TEFL teaching — slavery or career path? by Leonie Overbeek


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the article ‘The Slavery of Teaching English.’ Sebastian Creswell-Turner wrote that ‘the job is tedious, the salary appalling and the prospects nil.’ The article was written in 2004 and recently published in the Telegraph of the 24th of May 2014. The article is set in Europe, and talks about the ‘hell’ that teachers are put through by the owners of private academies.

After reading it, I commented on Facebook that it made me wonder whether TEFL teaching is a career path or simply a way of avoiding responsibilities. This remark prompted quite a few responses from my friends, some of them, to my surprise (although I should perhaps have expected it) very vehement. They ranged from agreeing with me that for some it was a way to avoid the responsibilities of mortgages and career commitments, while others felt that it is a career path.

My friend Chuck Sandy, for example, felt that TEFL is something that he is responsible for and in, and which he, as he put it ‘fell in love with’. And that anyone could follow his career path if they loved what they are doing. His advice about ‘getting out’ if you hate what you are doing is wise and should be considered by all who feel themselves trapped by economic or other circumstances. Getting out may come at a cost, but not as much as staying unhappy does.

I made my remark, originally, as a result of the article, but also as a result of what I’ve observed during almost eight years of being in South Korea, teaching in a public school, and coming into contact with many others either in public schools or private academies.

I have to say that many of the teachers I came into contact with, especially during the early years in South Korea, were here for the party. In fact, I remember one recruiter in South Africa who showed some slides to prospective teachers of a young man wearing a belt stuffed with the green bottles in which soju (the most popular drink here) is served. And told them how the weekends are a nonstop party. And how much money they’d earn to spend on the party. Oh, and how they’d be able to save enough to return to their home country with a substantial nest egg. But that’s not what got me in the industry.

I came to TEFL teaching rather late in life. My initial entry into the world of TEFL came about after spending almost two months in hospital following a pulmonary embolism (actually, several dozens of clots in both lungs). Survival is generally only 30% of those who get it, so during the time that followed I got to thinking about my life up to that point and what I’d like to do with the rest of it. I was always torn between science and language at school, and up to then science had won, and so I decided to pursue the language side. And here I must admit there was an element of going into TEFL as an escape from the high pressure of responsibility (I was the administrator and buyer for a large department of a university, the chair of one of its managing bodies and sat on the committee that ran the pension fund), because at that time it was being advertised as something you could anywhere in the world, for good money, and while being a tourist in that country.

However, once I started my innate professionalism took over, and I worked hard at the TEFL certificate course I took, so much so that they asked me to teach it following the resignation of their regular lecturer. I made a point of using the resources of the language college so that TEFL trainees taught actual language classes as part of their training, as I felt that this was an essential part of preparing a professional teacher. I had full classes and glowing reports from the employers who took on the graduates I helped train. This happy state of affairs continued for two years, and then a big chain bought the college, and almost immediately we had problems. I could no longer use the practical approach I had developed (they felt that the paying language learners could not be exposed to ‘untrained’ teachers), they had a specific methodology they adhered to that everyone had to use, and the manager with her fancy car and with enough money to buy a house in one the best areas of Cape Town cut teaching hours and compensation with a liberal hand.

Severing ties with them brought me and my daughter to contracts in South Korea at the height of the TEFL boom, with promises that by 2010 (this was in 2007) there would be an English speaker in every English class in the public schools. I started at a middle school and she at an elementary school.

Since then we’ve witnessed the virtual collapse of GEPIK (at one time employing over a thousand teachers just in Gyeonggi-do, now with barely three hundred on the books and news that further cuts are imminent), the shut-down of having any native speaker teachers in high schools, and calls for Korean English teachers to ‘Teach English in English’.

Many foreigners who came as public school teachers then found employment at the hakwons (private cram schools), and for some, the hell-like conditions talked about in the article became reality (among them my daughter). To avoid paying the severance packages written into most contracts, hakwon owners resort to fair means and foul (ask my friend John Wurth for some of his stories of helping people to access legal recourse). At some places teachers are expected to work long hours, not permitted to take a break even for lunch, and live two or three in a studio apartment. They are threatened with being fired if their classes are not ‘fun’ for the students (and my daughter actually was fired for that!).

There are also people who found work at places that supports and nurtures them, such as was the case with my late friend, Peter J Venter, whose employer kept him on the books, helped fund medical costs and remained a firm friend to him during his last year of struggle with cancer.

In the public school system, I have had a wonderful time, being lucky enough to be placed among people who appreciated me and made me feel welcome. I have had opportunities via KOTESOL to grow professionally and personally, and after seven years in the profession, I am very committed to it. However, even I have my frustrations, when I am scolded like a child by someone for correcting a student (not your job, Korean teacher job), or expected to suddenly rehearse endlessly for the ‘open class’, or told that a student who cannot understand anything I say, and cannot answer any questions during an oral exam, has to be given a base grade of 50%.

I do feel we need a way forward. We need to somehow have all TEFL teachers themselves become professionals – in engineering that’s done by writing an exam for the governing body and getting letters to put after your name, in law you pass the bar – and then to be treated as such. The ‘one-year contract’ needs to be revised and people should be offered a choice of length of stay and compensation. I realize that will also mean a revision of visa regulations since most working visas are only for a year, but maybe something like the USA’s green card could be developed?

And articles like the one we are talking about need to be balanced by articles from people like Chuck Sandy, Josette LeBlanc, Malu Sciamarelli, Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto – all talking about how it became their career choice and why.

