P is for Profession

30 01 2011

Hard times?

In a leading Spanish daily a couple of weeks ago, there was a feature on an up-and-coming actress, in which she recounted her years of ‘penury’ before achieving stardom. This is how it was reported (loosely translated): “Her career has suffered fits and starts. [She recalls,] ‘I worked as an ice-cream seller, a mime at Ikea, a teacher of English, and a teacher of drawing…'” The newspaper comments: “These are the privations that many of her actor friends have had to put up with, grabbing whatever they can …”

And in the 1995 edition of The Cambridge International Dictionary of English the following citation appeared under the entry for end up: “After working her way around the world, she ended up teaching English as a foreign language”.

This perception of English language teaching as being a slightly disreputable last resort, or, at best, a gap-year option, is one that is endlessly perpetuated, and is a source of both embarrassment and indignation on the part of many dedicated English teachers.

One way of redressing this negative stereotype has been to claim professional status, arguing that language teaching, being highly skilled, requires (or should require) extensive training and rigorous gate-keeping. In this spirit, organisations such as IATEFL and TESOL make it their mission “to develop and maintain professional expertise in English language teaching” (as the TESOL website puts it).

But is TEFL really a profession? Is teaching even a profession? In his seminal book, School teacher: A sociological study, Lortie (1975) suggested that — compared to the prototypical professions like law, medicine or engineering — maybe it is not. Why? Because, unlike doctors, lawyers, architects, etc:

  • teachers continue to be employed subordinates who are employed in organizations where those that govern do not belong to the occupation;
  • there is no consensual base of professional knowledge;
  • membership is not carefully screened by the occupational group itself;
  • entry to teaching is eased by society, as compared to other professions: entry requirements are relatively lacking in rigour and length and the decision to enter can be made at almost any age.

Whether or not this is true for mainstream teaching, it certainly does seem to reflect the reality on the ground for much of TEFL, and accounts for the relatively low levels of professional self-esteem, often exacerbated by poor pay and long hours.

"The technology model"

What is to be done? As I wrote a few years back (Thornbury 2001), “those working in EFL who are concerned by this implied lack of status have responded by attempting to construe EFL in terms of one of two distinct models” (p. 392). These I labelled the academic model (aimed at establishing ‘a consensual base of professional knowledge’, through, for example, research and publication), and the therapeutic model, where, by enlisting certain new-age discursive practices, the somewhat mundane activity of teaching is re-invented  as a form of healing. (I am less convinced, now, that the therapeutic model has as extensive a following as it did in the 1980s and 1990s. If anything it has been eclipsed by the technology model, whereby respect is conferred by donning a lab-coat and swearing allegiance to the doctrine of Vorsprung durch Technik. Meanwhile, the academic model is stronger than ever, judging by the number of MA TESOL programs on offer – on one of which – declaring an interest – I teach).

As an alternative (to the academic and therapeutic models), I argued that teachers might achieve a measure, not just of self-respect, but of personal and professional excitement, by acknowledging the fact “that they occupy a privileged space on the frontier between languages and hence on the frontier between cultures, and that they are uniquely situated to mediate contact through dialogue” (p. 394).

A dialogic model of pedagogy, grounded firmly in an educational tradition, as opposed to an academic or a therapeutic or a technocratic one, still seems to me to offer the best way forward. As Claire Kramsch puts it: “A dialogic pedagogy is unlike traditional pedagogy… it sets new goals for teachers – poetic, psychological, political goals that … do not constitute any easy-to-follow method. .. Such a  pedagogy should better be described, not as a blueprint for how to teach foreign languages, but as another way of being a language teacher” (Kramsch 1993, p. 31).

I concluded my article by suggesting that:

as a profession we should worry less about what other people think of us and concern ourselves more with what we are good at: being out there, at the front, in the firing line, on the edge. Few jobs can offer as much. The lightness of EFL is dizzying. But we need to guard against respectability. As Auden wrote: “The sense of danger must not disappear” (p.396).

Ten years on: is the craving for respectability still as strong as ever?


Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lortie, D. 1975. School teacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chcago Press.

Thornbury, S. 2001.The unbearable lightness of EFL. English Language Teaching Journal, 55/4, 391-6.



77 responses

30 01 2011

The late Sir Alec Guinness once famously commented, upon returning to the stage after a spell in Hollywood, how nice it was to get back to the acting ‘profession’ after spending some time in the ‘industry’. The contrast between the two is as strong in our chosen field as it was for Sir Alec. I wonder where each of us think we stand in relation to these two words.

30 01 2011
Dennis Newon

Scott, thanks, once again (as with Dogme?) for articulating so readably a concern, a position that must be shared by most readers of this blog but no-one has put quite so clearly. I am writing in a noisy, public place so let me make just one brief point. Many teachers of EFL ESOL are dedicated people, keen to help, in sympathy with their learners and a wide range of their problems so that they are too easily exploitable – working for far less than they are worth, paying their own fees to attend expensive conferences and make presentations, giving free extra lessons, buying materials for their students when the institution for which they work will not or cannot. All such actions are to be commended, of course, but do not contribute to their power in negotiations with hierachies to improve their economic and social standing. From Germany we tried a few years ago to start a group concerned with teachers’ pay and conditions world-wide. It achieved short-lived attention and a couple of articles in the Guardian online – but it was hopelessly over-ambitious and withered and effectively died, it is still in long-lasting coma, within a few months.

See: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/efltu/

30 01 2011
Paul Maglione

A very thoughtful post, as ever, and very relevant in these budget-cutting times. To your list I would add another factor influencing perceptions of EFL teachers: the Peace Corps model (which you did indeed cover in your reference to a “gap year option”: TEFL as something “easy” for English mother tongue young adults to do, with travel to exotic climes as a fringe benefit, while they get their bearings as to what they really want to do when they achieve full adulthood (as it’s obvious, according to this stereotype, that one cannot support a family on a TEFL wage). There are no doubt some very talented young people taking up this option, and many have surely gone on to become great career EFL teachers. Others, as we all hear, have not done much more than give their poor learners a solid understanding of the English language term “slacker.” It is, however, a stereotype that feeds into the “no qualifications required” image which the professional organizations you mention are trying so hard to dispel. I fear, however, that the Peace Corps option will, if anything, become increasingly tempting to public school systems strapped for cash and looking to reduce their wage bill, and equally tempting to anglophone university (or, often, junior college) graduates unable to get a foot on the first rung of their domestic job markets.

30 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Paul, for helping define the “Peace Corps” model – a label that perhaps captures its more positive aspects, the downside of which might better be described as the “backpacker” model (see Martin’s post lower down). There is another version of it which might be called ‘the JET scheme model’, referring to the scheme operating in Japan whereby young native speakers are recruited to act as teachng assistants in state schools, working alongside the (Japanese) homeroom teacher. This scheme seems to work reasonably well to provide both parties (the assistant and the students) with a degree of cultural exchange and familiarity (hence it is dialogic, if you like) as well as – potentially – enriching the teaching of English. Whether it does or not, of course, is an open question. But it does suggest that the backpacker model need not be entirely degenerate. And that some mutual benefit might be got – at relatively low cost – from these kinds of encounters.

30 01 2011

I see TEFL as a very democratic pursuit which creates a sort of global equilibrium and because of the numbers involved, it wouldn’t be practical or possible to enforce really strict requirements of teachers.

