The fabled 40-hour week

When I worked in a language school, I worked my contracted 30 hours a week. In exchange I got a decent starting salary. What nobody tells you from the company is that the salary only goes up a tiny bit and there’s rarely any real career progression.
That’s why I don’t work for language schools anymore. I went with agency work teaching business English and a junior high school. The agency also sent me to teach at a university. I was teaching PPP lessons, mostly with no planning to speak of (being able to wing it through a double-page coursebook spread is not very demanding). I was working about 35 hours a week, not including travelling between several workplaces in a day.
I did my DipTESOL, had my eyes opened to second language acquisition (SLA) and task-based language teaching (TBLT). This is language teaching and learning with purpose and evidence-based foundations, I thought. My planning time went up. It was a bit of a learning curve. My working hours went up to about 45 hours a week, not including travel between jobs.
Between my DipTESOL and my MA, I started working direct hire for universities and reduced my agency work as the agencies seemed to be reducing hourly rates and only get contracts in inconvenient places. With more university work and more ideas about how to support learners, I decided on portfolio assessments. I gave myself tons of marking. I decided to eschew coursebooks. I made my own materials because I couldn’t find anything decent or just what I needed. My working hours went up to about 50 hours a week, not including travel between jobs. Sometimes it’s more.
This new year, I decided to work less. Work what I need to do. I’m not compromising my principles by using stupid materials or going back to only PPP. I may change the portfolio assessments to something less demanding for me, so I am aiming for working about 40 hours a week, not including travelling about between jobs. Other professions do it, so why not us?
If you liked this, you will probably find TAWSIG interesting, too.

20 Replies to “The fabled 40-hour week”

  1. Hi Marc, I’m sure you must have mentioned agencies before but I thought I’d check what the difference is between them and language schools. We don’t have agencies in Croatia (I think!) Could a language school also be an agency and does that depend on how teachers are paid (if they’re freelancers the school is essentially an agency)? I was also wondering about the university work – what’s the usual route to working directly for a university? Can you apply directly or would you have to go through an agency? Apologies if you’ve written about this before and I missed it.

    1. Hi Vedrana,
      Agencies here may be language schools but there are some that are simply agencies. There is at least one agency that places full-time teachers in universities for less than a university would pay. But then there are fewer qualifications required.
      The universities here would previously have hired (native/non-Japanese) instructors with Bachelor’s degrees. This has changed, and now most places require a Master’s degree.
      I think my biggest gripe is the race to the bottom in business English. There are a lot of stupid offers now.

      1. Simply agencies like recruitment agencies? Just trying to make sense of this because as far as I’m aware things don’t work like that here, so I’m curious. Do you have a link to an agency website that I could look at?

  2. Hi Marc,
    You basically wrote a post that I had been thinking of writing. I was even thinking of putting up my schedule and see if it compares to my peers’. I’m currently teaching 32 x 45 mins and 3x 60 min classes Mon-Fri plus 4×45 mins all Saturdays till March. This leaves me very little time for the planning and creative work, which I like so much, and generates enough income – unfortunately not enough to cover the less busy periods (Christmas, breakes between semesters, sumer holidays, not to speak of sick leave etc.) I looked at some options for feelancers and the most sensible thing seems to teach online and stop selling by the hour – but then you have to do the marketing and plague people with newsletters plus you never get to see your students face to face. I’m leaving that as an option for later then. Instead, I am working on accepting the reality and enjoying my life as it is and that I don’t have to, for instance, work at the same dusty office every day like most people.

    1. Thanks Kamila,
      I am lucky enough that I can afford private sickness insurance but other than that, there is a lot of juggling to do. Even if you aren’t freelance and you teach in any kind of principled way you have preparation, planning and assessment. Like you say, if you are freelance, you have to do marketing and so on. Is it any wonder that so many teachers *need* other jobs to make up the money when they can’t get students.
      Hope you’re doing well,

    2. I know what you mean about the dusty office, but the monotony of the environment is easier to overlook when you consider how much better the income is. It’s sad because I don’t want it to come down to that. Your current workload sounds appalling. Please take care.

      1. Hi Vedrana and Marc,
        You’re fantastic. Thanks so much. I’m ok, really. I’ve been able to squeeze in a daily workout for the past months which helps a lot and just wrote myself a blog post to get more life on Angels and Lions:-) Cheers!

  3. Hi Marc, while I can’t relate to every part of your time and hours, I can relate to the general picture. One aspect that I’ve been increasingly frustrated by is the “creep of administration” at schools. Whereby the school decides on a new idea, for example student portfolios, a new electronic register with more details or some other aspect that increases the admin. At which point there is no change in pay (even though your prep and admin time has increased substantially) and it is justified by saying that they pay “better than most schools”. Really, it’s a pay reduction by other means and while there are instances where I could see it as more legitimate (for example an employee contracted for 25 contact hours a week but with only 20 hours and no new groups avalible) in the vast majority of cases it isn’t. Oh and you can be there will be something else next year that adds more admin too.

