The trouble with TEFL

After quite a few requests for this post, here it is!

I am desperate to spread the word about how difficult it can be as an English language teacher both in the UK and abroad, especially as there are so many misconceptions about both.

Many people believe that teaching abroad is just a big holiday with minimum hours and lots of money, especially with the stereotypical ‘backpackers’ taking most of the jobs. And on the other hand, many people think being a teacher in the UK means you’re well supported, have a decent salary and have plenty of opportunities for training and promotions.

Both of these scenarios can be true, but in many situations they’re far from the truth.

P.S. As this is a fairly negative post, I’d like to mention that I have, on many occasions, blogged about the wonderful experiences I have had as an English teacher! (here, here and here)

When I started teaching two and a half years ago I was extremely lucky to work for the most amazing, family-run school. There were rules and regulations, paper work without it being pointless (lesson plans, record of work, student reports), staff events, loads of support and the pay was extremely generous. Unfortunately I have not found a school that even comes close to the one I first worked at.

Many of you know about my awful experience in China, and the terrible school I ended up at in Warsaw, and many of you also know of my recent struggles to find a good school here in the UK. But if you’re new to the blog, here’s a quick break down.

  • 2018 – China. Promised mostly teenagers, 25 hours a week, £2,000 per month with health care, SIM card, internet, good quality apartment.

    What I received? 3-10 year olds, 6 hours a week, £0 with no SIM card, no internet and a very old apartment. Managed by a sexist, non-teacher who tried to bribe me to stay in China by buying me presents every day. He quickly became very nasty when I said I wanted to leave, saying I was the worst teacher he’s ever met. Bearing in mind he hadn’t actually seen me teach. I had months of abusive emails.

  • 2019 – Poland. Promised a mixed timetable, 20 hours a week, £800 per month with health care, good quality apartment, pre-made lesson plans, top technology in every classroom, 2 weeks of training.

    What I actually received? A CAE/FCE timetable, 40+ hours a week due to no lesson plans or materials, no training, very little support and certainly no technology (whiteboards and CD players). Awfully old, damaged apartment. The ‘state-of-the-art library’ was an old bookshelf in one of the offices. The staff were spiteful, vindictive and constantly bothering me for various, pointless reasons.

    E.g. One lesson was 8 year olds at 6pm, after they’d been at school and sports club all day. They were tired, grumpy and definitely didn’t want to study grammar, so I skipped ahead to a vocab page where we could play games, aiming to return to the grammar the following lesson. I had two emails and a text message saying I wasn’t doing my job, asking me why I’m not teaching the curriculum and letting the students down.

    E.g. I became unwell quite quickly and every time I asked for my health insurance card or number, they had an excuse. Or they’d tell me it was ready, but I didn’t need it. Or to just go to the doctors and they’ll search for my name on the system. It was clearly a farce and they were trying to avoid paying for my insurance. I ended up going private and paying for the lot.

The list goes on, but I won’t (my inner dragon will come out otherwise! RAAAAAAAAAAAR!)

You may also have heard about the school I worked for last year, and although many staff didn’t stay there long, I thought it was a fantastic school. The management were so supportive, helpful and extremely knowledgeable. You just knew they cared about what they were doing. There was never a negative vibe in the staffroom, no bullying or ‘cliques’ of teachers. I was very lucky!

But, unfortunately, after Christmas I wasn’t called back for work. Although I had been expecting this since day one, it came as a shock this time because they said they’d call me in the new year if there was any work. I believed them, until I saw them advertising and noticed they had hired four new teachers. Ouch! 

This obviously made our move to Manchester a tough one, as I had no work at all.

So, for the last 5 weeks I have been calling, emailing and connecting with language schools around the city. I have had two interviews and two interview offers, but nothing else. I know it’s low season in the UK right now, plus Brexit and now the COVID-19 won’t be helping the situation, but I expected more from Manchester.

Maybe that’s where I went wrong?

The first interview went really well, followed by a demo lesson that could have been worse. The second interview was very laid back with an odd end to it, but a positive demo lesson followed, along with 3 weeks of part-time work.

I rejected the following two interview offers because the school I received work from offered me 15 hours a week for the foreseeable future. Nice one! Right?

Haha, well… When I arrived for work on the Monday morning, I had asked why the register didn’t have my name on it, but another teacher’s name. I was told that this was because he was the lead teacher for that class and I was just the cover teacher. I was furious! I had turned down the other two interviews because I thought this was a permanent role, at least for a while.

Those 15 hours just about covered all of my bills and to have suddenly lost them puts me in a really sticky situation financially – which has now added a load of new stress onto the stress I have been already feeling, especially as the schools that offered to interview me have now filled their teaching positions. D’oh!

0 hour contracts should be illegal.
Written confirmation from management should be considered a basic contract. 

But no, we live in a world where people are allowed to take advantage of whoever they want, however they want, whenever they want.

