IATEFL and Teachers as Workers


There are more than 2 billion English learners worldwide. The turnover of the ELT industry for 2017 is predicted to be close to $2,000 billion. There are some 100 spectacular multi millionaires in the ELT industry, David Nunan, Jack Richards, and Raymond Murphy among them. The number of people involved in the ELT industry who earn more than $100,000 a year is difficult to count, but however many thousands of them there are, they’re mostly senior managers of ELT organisations , teaching institutions, and publishers; coursebook writers, and top teacher trainers. A sprinkling of these seriously rich people attend the IATEFL international conference every year and give it its glamour.

An estimated 250,000 native English speakers work as English teachers abroad, and it’s also estimated that 80% of English teachers in non-native English speaking countries are not native English speakers. So a very conservative estimate is that there are more than 2 million people teaching EFL/ESL courses today. Here’s the current situation for most of them:

  • they earn less money than most teachers in their country,
  • they have no permanent contract,
  • they have no holiday pay,
  • they don’t get paid when they’re ill,
  • they have no pension rights,
  • they have little say in what or how they teach,
  • they are offered few teacher training opportunities.

And here’s what Sebastian Cresswell-Turner said in The Daily Telegraph last week about UK EFL teachers :


Headline: The slavery of teaching English

Sub-head: The job is tedious, the salary appalling and the prospects nil. No one with a scrap of ambition would choose to teach English as a foreign language.

Excerpts: In Rome, typically, an English teacher working flat-out for a variety of employers and private pupils might earn €1,500 (£1,000) a month pre-tax for 10 months a year: £10,000 annually, therefore.

Permanent positions are scarce, and there is no work in the summer.

10-month contracts from September to June leave you washed up and penniless at the start of the holidays, with little option other than to sign up as a teacher at some miserable summer-school in Kent, where once again you will be ruthlessly exploited.

All over Europe – in Paris, Madrid, Prague and Athens – it is the same. In London the constant flow of foreign students provides work throughout the year – but who can survive on the £12,000-odd a year that TEFL teachers earn there?

The most objectionable aspect of this industry is not, however, the misery of those who work in it, but the posturing endemic to it. Typical of this is the pretence of professional credibility that surrounds the Mickey Mouse teaching certificate most teachers possess.

Every year, about 14,000 innocents pay £1,000-odd to spend four or five weeks acquiring a TEFL certificate from the two main examining boards that peddle them. I won’t deny that I picked up the odd trick, but I wish I’d spared myself the hassle and sent off to Thailand for a fake certificate, as a friend of mine in Paris sensibly did.

In my experience most language schools are miserable places, bucket shops whose owners shamelessly claim that the flotsam and jetsam they employ are highly-qualified, hand-picked professionals.

Indeed, many are not really schools at all, but employment agencies that send the workers on their books (freelance teachers) out to the premises of their clients (companies who have bought English courses) and take a whacking great commission (typically, about two-thirds of what the teacher is charged out at). As the “director of studies” of one such outfit once said to me: “If only you knew how much money we are making.”

So the clients get fleeced and the teachers, cowed into submission, toe the line and nod eager assent when the boss talks of “standards” and “performance”. Of course it’s rubbish; but the charade keeps the proles in their place.

Contrast this bleak picture with the one you get when you look at the IATEFL 2017 Glasgow Conference programme, where the impression is given that ELT is riding the crest of a wave and that in general things have never been better. IATEFL, with about 4,000 members, aims “to link, develop and support English Language Teaching professionals worldwide”. Despite that “support” bit, the pay and conditions of members is outside their remit, and they have an appalling record on speaking out against poor training and certification and the widespread exploitation of teachers.

Remember what happened when Nicola Prentis and Paul Walsh tried to set up a Teachers as Workers SIG in IATEFL? Those who run IATEFL refused to allow it.


The issues that the Teachers as Workers SIG highlight are

  • the establishment of a living wage and decent working conditions for all English language teachers
  • the end to discrimination in ELT on the basis of gender, race, disability, native language, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, religion, age or political orientation.

The ruling body of IATEFL, registered as a charitable organisation, says that IATEFL can’t get involved in politics, and so they had no choice but to reject attempts to make Teachers as Workers a SIG. Sorry, they said, but despite our mission statement which says we will “support English Language Teaching professionals worldwide”, we are bound by our charter not to get involved in politics.

