deeply care about him. Moreover, he has made an unmistakable contribution to teacher training and support with the books he has written and conference talks he has given.

However, as our crossing with Thornbury in our somewhat popular blog post, Romantic Comedy with a Sinister Twist. A Marxist Critique of Dogme ELT, reveals our differences are both significant and seemingly irreconciable. We do not appear alone in this matter, and the blogger ELT theorist Goeff Jordan seems equally “riled” by what he describes as Thornbury’s “fence-sitting and slime sprawling”.

As we will undoubtedly drag Scott Thornbury’s name into future discussions on ELT theory and practise, (we couldn’t avoid doing so in a piece only this month) it might be opportune therefore to put such criticism in greater context. In short, we want to separate Scott Thornbury the man from Scott Thornbury the ELT phenomenon, though clearly the phenomenon is not entirely separated from the decisions and public pronouncements Scott Thornbury has made as a flesh and bone man.

Funeral Blues

We begin then with a short extract from WH Auden’s marvellous poem “Funeral Blues,” tellingly retitled by many as “Stop the Clocks”:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

This poem was popularised by the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral (itself the usual juicy bone to love and personal politics served up by Richard Curtis) where the poem is recited by Matthew (played by John Hannah) at the funeral of his beloved, flamboyant and joie de vivre partner Gareth. As intended, there is hardly a dry tear in the house. Yet, the popular reception of the poem has little to do with the context and meaning of the actual poem and tells us more about the modern audience rather than the poem or the concerns of the poet. Indeed, despite an ignorance of the original context of the poem one poetry lover hits the nail on directly the head when he proclaims:

In the end, though, I reject its main message. None of us are this important and we must remind ourselves daily that we and our loved ones are mortal. Still, our cares and concerns may yet endure in others who will follow us.

In fact, this comes close to the original context where a “state funeral” is being used to further the self-agrandizement of a dictator to the detriment of the person (a complex character) who has tragically died for reasons of the political ambitions of others, namely the aforementioned dictator. Who else would order such a monstruous event other than a dictator? For readers wanting to learn more about this marvellous work they can begin here:

And so we ask what is the meaning of Scott Thornbury, on both a surface and a deeper level. Is he a force for good inside a rotten industry or a “juicy bone” to keep the dogs from barking?

A Man for All Seasons

The first point we want to make is that Thornbury appears to be an avid reader if not an attentive or critical one. In this sense he is very much a product of the ELT industry and indeed modern business theory. Always on the search for “radical ideas” Thornbury is guilty of scratching the surface without digging deeper into their intellectual roots, their internal coherence, or their logical consequences. Put simply Thornbury is like a series of TED talks, short precis of seemingly interesting ideas without the necessary examination of the very premises underpinning the claims being made. It is this reason why he can’t see the troubling issues of power in the work of Von Trier which he is so quick to recommend, or the limitations and dangers of Sylvia Ashton Warner’s teaching methodology. It is also the reason why he gets Chomsky and other theoreticians so wrong.

Yet who can blame him when as teachers we are encouraged to pursue dubious ideas like “learner styles” without proper critical reflection, or use numerous articles (or TED talks) based on flawed and highly controversial premises. Indeed, perhaps TEFL teachers should be awarded an honorary Masters in Useless and Dubious Ideas for learning and promoting some of the most extremely ill-researched and reactionary ideas via textbooks and other shared teacher resources. The idea is always, as long as it gets students talking and “having fun”, who cares. In the world of business large tomes on business practice (the ideas and vocabulary seriously heavier than the tomes themselves) are being replaced by thin easily-digestible paperbacks. We might conclude that this is a positive step (making managers more pragmatic and “down to earth) but we might also conclude that this general dumming down is a result of the bankruptcy of previous ideas and the inability to generate reasonable new ones backed up by a body of reasearch/results. Chomsky, Krashen, even Michael Lewis and Jane and Dave Willis are far more demading of time and concentration than the practical pronouncements of a Scott Thornbury, Jerry Harmer or Jim Scrivener. We are not criticising those who want to offer practical advice (of which all three mentioned authors are fine proponents) but we need deeper and more transparent access to the premises on which it is constructed.

The second point is more related to Thornbury’s willingness to challenge the existing status quo while remaining very much part of it. His launch, along with Luke Meddings, of the DOGME intiative and the group set up afterwards did allow for teachers to explore (together) teaching practices which were not necessarily mainstream. It is also highly commendable that he has finally backed the campaign to set up a workers’ interest group within IATEFL and is also a supporter of the campaign for equal recognition of Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs) within the industry. However, with all this there is a refusal to explore the powerful forces and material base which supports inequality, low pay and mechanistic teaching. Thornbury seems to present such inequalities, as “bad faith,”a lack of knowledge and commitment to radical new ideas and practices. Indeed without a proper critique of how power operates and its material base, there is little chance of challenging it and we are left with mere virtue signalling and a tendency to perpetuate the greasy pole of self-advancement at the expense of horizontal collective change.

