I learned how to negotiate a job contract!

When I first came to Calabria, I swore to myself that I would only be staying for nine months, tops, and then I’d be off on my merry globe-trotting way to another job in a far more exotic part of the world. Fast forward to April 2018, and I’ve just signed a contract to spend a third year here. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before, ELT peeps.

I’ve already written about the benefits that come with staying at a school you know, and I won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I want to use this blog post to talk about something that has often been a question mark for me as a young ELT teacher: namely, job contracts, including salary, benefits and working conditions.

On the last day of my CELTA course, our tutors gave us an input session on job-hunting. It only lasted for an hour, but it contained advice that I’ve never forgotten:

  • Think carefully before signing up for more than 20 contact hours a week.
  • Don’t burn any bridges in the industry, however far-flung your current school seems at the time.
  • Look to improve your working conditions a little bit each year.

Seems like pretty obvious advice, right? Especially if you’ve worked in other industries. Here’s the problem, though: I haven’t. I went straight from university to teaching English as a foreign language. Up until last year, I had absolutely no idea how to negotiate a salary or benefits. I didn’t even know I should have been negotiating those things. I was just happy to be getting paid, and in an industry like ours, can you blame me?

It was only by talking to older colleagues with experience in sectors as diverse as banking, management and tourism that I realised there was something I was missing. Yes, I’d remembered to keep a check on my contact hours and to maintain good professional relationships with most of my colleagues, but I’d never given a second’s thought to my working conditions. What did I want? How could I make life easier for myself? How could I ask for these things with enough confidence to be convincing, but without being so demanding that the school just cut their losses and chose not to offer me a contract for the following year?

These are the things that nobody ever tells you in ELT, perhaps because they know the advice won’t always work, or maybe because they’re still figuring it out for themselves. But in the spirit of self-reflection, here is what I’ve learned so far about negotiating job contracts in our industry:

  • Make yourself invaluable. Find your unique selling point. At my current school, I write and teach the CLIL maths syllabus; I’m also highly aware that ELT teachers who can pull that off are not exactly two a penny. Contractually speaking, I have definitely benefited from that. As another example, some of my current colleagues specialise in student event organisation, as well as graphic design and marketing. What can you do that will put you one step ahead in the eyes of your school?
  • Pursue professional development. There are many reasons to keep up with your professional development as an ELT teacher, although negotiating a pay rise is not the primary reason I do mine.  However, there is nothing like cold, hard evidence when contract negotiation season comes around, and every single one of the PD certificates I’ve done over the last four years (including all three Delta modules and the IH YL and VYL certificates) have immediately led to pay rises and/or promotions. Result.
  • Know your worth. Which of your colleagues are you closest to, both in terms of friendships and where you are in the school’s hierarchy? Now ask them how much they earn. It’ll only hurt for a second, I promise. Even better, ask to see the school’s salary structure, i.e. how they set salaries based on certain qualifications or experience. I did this in a previous job, and my pay increased by €140 per month from one week to another. I almost couldn’t believe how easy it was.
  • Smart small. Working at a big school means that competition for promotions is fierce. Yes, there might be more training or management roles available, but it’s also much harder to get yourself noticed. Do yourself a favour and work your way up in a small school, where you’re also more likely to get personalised support as you go. There is absolutely no comparison in terms of opportunities for mentoring from your peers and managers, and how much responsibility you could be offered even early on in your career.
  • Rely on reputation. Some schools will never compensate you fairly, regardless of the quality of your work. Occasionally it’s because they can’t, but more often than not it’s because they don’t feel the need to. Don’t waste time on these schools; stick to more accountable ones. One way to identify these is by good ol’ word of mouth; ask your ELT contacts to ask their ELT contacts what they can find out about the school in question, and listen carefully to contract negotiation experiences of former employees.

The advice above is not a panacea for the generally awful working conditions that have slowly become the norm in ELT. These are just some conclusions I have come to after having worked at different schools in different countries, and finally arriving at a point where I can say I’m truly happy with the salary, benefits and treatment I’m enjoying at work.

It’s also the advice I wish I’d been given when I was 22, fresh off CELTA, and absolutely oblivious to the workings of long-term careers in ELT or any other industry, for that matter. Use it as you will.

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I spoke at four conferences in four months!

In April last year, I led my first-ever teacher training session. It was a quiet in-house affair for fellow staff at my school, in which I focused on one of my favourite areas of ELT: pronunciation. About ten teachers came, and several of them gave positive, encouraging feedback to me afterwards. Some time later, I realised that a few of those teachers were actually starting to use my ideas in their own classroom teaching, and I felt like I had taken the first step on a very long journey.

In December, I was asked to speak at a one-day conference for English-language teachers working at local state schools. My audience had grown from 10 to 40, and suddenly there were no more familiar faces in the crowd. I adapted an in-house training session that had bombed amongst my colleagues earlier in the year, on ideas for activities that require students to prepare their own materials. I had over-prepared, and raced through miles of slides in 45 minutes, barely leaving the delegates time to think … but even so, the attendees asked me enthusiastic questions and even hinted at requests for future training sessions.

In January, my whole school caught the train to Palermo to attend a two-day conference for private language schools in the region. I delivered yet another training session, this time about helping students to prepare for spoken and written fluency tasks. The 30-strong audience was made up of people who I worked with and for, people who worked at rival schools, people who I respected and who I wanted to impress – but I had been practising for two solid days, and I was ready. My timing was razor-sharp. As we worked through my slides and tasks, I realised I was slowly developing my very own presentational style: pithy and practical, with a peppering of research here and some self-reflection there.

In February, I went to a three-day national conference held in Rome, accompanied by my DOS, ADOS and a senior teacher. I spent the first two days delightedly scribbling away during talks by some of my ELT favourites, trying my hardest to network with other like-minded teachers, doing my best to make the most of the opportunity. On the third day, I gave my third training session of the academic year, to a dauntingly packed room of 60 trainers, directors and teachers with far more experience than me. As I finished my talk and made my way to the other room for the next workshop, I caught a teacher I didn’t know acting out one of my activities for a colleague who hadn’t been able to attend my talk. My heart sang.

Earlier this month, my school hosted a three-day international conference and we had teachers fly in from all over the world, from Ecuador, Poland, Ukraine, Portugal, Germany, the UK, and the list goes on. I walked around school trying to find casual ways to bump into some of my ELT idols, women whose careers have been inspiring me for years and continue to inspire me today. I gave a talk, a re-jigged version of the one I’d done at the regional conference two months earlier. Five minutes in, one of the aforementioned women walked in and sat down, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach. When someone asked her at dinner later that night what she had thought of my talk, she apparently paused for a few seconds and then said the word “excellent” and nothing else. I was somewhere over the rainbow, let alone the moon.

Earlier this week I sat down and thought what a lot of difference one year can make. I also thought about how lucky I am to work at a school that not only offers me so many opportunities, but gives me the funding I need to take full advantage of them. Finally, I thought about what a privilege it is to have great role models in my life, both professionally and personally: my mother, who makes international conference-hopping seem as everyday as going down the local for a quick half, and my former DOS who was the first and only person in a position of authority at work to tell me he believed in me. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.

I’ll end this post with a few of my #sketchnotes from the three conferences I mentioned above. Enjoy!