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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.