In less than a fortnight’s time, the Innovate ELT 2016 conference, run by ELT Jam and Oxford TEFL, will get underway in Barcelona. SLB are delighted to be represented by yours truly – I’ll be giving a talk on the whys and hows of setting up a teachers’ cooperative – and there are a number of other presentations that we are really looking forward to (see the conference programme here). However, we are not completely convinced that the promise of Innovate ELT’s theme – Power to the Teacher – is being fulfilled. Undoubtedly, this hinges on conflicting interpretations of what these words might mean, and with that in mind, we’ll try to set out below how we at SLB understand them. As ever, we welcome any constructive debate on this “preflection”* in the comments section below.
*For this concept we are indebted to Steve Brown.
Innovate ELT 2016: A Counter-Cultural Conference?
There is little doubt that the Innovate ELT 2016 conference has made some bold moves which run counter to the traditional culture of ELT conferences. For a start, there will be few, if any, of the big ELT names that one comes to expect from such events – rather, there are a large number of relatively unknown teachers, writers and activists taking the stage. And indeed, some of these (not nearly enough, as we will argue) will be airing their views on some of the key issues relating to what we understand as Teacher Power: pay and conditions, grassroots teacher organisation, collective bargaining and equality/discrimination (in terms of nationality/mother tongue/gender/sexuality). More loosely, a number of talks focusing on teacher development and action research could be said to be taking seriously the issue of Teacher Power insofar as they focus on devolving CPD away from managerial structures and down to the chalkface level. On the other hand, this will always be a highly contested issue: while no one would argue against teachers directing their own CPD (something we promote at SLB), there remain the key questions of how much unpaid time teachers already put into advancing their careers, especially in the private sector, and who it is that ultimately benefits from this.
Taking a broader view, Innovate ELT are to be commended for running a conference which features any of these issues at all. They have also been very responsive and open about criticism – most of the points outlined below were answered by the organisers, and in one case a change was made to the programme. We certainly appreciate this attitude.
Now for the critical bit
Counter-culture has always been dogged by over-the-counter culture – that’s to say, rebellious ideas have a tendency to eventually become commodified – packaged, marketed and sold. It may be impossible to avoid this, but what we want to ensure is that this is not the primary motivation for running a conference themed on “Power to the Teacher” – that is, that the topic of teacher empowerment is not simply being used because it’s fashionable at the moment, will sell tickets and promote the brand. We’re not saying that this is wholly the case – but several aspects of the Innovate ELT 2016 point worryingly in this direction.
The dilution of the theme
It was clear from the beginning that the Innovate ELT 2016 conference theme of “Power to the Teacher” was going to be somewhat diluted in terms of our understanding of it. After all, the call for papers, in addition to welcoming talks on “grassroots activism (e.g. equality and rights for teachers)”, also focused on entrepreneurship, self-publishing and action research. What has surprised us, however, has been the striking lack of papers on the former theme, with the majority of talks on the latter ones, in addition to many sessions on ed-tech and classroom tips and tricks. Even in the conference panel discussion on the very theme of grassroots activism, there were no local grassroots organisations represented, nor had any been consulted to discuss its composition. This, as noted above, has now been rectified in response to our protest, which is to the organisers’ credit.
That aside, here we need something of a language analysis of the phrase “Power to the Teacher” – which permits an ambiguous reading of “The Teacher” as representative of a group with common interests, or as an autonomous individual making his/her way in the world. At SLB we view entrepreneurship, for example, as a highly contentious issue when it comes to grassroots activism. We’re delighted for you if you’ve found a way to break out of being an underpaid pawn in the highly profitable games played by private academies, agencies and international publishers, and manage to produce and sell your own stuff, but if you’re only or primarily doing that for your own benefit, you’re doing little to change or challenge the status quo. It reminds us of the (ab)use of the word “disruption” in current educational debates – it seems attractively radical but when one scratches the surface, it is about little else than challenging the market share of long-established institutions in favour of the new entrepreneurs and investors on the block.
