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Point of view: Take a taxi to the top

taxidriver Jonny Hughes

Qualifications specific to EAP are fast becoming the best way to land a job at a university, says Paul Breen. Back at the start of my English language teaching career, I assumed that I would use the experience mainly for travel, and eventually do other things. Teaching English provided opportunites to live in places such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, and even a couple of sweltering summer months spent in Shanghai on a summer break from Korean university teaching. One day, at the close of my travels, I’d go home and write a film script, open my own business, or engage in drudgery, divorced from such exotic adventures.

However, as time passed, something changed. Instead of writing scripts, my life became like that of a character in one of my favourite films of all time. This is the 1970s film Taxi Driver directed by Martin Scorsese, in which there is a sub theme of identity formation. One of the peripheral characters, a cab driver called Wizard, expresses the view that ‘a man takes a job, you know? And that job – I mean, like that – that becomes who he is’.

Over time, like many others, English teaching came to define my life, not just professionally but personally as well. Gradually, I worked my way out of private language schools into a university position in Seoul. During this time, I also embarked on a masters degree in ELT and educational technology through the University of Manchester. This was completed in the summer of 2006, during another long break from Korean university teaching.

At the same time, I sought out work on the far side of the world, ‘back home’ in London (even though I grew up in Northern Ireland). Here, I encountered the domain of pre-sessional teaching for the first time. Fundamentally, these are intensive summer courses in English for Academic Purposes (EAP). In their basic incarnation, they offer students a foundation in the skills and language required for higher educational studies in English. Increasingly though, such courses have become more closely allied to the specific disciplines students need to progress into eg. law, medicine, architecture etc. As such, EAP has evolved into a subject in its own right.

The demand for teachers has grown too, and yet there are few formal qualifications in this subject. Many people who end up teaching EAP do so out of luck as much as career design.

Within London’s universities, I have seen many instances of teachers with no more than a Delta ending up in jobs that pay 35-50k a year, whilst colleagues with the same qualifications can find no way out of roles in private language schools paying far less. Of course, not everyone is motivated by money, but EAP is one of very few areas of English teaching, right now, that offers prospects of sound financial circumstances. Yet traditionally it has been luck, as much as design, that has given EAP teachers their foot in the door of the British university system.

In my own case, in that summer of a long break, I found work in the University of Greenwich, on a nine week pre-sessional course. This gave me a taste of EAP in the British context, and I decided to make a more permanent move the following summer. Equipped with EAP experience on my CV, and the completion of my masters degree, it was easier to pick up work in British universities.

There’s an unfairness at the heart of this system though. The truth is that even for me, getting my foot in the door at Greenwich, qualifications were probably secondary to a moment of good timing, and good fortune. I got my first proper gig in EAP because they needed a teacher to cover the summer course, rather than the fact of completing a masters in a related subject.

These days though, because so many candidates have gained postgraduate qualifications related to ELT – such as the masters in Tesol – it is harder to get the first gig that gives you a foot in the door of universities.

On the plus side, there are a greater number of private institutions who are now offering opportunities for work in EAP, even though posts may not be so lucrative. These include Kaplan, INTO University Partnerships, BPP University and many others who run pathway programmes throughout the year.

But qualifications specific to EAP are clearly now the way to go, if teachers really want to make the transition into higher educational teaching.

At the University of Westminster we are launching a masters in teaching English for academic and professional purposes in 2018.

Other places too have done the same, and it seems a good way to secure a career in an area that currently offers some of the best prospects in our profession.

If it is a field that teachers are interested in, there’s every chance of finding a rewarding, more stable career. And thankfully these days, getting there is more about design than luck.



Dr Paul Breen is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster. His book, ‘Developing Educators for the Digital Age’ is out in December.

Pic courtesy: Jonny Hughes