The Grammar of Precarious Work

Marc JonesThe Grammar of Precarious Work

Marc Jones


Countable and Uncountable Nouns 

Countable and uncountable nouns are the staples of English language teaching (ELT), as are “much” and “many.” For teachers, however, “not much/many” and “none” might in some cases be more apt.  

How many teachers have a permanent contract with guaranteed hours? 

How many teachers can claim sick pay? How many of your sick days are separate from paid holidays? 

How many of your colleagues have worked for the same organisation for more than ten years? 

How many of us have a pension and how much is it likely to be worth?

There has recently been a lot of talk about social justice in ELT. We stand up for marginalised groups and we champion the underdog, at least we usually do. However, when we ourselves are the underdogs, I feel there is a tendency for us to beg and then play dead. The only problem here is that it is much easier for employers to play dead by closing down schools and leaving teachers without wages. How many of us have precarious contracts? How many of us know the state of our employers’ accounts?

School chains have gone bankrupt in Japan before, causing teachers to be without wages for months at a time. It happened with alarming frequency in Ireland last year, resulting in Christmas time GoFundMe appeals to cover teachers’ incomes, made by the students. The fact that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions doesn’t seem to matter to fly-by-night language school operators. Probably the only actual benefit of the terrible gig-economy and zero-hour contracts we put up with is that it forces us to spread our risks across several employers. How many hours are you guaranteed to be paid for each week? How many hours of work do you actually do?  

Conditionals and Probability 

How long do you think you could survive if you lost your job, or one of your jobs? How long would you have to wait to be paid if your least reliable employer didn’t pay you on time? Some of us would certainly have problems within a couple of weeks. It would definitely be a problem for those with families to support.  

Who would more likely face hardship if your employer closed down, you or your students? It’s more likely to be you, with students out by a smaller amount of money per person. Long courses, particularly young learner courses, might be paid by credit card, which can be reimbursed by the card company. Who reimburses the itinerant teachers? How likely are teachers to know the legal avenues available to them? 

If teachers take legal action, is it likely to bring any benefit to them? It might be the case that any victory is strictly pyrrhic. Employers may have to pay back lost earnings for a set period. How likely is it that teachers with public social media accounts can avoid being de-facto blacklisted? Any search of your name that is connected with legal action against a past employer is unlikely to enamour human resources departments or hiring committees toward you.  

Reasons and Causes  

If unions have power in your context, it could be a good idea to join one because you can get legal information. Some teacher organisations shy away from labour issues so they can attract sponsorship from large companies. They claim to advocate for teachers but they cannot do this consistently unless they side against those who provide a lot of funding. In order to reduce this bias, is it better to work in smaller organisations? 

Marc Jones is a teacher at universities in Japan and, for the first year in a long time, isn’t employed precariously.

Beyond Meat and Potatoes

Marc Jones
Marc Jones

by Marc Jones

When I’m listening to learners, I take notes. I bet you do, too. I’m listening to things they say and don’t say. Things that sound normal and things that sound too normal to be normal, if you get what I mean. Sometimes, when I treat my learners’ errors, I’m not just feeding correct vocabulary and grammar, the meat and potatoes of language teaching. There’s more to life than meat and potatoes, though they may be staples. In this post I’m going to show you some of the things I do, allow you a glance at my cookbook, if you like.


Pronunciation being massively under-taught in my context, I hear incorrect vowel sounds every now and then. One of the things that works best for me is just to have my learners open or close their mouths more while voicing a vowel, then rounding or spreading their lips to find the vowel in question as necessary. When they get there, I give the OK, elicit the word that was mispronounced, drill the correct pronunciation, and then get it in a short utterance.


If your learners are too formal or too casual with you or other learners, it looks like they have a pragmatics problem to solve. Often learners know the language they need but just don’t know how and when to use it. A simple, “say that more formally” or “say that more casually” can do the trick, but you might need to stop, give a few reformulations at different registers, have learners rank them by level of formality or distance, and give situations they might be used in.

Topics and Comments

“I went to Hawaii. It was hot. It was beautiful. It had a lot of beautiful beaches. It had a lot of…”

Learners don’t mean to sound boring. Some could be telling one of the most thrilling battles against cyborgs hired to kill the Illuminati and still sound uninteresting because they can’t sort out their topics and comments. Often, in stories, we organise our sentences by a majority pattern of “TOPIC (A) – COMMENT (B). TOPIC (B) – COMMENT (C). TOPIC (C) – COMMENT (D),” and so on. This might need painstaking teacher listening and you might often not be able to catch it in large classes, but it is something that learners definitely struggle with. Something like “I went to Hawaii. It was beautiful and hot. What was most beautiful were the beaches. There were also…” is more natural and you get to stretch your learners to give output beyond one or two basic grammar points.

These three areas of correction really paid off for me in seeing learner improvement. It’s not that grammar or vocabulary errors need to be ignored: they don’t, and your learners will probably get annoyed if you stop correcting these. The problem is that these other kinds of errors are hardly ever looked at in teaching materials, and so hardly ever get looked at by teachers, because unless you’re really looking for them, or unless the errors are jarring, you might miss them. By being aware you might just lead your learners to a wider range of linguistic foods to build their skills. Bring on the broccoli and artichokes in cranberry roulade!