Let’s be honest; you won’t always like your manager, your colleagues or even staff you have to work in the same building as. That’s normal. You can’t like everyone, but you can work with them. It’s called being professional, and unfortunately some people haven’t quite mastered that skill yet… and this is a big problem in the TEFL world.

For example:

Lack of contracts (0 hours, 5 hour contracts…)

Lack of payment or poor salaries (£10 per hour, if students don’t show, teachers don’t get paid)

Lack of development opportunities (teachers teach, go home, teach, go home… very little in between)

Lack of ‘community’ or teamwork (no staff activities, no staff rooms, no team spirit)

Lack of trust (in the system, in the staff)

In the wrong school, teaching English as a foreign language can be an absolute nightmare for those of us that truly care about our job and our students. Management can play a huge role in these nightmare situations and it’s usually management who have never taught, or have no desire to teach. People who are not educators do not truly understand what teachers and students need to build a successful team, a positive learning environment and, especially, be a part of a huge life experience for many students.

Many students have left home to come to the UK (and Canada, Australia…) to improve their English for University, for IELTS or simply to improve for themselves. It is part of our job to teach them about the culture, the strange and wonderful things that our country is famous for, and to help them enjoy their experience as much as possible.

The saying “You can’t pour from an empty cup” springs to mind here because how can we support our students if our management aren’t supporting us teachers?

Have you come across any difficulties when teaching EFL? Feel free to share them in the comments or get in touch with me on Twitter!

15 thoughts on “The trouble with TEFL

Add yours

  1. Hi,

    It’s been a few years since I was in the classroom, but your experiences tally pretty well with my own. I often found a discrepancy between the job advert and reality.

    Sorry to hear about your first job in Manchester. Quick question, did you have to take any time off?
    I only ask because I found many schools valued an ability to turn up over teaching ability. Indeed, I was once let go after phoning in sick for a third day. The DOS explained that my actions had caused numerous problems for the school: timetables had had to be changed, cover teachers found and it had meant she hadn’t been able to prepare for the next group of students coming to the school. The fact that I was in bed with a flu bug that not only made it difficult for me to teach but also could have infected half the school if I had come in didn’t seem to matter. Another school I taught at prevented a teacher from attending their brother’s wedding as they wouldn’t let them take the Friday off to get a flight back to the UK.

    It makes sense as many schools operate on the tightest of budgets. Teacher absence costs money and these schools are often struggling to stay afloat. As a result, many talented individuals leave the profession. Sadly, it’s a vicious cycle. Experienced teachers leave to be replaced by fit, young novices who, due to a lack of experience, ask for little money, driving wages down and resulting in more teachers leaving the profession.

    1. Hi Mr Benn, thanks for your comment.
      No need to apologise, I loved working there and as I said in my post I can’t fault the staff or management at all. I’m the post I linked it mentions my illness, which I suffered with for 18 months until last Christmas. Which is why I said I was expecting them to let me go. The reason I was upset was because they lied to me. If they had been honest it would have been completely acceptable and understandable.

      You’re right though, absences cost money but unfortunately that’s life. We all get sick or have child responsibilities or something, now and again. I just feel that in EFL we are more harshly penalised for it.

  2. It’s really a sad experience with teaching you’ve had … but don’t give up, if that’s what you think you’re called to be. Maybe the problems in China and Poland came from the fact that you should have talked to some teachers at those schools before accepting and naively believing their promises (as the Spanish wisely say about dealing with people: expect the worst and you shall not be disappointed). Now you know that international language schools will be more concerned about your nationality and mother tongue than your real professional qualifications. At the beginning of my career I felt I wasn’t cut to teach …. until I found the wonderful niche of business classes for adults. I’m most definitely not cut to teach anyone under 18 😉
    But thanks for sharing. Building a career is very different from just backpacking to a “paradise corner around the world.”

  3. Very eye-opening post. I only teach as a volunteer at a wonderful local institution, but I encountered numerous people who were trying to teach abroad and even had one student offer me a position teaching in China, which I turned down. Learning about some of what goes on over there makes me see all of that in a different light.

      1. Thank you. I love volunteering. I never thought I’d enjoy teaching ESL, but it’s been an amazing experience, and I’ve been very fortunate to have awesome students. Yes, I might just take you up on that offer!

  4. Thank you for this article it was very eye opening. Sorry to hear about all the negative experiences you have had. I currently teach in Russia. Lack of organisation and professionalism is also an issue here.

    1. Thank you for reading, Elliot! And there’s no need to apologise, I have also had many great experiences but the post wasn’t about those. It’s a shame you also have some issues there. I hope it’s a positive role overall!

  5. I am lucky to be a NET teacher in Hong Kong, but sometimes it feels like its an uphill struggle as well, not so much for the conditions, but for the importance placed. Still teachers plow on its what we do 🙂
    If you need resources my site has a lot, including online classroom games and apps if that would be of use

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