When I started working with language teaching professionals as a coach, my focus was on stress management and burnout. But after a while I realised that it wasn’t possible to manage stress and burnout without solving the major problems that were causing it. Most teachers are working a lot of hours, at unsociable times and, crucially, for very low pay. No wonder they’re overwhelmed and stressed. What can we do about the problem of low pay in ELT?

Unfortunately, low pay in ELT simply reflects the culture ingrained in education as a whole.

You’ve probably seen memes shared on social media about how ‘teachers teach for the outcome not the income’. There’s often a sense that educators shouldn’t expect to be paid well. Isn’t it possible to be interested in both student outcomes AND teacher incomes? 

What does low pay in ELT mean?

There are frequent ads for jobs based in an expensive city like Barcelona that pay 10 euros an hour. And it’s not just Spain, of course. You definitely won’t have a remotely comfortable lifestyle, never mind be able to save for the future. 

Many teachers take on these roles, thinking that they have to ‘pay their dues’ and that they will get the experience and qualifications to enable them to earn more later. They think the solution lies in moving from classroom teaching to teacher education. To be a CELTA tutor you need to be highly experienced and qualified. But those jobs don’t pay much more nowadays than when I was a CELTA trainer nearly twenty years ago.

Worsening the problem, I think there’s been a gradual shift in what we mean by ‘low pay in ELT’. I spent 10 years working outside my home country (the UK) back in the 90s. I never earned that much in terms of being able to save (and 20 something me would have considered paying into a pension boring and unnecessary). 

It’s getting worse …

But, back then, I was actually quite comfortable by local standards. I could afford to travel a lot, go out for food most nights, and so on. How many young teachers working in language schools, or for the big platforms like Preply and Cambly, can say the same these days? 

It feels as if, as a profession, we’ve found ourselves in a situation like the metaphor of the frog in boiling water. Put the frog into a pan of boiling water and they will immediately jump out. But start with the water cold, and gradually heat it up and they won’t notice the increasing heat until it’s too late. It’s a horrible metaphor, but, I think, an apt one. 

Not surprisingly, teachers are often forced out of the profession through poverty, or ill-health or both.

Why do we have such a problem with low pay in ELT?

There’s a real and deep reluctance to discuss money. And that probably contributes to educators accepting low pay.

Speaking as a tutor on the initial teacher training course, the CELTA, in the mid 90s to late 2000s, I don’t remember ever discussing money. If I did, it was only to point out to trainees that they shouldn’t expect to earn much working in a language school.

In fact, money as an unspoken topic, begins even earlier than CELTA courses. It goes back to our school education. It’s rare for primary or secondary curricula to cover even quite basic financial literacy. People are left with little understanding of how to budget, or the impact of interest rates on both savings and borrowing, let alone the need to invest in a pension. 

What can we do about it?

As a coach, I found myself advising and helping people to leave their teaching jobs and set up their own businesses. That way, they could be free to find a pool of clients who would fully appreciate their skills and experience. And that means clients who are willing to pay for their expertise. They could have more control over their working lives.

This isn’t always an easy road to take, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But at least there are options that simply weren’t there a decade or more ago. The growth of the online world, and easy and relatively cheap access to technology such as Zoom and online course platforms, has opened up so many opportunities. 

But, most of all, we need to stop shaming ourselves and other educators for caring about making money.

Most educators aren’t that interested in making lots of money for its own sake. But most of us care very much about the freedom and opportunities to live a balanced and enjoyable life that having enough money can bring. 

And why shouldn’t we? 

Join me for a free workshop on the Art of Pricing Well, 9.30-10.30 am and 3.00-4.00pm UK time, Friday 28th June. Spaces are limited. Register here.