Want to set up your own grassroots teaching association? Feel like organising your own Lesson Jam? If yes, then read on…
Uber-busy teachers feel free to download How to set up a Lesson Jam! (580 downloads)
Here are also some cute pics from the first Berlin Lesson Jam.
See? We’re human and we don’t bite.
I’ve been in the ELT world for nearly 10 years. While not a veteran, I’ve had glimpses of how this world works. Moreover, from what I’ve seen and experienced, I think that working teachers deserve better.
Don’t get me wrong, good institutions should be praised – and I’m still in touch with schools that treated me well. But they are few and far between.
And it’s not just me. There also seems to be a growing collection of critical voices pushing for change – or at least questioning received wisdom! One example would be the campaign for equality between NEST and Non-NEST teachers. ELT gadflies…
So yes, point one: I want to see change in ELT.
Do you have a story to illustrate what you’re saying?
Right-o. One day a student of mine came up to me after class and asked me if I would be in a witness in a court case. A real court case.
To cut a long story short, this learner had been sold a VERY expensive package of lessons (we’re talking thousands of euros) and when she turned up to the ‘Advanced’ class she was the only person who could string a sentence together. Naturally, the ‘school’ refused to give the learner their money back.
Whenever I tell people in ELT this story, the usual reaction is ‘Well, everyone knows about ……………..’ (insert name of language school chain here). My reaction is:
If people know about it, then why don’t they do anything about it?
Anything else you’d like to offload?
Yes, actually! Working conditions of teachers – the kryptonite of ELT. Everybody knows that problems exist but no one wants to talk about them.
It’s just not ‘the done thing’.
Whenever I speak about working conditions and possible solutions most people make a mental retreat into the realms of ‘it’s too complicated’, ‘how would we solve this problem’, or ‘people have tried before and failed, so will you’.
This isn’t helpful. More importantly, it shows a lack of respect for all of those teachers suffering from problems.
Ever signed a dodgy contract in a foreign language? Your problem.
Ever had your pay withheld? Your problem.
Ever had a crazy boss! Your problem – don’t bash schools!
The one thing to be said in favour of this position is that it’s a useful psychological defence mechanism against change.
If anyone has read the Nobel prize-winning Polish writer Czesław Miłosz you’ll know the concept of ‘Ketman’. This is the situation of being able to hold contradictory positions at the same time, without any psychological difficulties.
It’s the same in mainstream ELT. There is simply no existing contradiction between working in an industry where ELT companies make millions while teachers’ working conditions are worsening year-on-year.
Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives, be he a minister of state or a powerful king: to him who uses ketman, the other is a miserable blind man whom one shuts off from the true path whose existence he does not suspect; while you, tattered and dying of hunger, trembling externally at the feet of duped force, your eyes are filled with light, you walk in brightness before your enemies. It is an unintelligent being that you make sport of; it is a dangerous beast that you disarm. What a wealth of pleasures!
People can accuse me of having a chip on my shoulder (and they have) but what I can’t be accused of is doing nothing and accepting the status quo.
This includes learners being ripped off, and teachers being underpaid.
Therefore, I organised a Twitter survey in May this year with the question: Do you think a ‘Teachers As Workers’ SIG (special interest group) is a good idea? As you can see the overwhelming majority of teachers who responded supported the idea.
Unfortunately, the trustees of IATEFL did not agree. I shared ideas with another ELT blogger – the award-winning Nicola Prentis – and we submitted a proposal to IATEFL asking to create such a SIG: Teachers as Workers (TAW).
But this was refused.
The first reason given was that the proposed SIG did not fall within the ‘professional development domain’. From my point of view, I suppose it depends who is defining the term ‘professional development’.
I would argue that for a new generation of ELT teachers and trainers, against a background of globalisation, the ‘Pearson-isation’ of ELT and static or falling wages, professional development means something entirely different.
And can’t we talk about this?
What I propose is that people just start having a conversation; that we ask ‘what’s the first thing we can do to address this problem?‘
It’s debatable whether top-down solutions to working conditions have worked, or are working. No matter how many scraps of paper from EAQUALS or the British Council a school can gather – it can still be a miserable place to work.
