September 2019
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ACHIEVING ACCORD IN THE STATUS DISCORD OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING

Jason Litzenberg, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA

During a meeting with a recent MA TESOL graduate with temporary summer employment in our intensive English program (IEP), I asked how the job search was going. Her response was revealing: “This is not what I was expecting.” Searching for that first job after graduation in any field can be overwhelming and intimidating, yet the shifting structure of English language teaching (ELT)—and, in particular, of IEPs—makes the challenges for TESOL graduates particularly pronounced. Indeed, the instructor I was speaking with is highly qualified, having completed her degree with financial support from the department and possessing almost a decade of international experience prior to graduating, but she was nevertheless struggling to find full-time employment or even receive responses to her applications. As an administrator, I understand the competitiveness of the ELT job market from the other side—for example, a posting for a part-time, contract-based position quickly fills my inbox with applications from individuals willing to move to our small town for the mere sake of employment in the field. In fact, my suggestion to recent MA TESOL graduates looking for part-time work in our program is to search for opportunities outside of ELT where such degrees might be applicable, such as international admissions, recruitment, or advising. These types of jobs might not be what they were expecting, but they at least widen the range of possibilities.

By obtaining an MA TESOL, graduates like the individual in the preceding anecdote are fulfilling the requirements set forth by the field and which have become more established over the past several decades as ELT has increasingly professionalized. Most ELT researchers as well as professional organizations such as TESOL and accreditation agencies such as CEA consider an MA to be the minimum qualification for adult and higher education professionals. English language instructors are expected to be pedagogically trained, reflexive individuals with the ability to complete a range of noninstructional tasks in addition to teaching, such as student advising, tutoring, attending meetings, maintaining accurate records, providing student feedback and assessment, assisting in orientation activities, serving as mentors for practicum students, and maintaining current professional development, among numerous other obligations. Depending on the institution, instructors may also be expected to conduct research, or at least to support academic departments in research.

Yet despite the educational requirement for a career in ELT and the ever-increasing demand of expectations beyond pedagogy, the job market is competitive and lacks sufficient full-time opportunities. This reality creates what Standing (2011) refers to as status discord, or when individuals “with a relatively high level of formal education…have to accept jobs that have a status or income beneath…their qualifications” (p. 10). Indeed, after having acquired the necessary qualifications for the field, many graduates discover that the only positions available are part-time jobs of a secondary professional status (Holborow, 2013) that deny them full inclusion in the field and lack job security or benefits. These opportunities are irregular, vacillating with student enrollment: part-time faculty frequently do not know from one session to the next whether they will have employment, and, all too often they may not even know whether they have work until a couple of days prior to the start of classes. These individuals, in order to maintain a competitive advantage over colleagues and ensure that they are considered for future teaching opportunities, are generally willing to teach whatever is offered, regardless of uncomfortable hours, conflicts with childcare, or other inconveniences. At the same time, these individuals are expected to maintain their professional development in the field, placing an additional burden upon an already uncertain status and an income that seldom provides for self-sufficiency.

This somber reality is exacerbated by downward student enrollment trends for noncredit programming. According to the most recent Open Doors Report (Institute of International Education, 2018), IEPs have experienced drops of 23% and 18% over the past 2 years, respectively. Keeping faculty on short-term contracts or hourly rates allows administrators the flexibility needed to adapt to market changes and maintain competitiveness and solvency. This approach transfers risk and insecurity onto the workforce, with part-time faculty maintaining a program’s viability while simultaneously experiencing the status discord of possessing an advanced degree but facing a future of uncertain opportunities and a lack of benefits. Even full-time instructors have reason for concern, as they continually take on new tasks, put forth additional hours, and maintain professional development in order to reduce the risk of being replaced by cheaper, part-time teachers.

The majority of IEPs and other types of English language teaching organizations are revenue-generating units; at a minimum, they must secure at least enough income to recover operating expenses. The factors that drive businesses are central to the operation and survival of IEPs. This business-oriented approach can conflict with the humanistic ideals of education, as articulated in the 2010 position statement jointly issued by TESOL, University And College Intensive English Programs (UCIEP), and the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP):

…institutions of higher education need to be extremely cautious about proposals that foreground economic benefits over assurances of educational quality.…it is crucial that academic standards be upheld and not undermined by financial interests. Otherwise, decisions can be made that impact the quality of curricula, faculty, and staff that can lead to a loss in academic integrity for programs. Moreover, these situations lead to a loss of overall professional status for IEP faculty [emphasis added] that denigrates the field of English language education (AAIEP, TESOL & UCIEP, 2010).

