Language teaching, open plan education, and organising prospects in the industry

Language teaching, open plan education, and organising prospects in the industry

A blog entry detailing my recent experiences as a language worker--examining the structure of my particular workplace and potential opportunities for organising in the industry.

For a little over a year I've been employed teaching English at a school in Eastern Europe. The company I work for is part of a massive global chain. Although ultimately owned by a major multimedia company with stakes in newspapers, textbook publishing, and online media, the 'brand' is franchised regionally.

Anyone who has worked in the industry understands that TEFL is a business run by and for global corporations. This means that, as language workers, we have two main functions. One is to improve the English of students looking for a leg up in the job market. The other is to teach “professional” English to executives and those who aspire to such positions.

Nor is it just individuals who are are interested in becoming more fluent in the “language of business”. My school offers corporate accounts where employers can purchase lessons in bulk for their workforce. In some cases, teachers are sent directly to company offices armed only with a lesson from the large catalogue of courses dedicated to business English.

Although much lip service is paid to “student learning” one other thing is abundantly clear: TEFL is a sales-driven business. My employer's public website boasts of a “business model based on intensive sales and marketing to generate profit”.[1] All employees—from teachers to receptionists—are expected to play some part in the sales process. We even have monthly sales targets, complete with crappy little bonuses, to keep us motivated.

Labour discipline, TEFL style

Upon starting the job one thing immediately struck me: all the walls inside the building are made of clear glass. Why? According to my manager, the set-up provides a truer speaking environment as background noise travels from room to room. He then explained how they hoped to do away with the glass and just have half walls instead. Welcome to open plan education.

While my manager's justification may have some truth to it, there's something else going on here and it has nothing to do with the students. It's about us, the workforce.

Glass walls provide two distinct advantages for management. First it provides constant visual and audio surveillance. In my “learning centre”, for example, the manager's office is right next to the teacher's preparation area which is, again, directly next to the student social space. Real privacy—the ability to speak to your workmates without your manager knowing—does not exist in my workplace.[2]

Coming from state sector education, we had the privilege of closed doors. There was always a room out sight and out of earshot of the boss. And we used it to our advantage: discussing problems at work, as a place for activists from different unions to meet, and as a space to prepare for disciplinaries and grievances.

Second, such a set-up increases workload. As explained by my manager, glass walls encourage students to ask us questions. Come in early to spend some (unpaid) time preparing a lesson? On a break between classes? Too bad, you're still expected to be available. One can imagine this will be even more pronounced once walls are removed altogether and students—“customers”—only have to lean over a short divider to get your attention.

Management's intentions can also be seen in the division of the workforce between “natives” (an industry term which refers to teachers whose first language is English) and the rest of the staff. Quite simply, native teachers have an entire position reserved for them which comes with higher pay and significantly better benefits.

Management reinforces these divisions in other ways, too. For example, by having a specific staff area for the natives. The turnover of non-natives is massive as well—unsurprising given their pay and conditions. None of this is insurmountable in terms of friendship or solidarity, but combined with the language barrier, it means that bonds of trust are not as easily formed as those which develop amongst the more long-term, native-speaking staff.

The education factory

For good reason, radical critics often refer to schools as education factories. My current employer, however, takes this to a whole new level: it is an assembly line of language education. In particular, the role of teachers is greatly reduced. We have students only for a short time to deliver what basically amounts to practice sessions with pre-fab lesson plans. While not having to prepare lessons from scratch certainly saves time, it limits opportunities to exercise our intellectual creativity and tailor lessons to the interests and aptitudes of students.

All this is sold to pupils—and staff—as “student autonomy”. In reality, it means that students pay exorbitant amounts of money to have new material taught to them on a computer. (This, of course, saves nicely on total teaching hours on the payroll.) Students then practice with us before finally being delivered to other members of staff who are employed fundamentally in sales. While these employees have certain educational responsibilities, it's hitting their monthly sales targets that keeps them paying the bills.

