Heaven, Hell and EFL – Summer School Confessions

First of all, let me start off by saying that despite the significant shortcomings I will highlight here, there was much to enjoy during my first summer school experience. This was mainly due to the infectious enthusiasm of the young post-graduates who were responsible for activities, but also largely due to the fact that, at between £600 and £800 per-week per-head, we were dealing with predominantly sweet, respectful and polite adolescents from wealthy European, South America and Saudi Arabian families, rather than the borderline psychopathic, lunatics that inhabit a lot of British secondary schools.

If you want to reclaim the self-esteem and respect that all teachers deserve from students, spend a summer working at a language school – just don’t expect much appreciation from the employers; you are business collateral – and it’s a lucrative business!

When I arrived at St. Mary’s University College in Twickenham, I was suitably pleased by the grounds and the standard of food in the refectory. It was 2013, record breaking Olympian Mo Farah was having a little bit of a run on the grounds, and news that it was going to be a glorious July made staying in the affluent Borough of Richmond with its numerous al fresco bars, restaurants and riverside drinking culture all the more appealing.

One week in and I started to wonder – WTF!

The summer didn’t disappoint, but the living quarters most certainly did. I knew from the offset that as a live-in teacher I would be staying in what would have been the university students’ accommodation. However, after almost five hours of driving up from the North of England to the deep South of London, humping my baggage into my dorm in the sweltering heat and then spending an hour listening to an induction lecture with the rest of the team, I was told that I would have to move to different accommodation. Repacking all of my luggage and humping it back across the campus in the midday sun was bad enough, but when I finally did move into my new quarters, I really, really wasn’t happy!

The original sleeping arrangement was supposed to be students and House Parents’ (the younger members of the team responsible for ensuring the students got to bed early and didn’t wreak havoc during the night) living in one section of dorms whilst the teachers were housed elsewhere, away from all the adolescents they would be teaching during the day. This of course made perfect sense; as a teacher working with 11 to 17 year olds, you would expect to command some degree of respect from your learners. Having studied to a professional level, you would expect at least some kind of respect from your employers too. Furthermore, being the wrong side of 40 (and I wasn’t the oldest by a long shot) you would naturally expect to be afforded the dignity of being able to leave your room in the middle of the night to use the loo without passing the kids you are teaching on the corridor, because, let’s face it, that boundary of respect is somehow diluted if those kids get to see you in your underwear when you’re coming out of the bathroom in the middle of the night. Well, the summer school senior manager obviously didn’t see it this way. So we had the indignity of continually passing groups of kids – many of whom we were teaching – every time we needed to have a wash or purge our bodies of digestive waste. Furthermore, the rooms were as old as the original foundations of the college, and swelteringly hot. I wasn’t best pleased. Even less so when I found out that the 19 and 20-year-old graduates who were employed as Activity Leaders were living in the private en-suite dorms that I’d been moved from!

I spoke to the operations manager of the school about this, who was also in a private en-suite dorm, and was simply told that I “should” be able to move in a week or possibly two. I’m a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face kind of guy when it comes to matters of personal respect and I’d decided that if it did extend to two weeks that I’d be heading back home. Particularly as the reason for us being moved was down to the fact that the company were making room for a massive influx of students and they weren’t going to turn down the opportunity to make more money just to keep the teachers happy. I wasn’t getting paid enough to share my English knowledge AND my underwear collection with a bunch of kids from wealthy families. But fortunately, sense prevailed within the management team and me and the other teachers were moved to more appropriate accommodation within a week.

The first thing that all the summer school staff did when first arriving at St. Mary’s that year was sign our contracts. We had all agreed to the cursory terms and conditions of employment as explained upon accepting employment for that summer, and naturally those of us who were residential – some who had come from overseas – had all made provision for our two to eight-week stint working at the summer school. So after packing my stuff in the boot of my car and driving the 200 plus miles to my new temporary job, when I saw a section of the contract that waivered my right to the working time directive which limits your working hours to 48 a week, I wasn’t too pleased. I mean, what was I going to do? Turn around and say “I’m not going to agree to working an indefinite amount of hours for a measly £395 per week” and drive back home? I’d be down about £150 in fuel costs for a start, not to mention searching for another job. So I signed in the hope that the company was only ever going to invoke this clause on the odd occasion when time and staff were stretched. This turned out not to be the case, and I don’t think that omitting to mention this section of the contract during the Skype interview process was an accident.

Classes started at 9.15am, but teachers were expected to report to the ‘teachers room’ at 8.45am. There was an hour’s lunch break at around 12.30pm unless you had canteen queue-monitoring duty, which cut your lunch time in half. Then there was a rota of excursion duties and activities that went on until 9pm with a dinner slot in between. That is unless you were out on an excursion, in which case you had to make do with the sparsest of sparse packed lunches and the lamest of lame BBQ buffets upon return. When you added it all up, teachers were doing somewhere in the region of 50 – 55 hours of what was supposed to be a 40hr week! Another teacher and I did the maths and worked out that after tax, we were earning something close to minimum wage! This stuck in my craw; it really did. But I was there, and being there, there was much to enjoy.

Creating a good dynamic between a mixed group of strangers of different ages from different backgrounds, different cities, and even different countries, is not easy.

The operations manager said that the year before was very different with a lot of tension between the staff. But our eclectic group had just by chance made a great team. I honestly can’t say that there was a man, woman or teenager amongst the group that I didn’t warm to in some way.  But I don’t thing this was down to the recruitment staff, it was pure luck. We all just somehow gelled.

Between the young guys and girls who were Activity Managers, House Parents and Transport Coordinators, to the wildly diverse range of EFL teachers with their variety of different teaching experiences, the summer school team that year had a really good rapport. As it was a lovely summer, we got together pretty much every night at ‘the benches’ on the grounds, drank, snacked, laughed and shared various tales of the day’s activities and calamities, past experiences, future plans and aspirations. It was great fun.

Despite the long hours, inadequate resources and terrible canteen food (it went severely downhill after the first week), there was a real camaraderie between the group that carried us through. The combination of youthful enthusiasm and professional naivety of the younger post-graduate workers and the life experience of the older veterans, the effervescence and wit of the teachers, both young and old, really made for a great dynamic. When you add to that the fact that the students – Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian, Argentine, Chilean, German, Turkish, Saudi – were all so sweet and delightfully full of character and charm, we were all more or less happy to be exploited whilst ‘the company’ turned over a couple of million over the course of the summer (there was an average of around 200 students every week, for 8 weeks paying between £600 and £800 per head – and that was just our school). I was probably the most cynical of the lot of us and even I didn’t moan too much. Well maybe a little, but not too much.

By week 4 most people were moving on to the next adventure in their professional lives. Those who came in to fill the gaps in the second half of the summer were mostly good people too. But, although I was going to miss the energy of what I was leaving behind, after six weeks, I’d had enough. I wasn’t interested in the offer of staying on for another two weeks. I was exhausted – and I couldn’t shake the idea that, in real terms, I was only getting paid around £6 per hour. But most of all, I was glad to get back to the settled comforts of my home and my own bed.

Edited from: Beasley – Write up My Street
Heaven, Hell and EFL – Summer School Confessions

 

A Valuable Skill But a Poor Profession

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