Yes, teachers can console themselves with the sense of being more connected to the local culture than any expatriate can be, but the dialogic idea is a bit too existentialist for me. I think the responsibility has to lie with managers and teacher trainers to create a culture of professionalism in the industry.

30 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“I see TEFL as a very democratic pursuit which creates a sort of global equilibrium and because of the numbers involved, it wouldn’t be practical or possible to enforce really strict requirements of teachers.”

Nor any other kinds of teachers. Nor engineers or lawyers or councilors…

If you’re serious, then let’s have your version of ‘democracy’ in those fields as well.

30 01 2011

By democratic I mean that it levels the playing field in a fundamental way. It leads to the democratisation of the other professions, but it’s a different ball game – more humanitarian so the numbers are higher, the money lower and the accessibility wider.

30 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Great post, Scott.

“Is teaching even a profession? In his seminal book, School teacher: A sociological study, Lortie (1975) suggested […] maybe it is not”

Whilst being a mainstream school teacher may not seem to be quite as ‘professional’ as, say, being a doctor or a lawyer, I’m sure most of us would readily accept it as being ‘professional’ enough.

TEFL, on the other hand, I agree certainly is on shakier ground.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them (with a touch of defence) that I’m a English language teacher – BUT, a ‘real’ one or a ‘professional’ one!

I wouldn’t have said this in the past, (as Dirty Harry put it “A man has to know his limitations”), but now I’m confident in my professionalism… even when I still have so much to learn. I want to be a ‘great’ teacher, dammit!

But here’s the rub: Looking around me, not everyone shares this aspiration. For one, my DOI (director of ignorance) has apparently been teaching twenty years (!) and seems like he’s been at it for one year. How can he get away with this? Well, people like him are simply not given any incentives by the company/school for professional development and certainly the industry provides no incentives. The company/industry doesn’t care and so they don’t care.

Get ready for it… I’m gonna be really polemic here :))

A proposal:

If, after a couple of years of doing this job, you still have little curiosity or enthusiasm for it (although, you may ‘think’ you do), you are automatically disqualified from the Teachers Club.

In fact to gain membership of the Teachers Club, I would actually be in favour of some kind of mandatory industry approval rating after 2 years of classroom teaching. At this stage, we should all be assessed somehow on our level of professional development.

As soon as you start working as an EL teacher, there should be an industry standard registration (on the internet) where you agree to, among other things, undertake serious prof. development.

If something like this existed, I think it’s obvious TEFL would soon gain more respectability and better teachers!\

What do y’all think? Am I going over the top here?


30 01 2011
Mike Harrison

Mr Darkbloom, you have exactly described the model the Institute for Learning have set out for teachers in the further education sector in the UK, and by extension ESOL teachers teaching in the sector. I have written a bit about this on my blog (http://www.mikejharrison.com/tag/qtls/) about continuing professional developments and links about professionalism on the IfL’s website.

Perhaps something that worldwide ELT could learn from ESOL and FE in the UK?

Would love to know what you and Scott think about it.


2 02 2011

Hi Mike
Having recently escaped the clutches of the IfL with my forced move into the private sector, I have to say that I am not overly impressed with the idea. I am convinced that the decision to make all FE teachers join a relatively small body and pay a hefty annual fee was more to do with the fact that the directors of said company were probably room mates with some government minister at school.
The reason that I don’t like IfL models -or MrDarkbloom’s proposal- is that they place a disproportionate amount of responsibility onto the teachers and absolve the institution of the responsibilities of providing a training and development environment.
Where I work, I am constantly despairing at the lack of readership of the journals that we subscribe to. I was the only applicant for an all-expenses paid trip to IATEFL in April. I often have to ask myself what is going on. Then I realise. All of the teachers on the courses I manage are working their maximum number of hours (a pro rata of 24 teaching hours for most people). They are working, for the most part, on fractional or hourly-paid contracts, so have no time when they are all together in the staffroom. They have families and lives outside of their place of work. And what they do seems to work.
Of course, I don’t want to write my place of work off as a developmental desert. We have a number of people doing MAs and a number planning to work towards the Dip. We have some great people who are clearly keen to develop themselves and who offer workshops for development that are well-received and much appreciated. But these people have received no financial support for their commitment to their development. Nor are they given any remission. The support of the institution is somewhat lacking. It’s a liiiiiitle bit different for FE and HE where a budget is put aside for development and must be used. But the private sector smirks, “I would have thought that the joy of professional development should be reward enough. Arse gratia arse.”

No – I don’t think any sort of compulsory model for professional development is that way forward. I refer you to the Costnerian model (1989): “If you build it, they will come.” If professional development is made readily available to teachers in the form of cheap and easy access to professional development, then the majority will want to take advantage.

30 01 2011
Martin Sketchley

It is interesting to notice the perception of EFL being a ‘backpacker’s or gap-year job’. It’s this negative perception that seems to limit respect within this profession. I’ll be looking at the ELT Journal for further reading.

30 01 2011

Language schools know they can get EFL teachers who will work for a pittance. Even universities offer English language courses delivered by poorly qualified and poorly paid freelancers. There seems to be a never-ending supply of people who will work for less than the minimum wage. As long as that continues to be the case, there will be little incentive for ‘professionalization’ to develop in this industry.

30 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

There seems to be a never-ending supply of people who will work for less than the minimum wage.

This is possibly true, but I can’t see how you can discourage it, let alone legislate against it. While there persists the popular perception that ‘anybody who speaks English can teach English’ and while the demand for English continues to grow, there will always be a steady supply of ‘barefoot teachers’, I predict.

30 01 2011
Sandy Millin

Dear Scott,
Thank you for another thought-provoking post. This is definitely something I feel very strongly about, especially as a relative newcomer to the profession. When I left university three years ago, I immediately went into TEFL choosing it as a professional path that I wanted to be in for the long-term, having first experienced it as a volunteer in Malaysia and a British Council ‘assistant’ (read: full-time teacher) in Paraguay. Many of my fellow graduates did a PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education), a one-year course, to become either a primary- or secondary-school teacher in the UK. They are all consistently seen as professionals, while I regularly get asked variants on the question: “When are you going to get a REAL job?” I have learnt to be very patient when answering this question, and (I hope) most of the listeners soon realise that TEFL is a real job, but I long for the day when this question will no longer be asked of me.
In my opinion, the problem with TEFL being seen as a valid profession has many contributing factors (not backed up by any research on my part):
-not all schools have the same standards of recruitment – the number of organisations which require CELTA or even DELTA seem to be vastly outnumbered by those which don’t require any training (especially for native speakers)
-after recruitment, many schools do not contribute to a teacher’s continuing professional development (thankfully, the school I work for is not one of these). If schools do not value teaching as a profession, why should anybody else?
-governments make decisions requiring English-language provision to large groups of students, with little or no accompanying provision for teacher-training to meet these demands
-students aren’t necessarily aware of the training their teachers have (or have not) received, in contrast to doctors / lawyers etc, where everybody knows that they need many years of university-level education to join the profession.
Those are my thoughts for starters, and I’m sure many others can add to this list.
Thank you for starting this discussion, Scott.

3 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Sandy wrote: After recruitment, many schools do not contribute to a teacher’s continuing professional development (thankfully, the school I work for is not one of these). If schools do not value teaching as a profession, why should anybody else?

