A School Without Teachers? TEFL teachers resistance in the black box of complex human work automation [ENG]

This is a report and analysis based off ten months of a union battle waged by language teachers in Milan against Wall Street English, a multinational language school franchise. I intend to show how automation is having a detrimental impact on teachers and students at once. The employer’s strategy, I argue, it is not to replace teachers with smart machines, but rather to coax their cognitive skills into working in alignment with the company’s proprietary software. Automating learning processes entails the subsumption of linguistic and cognitive functions proper of the human mind that cannot be objectified and alienated from teachers. They are in fact engaged in a complex environment with unpredictable variables and outcomes wherein human intelligence is far superior to AI. Furthermore, I will show how the creation of a so-called “blended learning environment” – in which human pedagogical work is integrated with an online learning platform – has caused the demotion of teachers to mere “controllers” of a linguistic knowledge that, according to the company, is substantially acquired and developed within the student-machine interaction. Finally, this union struggle I chose to analyze painstakingly illustrates how knowledge workers can join forces to resist and fight a use of technology devoted to reducing labour costs and deteriorate complex human activity. When workers come together to build union power it is still possible to fight back and write a different story.

On October 29th 2019 the first strike staged by the teachers of Wall Street English took place in Italy, the very first in the entire history of the company.  This represents a recent escalation following the unionisation of the teaching staff at the beginning of the year. 

Wall Street English (WSE from hereon) is a language school offering a ‘blended’ learning method, wherein students use a combination of an online learning platform, not dissimilar from Babbel or Duolingo, and teacher led lessons and conversation classes that take place in its various centres.  It is a global company that has recently expanded rapidly in Asia. However Italy represents the single most important European location, in which WSE has the market share, with 11 centrally controlled centres and many other franchised branches (which some total at 74).

Teachers or Tutors? 

Teachers are hired, sold, and presented as ‘teachers’.  They are also required to have teachers’ qualifications (CELTA or TEFL).  However, teachers’ contracts deny them the status of ‘teacher’, instead in their contracts they are described as ‘tutors’. This is done in order to pay a lower minimum wage, which in Italy is dictated by the nature of the work (according to The ANINSEI National Labour Agreement).  For example a ‘tutor’ (Livello IV) gets paid a pre-tax minimum of €9.80 per hour, whereas a ‘teacher’ (Livello V) receives a pre-tax minimum of €14.80 per hour of work.  This paltry sum allocated to the ‘tutor’ is of course absurdly low, even within the context of the TEFL industry, and so as a compensatory measure WSE have in place an ‘incentive’ scheme aimed at maximizing labour productivity while increasing their control over the workforce. On top of the €9.80 minimum wage teachers are paid an additional €3 for every hour of teaching.  However, no ‘bonus’ is rendered in the case of an ‘untaught hour’.  This includes all kinds of work-related contingencies, such as sick-pay, holiday allowance, compulsory meetings, pension schemes, severance pay or even the 13th month wage (something basically all salaried workers in Italy receive as a matter of course).   Cumulatively this represents an enormous saving for WSE, and diminishes all the essential benefits of a job contract to the point at which they are almost negligible.  To add insult to injury teachers over the years have on a few occasions witnessed a complete abuse of this so-called “bonus”, as managers withheld it altogether for an entire month if the teachers arrived late, or were ill and not available to work for any period of time for reasons WSE deemed unworthy.  Therefore this incentive scheme serves a double purpose: on the one hand it fudges over the shameful basic salary while on the other it is wielded as disciplinary tool to instill fear and control in the workplace.  The teachers’ goal in forming a union was intended to liberate them from an unserviceable wage and these punitive opt-in bonus schemes, and to have their contracts changed to that of a ‘teacher’, as their role dictates unequivocally.