Power in the A-Z of ELT

A case in point would be Thornbury’s outrageous treatment of “Power,” in his popular blog A-Z of ELT. While Thornbury has the merit of finally supporting the initiative to set up a teachers as workers group inside IATEFL, he also has the temerity of describing the group as such:

Meanwhile, a group calling itself TAW (Teachers as Workers) is lobbying IATEFL for Special Interest Group (SIG) status, on the grounds that it represents the interests of working teachers (‘pushing for the rights of ELT teachers in an era of precarity [sic]’), but, so far, with little success. It is a little odd, let’s face it, that a teachers’ organization (which is what IATEFL purports to be) can’t make room for a group that provides a forum for chalkface teachers. (emphasis in bold ours)

What on earth would be wrong with “called” and “in a spirited attempt to represent”? He also concludes, after giving a lengthy 2003 quote from a “respected source” in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language), Bill Johnston, on their community:

I believe that all our talk of teacher professional development is seriously compromised if we ignore the marginalisation of ELT that is staring us in the face, that is, if we treat the professional growth of teachers as something that can be both conceived and carried out without reference to the sociopolitical realities of teachers’ lives. To devalue this central feature of work for huge numbers of teachers is to fail to grasp the significance of the drive for professional development. I believe that the ELT professional organisations have unwittingly colluded in this artificial separation of the professional and political. For many years, for example, the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Convention, the annual meeting of the TESOL organisation, was almost exclusively devoted to matters of classroom techniques and materials. These things are of course important and useful to teachers. What was lacking, however, was any sense of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted, or of its role in those contexts.

Contrasting it with the style of TaWSIG:

So, don’t be put off by the somewhat hectoring rhetoric of the TaW collective. Even if it is unlikely to prosper, their cause is a worthy one

Elsewhere this would be called giving with one hand and taking with the other. Clearly, the people behind TaWSIG do not have either the social currency within the eschelons of IATEFL nor the space at conference to explain their ideas. If they appeared to be “hectoring” from the sidelines it is precisely because they are sidelined and denied the platform to express their ideas as Bill Johnston could.

There is also an incoherent reference to Nicola Prentis’ and Russell Mayne’s presentation at IATEFL conference on the invisibility of women in the higher echelons of ELT and in conference talks. Thornbury admits to not attending the talk or reviewing the figures but feels content to use the term “alleged invisibility”. He then proceeds to claim 1 ) having quickly checked their sites for lists of conference speakers, IATEFL is better gender-wise than other professions 2) gender is not the “real issue” but the exclusion of NNESts on speaker lists.

Now not being at the conference and not seeing in detail Prentis’ and Mayne’s research we did investigate Lindsay Clanfield’s survey on who TEFL practitioners felt to be the top people in ELT and (Thornbury tops the list) amazingly only one woman (Penny Urr) makes the top six, despite the greater contribution women continue to make to ELT theory and practise. Interestingly in Section W of A-Z, Thornbury completely rows back on his untenable position, accepting this invisibility and thanking Nicola Prentis for their long conversation and “inspiring this line of inquiry”.

But why does Thornbury get it so wrong in the first place? We would suggest the answer lies in his limited, liberal and convenient conception of power. Thornbury for example argues:

The recent IATEFL Conference at Manchester has been generating quite a bit of heat on the social networks on issues that, to my way of thinking, relate to questions of power: specifically, who has it? who ought to have it? and who has earned it?

The last question I think is very revealing about an organisation based on self-promotion rather than mutual support. The very notion that “power is earned” is certainly quaint and something being promoted at the time by the then UK Prime Minister, David Cameron ( It is no accident we borrowed our title for this piece from Richard Seymour’s excellent book, “The Meaning of David Cameron”) but far from reality. Indeed, it is often a self-justification from the privileged who refuse to acknowledge the privilege which secured their position and the unfair privileges they enjoy from holding such a pòsition.

At Marxist TEFL we are more inteterested in how power is mobilised rather than held, how power networks are often contradictory (capitalism exploits workers but it exploits some workers at the expense of others helping sections of workers identify with their nation rather than their fellow workers elsewhere in the world – or even region/ethnicity) but, most importantly, what are the material bases which support and promote this excercise of power (opportunity being far more important than intention).

We do not want to talk at great length on the subject of NESTs/NNESTs as we wish to deal with this in a forthcoming strategy paper discussing the TEFL Equity campaign (to which we give our support) . However, it is important to draw distinctuons in the world of ELT, between University dominated ELT (EAP), the highly regulated ESOL world, National Public Education systems (where most NNESTs are found), and the positively informal economy which is TEFL. Each one of those sectors will be differently impacted by the NEST/NNEST debate and it is simply not good enough to suggest that NNESTs are disadvantaged across the board. For example, throughout Europe NNESTs in the Public Education Systems will enjoy far better pay than most TEFL teachers – NEST and NNEST (in the UK or Europe) could dream of. This is not to say that Anglo-Saxon Universities do not dominate Second language Acquisition theory and ELT theory of how teaching should be done but they also dominate ideas of how langauge learning takes place and how all language teaching (including Japanese, French, German, Swahili etc) should be done.

