Category Archives: Member Voices

This is a spot for members to add their voices on their union experiences or other matters of importance to them. Opinions may not represent ETEA as a whole.

Private and Public Sector ESL Teachers United Against the Cuts

by Eric – Local 1

With the closing of dozens of Vancouver Community College’s ESL programs looming in December, ESL Matters (, organized by the VCC Faculty Association, has stepped up its campaign. 70 Union jobs and programs that have been vital to helping Immigrants and Refugees get into career training and academic programs are at stake. ETEA’s organizing committee has been out tabling in downtown Vancouver to build support for this campaign over the last two weeks and is committed to continuing support for this struggle.

Some might ask why a union for private sector ESL teachers would be opposing cuts to a publicly funded ESL program. Most of our students are not immigrants or refugees and it would seem that cuts to public funding would lead to the growth of the private ESL industry which employs us. However, a growth in the private sector does not necessarily equate to more or better jobs for private sector ESL teachers. 70 teachers at VCC will be losing their jobs and many will be forced to find work in the private sector. The number of jobs may increase but so will the number of teachers competing for those jobs. Not only have the better quality of publicly funded programs set a standard for private sector institutes to live up to but the wages and conditions for public sector ESL teachers have provided an important reference in negotiations with private sector employers. The elimination of these jobs will make it more difficult for us to argue for fair wages and benefits at the bargaining table and will make it easier for employers to push for concessions. When public sector teachers are attacked all teachers suffer the consequences.

On the flip side some might ask what we can expect in return for our support. For the ETEA the main concern is growing and bringing as many private sector ESL teachers into the union as possible. The more schools we have organized the stronger each individual local will be at the bargaining table and the better we can push for higher industry wide standards and better conditions for all ESL teachers and by extension their students. Public sector unions have a vested interest in supporting us in this effort. The better wages, conditions and standards are in the private sector the less attractive privatization becomes. Public sector unions include the vast majority of ESL teachers currently in unions and consequently have the widest dues base and the most resources with which to support drives to organize new workplaces.
The public/private divide in the union movement has historically been a weak point in advancing the interests of workers on either side. This became an issue during the province wide strike by BCTF when the Liberal government attempted to use public funds to place foreign students at Inlingua, a private ESL school, in Vancouver. Inlingua teachers are members of ETEA but were unaware of the government’s actions. We are in the midst of a massive push by governments both federal and provincial to privatize education. Overcoming these divisions and forging stronger bonds of solidarity can lay the basis for stopping all the cuts and winning better working and teaching conditions for all.

Is Technology Going to Make me Redundant?

by Dan – Local 1

I have been teaching in the lucrative ESL (English as a Second Language) market in Vancouver for 9 years. Each year over 1,000,000 ESL students come to Vancouver to take classes. I often wonder if ESL classes will still be popular in 10 or 20 years. Online learning has become increasingly popular and available. Will my job disappear because I have become redundant and unnecessary as an English teacher? ESL is a growing industry in Vancouver, and I don’t believe online course will replace ESL classrooms in the foreseeable future. That is because ESL is more than just about learning English skills like vocabulary and listening.

When the UK launched its first MOOC (massive open online courses) program, FutureLearn, 20 000 students signed up for it in the first 24 hours. Programs like FutureLearn are certainly cheaper and more accessible to international students than taking classes abroad. They are also optimized for use on desktop and mobile devices. However, MOOC doesn’t have ESL classes. The kinds of classes that have proven successful online are usually Master’s programs or specialized classes done in the students’ own language. Learning another language is different. The important face-to-face interactions between students and with the teacher are much more important than when learning an academic subject.

ESL students have become more serious and career-focused. Some of them do turn to online courses to complete their studies. However, students also go abroad for the cultural experience of living in another country. The value of that cultural experience can’t be overstated. Foreign students make friendships and develop relationships that last a lifetime. Students also like going out with their new friends which in turn improves their English. It’s true that many students who don’t have the financial means to fly to a new country to take English classes can certainly benefit from online classes. However, students who have the financial means (like the kind who come to Vancouver) prefer to take traditional classes.

Additionally, the nature of learning a language is certainly based on engagement and motivation. Students who have to live their daily lives in English and take English classes can access that motivation more easily than students who simply use an online course. Being in a new city and being immersed in a new language brings all kinds of opportunities to engage in English in and out of the classroom. There are interactions with real teachers and students, presentations and discussions all taking place in real time. Online courses using discussions and lectures are good for some kinds of courses – namely courses that have a specialized focus like Biology or Math. Studying English, on the other hand, is more experiential, involving complex features like culture, humour, and misunderstanding.

Of course I may be wrong that the ESL teaching market will stay strong and vibrant in Vancouver. Perhaps my job will evaporate and I will be replaced by an online program or a robot. The ESL market is very competitive and there are certainly no guarantees, but from where I stand Vancouver is a growing, healthy ESL market that will continue to flourish into the future.