WSE try to justify the teachers’ deskilling by arguing that they merely ‘check’ the level of the student according to their progress on the online platform.  Each stage of the multimedia lessons has a corresponding ‘encounter’, for which there is a bare-bones ‘lesson-plan’ of sorts. WSE claims that its teachers “slavishly” follow the materials provided by the company.  However, this is very far from the reality of our work. These materials are totally inert without the work of an active, engaged, and knowledgeable teacher. For these ‘encounters’ to be of any use the teacher must call upon all of their abilities and experience to interpret, modulate, model, and help the student understand the material to the point that they may produce the language themselves.  If any teacher were to strictly follow the WSE material, the vast majority of the students would not be able to produce the intended target language in an accurate way, and therefore almost all would inevitably fail and be required to repeat the lesson (and then probably ask for their money back, since WSE courses are notoriously expensive).

The reality is that to effectively aid the students’ progression the teacher must introduce and explain in-depth the various aspects of grammar, lexis, and syntax, which are very frequently not covered by WSE’s multimedia lessons. WSE teachers, as those of any other school, use books, as well as other supplementary material of all kinds, adapting, enriching, and more often improving the source material according to the students’ needs and language level.  This is needed not only for the student to understand WSE material, but moreover to render it didactically functional. Teachers also lead conversation classes which do not correspond to any WSE material, since they are written or sourced by the teachers. Up until around September 2019 teachers also taught BULATS, TOEFL and IELTS test prep, did in-company courses using Market Leader, and also programmed tailor made courses designed by the individual teachers themselves (more on this later).

Organizing in precarious times 

At the beginning of this year, the teachers of Milan began to notice the discrepancies between their role in the company, and the contracts that had been provided with.  A union was officially set up with CGIL, one of the major trade unions in Italy, in February in order to safely and correctly present the issue to the company. The first iteration contained members from the Milan Schools, and the school in Genoa joined soon after.  It was then that the negotiations with WSE started… and then quickly came to a halt. In this first and only meeting the WSE HR boss and his lawyer flatly rejected our argument, insisting we were not real teachers, and that our jobs only contained ‘elements’ of teaching, and therefore we would not be offered the higher ‘teacher’ classification and salary.  We were advised to come back with a proposal upon which a negotiation could be based. This happened in April, and since then every possible opportunity to have a meeting was delayed, forgotten, or cancelled at the last moment under false pretences. WSE were refusing to talk. Union assemblies were organised in Milan and Genoa as we searched for ways to stop the stonewalling.  In the meantime we noticed things were changing in the schools. New teachers appeared, who we soon discovered had been hired as freelancers (co.co.co. and P.IVA).  At a certain point a secondary pattern emerged across all schools whereby the test prep and in-company lessons were being transferred to the new teachers.  It was clear. WSE were creating a situation whereby all teachers on permanent contracts were only given classes that, in theory, corresponded to material available on the online platform; this was silently being done in preparation of a defence of their position that those employed at WSE were are not real teachers.  The managers were informed that the students were upset with the changes, that they were complaining and not renewing the courses, and the teachers asked for an explanation. They were given a lie, and told ‘scheduling reasons’. 

Fast forward to the beginning of October and two articles appeared in the press.  The first in La Repubblica, Italian second most important newspaper (in print), and then a second on Il Fatto Quotidiano, a highly regarded online publication.  These finally caught the attention of management who felt compelled to send a letter to all WSE’s employees to rectify what they deemed as false information that had been spread to

Teachers Milan teachers called a strike that took place on Tuesday 29th of October, in which the union members successfully picketted the various schools in Milan and began galvanising the support of the students and the public.  The teachers distributed customized T-shirts to students just outside the WSE schools. Students happily posed for pictures with the teachers, as a sign of solidarity against WSE. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, even with some cases of students walking into the schools parading the teachers’ T-shirts and flyers in front of the managers. 

What’s the weather like in the Italian TEFL industry?