And yet a high point in the 2016 IATEFL conference was the plenary given by Silvana Richardson which made the case for NNESTs.  How much more political can you get? It seems that it’s OK to speak out against discrimination against NNESTs, but not OK to even publicly discuss at an organised plenary or forum the lack of a living wage and decent working conditions which affect so many English language teachers. This amounts to a political decision by the IATEFL bosses, one that I suggest reflects the fact that while supporting NNESTs is progressive (likely to consolidate rather than threaten the status quo), asking for a living wage and decent working conditions for teachers is opening up a can of worms. It sounds reasonable, but  Oh the problems it would cause! “No, No, No!”, as Thatcher said whenever she got a whiff of real change.

So let’s be clear before the 2017 IATEFL international conference gets underway: those running IATEFL choose to ignore the pay and conditions of  most of our teacher colleagues around the world. They carry on as if we all worked in an ELT environment which was generally OK, as if none of the issues raised by teachers about their pay and conditions existed. That a journalist should write about ELT in the way that Sebastian Cresswell-Turner did in the Telegraph last week is an indication of just how bad things have become: for most teachers who work in ELT industry today, ELT is a nasty business where most people get a very bad deal. Surely it’s about time IATEFL shone a light on  the pressing problems facing us, rather than turning a blind eye to them.


27 thoughts on “IATEFL and Teachers as Workers

  1. Two recent job adverts:

    1) A British Council accredited English Language school in London is looking for an English Language teacher to join our team.

    – Eligible to work in the UK
    – Minimum CELTA/Trinity TESOL or equivalent
    – Educated to a degree level
    2 years teaching experience

    Responsibilities will include:
    • Planning, preparing and delivering lessons to a range of classes;
    • Preparing session or lesson plans appropriate to the size and type of learner group;
    • Designing and producing teaching materials and adapting existing materials, including
    audio and visual resources;
    • Carrying out assessments of students’ needs;
    • Assessing and keeping records of students’ progress;
    • Marking and providing appropriate feedback on oral and written work;
    • Managing the classroom effectively in terms of behaviour and discipline;
    • Assisting with the setting up and preparation of events, activities and excursions as
    (The duties outlined above are given as a guideline only)

    You will be asked to provide proof of your identity and your qualifications during an interview.
    You will be asked to provide details of two referees.
    All references will be followed up, referees will be asked specifically if there is any reason why you should not work with children, and you will need to explain any gaps in your employment.
    If successful, you will be required to undergo a DBS check.

    Payment: £10 per hour

    £8 – £10 an hour – Part-time
    TEFL or similar qualifications needed. ENGLISH speaking TEACHERS WANTED

    By the way- Lidl offer:

    £8.25 – £9.64 per hour (subject to experience) – Join our store team where quality is not just a passion, it’s a way of life!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. When I first read that Telegraph article – I believe it was a week ago, in 2004 – I worried about the industry I was in. Was I destined, 10 years down the line, to be a 29 year old(!) earning barely enough to make ends meet, living like a college teen and spending my savings surviving the summer months?

    The second time I read it, I was in a relatively secure job with a company that we’ll call Multinational Apartment, and the article didn’t scare me so much. Still, career progression seemed limited. Without stepping out of the classroom, how viable a path did my career have to offer?

    In that same company were people not doing so financially well. Wages were supplemented according to the classes one taught, which basically allowed IA to sell a low base wage to new employees. Some people, myself included, benefitted from it, others did not.

    Of course, that article does not apply to every teacher. Sometimes when I read it it seems hyperbolic; a caricature of EFL, but it is a reality for many teachers.

    Who’s to blame? Primarily the industry, of course, but there are other people at fault, such as those who offer classes for ridiculously low fees (a potential student recently asked me if I’d go lower than his current tutor’s £10.00 an hour classes, and I’ve seen flyers in Madrid advertising private lessons at €5.00 an hour.).

    The market is being driven down from the top and pulled down from the bottom. This allows reputed institutions to charge students more whilst paying their workers the bare minimum, and people go with it, because what else are they supposed to do when tutors offer cut-throat priced lessons and the industry offers shoestring wages?


    • Hi Robert,

      Teachers would be well advised not to offer their services for less than €30 an hour in Spain, but one can understand why some are prepared to work for less.