Now, I have no love for state education. It's regimented, boring, and is not geared toward teaching critical thinking. Rather, it designed to prepare students for work—both in terms of skills and deference to authority.[3] But at least in the state sector there's the pretence of education for education's sake.

Not so in this job. Although the company loves to claim their classes differ in purpose and structure to a “traditional classroom”, their model succeeds only in making explicit the commodity relation embodied in the very notion of schooling.

Furthermore, our job descriptions are written to emphasize the fact that we're “tutors” not teachers. We “deliver” lessons in order to “verify” students' knowledge. After all, teachers are skilled professionals and—private or public sector—expect a certain wage for that skill. If management can downplay that skill, they can pay us even less.

Organising Opportunities?

Despite the deepening global crisis, the TEFL industry is booming. And, structurally, TEFL teachers have a lot of power in the workplace. We're skilled. We have the abilities, fluency, and qualifications to teach English. While we shouldn't overestimate our power, it's generally not easy for our employers to find quick replacements should we, say, go on strike.

The flip side of this is that TEFL is an increasingly casualised industry. I'm lucky that I have guaranteed full-time hours (although since prep time is not included, unpaid overtime is part of the job), but zero hours contracts are becoming increasingly common. In some sections of the industry, agency work is even beginning to make an appearance.

Similarly, it's a massive industry spread literally across the globe. Concentration of language workers tend to be small with most schools having, at most, a couple dozen staff. This means that finding and maintaining a core group of militants can prove difficult.

However, this could be compensated for by the fact the TEFL teachers (especially the younger ones) use the job to help fund our travels. This means we communicate with lots of other teachers who've taught in lots of other cities around the world. Already there are websites run by and for TEFL teachers which warn of fly-by-night employers and share stories of abuse at the hands of management.[4] TEFL networks already exist. It's just a matter of using them to organise.

Additionally, in my city there is a 'language school corridor' where well over a dozen language schools are situated, sometimes with two, three, or four schools in the same building. A dedicated group of militants could begin by brushing up on local labour law and quietly offering to review contracts. This way we not only show that there are active and informed language workers in the area, but we begin to see the disparities in pay and conditions in the city while building contacts, discovering grievances, and sharing information.

And of course it goes without saying that we don't want to support just TEFL teachers, but any language worker, whether they teach Mandarin or work in reception.

Nor is language teaching any longer strictly something you do in your twenties if you have a degree and want to travel. As the job market continues to tighten up, it's becoming a long-term career. People teach English to feed their kids, not just for beer money. As workers gain experience in the industry, they are less likely to accept lousy (and often declining) conditions lying down.

But I don't want to paint too rosy a picture. The TEFL workforce is still a predominantly young one. In my experience, TEFL teachers generally have a liberally-lefty outlook. However, without the confidence to collectively challenge management, this doesn't mean much. With little experience of workplace organisation or industrial action, the TEFL workforce is one which is largely at the mercy of the boss.

Likewise, the default response of TEFL workers to problems at work is to find another job, using the experience acquired at one job to move to a different city where the wages of a TEFL teacher go further. My job, for example, runs year-long contracts. Far more often than not, teachers choose not to renew. This means that even in the face of crappy working conditions or nasty managers, the focus is on completing the year, securing your 12 month bonus and getting the hell out.

So the opportunities are there, no doubt, but there's a lot of groundwork to be done. Whether that happens will depend on a lot of factors—not the least of which includes devising a strategy which can account for the challenges unique to the world of TEFL.

Do you work in TEFL? Please feel free to share this on other sites. Are you a language worker who'd be interested in writing a piece about your experience in the industry? Please PM me as there is a tentative idea to collect and publish articles by radical language workers.


[1] Internal document are just as open about this. In fact, my training pack made the identical point. Then, shortly after, it went on to credit Chomsky with influencing the school's pedagogical model. Any non-linguistic comments Chomsky has made about education are conveniently ignored.

