The TEFL industry is vast. It is estimated that over 25% of the world currently speaks English, a percentage that will only increase over the next decade. It may or may not surprise you that many of the Language centers where TEFL teachers end up are not owned by educational professionals. Almost all language centers are businesses, which at their heart are concerned about making a profit.
In the end, these places of employment may not always have your best interests at heart. Teachers receive varying levels of care and consideration at different schools, and where it is true that most schools are great places to work, it is also true that most schools will try to get as much out of an English teacher as possible. Most TEFL teachers are not considered long-term employees, which makes companies less invested in their well-being.
Make no mistake, this post is not saying that teachers shouldn’t be flexible and accommodating – that is a necessary trait of teachers in the industry. This post is saying that there are times when a teacher should stand up to their employer and say no. Read on to find out when to say no, and when might be a good time to begrudgingly agree to do something. If you disagree, or have a specific example that you’d like to share about any of the points brought up below, feel free to write in the comments section.
When to Say No
- It is unsafe for you or your students
About five years ago, I was in charge of a department that placed native English speaking teachers into the state school system in Hanoi, Vietnam. I remember one teacher telling me that she refused to continue working at her school until some changes were made. My first reaction was that she was probably being a bit over-dramatic; these aren’t rich schools and I thought her complaint would be about the school’s cleanliness or the state of the toilets.
Instead, she had realistic complaints. There were a number of sharp exposed wires and edges of tables that could really hurt the young students during activities. Also, there were rats that kept peeing and pooping on the flashcards, which is not ideal for items that she and her students be playing a lot of games with. This teacher’s complaint led to the situation being fixed. Dangerous situations shouldn’t have to be tolerated.
- It is exploitative or unprofessional
This is a bit tricky to define as in many ways the industry can be a bit exploitative, and at times even racist, regarding who can and can’t teach English. It is sometimes believed by parents that after a few weeks with a native English speaker, their children will magically pick up the language. Companies exploit this belief by putting up pictures of foreign employees all over the school and trying to get them to attend events as merely a showpiece for the school.
A lot of this comes down to you as a person and what you feel comfortable. However, if something is unpaid, unrealistic or beyond your skill level, I think it’s reasonable to decline. For example, if you are asked to teach a classroom of 100 students and keep them entertained and focused on the lesson, I think it’s reasonable to say no. If your picture is being used for advertising purposes, and you never gave any sort of permission, it is okay to say no.
- There is insufficient notice, materials or information
Being asked to cover a class is one thing, being asked to cover with no time to prepare is a nightmare. Teachers shouldn’t be asked to do it. Likewise, when teachers are given new classes, it is essential that the proper materials and information about the course are provided. This is why schools usually have a DoS or some sort of manager who is an experienced teacher. It is their responsibility to create a curriculum, decide on a book and give the teacher a basic amount of information about a new class. If your school doesn’t have such an individual, and you will be forced to create materials and curriculum yourself, you should be compensated for that time.
- It’s discriminatory
Sadly, discrimination does exist in the industry. Here are a couple of examples that immediately come to mind. When I worked in Japan, there was one particular center that I knew of, which only hired young attractive women. The school openly declared that they were looking for “the type of women who wears skirts”. You can fill in the rest yourself, but needless to say most of my female friends refused to work at that center.
Another example of discrimination was more recent. In Vietnam some schools required teachers of Asian descent to provide an excessive amount of proof of their identity – much more than other teachers. I guess the idea was that, looking like they might be Vietnamese, it was their burden to prove that they were fluent in English and not Vietnamese themselves. Personally, I find this idea unreasonable. Saying no should be reasonable. However, doing so may come with negative consequences.
It is the opinion of this writer that anytime a teacher is asked to do something that other teachers are not asked to do because of their race, gender, religion or ethnicity it is reasonable to say no, or at the very least, question the request of the employer.
When You Probably Shouldn’t Say No
Alright, let’s not get too crazy though. The TEFL industry is dynamic and changing year by year. Also, as teachers are usually working in a relatively unfamiliar country where they don’t completely understand the culture. Due to these factors, being adaptable comes with the territory. Likewise, there are also some situations where, though you may not feel like it, you should probably say yes.
- Taking on new classes
As an employee of a school, you will lose some classes and gain some classes. You are likely expected to teach a certain number of hours every week. When you are offered a new class, your employer likely expects you to take it–this is reasonable. As long as you aren’t over hours or the class isn’t on a day off, you should probably say yes. Saying no to new classes will definitely have negative consequences in the long-term (e.g. not getting ANY new classes, not getting your contract renewed, awkward contractual conversations with management, etc.).
- Covering from time to time
Nobody likes covering classes, but everybody gets sick and everyone likes to go on holiday. It is unreasonable for a teacher to expect their school to have employees on hand who are just there to cover classes. This means that everyone needs to pitch in and cover from time to time. Being helpful with cover will not go unnoticed by management, and usually works in your favor when it’s your turn to take time off.
- Events with reasonable notice
Above I talked about exploitative events. However, that doesn’t mean that you should say no to all school events. Your school will likely have parent meetings or holiday events where the teachers are expected to attend. This isn’t unreasonable, this is what you signed up for when you became a teacher.
- Professional development and/or team building
If you are being given the opportunity for professional development at your school, you should be thankful. Often, these sessions are unpaid and require you to give up some of your freetime. While this is annoying, it means that your school does generally care about education and the students.
If you don’t like the topics that come up for these sessions, suggest some areas where you’d like to improve so that you get the most out of PD as possible. Remember, as a teacher, if you aren’t continually growing and skilling up, you might find yourself stagnating and getting lazy.