Firstly, the school will remain nameless as I am aware that the school I am going to talk about is a little trigger happy with the lawyers but, needless to say, it is a large school in the UK with a global presence.
The reason for writing this is not only to give you my experience, and my story, but to help inform you of the positive and negatives of working for a large English language company in the UK. Obviously every experience is different, and you can take what you want from mine. Furthermore, I encourage you to go out there and experience it for yourself as it may be something that you greatly enjoy with a culture that you fit in with.
The topics I will cover include: Working hours, Class type, Fellow teachers, Management and Pay and promotion, some of these are subjective and some of them really aren’t.
A typical week was 40 hours with five classes of 1hr 20 each. Classes finished at 5 but all teachers had to stay until 5 30. There is no nice way of putting it, the contract will screw you in one way or another and a standard one at my school was a minimum of 8 hours a day with a compulsory opt-out clause of the EU working time directive, and another clause stipulating that your hours may change and you may have to work weekends or in another city. Unfortunately, you end up tied to the school and there is very little flexibility with your time or day, where large amounts of time are spent, during the off seasons, sitting around doing nothing. It was a strange experience to say the least, teaching 5 classes one day and then none another. This suited some very well but drove me crazy especially during the summer when the school was at its busiest, we worked all day and were expected to stay behind after working hours to plan for the next day. This, I have heard, is not uncommon and almost the norm in big chain schools with some teachers staying as late as 9pm to plan or coming in on Saturdays.
This was and will always be the best part of my day. Getting to know students, helping them, teaching them, and watching them improve and learn over the duration of their course. In large schools you tend to find that classes have to be kept at maximum capacity in order for profit to be maximized, so you often find people of either higher or lower levels in the same class because this helps the school to reach the maximum needed to make the most profit per class. I personally disagree with this as students pay a large amount to be there and are subsequently put in the wrong level or a ‘near enough’ level as for every empty class the school losses 17k a week, as we were religiously told.
The students come from all round the world and you have to offer pastoral as well as educational care as you will be the first port of call for students, whether that is upset students, hung over students, ill students, students who have been fighting etc, unless they are unhappy with you in which case they will go straight to your manager and there will be a meeting. These meetings have become synonymous with fear and stress: a post-it note would appear and all of a sudden you are being interrogated as to why a student is unhappy or why you nipped to the toilet during class or why did a senior teacher hear you joking about the company in the staff-room. Many of these meetings pushed teachers out of the school as they felt bullied and singled out, especially given some of the antics of the younger teachers mixing with students in clubs which appeared to have been relatively unpunished in comparison to these consistent and intimidating meetings.
It falls on you to move students who are in the wrong level and due to the level set up with two levels per CEFR level e.g B1.1 and B1.2 you often get students advancing up a level every 6 week cycle. Therefore, in line with their marketing promises, you will go from B1 to B2 in three months which in my opinion is not possible and often results in student distress when they do their final test and find that they have not increased as much as the class level they ended up in. Furthermore, countless students were misplaced through incompetence and through their speaking tests being conducted by teachers with no experience in doing them and without a guide as to what questions to ask.
There is often a high turnover of teachers in larger companies. Many go on to do better things and many leave as they are disgruntled with the systems in place. I believe we lost 15 teachers in 6 months, many of whom were dissatisfied or had been offered better positions. This results in a lot of newly qualified teachers being employed, which gives them a great starting opportunity, assuming they are put in a supportive environment. If you are an experienced teacher it is expected that you assume a semi-senior teacher role, as they teach all day, and you help the newly qualified teachers.
Career progression revolves around weekly CPDs often lead by senior teachers. My experience of these were that they were mostly useless as they didn’t focus on areas that were relevant at the time, like how to deal with the summer rush, instead they focused on how to teach a skills class when, in reality, you had no time to plan a skills class. I found that CPDs were often used as evidence of the schools support when ever you questioned said lack of support and were more a tick in the box than a real investment in their teachers.
As you have to be alongside the same people every day for 8 hours a day you will make some great and dear friends along the way but this also breeds school politics, and can turn nasty if certain teachers don’t like each other. Large companies often promote this team image and how we should all work together, eat together, and drink together but tempers often flare and it can be an unpleasant place to be at times, especially when working in a quieter room is seen as negative and anti-social by the management.
Social butterflies thrive in this environment. It can be a people persons game and at the end of a long year that is who you are left with. The best teachers I saw just left when they realized that being a good teacher was not what the company were they looking for. If you aren’t interested in corporate ‘fun’ then this is not for you. My experience was one of a fractured staff room where certain teachers were invited out and others were excluded, which was sad and unnecessary.
My experience with the management at my school, and one echoed in reviews/ discussions with previous teachers, is a poor one. There is often little management experience within the management team, little training, few man-management skills and a lack of authority and general competence. There was often the excuse of ‘we inherited this system’ and no real looking for solutions or making changes. ‘Informal, anonymous complaints’ from one teacher to another were always dragged out over months, as if the DOS was some kind of benevolent Nursery teacher and it often felt that if they didn’t like you then they simply weren’t going to help you.
Important documents were lost and timetables badly managed, thus affecting teachers’ mental health and causing a lot of time off due to stress, with teachers leaving left, right and centre as a result. The managers themselves seem fed-up, so much so that some have resorted to reviewing the company online, specifically mentioning bad senior management, whilst still being employed at the school.
I know there are large schools and large chains with great managers, but time and money needs to be invested into their training and they can’t just get the job because they have been there the longest. Several assistant directors didn’t even have the DELTA which, in itself, is not a management qualification just an assumed bare minimum.
In large schools there is a focus on promotion from within. This is deemed the most important factor when considering people for management, not whether they are competent or know how to manage. Brand loyalty is preferred over genuine experience and competence and I hope that you, the reader, never find yourself on the end of one of these ‘management teams’ as it is devastating for morale and causes a mental health catastrophe; seeing your friends and colleagues leave with anxiety and seeing stress change who they are is unpleasant to say the least.
Pay and Promotions
My pay was 18k a year, in one of the most expensive places to live in the UK. Given my 40 hours a week it worked out at around £8-10 an hour which was half of what the non-contracted teachers were paid. I assume that the ‘security’ of the job was the main draw for people, however this seems to be a very common salary for people at these types of schools and has often been cited as remarkably low, given the fact that it is in the UK, and no consideration was given for the expensive nature of the town.
Promotion is a real prospect at the school as during the last six months two senior teachers have been appointed, two new assistant directors and a new director, which is almost a complete overall of the original management. Promotions appear to be based on time spent at the school rather than overall teaching experience, as touched on above, with one teacher arriving, partying with the management, messaging them in a private group chap and promptly being promoted, to the absolute astonishment of the staff-room, all within 6 months of arriving despite being one of the least experienced teachers in the staff-room. Unfortunately, at this current school, a touch of cronyism seems in place: if you go drinking with the boss if you laugh at their jokes and do it their way then you can almost guarantee a promotion.
They focus more on who will present a good image of the school over who has the ability to help the teachers: a teacher with the DELTA was overlooked for an ADOS position, in favour of another teacher who still (nearly one year on) has not even got one module of her DELTA. It is a shame to see often great teachers overlooked in favour of yes-men but I assume that happens at a lot of places and it certainly contributes to the high turn over.
If you made it to the bottom of this diatribe then I congratulate you, and I will keep the ending brief. After reading through this I realize that perhaps this is just a poor school, and not indicative of a wider problem in the large English language school system. I have seen fantastic chain schools where education is put before money but in an era of for-profit education the balance between education and business has tipped towards money with a strong dose of incompetence.