[2] See the panopticon:

[3] Or to put it another way, that the primary goal of state schooling is to supply employers with a workforce equipped with the skills and demeanour required for the continued reproduction of capitalist social relations. See:

[4] My favourite:

Posted By

Chilli Sauce
Feb 6 2013 10:57


  • Anyone who has worked in the industry understands that TEFL is a business run by and for global corporations.

Attached files


Caiman del Barrio
Feb 14 2013 12:50

Can of worms, those are fascinating links, thanks very much!

Not entirely sure why he's got 2 down votes for providing proof of an existent radical TEFL network, a successful TEFL strike, and introducing a new element - that of the imperialist connotations of TEFL - to the mix, but hey. Maybe those folk could justify themselves.

Feb 15 2013 15:27
Comrades we need politics, clear conceptual frameworks and a commitment to serious empirical analysis if we are to lead revolutionary struggles rather than tail end reformist demands.

Can of worms, what does a non reformist demand look like thin this context? Also on the question of clear politics, would you say there is a group you are supporting that has clearer politics than Solfed?

I actually think Solfed does a good job at being honest about what they are clear about and what they are working through. It's one of the reasons I'm such a big fan.

can of worms
Feb 15 2013 18:06

Thank you for comment EdmontonWobbly.

Sorry if my reply is either too short or overexpansive but...

The abolition of the wage system and all forms of oppression, must be our ultimate goal and, it surely follows that our immediate goals must surely guide us towards this path. For this reason I made the flippant remark about marching behind the banner of a fair day´s pay

See cartoon wiki made famous

Now, if we believe that English Language Learning is driven by global corporations in the interests of global capital (whatever that is) and most students just want a bunk up in their career, we miss the role of the state, non-profit making organisations (especially academia) and private examining boards and publishers, in the way they twist language learning to suit their particular needs (i.e to extend their power base and structure/justify growing inequalities). And of course we treat students as one-dimensional creatures straight out of a text book on game theory.

No we have to combine struggles against the imposition of English (for example in Mexico and Malaysia) and struggles to gain access to English (providing free classes in the community to kids and adults who simply can´t pay) with day-to-day fights in the workplace. The relationship between English and inequality is very complex, and in the TEFL world teachers are invariably caught up with this notion that English is about opportinity even though the reverse is too often the case.

Indeed, like university education, language learning is not a means to get a bunk up but a means to avoid great penalties in the job market if you were not to have these skills. Where I am in Spain, English is generally used as a means of reducing a list of applicants to be shortlisted for a job, even where English is of little or no importance for the actual job being advertised. It made me very angry to see Chilli Sauce insult workers (workers to be) in this manner but this is in part the ideology (English as unquestionable oportunity) of an industry which is seeping into the consciousness of a very fine militant.

Now, any demands we raise must be mindful of the complex relationship between language and inequality. We must fight to create greater access to English (and other languages) while also fighting against the impoverishment of other languages and the arbitary use of English as a gatekeeper.

And no, I am not being critical of Solfed generally or suggesting clear politics is a simple matter of an obvious pre-pared formula for revolutionary success that can be simply applied to whatever situation. I am asking comrades for more revolutionary discipline in their approach. More thought and consideration of the issues involved must be made if we are to avoid being pulled into the swamp of the ruling ideas of society.

Feb 15 2013 20:17
canofworms wrote:
Now, if we believe that English Language Learning is driven by global corporations in the interests of global capital (whatever that is) and most students just want a bunk up in their career, we miss the role of the state, non-profit making organisations (especially academia) and private examining boards and publishers, in the way they twist language learning to suit their particular needs (i.e to extend their power base and structure/justify growing inequalities). And of course we treat students as one-dimensional creatures straight out of a text book on game theory.