I agree, Sandy, and I think this is one area that teachers really can enforce a difference, by, for example, insisting on some kind of in-service professional development, even if it’s only a weekly teachers meeting on some aspect of educational practice. When I used to interview candidates for DELTA courses, it was quite obvious which teachers had had in-service PD and which hadn’t. It’s also something that teachers can organise themselves, even if out of their scheduled hours. And, of course, the Internet has increased the possibilities of in-service PD exponentially. This blog might be considered a fairly minor example.

30 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“students aren’t necessarily aware of the training their teachers have (or have not) received, in contrast to doctors / lawyers etc, where everybody knows that they need many years of university-level education to join the profession.”


That’s a good point, but I would extend on it a bit (also with no particular research on this topic!). As I see it, learner expectations of EL teachers are often quite low due to the poor standard of their previous teachers/education.

I’m quite convinced that many learners simply don’t know what a really good language teacher looks like. They need to be exposed to good teaching before they can really know what they are missing.

I will admit I certainly aspire to be one those teachers who raises the consciousness of learners about teaching itself. If this is done sucessfully, hopefully they will have more tools with which they can judge the knowledge, skills and overall seriousness of teachers in the future.


30 01 2011
Paul Maglione

I’d like to weigh in on this (again!) from a different tangent this time.

Could it be that the EFL Industry — the materials publishers in particular — has been complicit in the commoditization of TEFL via the promotion of highly structured textbooks, workbooks and their associated teacher course books, providing less-qualified or borderline incompetent teachers with an excuse for not using imagination, a personalized pedagogical approach, and a variety of methods in their work with their learners?

By making it all too easy to adopt a teach-by-the-numbers attitude, the industry has perhaps sown the seeds of the diminished prestige of its own practitioners. This trend can only get worse, I fear, with even more highly structured – yet even more faceless and human – “e-Learning systems” already being seized upon by the franchised language institutes as a lower-cost alternative to a full complement of classroom teachers (cue the “Language Lab” which is “open to students of the XYZ Language Institute at all times.”).

It is more important than ever, therefore, to emphasize the dialogic model that you describe in your post, rooted in the educational tradition. Trained, experienced, pedagogically aware EFL teachers are perhaps under-paid and under-appreciated, but they occupy a precious, effective and irreplaceable position in a learner’s path to knowledge, and reinforcing this quality and this identity should be the most important concern of the professional organizaitons rightly preoccupied with the conditions and trends you address.

30 01 2011
Willy C Cardoso

I love this kind of discussion… that vexes professional ego.
Can I leave four McThoughts?

There are brilliant architects who never went to university and countless awe-insipiring musicians who didn’t finish high school. There’s no “right” path to becoming an artist. Is teaching and art?

Can we raise standards and push qualifications in a field where there’s no acknowledged ‘truth’, that is, no one knows for sure how people learn English as a second/foreign/additional language?
I find it a little pretentious to compare teachers with doctors and lawyers once we acknowledge that the least an English teacher should have is a 4-week certificate with around 6 hours of teaching practice. This must be one of the lowest standards of any profession claiming high regards.

From the point that competency in the English language became a commodity, there’s nothing more to expect than this market behavior. The English teacher is seen as a supplier, and just like anything else, there are the good ones and the bad ones, the cheap and the expensive, the label and the knock-off.

I tend to agree with Scott: “as a profession we should worry less about what other people think of us and concern ourselves more with what we are good at”. The only problem is that more often than not “what people think of us” is what makes us bring home the bacon.

3 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Can we raise standards and push qualifications in a field where there’s no acknowledged ‘truth’, that is, no one knows for sure how people learn English as a second/foreign/additional language?

Good point, Willy. This is partly what I referred to when I wrote of “the unbearable lightness of EFL”. In the absence of any “consensual professional knowledge”, what tends to rush in to fill the vacuum is either some hand-me-down folk theories of second language learning, e.g. “Don’t translate!” “Read my lips!” Or some cringe-inducing new-age practices (“Now, lie on the floor and pretend you’re a newborn child”). Or, more insidiously, a list of grammar mcnuggets designed by a committee, or distilled out of a corpus, that can be easily packaged, delivered, and tested.

6 02 2011
Eric Roth

Your last point resonates. While I’m quite comfortable being underestimated and misunderstood by folks who don’t know me or the pleasures of teaching English, I do prefer to live a financially stable – and even comfortable – life.

This issue, at least in the United States, goes far beyond any particular discipline. Just as there is very little evidence linking TOEFL or SAT scores to student performance or academic achievement in universities, there’s a very loose connection between credentials held and teacher success in the classroom. Therefore, the professionalization of teaching English via degrees seems quite problematic – and perhaps fraudulent. Still, money often matters.

Consider me, as so often, conflicted. Yet, like Scott and you, the best available option seems to be worry less and just be the best teacher possible.

30 01 2011

Wonderful comments! Kudos to Paul’s!

I just want to say that I think this was uncalled for –

“If anything it has been eclipsed by the technology model, whereby respect is conferred by the donning of a lab-coat and an allegiance to the credo of Vorsprung durch Technik.”

Is there any evidence of teachers in lab coats? Numbers, facts? Why the use of German (and its connotations of the evil, aryan eugenist)? If you are being balanced, you should have made a similar dismissive statement about the academics.

Sorry for the side bar.


30 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks David. The reference to ‘lab coats’ was intended to be both figurative and humorous. The use of the slogan ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ alludes to an advertising campaign for Audi cars and not to “evil aryan eugenists”.

30 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“Can we raise standards and push qualifications in a field where there’s no acknowledged ‘truth’ […]”

In that case, I suppose you’d be against raising standards for ANY kind of formal education. After all, we have no comprehensive theories about how anybody learns anything, so what’s the point, eh?

“I find it a little pretentious to compare teachers with doctors and lawyers”

Sure, but let’s not forget, we are talking about something quite fundamental to people’s lives here.. education. If you look at serious practictioners of ELT and teacher trainers/writers like Scott, I hope you’ll agree that there is plenty of room in ELT, if one is inclined, to become highly professional and spread valuable ideas, possibly contributing to a real change in people’s lives.. even if they aren’t diagnosing cancer or helping innocent people stay out of jail etc…


30 01 2011
Willy C Cardoso

You got it Mr Darkbloom.
I have no reason to support formal education as regards its diploma disease. Standards in ELT function more like screening devices for the jobs market than anything else.

Education is so fundamental that it can happen with minimum resources. You can teach/learn a language with your foreign neighbour for free if you both want and end up “contributing to a real change” in your lives.
BUT, you wouldn’t hire someone with a 4-week certificate in Med to diagnose cancer or in Law to keep you out of jail. That’s roughly what I meant by the statement you quoted.

30 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Yes, I agree with the last part of your message, but I think you missed my first point.

I was disagreeing with your statement about the dubious nature of raising standards BECAUSE we don’t have ‘acknowledged truth’ about learning.

30 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Education is so fundamental that it can happen with minimum resources. You can teach/learn a language with your foreign neighbour for free if you both want and end up “contributing to a real change” in your lives.

This is the rub. If we think of language teaching as meaning “providing the conditions for the learning of languages” then language teaching, at a one-to-one level, or in small groups of paying adults, is NOT rocket science. But providing those conditions in ‘difficult circumstances’, e.g. with large groups of unmotivated teenagers, now that IS a skill that generally goes undervalued and unrewarded.

31 01 2011
Willy C Cardoso

Mr Darkbloom, I see know how loose my statement was. By standards I was thinking of credentials/certificates, which although reductionist of my part is what is largely practised, that is, many stakeholders think that to raise standards is to demand higher qualifications. So, let me say I’m not against raising standards, I’m against standardizing practice based on certificates, diplomas, etc.

