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Living precariously.


The conditions that can lead to poor mental health are ripe in English language teaching, argues Melanie Butler.

Sometimes work cracks me up – in more ways than one. Some years ago I got so stressed, I began to lose the ability to speak English. I peppered my sentences randomly with bits of Italian and Spanish.

Halfway through proof-reading an article I would stop and stare at a word: ‘congestion’, ‘token’, ‘subsidy’. The all looked familiar but I had no idea what they meant.

The neurologist diagnosed burn out. ‘It’s your brain’s way of telling you to stop working.’ Mental illness can happen to anybody. But stress is often the trigger, especially in education.

As Mario Rinvolucri reminds us on page 26, anxiety about exams can blight a child’s future. It happened to his brother.

So imagine the stress of Greek nurse Foteini Kourakou who, as we report on our news section, consistently failed to hit the required grade of 7 in Ielts writing, required to register as a nurse in the UK.

Thankfully, she was able to take the OET, the medical English test recently recognised in the UK. She passed with flying colours first time. The pressure to reach native speaker competence is an additional stress for many learners of English. Not to mention a waste of time, according to research into the syntax acquisition of native and non-native speakers of English.

It takes the average native speaker of English 30 years to master the syntax, as we point out on the news section. Unless English language learners start before the age of 12, they will never make it – they will simply run out of time.

Across the English-speaking world, teacher burnout is a major concern. Last year in the UK, 3,750 state school teachers were deemed medically unable to do their jobs because of work-related stress and mental illness, according to the Guardian. But it doesn’t happen in ELT, does it?

Except of course, it does, as Phil Longwell tells us on our news feature section.

Responses to a survey on teacher mental health showed teachers needed supportive employers to help them cope, but fewer than one in four reported that line managers had received any training.

Is the only stress we recognise in EFL the one on the antepenultimate syllable?

Surely, argue my friends in mainstream education, teaching EFL is less stressful than teaching in schools: smaller classes, less paperwork, less pressure on exam results, little chance of physical assault.

All true, but as Phil Longwell points out, across the English speaking world, EFL is not only worse paid than mainstream education but it is much more precarious.

People employed on precarious contracts are 84 per cent more likely to become mentally ill than those with the same income in the same industry who have a secure job, according to a 2015 report written by McMaster’s university in Canada. So is there an end in sight to precarious contracts?

Not in the UK or Malta. Despite a general rise in the market, long stay students are rarer than hen’s teeth, which means shorter contracts. Only Ireland seems to be bucking the trend.

But this doesn’t mean that employers can’t help staff with mental health concerns.

Creating an atmosphere where people can talk openly about their mental health without fear of discrimination or mockery would be a start.

twitter logo principalMelanie Butler, editor-in-chief