      There are so many levels to the problem of teachers’ pay and conditions. In Europe, the USA and Canada the outfits that organise in-company classes are making huge profits, rarely offering any legal contract or paying teachers more than 30% of what they charge the companies. Private schools vary, but most of them exploit their teachers almost as much as the in-company providers. UK universities have recently (and I don’t mean 2004!) been in the news for hiring hundreds of associate tutors on zero hour contracts. In the rest of the world (including, increasingly, I believe S.Korea, Japan, and the Middle East which used to at least pay quite well) things are even worse, especially regarding conditions of work and teacher training.

      We need to put pressure on IATEFL – and also on TESOL, on the British Council, and the rest of those who run the global ELT business – to bring these matters into the open so as to discuss ways of dealing with them.


    • “One man’s voice against the industry.”

      This made me think. The industry?!

      I have gone through several strikes, union negotiations, one bankruptcy, endless teacher meetings, and I made the move from part to full time. I did so with determination. I needed to get out of the day to day pay experience for family and for peace of mind. I was at a point 12 years ago when I was ready to settle in another industry because this one, language teaching, would not allow me to live the kind of life I was hoping for. I have had debates with teachers that were happy to announce what the institution would have to do for them, full-time employment. Upon which I had to break the bad news that this is precisely the thing a language school will have a hard time to offer. Business was concentrated in the marginal hours; during the day, no students; the evenings—packed. This does not harmonize with full-time employment. If you want full-time employment, I would tell teachers, you’ve got to move. It is a problem of the industry.

      But what is the industry like? Since I moved to my teaching + admin role, I often found myself working on pricing, a business model for language services. In the end, the question that makes the cookie crumble is the students’ willingness to pay the bill. How much would you be willing to pay for an hour of language teaching? Would I pay the same I pay a mechanic to fix my car, the dentist to do a root canal, the carpenter to fix a roof, etc? Language teaching does not deliver a tangible product. Success is not always easy to measure. When I did my private students, I always felt a heavy burden of living up to my rate. And I agonized when a class turned out flat and stale. Teachers as their own managers get uneasy when they hear the refrain that “students do not learn what teachers teach”. At least for the student as client, it would be better to maintain the illusion that teaching does produce learning. For else, what is he paying for? To complicate things more, language learning is a long-term project. The offer then stands “I can teach you, you will have to do the learning; I cannot guarantee what you will learn, and how fast you will learn; but one thing is for sure, you will have to hang in there for at least 2 years. My rate is xxx $. Will that be ok?” Does not sound like a winning proposal, does it? In the end, I pictured that students should be willing to pay for language teaching what they spend on a gym membership. As an industry, getting in shape and getting “bilingual” have many things in common. Teachers then meet the role of a personal trainer, a language coach, somebody who can instruct in how it is done, helping the students to self-correct, develop routines, and above all, providing the motivation to hang in there.

      Big money is made at the nodes of the industry, where “scalable solutions” are offered, mass production produces a small margin en masse, the selling of the gadgetry of the industry, ed-tech, MAs (!), testing, certification, ministries of education, language policies. Add to this the selected few celebrities that can cash in for showing up. A bit like Bill Clinton.




      • Thanks for this Thom.

        You make some good points here. We have to do something about the way teachers are treated, but teachers who re-boot / re-brand themselves as personal trainers, language coaches and so on have far more chances of earning decent money. I think this is part of the approach of the SLB cooperative that I’ve referred to before: a collection of professionals who can offer a wide range of services to potential customers and who, additionally, pool their resources and help each other find work. So they’re not just teachers who do general English at intermediate level; they can do needs analyses, work with learners with special needs, act as a personal coach, go with a client to a meeting to act as an interpreter, translate or proof read a document, do teacher training, do on line work, and so on.


      • I hear all the stuff about re-branding, making yourself more sellable etc. But this comes from the same methodological individualism. Change what YOU do, rather than the structures that govern and shape social processes. This is inefficient at best, and there are two words to counter this: But Finland.

        In Finland, teachers are respected and paid well. Why? Because they organised and fought for their own autonomy, and they control testing and pedagogy in their field. If you have control of testing, you have power and control. Grassroots teachers have neither. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/17/highly-trained-respected-and-free-why-finlands-teachers-are-different

        Of course, in Finland we are talking about mainstream education not language teaching, but the issues of autonomy are the same.

        ELT and its representative organisations, with a few exceptions (just look how many members are in the IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG vs. Materials Writing) peddle impoverished pedagogies serving neither teachers nor learners.