Scott, I agree. However, putting this skill in the body of knowledge a teacher should demonstrate and evaluating it in order to value and reward the teacher according to preset values and rewards is intangible. How does a teacher, or anyone, learn charisma and empathy? That’s the part where I see teaching as art, how we value and reward art is more emotional than rational, as well as being highly influenced by collective opinion, and of course marketing.

The fact that our job is to teach (as “to provide conditions for learning”) and knowing that learning is not only caused by teaching make our cause a weak one; unlike the doctor and the lawyer who can justify their value post hoc.

31 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

The fact that our job is to teach (as “to provide conditions for learning”) and knowing that learning is not only caused by teaching make our cause a weak one; unlike the doctor and the lawyer who can justify their value post hoc.

Agreed, Willy. As you can see, I am trying to have it both ways: I believe that EFL teachers (generally) deserve the ‘respectability’ that many of them crave, including better pay and conditions. On the other hand, I don’t think that the claim that TEFL is a ‘profession’, in any strict sense, will wash – whether or not we don mortar-boards or lab coats. Or a shaman’s mask. Hence I don’t think ‘professionalization’ is a viable aspiration, and we might be better concerned at developing and promoting the intercultural, social and dialogic nature of what we do.

On the other hand, I recognize the fact that many teachers around the world are already accorded high, if not professional, status, not so much because they are language teachers, but because they are school teachers – and because school teaching – in their particular social contexts – is valued and rewarded. Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere.

31 01 2011


Thanks for this. Have linked the post to our TeachingEnglish facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil because I’m sure that our contributors will find it real food for thought. Please feel free to post there directly any info about new posts you’d like to share.



31 01 2011
Brad Patterson

Thanks for the article, and this question that merits a fair pause and a “hmmm”…

I would say that education is certainly a profession, and anyone that would argue otherwise is just placing a value on one occupation versus another.

However, I do think that EFL has a fair amount of “seasoners” and I’m no exception. I taught for 4 months in 2004, 4 months in 2005, then for 3 years in China. I tutor now, but dedicate the majority of my time to consulting, and to my role as a community manager for an e-learning EFL company, Edulang.

EFL is part of my professional path but I don’t know that I would consider it “my profession”. Certainly love it, though, and the opportunities it offers are wonderful (exchange of culture, travel, typically flexible approach).

I think many people fall into this flexible mould of EFL, some firming and dedicating their lives to it, others for a few seasons. Furthermore, many institutions are flexible vis a vis diploma requirements and required experience for EFL instructors. This lack of “structure” also lessens the profession in the eyes of many, I fear.

In light of this last point, I believe you concluded perfectly when when you wrote “we should worry less about what other people think of us and concern ourselves more with what we are good at”. Cheers, Brad

3 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

EFL is part of my professional path but I don’t know that I would consider it “my profession”.

That sums up many people’s experience, I think, Brad – especially those of us who have been “in it” longer than the length of a gap year.

31 01 2011
English Raven

This is the sort of question that has had me scratching my head for a number of years, Scott.

Vacation -> Vocation -> Occupation -> Profession?

Something along those lines…


– Jason

31 01 2011
Mark Kulek

Jason, I like your sequence. That pretty much describes my path.
Here in Japan, income can separate the professional from the slacker. In my case, I work for myself, operating a small school. The better I get the more money I can make. It behooves me and those that I hire to continue professional development.

Bottom line, if you are supporting a family, looked-up-to in your community, then yes, TEFL is a profession.

Working hard in Gifu,

3 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mark – your experience, and sense of professional self-esteem, echoes Brad’s (above). What’s encouraging is that there is a core of school owners and administrators, on-line course deliverers, teacher training providers, etc, who, having come up the hard way themselves, and having recognised the value of in-service professional development, are making the same service available to their own employees.

1 02 2011

Teaching, in NZ, is definitely a profession. In fact, attempts to reduce it from such have been soundly rebuffed over the last few years. It is afforded profession status by the fact it takes a lot of specialist training (teachers college/college of education), requires membership in a body (in NZ you have to be a registered teacher to teach in a school – state or otherwise I believe – governments have attempted to change this but been forced to back down) and membership to this body requires adherence to a code of conduct, with penalties for those who don’t.

In fact, it bears remarkable similarity to the institutions described above by Scott; law, medicine or engineering, doctors, lawyers, architects…
This is true in NZ at least, but I am sure is similar in Australia, the UK – perhaps others can enlighten us?

However, this professionalism in NZ still has to be closelyguarded. Governments with neoliberalist and market managerialist agendas have attempted to erode this and to render it a technical vocation. There are several reasons for this.

The first is that there was a change in the way education was perceived in the 1980s in NZ. It went from being a social good for the benefit of all to a private good which self interested people should be able to compete for and take what they want out of. Professionals got in the way of this idea by placing their agenda above these self interested people. The concept was called provider-capture, where teachers would act in their own self interest at the expense of clients.

As a result curriculum and content of education were progressively centralised, to ensure that what governments want people to learn is not questioned – people were to be taught according to the needs of the economy. If content is prescribed, then teaching it merely requires a technician capable of inputting the material. Clients can then choose from the different inputs according to their own self-interest.

This in turn means that teacher training can be reduced in scope and will be shorter, and can be opened up to competition – efficiency is the key word here.

The cross over with TEFL should be obvious here. The TEFL world is business where people more often than not choose to learn, and there are obvious benefits to business of prescribing content and curriculum; it’s a product able to be quantified and charged for. With content prescribed, methodology can be prescribed and training courses designed to train the technicians responsible for inputting the material. The industry standard TEFL training course is the CELTA – 6 weeks long!!!!

The comparisons with that and teachers college should be obvious. This is the major barrier to language teaching becoming a profession IMHO. Training would need to dramatically increase, and therefore salaries etc along with it. Those that have trained a lot (eg DELTA / MA students) can command higher salaries, and are generally responsible to bodies that universities/schools belong to etc. As long as there is a large pool of people willing to work those hours for that pay then this will never happen. If more people become qualified and challenge that in, demanding salaries commensurate with their qualifications, experience and membership of professional bodies, then it may well in time become known as a profession.

1 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

The industry standard TEFL training course is the CELTA – 6 weeks long!!!!

Or 4 weeks in many places. But, in defense of the CELTA (and other similar schemes) it has worked for very many teachers over very many years, launching very many fulfilling careers (mine included), as well as catering for the demands of a highly competitive private-sector market. If it were so bad, would it have lasted so long or been anywhere near as successful? Its extremely practical nature, for all its flaws, is constantly cited by trainees, in my experience, as its singular strength — some even claiming that it was the best educational experience of their lives.

And what would the alternative be? A long, prohibitively expensive, theoretically-based, but ‘professional’ training — along the lines of many Masters programmes in the US which purport to prepare novice teachers for classroom teaching by forcing on them quantities of SLA theory and transformational generative linguistics? Is this really what it takes to “professionalise” TEFL?

What, in the end, do you need to know and what do you need to be able to do, to teach a second language effectively? Is it any more skilful than, say, teaching the guitar, or teaching someone to drive, or to cook? (Again, I’m talking about small groups of adult learners in the private sector here). Aren’t CELTA and TEFL perfectly matched?

