Pedagogues and Profiteers: The Ups and Downs of Working in an ESL School

Pedagogues and Profiteers
The Ups and Downs of Working in an ESL School

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 4,878 views |

Most ESL professionals spend time, at some point in their career, working for a commercial language school.

This might be a big multi-national concern like English First and Kaplan, or a smaller organization based where you live. There are real attractions to working for such a school, not least the promise of a regular paycheck. They offer a ready-made student base (something an online teacher would dearly love to have) as well as all the textbooks and other resources your students will need.

However, many teachers find significant challenges to working in ESL schools, whether in the US, UK or elsewhere, and the staff turnover rate in such institutions can be extremely high. After working for two Chinese universities, where I was a VSO volunteer, I taught at three commercial schools – one in the UK and, more recently, two private schools in Boston, USA catering for international students from all over the world. I experienced both the positives and pitfalls of working in such places, and learned some valuable lessons, which I’d like to share.

Let’s start with assessing why the turnover rate in these schools is so high. What drives professionals to leave, often after only a few months, when the school seems to offer them so much?

5 Ups and Downs of Working in an ESL School

  1. 1

    Problem 1 – Personnel, Personalities and Personal Differences

    Many of the issues encountered by ESL professionals in commercial schools (i.e. those run for profit) center around a collision between the management and the teachers. Far too often, in my experience, these two bodies are seen as separate and distinct from each other. This is often made worse by the presence of managers who are specialists in recruiting, marketing or corporate management, but who don’t have a background in teaching; conversely, the teachers often lack management experience.

    Compounding this division is the background of the teachers, many of whom have been teaching abroad and are used to a completely different role, status, management structure, and salary situation.

    These two factions share a sense that the other ‘side’ doesn’t understand their problems. Management often claims that teachers are naïve when they insist on smaller class sizes and higher standards, while the teachers see their bosses as being indifferent to quality, obsessed with results and shackled to a ‘profits first’ principle.

    These differences in opinion and philosophy emerge most colorfully during staff meetings; anyone who has experienced one of these fraught, strange occasions will know just what I mean. It can feel as though the two teams are speaking entirely different languages. Compromise can be difficult to reach, and there’s a tendency for bitterness and insularity – a strict ‘us and them’ approach – to divide the school’s employees into camps.

    As teachers, we should understand that these divisions do nothing to help our students.

    As teachers, we should understand that these divisions do nothing to help our students. But they are perhaps a natural outcome of the lingering sense that our professional views aren’t being taken seriously; that the management doesn’t recognize our concerns as valid. Equally, ensuring a healthy profit is often seen by teachers as a poor motivation, a detraction from professional development and academic success. For many teachers, myself included, the desires of management to maximize monetary gain are reluctantly tolerated, rather than supported.

  2. 2

    Problem 2 – Students as ‘Customers’

    The ‘management vs. teachers’ paradigm is seen nowhere more clearly than in the language used to describe our students. For me, and most other teaching professionals, that’s just what they are: students. They are not ‘clients’, nor are they ‘customers’ and under no circumstances could they ever be ‘service users’. To toy with this language is to risk the inference that management sees our students in just the same way that an Internet Service Provider views its customers, or as a fast food chain sees those who consume its food.

    Surely, I would argue, education is a different type of service entirely. It holds a special status, akin to the medical and legal fields. In these few cases, our relationship with our ‘customers’ is curiously intimate and highly individual. My ISP doesn’t know my hobbies or my learning style, neither would McDonalds care if I was worried about my career or thinking about having kids. But teachers do know these things about the people they work with, and this creates a special bond like few others in the business world.

    Such intimacy, which often borders on friendship, is particular to our profession, and remains a vital part of it. Any attempt to have us redraw our connection to our students, to require us to view them as statistics rather than as people, is always going to receive significant pushback. And rightly so.

  3. 3

    Problem 3 – The Need for a Full House

    This is a huge problem. The multinational language schools (one of which I worked for in Boston) have spent millions delegating most of their sales work to local offices and in-country partners. Envoys now visit high schools and universities, delivering a sales pitch and signing up students in their droves. This is great for the bottom line, and might sound reasonable, until we consider that the local agencies are paid per student, so it’s in their interests to send as many as possible, often regardless of their background, aptitude, or level of interest. The student’s ability to pay, rather than their willingness to learn, becomes the chief criterion. In addition, the agencies might not be honest about the suitability of a particular course, and the poor student ends up at a level, or studying a topic, which is wholly inappropriate for them.

