A rising tide lifts all boats

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
By Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

It’s not like English language teaching has ever been a bastion of egalitarianism. There have always been Haves and Have Nots.

Haves earn enough to support a family and even save a little, with resources to support their teaching and professional development, in an environment that rewards them for improving their teaching skills.

Have Nots don’t earn enough to do more than get by, don’t have access to resources, and aren’t in an environment that rewards improvement.

Obviously, this is a broad generalization, and most teachers fall somewhere between these two extremes.

What I find worrisome is the sense that the gap between the two groups is growing, with increasing numbers of teachers who used to do okay finding it harder to get by. My evidence is mostly anecdotal, based on the teachers I work with through iTDi courses, but our community includes more than 5000 teachers from over 100 countries, and we’ve gathered data from the hundreds of teachers receiving scholarships. From my perspective, lack of access is one of the biggest issues.

Access to a living wage 

Some income gaps are longstanding. The gap in pay between different teaching contexts, and between native and non-native English speaking teachers is familiar to anyone working in ELT, particularly in countries where English is a foreign rather than second language.

Teachers are subject to the same economic forces that are challenging many around the world these days – currency devaluations and restrictions, austerity programs, and sanctions.

One change has been the growing awareness of professional development opportunities, both face-to-face and online. Thanks to online social networks, teachers have realized what they’re missing. While US $200 might be an adequate salary for an unmarried teacher in a developing country, it’s completely inadequate if that teacher wants to attend an international conference, or enroll in a TESOL certificate course, or take an online professional development course.

Teachers increasingly realize that conference participation and additional training can help them advance their careers in ways that will help them earn a living wage. To be aware of what they could do, but be unable to afford conference fees that are more than a month’s income, or certificate programs that cost more than they make in a year turns these teachers into kids looking in the ELT candy store window, unable to afford any of the treats inside. iTDi offers scholarships for our courses because we believe that these teachers matter, too. Every teacher who pays for one of our courses means we can afford to include more teachers who can’t pay.

Access to information 

Access to research articles has long been a perk for university teachers. While not all universities have equal access to research journals, they all beat the access non-university teachers have, which is none.

This wasn’t as big a deal when there were few ELT journals and most classroom ESL and EFL instructors found academic research irrelevant to their daily teaching lives. With the explosion of information available online, more classroom teachers are becoming interested in doing action research and publishing – in part because that’s also a way to advance careers and become eligible for better paying positions – but until they can access more than article abstracts on Google Scholar they will remain the kids outside the candy store, looking in.

Access to professionalism 

A great deal of English language teaching around the world happens in for-profit schools, and most schools are run by business people, not teachers. Since their bottom line focus is on attracting and retaining paying students, school owners tend to invest in what they believe students (or their parents) will pay for, and what will give them an edge over their competition. If students (or their parents) chose schools based on the professionalism of their teachers, schools would invest in training and retaining excellent teachers.

While preferred qualifications vary around the world, school owners can generally require their new teachers to have some sort of ELT certification. However, there is seldom support or reward for language school teachers who want to continue their professional growth by presenting at conferences, or writing, or taking additional teacher training courses. Why? Because teachers who make themselves more attractive professionally tend to leave language schools for better jobs (with higher income and greater access to resources), or they open their own schools.

This is one area of access where I have seen gradual improvement. The decline of big language school chains has created more opportunities for teachers to open their own schools. While they still need to turn a profit, they are often better able to meet the specific learning needs of students in their locales than a national chain. They tend to recognize the value of continued professional development – for themselves and for their teachers – in being better able to attract and retain students.

Teachers also have increased opportunities to share their professional accomplishments online, in blogposts or in social networks. In a sense, a teacher’s online profile is a living resume. Investing in whatever sort of professional development one can afford, even if not currently teaching in an environment that rewards it, is banking on being qualified and ready to take advantage of future opportunities when they do appear.

If access is the problem, what is the solution? What can we do to lessen the gap between Have and Have Not teachers?

  1. Support open, online journals, and let the publishers and researchers who choose to publish in them know that you appreciate having access. Stephen Krashen is a great example of a respected researcher who has made all his work freely accessible.
  2. If you publish articles or book chapters, consider uploading a draft of your work to an open access site, like Academia.
  3. Support professional teaching organizations that offer discounted membership fees for low-income teachers, or discounted registration fees at conferences. Let them know you appreciate both the efforts they are already making and any future efforts to increase access for all teachers.
  4. Support professional development that works to include all teachers, both the Haves with credit cards and strong currencies and the Have Nots, who have just as great a need for the continued training even if they can’t pay. If, for example, you enroll in one of iTDi’s 2017 Advanced Teaching Skills courses, part of your registration fee will support a full or partial scholarship for another teacher.
  5. Help your students (and their parents) become more savvy education consumers. Let them know how attending conferences or continuing your own training benefits them.

Improving access for all teachers increases the strength of ELT as a profession. I hope that you will add to this post with additional examples of the problems unequal access creates, and with more suggestions for reducing these gaps.