The work culture in Italy has, for a very long time, been precarious in nature, and this is reflected and amplified in an industry where job casualisation is the norm and rogue employers’ powers over their workers is enormous. Although they are yet to have their basic rights and minimum salary acknowledged, it should be noted that this is the very first time teachers in WSE have successfully formed a union in the 20+ years of the company’s existence. Unionisation in the Italian TEFL industry is inherently difficult, not least due to the high level of mobility and therefore staff turnover, especially among mother tongue teachers, making it hard to maintain a united workforce and to mount consistent pressure against the unscrupulous management.  Indeed WSE know this fact and duly shifted its teacher recruiting policy as soon as they realized how organised and disruptive the union activity could be. In hindsight the Union’s effect was extremely powerful from the beginning, as after the initial formation WSE stopped offering permanent contracts (called “contratto a tempo indeterminato” in Italian) altogether, as it had been doing for the previous seven years. This change sought to slyly exploit a ambiguity in Italian labour law so that they may prevent new staff from unionising. In short WSE’s response was not to listen to our legitimate complaint, to admit a failing, or even to openly provide a reasoned defence, but instead it chose to prevent any new staff from joining.  In turn this has created an even worse employment  situation for the fake freelancers being hired to replace us, that now occupy an even lower class of employment than the ‘tutor’.  

The Method vs. the Teacher. When Taylorism meets the language school

What WSE teachers are confronting is not just a greedy and purely sales-driven senior management, but more importantly a business model that has been designed to debase the quality of the teaching process and consequently the educational role of the teacher in general. The technological features incorporated into WSE’s e-learning platform are aimed at fragmenting the didactic continuity of teaching into a series of repetitive tasks (represented by the rigid sequence of “encounters” that unfold across 80 units, from A1 to around a C1 level). Ultimately, this ‘method’ is not really intended to maximise the learning experience of the student, but rather it is specifically engineered to reduce the teacher’s role to the extent that it may plausibly function within a Taylorist Scientific Management paradigm.  That is to say WSE’s ‘blended method’ is all about economic efficiency, within which the teacher performs limited tasks that are more or less automated, and is therefore dispossessed of their impact and control over the student’s learning process.  This new learning system is to be credited to the company that previously owned Wall Street English – Pearson International, a multinational conglomerate – that bought the Italian company in 2010, and implemented a major redesign of the teaching processes (WSE has since been “unloaded” onto a Chinese equity firm). In Italy the upgrading of the e-learning platform was seized upon as an excuse to divest their teachers of their true function, and to reposition them into a lower category of worker.  It was exactly at that point that WSE selling point became its “method” and not the quality of its teaching approach and therefore its teachers. By focusing on its online computerised method WSE has championed a kind of fast food approach to language acquisition, in which a uniform English learning package is deployed globally.  In this way the teacher represents an intolerable human variable, whose influence upon the consumption of language should be suppressed at all costs; something illustrated by the fact that the company invests exclusively in the online platform and in advertising campaigns, but has never shown any interest in doing so with the teachers’ professional development or even in the content that is supplied to them .  For example, the content of the language lessons (called ‘encounters’, in the company’s lingo) is never significantly modified or addressed, there is no real director of studies, and what happens in the classroom is never discussed even with mid-level management. No time is given to coordinate and prepare materials (paid or unpaid), and the the only interactions between the more senior management and teaching staff is entirely organised around the discussion of KPIs.  Within this method the teacher is regarded as not much more than an inconvenient necessity that the student stupidly demands, and in turn spoils their otherwise perfectly inhuman workflow.

Where do we go from here? Lessons from the battleground

Briefly after the first strike negotiations between teachers, the union representing them, and the WSE management began.
Notwithstanding such a miserable and depressing workplace culture, WSE teachers have naturally developed an educational relationship with the students who rely on the teaching staff to compensate them for the pedagogical care that the e-learning platform desperately lacks. Indeed the hugely satisfying student-teacher interactions, have, for the moment, inspired us to persist in trying to improve teachers’ situation so that they may continue in the profession.  Indeed the greatest failure of Pearson’s redesign package is that it never actually convinced the students, or even the WSE management, that teachers are dispensable in the acquisition of a language.  This is proven by the fact that, whatever the terms, they continue to offer the job only to qualified teachers.  This is because it’s patently obvious that no one else, but a teacher, could reasonably perform this role.