Saturday, May 25, 2024

There is no up

Self-perceptions of ELT teachers in the Republic of Ireland, by Deborah Tobin

The global expansion of English has led to an increased international demand for qualified, experienced teachers favourably positioning Ireland for learners seeking English-language instruction. Historically, the private Irish ELT sector has been lucrative for schools and school owners, yet precarious work conditions for teachers, including low pay, job insecurity and lack of benefits have received considerable media coverage since 2016. Despite the international education sector’s value of €2.1 billion to the Irish economy, Irish-based ELT teachers have not reaped financial rewards on an equitable scale. The government-enforced Covid-19 closure of all ELT schools led to the furloughing of hundreds of teachers, highlighting further the precarity of this industry in Ireland.

This study, conducted between November 2019 and May 2020, aimed to investigate perceptions of ELT teachers within the private ELT-school sector in Ireland. An online survey examined how they expressed their position in relation to other principal stakeholders within the industry, seeking to explore the degree to which variables of age, gender or amount of experience might be a factor in how teachers expressed how empowered or disempowered they felt in their workplace and conditions. Findings reflected a highly skilled, highly qualified and highly motivated Irish-based ELT teacher cohort with a strong sense of their own professionalism, which was not, however, found to be reflected in many cases in their workplace conditions.

Seventy-five closed questions collected quantitative data, while four open-ended questions allowed a qualitative data response. A link was sent to 85 privately run ACELS/QQI-recognised schools across the Irish Republic, with subsequent distribution channels including ELT Ireland, ELT Advocacy and UNITE ELT Branch social media platforms, plus shout-outs for respondents at two ELT Ireland conferences and in the January 2020 edition of the EL Gazette.

The study

A cross-section of 81 valid responses represented teachers from eight counties, with a majority from Dublin-based schools. Twice as many females replied than males, while nearly 70% of respondents identified as Irish, with the remainder, interestingly, comprising of 14 different nationalities. In addition, almost half of all respondents were in the 31- 40 age bracket, debunking the myth of the young, transient, backpacker and representing a more settled, steady, career ELT teacher. No respondent was inexperienced, the majority having taught for an average of 11-15 years, and almost 70% had worked abroad, demonstrating a highly skilled, internationally experienced cohort.

Regarding qualifications, the most common undergraduate degree was not a BA in ELT, but a BA in English Language and Literature, with a diverse range of disciplines listing more than half of recorded responses under ‘Other’ qualifications. The lack of available undergraduate and postgraduate courses specifically catering for the practical needs of ELT has been identified as a potential contributing factor in diminishing the career viability of Irish ELT for its teachers. While over 70% of respondents were qualified to postgraduate level, more than 80% stated either not having or not knowing of the availability of a postgraduate course in ELT/ESOL on completion of their undergraduate course in their institution, or having access to one in some way. These results suggest a talented cohort from rich, varied subject backgrounds, but raise questions as to why so few of these ELT teachers availed of or had access to a specific ELT undergraduate or postgraduate course to enhance their academic repertoire. Also, 81% of respondents had personally funded their own course. Only 13% of respondents were aware that course fees would be fully covered by their employer, while 29% stated partial-funding availability, yet almost 35% were not aware of what kind of funding their employer would provide for courses at all.

Over half had attended one to two workshops or conferences during the previous year, the majority specifying it had been for their professional development. Despite employer requirement to attend reported by the majority, just over 53% had been paid for so doing, while nearly 47% received neither payment nor expenses for attendance at conferences or workshops that were not at their workplace. Nearly a fifth reported not knowing whether they were entitled to be paid or receive expenses for such attendance, certainly an area which needs addressing if schools are to retain highly qualified, cutting-edge teachers.

Basic resources to carry out teaching duties were recorded as adequate, but respondents voiced concerns regarding inadequate technology at a number of schools, suggesting a lag behind in the technological delivery of their pedagogy. Given the overnight pandemic shift to the virtual classroom environment, and subsequent upheaval experienced by many schools and their teacher and student populations, this clearly demonstrates a need for school owners and management to use their teachers’ observations as a source of feedback on lesson delivery and updating resources.