        It’s a glorified Ponzi scheme.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I admit that re-branding yourself is unlikely to be the best solution to any problem you might face 🙂 But let’s not get too black and white here (black and red maybe). There’s lots wrong with the way Finland is run, and the advantages it enjoyed in the 1980s to about 2004 as a result of joining the industrialised capitalist world late are fast running out. It’s a small, homogenous country with few of the educational problems faced by many more complex (and more interesting) societies, and the achievements of the teachers are not actually half as impressive as you suggest, in my opinion, nor can they provide us with much help in trying to improve things in ELT.

        I agree, of course, that we can’t rely on individual change to solve ELT’s problems, but that doesn’t mean it can’t play a part. We need to upgrade our skills, recognise the poverty of so much of what is peddled by the organisations that currently run ELT, organise locally, work together more imaginatively, creatively and effectively in our local areas, change practice locally, and, through networks, organise our own events at local, national and international levels. We need to recognise, exactly as you say, that ELT and its representative organisations, with a few exceptions peddle impoverished pedagogies serving neither teachers nor learners. We need to be more critical of those who tell us how to teach, and we need to kick up a fuss in the name of the teachers who are suffering most. In this post, I’m suggesting that IATEFL’s refusal to allow a TAW SIG is an indication of just how much it represents the interests of the ELT establishment, and also an indication of where those attending the Glasgow conference could focus their discontent.


      • As a rep of the abovementioned SLB co-op I have to clarify that we are not teachers who have rebranded themselves in any way, except perhaps to adopt the term “language professional” to indicate our work on translations, materials design, copywriting, proofreading etc. These were things members were already doing, and continue to do through the co-op, partly because teaching alone fails to pay us a sustainable wage and partly because we enjoy these things and we think we’re good at them.

        So in reference to Paul’s comment, this is not changing what we do, because we were already doing it, and in fact the way we are trying to do it represents a structural change, because we organise the work ourselves.

        We continue to be proud teachers and resist terms like “coach”, “teacherpreneur” and other assaults on educational nomenclature from the marketeers.

        Liked by 1 person

      • (To reply to Geoff I have to reply to myself)
        Yes indeed, not “just language teachers”. I think we are sitting on our wings and have been reducing language to the instrument. I have started to put meaning back into language instruction. I am asking students to discuss ethics as it relates to their professional field. I think it was Will Durant who observed that philosophy had been hijacked by epistemological introspection on this side of the enlightenment giving up the hope for a coherent thought structure. That would be the thing language is good for. I work in higher education, and to me, thinking is what it is all about. My best college courses were informal logic, creative writing, Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad. So, are we not only language coaches but also thinking companions?

        For my part, I would be interested to know how you fixed Popper’s “Open Society…” 🙂


      • Hi Paul, I lost count of how many times I have encountered the Finland argument to back up educational reform. I do not know where you make your living, but your place must not fall short of ways that differ from the Scandinavian model. On my side, I live on a different planet. Sun 8 months a year, single language culture, black catholic, vast abandoned stretches of land. And of course, the history of Finland, as of any country, unique. These fences are as solid as concrete and ideas transfer only with great difficulty, if at all.

        At heart, it seems, there are two ways of perceiving history, prescriptive or organic. I do not trust the prescriptive type that actively seeks to give social development a decisive push to left or right through grand scale reforms (assuming one has seen the light and knows where to go). I think one does better surfing the tide and trying to do better as one goes.

        I think it is more difficult to make the system pay for my decent salary than me trying to provide a service that is irresistible, life-changing, and personally more fulfilling.



  3. Great post Geoff.

    I remember reading that article years ago. Nothing’s changed, in ELT things have only got worse. It’s also surely the case that if you suppress problems for years, solutions often come back at you in a form you didn’t expect. See Brexit, Trump …

    That IATEFL is unable to support a ‘Teachers as Workers SIG’ because of any legal restriction is untrue, according to a piece written by IATEFL members themselves several years ago. I’m speaking of “To Speak or Not to Speak – That is the Question” by Sara Hannam and Graham Hall, http://www.iatefl.org/downloads/category/1-documents?download=2%3Ato-speak-or-not-to-speak.
    I quote:

