The TEFL Blame Game

A recent typically involving discussion on ELT Jam turned about halfway through into a version of my new favourite comedy podcast The Blame Game. Instead of questions like “Who do you blame for Jeremy Paxman?”, the TEFL version had questions like “Who can we blame for the conditions of our ‘profession’?”

Here is who I would most blame, in approximate order, with explanations below.

  1. Governments
  2. Organisations which are put in charge of educational standards such as The British Council in the UK
  3. Teachers’ organisations (IATEFL, TESOL, etc)
  4. The most well-established TEFL certification providers (mainly meaning Cambridge and Trinity)
  5. The British Council, International House, Bell and other chains which traditionally had good educational reputations
  6. Universities
  7. Big local publishers who (also) produce EFL materials
  8. Big international ELT publishers
  9. People who choose to go into the classroom with no or minimal teaching qualifications or training
  10. Less well-known and/ or well-respected four-week face-to-face TEFL course providers.
  11. Purely online TEFL course providers
  12. Business HR departments
  13. Large very commercial chains of schools like EF and Wall Street
  14. EFL exam boards like Cambridge English, IELTS and ETS (of TOEIC and TOEFL fame)
  15. TEFL bloggers
  16. Recruiters
  17. Students (or their parents)


1. Governments –Because immigration rules that mean a degree in Physics is more important than a teaching qualification (of any kind) for getting a visa to teach basically show that most governments have no interest in how much their citizens actually learn as long as no one complains.

2. Organisations which are put in charge of educational standards such as The British Council in the UK – For thinking they can improve educational standards without improving teachers’ job conditions, or that such a thing would be desirable even if it was possible

3. Teachers’ organisations (IATEFL, TESOL, etc) – For not putting (more) effort into pushing governments etc into really improving standards

4. The most well-established TEFL certification providers (mainly meaning Cambridge and Trinity) – For treating their teaching qualifications as cash cows and putting basically no effort into showing governments, school boards, potential trainees, students etc the value of teacher training.

5. The British Council, International House, Bell and other chains which traditionally had good educational reputations – For showing less and less confidence in the idea of quality teachers teaching well being another way to make money, or at least not being willing to offer good enough conditions to make that work

6. Universities – For being responsible for probably the biggest drop in teaching standards and conditions, including in some cases using teachers from the very worst language school chains and outsourcing companies to teach their students

7. Big local publishers who (also) produce EFL materials – For making the international publishers look like the kind of non-profit educational groups that some of them used to be with their complete pushing of quantity over quality

8. Big international ELT publishers – For just following marketing rather than trying to lead the market (as all good companies do), including when what the marketing department tells them people want goes completely against what they know to be true about teaching and learning

9. People who choose to go into the classroom with no or minimal teaching qualifications or training – Some people might put them lower in this list, but I think there is no excuse for claiming to be a teacher with zero training, even if it is “just” a TEFL teacher

10. Less well-known and/ or well-respected four-week face-to-face TEFL course providers. – For devaluing four-week courses with their lies about CELTA, lies about their own courses, lies about accreditation, etc and their obviously dodgy marketing – rather ironically most of all laying the seeds of their own destruction by making online courses look no worse

11. Purely online TEFL course providers – For all the same things as the dodgier face to face courses, but I blame them less because they came later and if someone chooses to believe that a few online questionnaires and 60 quid makes you qualified to teach, they pretty much deserve what they get

12. Business HR departments – For just treating English as a quick, easy and cheap way of ticking off the “employees trained” box, with little serious attempt to ensure that is actually true

13. Large very commercial chains of schools like EF and Wall Street – Less blame than the traditionally more respectable schools, because after all what can you expect…

14. EFL exam boards like Cambridge English, IELTS and ETS (of TOEIC and TOEFL fame) – Lower than teacher training organisations despite their possibly bigger effect on the industry, because I believe being commercial is more understandable in this case

15. TEFL bloggers – For putting too much emphasis on activities rather than activism (myself included)

16. Recruiters and outsourcing companies – Like estate agents, you can hardly expect anything but lies from recruiters, so I’d more blame anyone for believing them or using them

17. Students (or their parents) – In the same way that you can hardly blame car drivers for ending up with faulty airbags, I don’t think you can put much responsibility on students to be canny shoppers if no one is trying to make them so.