So the problem I arrived at was:
If the current institutions in ELT can’t address, or won’t even talk about these problems – perhaps another parallel institution can?
That’s when I got the idea for a grassroots association.
Creating our own institutions
Berlin Language Worker GAS, Berlin GAS for short, is our grassroots association. We wanted as many people as possible to participate, so we also welcome teachers of other languages.
To be fair I just set up the Facebook page and the first meeting – the rest of the work has been done by the group itself. From the very start it was obvious that by and large, we all had the same concerns: getting work, keeping work, and health care (a particularly thorny problem here in Germany).
After some discussion we boiled everything down to two broad themes: insecurity and isolation. It should also be mentioned that Berlin is something of a special case: a large number of teachers are freelance, and language schools and institutions very rarely provide training or opportunities for teachers to meet.
But this isn’t important – what is important is that teachers are able to come together and organise to solve common problems in their own particular contexts.
As a group we decided that a good way to start chipping away at these problems would be to provide social events. So the ‘Teacher Pizza’ was born! Recently we also staged our first live event – the ‘Lesson Jam’.
As teachers, we don’t need to stand by and accept poor working conditions, and just by sharing information some of the isolation and insecurity can be alleviated.
Why we have succeeded
It’s hard to get people to come to meetings. But we keep the engagement threshold as low as possible and provide different ways in which people can participate.
People can post on Facebook or on our Wiki, they can attend the Wiki Jams online or even attend a meeting online via Skype chat. The engagement threshold is low because we know how busy working teachers are.
I was also influenced by the ‘Lean Startup‘ philosophy, particularly the principle of MVP. From the product development world, this is the principle of building a minimum viable product; then fine-tuning and improving the product later on in the process.
What’s important is that the core features are functioning. We have a FB page, a Wiki, we meet and have events – but we’re still developing.
Oh, and we have a grumpy cat on our wiki.
We like grumpy cats (thanks Sherri).
We also have an excellent relationship with the local professional association for English Language Teachers in Berlin (ELTABB), who have been very supportive (special thanks must go to Dale Coulter here).
We strive to be leaderful, by which all members of the group share leadership.
And the impetus for projects comes from whoever shows up with a good idea and some energy.
Other important factors are:
Precursors. Nothing comes from nowhere. I was particularly inspired by Cooperativa de Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona (SLB), a group of teachers in Spain organising for better working conditions by forming their own cooperative. George Chilton and others from SLB have been very supportive .
Check out their site for more info; I particularly like George’s blog post ‘Five questions about fair pay, respect, and equal rights for TEFL teachers‘.
Allies. No matter how militant you are, or how much you want to change things, you won’t get far without allies. And with limited resources, any grassroots group needs all the help it can get!
I would encourage anyone forming a grassroots association to try and find allies in existing networks and build on those relationships (you might be surprised at the support you receive).
How you can do the same thing
We’ve been going for about five months (now 9!) and we’re still finding our feet. We have a Facebook page, a logo, a Wiki and two innovative event forms, the Wiki Jam and the Lesson Jam.
What we’d really like to do is to spread this idea.
So…if you are interested in setting up your own GAS – then go right ahead! It’s not hard, you just need one or two people to take the initiative, set up a meeting, invite people and start. You will be nervous, as we were, but once you get moving on concrete tasks you’ll feel more comfortable.
Here you will find a folder with some guidelines on meeting facilitation, a template for writing minutes, ‘How to set up a Lesson Jam’, ‘About us’ and our logo – with variations for different cities!
Feel free to edit, remix and reuse (under CC license 2.0), or design your own logo and documents; what’s important is the grassroots organising, not the package it comes in. Please also check out Community Organizing: People Power from the Grassroots by Dave Beckwith (with Christina Lopez), they have some useful advice.
You can also ask us for support, advice and encouragement. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Remember, to organise a group like ours, all it takes is more than one pissed-off teacher.
To paraphrase Marx, you have nothing to lose but your marker pens.
And a world to win.
Kryptonite. By mypixbox on flickr. CC license 2.0.