Elgazette Logo newtrans  The magazine for English language teaching and English medium education

Why Tefl needs the right kind of troublemakers


Professionalising language school management will help reduce the number of dubious teachers attracted by a sector lacking regulation, says Melanie Butler

I first came across the name Seamus Ruddy in 1986. As a freelance journalist in those pre-internet days I spent much of my time in the BBC World Service News Library searching among the news clippings held in a special file entitled ‘Britons in trouble abroad’.

Quite a few of the Britons in trouble turned out to be Tefl teachers. Around half were the troublemakers, drug mules mostly, trying to scrape together the plane fare home.

I remember a couple of convicts on the run and at least one teacher wrongly accused of murdering his wife. Seamus Ruddy’s story stayed with me; not the only Tefl teacher to disappear without trace – murdered teachers are nothing new – but the first one I came across that seemed to have been ‘disappeared’ by terrorists.

Now, thirty years later he is back in the news again as what are presumed to be his remains are discovered in a French forest. The press coverage of the Ruddy story then suggested he was in Paris undercover and involved in gun running. But the picture emerging now, reported above, is of a left-wing intellectual who tired of Northern Irish militant splits and went to Paris to escape them, and became involved in fighting for language teachers’ rights.

‘A troublemaker,’ I can hear language school managers sniffing. ‘You can never trust a teacher who goes running to a union.’
But if they are running to a union, you can be pretty sure they are not running guns. Active militants may use language teaching as an easy cover, but they are likely to keep as low a profile as possible. I worked for a year with a teacher of Italian who was the very model of the quiet, calm, hard-working professional that language schools dream of. The last I heard he was still in prison for the crimes he committed as a member of the terrorist organisation the Red Brigade.

What many language schools around the world want is an unending supply of cheery, enthusiastic, well-behaved young people who are instantly replaceable. Who cares if they can actually teach anything? It is precisely the lax unprofessional attitude some school managers have towards teachers and teaching that makes EFL so attractive to people looking to cover up their past or hide crimes they are planning for the future.

And foreign governments let them in. Pretty much any native speaker of English will do for some schools. Two-day Tefl certificate? That’s fine. A degree from a university which doesn’t exist? Never mind – we’re too busy to check your references, we’ll take your word for it. Don’t know what a verb is? Here’s a course book. As long as you’re white and willing to work ridiculous hours for peanuts, we’ll take you.

They are cannon fodder – indeed, cannon fodder who can find themselves caught up in real wars. The EFL teacher Brian Keenan was held hostage by the Lebanese militia. International House principal Philip Padfield was killed by them.
Remember the teachers in Kuwait captured by Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War and used as a human shield? Or the teachers airlifted out of Libya by the South African special forces but only if they had the right passport?

Among the cannon fodder there will always be some loose cannon – especially when agents, schools and even foreign governments simply fail to do any background checks.

What happened to the convicted serial rapist who made up his entire CV? He was sent by a specialist EFL recruitment agency to work at an unaccredited London school.

The con artist charged with defrauding a British university language centre walked straight onto a plane and flew to a new job in Turkey.
A few basic background checks would unmask most rogue teachers. But every time one surfaces the cry goes up for ‘more professionalisation’ – as if possession of a certificate is a guarantee of good character. The Isis executioner Jihadi John passed his Celta, and so did Richard Huckle – who is now serving 22 life sentences for child abuse in Malaysia.

Governments persist in seeing qualifications as the answer. Faced with two paedophiles found working in international schools, China reacted by demanding teachers have a Tefl certificate and two years’ teaching experience.

Yet the two paedophiles were working at international schools. These are just as likely as EFL schools to be targeted by paedophiles. But they are more likely than language schools to demand fully state-qualified teachers. Teachers like William Vahey, highly qualified, who had forty years’ experience in international schools in at least ten countries despite a conviction for child molestation in California.

Demanding more qualifications is not the answer.

Demanding more experience is not the answer. We do need more professionalism, but it is the professionalisation of educational management that we need.

Professional educationalists know that if you want to keep the reputation of your school you cannot afford to hire just any teacher off the street with no background check, no references, no safer recruitment.

Professional educationalists know that you can’t get good student outcomes without good teaching and you can’t get good teaching without recruiting good teachers and keeping them. Both teacher turnover and casual hourly paid teachers are negatively correlated with test results.

But EFL doesn’t behave like part of the educational profession. It’s more like a fast-food industry with an inexhaustible supply of unqualified burger flippers on zero-hours contracts with low status and poor pay.

As Blair Matthews points out on in this issue, those are the conditions for most EFL teachers – even, increasingly, in the state sector. But even burger flippers don’t have to pay for their own training.

In EFL, as Matthews says, we expect teachers to invest their own time and money in professional qualifications and to pay to go to their own conferences. And what if they so much as think of arguing for permanent contracts, proper professional development and proper salaries, as proper professionals are prone to do? Well, then they are just troublemakers, aren’t they?

A grisly discovery

Human remains discovered in a forest near Rouen, France are believed to be those of Seamus Ruddy, a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party who ‘disappeared’ in 1985 while working for a Paris language school.
Ruddy’s friends and family have always believed that he was assassinated by members of the republican paramilitary group the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).
Ruddy left Northern Ireland for Paris in 1983 after he became disillusioned with politics, and was a well-known figure in the local Irish community, according to a contemporary editorial in An t-Eireannach, a newspaper he helped to found. He had become an activist working to improve teaching conditions with the French Communist Union the CGT. Ruddy was believed to have been killed as a result of an internal feud in the INLA which resulted in at least another three deaths.