Why I'm not annoyed by the TEFL dossers

A brief recent clash with Jason Renshaw over whether something is rotten in the state of TEFL (my answer- yes, but no worse than the rest of this crazy world), reminded me of our only other disagreement about what he called “the smeagol teachers who turn up five minutes before work and rip out 5-10 wordfinds and worksheets as their version of preparing for a day’s classes”. Although it seems to be behind me, I have worked with and supervised people like this before, and although I saw it as a problem that needed to be tackled rather than something you just throw up your hands in defeat about, it never annoyed me. Here are some possible reasons why:

– Does teachers paid at or under the national minimum wage (summer school teachers in the UK) or less than teachers 10 years ago still working as hard as they possibly can and paying for their own materials and teacher development improve the industry, or will paying peanuts and getting monkeys finally teach schools that they get what they pay for?

– Makes the rest of us look good

– I’ve had days or even weeks when I really couldn’t be bothered and so just used my greatest hits with minimal extra preparation. If I’d never made any greatest hits, obviously I’d be using the first acceptable thing I found instead. And if I had that feeling every day for years, would I really respond differently to the TEFL dossers?

– The main reason I write worksheets is that I find it rewarding. The main reason I make sure my classes go well is that I hate the feeling of them going badly. If I didn’t have those selfish motivations, would I plan as much as now, or would I avoid it the way I now avoid paperwork?

– If I’d done a bit more partying when I was a new TEFL teacher, maybe I would’ve learnt enough to avoid teaching with a hangover at all last year!

– I can hardly claim to have found the secret to health, wealth and happiness, so I have no philosophical justification in criticising people who take the complete opposite approach to work and life (see The Unbearable Lightness of Being for more details)

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13 Responses to Why I'm not annoyed by the TEFL dossers

  1. Sara Hannam says:

    Alex, really like this post. For me, there has never been an immediate correlation between a teacher’s character/life style choices and their success in the classroom i.e. meticulous teachers who spend hours preparing are not automatically better or more effective with the students. I really dislike the false separation in ELT between “serious” and “dosser” teachers, as I suspect few teachers can deny they’ve had moments as you said when they invest less energy, and some of those who are thought of as “slackers” may perform small miracles in their own ways. Plus in a world of change, it is hardly surprising some people end up just passing through ELT – why should anyone have to commit to a life long career? Not a problem for me if people want to change direction – understandable in many cases. It seems all too simple an equation and puts the responsibility onto the individual again and pitches us against each other. I look at it differently and find myself being impressed by how many teachers invest so much extra time in their profession just to make it more interesting for themselves and their students, often, as you said, with minimal financial incentive and very little chance of development. And those who appear to not be doing so, well in practice it might be they just have a different way of planning that is not invested into visible production. In any profession there are different types of investment – it is never going to be the case that a team of teachers will all be working in the same way – and thank goodness. It would be very boring if there was only one way of doing things. As a person who has always had a tendancy to overwork, I have always been grateful to have members of the team to get me down the pub to engage in a bit of “joi de vivre” – and I’ve had some of my best discussions on the hows and why of teaching there too!! So I like to encourage difference and diversity and work with other types of teachers. Of course there might be times when this goes too far and a line is crossed, but then it could go too far the other way as in one of those over-prepared lessons that go horribly wrong cos the teacher is too inflexible to let things flow. Here the middle ground seems the most balanced and that can be better achieved with a mixture of personalities and approaches. Criticising difference is much less interesting than considering why each of us finds it threatening – so yes agree with reference to lightness and being.

  2. Sandy says:

    Yes, Alex – this is the typical wank you get from people who constantly think their teachers aren’t doing enough for their ten pounds or euros an hour, and who believe they have some sort of divine right to control everything their teachers do at work – how they teach the classes, the materials they choose, even what shoes they wear.

    I say this – do the students complain? Are they expressing a fear of being short-changed (rather than the school boss)? Only if those answers are positive should any ‘reservation’s be expressed to the teacher.

