English language teaching educators must be protected

Teachers with their union Unite outside Grafton College last week, where they were protesting due to the sudden closure of Grafton College and unpaid wages. Picture: Sam Boal

As English language teaching continues to grow, protections for teachers are required at this point, writes Leon Vaughan

Portobello is no place to be left standing in the bitter December cold. I was there this week. I stood, I listened, I took note.

I have been teaching English since 2010 in Thailand, Korea, and Australia. English was my round-the-world ticket. We rarely remind ourselves how the English invented the language but the Irish perfected it.

For me, it is a profession, not a summer job. Learners tell me my teaching methods work. I’m from Clare, I speak with a western accent, and am proud of my language. We Irish speak up and out.

Ireland sits in an entirely unique place in the world with regard to English language teaching (ELT). There are several reasons for this.

One is Brexit. In a post-Brexit world, Dublin will be the English-speaking capital of Europe. Dublin has international teachers who choose to work in Ireland precisely because we are amazing at what we do here. We speak their language.

The industry pulls in more than €700m per year. We are sitting on a gold mine that has grown from our ability, like my ability, to talk our way into business. As this industry continues to grow, protections for teachers are required at this point.

Grafton College employed 23 teachers, four academic, three administrative, and three maintenance staff. The premises in Portobello was a hive of activity from 9 to 5 every weekday.

I have worked in Grafton College since April 2018. All of the time I worked in the school I was paid by cheque.

Last week, we gave our bank details to be paid by direct debit. Some of us actually thought the school was improving. But like all things in ELT, beware of false dawns. Friday nothing, Saturday nothing, Sunday liquidated.

Companies which can walk away from an ELT school like this, are not the companies with whom Ireland should be doing business. We shouldn’t even speak with them.

Remember, governments set regulations for all industries. Where are ours? If we are opening to new markets and new people, let’s set out our stall: ‘Yes, we are open for business and dialogue in Ireland but on our terms.’

Not one person that Marketing English in Ireland helped last Monday is Irish.

The stress hung in the air on Monday night as Grafton College was occupied by educators on the brink.

My job is to teach grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary but I was lost for words as groups gathered to support staff.

By 9am Tuesday, the locks were changed and the P45s were still unaccounted for. Solidarity messages from around the world flooded in. Salaries and wages for the staff vanished into the chilly morning. Portobello is no place to be left standing in the bitter December cold.

In 2015 the system effectively broke after Seda College took a court case against the Accreditation and Co-ordination of English Language Services. It mounted proceedings against the minister and the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland, which operates the accreditation system. Statutory footing has been on unregulated ground since.

The headache continues. Employees’ rights have been deliberately unprotected since day one. The precariats remain precarious.

By contrast, teachers in Australia earn up to $120 an hour, can buy land, and can get mortgages. They are not in situations like in Grafton College. I saw the spectrum of possibilities when I worked in a private school in South Korea in 2010. My school in Thailand had a 40-hour work week. Twenty hours’ paid teaching and guess what? Twenty hours’ paid planning.

ELT in Dublin is not a summer job straight out of school. English language teachers are not looking to turn a quick buck and run. We are professionals. We are mandated to teach learners to a certain level in 25 weeks. Minister Joe McHugh, as a speaker of the Irish language, surely knows how difficult this is. Our teaching abilities are at the forefront of language teaching methodologies in the world. I teach using the communicative approach. How much simpler can I communicate my message: Protect educators.

This industry will fall on its sword if not attended to quickly. Teaching is learning and teachers learn quickly. When you are left on the brink for so long you see your options clearly. Teachers emigrate just as quickly as the business owners walk away.

“Visa factories” will pop up again, the directors will pocket wages, an English teacher will work 165 hours unpaid... again. But for now, they have left the teachers unpaid before Christmas.

Leon Vaughan is an ESL (English as a second language) teacher in Dublin.

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