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.

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!

I‘m enjoying my second year at the same school!

I’ve never had a second year at the same school before. I used to think that moving on to new pastures as soon as possible was the best way to develop, both culturally and professionally, and in almost four years’ of teaching I’ve somehow managed to work at five different schools. But now, for the first time, I’m experiencing all the rewards that come with staying, rather than running away.

1. You know what you’re doing

The single biggest cause of work-related stress for me last year was the constant feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know if my teaching was up to the expected standard, which resulted in constant over-planning and over-preparation. I didn’t know how the endlessly confusing IT system worked, which meant I wasn’t letting myself access useful student data. I also didn’t know how much freedom I was allowed in terms of syllabus and content, which led to me completely abandoning the textbook in my more daring moments and then suddenly scurrying back to it two lessons later, panic-stricken.

This year, after 12 months of experimentation and failure and success, I finally know what I’m doing. I know exactly which boundaries to push, and which ones to leave alone. I know where to invest my time so that my students get the greatest benefit and I’m not up all night worrying about the next day’s lessons.

2. You can make improvements

I’m not talking about making complaints or suggestions. Anyone can do that, any time, anywhere. I’m talking about something more powerful – the kind of targeted, meaningful, effective improvement that can only happen as a result of long-term observation and experience. In other words, you have to learn the rules before you break them.

I’ll give you an example: when I first got to the school, I was horrified by how much importance was placed on formal assessment of our young learners. Every course seemed to be geared towards Cambridge exams; the ability of every learner was described in terms of main suite can-do statements. It flew directly in the face of my fundamental beliefs about what teaching and learning should look like, and I found it incredibly hard to deal with initially.

Now, I understand that it’s a direct response to the overarching educational culture of Italy. It helps stakeholders to measure progress and understand exactly what they’re paying for. It’s the reason students keep coming back for more and ultimately, that’s what maintains motivation and progression. As much as I yearn for a world where exams are not both the question and the answer, I have come to accept that my school is designed to cater to a very different reality.

This long-term understanding has led me to realise that getting rid of exams is not the way to move the school forward; the answer is in training teachers to understand the local exam culture as soon as they arrive, so they can hit the ground running. This means giving training in the different types of exams offered, as well as help in how to design and teach balanced, multi-faceted courses that serve the students both for their exams and their long-term holistic learning.

3. You get to see your students grow

This is the single best thing about staying in your post long-term, and it’s also one of the reasons I love teaching teenagers so much.

This year, I’ve been lucky enough to stay with several of the classes I worked with last year, meaning I’ve had the privilege of watching those students grow both in their learning, and as people. Our teacher-student relationships are also richer for having endured and understood each other’s idiosyncrasies, mistakes and moments of weakness. I see these teenagers learning more about who they are, and it helps me understand myself better too.

4. You get to see yourself grow

Think of it as a professional experiment: all other things being equal, what kind of teacher do you want to be? I’m not saying you can’t develop when your circumstances and surroundings are new to you; I’m just saying it’s much harder, because so much of your time is spent just surviving. Learning a new language or even adjusting to a new work culture are things that EFL teachers start to take for granted after a while, and in turn we start to forget what a toll that takes. Sometimes you need stability around you, so you can start to change the things you actually want to change.

I’ve spent the last eight months working through the Cambridge Delta, and in three months’ time, I’ll be finished! The only reason I’m actually pulling this off while also holding down a full-time teaching job is because of the security gained from returning to a familiar post in a familiar context. But even on days when I’m not working on a formal qualification, the value of returning to a post is that you start to question yourself: How have I improved since I taught this exact course last year? How am I going to improve so that it’s even better next year? That’s the drive that pushes us to stay sharp and keep on learning. It’s the starkest, bleakest measure of professional development, and there’s no shying away from it.

I’m no longer scared of being observed!

So, I’m walking out the door of the staffroom. It’s 6:05pm. (Last class of the day – almost done!) I’ve got one foot in, one foot out, when my DoS walks up to me and asks if the new teacher who joined us earlier this week could possibly come observe my class. (The one that starts five minutes from now, that is.) For a good few seconds, I stand there slack-jawed, waiting for that old familiar observation panic to kick in … but it never comes. And then I hear a calm voice (my voice?) coolly say, “Yeah, of course. That’s absolutely fine.”

