TEFL Structure

The acronym ‘TEFL’ (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) indicates a teaching practice engaged upon around the globe. However, to suggest that some centrifugal force unites all TEFL institutions is pushing the concept of global unity too far. In fact, perhaps we should consider TEFL more like running a restaurant, for there are many ways to serve eggs and many ways that TEFL institutions serve up language courses.  Some are ‘cordon bleus’ and some are ‘greasy spoons’.   And teachers, like chefs, are individuals with individual approaches. With a little creativity there’s no limit to the number of teaching dishes on the TEFL menu – for better or worse.”

Consider then the question of TEFL as a global institution with commonly held ideals, beliefs and practices.  It isn’t.  In fact, the term ‘TEFL’ applies more to a teaching methodology which incorporates all forms of ‘English language teaching’ (as a second language).  Within this very general definition particular teaching practices are passed on from hand-to-mouth during TEFL initiation courses; TEFL conferences and in-company teacher training sessions.  TEFL methodology may thus vary from the professional practices of such prestigious bastions as ‘The British Council’ and International House; to those well-established and well-run language training schools dotted around the world; to those materials determining pedagogical approaches produced by certain franchise companies (eg. Inlingua);  to those sleazy ‘get rich quick whilst ripping off the teachers’ cowboy companies (you know-those who don’t care about shoddy teaching techniques as long as the fees are paid and there’s an on-going stream of newly-born TEFL teachers dropping off the TEFL certification conveyor belt ready to scam), to those private individuals wanting to make a few bob on the side and doing it ‘their own way’ – many of whom do ‘their own way’ damn well!

No, TEFL teaching practices are not strictly standardized and neither are its guiding principles.  The ‘restaurant concept’ may be global, but a tea-shop in Kasmir holds little in common with a high-class Parisian restaurant.   Likewise, business entrepreneurs investing in a language teaching company with an eye to making a quick buck have little in common with the more humanitarian practices of raising educational standards in third world countries to help give the children greater opportunities in their futures.  Sadly, dodgy TEFL ventures far too commonly put black marks on what is otherwise a challenging and rewarding profession undertaken, on the whole, by people-loving-people born to be teachers.  Yes, I mention extremes.  The vast majority of language schools are not to be tarred with the same brush as those unsavoury ones graceing internet blacklist sites.  But then, neither are they all completely philanthropic in their guiding creeds.

Consider now whether there is a centralized governing body to whom all TEFL professionals are ultimately accountable.  There is not.  Language schools are largely ‘out there’ on their own, swimming in the tempestuous business waters to fight off other TEFL competitors with skilled marketing and sales.  Similarly, to continue with the restaurant simile, burger-selling fast-food chains are certainly not instituitionally linked to kebab shops, pizzerias, fish-and-chip shops, or curry houses.  And with such lack of unaccountability, those tempestuous waters are ideal breeding grounds for the business sharks.  Not that I’m adverse to sharp business practice, but when TEFL teachers are taken for a ride, bullied, humiliated, threatened,  or unpaid – that gets my goat!  Again, I’m mentioning extremes.

American TESOL has taken advocacy on board, to protect and enhance living standards of practising TEFL teachers.  This actually involves being in regular communication with American policy makers on the Capitol Hill itself.  On the European side on the Atlantic, Britain’s IATEFL (International Association of Teaching English as a foreign Language) is a few too many steps behind.   Their Global interests group has been considering ‘taking positions on various matters, not just teaching condition’ and also, ‘whether it is legally possible for IATEFL to take a position on certain issues’.   It’s a start.  But the world is large and there is much to do in this regard.  TEFL companies around the world do need to follow laws of the lands in which they are established, but these laws can be either too lax or else complex minefields for those without the legal know-how or the needed foreign language capabilities to fight for rights in the countries where they reside.

 So, in the TEFL world, is there an inside and an outside? Well, yes there is. Or rather, there are several insides and outsides.

Firstly, there are the international TEFL training programs preparing english language speakers to teach their mother tongue. For Americans this is TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).  For Brits, training programs are organized through joint collaboration between Cambridge University and the Royal School of Arts (RSA).   When first set up, successful completion of this latter training course gave participants a ‘RSA Certificate’:  Pure and simple.  But then, to complicate matters, the university changed the qualification to the RSA/Cambridge CTEFLA (1985);  followed by the RSA/Cambridge CELTA (1996). More recently, however, a more simple designation has again been decreed: The Cambridge CELTA (2001).   Now, each year,  ten thousand budding teachers graduate, from two hundred and eighty centres, with this internationally reknowned and respected certificate in their hands. Besides the American TESOL qualification, this is a starting point for TEFL teachers and hence the core of their TEFL teaching careers.

Secondly, within the UK, the British Council plays a quality assurance role. On request, British Council inspectors visit language schools and, on condition that these schools meet required standards, British Council accreditation is awarded.  In this respect, the British Council does play some central governing role.

