ELT is suffering from a mild case of schizophrenia around the question: are we an industry or a profession?*

Which answer you arrive at stems from completely different sets of values which are, I would argue, incompatible.

Psychiatry divides the symptoms of schizophrenia into two categories, positive and negative:

Classic positive symptoms of schizophrenia are: hallucinations, delusions and disorganised thinking

Classic negative symptoms of schizophrenia are: introversion, apathy and low self-esteem

Do any of these symptoms apply to the mild schizophrenia affecting ELT at present?

The ELT industry

Question: if you were to cast a fresh eye on the ELT industry, what would be the unit of analysis?

  • what is produced? (the materials i.e. coursebooks)
  • what is bought on the market?
  • service providers and customers?
  • the flows of production and distribution?

What is the position of the teacher here?  It’s peripheral.

At best, the ‘teacher’ is a service provider or an entrepreneur–holding a basket of fungible skills that can be traded on the open market. If those skills aren’t needed in one particular place at one particular time then that’s just supply and demand.

In this world, the market knows best; when you’re no longer needed you just find a new job in a new market. What? You have a family, kids? Sorry, no one is entitled to a job round here!

But ‘making the market real’ is a logical error, a fallacy of misplaced concreteness – making something real and natural which is in fact, socially and culturally constructed (reification).

What is ‘made real’ here is the free market guided by the ‘forces’ of supply and demand.


The free market doesn’t exist. Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them. How ‘free’ a market is cannot be objectively defined. It is a political definition.

(Ha-Joon Chang 2010: 1)


This process of ‘making the abstract real’ comes about because of the influence of neoliberalism, a philosophy which involves a gradual encroachment of market-based mechanisms into all spheres of life, especially as solutions to social problems e.g. food banks, tax credits, nursery vouchers. In a neoliberal worldview, as individuals (and we are always individuals in this worldview) we are expected to take responsibility for ourselves, to be self-maximizing ‘entrepreneurs’:

Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself.  (Foucault, 2008: 226)


But we can’t all be entrepreneurs… and neither do many of us want to be entrepreneurs.

However, there’s no shortage of pressure to become an entrepreneur–to rebrand yourself, market yourself, to become a coach or a trainer. Because these are the brands that command higher prices from our clients.

So when did teacher become a dirty word?

An industry aims to expand. It comprises of profit-maximizing businesses driven by providing increasing returns to shareholders. All this is grounded in a logic of efficiency and competitiveness. So what are the values here?

The values are that competition is a good thing, that the market knows best (over the state and society) and that the fittest will survive–a kind of economic Darwinism.

In ELT, this logic of increasing competitiveness and efficiency leads to PARSNIP-averse materials and to the deskilling of teachers:

Teachers are pressed to accommodate to the demands of being cast as technicians and deliverers at the cost of their abilities to explore and facilitate growth. (Edge 1996:14)

In general, with society operating on market-based values, work  defines us more than ever before.  However, the border between work and leisure becomes blurred, as workers are increasingly precariously employed, work is irregular and the benefits of permanent work such as holiday and sick pay are non-existent. Globally, only a quarter of workers have full-time jobs.

Ulrich Beck (2000:14) states that “on the one hand, work is the centre of society around which everything and everyone revolve and take their bearings; on the other hand, everything is done to eliminate as much work as possible”.


As Medley (2009:12) writes, “Language instruction does not take place in a socio-political vacuum.” There are issues that need to be addressed that extend beyond the limits set by the ELT industry; these are ethical questions more suited to a profession. But these issues should not remain unsolved or unaddressed; at the very least, they should be acknowledged.

Some critical questions we might ask that relate to the dichotomy between ELT industry and profession could include:

Are we short-changing ourselves and our learners?

What might a better balance look like between ELT industry and ELT profession?

How can we bridge the gap?

Finally, this is a plea for dialogue to bridge those divisions and correct what I perceive to be an imbalance between two conflicting sets of values: those of an ELT industry and those of an ELT profession.

Between some teachers first and every teacher first.

What do you think?



Paul Walsh

*Thanks to Adam Beale (@bealer81) for first bringing up this idea



Beck, Ulrich. The Brave New World of Work. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

Chang, Ha-Joon. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Penguin, 2010. (youtube video here)

Edge, Julian. Cross-Cultural Paradoxes in a Profession of Values. TESOL Quarterly, 30: 9–30, 1996.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics:
Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Medley, Michael. Hope for the English language teachers of Kosovo. Newsletter of the Global Issues in Language Education Special Interest Group (GILE SIG) of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT), 72, 11-13, 2009.


5 thoughts on “Schizophrenic ELT

  1. 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



  2. I’ll take the bait because I am one of those trainer/entrepreneur guys and I like the debate you and your peers have started about working conditions. I think it is helpful.

    First, teacher is not a dirty word at all… but it is a different job from mine with a different career path. I chose against that career path with DELTAs and Master’s in TESOL and the like. I appreciate the educational side of things just as I rely on academic research for guidance, but it’s not for me. Vice versa, I don’t expect that my side, developing employees, is for everyone either.

    However, we need to be clear about the ‘business’ side of things. Most ‘teachers’ and ‘schools’ are businesses. For example, International House Barcelona (random example) reported $7.61M in annual sales (according to Hoover’s) and is owned by Novapred SA, a Swiss asset holding company. It is a business, and it exists within a global ELT industry. Therefore, the teachers who work there are education service providers. As a litmus test, they cannot use copyrighted material because it does not fit under educational use (non-commercial). For terminology, the people who work in the ELT industry are ELT professionals.

    But rather than seeing themselves as ‘victims’ of an industry machine, the successful teachers I meet see themselves as contributors to the industry and the success of their employer. They actively seek out and exploit opportunities. This is entrepreneurship in the sense that most companies use it now… it does not exclusively mean starting a business or going freelance.

    What cannot and will not work is to simply demand better treatment based on worthy but vague claims about opening students’ minds and making them global citizens. Further, complaining about the system is noble but fruitless. If the system is so distasteful, one option is to take the academic career path. You have chosen option two, to fight… certainly admirable and you have my respect. But I am still only reading outrage and abstract postulations about values. I have not seen the concrete steps toward rectifying the perceived injustices.

    Finally, many of your complaints are not unique to ELT as you point out. And work is changing. Work-life balance, sure… insecure employment, yup… inadequate benefits, yes. These apply to nearly all fields (and full-time employees). But it is up to workers to adapt as well and assume responsibility for their own career, income security and most importantly, their happiness. It is certainly not helpful to speak nostalgically about a past which never existed.

    I wish you and your colleagues all the best in your push for greater respect for the backbone of the industry. But a more concrete, fact-based and pragmatic approach may yield better results.

  3. I think David Mamet said that the reason so many lovers who call themselves ‘partners’ break up is that they do not know what roles they have been assigned.

    What does ‘teacher’ mean? Does it mean ‘service provider’, ‘trainer’, ‘coach’, the role of ‘in loco parentis’?

    I’d say that job descriptions need to be solid rather than fluid. People don’t mind cooperating when there is mutual respect but to be expected to do something extra for ‘recognition’ or ‘development’ without remuneration or else some kind of benefit is ludicrous. Yet it is this kind of expectation that is occurring more and more across the ‘industry’ that employs its ‘teaching professionals’.

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