First of all let me start off by saying that despite the significant shortcomings I will highlight here, there was much to enjoy during this summer school ‘experience’. This was mainly due to the infectious enthusiasm of the young post-graduates who were responsible for activities, but also largely due to the fact that, at between £600 and £800 per-week per-head, we were dealing with predominantly sweet, civilised, respectful and polite adolescents and teenagers from wealthy European, South America and Saudi Arabian families, rather than the borderline, psychopathic, lunatics that inhabit a lot of British secondary schools. If you want to reclaim the self-esteem and respect that all teachers deserve from students, spend a summer working at a language school – just don’t expect much from the employers, you are business collateral – and it’s a lucrative business!
I already had an EFL qualification that I’d gained years before taking my Teaching Diploma, so having just graduated and with no plans for the summer, I decided to do a stint at a summer language school for six weeks.
When I arrived at St. Mary’s University College in Twickenham, I was suitably pleased by the grounds and the standard of food in the refectory. Mo Farah was having a little bit of a run on the grass alongside the running track (I understand that, being a record breaking Olympian, he resented having to pay the £4 to use the running track) and news was that it was going to be a glorious July, which made staying in the affluent Borough of Richmond all the more appealing, with its numerous al fresco bars and restaurants and riverside drinking culture. However, a week in and I started to wonder – WTF!
The summer didn’t disappoint, but the living quarters at the summer school certainly did. At first I had no qualms about my summer school residence. I knew from the offset that as a live-in teacher that summer I would be staying in what would have otherwise been the students’ accommodation – essentially a studio (minus kitchen area) with basic furniture and a wifi connection. I could easily live with that for a couple of weeks. But after almost five hours of driving from Northern England to Twickenham before humping my baggage into my dorm in the sweltering heat, I was told after the initial group induction lecture with the rest of the summer school team, that I would have to move to different accommodation to make room for the first cohort of students that were moving in.
I really didn’t fancy repacking all of my luggage, humping it across the campus and unloading it into another room – I mean it was really hot and I really just wanted to settle down and maybe have a beer or two on the grounds with the rest of the team and get to know who I would be working with. But when I finally did move into my new quarters, I wasn’t happy. I mean, I really, really wasn’t happy!
The original set up for the sleeping arrangements involved the students and House Parents’ (these were the younger members of the team who were responsible for ensuring the students got to bed early and didn’t wreak havoc during the night) living in one section of dorms, whilst the teachers were all housed in another section of dorms away from all the adolescents and teenagers who they would be teaching during the day. And this of course made perfect sense. As a teacher of any sort working with 11 to 17 year olds, you would expect to command some degree of respect from your learners and be in a position of authority. Having studied to a degree level and [in my case at least] established your academic credentials in post-graduate education to a level where you are professionally on a par (although not in your wages) with a solicitor or a doctor and have enough professional kudos to be trusted enough to sign the back of someone’s passport photo in order to satisfactorily establish their identity for the state, you would expect at least some kind of respect from your employers. Furthermore, being the wrong side of 40 (and I wasn’t the oldest by a long shot) you would naturally expect to be afforded the dignity of being able to leave your room in the middle of the night to go and take a piss without passing the kids you are teaching on the corridor. Because let’s face it, that boundary of respect is somehow diluted if those kids get to see you in your underwear when you’re coming out of the shower or on your way to the toilet in the middle of the night. Well the summer school senior manager (she was new to the job apparently) – who was a damn sight younger than me and the other teacher who was on my corridor who was easily in his 50’s – obviously didn’t see it this way. So we had the indignity of continually passing groups of South American and Spanish kids – many of whom we were teaching – every time we needed to have a wash or purge our bodies of digestive waste. Furthermore, the rooms were as old as the original foundations of the college, and swelteringly hot. I wasn’t best pleased. Even less so when I found out that the 19 and 20-year-old graduates who were employed as Activity Leaders were living in the private en-suite dorms that I’d been moved from.
I spoke to the operations manager of the school about this (who was also in a private en-suite dorm) and was simply told that I “should” be able to move in a week or possibly two. I’m a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face kind of guy when it comes to matters of personal respect, and I’d decided that if it did extend to two weeks that I’d be laying down an ultimatum of dignity and fucking off home. Particularly as the reason for us getting this shit accommodation was down to the fact that the company were making room for a massive influx of students in that first week – basically, they weren’t going to turn down the opportunity to make more money just to keep the teachers happy. I wasn’t getting paid enough to share my English knowledge with a bunch of kids from wealthy families, as well as my underwear collection and the swell of my man bulge too, fuck that. But sense prevailed within the management team of LAL and me and the other teachers were moved to more appropriate accommodation within a week.