    “Charity Law does not prohibit IATEFL from becoming involved, and in fact there is a strong ethical argument encoded in the 2006 Charities Act that says it is charities like IATEFL who ensure a fair and democratic society by representing voices that might otherwise not get heard. It is for that reason that the most recent version of the Charities Act clearly invites charities to consider their role in raising important issues. IATEFL cannot act in the role of a Union, but it can take on a role of awareness raising about an issue that is important to its members and needs to be conveyed to the outside world and to other influential organizations in ELT. When discussing the issue of pay and conditions, it was also pointed out that not saying anything is actually taking a position of letting things continue as they are despite the obvious need for an immediate discussion on the state of ELT and particularly the role of teachers”

    The issue just got kicked into the long grass then, when myself and Nicola attempted to initiate TaWSIG through IATEFL, and I anticipate will continue into the future unless those at the top of IATEFL actually start listening to their grassroots. Which I don’t see happening anytime soon.

    It’s also a shame that teachers who might be add something positive to the industry are maligned and shunned, even by some of their peers. I find the whole thing mystifying to be honest.


    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for this; it helps a lot to fill in the background. As the authors you quote say “not saying anything is actually taking a position of letting things continue as they are”.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. After having worked for the British Council in Asia and Europe in fairly ideal surroundings, I found myself horribly exploited when I came to work in France, slogging for up to as many as five ‘language schools’ at a stretch. Unable to pay the bills, I gave in, learned French and took the French civil service teaching exams and now work in the French national education system.Pay is still dreadful, but I am allowed to get sick and have paid holidays. What luxury with a PGCE in TEFL, an MA in linguistics and over 30 years’ experience.Up the workers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Cate,

      Thanks for this. Well done for doing what you had to in order to at least be allowed to get sick and have paid holidays!


  5. As a NNEST from South America I can say that working conditions here are even harder. We are discriminated by our nationality (in our own home countries) because we’re not NESTs. Then, for being a woman (society asks us to have kids but at the same time employers/companies punish you for having them). Teachers salaries are so bad that they must work in 2 different schools, and have an extra part-time job on weekends. I am a fully qualified teacher who earn less than a CELTA NNEST but I can make 2 pounds more per hour if I work as an admin. person doing academic tasks. Doesn’t make any sense.


    • Hi Bárbara,

      Thanks for this. Are there any local ELT organisations that might help? What do you think can be done to improve your situation?


  6. Pingback: Teachers as Workers | ELT Blog

  7. Dear teaching_in_spain_blog,

    You seem to have written an advert for Academies rather than a critique.

    “Decent academies will also offer to help you find accommodation and some might even have an apartment available either from teachers that have left, or it could be as simple as a phone number of a friend, who will offer you a ‘great deal’ which you in turn can’t refuse or else you’ve already insulted someone on your first day. Furthermore instead of having to struggle through the bureaucratic system of Spain alone, you may receive help from the academy in getting all your documents, which of course can vary from someone coming along with you to ‘here is the form, go there, do this’ either way it may just save you some hassle.”

    I’ve seen a few blogs which are little more than adverts for the ELT Ponzi scheme., so teachers are naturally cautious and sceptical. You don’t identify yourself on the ‘About’ page – just as “An Englishman and a Greek.” Who are you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for bothering to read the Teaching In Spain blog. I just took a look myself. Since the author doesn’t identify himself/herself I’ve decided to delete the comment.


  8. Hi Geoff,
    Interesting post and comments. I’ve been in the ELT game for 12 years now and think I’ve finally found the answer to earning a decent wage; work like a dog, but try to enjoy it. I never got into teaching English for the money; it was never about that. Last year I took home over 20,000, I work in Seville, Spain. So it’s not a bad wage, I manage to support my wife and two kids. I’m always on the hunt for new ideas to earn more, which is why i did the Delta, am a Cambridge oral examiner, and also do extra business hours. It’s a comfortable living, but it could be better.
    Found it interesting what you said about how many high earners there are. I’m aware there are loads of cowboys who take advantage of students and teachers, but the hardcore expats are the ones who hold through, or just except it’s not all about the money and get enjoyment out of there job. Thanks for the info.


  9. HI Barry,

    Thanks for these comments; they remind me of the attitude that I and others took to our jobs in ESADE many years ago: we were much more interested in having a good life than in earning lots of money. There’s lots to be said for such an approach, of course, but at the same time, I’m sure you’ll agree that there are too many teachers getting screwed for us to be complacent.


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