    I can remember in Russia I spent a whole year teaching speaking skills to a couple of intermediate classes based entirely on a dozen or so photocopies from the Cutting Edge resources book. They were great activities, the students enjoyed them, and when I left I passed on my ‘portfolio’ to an incoming teacher with the words ‘these are all you’ll ever need’.

    Yes, preparation is important – and it’s important to get it right, and work smart, rather than reinvent your particular wheel and look busy just for the boss.

    What a pathetic cunt he is!

  3. Alex, mate, would love to take you up on this now and spar a little more, but facts are:

    1. I can’t really find anything here in this post that I clearly disagree with! (hence wondering how it relates to our previous ‘disagreements’…) Perhaps I just haven’t read it (or read its intent) properly, or perhaps I’m wrong about something I said or wrote earlier and this post has helped me see the error of my ways… This all seems to make perfect sense to me!

    2. I’ve fallen foul of something DEFINITELY rotten in the state of TEFL (especially YL TEFL), which you might categorise as one of the nutters you said visit your site hourly and cause you to hide your place of work. See here:


    Perhaps I’m reaching the stage you were at a couple of years back, and getting one nutter a month for now…

    3. It’s 5.07 a.m. where I am right now and I’m absolutely knackered.

    Keep up the good work!

    ~ Jason

  4. Sandy, perhaps you’d like to explain that last comment of yours – as it stands in complete contrast to what were otherwise (I thought) some reasonably good points.

  5. Just for the record:

    1. I have nothing against people using a variety of quick worksheets in their classes – and in many cases actively encourage it! I’ve used the photocopiable supplements from Cutting Edge, too, and they’re good materials. Alex’s worksheets are good materials. I’ve got close to 4000 pages of materials and worksheets on my own site, which I’ve used myself and clearly encourage others to use as well.

    2. My main point in that earlier debate Alex mentions, and one I stand by, is that I disagree with teachers who do 5 minutes planning for one entire day of classes, and rip out a tonne of worksheets just to keep the learners occupied and ensure they as teachers have to do almost no thinking at all. Blaming the TEFL profession as a whole and pay rates, work conditions, etc as a way of justifying this sort of lack of basic professionalism is – well, a bit counter-productive. Beyond being a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum, I think teachers who act this way are only really ensuring their pay rates and professional standing remain saddeningly low.

  6. ET365 says:

    Jason, I rather thnk you’re putting the cart before the horse, although I can see the reasons for it at times.

    I’m sure you’re aware of the old cliche ‘pay peanuts and get monkeys’ – well, it applies to all forms of paid labour, I believe. If you want mediocre teachers, pay the ‘industry average’ and you’ll get exactly that.

    Sometimes you might find a really good teacher working for below-average rates, but they’ll do no more than the minimum, just enough to fulfill the obligations. And such schools will never regularly attract the more experienced and conscientous teachers, or get them to stay if they find themselves ‘passing through’.

    And clearly, if you want top-notch teachers, you’ve got to pay the relevant rate. It’s a simple economic fact.

  7. Okay, it looks like I may be at odds with some opinions on this issue (for one, I think that TEFL is a developing industry in most parts of the world, and if teachers want to improve their lot in terms of respect and pay, they’ll have to work their way up to it – jumping up and down and lamenting the pay rates doesn’t seem to have worked a lot so far).

    Let’s throw another cat into the dog pound here and consider the idea that in some contexts, teachers may in fact be getting overpaid! Korea is the only example I may be qualified to comment on here, and a going “basic” package for a teacher there might be around US$35,000 – $40,000 (depends a bit on where you go, but includes salary, airfares, pension, and housing). I think that’s a pretty good wage for someone fresh out of college or who doesn’t have any formal training – a wage I think it is fair to ask the teachers to make their best efforts to earn.