This is because, sad fact, many of us feel like my friend Mandy Sands who taught in South Korea for many years. A true professional down to the tips of her toes, she recently moved to Hong Kong and is now a TEFL teacher there. In her own words: ‘5 years in Korea blessed me in many ways but, sadly, made me so insecure as a teacher. Here in HK, I have had to learn to hide my surprise at trust and respect received, and rediscover that I am actually darn good at my job. I watch my colleagues in wide-eyed shock – they take personal days! last month, for the first time in 6 years, I stayed home for 2 days with flu!! – and no-one treated me as a leper!’

While I think it is true that if you behave with dignity and respect towards your bosses, you get it in return, as a native speaker teacher in the TEFL industry, in many cases, you are the foreigner, the other, the alien, and you are never completely a part of the culture. You always are a little apart, a little bit of an outsider, and in Korea this is perhaps exacerbated by their history of invasion after invasion. But we are none of us asking to be totally integrated, just to be treated with dignity and respect, without having to fight for it. We should be able to do what we love without having to fight the conditions in which we do it.

The Korean culture where the principal is the absolute boss, no questions asked, and no reasoning or debate allowed, places not just the foreigner, but also the Korean staff in a frustrating position. When arbitrary decisions are made and you are treated like a child, and your sense of what to do in a teaching situation is constantly questioned or denigrated, it is difficult to remain positive.

However, you may end up seeing the difference you’ve made to one person, one life, one student, and that’s worth it all. It has been for me.

Note: This article by Leonie Overbeek originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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9 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thank you, Leonie, for being willing to put your comments together in such a clear post. Even though I’m one of those who chose to teach as a career as far back as I can remember, I also know that TEFL has some really harsh conditions. It’s one of the reasons that I am proud to be part of iTDi. When schools don’t care about teachers, we need to care about each other.

  2. James Pengelley says:

    I do feel we need a way forward. We need to somehow have all TEFL teachers themselves become professionals…..

    Yes I agree. This is never going to happen until the conditions for creating a culture of professionalism are present:
    – restricted access to the peer group
    – unified knowledge base (see Thornbury’s article on The Unbearable Lightness if EFL)
    – the entry path into the profession (ie certificate courses) redevelop their aims to align themselves with the requirements for qualification mainstream education and at a fundamental level state their objectives clearly, in terms of preparing trainees for independent, high quality and autonomous delivery of English language classes in a context relevant to the trainees intended work environment, rather than making assumptions that trainees will require ongoing training and support in the field once the initial training is complete.

    Training courses that do not fully fulfill their remit (to train) undermine their own existence and that of the industry they intend to supply.

  3. Hana Tichá says:

    A great post, Leonie. Here in the Czech Republic the situation was (and still is) slightly different but I do see a parallel; twenty years ago, when I finished my BA degree and voluntarily decided to become an EFL teacher, almost anybody could start teaching English. Not only was there an influx of unqualified native speakers from abroad seeking adventure at that time but also Czechs with little knowledge of English became ‘respected’ EFL teachers. This, inevitably, made people become somewhat irresponsible. They took the job opportunities for granted and didn’t find it necessary to develop professionally as much as they do now. Nowadays there are more teachers than job opportunities, which dramatically changes the situation – to the good, I dare say. The point is that a post written by a teacher in 2004 is not what we should worry about. Times have changed. There are loads of both NESTs and NNESTs taking their job seriously – like any other professionals, including doctors or lawyers – and apart from CELTA and DELTA certificates, they hold MA or PhD degrees and keep developing professionally. So it’s not just about individuals but also about the spirit of the age that determines whether a profession is seen as slavery or a career path.

  4. Anne says:

    Brilliant! Oh, Leonie. Thanks so much for writing it. In 12 years in Korea and in good situations and bad, I really connect to what you’ve said here. I have known frustration and impotence in some situations and real support and room for growth in others. Sometimes I close my eyes to the negative side of doing the job I love because there are always things that make it worthwhile. I’d forgotten that it’s normal to take sick days when you’re sick. But each smile, each “thank you”, each child who comes to me to learn but ends up teaching me more leaves me full of gratitude for my chosen path.

  5. Leonie Overbeek says:

    Thanks Barbara for the guest spot, and thank you all for your comments. James, you touched on something I did not even think of addressing – the training! Ongoing professional development is vital, but as you say, courses need to be relevant. Hana – thank you for the insight into the Czech situation, and I’m so glad to hear the positive experiences. Anne, hang in there. I think the Korean situation is changing, and I’m glad you have the ‘aha’ moments that make it worthwhile.

  6. Kim says:

    I have been teaching English in China for over 4 years. I suffered from a lot of culture shock when I first arrived and still do to an extent. When I passed my CELTA in 2012, I dreamed of teaching in all of Asia’s TEFL hotspots – China, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand. Hearing stories like this really puts me off wanting to teach in Korea. As for Vietnam, I have read some really obnoxious comments from Vietnamese people in online forums. Maybe I should play it safe and stay in China.

  1. May 27, 2014

    […] made to one person, one life, one student, and that’s worth it all. It has been for me.” https://www.teachingvillage.org/2014/05/26/tefl-teaching-slavery-or-career-path-by-leonie-overbeek/ Thanks for the link Sophia Kahn https://www.facebook.com/sophia.khan.elt/posts/470847413061496 […]

  2. May 27, 2014

    […] In fact, I remember one recruiter in South Africa who showed some slides to prospective teachers of a young man wearing a belt stuffed with the green bottles in which soju (the most popular drink here) is served.  […]

  3. February 19, 2015

    […] TEFL teaching — slavery or career path? […]