1 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

A footnote: Nik Peachey (on the subject of the CELTA course and its new online avatar): “It was one of the best educational experiences of my life! I can’t imagine anyway that could be done as well online”. (A few minutes ago on the IATEFL TTEd SIG Discussion list).

2 02 2011

Yes I would have to agree that a definite strength of the CELTA (and DELTA courses) is certainly the practical nature of the courses. But having been through both, I am starting to feel there are major limitations too. There was nothing in either course for me – indeed not even a place for talking about group dynamics, which is surely a cornerstone of any dialogically based teaching pedagogy. I would also say that a dialogic classroom is a democratic classroom and a critical classroom, neither of which are something CELTA or DELTA lean towards in any way.
I’ve mentioned here before that I think there is a whole spectrum of educational theory which “real” teachers have to go through which is virtually ignored in the ELT world. Shouldn’t people who wish to teach at least be trained in their field, regardless of what they wish to teach? Perhaps the only way CELTA and TEFL are matched are in a business sense…

2 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

I agree, Darridge, that there is more room in the DELTA, perhaps, for engaging with the social and cultural aspects of TEFL — a critical stance, if you like — although this will depend to a degree on the design of individual courses. But there doesn’t seem much point in packing yet more into the CELTA, which is already stuffed to the gills and at the point of bursting.

Why the model works so well is that it gets the teacher (the novice practitioner, if you like) into the classroom, and into a cycle of experiential learning (assuming some mentoring support, apprenticeship, reflection etc) after which successive ‘interventions’ of in-service training, such as the DELTA and an MA, serve to ‘professionalise’ the now expert practitioner. This seems to be a much sounder form of professional training and development than banging away at a three-year university course in educational theory and linguistics, before ever setting foot in the classroom.

Of course, the great weakness of the model is that, if there is no in-service mentoring and post-pre-service support, then the novice practitioner is in danger of only ever being a backpacker with a certificate. But the lack of follow-up is not the fault of the CELTA per se — and, to be fair, accrediting bodies like the Cambridge ESOL and Trinity are insistent on the need for post-course support.

1 02 2011
Lindsay Clandfield

My colleague Philip Kerr and I explored this area in an article for the Teacher Training SIG for IATEFL some years back. Entitled Professionalism an Obscure Object of Desire we wondered if professionalism wasn’t something that one should be careful you wish for. A taste:

“When looked at from a socio-historical perspective, professionalism takes on a much less rosy hue. In Britain in the 1980s, teachers came under a sustained attack for a lack of professionalism, but educationalists were equally vigorous in their response. The attacks, they said, were politically motivated and served to justify a greater state control over education. The discourse of professionalism was seen as a way of eliciting the consent of workers for reduced conditions of employment: it was, in short, a type of occupational control.”

Darrige (above) seems to have experienced this as well in New Zealand. It’s happened also in Canada where I come from.

Bascially, I’m all for increased quality in education and a better condition for most teachers, especially in the private sector of ELT. It’s worth thinking more about the term though, and to make sure that discourse stays in the hands of the teachers and not become a(nother) stick to beat us with.

2 02 2011

Yeah thats a great call Lindsay, and has been a feature of arguments in New Zealand too. I think there is a difference in being professional (as in do all your paper work and what I tell you) and being in a profession such as those doctors and lawyers have. Sullivan talks of this at length, and of teachers reclaiming their profession (Sullivan, K. (1997) ’They’ve Opened Pandora’s Box: Educational Reform, the New Right and Teachers’ Ideologies’ amongst others). However, this discussion is in general education, not ELT.

1 02 2011
Graham Stanley

Unfortunately, the world needs some jobs that can be done by just about anyone, and so long as some organisations employ just about anyone, this will continue to be the case.

I think the comparisons above that people have made to professions such as engineering and medicine are not valid. These are two professions that require many years of study and practice before a practitioner can be deemed safe to undertake professional work.

Why not look at other professions. Take accountancy, for example, and you can see a model that ‘language teaching as a profession’ could follow.

In the UK, for example, there are accountants that are ‘chartered’ and these are those that are most highly qualified and regarded by those both inside and outside accounting as the ‘best’ accountants. They are usually the ones that earn the most money, and the status is protected / regulated by a professional body.

Then there are those that study accountancy (and have a degree) but don’t become ‘chartered’ – they still usually end up working as professionals in well-paid jobs.

There are many other accountants that are not so well qualified but work in companies because there is a need for this work. Some simply started helping to ‘do the books’ and ended up accountants. Often, many of these people are not qualified, but they still call themselves ‘accountants’.

What I’m trying to say, is that there are lots of professions like ours where there is room for people with a variable amount of both qualifications and experience, and basically our customers (i.e. students) and employers (schools, academies, universities, etc.) should realise that you get what you pay for.

It’s up to us teachers who are interested in being taken seriously as professionals to do this. That is why, I think it is in the interest of ‘professional teachers’ to join a professional body (IATEFL, TESOL, etc) and to start working towards people understanding there is a difference between the teacher ‘just off the boat’ and someone who has been teaching for many years and who has qualifications and regularly engages in teacher development.

Or perhaps we should all stop being teachers and move into accountancy 🙂

1 02 2011

Accountancy is a good model and accountancy firms usually operate an equity partnership structure which seems to be a much more meritocratic system than the tired formula of the franchise. If people own an organisation they take more pride in it.

1 02 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Funny you should suggest that, Graham – I am working with a trainee on my current CELTA course who has left accountancy for ELT 🙂

2 02 2011
Sandy Millin

I’ve been following the comments with interest and thinking over what I wrote a few days ago.
One thing that was only mentioned here in the context of accountants was the idea of becoming a chartered practitioner. My mum is a librarian, another job / profession which suffers from a mixed image, and chartership is a key way in which librarianship promotes professionalism. She is also a Chartered Manager. Perhaps chartership is something which could be promoted alongside the DELTA / MA route, perhaps through organisations such as IATEFL. I don’t know how exactly this would work, but I thought I would throw it into the mix.

1 02 2011

On the other hand, if your accountant goofed up the figures and lost you thousands, you could sue. Lawyers, architects and doctors can also be sued if they jeopardise or compromise their clients’ interests. But who has ever heard of an EFL teacher (even a CELTA-trained one) being sued by a dissatisfied student?

2 02 2011

Let us hope that no lawyer is led here inadvertently by Google to find such food for thought.

2 02 2011

I can’t see how we are a profession, but then again, I -like most of us here, it seems- am working with a rather idiosyncratic understanding of what a profession is. If we hold to Soctt’s suggested definition which meets many, if not all, of the criteria that I remember reading in a distant past, then we are patently not a profession. I have suggested in different places at different times that our lack of professionalism is evident when we describe ourselves as EFL/ESOL/ELT teachers rather than just teachers. The field tends to express greater affinity with the linguistic technocrats than it does with the pedagogues.

If we look at most ELT workers, we see that they are overworked and underresourced. Most are employed on what amounts to exploitative terms and conditions. They have more in common with shopworkers and factoryhands than they do with the lawyers and the surgeons.

Yet the burning conviction remains that this is a profession. Why so? Might it be to do with the fact that we yearn to consider ourselves as teachers – despite our eschewal of the field of pedagogy in favour of the field of linguistics? Might it have something to do with the fact that many of us grew up in households that were governed by middle class aspirations of personal progress and higher achievements? Might it have something to do with the fact that many of us have degrees and therefore cannot countenance the idea that we might have amounted to no more than what we are? I dare not supply an answer to these questions.