Marc profile picby Marc Jones

Shrill bleep. I open my eyes, unplug my phone, go to the kitchen to make coffee and eat breakfast, then wash, shave, brush my teeth. I sometimes leave the house before my wife and son are awake but this is growing less common. Usually I read the news but if I’m in a slack period, I check all the job sites I use, and then I go to work.


I work three days a week at a school, one day at a university, and for the rest of my time I teach corporate clients, often through agencies. I have a love-hate relationship with the agencies because there is always a Faustian bargain in mind: what meaningless paperwork can be requested in order to justify the price to the client? This makes English teaching just another component of big business, like two-hour meetings and Gantt charts on the office wall. On the occasions I work independently, there is no paperwork bar invoices: all my students know how they are progressing in their courses because there is always feedback. I do paperwork on the train on my phone or tablet if possible, when files are urgent and formats compatible. I check Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, the job sites and think about whether Craigslist is pointless or toxic. I go to the staff room, print what I need, and then greet my students.

Between lessons I kill time reading or planning lessons in the park if the weather is nice, else it’s a coffee shop. I used to teach in coffee shops but the number of cancellations from private students just meant that the work wasn’t tenable. When I finish the planning or the book gets to the end of a chapter, I check the job sites again, just in case I missed something. I usually have: something I’m hideously unqualified for that pays numbers I can’t count to. I seethe and make plans to set up my own business, knowing that I have too much on my plate to be able to quit jobs to do it.

If it’s a really busy day I might need to rush home to cook dinner for my family before going back out to teach at a company. My cooking is awful and this is exacerbated by the pressure to leave the house in decent time to get to the next gig. I also know all my concentration has been spent on the morning lesson and shouting at the Internet.

I drink a can of coffee on the train and will usually have a snack or twelve to keep my energy up. My wife warns me about diabetes but I’m more immediately concerned with the supply of energy to my brain and limbs. I greet my students with a caffeinated smile and hope that I don’t fall asleep in the middle of the lesson.

I say my goodbyes after setting homework or listening to arguments against it and get on the train home. I might wake up in time to get off at my local station or else I change platforms to the same train in the opposite direction and look forward to another exciting day full of autonomy, free from outside influences and the anxiety of working for The Man. I am a freelancer!

No Respect These Days

Marc profile picBy Marc Jones

There are a lot of people who say that they could not teach teenagers, that it is too hard and that there is a “lack of respect”. This lack of respect keeps coming up, again and again. It is usually followed by some comment like “When I was their age, I wouldn’t have dared to do that”, where “that” could be anything from sleeping in class, drawing on desks, or just constant chatter, while the teacher – the authority figure – is there to ward off misbehavior.

Marc's post picLighten up! Maybe I am totally wrong here but these young people with their low-level disorder have reasons for what they do. Some of it is about what goes on in the classroom but some of it has nothing to do with school, let alone your lessons. Some teenagers get sleepy because they have heavy workload and social obligations. Question your responses and those of others around you. Are you sure the gamer who is sleepy in every class is not just trying to escape a turbulent home life? Is the noisy kid acting out or is it that there is so much worry at home that there needs to be a release somewhere? We are not always privy to such information so making assumptions seems unwise.

“They just hang out with their friends or play stupid computer games.” This hanging out is, sorry to say it, probably more important to the development of the teenagers in our charge than the finer points of irregular past-tense verbs. If we can make our language classes more social and provide an outlet for small talk, I think we can say that at least part of our lessons have been successful. “This graffiti is disrespectful.” Yes, it is. That said, nobody in their teens is seized by a desire to sit in rows for six hours a day listening to people on the other side of a wide generation gap. They go to school because there are consequences for not going. If I could have avoided school with no fallout as a teen, I would have. My personal outlet for the frustration I felt was a marker pen on the notices and warnings posted on the walls or in my maths, German and French textbooks. “The low-level disturbance is just constant.” It can be. Why? Could this be harnessed? If not, could it be contained?

I teach in a prestigious school that usually leads to entry to a prestigious university. The boys I see for an hour a week are or have been motivated, but sometimes they get close to breaking. On top of that, factor in the social anxiety and awkwardness that goes with teen age and it is a wonder I do not have outright hysteria on my hands every day.

When I first started working at this school, I was authoritarian with the classes that did not behave in the way I expected. The classes of more acquiescent teenagers were given more of an outlet for fun and creative use of language. In hindsight, the classes that did not live up to my expectations were exactly the ones that needed the outlet more.

So what do I do? Let them run riot? No. The language is there to be used, be it for entertainment or communication. There is a syllabus but as long as it is covered somehow, I do not care how the learning takes place. The only rules are that nobody is disrespectful of anyone, and that jokes are not funny if not everyone is laughing. It generally works, and that is OK; there needs to be a reason to use the language but if it only comes from above, then allowing a bit of subversion is the least I can do.

Nobody writes on the desks because the consequence is cleaning everyone’s desk. There is English spoken because the consequence is that you get more practice and can help your classmates. There is respect, hard won sometimes, transient at others, but it is there. Whether or not I am respected is neither here nor there; if my students at least respect one another, they nail their pragmatics and develop better conversation skills in English. It’s about them. My graffiti days are done.