Thirdly, there are the publishing companies. The top four are: Cambridge University Press, Oxford Univerity Press, Macmillans Heinemann, and Pearson Longmans.  Many others exist.  Write material for any of these top four and you’re in with the big boys and girls.  You’ve made it.  You’re an international household name for teachers. For football, think Beckham and Ronaldo.  For TEFL, think Raymond Murphy (English grammar in use) or John and Liz Soars (Headway series).  These guys will all have sweet retirements.  Then, just a tad further down the league, you have the likes of Mark Powell and Paul Emmerson of Macmillan publishers, or Liz Taylor and Vicki Hollett of Oxford University Press.   Big names whose books sell well worldwide.  Full respect is dutifully accorded to them. Meanwhile, others are frantically writing and producing to join their ranks. It puts the publishing companies in a powerful central position in the TEFL world.

Fourthly, the internet can not be ignored.  Learn to discriminate between the good, the bad and the ugly and ‘the web’ becomes a great TEFL tool.  Being global and intrinsically democratic, the web is ‘anti’ any form of centralization.  Nevertheless, it is a universally linking tool.  Facebook, for example, now has over two hundred million members (April 2009).  Tapping into this vast social network puts certain TEFL organizations in a central position.  The ‘BBClearningenglish’ site, for example, has a ‘community’ section enabling students to communicate with each other across the world.  Similarly, for teachers Macmillans now broadcasts live ‘Webinars’ (web seminars) which are led by TEFL experts speaking upon specialist subjects. TEFL teachers around the world participate by sending in messages, questions or comments. It’s an appropriate marketing strategy to suit the times.

Fifthly, there are the teaching conferences such as those run by TESOL and IATEFL (International Association of Teaching English as a Foreign Language), to which an inner core of the more seriously inclined teachers flock each year to hear informative speeches and be led through teaching workshops run by the TEFL leading lights. Operating in association with TEFL publishing companies, these events are undisguised trade-fairs, with the writers and publishers of pedagogical materials openly plying their wares.  Yet they are also central forums and mini-teacher training courses for the TEFL world.  Many a good teaching tip can be picked up from attending.   Those ‘illustrious luminaries’  do well to keep their balls in both courts; the marketing and the teacher training.  It makes good business sense.

Language schools – institutional organization

There are several types of language schools:

1. State appointed– The British Council: 

This is the Royal jelly of the TEFL world and was created by Royal Charter in 1940 when a world war was raging.  O.k, this may seem a strange time for a country to think about TEFL, but the British establishment was planning ahead and considering post-war global strategy.  The world was going to change, that much was sure, and the days of ‘Britannia rules the waves’ were numbered.  Hence, in thinking ahead, Britain needed to secure its place on the international stage for the coming years.  That was the remit of the ‘British Council’.   The Council’s original mission statements were as follows:

i) To promote ‘enduring understanding and appreciation of Britain abroad through cultural educational and technical operation’.

ii) To promote abroad:  ‘a wider appreciation of British culture and civilisation by encouraging the study and use of the British language’.

iii) To promote the British way of life and culture

Today, their mission statement reads:  ‘ To build trust and understanding between people worldwide by enabling them to share ideas and knowledge’.

These objectives are being carried out. The British Council has 228 offices in 108 countries.  This includes 94 language centres around the world.  In financial terms the British Council assures a benefit of £500 million a year to the British treasury (vis-a-vis export contracts), whilst also encouraging foreign students into British universities.  This secures another £1billion per year.   Cynics may see all this as part of on-going British colonialism.  Non-cynics will see it as good strategy for British interests.

Organizationally, The British Council is a public body and a charity.  In this respect, it is not independent from the UK Government, although it does exercise a certain degree of autonomy.  Sponsoring comes through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), whose head chief (‘Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs’) is ‘answerable to Parliament for the policies, operations and performance of the British Council’. (Martin, L & Garnett, J. 1977)

2. Franchise schools – e.g. Inlingua, Wall Street Institute

By ‘franchise’ is meant that TEFL entrepreneurs can take out a contract licence with a particular language teaching corporation and use that corporation’s reputation, name, logo and materials to set up their own business – for a price.  Take Inlingua as an example:

Inlingua was founded in Berne, Switzerland, in 1968.  Today it is one of the largest language training organizations in the world with 300 language centres in forty countries. The Inlingua corporation awards licence contracts to TEFL entrepreneurs who become shareholders in Inlingua International.  Shares are then distributed equally amounst the licensees.  Training within Inlingua centres largely consists of following Inlingua training materials.  Hence, a trainee from one part of the world can move geographically to a completely new area and follow the same course – an aspect of the Inlingua program that is promoted as one of its strong points.  Inlingua training (the ‘Inlingua method’) is based upon successively building up ‘target language’ consisting of vocabulary and grammatical structures. The technique for absorbing the new target language is largely based on ‘drilling and weaving’.   This is a learning method in which students repeat structures by copying and touring around a group.  If not overdone and integrated into a ‘blended learning’ program, it can be used constructively.  Inlingua publishing is a strong part of the business.  This is principally because franchised Inlingua schools are contracted to use Inlingua materials (books, CDs, DVDs etc.) and not other material.