I like Scott’s suggested steps forward. We worry less about what we are and celebrate more what we do. It’s a kind of Whitmanesque or Nerudian approach to the problem. More Auden than Audi. Let us sing the body eclectic!

2 02 2011

If someone is making a living and doing what he enjoys, the opinions of other people really don’t make much of a difference.

3 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Agreed, Daniel, except in the case that his enjoyment might be being exploited by his employers (and the socio-economic system at large) to keep his wages at a minimum.

3 02 2011

Hi all
Thanks for this post Scott and to everyone for their really interesting input. I haven’t much to add, but would like to pick up something Diarmuid said “Where I work, I am constantly despairing at the lack of readership of the journals that we subscribe to. I was the only applicant for an all-expenses paid trip to IATEFL in April. I often have to ask myself what is going on. Then I realise. All of the teachers on the courses I manage are working their maximum number of hours (a pro rata of 24 teaching hours for most people). They are working, for the most part, on fractional or hourly-paid contracts, so have no time when they are all together in the staffroom. They have families and lives outside of their place of work.”

And this is probably one of my main problems as a DOS and as someone who relishes PD. If a teacher takes time off – for any reason – they don’t get paid for that time and the school/institution has to find someone to teach in their place. Teachers HAVE TO BE THERE. They cannot say, “I’m doing paperwork today, don’t disturb me”, or “I have a doctor’s appointment, take my calls.” or “I’m on course on Wednesday, I’ll get back to you on Thursday when I get in.” If they aren’t there someone else has to be there. Sending teachers on courses could cost the institute for the course and for a replacement and for the hours the “away” teacher is away (as it is PD and not holiday time). All this can be negotiated of course, and “give-and-take” plays a big role too. Many of my students take their holiday time to come on a course, while their company pays for the actual course: and that’s fine. But if a teacher does that, who is taking care of his/her students? It seems to be something that we have to remind people of every single day – teachers are physically required to be present in real time. When am I, as DOS, able to schedule training, for even half an hour? During lunch? On Saturdays? A lot of my teachers are teaching elsewhere on Saturdays to supplement their fractional hours and even teachers need to eat. It is a huge problem. Any suggestions would be very welcome!

3 02 2011
Mike Chick

“This seems to be a much sounder form of professional training and development than banging away at a three-year university course in educational theory and linguistics”

Well, I’m not sure I agree with that statement, Scott. What if that three year university course combined teaching practice (the skills) with the theory (reflection, SLA), and the LA (lexis, phonology, grammar)? Would this not produce a more “professionally qualified” practitioner?

The consensus on last month’s fascinating PPP topic seemed to be that the “presentation” component was often overly emphasized and that a reactive focus on form was deemed to be best practice in creating the “conditions for learning to take place”. The problem, as I see it, is that there cannot be a satisfactory reactive focus if the newly qualified trainee has very limited LA.

My career in EFL has been, so far, really enjoyable and satisfying. Thus the initial four week course certainly worked well for me – but did I work well for the students during my early years?

3 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Mike. I was rather exaggerating the theory-driven nature of MAs, and I ought to know (since I teach on one) that most MAs in TESOL nowadays have a strong practical orientation. Nevertheless, teachers coming to them as an entry qualification are much less able — on the whole — to handle either the theoretical or practical components, compared to somebody coming to the program with some experience under their belt. I still maintain that the optimal career trajectory would start with some sheltered classroom experience, e.g. as a teachers assistant, proceed to a preservice course, be followed by two or three years’ varied experience, followed by a Diploma course, yet more experience, including some kind of teacher supervision perhaps, and then the Masters. I’m aware, though, that this takes time, costs a lot, and assumes a willingness on the part of the employee to release the teacher for bouts of in-service training.

3 02 2011

I think teaching is a profession. TEFL in Spain can be a profession. TEFL is different from mainstream education. The main difference is that TEFL is not compulsory or official (reglada in Spanish) which means that it is very easy to do your own thing. I think, in most cases, what makes TEFL a profession or not is the organisations behind. TEFL organisations or language schools are the ones that set their standards, design their programmes, hire their teachers, set their prices, offer better or worse conditions to their staff…. In Spain it’s fairly easy to see which organisations are professional and which are not.

Well, before this, we should probably discuss what we understand by profession and professional because I could refer to a school as professional but you might think that it’s a cowboy set-up. Once the concept of professionalism is clear it would be easier to decide how professional TEFL is, eg, describing a professional school could be very long but in short I’d say that a professional school is one that commits to their clients, staff and environment. The commitment to the clients means mainly offering a solid programme delivered by competent teachers and also offers good customer care. (What’s a solid programme? What makes a teacher competent? This could be never-ending…). The commitment to their staff would mean offering professional conditions with a contract for the hours they’re actually doing, a proper payslip, a competitive salary, some kind of programme or structure and resources, training, support and supervision together with professional opportunities for growth. The commitment to the environment could mean taking care of the environment and trying to preserve it. Teachers in a school like this could be professionals if they decided to make TEFL their career here. I say “if” because there are many teachers who do TEFL for a little while…I think we all know this. This is one of the biggest differences between TEFL and other professions. Most professionals start their career and evolve within their professional sector. In TEFL many people pop in and go out. Also, in most cases in Spain these teachers are required a 4-week teaching course …. since it might be just a 9–month job anyway… In other professions you would not go anywhere with such qualification.

According to the brief description above of what I consider a professional school (which is probably different from everybody else’s) in Spain you can find professional TEFL organisations. But you can also find unprofessional ones. I think that’s why it’s not very clear where TEFL belongs. Other professions seem to be more homogeneous even though in any profession there will always be professionals and people who are not up to the level.

Why is it possible to find such a wide variety or TEFL organisations? Because it’s been happening for a long time, at least 25 or 30 years, when having a native teacher was exotic and clients didn’t really expect very much more. Having a native teacher meant it was a good school. And some schools are still operating like that. They don’t offer much more than a warm body in the classroom. These schools wouldn’t exist if they didn’t get any clients…which shows that some clients are not very demanding. On the other hand some schools evolve with the times and are run professionally.

4 02 2011
David Scarbrough

Having returned to a number of ELT blogs in recent weeks I am struck by how certain topics keep coming round again and again. I suppose the reason why they keep coming round is that they are unlikely ever to be resolved.

The term “profession” often collates with “membership” and “regulation”. It’s hard to see how the world of ELT could ever be regulated in the way any of the recognised professions are. If you are a teacher of English in a Tanzanian secondary school you are regulated by the Tanzanian Ministry of Education. If you are a recent graduate backpacking round Thailand you might spend a few months working in a private language school and you are regulated by nobody other than the owner of the school for whom specific ELT qualifications may be the least of his/her concerns. The Tanzanian secondary school teacher is engaged in education, but the one-to-one teacher of a Spanish sales manager who needs to acquire the skills to make a series of new product presentations in English is engaged in training.

It’s hardly surprising that all attempts to regulate the “profession” of ELT have so far failed. Does anyone remember the short-lived British Institute of English Language Teaching? We all know that having specific ELT qualifications is not a sufficient guarantee that you will be a good teacher (although it is, in my view, a necessary one). Surely what distinguishes the outstanding teacher is not the membership of something called a profession, but a constant striving to be professional, which means simply doing the best job you can all the time.

4 02 2011
Steven Herder

Two of my beliefs:

“Perception is often 9/10ths of the law, and how we perceive ourselves has a clear impact on how others perceive us as well.”