Could you explain what you mean a bit more here?(I'm having trouble following the academic language)

Isn't English language learning, as it exists now, used to make it easier for corporations to function? For example, using migrant labour, global communications, a common language for industries like pharmaceuticals, engineering, transport. (I had a student who was a helicopter pilot, and all his manuals were in English.) Maybe I'm completely misunderstanding what you meant, but the state and non-profits are obviously not something outside of this, they're very much integrated into the functioning of capitalism.
I'm also not sure how it is insulting to workers/English students to say that they learn English primarily out of either economic necessity, or for increasing their economic opportunities. I did a celta so I could get a better paid job, and I'm not insulted by someone pointing that out.

But I think you're right that, certainly in my job, students are treated like they're one-dimensional. There's all kinds of assumptions about students in the pre-prepared materials - the book suggests we use things like "when I become the boss of my company, I will buy a Mercedes" or "you want to be rich, don't you?" to teach grammar points. Uuuurrgghh...

Chilli Sauce
Feb 15 2013 21:22

Can of Worms, that was a thought-provoking post. Thanks.

The first thing I should say is that this is my personal writing. It hasn't been endorsed by SF and some of the people on this very thread who've been most critical are themselves SF members who work in TEFL.

This, I think, is actually a really interesting and well articulated point:

Like university education, language learning is not a means to get a bunk up but a means to avoid great penalties in the job market if you were not to have these skills. ...English is generally used as a means of reducing a list of applicants to be shortlisted for a job, even where English is of little or no importance for the actual job being advertised.

But, to be honest, I don't think it's a nuance that is especially relevant for a short blog entry that hopes to gain circulation outside of libcom.

In any case, my different phrasing does not equate to me "insult[ing] workers". Nor does it mean that capitalist ideology is "seeping into [my] consciousness”.

It just feels like some some of the criticisms of this piece should be put in perspective. I mean, the bulk of the posts thread had been overwhelmingly theoretical. I'm not opposed to criticism (in fact, I've accepted some of it) or theory but, for example, the section on organising opportunities has largely been ignored. Instead, we've had a page of posts on the semantics of "by and for".

When I write pieces—like this one—which I hope will be read by non-politicos, my intention is not to not offer some rock solid, super nuanced political analysis. Rather, I hope to situate my everyday experiences in such a way which will hopefully provide others in similar situations with (a) some context (b) be a catalyst to having a little more collective confidence in the workplace.

My point in saying this is that, ideally, I wanted this piece to be 1000 words. It came out at closer to 1700. I don't think most people will read a very long academic piece that talks about "power base and structure" or "the abolition of the wage system and all forms of oppression". But, just because I haven't singled out these things specifically in this particular blog entry it doesn't mean I'm not thinking about them. Nor does it mean that wouldn't discuss them with workmates if the opportunity arose.

In any case, tell us about your TEFL experience, Can of Worms. Have you participated in any workplace struggle? How was it organised? What do you see as the role of revolutionaries/radicals in the language industry?

On a more theoretical level, what is the relationship between terminology and workplace organisation/struggle? How does the terminology we use affect how we relate to our workmates on a material level?

can of worms
Feb 17 2013 20:20

Thank you for very much for your comments commieprincess

I had prepared a long answer but then I thought it was overylong and didn't even begin to answer your question.

If you will pardon me then I will respond comradely by posing my own questions (saving you the time to read through my perhaps overcomplicated explanation):

1. In what ways is the growth of TEFL related to the knowledge economy?
2. In what ways is the knowledge economy related to neo-liberalism?
3. To what extent are the claims of neo-liberalism and the knowledge ecoconmy being undermined by the current capitalist crisis (To be more concrete, how is it possible for increasing low pay and unemployment amongst American graduates at the same time as student debt outstripping credit card debt in the US?)
4. In what ways do text books, celta training with its emphasis on student-centrered learning, and the very idea of the value of native speaker teachers reinforce the concepts of neo-liberalism, not capitalism per se but its neo-liberal manifestation.

I honestly believe, that if you reflect on these questions a little bit more, you will answer your own questions a lot better than I am capable of doing.