A similar story concerns the Wall Street Institute, whose posters are plastered on buses and metros throughout the world along with its memorable slogan ‘I speak English, Wall Street English’.  The institute is completely unrelated to New York’s ‘Wall Street’, but the name sticks.  Finding a good name for a language school is just as important as finding a good name for a new brand of perfume, car, or beer.

Wall Street was founded in Italy in 1972 by Luigi Tiziano Peccenini.  By 1979 there were over 48 centers in Italy and so, in 1983, the school finally expanded outside of Italy.  The business was bought in 1997 by ‘Sylvan Learning Systems’.  They held onto it until 2005 when it was acquired by the global private equity firm ‘The Carlyle Group’, who sit on nearly $80 billion and thus have plenty of cash to splash out on advertising.  Today, the Wall Street Institute is a thriving, globally franchised enterprise.  Currently, 160,000 people, across 400 centers, in 28 countries, are enrolled on its books studying English the ‘Wall Street way’.  This, their web site states, is based on a ‘blended learning’ approach using a large degree of multi-media resources and giving students about 20% of their paid time conversing with a Wall Street Institute trainer.

Franchising is thus at the heart of  Inlingua and Wall Street Institute operations.  Steering clear of any defammatory remarks, I simply note that the franchise companies feature high on internet TEFL blacklist sites.  With bottom lines and profits their guiding concerns, and with little accountability to any higher authority (with respect to their day-to-day operating practices), this may not come as any surprise.

3. Large International schools – International House, Linguarama

These are large, independent language schools that operate across the globe.

 International House (IH) is the prime example of a large international school for the organization conducts language training in 140 schools in 47 countries.  This ubiquity is the result of over fifty years in the TEFL business; the company first being set up in 1953 by John Haycraft, described by the IH internet site as ‘a visionary… a man of great charisma’.  Whilst being primarily concerned with language training, International House also has a very philanthropic outlook. Promoting international understanding, through raising language education standards, is an IH guiding ethic, and charitable works form a large part of their committment towards this goal.

Linguarama (example number two)  is rather smaller in comparison.  Nonetheless, Linguarama runs 21 training centres, in six European countries, with a turnover of 25.5 million euros per year.  In other words, the company, which was set up in 1971, is certainly no small fry.  In fact, it forms part of the ‘Marcus Evans Empire’, an organization which also includes owning Ipswich Town football club as well as supplying business intelligence and products to ‘capital markets, life sciences, defence, healthcare, information technology and legal commercial sectors’.  ‘Marcus Evans’ himself, now in his mid-forties, is a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. Like Inlingua, Linguarama also provides its own pedagogical learner support e.g. Language reference guides, Business skills series, Business phrases booklet, on-line e-learning…

4. Medium sized schools – e.g. existing in the hundreds

These schools exist by becoming more and more entrenched in local business communities.  Longevity leads to growth and a strong, loyal client base.  The schools become increasingly rooted in local business networks thereby gaining  solid professional reputations.   Internal differentiation into departments occurs as the staff base expands.  Department of sales and marketing, human resources, administration and finance appear as logistical supports to the pedagogical department; whilst internal hierarchies become multi-layered.

5. Small sized schools – existing in the thousands.

Employing a maximum (my figure) of ten staff, based at one office, with perhaps one local area subsidiary.  Many schools go through this stage on-route to becoming medium-sized schools as they struggle against the ‘sink or swim’ perils.  The longer they endure, the longer client-relations are developed.  In theory this is an upward spiral.  Increasing longevity and developing client loyalty means that schools’ reputations grow, the client base grows, and business grows.  This, however, can be a very long process!   On the positive side, some TEFL entrepreneurs, either through luck or good judgement, do fall on their feet quickly.  They manage to provide the right teaching product at the right place and the right time, for the right price.   But others are not so fortunate.  Perhaps they set up in business during an economic downturn and fail to get off their TEFL company off the ground.  They may even lose money and go bust.  That, I’m afraid, is the TEFL speculating game and that, I’m afraid, is (business) life!

6. Private freelancers

More English ex-pats are taking this route.  The internet provides both the means of self-publicity and the means to simplify personal administration.  In France this is either through becoming an ‘auto-entrepreneur’ or through registering oneself as a ‘micro-finance’ company.  With lower running costs, private individuals can under-cut larger companies and respond to client needs on a more personal level, without a training program being dictated by a language school superior.  On the negative side, building up a client base takes time and effort.

 One ex-colleague who took this route is now farming out work to other private individuals and earning considerable more than he earned working for any company.  This position he reached after just two years of ‘going it alone’.   He now works longer hours than before, but the rewards are more gratifying.  Still, there are risks in following this path, notably that of losing the assured monthly salary.    Who dares wins?

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