“In the last year I earned £16,756. It’s an insult.”

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It is becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet as an ELT teacher in the UK.

British EFL teachers are being forced into poverty argues Rhiannon Carter

Money in UK ELT industry is bad. I don’t think this is news to many of us. Most people in the industry have some experience of the low pay found in private language schools around the country.

In recent years, a number of UK workers’ groups and unions have been set up for ELT teachers. Inspired by the work of Ireland’s ELT Advocacy, groups in Manchester, London and Edinburgh are hoping to address some of the poor conditions faced by teachers, including a lack of decent contracts, unpaid hours and limited professional development.

My involvement with the English Teachers in Scotland (ETiS) workers’ group led me to interrogate my economic position in the ELT industry and, from this, a blog post was formed which started some excellent conversations online. Here are some thoughts taken from that blog post, and others which I have had since its publication.

To introduce myself, I gained my CELTA in 2013, worked in Spain before returning to the UK in 2015, and completed the final module of my Delta in the summer of 2018.

The annual Living Wage in London reflects the actual costs of living in the city. It is currently £19,890.

And in the last tax year, I earned £16,175.60.

Due to seasonal fluctuations and some reduced hours around deadlines for my Delta course, this meant that my average take home each month was £1,347.97.

To put this in context, the average salary in Edinburgh, where I live, is more than £28,000 a year, according to payscale.com. Some sites have it as a little lower. Living costs are equally high: according to home. co.uk, the average rent for a one-bedroom flat in the city is £986pcm. On top of which, you pay council tax, bills, etc.

Now, for me, £1,347.97 is just about enough to live on, and I have little trouble budgeting for bills, food, and a couple of coffees or dinner out. It must be emphasised, however, that I’m in the lucky position of both having a partner with a higher salary than mine and no children or dependents. The same pay for a single parent, or even just a single person, would be much more of a struggle.

“If I get sick, I will run out of money very quickly.”

That said, having enough to get through a month isn’t the same as having enough money to relax. I have no savings. The savings that I had managed to build up while working abroad, I ploughed through in my first year of more of irregular teaching work back in the UK. If I get sick, I will run out of money very quickly. If something happens to my family and I need to jump on the next plane, my monthly budget will not stretch. If my computer crashes, I will be back on the phone asking to borrow money from my mum and, even as I write that, I realise that parental assistance is a resource that many people don’t have.

This is incredibly stressful.

I am also in the “lucky” position of having a permanent contract. Most teachers working in the UK have all of the stress of low pay with the added uncertainty of whether they will even have work next week. This is absolutely unsustainable.

£16,175.60.

In one of its first meetings, ETiS discussed the problem of unpaid work. As is the case in most schools, my pay is calculated according to the hours that I am in the classroom. My job description, however, includes a lot of work that cannot be done within those hours but which I am, nevertheless, required to do. This includes marking students’ work, preparing lesson plans, and sourcing and photocopying materials. Given my school has moved away from coursebooks (for pedagogical reasons I firmly stand behind), our teachers can also add ‘syllabus design’ to the list of activities which our job demands. The tasks ETiS discussed were even more broad: speaking to students during break times about their work, liaising with colleagues about students’ progress or talking about ways to deal with difficult students or classes, queuing for the photocopier during busy periods, arguing with your DoS about potential level changes for students. We calculated that, for every hour’s classroom work, about 30 minutes of unseen work is required. This takes an average 25-hour teaching week up to a 37.5-hour working week.

In other words, full-time.

Full-time teaching. A job which demands an undergraduate degree and a 4-week, £1,000+ CELTA. A job for which most schools would like you to have a Diploma or a Master’s.

£16,175.60.

It’s insulting. And it’s prolific; my story is not unusual. Up and down the country, teachers are struggling with this. The resilient ones (or those with the financial safety nets needed to be able to risk failing) may be rewarded with a promotion to management, but those positions are few and far between. Others make it into HE or FE, where the money is significantly better, although the problems with contracts and hours persist.

I’ve got no idea what the solution is. I’m not sure if the problem needs to be fixed at an industry-wide ELT level, or a national anti-zero-hour-contracts level. Ideally both. There definitely needs to be an attitude shift; we need to stop conflating classroom-hours and working-hours. But beyond the question of “are we being paid the minimum wage?”, I’m not sure how to fight for pay which reflects the legitimacy of ELT as a profession. This is an even bigger problem, which has ties, I believe, to the phenomenon of backpacker teachers and lowest-common-denominator teaching ‘methodologies’ being sold as effective teacher training.

All I know is that I’ve set myself a personal time limit: I have one year left of working to pay off my Delta-debt to my current school. So, I have one year to try to carve out some new directions; will it be new direction in ELT, or a new profession altogether? I’m not sure yet, but something has to give.

Editor’s note: The current UK national minimum wage for adults over 25 is £8.21 an hour. For a 37.5 hour week that is £16,000 per year. £16,175.60 before tax would be just nine pence an hour above the legal minimum once non-teaching hours are factored in.

Images courtesy of Library and UNSPLASH