Of course, the concepts of knowledge economy, neo-liberalism, native speaker teacher (NEST) and student-centred learner all need to be defined and understood but I believe it is worth it for all education (especially EFL) activists

can of worms
Feb 17 2013 21:02

Thank you Chilli Sauce for your highly principled and disciplined response.

Whatever your reasoning behind the piece I believe you got a lot wrong. You are certainly correct in saying that there is insufficient space in 1700 words to develop a nuanced picture of TEFL and organising within it The point is that with hindsight it would probably have been better to develop it in parts, part 1 (maybe 2 as well) mapping out the nature of the industry and subsequent parts, drawing on the first, to talk about how best to organise in the workplace. Only my opinon, but I think you could have saved yourself from putting a lot of people`s backs up

However, with all this said, the end result was very impressve indeed if we see the quality and quantity of the contributions. Well done!

Prior to getting involved in TEFL (I have worked in the industry for 12 years, some summers in England but generally just one city in Spain) I had been involved in rank and file activism in local government. Trying to establish networks of activists across London. In something of a political retreat (all is great with hindsight) I led a community but government funded urban renewal programme in London before finally being washed up in Spain as A TEFLer.

I see first hand (being older, having a relatively strong political education in the Trotskyist movement, being a union activist) how alien this new workforce is to traditional workplaces. I have certainly been involved in two unsuccessful campaigns to improve working conditions and pay, much to my own personal detriment. I have also seen how the trade unionism here in Spain acts to undermine workplace militancy in TEFL, with its emphasis on negotiated "convenios" with the industry as a whole (the unions here actually get paid by the state). This is not to dismiss unons here, they provide limited but necessary legal protection for workers but it is wholly understable that they were chased off the popular assemblies set up by the Indignados movement here. I myself witnessed public service workers acting alongside riot police to dismantle the protest camps, this despite the overwhelming support these protestors had in the population at large.

What I wanted in my contributions to encourage is that people think beyond the workplace for a moment, so as to situateTEFL in a wider world of neo-liberalism. I honestly believe that like working as a prison guard, customs worker or munitions factory worker (I choose these "professions" very carefully, the work of TEFL has a very particular effect on workers´consciousness.

The language issue is an interesting one and why I will certainly reflect carefully on the language I used in my contribution (I do not feel it is any different to much language used elsewhere on this blog. albeit often from people outside Solfed but ...) I am also guarded against what I see as self-defeating anti-intellectualism. It will not surprise you to hear also, that I believe TEFL is flooded with anti-intellectualist nonsense.

But again, you are to be congratulated for putting together the best discussion of organising in the TEFL workplace (berlitz reference shockingly absent) that I have seen to date.Again well done!

Chilli Sauce
Feb 17 2013 22:14

That was a really interesting and informative post, Can of Worm. And thanks for the compliments.

I do want to respond in detail, but for the time being, I just wanted to give a bit of context. When I first decided I wanted to try my hand at workplace organising, my thought was to organise politically--convince my workmates of the necessity of class struggle and then come up with a plan to confront the boss. Needless to say, this was a spectacular failure.

In the intervening time, I attended a US IWW workplace organising training and tried my hand at organizing (also in a public sector UK workplace). What that's taught me is that far more often than not, action precedes consciousness and that highly political language is really alienating for a lot of people.

Instead, I think there's much more value in appealing to the common sense nature of the facts that (a) everyone has problems at work and at some level most people understand that they have a different interest from their boss and (b) that there is safety and strength in numbers. Deeper political conversations come off the back of struggle, not the other way around.

So when I write pieces like this, that's the mindset I try to put myself in—pretending I'm speaking to a workmate. I mean, of course, there's value for revolutionaries in using precise language when we're speaking amongst ourselves (I read Aufheben, for God's sake!) but that wasn't my intention in this piece. This also explains why it was more weighted towards the practical (the latter section) than theory or analysis.

In any case, I'd be really interested to hear more about your organising attempts in Spain—the issues, how you organised, your opinions on why they didn't pan out. In particular, I'm curious to hear what role, if any, the Spanish trade unions played in the disputes.