My father's emails to me while I've been overseas have always been short and sweet. I've grown used to that. But his last one was different. His last one had all the subtlety and sweetness of a sledgehammer across the head. It read,
"hi steve.......... i'm sorry to say........... sandra died today.......... she was suffering at the end but she's not anymore......... I love you......
That's all it said. I was at an Internet cafe in San Juan del Rio, Mexico, a beautiful colonial town in Queretaro State. I thought I'd set up shop there and try to find my next teaching job. Mexico City was way too big, and, after a year and a half in Bangkok, I was looking for a smaller and more charming place. And I had thought I'd found it.
If you recall from my last column in February, Sandra was my stepmother. She was suffering from lung cancer and a brain tumor. She was married to my father for just over three months, but they had known each other for 20 years. I left the Internet cafe and began to walk over to see a few of the teachers that I had gotten to know over the last week. Before I got there, I knelt down just a few meters from their house and began to cry. Pulling myself together moments later, I went into their house and explained what happened.
I then called my family. It was Monday afternoon. They had just returned from the funeral. Sandra had died on Saturday. The Internet cafe that I usually go to on Sunday was closed. I offered to come back home, even though I had missed the funeral. My father and both my sisters told me to stay in Mexico and look for a job. So I tried for about a week. But it's no use. My heart just isn't in it. So I will be going home again on March 4th.
What does this have to do with how low language school directors can go? About a week before Sandra died, I applied for a teaching position with Global International Institute run by a Canadian woman named Laurie Roberts and her Mexican husband, Mario. After four days of observing classes, and teaching two classes of my own, (for no money), Laurie decided that she didn't want to hire me. There weren't enough hours for any of the teachers, and, by then, I had decided that her school wasn't for me as well. Fair enough. That's life. And that's the EFL business. We've all grown used to that.
Now, here's the problem: Three days after Sandra died, just one day after my family buried her, Laurie Roberts wanted to see me. A few days before, I had expressed my interest in living in the teacher's house, which Laurie and Mario had co-signed since foreigners here in Mexico cannot be sole tenants of a house. These teachers had a computer, which was constantly hooked up to MSN Messenger and other Internet call services. Since I have no such thing, the teachers agreed to allow me to live in their house so that I could be in constant contact with my grieving family. I kept having to run from Internet cafe to Internet cafe in the hopes that their computers worked, which they sometimes didn't. Without this constant hook up to the Internet, it was very frustrating and angering.
Just one day after my father buried his wife, just one day after my sisters buried our stepmother, Laurie and her husband told me that I could not move into the teacher's house because "The house is reserved for our teachers." You don't understand, they kept telling me.
"Since you are not working for us, we cannot allow you to live in our house." And we weren't talking permanently. Just a week or two so that I can be in constant contact with my grieving family would have been fine. Then I'll move on. There were two other empty rooms and the other teachers that they were planning on hiring were not scheduled to be in town until April. So there was plenty of room and plenty of time.
To say that Laurie and Mario's behavior on this issue was insensitive is a huge understatement. This is not about teaching anymore. It's not about managing a school anymore. It's not even about teacher/management relations--- or whatever is left of it. It's not about school bashing. It's about common human decency. It's about being ethical and moral. It's about putting differences aside--- at least temporarily--- and saying to a teacher--- any teacher, not just the ones that work for your school--- "Hey, I'm sorry about your loss. Even though we don't work together, stay in my house for a week or two and talk to your family. Make sure they're okay." (They did, however, find me a cheap place to stay while I was in town.)
Is that so difficult to do for many language school directors? Do many of them hate and mistrust teachers so much that they would deny a teacher--- any teacher--- a week or two so that he or she can get back on their feet after the loss of a family member? This wasn't just a cruel business decision. It was human nature at its very worst. We all have choices to make. Choices that will make or break us. Choices that, when we look back, will either be among the best we've ever made, or among the worst. language school directors can choose to treat teachers like crap, commodities, or human beings. It's their choice. But when they choose not to treat teachers like human beings, we all lose. I've been saying this for years.
I'm not only mourning my stepmother who lost her battle with cancer. I'm also mourning the cancer that has pervaded this business--- the cancer of hate, the cancer of politics, the cancer of mistrust. Over the years I have asked myself, how low can this TEFL industry go? How low can language school directors sink? Well, I think I just found out. And it's sad. It's very sad and tragic because the teachers and our students deserve more. We all deserve better.
I know there are two sides to every story. Sometimes there are three or four. I will leave Laurie Roberts's email address at the end of this column so that you can get her side of the story. Apparently, I'm not the only teacher who's had a problem with her.
Being home with my family is where I need to be right now. Then, when the time is right, I'll choose another place to go to teach. I've loved most of the students I've ever had. I miss them. I continue to cherish the friendships that I've made with other teachers over the years. I miss them too. And I've even known a few pretty nice language school managers and directors. I've learned a lot from some of them. But this experience has shook me to the core. How can I, or any other teacher, trust language school directors and managers who show extremely little sympathy and compassion for a teacher who just lost a loved one to lung cancer?
I can understand the business end of EFL, even though I hate it. I understand that sometimes teachers don't work out at a certain school. I can understand the uncertain relationship between a Western teacher and a non-Western director. I understand that many of us get ripped off money and hours. I understand that's it's far easier to lie to a teacher over the Internet than it is to lie to him face to face.
I understand all of that. That's business. But what I can't understand, what I'm not smart enough to comprehend, is how a human being, a fellow Canadian, can show almost no sympathy and compassion to a fellow teacher who had just lost a loved one.
The uncertainties of living and working overseas leaves open the tempting possibilities of language school directors to take advantage of teachers who, for reasons beyond their control, find themselves in extremely vulnerable situations, such as a death in the teacher's family. These same uncertainties of life also offer language school directors a wonderful opportunity. The opportunity to befriend their teachers; the opportunity to understand us, to get to know us, to support us, to appreciate our efforts, and to learn from us just as we have learned from them.
Many language school directors love to use the buzz phrase "reflective teaching." Here was a perfect opportunity for Laurie and Mario to use some "reflective directing." Here's a perfect opportunity for all language school directors and managers to reflect upon how they see and treat their teachers.
I have spent the last week feeling many different emotions: Anger, rage, pain, sorrow, disappointment, and guilt. Anger and rage directed at language school directors who don't give a damn about teachers; pain and sorrow for my grieving family; and disappointment and guilt for myself. Disappointment because I feel powerless to do something--- anything right now. And guilt because I could not get home sooner. Here's a perfect opportunity for language school directors to understand what we EFL teachers sometimes go through.
So I must go home now, or else I'll never forgive myself. Families must be together at a time like this. This is not a time for teaching and managing. It's a time for support and healing. It's a time for understanding and forgiveness. It's a time for reflection and introspection. It's a time to think and rethink. And it's time--- just to take time.
I'm looking forward to hugging my family and letting them know that I will be there for them in these difficult times. And one day I'll be looking forward to being in the classroom once again.
But embracing this business and this industry is getting harder and harder. Language school directors must understand this. They may not be willing or ready to accept this, but they must understand it.
Laurie Roberts's email address: firstname.lastname@example.org