    At the same time, the ESL school isn’t making money by having empty seats in its classrooms. Wisely, some schools have established maximum class sizes, but the pressure to nudge up that number, year after year, only grows as competition between the schools becomes more and more fierce. Teachers are told that the company faces an existential threat, that they’re being under-cut by less rigorous competitors, and that they have no choice but to fill every classroom to the brim. Elective subjects, however worthy and useful they may be, are cut if they don’t bring in a packed house; my school axed several great courses, including debating, pronunciation and culture-related classes, because they were ‘only’ 70% full. Teachers struggle with the needs of a growing student body, while the available resources (and of course, the available time) tend to remain the same.

    The impact of these policies on the bottom line is very healthy; the impact on everyone else – staff, teachers and especially students – can be very damaging.

  4. 4

    Problem 4 – Standards

    One result of larger classes, broader student recruitment and stressed teachers is the tendency for standards to fall. This trend is common to any industry which finds itself required to quickly expand; one of the first casualties of such growth is often quality control. This is often followed by customer dissatisfaction, increased competition, the urge to drive down prices while maintaining profits, and a greater tension between management and workforce. We see these trends in many industries, and they often play out in language schools where profits are given a greater emphasis than the maintenance of quality.

    So, teachers find that they’re working with students who have been signed up for the Intermediate class, for example, but who arrive with very little English. This creates a very difficult challenge: a class of enormously mixed ability levels, something which new teachers find it awkward to deal with. Alongside this (and, again, I’m speaking from my own experience) the school consents to bringing in entire classes full of students with the same first language, because the local agent has signed up so many. If you’ve ever tried to eradicate the use of L1 (the students’ first language) in a class who all share the same L1, you’ll know just how tricky this can be.

    Teaching professionals have a duty to be flexible and to continue to grow and learn throughout their careers, so these challenges are to be anticipated. But when the school knowingly complicates their teachers’ situation, piling additional problems onto an already tottering heap of obligations and requirements, they come close to ensuring that the teacher will soon look for work elsewhere. For many teachers, the situation might remain tolerable for many months or years, but in the end, it’s often a case of ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. For me, it was my manager’s flatly negative reaction to some ideas I had about class sizes, reducing the use of L1, and the need for more pedagogy training. I didn’t stay long after that.

  5. 5

    Problem 5 – Examinations

    I’ll try to be brief on this point; I could easily write a whole piece on this one topic, but it would only comprise of a long and bitter complaint.

    If we bring young, inexperienced students from a under-performing education systems into a compromised, overcrowded classroom environment, they probably won’t learn very effectively. If we then expect those same students to pass exams designed for people with excellent ESL backgrounds, and those whose skills were appropriate for the class level from the outset, we’re going to be disappointed. Too often, the school’s solution is a simple one: make the tests easier.

    Many teachers have found themselves required to ‘dumb-down’ challenging content, and to use easier (but plainly artificial) methodologies such a multiple choice questions. I was even asked, at one stage, to remove the speaking elements from my assessment system, because my students arrived with fine reading skills, but very poor fluency. Another reason I left a school was when my managers decided to arbitrarily alter the grades I’d submitted, despite their being the result of a rigorous and painstakingly crafted assessment system.

    Schools claim that their recruitment will suffer if they are seen as ‘tough’ on their students. They view a high pass rate as likely to boost future enrollment, no matter that it was achieved through fiddling the books, simplifying the exams, and letting standards crumble. They’re in business, and like any business they must continuously attract new customers, but tweaking results like this gives a dishonest impression to potential students.

    These exam tactics also provide an unreliable view of our students’ performance. They do not address the problem of standards or achievement, but simply paper over the cracks. To manipulate assessment systems in this way is irresponsible and misleading, and is a huge factor in the staff turnover rate in ESL schools.