Have I missed anyone or got anyone’s responsibility level totally wrong?

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29 Responses to The TEFL Blame Game

  1. Nicola says:

    re iatefl, I tried to get them to agree to a SIG about workers’ rights which they completely squashed and wouldn’t do a single thing to promote in any way. they definitely deserve their place in that list. there’s no organization looking out for teachers, unless you count professional development ie be better at the job, don’t expect the job to do better for you

  2. paulwalsh says:

    NAIL…HEAD…you hit it spot on! Couldn’t agree more with what basically is a ‘typology of complacency’.

    Good on you for just spelling it out – it’s about time people just called a spade a spade and CALLED OUT the institutions that just drive our ‘profession’ to lower and lower levels of pay and respectability.

    To be honest, I would take out governments because at least governments have legitimate pressures on them e.g. elections, policy output expectations. Moreover, governments are in theory, answerable to their electorates.

    The British Council, IATEFL, have none of this. It’s disgraceful that IATEFL, OUR organisation, will not take working conditions seriously. Or will not even ACKNOWLEDGE the issue of working conditions at all! I asked IATEFL to consider the possibility of a Teachers as Workers SIG but was overwhelmingly refused – despite having proven support of working teachers.

    How ELSE does a SIG get set up? So we have ‘Literature, Media and Cultural Studies’ SIG and ‘Global Issues’ SIG’, but a SIG devoted to ‘Working Conditions’ was overwhelmingly refused? Can anyone explain this for us ‘mere mortals’?

    Are we just expected to read Shakespeare and Milton while our teeth fall out…. ?

    The chief argument against a ‘Teachers as Workers’ SIG is that this is not CPD – continuing professional development. Also, that this is not within the remit of ‘the organisation’. However, this argument is, if not false, then specious. Under the 2006 Charity Act IATEFL is allowed to take a position on issues if this position ‘furthers their charitable aim’.

    This was the subject of an article by by Sara Hannam, IATEFL Associates’ Coordinator & Graham Hall, IATEFL Treasurer: entitled ‘To Speak, or Not to Speak’. One of the main points in this article was that – by doing nothing to help ordinary teachers – IATEFL is actually supporting and propagating the status quo.

    What do people think out there – should the institutions in ELT speak out in OUR favour? Or should they just keep quiet?

    In this article it states that: “Charity Law does not prohibit IATEFL from becoming involved, and in
    fact there is a strong ethical argument encoded in the 2006 Charities Act that says it is charities like IATEFL who ensure a fair and democratic society by representing voices that might otherwise not get heard.”

    What will it take for IATEFL to realise that teachers want to talk about this? Is anyone from IATEFL willing to answer this question – why won’t IATEFL talk about working conditions for ELT teachers?

    I would like to invite the following people who were involved in the decision to REFUSE a ‘Teachers as Workers SIG’, or those in IATEFL who are AWARE of the issues involved to comment on the following questions:

    Why won’t you allow ordinary working teachers to have a conversation about working conditions within IATEFL and provide the institutional backing for such a project? Do you feel that working conditions are not a problem for ordinary working ELT teachers (NEST and non-NEST)?

    I’m sure all ELT teachers would appreciate some sort of support from influential persons in ELT in improving their material conditions.