“Being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to ongoing professional development”

I taught for 14 years in Japan without any formal TEFL training. As I realized the transformation that I was undergoing as I went through my MA TEFL, I searched high and low for a suitable metaphor to describe my attitudinal changes. Notwithstanding the obvious cultural and socio-economic stigma in this choice of words, “a blue-collar attitude” vs. “a white collar attitude” remains closest to my intended meaning. Here is a simplified description of the differences I have interpreted with the help of several authorities in ELT.

White-collar attitude
1. It’s a profession
2. There is rigorous study involved
3. Upgrading is essential
4. Having a sense of public service
5. High standards of public conduct
6. Working from a basis of scientific knowledge
7. A lot of “ownership” in the job

Blue-collar attitude
1. It’s just a job
2. There is little study involved
3. Upgrading is unnecessary
4. Having a sense of being a cog in a wheel
5. No public standards of conduct
6. Working from a manual
7. Doing what you are told to do

While I had always tried to maintain a sense of professionalism, i.e. trying to uphold a white-collar attitude, my lack of a theoretical grounding in teaching theory and language learning left me trapped somewhere between these two self perceptions. There was always a doubt lurking in the back of my mind that I was “a fraud” or an “impostor”. Having completed the rather rigorous University of Birmingham MA TEFL, I immediately felt more complete and more self-assured as a professional EFL teacher.

Before too many people attack, it needs to be emphasized that I am focusing on attitudes here and that a so-called white-collar doctor can just as easily have a blue-collar attitude and a mechanic, plumber, or a waiter, while perceived by many as blue-collar workers, can easily have a white-collar attitude. Perception.

Thanks, Scott, as always, for your thoughts and for making us all think.

4 02 2011
Steven Herder

Oops. Of course number 4 is backwards. I was cutting and pasting from a table. I had written parts of this in an essay near the end of my MA.

>I switched them back again Steven (Ed.)

5 02 2011
Willy C Cardoso

just stumbled upon this:

In teaching, stronger professionalization does not always mean greater professionalism. -Andy Hargreaves

professionalization as improving status, regard, reward; how teachers feel they are seen through other people’s eyes. So, being a professional.

professionalism as improving quality and standards of practice. So, teacher as being professional, the quality of what they do, and conduct.

Does it make it more confusing? Maybe not. I, at least, mean different things when I say, I’m (not) being professional and I’m (not) a professional.
But does it really matter?
I think it does in light of the citation above and of what I said previously, that improved standards doesn’t necessarily translate to improved status.

6 02 2011
Eric Roth

Provocative, informative, and persuasive primer. Thank you.

Perhaps the core conflict remains the chasm between what educational bureaucrats (far removed from classrooms) count as indicators of teaching professionalism and what creates a great learning environment. This issue goes far beyond English language teaching.

Allow me share an example. Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Churchill, and Bill Clinton couldn’t get hired as teachers – in any subject – in many countries, public school districts, or educational companies. May I suggest the obsession with credentials and letters can often be misguided?

6 02 2011

Talking of Churchill, it was he who coined the phrase that ‘the empires of the future will be the empires of the mind’, when advocating the virtues of Basic English in his speech at Harvard University in 1943. Perhaps we could just as easily say that the profession of teaching is the profession of the mind when distancing ourselves from the other fields. . .

6 02 2011
Eric Roth

That’s very effective framing!

6 02 2011
Stephanie Ashford

Socrates might lack the credentials to be hired as a teacher, but universities would vie to offer him a professorship. This leads me to wonder where university professors lie on the ‘fretting-about-whether-one-belongs-to-a-profession’ spectrum. I suspect that they never give it a moment’s thought. If they were told they’d have to undergo teacher training, they’d turn in their groves (of academia).

So… should EFL teachers start thinking more like university professors, who jealously guard their academic freedom, or is it the university professors who need to get more professional?

I also suspect that native-speaker EFL teachers are more likely to get vexed about this issue than non-native speakers, if only because the word ‘profession’ in English carries such complex, culture-bound connotations of exclusivity.

Scott, in your original post you refer to the ‘prototypical’ professions of law, medicine and engineering, but I wonder whether everyone understands what you mean by ‘prototypical’ here. For example, ‘profession’ translates into German as ‘Beruf’, which also includes trades such as plumbing, chimney-sweeping, watch-making, or indeed anything that involves some sort of training or career-track. What about ‘profesión’ in Spanish or ‘professione’ in Italian?

Experts on semantic prosody, discuss!

6 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Well, I’m not an expert on semantic prosody, but a quick check of the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that the top (statistically most signfiicant) collocations of ‘profession’ are: medical, legal, TEACHING and education (emphasis added).

The associated British English site gives similar results, with ‘accountancy’ and ‘nursing’ in 6th and 7th place respectively.

6 02 2011
Eric Roth

Perhaps I should have been more precise behind the related rant detailing my scepticism toward the push for paper credentials to prove professionalism. All the great teachers and communicators on my list could teach at universities – but maybe not community colleges and certainly not at K-12 public schools where pieces of paper are continually confused with competence and no distinctions are made between institutions offering degrees. Professional achievements outside the classroom have no place in many bureaucratic educational institutions. It’s an absurd situation since Bill Clinton could certainly teach American History or Government to high school students.

So while it’s natural to desire quick checklists to establish credentials, the field’s openness provides many advantages and avoids some silly situations. I have taught English and composition at a leading university for eight years, but could not -without additional education courses – even teach English in a public high school. Universities trust themselves enough to recognize diverse forms of achievement, excellence and intelligence. Likewise, I would suggest, we should celebrate the diversity of our career paths and multiple ways of being professional language teachers. Let’s trust our own experiences, worry less, and learn more.

7 02 2011
Lindsay Richman

I also think it depends on one’s preparation. In the US (and many places abroad), the jobs for those with an M.A. in Applied Linguistics or TESOL vary tremendously from those who lack a masters. Those with PhDs can obtain tenured faculty positions training teachers or teaching applied linguistics. Moreover, in my state (NYC), the standards for obtaining a K-12 credential are pretty rigorous. I have to complete two semesters each of fieldwork and student teaching. This differs pretty radically from those who have basic TEFL certificates; the corresponding job options and pay reflect this.

Plus, there are negative stereotypes about almost any profession.

7 02 2011
Lindsay Richman

This is not to discredit those with just certs (I started with a CELTA), by the way. However, the certs are considered entry-level qualifications. Those who wish to move up in the profession usually find that they need to obtain at least a DELTA/M.A. or a professional teaching qualification.

DELTA/MA = university teaching, which usually correlates with better pay and more prestige

Teaching credential = international or domestic K-12 school employment, which usually leads to better pay and working conditions

7 02 2011

Hi Scott,

Firstly, thank you for this incredible post, in terms of the introspection that it induced within me. Your questions have been internally answered by every single person who has had an opportunity to engage with it, and grapple with it, by now.

I shared the two questions you asked here, on my own initiative, with my Linkedin community / network over at http://www.linkedin.com/ .

Their initial responses can be seen, collectively, on my blog, here: http://bit.ly/gVamrp

Further, what I can not show is that my Linkedin network encompasses 9.8 million people (counting 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree connections). Needless to say, your questions were considered by an incredible number of people, and while you read the responses of the ones who felt compelled to put their thoughts in writing, the vast majority elected anonymity.