One could defend the spread of talks by arguing that sessions on ed-tech or classroom techniques are all about empowering the teacher. For us, however, if this is the meaning of “Power to the Teacher”, then every ELT conference around could lay claim to this tagline. At SLB we will always welcome ways to help teachers be more autonomous in their work, but the main issue for us is not whether a teacher can have the freedom to develop and become more effective, it’s whether that development can a) be paid for; and b) actually get them anywhere in terms of career development or enjoying a greater share of the benefits it brings to the institutions they work for – or indeed, from our cooperative perspective, lead them to the place where they can create their own more democratic and equitable institutions.
Maybe what we see as a lack regarding this (for us) fundamental aspect of “Power to the Teacher” is simply down to the papers the organisers received, or perhaps it’s just reflective of what their main concerns really are. In any case, we feel strongly that more should have been done to focus on those very grassroots issues (pay, conditions, equality) on which the conference seems to be setting out its stall.
Speaking of stalls, we know there will be some occupied by the usual major players sponsoring the event – Cambridge English Language Assessment, Pearson International, Macmillan Education and Trinity. Here it would be too easy to launch a blind offensive railing at the way one or more of these institutions work precisely against empowering teachers, but we have to acknowledge that both our cooperative and some of its socios as individuals have worked or continue to work with one or more of the named organisations, either directly or indirectly. This indeed will be one of the themes of the SLB presentation at Innovate – the very impossibility of occupying a puritanically critical position “outside” the ELT industry, or of the hope that you’ll be able to make a decent living while somehow avoiding any contact with those that publish, train and assess on an industrial scale, or indeed go around collecting big data on everyone so that we can all be done out of a job by a computer. Ethically, it stings to say it, but to paraphrase Jacques Derrida, there is no “outside-industrial-ELT”. At least not yet, not in any easy way. To give an environmental example, as a cooperative we have worked with both the oil and the solar power sectors. We would like to be doing more of the latter, but we would not have been able to get started were it not for a juicy contract with the former.
However, this is not an argument against dissent, and the question still needs to be asked – to what extent does this type of corporate sponsorship undermine, or again commodify, the message of “Power to the Teacher”? Could other types of funding have been sought – from grassroots organisations (who, admittedly, might not have much money), unions, crowdfunding? We don’t know – we’ve never tried to organise a conference. But we would like to think that this, at least, is possible.
The marketing strategy
Just a quick point here – we feel the strategy of releasing five names a week, in the order they were released (beginning with the better-known names rather than necessarily the most relevant to the theme), was an error. We feel that everyone should have been announced together, without hierarchy or privilege. This would not have prevented the strategy of highlighting five speakers a week via twitter. It would simply have meant that, clicking through to the main website, visitors would have been able to see everyone else participating as well.
Feathering one’s own NNESTs?
This is perhaps our most controversial point, but it has to be said and understood in the context of SLB’s longstanding and continuing commitment to fight for the rights of non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) and full support for Marek Kiczkowiak’s commendable equity campaign. However, it is notable that this issue dominates the small number of Innovate ELT 2016 conference papers which deal with grassroots activism. Our worry here is that the NNEST topic has become something of a politically correct cause célèbre which is easily taken up by well-meaning teachers, academy bosses, ELT celebrities and conference organisers, because at the end of the day, engaging with it allows people to feel they are doing the right thing (which they are) while simultaneously ignoring some of the other fundamental issues: namely low pay, limited training, poor conditions and a lack of opportunities for advancement for all teachers, especially in the private sector. In other words, promoting the interests of NNESTs should not occlude promoting the interests of all. Of course we want institutions to treat NNESTs fairly, but if fairness means having to put up with the same poor conditions as native speakers (albeit better than for non-natives), clearly there’s still much else to talk about. But this does not come across in the balance of papers dealing with these issues.
So, what is to be done?
As we said from the start, none of the above means that we are not happy to be part of the Innovate ELT 2016 conference. We do feel that the issues we and others are raising will have a chance to be aired and debated during the event, and it’s up to us to make the most of that opportunity. What we will always resist, however, is the commodification of grassroots activism. With that in mind we feel that the next event themed in a similar way should come as much as possible from below – that’s to say, from the very grassroots movements from which Innovate ELT 2016 is taking its cue.