    On the other hand – and perhaps this returns us to the original argument – experienced and highly professional teachers (even with years of experience in Korea) can expect about the same rate; so yeah, that is not an industry encouraging or supporting professional growth and hard work…

  8. Alex Case says:

    Let’s look at another group that proved they were worth higher wages by their hard work, dedication and professional qualifications- nurses. Oh no, wait a minute, if I remember correctly that willingness to work hard for the sake of their patients was exploited with long hours and crappy pay for decades until they went on strike or went abroad for better paid jobs in such numbers that there was a shortage of staff back home

    Not sure how this whole debate started, because that post honestly was just a statement that I don’t find such staff annoying (even though I wouldn’t usually employ them myself) and some navel gazing to work out why I felt that way

  9. Yes – in getting back to your main point then:

    I don’t particularly find them annoying either (as long as they’re nice people!), unless:

    1. I have to manage them and take responsibility for their performance

    2. I have to take over their classes later and patch them up

    3. Their attitude and approach to work reflects on me as a fellow foreign/native speaker

  10. Andrew says:

    Nice post Alex.

    I agree with Jason. The difficult part of ‘Smeagol’ teachers is having to manage them. Aside from that – yes, as a freelancer, it does make you look fab!

    Every job everywhere has Smeagols (I love that term!), and things tick over just the same.

    For me, the rotten smell in TEFL is the vast amount of lowlife schools ripping off degree-educated and highly TEFL-experienced teachers.

  11. I do very much agree with your last point there, Andrew. I don’t know, maybe I’ve become so used to that particular rotten smell in TEFL that I forget about it and only notice the newer odious smells…

  12. Nick Jaworski says:

    I have to say, recently coming from a school full of Smeagols, these teachers annoy the hell out of me. In Turkey, our wages are generally average to very very good when compared to the average Turkish salary, so I don’t think inadequate pay is an excuse here.

    The rub for me comes in with the students and the classes. I just spent 9 months of my life banging my head against a wall with unhappy and unmotivated students because the majority of teachers thought a lesson with a lot of work sheets was a great time killer and helped you recover from the hangover. In the meantime the thousands of dollars the students paid for the courses wasn’t helping them improve their English. Suddenly, I’m stuck with an intermediate class that can’t speak a word, is incredibly unhappy, and doesn’t trust the teacher. Great.

    Of course the onus for Smeagols often comes from the TEFL industry itself here with their 5-minute over the phone interviews, lack of professional development, and disinterest in rewarding good teachers and getting rid of bad ones. The fact that we have a lot of backpackers and drunks in the industry is part & parcel of TEFL at this point, but I can’t say that makes me happy in any way.

    I agree with Sara that different people bring different things to the teacher’s table, but I’d be more than happy to meet people holding different perspectives that were also professional. Why is it that it would never be okay for a regular school teacher to run crap lessons where the students weren’t learning, but it’s okay for the private English course? That logic doesn’t fly with me.

    I also agree with Jason’s 3-point list above. Until the nature of the industry changes, their isn’t a lot we can do, but I think we’d all benefit if their was less tolerance for the Smeagols of the TEFL world.

  13. Nick, excellent points. Bad schools and bad teachers are feeding off each other to the deteriment of all of us.

    We mustn’t forget how many of us started of without qualifications or experience (well, I certainly did…). I was pretty well paid 10 years ago, but the wages and conditions are getting worse for those jobs now – it must be at least partially due to the employers and students realising that skirt-chasing frat boys were not worth the salary. Unscrupulous companies use poor teachers as an excuse to rip off all teachers.

    Some of them annoyed me as a trainer, some of them didn’t. I recognised that people were using teaching as a chance to see the world, have fun, learn Japanese, practice Judo, calligraphy, get hammered and / or pick up members of the opposite sex – a long as they do it in their own time and put at least some of their energy and creativity into their teaching I was satisfied. Respect is a two-way street and some teachers I knew were treated pretty shabbily by managers, who in turn were treated horribly by regional managers – why should those teachers bust a gut?

    But when you have to bail a teacher out of the cop shop after a drunken rampage, talk one more out of the school cupboard, caution another against his sexually suggestive comments to schoolgirls….. that’s a little bit beyond the pale, don’t you think?

    BTW, what’s a smeagol?

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