A Valuable Skill But a Poor Profession

Published by English Evolution on

Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) has long been seen as a great way to work and travel. In Spain and other countries around the world, it is the go to job for English speaking immigrants from the UK and US looking for a bit of sunshine and a more laid back al fresco lifestyle.

However, whilst a professional teacher – someone who has completed a degree in education and/or a teaching postgraduate and is working in a proper educational setting on a permanent, full time contract that includes paid holidays throughout the year – actually earns a decent salary, teaching English as a second language (ESL) is generally a poorly paid profession.

A real teacher is respected as a professional in their field, but English language teachers are not held in such high regard. Perhaps this is because in many places, Spain in particular, an ESL teacher can simply walk into a job with a certificate from an online TEFL course and a few hours of teaching experience. Yet whether you are a fully qualified professional teacher, or you are a genuinely good ESL teacher with lots of experience, an encyclopaedic knowledge of grammar forms and functions and an exemplary Cambridge exam pass rate amongst your students, if you teach someone to speak English well, you give them a valuable skill. A skill that will open up a world of communication in business, education, politics, science and technology. A skill that will improve their salary at home and increase their chances of going further with their career in a global market. Being able to speak English as a second language well is a valuable skill, so why isn’t teaching ESL a more lucrative profession?

English teachers in demand

With an estimated 1.5 billion English learners around the world – a figure that’s expected to rise to 2 billion by 2020 – there is clearly a demand for English language teachers. Yet despite the fact that there are roughly 100,000 new English teaching jobs opening up every year, there seems to be no shortage of people to fill these positions. Also, in Spain and some other countries, there is no shortage of English academies who are less than fussy about the experience and qualifications of who they employ once their enrolment starts to pick up in September. Additionally, the Spanish education department employ hundreds of ‘auxiliares de conversacion’, who are typically graduates being paid a tax free stipend of around €1000 a month to work 16 hours a week as English speaking support teachers in public schools. Despite not having any English teaching qualifications or experience, an auxiliare’s stipend works out much more than the hourly rate an English language academy in Spain pays a qualified teacher on a contract. So even though a good English teacher can charge upwards of €30 per hour for private classes, and some of the better agencies will pay up to €27 per hour for delivering in-company lessons, there are a hell of a lot of amateurs out there with little to no experience. Some charging as little as €10 per hour for their time. Time, which if you’re unskilled, is little more than conversation with some corrections. This infiltration of the unskilled and poorly qualified ‘teachers’ of course demeans ESL teaching as a profession. However, when it comes to English teachers, you generally get what you pay for.

I consider teaching as my profession. I studied English at degree level, I successfully completed a Trinity TESOL course, and I then went on to study education at post-graduate level. We spend almost a third of our adult lives working, so I think you may as well enjoy that time and make it worth it. “A job worth doing is a job worth doing well” as the expression goes, so I apply myself properly when I deliver a course of English to my students, and I actually enjoy doing it. It is rewarding when you teach somebody something and you see them improve and develop the skill you have been teaching them. Also, what I’ve found during the years I have spent teaching in Madrid is that when students recognise that they’re getting good lessons – a good service – they want to hire you again the following academic year. As a result, I have retained many of my student groups year after year. I’ve also discovered that all of my students, many of whom have had numerous years of English lessons, have been largely dissatisfied with their previous teachers.

Using rudimentary technology in lessons is a standard part of teaching today. Computers, tablets, interactive screens and smartboards are routinely used in many modern schools. Yet many of my students have said they have never even seen a Powerpoint presentation used in their lessons. Worse still, the vast majority of my students have said that they were never taught about phonetics – most have no idea what phonetics even are! But perhaps what is even more surprising is the number of students who have been learning English for years, yet have never heard of IELTS. The International English Language Testing System is the standard used worldwide by many states, multinational companies and universities to assess whether an applicant actually has an adequate level of English to live, work or study with them. If you are studying English language to gain a qualification to get you into a university or an English speaking job, you should really know what this qualification is.

It seems to me that, whilst there is a high demand for learning English in Spain, and in Madrid in particular, there is also a dearth of high quality English language schools and English language teachers. The British Council tends to be the only real quality standard within the TEFL industry and there are precious few schools in Madrid who can boast having British Council accreditation. But even without British Council accreditation, a school with good teachers that is well organised and managed and has a good educational philosophy, can still provide great provision. But nevertheless, whether a school has been endorsed by the British Council or whether it has a great reputation makes little difference to what they pay their teachers.

Make your teaching pay

Whilst many job offers boast “competitive salaries”, it simply isn’t true, and that is a shame. It’s a shame for both teachers and students because a healthy industry that aims to improve its service should provide incentives and compete for the best exponents in that industry. But all too often, due to the poor salaries, English language teachers simply use their qualification to travel from country to country moving from job to job. There is no financial or promotional incentive within the profession to make more than the minimum effort. And eventually, EFL teachers realise that they are probably never going to make a sufficient enough living from their job to settle down in one place and develop it as a career. So instead they use their CELTA, Trinity, or whatever qualification they have, to have long bus man’s holidays in exotic locations. In turn, language schools lose good teachers and waste a lot of their time perpetually recruiting throughout the year. But students also lose good teachers, and they also lose the consistency of having those good teachers help them progress through their levels.

It’s not all bad news for teachers though. With the increasing use of technology, teachers can now manage their own portfolio of students using online platforms like Tusparticulares, Udemy and Teachable. There are also a growing number of companies looking for online teachers for the Asian market. Managing your own ‘business’ as a private teacher gives you more control over when you work and what you earn. You can build your own client base through word of mouth and online recommendations. You may even be able to move into working directly with companies, thereby taking the full €40 or so fee your agency has charged rather than the €20 or so they pay you. However, students should also have a greater awareness of what good teaching is. There is a Spanish expression that goes “Bueno, bonito y barato” – Good, nice and cheap. Well, there’s also a couple of English idioms that counter that philosophy, firstly, paying low prices are often a “false economy”, because essentially, “you get what you pay for”, and if you “pay peanuts, you get monkeys”.

The bottom line is, if you are a good teacher, let your students know why. Collect endorsements from your previous students and don’t be shy about selling yourself. Tell your students what you do that makes you worth it. And if you choose to work as a freelance teacher in companies for an agency, dictate your own timetable, where you will work and what you will work for. You are the talent and they need you as much as you need them. If an agency cannot place a teacher in a company, then they will lose the contract. Likewise, if they put a bad teacher in that position, they are likely to lose the contract. Know your worth, be professional and don’t let the tail wag the dog.

Whilst you will probably never become rich as an English teacher, it can certainly be a much more personally and financially enriching experience if you value what you do, and ensure that those who you are doing it for value it too.


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