“There was difficulty in ascertaining any kind of consistent pattern 
between payment and level of seniority”

Concerning types of payment received, the majority were paid an hourly wage. The lowest specified rate was €10 (below the legal minimum wage for an adult worker of €10.50) and the highest €28, with an average €20.30 per hour for face-to face contact teaching.

Only 12 respondents recorded annual salaries, from €15,000 to €40,000, with an average of €26,860 per annum. There was difficulty in ascertaining any kind of consistent pattern between payment and level of seniority, years of teaching experience, qualifications held, duties and days, times of day and number of hours worked, with little evidence of any consistent incremental pay-scale among this cohort, reinforcing the UNITE ELT Branch description of “anarchic pay structures” throughout the industry. Only 7% were paid for lesson preparation or correction, and 5% for exam correction and preparation, despite the regular extra time this requires.

An average holiday time calculated as 20.16 paid days was enjoyed by most respondents, the minimum provided for in Irish work legislation (8% of worked hours in the annual leave year). However, where sick pay and force majeure were concerned, the scenario was different: Irish employees do not enjoy automatic legal entitlement to either. Only 17% were granted paid sick days, almost all recorded between 3-5 days. The lack of provision in many schools for both sick pay and force majeure has been consistently raised by ELT teacher advocacy groups. Until June 2021, Irish employment law stated employees must receive written information about their workplace sick leave policy, but left paid sick leave entirely at the discretion of employers. Lack of statutory sick pay was identified as a disincentivising factor for employees who might be displaying symptoms of Covid-19 from taking sick leave during the pandemic, and roundly criticised by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). At time of writing, legislation has been introduced, the Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020, to bring statutory sick pay into law in Ireland in September 2022.

Force majeure, however, defined as “limited leave from work following a family crisis”, was largely denied these respondents, with only 12.5% reporting entitlement. The remainder stated either having no entitlement or no knowledge of such at their school, with only one knowing of three days’ force majeure clearly stated in their contract. This is an area that needs attention and it is imperative that standardisation be considered across the entire industry going forward.

On pension and medical insurance status, 81% of these teachers had no pension plan whatsoever, more than one and a half times the national average of 48% of working adults found to have made no provision for one, and firmly positioned Irish ELT schools among the 75% of national employers who do not provide company pensions. Twenty-three out of 62 respondents stated they had their own private medical insurance, yet only two had the benefit of their school contributing to this, while nearly 60% stated they had no form of medical insurance at all. These are areas that need attention if the sector is to be truly considered a profession for its teachers, given the pandemic and dominant middle-aged demographic who responded.

Accommodation questions raised serious concern. Fewer than 17% of teachers recorded ‘yes’ to having a mortgage on their own home, with nearly 84% stating they did not, and nearly 60% living in rented accommodation. This is highly consistent with previous survey findings, making Irish-based ELT teachers 2.5 times more likely to be doing so than the general population, and is a major cause for concern in terms of the direct link between precarity and not having a permanent address or access to home ownership.

Finally, when teacher attitudes to ELT were investigated, 78% of teacher respondents viewed ELT as a profession and elaborated giving positive reasons why, while almost 90% of respondents saw themselves as professionals and identified as such within the Irish ELT industry.

“These teachers identify themselves as professionals within a community 
of practice”

This is most encouraging. Despite appallingly poor working conditions officially recorded among many Irish ELT teachers elsewhere, combined with the many challenges faced by the cohort in this study, it demonstrates empowerment and high self-esteem among the majority of respondents, and a sense of self-assuredness in terms of their professional identity. These teachers identify themselves as professionals within a community of practice, as they share the same sets of concerns and problems in their day-to-day experiences, are dedicated to their work and take it very seriously. To this end, teachers must be directly included in and represented at all government-level negotiations concerning post-Covid recovery plans for the sector. Continued exclusion of their voices indicates disrespect from both government and other industry stakeholders. In addition, it raises an integral question on stakeholder status, who it includes and what it is to be a stakeholder in the Irish ELT industry, consistent with Unite ELT Branch findings that “first, we need proper regulation and recognition of teachers as stakeholders” in Ireland.

Deborah Tobin is a Year 4 PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

Images courtesy of PHOTO BY SHUTTERSTOCK and Library
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Deborah Tobin
Deborah Tobin
Deborah Tobin is a Year 4 PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.
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