The first thing that all the summer school staff did when first arriving at St. Mary’s that year was sign our contracts and receive our I.D. cards and company clothing – polo shirts, sweatshirt, raincoats and shorts for some. We had all agreed to the cursory terms and conditions of employment as explained upon accepting employment for the summer, and naturally those of us who were living-in (some who had come from overseas) had all made provision for our two to eight week stint working at the summer school. So after packing my stuff in the boot of my car and driving the 200 plus miles to the most southern part of London – at some considerable fuel cost I should add (British petrol prices are pretty damn high) – when I arrived and saw a section of the contract that waivered my right to the working time directive which limits your working hours to 48 a week, I wasn’t too pleased. I mean, what was I going to do? Turn around and say “Nah, I’m not going to agree to working an indefinite amount of hours for a measly £395 per week” and drive back home? I’d be down about £150 in fuel costs and searching for another job when I got back. So I signed in the hope that the company was only ever going to invoke this clause in the contract on the odd occasion when time and staff were stretched. This was not the case, and I don’t think that omitting to mention this section of the contract during the Skype interview process was an accident.
It turned out that, with classes starting at 9.15am and all teachers expected to report to the ‘teachers room’ at 8.45am, an hour’s lunch break at around 12.30pm (unless you had canteen queue-monitoring duty, which cut your lunch time in half) followed by a rota of excursion duties or supporting activities that went on until 9pm with a dinner slot in between (unless you were out on an excursion, in which case you had to make do with the sparsest of sparse packed lunches and the lamest of lame BBQ buffets upon return), we ended up doing somewhere in the region of 50 – 55 hours of what was supposed to be a 40 hr week! When I and another teacher did the maths, after tax, we were working for something close to minimum wage! This stuck in my craw. It really did. But I was there, and being there, there was much to enjoy.
Creating a good dynamic between a group of strangers who are all working together and come from different backgrounds, different cities and even different countries – and whose ages ranged between 19 and around 50 – is not easy. I don’t think that the recruitment staff achieved this, we did. The operations manager said that the year before was very different and there were a lot of tensions between staff. Our eclectic group had just by chance made a great team and I’m glad we did. I honestly can’t say that their was a man, woman or teenager amongst the group that I didn’t warm to in some way. We all just somehow gelled.
Between the young guys and girls who were Activity Managers, House Parents and Transport Coordinators, to the wildly diverse range of EFL teachers with their variety of different teaching experiences, the summer school team that year had a really good rapport. We got together pretty much every night at ‘the benches’, drank, snacked, laughed and shared various tales of the day’s activities and fuck ups, past experiences, future plans and aspirations, and it was great fun. Despite the long hours, the shit resources and the shit canteen food – which had gone from being half decent to barely edible – there was a real camaraderie between the group that carried us through. The combination of youthful enthusiasm and professional naivety of the younger post-graduate workers (they never really complained because they didn’t really know any better) and the life experience and wit of the teachers – young and old – really made a great dynamic. When you add to that the fact that the students – Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian, Argentine, Chilean, German, Turkish, Saudi – were all so sweet and delightfully full of character and charm, we were all more or less happy to be exploited whilst ‘the company’ turned over £1 to £2 million over the course of the summer (there was an average of around 200 students every week, for 8 weeks paying between £600 and £800 per head). I was probably the most cynical of the lot of us and even I didn’t bitch too much. Well maybe a little, but not too much.
By week 4 most people were moving on to the next adventure in their professional lives. Those who came to fill the gaps in the second half of the summer were mostly good people too (apart from one guy – Paul – who was universally considered to be an absolute cock). But after six weeks I was glad to get back to my comfortable home and my comfortable bed. But I was going to miss the effusive energy of what I left behind. Not enough to accept an offer of another two weeks work mind you! I’d had enough. I was exhausted – and I couldn’t shake the idea that, in real terms, I was only getting paid around £6 per hour – but mainly I just missed the settled comforts and stability of ‘home’. Something you hanker for as you get older.
For any parents reading this and considering sending their young ones to a language summer school, don’t take the educational side of it too seriously. Quite frankly – from my experience at least – that part is bollocks. Irrespective of whether that school is accredited by the British Council or any other respected authority, if my summer school experience is anything to go by, it is fun first whilst the ‘academic’ side is really just an add-on. Don’t get me wrong, I would recommend it as an experience for any young person – I was envious of those young boys and girls who got the opportunity to forge friendships and lifelong memories with other young people from other parts of the world whilst seeing the sights of a city in another country. And speaking professionally, the immersive experience of being in an English or any other language environment is invaluable for learning that language. But don’t praise the company too much. The success of those schools is all down to the underpaid staff and their youthful enthusiasm (irrespective of their actual age) for teaching and their commitment to ensuring the young people enjoy themselves. Whilst the executives, directors and CEO’s of the large, lucrative, language schools will take the corporate accolades and the bulk of the financial profits for what is achieved, it is the workers on the ground that really make it happen for your children. Don’t ever forget that. And if you do decide to take time out to express your appreciation and thanks for the wonderful experience had by little Selina, Oleg, Nacho, Cristina, Michele, Ivan, Ilia, Anna, Bruno, Laura, Luca, Stefano, Khrystyna, Julia, Betel, Abdul etc – then ask your child first who helped make that experience so enjoyable and ensure that you direct your thanks to those individuals by name. The best people in this world are those who serve for the love of what they do, not for the money.