The highlighted warning in the position statement is analogous to the concept of status discord. Moreover, without a reversal of current enrollment trends—and with more than 300 MA TESOL programs in the United States and Canada (TESOL, n.d.) regularly graduating students—this status discord and the corresponding loss of professional status is likely to continue, which should be disconcerting to everyone who has put forth effort toward developing ELT standards and recognition of the field as an independent profession. Though the position statement acknowledges and discourages the “loss of overall professional status for IEP faculty” (AAIEP, TESOL & UCIEP, 2010), it is nevertheless an unenforceable guideline implemented and observed independently by individual language programs.

Status discord is real. However, the immediate focus should not be upon eliminating the discord, which would require systematic sociopolitical and economic changes beyond the scope of language programs, but instead upon finding an equitable means for acknowledging and working within the reality. For the most part, ELT is a socially oriented field, with the majority of practitioners displaying an interest toward ethical, humanist behavior. Even from within the confines of a for-profit language program, however, we can make an impact. For instance, in our hiring practices we must remain conscientious of the individual needs of the faculty whose professional qualifications allow our programs to operate, similar to how we recognize language learners as having varying goals, different multilingual competencies, and diverse identities (e.g., professionals, academics, students, parents, immigrants). Though we clearly must consider aspects such as availability, pedagogical knowledge, evaluations, and performance when assigning courses to instructors, we should incorporate our understanding of teachers’ personal and professional identities as well—that is, we must also balance the decision with aspects such as the instructor’s actual need for additional income (e.g., Does the instructor have a working spouse or other sources of income?), the instructor’s position within their career (e.g., Is the instructor new to the field? Do they need experience to develop their CV? Are they a retiree teaching out of pleasure for the career?), and so forth. To clarify, this suggestion is not advocating discriminatory practices, but rather a more complete integration of instructors’ professional needs and identities into administrative planning while working within institutional policies and legal obligations. We should also recognize that full-time instructors are not immune to the status insecurities of the profession and that their willingness to take on additional hours or new obligations may originate from a place of fear (“Will I lose my job?”) rather than one of professional affection (“I appreciate the excitement of the field”). The latter type of individuals may be more robust in their growth as IEPs evolve to the changing markets, and programs would perhaps be better served if administrators, in one of their many sided-roles as career consultants, could advise accordingly. Similarly, for those of us who teach or advise preservice teachers, we should inquire about their goals and be forthright about the employment prospects—in particular, about prospects domestically in IEPs but also about other challenges, such as the likelihood of being able to pay student loans while working internationally. Quite simply, we should help preservice teachers avoid the shock of status discord or the experience of “This is not what I was expecting.”

These steps are small, incremental ways of managing the growing pains of a rapidly changing industry. Other administrators and professionals in ELT undoubtedly have more effective suggestions. The employment situation in IEPs is unlikely to change anytime soon, especially as global markets continue to shift and competitiveness increases, but we nevertheless have the ability to shape the manner of our engagement and to ensure that we do so equitably and ethically.

References

American Association of Intensive English Programs, TESOL International Association, & University And College Intensive English Programs. (2010, January). Joint position statement on governance for English language instruction at institutions of higher education [Position statement]. Retrieved from https://www.tesol.org/docs/pdf/13010.pdf?sfvrsn=2&sfvrsn=2

Holborow, M. (2013). Applied linguistics in the neoliberal university: Ideological keywords and social agency. Applied linguistics review, 4(2), 229–257.

Institute of International Education. (2018). International student enrollment trends, 1948/49-2017/18. Retrieved from https://www.iie.org/research-and-insights/open-doors/data/international-students/enrollment

Standing, G. (2011). The precariat: The new and dangerous class. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

TESOL (n.d.). Common qualifications for English language teachers. Retrieved from https://www.tesol.org/enhance-your-career/career-development/beginning-your-career/common-qualifications-for-english-language-teachers


Jason Litzenberg has a PhD in applied linguistics and ESL from Georgia State University. He has more than 20 years’ experience teaching English and applied linguistics in Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, and the United States. Jason has served as director of the English Language Program at Yachay Tech in Imbabura Province, Ecuador, and is currently the director of the Intensive English Communication Program (IECP) at The Pennsylvania State University.
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