Further, I utilised my TESOL, Incorporated, (parent organization / mother ship)International member discussion channel to directly access the 1500 member TESOL Educators Special Interest Group. I am not at liberty to disclose their responses in a similar fashion as I did with Linkedin.

This is because Linkedin offers open membership access. No one pays a fee for access and public discussion forums are used. This is not the case with TESOL, Incorporated.

What I am at liberty to disclose is the nature and tone of the debate. It mirrors exactly what you find here, on this page. Some divergent, some convergent, yet in the end, the overwhelming majority will find their views represented, replicated, mirrored, at some place on this page.

It was indeed a debate where the answer, truthfully, is inside each and everyone of us, individually. We all found our own “truths”.

I tried to act as adjudicator for the debate, framing it, laying out the ground rules, pointing out what it means to engage with ideas which may depart from what one has embraced, and how to go about, agreeably disagreeing, with someone’s opinion.

I am absolutely amazed that this has been the case.

Not a single “flame war” has erupted, not a single case of anti-social behaviour can I point to: neither here, nor on Linkedin, not on my blog, not on Facebook, not on Twitter, and not on the TESOL Incorporated discussion channel.

I am inclined to think that fact alone, our civil conduct, may be the most promising concrete evidence we have that we may be more professional, as a whole, as Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, and as Teachers, than we have received credit for in the past.

I would like to share with your readers my framing of this global debate, for it has indeed been a global debate, planetary in its reach thanks to social media, within the members of the TESOL, TEFL, and overall Teaching community.

Without being overtly self-promoting, I would like to think that our civil debate, in some measure, resulted through my role as adjudicator. However, that is one issue in which the “jury must deliberate further”, with each one of us reaching, again, our own conclusions. Here is the link:


Finally, let me finish by saying again, how much I admire your work Scott.

You have served, for me, and no doubt to countless others like me, as an inspiration to aspire to, a model of what professionalism ought to look like, when someone truly lives it, as you have.

My best regards to you,

Thomas Baker

8 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Thomas. Nice to know the discussion is going on elsewhere. Also, very nice to hear of a way of putting Linked-In to some productive use. Well done!

10 02 2011
Peter Hourdequin

Thanks Scott for another provocative post. The anecdote at the beginning of your piece regarding the actress went in a different direction than I would have expected. With it you pointed to the status of teaching English as a kind of liminal job, but I have always associated teaching more with the actors job itself, that of an artist. As you say, EFL teachers “occupy a privileged space on the frontier between languages,” and in this sense are they not like actors in that they are also involved in the interpretation of culture through language? The difference (and pleasure) is that whereas actors and other artists often interpret their own culture for local audiences, EFL teachers have the opportunity (and responsibility / challenge) to do so internationally and interculturally.

10 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Interesting point, Peter — and makes me wonder to what extent language teachers “perform/enact” the target language culture, or even if they can,(if they are not native speakers), or if they should, (if they are)?! If you get my drift. I do think that they can mediate between cultures (and languages, of course), but I’m not sure that this is the same as either interpreting or performing, in the sense that actors interpret or perform.

11 02 2011

VERY late in catching up with this! Turn away from blogs for a week and it takes ages to catch up! Very interesting reading!

It seems to me that TEFL is such a diverse industry. There are people who have chosen to make a career from TEFL and those who use it to work and travel, before looking to do something else. Both are fine.

I can only speak from my own experience. After gaining a first class honours degree in Criminology in 1992 I went to California to take a year out before returning to probably go into forensics. (that was the plan!)

In California I did the CTEFLA. Didn’t return and went on to Australia, Japan and various other countries. I was lucky to work at good schools who provided lots of in-service support, because I certainly didn’t feel like a teacher, I just enjoyed getting to know people and giving them chunks of language so we could speak!!

It wasn’t until deciding to do the DELTA some 15 years after the CELTA that I started to form an idea that this might be a ‘profession’ or ‘career’.

Now post DELTA and in a position where I look after 2 schools and teachers (teacher training/soon CELTA training) a few more letters after my name. I’m starting to put my earlier experience into context.

The love of communicating with people, combined with encouragement, being open and sharing, encouraging other teachers to develop in ways that play to their strengths has led to me really feeling part of a profession.

This is because I feel empowered, not so much because of having done the DELTA – but because I work for a school who give the financial and professional support to teachers and encourage everyone to develop their potential. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to ‘steer that ship’ Such an environment is what makes a job a profession, where respect, encouragement and learning from one another are realities and the least experience teacher is as valued as the most experienced.

I think it’s really up to those of us in positions where we do the recruiting, the in-house training, the networking, to create a climate of openness, respect and encouragement.

We can do this not only through our in-house development and financial support for teachers wishing to progress, but also through hiring teachers who demonstrate qualities of openness, enthusiasm and the love to learn. A teacher could have DELTA’s and MA’s coming out of his ears – but if they came across as being arrogant and superior in an interview then they are not for our school. A professional loves what he/she does, feels a sense of progression, feels supported, is able to support others and feels a member of a team both a more immediate team (the school) and a wider team (a professional body)

12 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that Steph…your institution’s committment to in-service development is exemplary. In the end it is not so much individual teachers that are ‘professional’, as institutions themselves – and they achieve this status – not by mandating what grammar mcnuggets to be taught when (see post on the Core Inventory!) but by valuing, and investing in, their learners and teachers.

12 02 2011

Thanks Scott. We still have places to work on – for sure, but it’s an on-going process.

12 02 2011
Laura Austin

Such an interesting post! Bane if my life trying to explain to friends and family that I was developing my career when I was living and teaching in Spain. Only now, after nearly 10 years in ELT are they starting to ‘get it’. Any ideas to shake this misconception of ELT as ‘bummin around abroad’ are great – some great ideas here! Thanks 🙂

15 02 2011
Evan Frendo

We recently started a professional development group for TEFL teachers here in Berlin. The idea is simple – we meet every four to six weeks and have a discussion about a recent book or article that has attracted interest. I am sure similar groups meet regularly all over the world.

But here’s the rub. The original idea was to form the group specifically for teaching professionals ie people who had already invested in their own professional development by doing a Dip, or maybe an MA. In this way the discussions could use the “jargon” of our profession, and participants could expect a certain amount of know-how from other participants. In other words we wanted the group to be for insiders, not for people “passing through”.

But of course such an approach goes against many of the values many in the profession place most highly, ie sharing, caring, helping etc, and has caused some tension. Why make the group exclusive when the people who would benefit the most are probably the people who are being excluded? And how do you decide who gets in, and who stays out?

I think our dilemma (and we haven’t solved it) partly reflects the identity crisis all teaching professionals seem to be suffering from – a profession by its very nature has a certain amount of expertise and exclusivity. It builds walls and says ” we are members of this profession, and you are not, so stay outside our wall.” But the teaching profession is all about sharing expertise and being inclusive, and all about breaking down walls, not building them up.

29 03 2011
anna Cavalcante

“low levels of professional self-esteem, often exacerbated by poor pay and long hours.”
That’s it: the payment is directly proportional to the status the profession has in a given society. Where is teaching a carrier people really long for?

31 03 2011
J.J. Sunset

Many years ago, I remember watching an episode of “Thirtysomething”. I don’t remember exactly what was going on, or why this one character blurted out:

“I have to know because I have to explain. And I have to explain because I am a teacher. Because if I’m not even a teacher, I’m nobody” (free version).

Disturbing, huh?

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