    Looking forward to comments from the following persons within IATEFL:

    Patron: Professor David Crystal, OBE, FBA

    Advisory Council
    As Editor of the ELTJ: Graham Hall
    As Director ELT, British Council: Anna Searle
    Individual members: Catherine Walter, Herbert Puchta, Adrian du Plessis

    Board of Trustees
    President: Carol Read
    Vice President: Peter Medgyes
    Treasurer: Colin Mackenzie
    Secretary: Zeynep Urkun
    SIG Representative: George Pickering
    Associates Representative: Les Kirkham
    Membership Committee Chair: Gary Motteram
    Electronic Committee Chair: Caroline Moore

  3. ashowski says:


    Thank you for writing this post! As Paul writes, it spells out what needed to be said.

    I’m a little confused by point 5: I have no experience with Bell, but everyone I’ve met who has worked at the British Council or IH (I’ve worked at a few IH schools) have spoken really positively about the conditions. How come their in this list? All the IHs I’ve been at have provided weekly CPD sessions, regular training days or weekends as well as a fair pay package and usually a free flat. I’ve heard the conditions at the BC are even better.

  4. alexcase says:

    Hi Ashowski

    Thanks for the comment. They are there because they are heading in the wrong direction and/ or provide a sense of “good conditions” that don’t allow you to actually raise a family while living there.

  5. alexcase says:

    Sara Hannam is a star – her blog is still well worth reading many years after she stopped writing it:

    Would love to know more about the campaign to get an IATEFL SIG, which I completely missed at the time. Could you give me some idea of the timeline?

  6. paulwalsh says: – scroll down to ‘Ketman’.

    Regarding IH, yes they do support their teachers with training and career progression which is to be applauded – but the wages are really low and not sustainable in the long term IMO. There are also ‘good’ and ‘bad’ IH’s due to it being a franchise.

    British Council tends to be the ‘dream job’ for TEFL-lers but compared to 10 years ago the amount of breadwinner jobs available has shrunk dramatically. They also pay ‘local rates’ more and more often from what I can gather.

  7. paulwalsh says:

    *Correction – regarding IH, I think they’re called affiliates, not franchises. I’m not sure of the practical difference but there you go.

  8. Nicola says:

    The SIG thing started here when Paul responded to me calling out the Britishh council in Madrid
    then we did this:
    And the SIG co-ordinators (from their mostly very comfortable positions) wouldn´t even let it go forward so that IATEFL members could decide.
    I´ve written about it for EL Gazette but they´ve not printed it yet. It doesn´t make for flattering reading for IATEFL. Paul´s carried on the idea by forming grassroots local organisation but I´ve had too much else going on to further it myself and there is such huge resistance from the people who could make a difference that I lost heart. I just advise anyone getting into teaching to have an exit plan!

  9. crawfiesue says:

    Mr. Ashowski : Shouldn’t it read ” How come they’re on this list ” ?

  10. paulwalsh says:

    Nicola has already mentioned them but I would like to give credit to the ELT Gazette, who often stick their neck out and support ordinary working teachers.

    There is someone you can trust out there!

  11. alexcase says:

    Absolutely, the owner/ editor Melanie Butler in particular is another real star. In fact, when Nicola made that comment I was just going to suggest an article in the EL Gazette.

    My other suggestion is to try and get local affiliates of IATEFL like TESOL Spain and BELTA to set up SIGs on this topic, with the hope that the idea finally gets back to the UK… You could also set up a website, Facebook page etc specifically for the (future) SIG, showing what it can do.

  12. paulwalsh says:

    That’s a great idea – it would just take one local group to start up, then others might follow. People would need to have a) the desire to do it and enthusiasm b) some aims and c) a time horizon – people could commit to doing it for 6 months and then evaluate their progress (nobody wants to commit to an ‘open-ended’ project in my experience).

    I also think that the ‘Agile’ approach here might be useful. Doing things in productive ‘sprints’ and then taking a break.

    The reason why I suggested the idea to IATEFL is that they provide some of the resources and backing for future/ potential SIGs. Doing it without any institutional support is not easy (but not impossible either!)

