ESL teachers take their voice back

Feature ESL
Kevin Drage (left) and Michael Wicks (right) – Photo by Jasmine Gurn


Being a teacher is no easy thing. There are long hours, lots of preparation and the endless use of their voice as they guide students through their studies. Every year a large number of English as a Second Language (ESL) students arrive in Canada to learn, or improve, their English skills with the hopes of securing quality employment back home, or in North America.

This global wide goal has sent Canadian ESL teachers to countries like Japan, Korea, South East Asia, and recently, to the Arab world. They find themselves with the responsibility of helping students develop a voice in a place where they wouldn’t otherwise have one.

Ironically enough, these very individuals (i.e. ESL teachers) who choose to dedicate their lives to helping others, find themselves giving up their own voice to do so.

Michael Wicks, President of the Education & Training Employees Association (ETEA) says that the commerce-driven nature of the ESL industry has created an environment that lacks a “place for teachers…to speak or have a voice,” thus rendering them unable “to improve the teaching or the learning, or the conditions for the teachers or the students.”
He says that as schools become businesses (focused first and foremost on the bottom-line), corporate hierarchies emerge, which creates a blatant inequality between the commercial and educational initiatives of these institutions; leading to the alienation of teachers in the workplace.

“Teachers are probably the furthest removed from management, – from the decision makers,” says ESL teacher, and now Vice President of ETEA, Kevin Drager.

“You have a big division between what’s going on in the classroom and what’s going on in the business end of things…sometimes things [become] more about dollars and cents than [about] what works.”

Up until the recent unionization of the school where Drager teaches, he says he and his co-workers faced many hardships, and an inherent lack of respect which is often present in non-unionized schools.
He says teachers in non-unionized schools often work in a volatile work environment consisting of high turnover rates and severe job insecurity. They receive minimal remuneration relative to their efforts and credentials.

Drager says that what backs teachers further into a corner is the fact that the security of their employment is often contingent on an evaluation system. Drager & Wick liken it to a game of favouritism.

Wick says that in many non-unionized schools, students (the paying customers) can exert a “fair amount of influence” through teacher evaluations. These evaluations are indicative of opinions as arbitrary and discriminatory as students simply wanting or not wanting things such as a male teacher over a female one, or that a teacher is too young, or too old.

“When you’re working in the private-sector, it does feel like a little bit of a popularity contest more than actually providing education,” says Drager.

As a result, the industry structure has served to perpetuate the “perception that [ESL teachers] are ‘just’ teachers,” says Wick. Teachers who are disposable assets as opposed to valued professionals.

Unionizing can (and is) a sensitive subject for those looking to unionize and the organization they work for. Two ESL schools in the Lower Mainland were contacted for interviews, but both declined any comment on the matter of unionized ESL teachers.

The ETEA was formed in 1995 in response to what Drager describes as the unfair treatment of educational & training professionals. He says it gave ESL teachers their voice back, and it protected their basic rights as educators, ensuring “security, respect and benefits for teachers in the workplace.”

Immediately after the unionization in his school, Drager says there was a huge change in “the spirit of teachers.” He says they were no longer living day-in, day-out plagued by the uncertainty of whether they would have a job tomorrow.

“We weren’t afraid to come to work anymore,” says Drager.

Drager says the ETEA unionization ensured that management and teachers were on the same page. He says that teachers were able to establish what he describes as a “relationship with management [that] has become quite collegial;” therefore creating a unified workforce that is more committed and vested in both the educational and commercial endeavors of the school and its students.

“[This is] a powerful movement…[of] teachers and management work[ing] together to make a vibrant school,” says Wick.

“It creates a school that students look at and think there’s something good going on here.”