How did we get here, ladies and gentlemen? Was it really that long ago when the mere idea of another teacher being in my classroom was enough to make me break into a sweat, mess up my staging and forget half my lesson plan? How many hours would I spend slogging over lesson plans and language analysis sheets that my line managers would inevitably spend a maximum of ten minutes glancing over during a quick pre-obs meeting? How many nights would I spend obsessively going over an observed lesson, making a mental note of all the things I could have done differently?

Hard though it is to pinpoint exactly when and how my observation-related fears suddenly vanished, I think it mainly comes down to the following factors:

Saturation. I was observed so often during Delta Module 2 and the IH CYLT that it almost started to seem weird not to have someone sitting in my classroom at all times, making notes on every single thing I thought, said and did, and then reporting those notes back to me afterwards in minute and at times frankly unnecessary detail!

Awareness. Again, thanks to Delta Module 2, I’m much more aware of my own beliefs and assumptions as a teacher, and I can use them to fully justify every one of those instinctive decisions we constantly have to make during a lesson. This also means I’m comfortable identifying, analysing and criticising my own decisions post-obs, all the while avoiding that rookie CELTA mistake of, “Oh god, it was terrible!”

Interest. As a lover of teaching and learning, and an ambitious young professional, I am chomping at the bit to learn everything I possibly can about what I do. Observations are, hands down, one of the best ways to do that. There’s nothing like personalised, constructive, forward-looking feedback to boost your standards!

Confidence. Having received, on balance, more positive observation feedback than negative in my teaching career so far, I can now tell myself I’m statistically unlikely to make any life-altering mistakes that will have me berating myself for hours afterwards. (Not that this doesn’t still happen from time to time, of course!) TLDR; I can say with some certainty that I don’t completely suck at my job.

Prudence. Now that I’ve been teaching for almost four years, I know that observations are not the time to try new, complicated activities you’ve never done before, unless that’s the specific aim of the observation as pre-arranged with your observer. I know not to try to fit two hours of teaching into 80 minutes. I also know when to throw the lesson plan and the rules out of the window and just go with it.

As for my observation today, it went very well, thank you very much for asking! My students were absolutely stellar, as they always are, and gave me a lot of food for thought via a discussion about fake news and the modern role of social media as a primary news source for the public. Here’s the #ELTwhiteboard from the lesson for your viewing pleasure:

Observations - #ELTwhiteboard

I learned a lot in 2017!

Are you even a blogger if you don’t publish some sort of year-in-review post? In any case, the holidays are a time for following traditions, not rocking the boat, so here’s the closest thing to a listicle I hope I’ll ever write:

A few things that I’ve learned this year at work …

  • A school is only as happy as its staff room.
  • I work in one of the precious few industries where strong female role models abound.
  • One of the most effective ways of empathising with my students is to keep putting myself in that uncomfortable position of being a language learner myself.
  • ELT is mostly about who you know, and not necessarily what you know.
  • Outstanding schools are the ones where teachers go above and beyond for their students, and are recognised and rewarded for it.
  • It’s better to be well-rested, healthy and a little under-prepared for class than sleep-deprived, ill and over-prepared.
  • One of the best things a teacher can do for their students is to keep a low profile in the classroom.
  • Every single piece of new language must go on the whiteboard, however unimportant it may seem to you at the time.
  • I am much more resilient than I think.
  • There is no amount of money I can earn that is worth more than my free time in my twenties.

… and a few things that I have yet to learn.

  • It’s really hard to be what you can’t see.
  • Spending 50 hours a week at school and only getting paid for 35 of those does not constitute a healthy work-life balance.
  • People will rarely think you’re worth more than you think you are.
  • Sometimes it’s OK to say no.
  • Professional things should not be taken personally.

I hope 2017 has been similarly enlightening for you too, wherever in the world you are. I’ll see you all in 2018!