    There’s also a really good video which describes the experience of Open Source groups and how to keep groups going over time. I think that the values of respect, humility etc., avoiding the ‘Bus factor’ and dealing with poisonous people are important things for groups to think about!


  13. paulwalsh says:

    ‘Bus factor’= If one of your group gets hit by a bus, how would that affect the group?

  14. I’m going to put my neck out here and also add “the teachers themselves”, but let me explain before the guillotine comes down. (Note: this applies more to corporate training than public sector teaching, and possibly even more so to freelancers than to salaried employees).

    When places offer to pay minimum wage or just above it for qualified teachers, we should 1. turn the offer down and 2. point out how unfair it is to be asking someone with teaching qualifications, investment in their career, etc. to be working for such a low fee. Perhaps one reason that training prices (and in turn trainer earnings) are low is because we accept it. If you look at some other professional trainers in non-ELT fields, their prices are much, much higher. For example, charges $500 for a day of training, is an 8-week ONLINE program that costs $2000, and Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 months ( charges…$300 for a 30-minute phone call with him! Personally I think that’s a bit excessive, but you’ll see that those fees are far, far higher than what many people think of when they think of fees for ELT trainers.

    Another example, I recently interviewed at a place that has one ELT trainer who is also a practicing international bilingual lawyer who specializes in legal English. The owner of the school said the lawyer-teacher charges really high prices. He then asked how much I’d like to charge for business ELT training (the center being an intermediary) and I said that normally I charged 70-100€ per hour. “That’s more expensive than what my lawyer charges” he replied. Really?! Why is someone so highly specialized selling themselves for so little? The owner then offered to pay me 25€ an hour, but I politely declined the offer.

    This also means that something under 70€/hour is considered “really high prices” for highly specialised, industry-specific training from someone who obviously is skilled at what they do, both in the legal and teaching fields. That shouldn’t be the case. But since this teacher accepts these low fees, the center expected me to align my “normal Business English” courses accordingly. One argument was that “with places like Wall Street quoting 12€ an hour, we can’t shock the clients too much. They’ve come to expect low prices for English courses.”

    So what is it going to be, lowest price wins? If we play that game, not only do we contribute to the demise of ELT training as a viable “real” profession, but we also send the message that English training is worth less than “real” training (because seriously, nobody wants a Human Resources trainer, or a technical methods trainer, or a management coach who only costs 20€ and hour?) Real training comes at a real price, and that’s the message we need to be sending as professional trainers.

  15. Anthony Ash says:

    You might find this post interesting. It’s an anonymous post by a DoS who is essentially talking about the same topic but from a managerial perspective. I’ve left a comment (waiting for it to be approved) in which I say the DoS needs to open their eyes: unless they pay the teachers a living wage, they’re never going to go above and beyond the bare minimum.

  16. alexcase says:

    Hi Anthony

    Thanks for the comment, and for linking to here from there. Although you’re right, it’s also not the case that just giving decent conditions leads to professional teaching (see for an earlier discussion of this). What you need is a whole plan for increasing professionalisation of the industry (at least in one sector of one country anyway), with the necessary conditions being part of that.

  17. alexcase says:

    Hi Christina

    I agree that’s part of the problem, but the whole economic history of the last 35 years or so show that individual bargaining is not the solution – we need some kind of collective action, probably eventually with some kind of government support.

  18. No. 9 – OK they bear some blame but people will take a job they are unqualified to do if someone will give it to them. I think most of us tried our hands at TEFL before even having the minimal CELTA level qualification [I did] so it is the employers and those with the power to enforce higher standards that bear the brunt. I’d put these ‘teachers’ at no. 16

    Likewise – someone will believe the recruiters lies – more and more true as the world economy flatlines and a horde of desperate debt ridden graduates flood the job market. So I put them higher up the list. Maybe about no.13. But it is a bit like drug dealers – if there is a market someone will fill it. Employers want the cheapest employees and they want all the legwork done for them – cue the recruiter.