Published by

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara has taught both English and ESL in the United States, and EFL in Japan for more than 25 years. She earned her BA from Western Oregon University and her Masters in TESOL from Northern Arizona University. Barbara has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the U.S. and Latin America, and is co-author of the best-selling young learners Let's Go series (Oxford University Press). She is also a founding member of the JALT Teaching Children special interest group. Her motto is "Always try new things," so these days, when she's not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, you'll often find Barbara online exploring the potential of social media for professional development. If you'd like to explore with her, you can usually find Barbara on her award winning blog, Teaching Village.

12 thoughts on “A rising tide lifts all boats”

  1. Thanks for your important post, Barbara. Access and accessibility are key for so many students. There is much to do and much that can be done. Your voice is loud, clear, encouraging, and embracing. I think 2017 will mark a shift in the field. I hope that the shift involves the inclusion of many more teachers and voices in this global teaching community that we all belong to. Thanks you.

  2. Thank you for bringing awareness again to one of the issues in our ELT world. iTDi.pro is certainly a role model in terms of providing access to teachers who can not afford online PD. The more I connect with teachers around the world, the more I realize that many teachers lack the necessary resources needed to teach their subjects. Perhaps this is something we could try to address in 2017.

  3. Wonderful article. You and Chuck and all the teachers at iTDi.pro continue to inspire me in the “work” I do with EFLtalks. We, as a society, need to give back to others who are less advantaged than ourselves to build a better world for all of us. Here’s to teachers everywhere that give back to the profession worldwide. Thank you for the continuing support and the great work you guys do.

  4. Hello Barbara,

    This is an excellent post that resonates with me.

    I would very much like to do a DELTA or a even better, a Masters in Applied Linguistics, but the funds are just not there. I would also like better access to the latest research in Applied Linguistics, cognitive psychology and so on, but again, I don’t have the money to pay the journal fees, nor the time to travel several hours to a library that might have these journals on their shelves.

    In most countries round the world, the income of ELT teachers is appalling low compared with the level of skill required and the number of hours put in to prepare for lessons, not to mention teaching the lessons themselves. It is time that the ELT field is recognised for the rigour it takes to
    1) qualify
    2) develop professionally in order to keep on teaching in ways that benefit our learners.

    In my experience, ELT is widely seen as a last-resort profession. When this field is finally viewed as a skilled profession, then hopefully the pay follows suit.

    (Twitter: @AltitudeELT)

    1. Actually, teaching in general is often seen as a “back up” career, so it’s not surprising that ELT isn’t always seen as a profession. In some ways, it’s better than it was when I started in the mid-80s — pre-CELTA and when MATESOL was a new (and usually interdisciplinary) degree option. Schools can expect teachers to have some sort of qualification. However, the cost of those qualifications can reinforce the gap between local teachers paying in local currency and teachers from strong-currency countries.

      It’s a big reason that we try to price iTDi courses within reach of most teachers, and offer scholarships so they’re within reach of all teachers. Luckily, our Advanced Courses are starting to be recognized by education administrators for their quality, and I know that when we launch our TESOL certificate this year, it will gain the same recognition.

      I hope that you can find a way to gain access to the resources you need in order to grow as a teacher.

  5. Hi Barbara
    It’s almost a year since I started Heart ELT in response to the civil war in Syria in the hope of providing children with access to education. Following the first Maker Space webinars ‘Teaching in the Low Resource Classrooms’ I was inundated with messages from teachers around the world from Malawi to inner cities in the UK who said that they struggled to teach with little or no resources. Some of the sessions focused on using upsourced materials; for example, turning cardboard boxes into whiteboards (first ) and later into blackboards; however several teachers told me that even cardboard boxes were a valuable resource in their living environment – to soak up excess water in muddy entrances after heavy rain was one essential function. Hence, even these resources were too valuable to be designated to the classroom.
    I agree that in the EDUworld (and in the oft more privileged ELT) it is the ‘haves’ who could really help support the ‘have nots’. Currently, with numerous social media opportunities, there is a growing trend of business-minded ELT professionals who strive to create teachers who are also entrepreneurs. While this serves to liberate individuals from the clutches of middlemen in the ELT industry, it creates a rather Me, Myself, I approach. In my opinion, we need to ‘grow’ and nurture a new breed of ELT teacher – the social entrepreneurs. At the same time, much more collaborative work and a fairer access to conferences away from the profit making conference mechanism of international teachers’ associations is required. These are movements that are just on the horizon and I really hope we can make progress in these areas in the year ahead.
    ITdi pro is one of the socially aware organisations that is helping to narrow the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in our profession. Respect.

    1. Respect back to you! Your work with HeartELT is inspiring, and much valued.

      We really do believe that if teachers who can afford to pay for professional development, we can afford to include everyone. We haven’t proven that yet on the financial side, but as educators ourselves it feels like the only business model that is fair to all. Fingers crossed that more teachers choose to support programs that are inclusive 🙂

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