Working in a Non-Unionized Workplace

by Christina – Local 6

There probably isn’t much I can say about working at a non-unionized school that will surprise anyone. We’ve all experienced it—the inadequate compensation, the exploitation of our very natural desire to teach and help our students, the lack of job security. After six years working at a school where unpopularity with students was enough to endanger a teacher’s job, where a two year salary freeze significantly lowered my family’s standard of living, I was ready to leave the ESL industry.

Instead, I decided to give my chosen career one more chance and made a move to a unionized school. In my first months at this new job, I am making more money than I did after 6 years at my former school. I have a benefits package. There are clear and fair procedures that guide my employers in how they treat me and an infrastructure that protects me from unfair dismissal. These are real and tangible benefits that have changed my life for the better.

This is what a union did for me. My only regret is leaving my former school without organizing it.  I let management threats about job losses and shutting down the school dissuade me even though I knew these tactics were ubiquitous and unworthy. If you agree that a strong united voice will force the ESL industry to treat its teachers respectfully, and if you agree that fair compensation is a priority, don’t let empty threats intimidate you. Contact the ETEA and start the process.

In a Union

by Collin – Local 6

Since their inception, trade unions and their members have pushed for worker rights, increased wages, safety, security and benefits for workers.  While employers have viciously used any means political, legal or other in order to prevent, disrupt or destroy collective bargaining, labour unions have largely been responsible for the general improvement in wages, job safety and job security in the industrialized world.  This in turn, has also contributed to a higher standard of living.

In some of the countries with the highest standards of living we see a majority of organized workers in the workforce.  Several Scandanavian countries have some of both the highest union membership among paid workers -Denmark 69%, Sweden 71% and very high human development indexes. (As of 2010 – “Trade union,” Wikipedia) Unionization in these countries isn’t leading to less opportunity and investment, as anti union propagandists would have people believe, but to an improved society and standard of living.

Companies and some politicians disseminate rumours of corruption and lazy unionized employees to undermine efforts to organize and sway public opinion against unionization, but unions seek to protect workers, and raise dignity, not cheat people or companies out of anything and not to promote unprofessional behaviour.

While so many of our politicians whose voices are paid for are now fighting for the interests of unethical corporations and money for the few richest, it is as important as ever to be aware of our working conditions and protect what we and all the unionized workers before us have fought for.  As we move through tumultuous times economically and politically, we have to help ourselves by helping each other.  When people say nothing, the situation won’t improve.

Being in a union and being involved with a union are two very different things. We have many members in our union as in many other labour unions, who are content to let what “the union” and management decide go unchallenged and in some cases unnoticed.  This is as bad as not voting come election day.  All it takes is a few minutes to send an email or ask some questions of other members.

Active members, beleaguered as they sometimes are, are our ears, eyes, hands and voices. They fight for us and are responsible for improving working conditions and benefits.  We cannot leave this to the employers alone.  It would never happen. This is democracy.  It is both our right and responsibility.

So don’t forget that the union is there to help you and you can help yourself by getting involved.  Remember to consult your shop stewards, executive members and volunteers.  You can join committees and volunteer a little of your own time.  It’s easy to do and is empowering.

Road to ESL Success

by Dan – Local 1

When I tell people I am an ESL teacher, I often get interesting responses. ESL is, of course, English as a Second Language, but some people don’t know that.  When they find out what I do, they think it’s just my summer job, and wonder what I’m going to do in the future. Most people insist that I can teach in Japan, and offer me the example of their friend in Japan who is making a lot of money teaching there. However, people don’t seem to know much about teaching ESL in Canada.  People don’t realize that ESL teachers are highly qualified professionals who change the lives of students every day.  Unfortunately, the conditions at many schools are far from professional and rewarding.

My first job at an ESL school led me to believe that ESL schools were just moneymaking scoundrels that chewed up and spat out teachers. The large school I worked at charged each student over $1000 a month tuition, but paid me only $15 an hour to teach grammar, writing, listening and communication every day. I also had to keep detailed records for them, make and mark tests, do report cards, and all on top of making materials for each class. The school demanded professional and fun classes for the students, but required me to use their poorly made materials which were too hard for the students. That school promised me and other teachers year-round work, but fired us in October when student enrollment dropped. That school enjoys a very good reputation and continues to grow and open new campuses.

My next two jobs were unfortunately at low-paying unstable schools. I felt like the ESL industry was not worth my time. Then, a few months later I got called for an interview at my current school.  It, like the first school I worked at, was large and successful both locally and internationally. The school is also very sought-after by teachers as a place to work. Teachers stay there because it is a professional environment and they are treated fairly. The conditions and pay are good, and the teachers are generally happy. One of the main reasons for the good conditions at my school is that my school became unionized many years ago. That guarantees us a strong collective voice, job protection and a system of seniority. Our teachers enjoy the benefits of being professionals and have established fair practices with management. Now I feel proud to be part of a growing industry where I can develop my skills and be compensated for my hard work.  Teaching ESL became a great career for me and afforded me many opportunities in my life.

ESL is a respectable career choice and teachers who work so hard every day should know that. The rest of the world needs to know it as well. ESL is not a summer job or stepping-stone for many of us, it’s a career. It’s a career I am proud to say I work in. I think the best way to establish that we are professionals is by getting unionized and creating a strong unified voice for all ESL teachers.