It is also worth pointing out that teachers in the world of TESOL are far more able (returning to a previous point) to raise issues of working conditions at conferences, as they are of addressing issues of racism, gender disaparities, sexual oppression, and disability rights. There are material underpinnings for all this and it is simply too dishonest to suggest that it is simply an issue of a “blindness to the issues” or a lack of “liberalism and progressive politics” amongst practitioners.

Hard-working and Self-made

As stressed before we want to explore the meaning of Scott Thornbury and not the man himself. Indeed, as mentioned previously, Scott Thornbury is generally believed amongst many practitioners to be the leading voice within ELT. This no doubt will provoke both admiration and rancour. From what we can see (and we have not dug too deep on this occassion because it was not the remit here) Scott Thornbury has achieved his considerable success through much hard work and a capacity to communicate practical ideas to a grateful community of ELT teachers. His position does not appear to be based on a vast personal fortune inherrited from his family (allowing him endless time to attend conferences and write books rather than teach), or having family members on editorial boards for publishers. In his own words, Thornbury might be said to have “earned” the influence he wields in the industry.

However, for every Scott Thornbury there will be thousands of lowly paid teachers with precarious working conditions. Indeed, his recent book The CELTA Trainee Book  not only implicitly supports the continuation of the same it also explicitly condemns thousands upon thousands of students to classes taught by inadequately prepared and poorly supported teachers. The idea behind the phenemenon which is Scott Thornbury is that we will climb a greasy pole to achieve greater personal success and a higher standard of teaching. Now where may we have heard that trickle down theory before?

The meaning of Scott Thornbury is the same meaning as Social Corporate Responsibility inside Starbucks, empty and distracting. If Scott Thornbury has been prolific (and he has been) it has been largely because he has tended to cut corners and avoided deep reading in exchange for a superficial representation of competing theories and social interests. Starbucks is not part of the solution to world poverty, climate change nor low pay, indeed it is a big part of the problem, and its greenwashing (and really some of its initiatives are enormously interestingly and appealing) is merely a means to disguise this fact. Similarly, Scott Thornbury with his barbed and qualified support for teachers’ rights, more “humane teaching” methods (again extremely interesting and appealing), and “higher standards”, sits in contradiction to his active promotion of the status quo. For those of us committed to real change, we are not interested in accepting a “juicy bone” (which isn’t near as juicy as it claims to be) in order to stop the dogs (like TaWSIG and Nicola Prentis) barking. We, most definitely, want the dogs to bark louder and louder; we want them to bite!

Update: since publishing this piece we have now found Prentis’ and Mayne’s survey results with a useful overview procided by Nicola Prentis here on One Stop English. We urge you to visit.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

ESOL and Theatre of the Oppressed

Although “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” has recently come under attack from certain sections of the ELT community – for its apparent lack of “evidence” (oh the irony and ignorance of such a comment), we wanted to share an initiative with readers which attempts to fuse the ideas of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (as initially developed by Paulo Freire and his collaborators) with a form of theatre itself inspired by Paulo Freire’s ideas, “Theatre of the Oppressed” (the leading exponent of which was Augusto Boal).

This intitaive to incorporate Theatre of the Oppressed in radical ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) practice appears to have surfaced through a promising grouping of ESOL teachers around a platfform of Action for ESOL. This group produced a manifesto which among other things promised:

The language classroom should be built on a participatory ethos. Students and teachers should collaborate in developing appropriate curricula. They should be encouraged to question and speak meaningfully, and to understand the issues that affect their lives and society in order to shape or change them.

This is in stark contrast to a politics around UK ESOL which concentrates on assimilation of “immigrants” to the “dominant culture” with its emphasis on preparing students to perform their part in the workplace to maximise capital accumulation.

Now unfortunately, the group appears to have stopped being active since 2017 but it leaves a legacy of organisation and ideas behind. Most notably for us is this fascinating initiative to to combine “language learning” with the various ideas of Boal.

You can read the full report here.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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”.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On the Passing of Daniel Johnston (Sept 11 2019)

Eduardo Galeano wrote:

“Each person shines with his or her own light. No two flames are alike. There are big flames and little flames, flames of every color. Some people’s flames are so still they don’t even flicker in the wind, while others have wild flames that fill the air with sparks. Some foolish flames neither burn nor shed light, but others blaze with life so fiercely that you can’t look at them without blinking, and if you approach you shine in the fire”

And with these words we want to remember the life of artist and performer Daniel Johnston. You can read an obituary here and listen to one of his many songs below:

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized