Whether ELT is an industry or profession is a question that cannot be resolved, and a question leading to all sorts of ideological contortions and confrontations. Here’s one:
Group of Teachers A: ‘We’re GOOD. Why are you attacking us?’
Group of Teachers B: ‘We’re not attacking you but the SYSTEM. We want to FEEL GOOD TOO.’
Because if ELT is a profession, and if we think about the way professions have historically worked, then two things become evident:
i) A profession should look out for the welfare of all its members.
ii) Members of that profession should be able to exercise some control over entry to the profession to ensure the welfare of its members. [See point i.]
But it’s debatable whether ELT/ ESL institutions, effectively global instruments of governance and policy, fulfil these requirements. The recent TESOL summit high on a Greek mountain put itself above ordinary teachers by repeating the same neoliberal mumbo-jumbo you’d hear at a conference for Business Executives: the language of stakeholders, change agents, and futurology (though there were rumblings of discontent at the periphery). And the recent IATEFL conference reached new heights of aggressive commercialism as Steve Brown blogged here.
But don’t stop reading, because this post is not about TESOL or IATEFL or its members. The real problem lies much much deeper, and I’m starting to realise why again and again it results in verbal arguments and denunciations. Because the bundle of issues thrown up by whether we are an industry or profession, the back-and-forth about coursebooks, training, exams, the issue of NESTs vs NNESTs, grassroots vs elites, gender equality, this and many more issues can be boiled down to one simple question:
Who Gets to Feel Good?
Because even though I’m a good teacher I often don’t feel good – and neither do lots and lots of the teachers I speak to. And it’s not because of my students that I don’t feel good, or the inevitable frustrations of the job. It’s because of the system we work under, what I call the ‘CELTA to Pauper’, coursebook-imposing, precarity-imposing, competition-imposing system. A system we’re not allowed to talk about. A system that dare not speak its name.
You don’t have to be a radical to think about this system. You can disagree with me and think about it in your own way too. But like walking down an escalator, whatever way you choose to conceptualise the system amounts to the same thing – there’s no getting off or changing direction. It’s just the simple perpetration of inequality. Some people get a sea view, some people get a rear view.
And you don’t have to be a genius to see what’s going on with the emergence of Women in ELT, TaWSIG, TEFL equity, TEFL Guild, SLB Co-operative and others. Teachers are simply sick and tired of feeling shitty about the way they are treated by the ELT system. They are organising because there’s no space for them and they’re tired of being shut out and not listened to. In essence, part of the profession is sick of the industry, its values, its implements, its myths and the system it perpetrates. And the reason this gets everyone so riled up is that it goes beyond psychology and involves affect – pre-cognitive activity – the way you feel coming into a classroom and the way you feel about yourself as a teacher and as a person. And the way people feel is not so open to rational argumentation one way or the other.
And here’s the seed from which our problem grows. The ELT system as it exists now perpetrates the myth of scarcity. There is only so much money to go around; times are tight; publishers are losing money. These things we can argue about: That ELT austerity, like any form of economic austerity is based on a lie. That publishers have lost money because of their own conservatism and strategic errors—because that’s capitalism right? But the much more dangerous and insidious idea is that there is only so much ‘Good’ to go round. That only a subset of teachers get to feel good. That only a subset of teachers actually matter. And I can’t think of a bigger indictment of the status quo than that.
Because how can someone perform at their best when they’re stressed about their working conditions, their health, and how they’re going to pay their rent and take care of their kids? How we feel inevitably affects our day-to-day work, with the obvious conclusion that ‘Our working conditions are our learners’ learning conditions.’ And no matter how much people sugar the pill with PR—it’s clear that some people are always going to be on the outside and some on the inside, because that’s the way things stand, and that’s the system the previous generation have created, and the system much of the present generation continues to support.
So before the next argument erupts about who’s good and who’s bad—perhaps we should seriously think about Who Gets to Feel Good? and perhaps grant everyone the rights currently extended to the few, or at least talk about it. Because perhaps we can’t all feel good all the time, but we can surely feel a damn sight better than we do now.