When I was a child, I wanted to be a singer and a Miss Universe pageant contestant when I grew up. I then changed my mind and told anyone who would listen that my ambition was to be a scientist. The following month, I decided I had to be a bone surgeon. But through it all, my mother would stoically say that she would prefer me to grow up to be a teacher. She would say that teaching was a good job for a woman because she would work shorter hours and have lots of holidays and plenty of spare time for childcare and household chores.
I suppose my mother’s opinions echo the stereotypical expectations of the women of her time (and maybe even of our time), but they also demonstrate the public perceptions and presumptions of a teacher’s working hours and the kind of work-life balance they get to have as a result.
Of course, I assume that when my mother voiced her desires for me to become a teacher, she wasn’t quite thinking of private language school teachers of English as a foreign language or Business English communication trainers.
Thinking about what my mother said got me thinking about the actual hours I spend working, i.e. teaching, preparing, marking, etc., my work-life balance, and how I felt about the remuneration I was getting in return. Is it true that teachers have a lot of free time because they only spend about six hours teaching every day?
In my experience, as a freelancer and a private language school teacher/trainer, my working hours are often calculated according to the contact hours, i.e. the hours I spend actually teaching students. However, does that mean that the rest of my day is free for me to do as I please?
In reality, aside from contact hours, there is also lesson preparation, marking, general admin, staff meetings, client meetings, professional development, etc. And all this often takes place in our own personal time, and we are not usually paid for it.
I first started teaching English at Callan School in London where I was paid £6.30 per lesson. Each lesson was 50 minutes long, after which we had a ten-minute break before the next lesson began. Because of the low wages, I took on as many hours as I could manage, teaching up to ten 50-minute slots a day. As some might know, Callan uses a Direct Method approach to teaching and so all the teachers were expected to read and dictate from a prescribed book. There was no room for improvisation, and therefore no need for any lesson preparation.
When I moved on to a school that was keen to have me combine the Direct Method approach with a Communicative Language Teaching approach, I found that preparation time took up a lot of my day. I was new at what I was doing, and fairly untrained, and spent hours pouring through different resources, mixing and matching activities that I thought might complement the theme of the lesson or language point that I was teaching.
Although I was paid (£8 per hour) for only the contact hours I had with my students, it didn’t occur to me then that the time I had spent preparing and marking was part of my working hours too. The school had a prescribed coursebook and a fairly relaxed attitude, and it wouldn’t have mattered if I did not prepare for my lessons the way I did.
However, I really enjoyed the prepping and saw it as a chance to learn more about teaching and an opportunity for professional development, a responsibility I was happy to accept as part of something I did in my own private time. But should I have expected more compensation for my time?
After doing my CELTA teacher training course, I started to better understand how to systematically plan and prepare for a lesson. I had a better overview of the things I needed to know and become an expert in as an English language teacher. And for those first few years of post-CELTA teaching, I spent hours writing lesson plans, photocopying and cutting out pieces of cardboard for a variety of lesson activities, starting and amassing a collection of lesson ideas and resources in my multiple folders all labelled according to levels and skills.
I was given five to six hours of teaching a day, and spend another three to four hours preparing. I would take on extra evening classes every two to three times a week in an attempt to gain a foothold in the reputable language school I was teaching at. I was now paid about £17 per contact hour and was happy that my continual professional development I had taken on using my own time and money was now starting to pay off.
I ended up staying at this language school for more than eight years, and in this time, was given more opportunities (and subsidies) to improve myself, gain more qualifications, and a variety of experiences. I did my DELTA, my MA, my LCCI CERT TEB, and a cultural training course, all in my own time, but the fruit of my labour was evidenced in the increased responsibility and pay increases I was getting at work.
Interestingly enough, with more experience and qualifications, the amount of time I needed to spend preparing for lessons gradually decreased. And when I started embracing Dogme as my preferred teaching methodology in many of my courses, I realized that I could actually cut down prep time to zero without sacrificing the quality of my teaching.
Today, as a freelancer, I deliver two types of courses.
1. General English courses that involved helping students improve their general level of English: these kinds of courses often pay less per contact hour, but I also do spend very little time on lesson preparation and admin.
2. Specialised courses: this could be ESP (English for Specific Purposes) courses involving intercultural communication, English for PR and marketing, or English for presentations. They could also be teacher training courses where I am required to design a syllabus and create a programme. In such courses, I am usually given a higher hourly rate which I believe takes into account the time I spend on preparing and developing the course. For some courses that takes more time to develop and design, I get paid extra for time spent on syllabus design and course development.
Obviously, the amount of time spent on lesson preparation is directly proportionate to how well you know the subject and the course you are delivering. If I were to run a course on English for hairdressers for the first time, I would need to spend a fair amount of my time preparing and getting to know the scope I am dealing with.
Curious to see if other teachers and colleagues around the world had the same experience and views that I have, I decided to post the following question on Twitter and Facebook:
Do you spend a lot of your time outside your teaching hours doing prep, marking and general admin work? Do you get paid for these extra hours? How do you feel about that?
In my next blogpost, I shall explore their responses, views and experiences, and how different teachers are paid differently for their working hours.
If you would like to contribute to the discussion, please post your comments below.
Until next time…
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.
She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com