    The customers also bear some blame – but probably the least. No 17 is right IMO.

    I agree the organizations like IATEFL and the BC need to do more – or something – about pay and conditions of teachers. It is getting ridiculous.

    I have long felt the only hope is for teachers to set up their own schools and perhaps to band together in cooperatives – which I have a feeling is how EFL evolved. We need to cut out the parasitic tier of businessmen and managers that will always go for profit over value.

  19. paulwalsh says:


    I’m in firm agreement with what people are saying here. Alex is right about some kind of collective action (NOT individual bargaining); I agree with Andrew about our institutions – the BC and IATEFL – actually doing something about this, because “it is getting ridiculous”. Christina is also right – teachers should refuse to play the ‘race to the bottom’ game.

    That leaves the question: ‘what is to be done?’

    It would be nice if one of the big ‘star names’ or authors in ELT put their name behind taking a stand on working conditions (or just joined the conversation and let us know their thoughts) – this would also have a effect.

  20. alexcase says:

    I seem to remember there being a one-page letter in some publication with TEFL celebs commenting on Israel/ Palestine, so it might be possible to do the same for this issue as long as we come up with a simple statement that enough people can agree with such as “IATEFL and the British Council should work towards improving working conditions for English teachers”. You might be able to contact them through LinkedIn. The other possibility is of course an online petition.

  21. paulwalsh says:

    Hi Alex,

    What a great idea! Perhaps we can organise something like that in the run up to IATEFL in Manchester next year. Tom from our Berlin Grassroots Association (Berlin GAS) will be presenting there. As it says in the IATEFL bulletin that just dropped into my inbox:

    “The city has an impeccable pedigree, being the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the Women’s Suffragette Movement; the place where scientists first split the atom and the first stored-program computer was developed; the city where the first railway station in the world was built and the first passenger service ran; and the birthplace of Capitalism and Communism. ”

    Can’t think of a better place to push for an improvement in working conditions in ELT!

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  24. Couldn’t agree more with the list. Especially with putting the students (i.e. the market) at the very bottom, which many often highlight as the cause of all evil, i.e. students want NESTs, therefore as a school we have to provide this.
    I’m really shocked by IATEFL’s insistence to ignore what is going on in terms of workers rights in our industry. You might find this thread started by Willy Cardoso in IATEFL FB group interesting I remember being told by Peter Medgyes that there was no need for a nNEST SIG or for IATEFL supporting nNEST rights. I was completely stunned. Does he live on another planet?
    The BC could also do much more. They seem to be content that they’ve more or less achieved equality within their own organisation, and whatever goes on outside it is not of any concern to them. After all, they accredit and inspect hundreds of schools around the world. Why not make workers rights an important part of the inspection?
    I also agree with Christina that we are to blame. Things won’t change of their own accord. Do you think segregation in the US would have ever ended if M.L. King and his followers hadn’t gone to the streets and fought for their own rights?
    By the way Paul, I’m sorry I kind of left the project you started about setting up a workers union without saying anything. Been really busy with, but would love to get back to it now. Is the Google group still working?

  25. Mike Furber says:

    Good article Alex, identifying a lot of truths that don’t get mentioned very oftern about the exploitative nature of the EFL industry. I would identify many of the commercial schools who are registered as charities as the main villains. Bell and Eurocentres brand themselves as higher quality schools but have worked hard to de-professionalise the industry and run out any union interference in their organisations. Full marks to the GMB for their sterling work on behalf of many teachers employed on temporary and zero-hour contracts. I’m extremely glad I’ve moved over into the Further Education sector which, though far from perfect, are more heavily standardised and subject to industrial bargaining and employee protection measures.

  26. paulwalsh says:

    For all UK teachers on ‘freelance’ contracts – this could be completely illegal.

  27. Pingback: The TEFL blame game continued | teflreflections

  28. Matthew says:

    YIKES! Can I lob some blame over at shit like this? It’s so BRAZEN.

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