5 ESL Solutions

  1. A couple of caveats are long overdue. Not every language school bullies its teachers, over-subscribes its classes, or compromises on standards. And not all of them suffer from dissent and division among their employees. It would be unfair to paint a picture of the whole ESL establishment as greedy charlatans, because these behaviors are, I’m happy to report, far from ubiquitous, especially in smaller organizations.

    However, some of these difficulties are bound to crop up, wherever you work. After years of struggling to find good solutions, here are my best tips for how to handle them:

  2. 1

    Recognize The Signs

    We all get angry, but for a teacher, anger is a universal negative. It is a sign that you’ve lost control, and that you’ve taken to fighting against reality itself. It has no place in a classroom, and will only serve to antagonize some colleagues while fostering the same anger in others. Take a few deep breaths, do whatever relaxation exercises work for you, and remember that you’re not arguing a case at the United Nations, or negotiating the end of slavery; you just work in a language school which is serving its students badly.

  3. 2

    Practice Acceptance

    If I didn’t meditate, I would have quit working for language schools long ago. Being a teacher is rather like working as a counselor, manager, researcher and linguist, all rolled into one; it’s not easy, but the Serenity Prayer will always help:

    [Lord], Grant me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change,
    The strength to change the things I can,
    And the wisdom to know the difference.

    As a small cog in a massive machine, you’re going to need serenity and wisdom more than strength. Take a step back from the problem, be it a crowded classroom, an awful timetable, or textbooks which are laughably out of date, and ask: Can I actually change this?

    Sometimes, we can. Email your boss, ask for meetings, and for the most important things, risk ruffling some feathers. But choose your battles carefully. Irritating the wrong people will make it impossible to get changes made in the future. Try inquiring rather than insisting, and suggesting rather than demanding. Accept that change will be slow, and may not come at all.

    Trust me on this, because I’ve tried the alternative – noisy, angry complaints to my boss – and it simply does not work. I tried it on three continents, with the same negative result. Patience, guile, charm, and more patience will always achieve more.

  4. 3

    Focus on Your Students

    Great teaching and learning can still happen in cramped, imperfect circumstances. Your responsibilities to your students don’t stop because you don’t have the right resources. Consider the many centuries of fantastic, life-changing teaching which took place without the benefit of the Internet, or a DVD player, or a stack of glossy textbooks. Go around the problem. Seek out alternative resources from friends, your own files, or the Internet (BusyTeacher.org is a great place to start!)

  5. 4

    Retain Your Professionalism

    Don’t let things get you down. Keep your sights on the things you can change: the learning environment in your classroom, your relationship with your students, and their progress under your guidance. Losing your temper and railing against the school will only erode your student’s respect for you.

    You can adapt to most environments, however challenging. There are ways to deal with mixed-ability classes, or overcrowded classrooms. You can, in fact, keep discipline in such settings and keep everyone engaged. There are good methods for working with classes of students who all have the same first language. You’ll need both to prepare carefully, and to think on your feet.

  6. 5

    Don’t Despair

    If things are really troubling you, and you feel your professional development has stalled because of where you work, there are very often other options. Major cities tend to have more than one ESL school; see if you can make contact with one of their teachers and get the low-down. Could it be a better option?

    Very few of us could ever simply resign from our jobs, and it should certainly be a last resort. But let me impart some advice my grandfather liked to repeat:

    Life’s too short to do work which makes you miserable.

  7. 6

    Look at the Broader ESL World

    To name one alternative, there’s online teaching, which is a phenomenal growth industry right now. It’s tough to build a student base from nothing, and this kind of work isn’t for everyone, but a lot of disenchanted teachers have found online work a good alternative to the stark choice between ESL school drudgery and unemployment.

    Consider working abroad for a while, if your situation permits it. I’ve never regretted my five years in China and Thailand, and could fill a book with the many things I learned there. The Peace Corps (USA), VSO (UK and Canada) and other volunteer organizations are well worth a look, as are well-established local schools whose staff report favorably about the working conditions. A little research and, who knows, you could be somewhere completely different in a few months’ time.

Ultimately, the lamentable and often bizarre shenanigans of ESL school managers shouldn’t deter you from pursuing your professional goals.

You’re still the boss in your own classroom, and you can still do great work. Set aside the politics, the poor management, the lousy prioritization and the greed, and focus on what matters: teaching your students as well as you can.

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