    1. Hi Chris,
      My favourite* thing is when they say “You’re just talking to people. It’s just a questionnaire/making a rubric we forgot to ask about/proofread nonsense that only looks like English.” And pay? Hahaha!
      *may not be my favourite

  4. Thanks for openly sharing your experiences here again Marc as you ever so often do on this blog. I have walked a similar road to yourself through ELT and chose to go freelance a couple of years back for the reasons you highlight above and elsewhere. But I feel the idea of teachers being pushed into freelance work and the gig economy is a worrying trend.
    Economically, the existence of more desperate and hence “flexible” pools of labour (such as freelance teaching, part-time agency work or adjunct professors in the case of ELT) allows employers to recruit willing workers when they are needed – and easily “dispose” of them when they aren’t. For those lucky enough to hold down a stable teaching role, thoughtful trade unionists will recognise, however, that even relatively well-off workers are undermined by the systematic creation of pools of more desperate and exploited workers. And all workers suffer from the loss of bargaining power that comes from division and segmentation. I believe this to be true of the current state in ELT as we see teachers label themselves as ‘coaches’ or ‘trainers’ to gain a perceived competitive edge over other workers. Not to mention, a wave of CELTA trainees readily waiting in the wings to accept work at heavily discounted rates.
    Could this be one of the underling causes of the 45-hour work week and limited career progression?

    1. Thanks for your considered comment, Myles,
      I see ‘market forces’ as one of the causes behind a lack of professional parity. In some countries, there’s a lack of skilled language teachers. The government makes it easier to employ people without typical institutional qualifications. Institutions hire, sometimes at regular rate, sometimes not. A greater pool of workers means greater supply and somewhat less demand. Teachers gain experience and skills but wages, in the meantime, have stagnated. New CELTAs go to disrespectful language schools and experienced teachers stay put due to the grass being just as brown everywhere else.

  5. Hi Marc 🙂
    No other post has ever resonated with me as much as this one.
    As Kamila pointed out above, this is something I’ve been thinking on writing about too and I have to say I’m so glad to read your thoughts.
    I went freelance because 1) it was unbearable to not progress personally and professionally and 2) I just couldn’t put students’ learning aside for the sake of X or Y’s profit.
    I suppose this largely depends on where each of us works, in a sort-of geo-financial and social sense.
    In my first freelancing year, I also went with agencies but stopped very quickly; it was the face-less aspect of it, which doesn’t work for me.
    I kept pushing what felt right, TBL and PBL, and yes that involves marketing yourself (which is even harder for someone like me who detests branding and labelling), worked on it, adapted material to it, wrote material for it, and still to this day it is hard to get people’s minds out of pre-sets over here.
    Just this year I completely stopped teaching on weekends and that is a great start for me; it leaves breathing space and time to develop in different ways. There is a lot of moving around during the week for me, that’s a fact, but I’m happy to roll with it right now. If anyone doubts whether 45 hours plus commute fit into a Monday to Friday, I can tell you they do.
    The financial aspect is a different story altogether. I’m in a place where being a freelancer automatically registers you as ‘criminal’ – maybe it’s the backlog of centuries, I don’t know, nor care. It’s difficult, but we move forward and convince the state we’re not elephants at every opportunity.
    Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Wow, you have it tough. I think Japan makes it easier for oddballs to register as self employed so they don’t register as unemployed.
      The TBL and PBL with incidental focus is something a lot of teachers don’t understand, so expecting students to get it is difficult, perhaps. I think word of mouth counts. Unfortunately for me, my referrals only come once in a blue moon from non-agency connections.
      My final agency contract ends in March and I can’t wait!

  6. Thanks for the reply Marc!
    The difficulty with being self-employed in Greece is sustaining in it, much more than starting it. I’m always hopeful that eventually things will progress but can’t help wondering for how long I can handle it.
    You’re right about word of mouth, it makes all the difference. Students get it, especially teenagers – some teachers do but don’t get the chance to practice, parents rarely do, language schools almost never; but one always brings another and slowly we shake things. It’s tough, because the industry is built on completely different grounds and everyone gets caught up in its circle.
    Again, I’m hopeful.
    Some days it feels that work takes too much of my time, adding the preparation, admin and the hours that go into development and training, but I’d still choose this over being in the same environment every day.
    For the time being, at least 🙂
    It’s hard to imagine you not getting referrals aside from agencies, is that generally the case there?
    And yay for March!

    1. Hi again,
      I do get referrals but they are a bit thin on the ground because I am expensive and seem to be specialising in overseas transfer prep. On the other hand, I like going to bed early so can’t grumble about the lack of 10pm finishes across town.
      How I long for the industry to fracture like accountancy has (bookkeeping and accounting) so people know what they are getting when looking for a teacher/’teacher’. I know I used to be a ‘teacher’, but I am now a teacher.

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