How I accidentally became a TEFL scab

Getting back to work has been a very mixed bag for me here in Japan. On my regular Sundays I was down for the youngest and lowest level students who couldn’t really study online, so that was cancelled. Almost all my corporate classes were in one manufacturing company that reduced the number of classes as part of an emergency cost-cutting scheme, so that has been cancelled too. However, there has been a surprisingly high number of lessons for a school which I often do cover days for.

I say surprisingly high because that school paid all their regular teachers in full during lockdown but said that they needed to make the lost lessons up when things got back to normal. I therefore thought that they’d be covering everything and there wouldn’t be anything left for freelancers like me. However, it turns out that the regular teachers weren’t so happy about that plan.

About one month into an almost full-time schedule of cover days for that school, someone asked me “So, how have you been affected by the strike?” I couldn’t answer that question then, not having heard of the strike at all, but it turns out that how I was affected was that the strike was keeping me in work. Like a great depression strike-breaker or 1980s miners’ strike scab, I was at least partly being bussed in to reduce the effect of the strike, and so presumably was helping the management’s hand in negotiations and reducing the power of the union.

It was a bit of a shock for me to be in this situation. As a teenager, I was the only person in our district (and perhaps the only person ever?) to join the Young Enterprise Scheme for budding capitalists and then end up appointing myself “workers’ representative” in opposition to my classmates in the management.

However, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was now hindering rather than helping workers’ rights. Since then, collective action (and indeed collective anything) hasn’t really been my strong point. Instead of organising or even joining teachers’ action, I’ve usually just emailed management saying everything that is wrong, like some kind of TEFL Jerry Maguire. However, quitting in a huff and hoping that might somehow help the teachers who are left has probably been as successful as Jerry Maguire was, especially as I usually have to say “There is no way that I can work under conditions like… I quit! But if you have any part-time classes or cover lessons…”

So, the moral of all of this is – don’t be like me. Collective action is the only way. The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Freelancer might be better for some, but for the industry to improve it must instead be one for all and all for one.

This entry was posted in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, TEFL strikes, TEFL unions, TEFL working conditions. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How I accidentally became a TEFL scab

  1. andy says:

    Alex, I admire you immensely. Your website is invariably my first point of call for teaching-related resources, and over the years I’ve been extremely grateful for the wealth of experience that you’ve shared – and keep sharing, with us. That said, have you re-read this article? It is the pinnacle of hypocracy. I should wager that none of us teaching ESL wish to pit ourselves against our colleagues. However, given the lack of regulation and the idismal financial security which goes hand-in-hand with the sector, we all find ourselves in exactly the same position as you currently do. It has become a race to the bottom. Not because any one of us on the front line willed it to be this way, it’s simply that none of us (or at least, very few) have the luxury of being able to go on strike, or argue for more, because you’re simply replaced by someone else who’s situation is equally desperate and is prepared to work at whatever cost. I apologise if this sounds overly confrontational; it’s not my intention. I think it’s important that this subject is raised once more, and that collectively we’re more aware of how our individual actions impact on the sector as a whole. But I think it’s somewhat duplicitous to tell others not to do as you are doing, when it’s simply a fact that most of us are left with the same uninspiring choice that you are, finding ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

  2. alexcase says:

    Thanks. I’ve re-read it as you suggested, and perhaps you should also re-read it or slightly re-write your comment, as I don’t think “hypocrisy” is the right word for someone saying “I’ve made a terrible mistake and everyone would be better off if we didn’t all continue making the same mistake”. However, if more people comment that it comes across that way then maybe I’ll have another look at the wording of the post.

  3. andy says:

    Fair point, duly noted. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but I believed you were saying: “I don’t feel good about the choice I’m making, but I have to do this because I’ve got no other option.” In this way I was commenting that it’s hypocritical to suggest that others don’t do the same thing in similarly difficult situations. But like I said, I welcome you raising the issue in general.

  4. alexcase says:

    I think you could possibly think it was going that way from the first couple of sentences, but having re-read it yet again I didn’t suggest that I was driven by desperation to consciously become a strike breaker, if only because I didn’t know anyone was on strike for the first four weeks and after that no one asked me to join. And as it happens I just about drew even over the lockdown so I could have burned up some savings to join the strike if I had decided to, something I might well have done if I’d taken more time to work together with other teachers over the last ten years or so (or not, who knows…)

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