We have George Bernard Shaw to thank for the stinging words most people who have chosen teaching as their profession will have had to get defensive about at some point or another – the dreaded maxim “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”; and although it’s not clear whether the man himself actually believed this, or whether these were merely the words put into the mouth of the character in the play, Maxims for Revolutionaries, by God, they’re irksome. Whichever it is – thanks for nothing, George!
And if I ever get my hands on the bright spark who said, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, get a TEFL certificate”, I’ll happily throttle him. The lesser known rebuttal, “Those who know, do; those who understand, teach”, usually attributed to Aristotle, but more probably coined by some unknown, resentful teacher, sick to his back teeth of having his chosen profession constantly vilified, is, of course, more accurate. Well, I would say that; I’m a teacher, and an EFL teacher to boot!
Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, as it is wont to do once you hit a certain age, but didn’t teaching used to be considered a rather noble profession, and the teacher a key figure in the community, right up there with the local clergyman (though several rungs lower than the local aristocracy, of course), highly regarded, even venerated? Or could it be that I’m superimposing impressions of the mortarboard and inspiring solemnity of Mr Chips, the charismatic, histrionic antics of the Dead Poets Society‘s, John Keating, and the most venerable of them all – Socrates? Yes, perhaps that’s it – the notion of teaching ever having been a profession to aspire to is merely a figment of our collective imagination, or even just a solitary self-illusion of my own. Yet, if that is the case, why did the historian, Jacques Martin Barzun, state the following?
“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that at some point in history, teachers were not seen as under-achievers in their chosen subjects, forced into the profession merely out of the lack of other more rewarding opportunities – how the job lose its status?
Well, I have my theory in answer to that, and I’m sticking to it (though no doubt you’ll find a myriad of alternative explanations courtesy of Google), and it’s as simple as this – in post-industrial, capitalist societies, education is perceived primarily, not as the foundation on which human progress is built, but as an extremely lucrative business, which can conveniently exploit the results of democratised education – vast numbers of educated individuals, from which entrepreneurs of education can pluck whatever number they need in order to complete their easily marketable ‘packages’, be they degree courses, private courses, on-line courses, certificate preparation and testing, etc.
Following the basic principles of supply and demand, and light-years away from Mr Chips growing white-haired and stooped as he paced back and forwards in front of his desk, in the same classroom and same school, for his entire working life, many of today’s educational environments are offering as little as possible in terms of wages and contractual rights, safe in the knowledge that many will take the bait, and shoving them into the classroom. If or when it doesn’t work out, well, with by-the-hour pay and/or short-term contracts – the norm in the TEFL world (those on-line courses? EFL teachers are being offered the educational equivalent of sweatshop wages, sometimes as low as $8 an hour, and that’s before deducting whatever sum your national income tax come in at) – it’s no problem to get rid of them in the blink of an eye, and bring in someone new.
The same goes for those who turn out to be ‘demanding’ and dare to remind their employers of conditions specified in their contracts; in the TEFL world – pretty much a huge proportion of the globe – the variability of international labour laws and the impossibility of unionising a work-force which is spread over the entire planet, means that though a specific company or even entire nation might get a bad rap for how it treats its teachers, there’s always going to be someone somewhere who hasn’t heard about it, or who, in this globally depressed economy, is simply in no position to pick and choose.
In other words, no longer the only educated person in the village, teachers nowadays are merely one interchangeable element, together with texts books, programs, methods and certificates, of the various education packages being marketed and sold for huge profits all over the world – little cogs in a very, very big pieces of machinery – and little cogs tend not to have particularly high status, it has to be said.
Is that it then? Education as a commodity, and educators as mere components of the overall commodity?
I almost hope I’m wrong. It’s actually quite heart-breaking to think that something so essential to the progress of humanity is given so little consideration. Not only that – teaching is hard. Really hard. You have to package your knowledge into understandable, attention-grabbing, memorable deliveries, and tailor those deliveries to your students’ ages and abilities, fine-tuning them to the needs of each individual in your class, according to their level, ability and learning style, without ever taking your eye off the objectives set by a curriculum, and which may or may not be realistically applicable to the reality of your class.
Teaching students with whom you do not share a common language is really, really hard. And, yes, if you’re a native English speaker, you will ‘know English’, but you will not know the de-constructed version of it, composed of grammar, syntax, spelling, and sentence structure rules which are the very backbone of teaching English as a foreign or second language, since you were never taught your language that way. Add to the mix the fact that you’ll have to impart all those rules and explanations to people who, for the most part, do not understand much (sometimes not even one single word!) of what you are saying, and who, rather too often, have absolutely no desire to even be there.
The most ironic part, of course, is that all those have commodified and commercialised education are only able to do so because they had teachers who taught them to read, write and do the arithmetic needed to calculate profit margins, and those who make big money in the TEFL world only have a market for their goods thanks to the work of EFL teachers who have translated the abstract concept of a single global lingua franca into a reality.
Infuriating, really, if you think about it. And to make matters even worse, as the focus shifts more and more towards exclusively economic considerations – specifically, to how far educational ‘production costs’ can be lowered in order to raise profits as high as possible – the unavoidable outcome is impacting of the quality of education being offered, knocking it into a downward spiral, the long-term effects of which, along with other ‘minor inconveniences’ like global warming, will be our shameful legacy to future generations.
For my part, to console myself I cling to the image of myself as a child, ‘teaching’ my dolls, propping them up on makeshift ‘desks’, as I stood at a little blackboard, emulating those who, in my eyes, did the most marvellous job in the world, for truth be told, and despite everything, I still believe that.