Thursday, December 16, 2010

When Does One's Work Ethic Become Unethical?

Today is day seven I've spent at home recovering from pneumonia.  Now, I do take some responsibility for being ill.  In a week, Santa will be bringing me some proper snow boots, I'm sure.

But last week, for two days, I taught in two university classrooms with no heat.  Nada.  Zip.  Nie. The radiators were cold to the touch.  What's a teacher to do in this case?

Naturally, I feel most teachers have a very strong work ethic.  We will battle it out, grin and bear it.  But should we consider setting some limits, especially when our health is at stake?  Because two days of bullet biting in an icy classroom has resulted in five days of missed classes and hundreds of euros of lost income.  I ask you, should I have refused to teach under those conditions?  Chances are, I wasn't the only victim that day.  Chances are some of my students also fell ill. 

With the current ELT discussions about what are the bare necessities of a language classroom (e.g. anti-material Dogme arguments, technology, etc), I ask: what are the bare necessities for staying healthy in the language classroom?  In my experience, three things: proper heating, ventilation and availability of fresh water.  Without these things, can we say it's unethical to teach and even learn in that kind of an environment?  In a country that is labeled as having one of the best health care systems in the world, I don't think it's too much to ask.


  1. That is a ridiculous environment to teach in. Seriously. There shouldn't be the need for this type of discussion.

    I hope you're feeling better soon and demand some standards. You don't need to "grin and bear it".

  2. That is appalling, Bethany. It is about time that the world, and probably we as teachers, stopped thinking that because we love what we do, we'll do it under any and all circumstances. There is some legal limit to the acceptable temperature in a work space and you can refuse to work in a space that is below that. Anyone else would, but teachers - no. I think we have all put ourselves at risk at some point and pushed the boundaries of tolerable working conditions. No one says thank you and we land up sick and broken and half insane.

    You take care of yourself - and I really mean that and not only now when you're ill but ALWAYS and thank you for posting.


  3. Dear Tyson,

    Thank you for your response. Sadly, there is a need for the discussion because it's come up in so many chats I've had with teachers here - especially during our TESOL France workshops that take place during the winter. I see so many teachers between a rock and a hard place - especially with the spiral of all the permanent contracts drying up (which include sick pay). Those who are freelance and paid by the hour are not so lucky.

    Granted: there is additional sick leave insurance "travailleur independents" can purchase, but most of us just take the chance and try to stay as healthy as possible. Not working means not getting paid.

    I should also mention that those who have taken on the new auto-entrepreneur status here in France need to be extra careful - no sick leave there for sure! And I've heard of schools forcing their teachers to change their contracts to this status. It's a good status to have on the side, but language teachers should not put all their eggs in one basket.

    Thanks again for your post.

  4. Dear Candy,

    Thank you for your concern. Those who know me know I'm a pretty tough cookie (but I'm also the ultimate workaholic). Frankly, I don't know how those who are freelance and on their own do it. And I fear no amount of shouting in the streets is going to change the working conditions in France. What to do? Refuse to work and still demand to be paid if the conditions are intolerable? I'd be interested in hearing the experiences of those out there.

    I'm more than ready to walk out the next time this happens. This was a major learning experience for me. But next time....will I be paid if I walk out?

    What if teachers demand a clause in their contracts that the classrooms they teach in are tolerable? Would that fly here? I wonder.

  5. I share all your friends and colleagues concern for your health and dismay at the working conditions you describe.

    But question 1 - how and where did this happen? What kind of building were you working in? Do other people work there all day? Isn't there maintenance staff in the building? It seems alarming to hear about Scrooge conditions in the 21st century?

    Question 2 - I appreciate that you are a freelance but are you also a member of a union? I never realised the importance of unions in education until Dede was having problems with line management at a college and the union supported her.

    Things get done when you're part of the union.

    Glad to hear you're getting better, BC. And hasten Santa along with the boots.

  6. Thanks for your post Ken!

    Answer to question 1: Ironically this happened in an engineering school. Heating in the rooms is sporadic. In previous years I've actually lugged my own portable heater to class. The problem is not just the heating but the lack of insulation. So any heat that is produced gets sucked out the cracks in the windowpanes. From an ecological point of view it's scandalous.

    For the past three weeks, the maintenance crew have stopped by the classroom to announce (note: not apologize for) the lack of heat. Gee, thanks fellas.

    Once, one guy showed up to oil the lock on the door, leaving it wide open letting all of the heat we had produced with our own presence escape. "Ferme la porte!" I screamed. The students and I just sat there, shaking our heads.

    Asking for a different room: tried that. All booked. And the language department always gets last pick.

    Your question 2: Unions do exist, but joining one is still a very new area for most of us ELTers in France especially among the native English speakers. Perhaps that is where we are (or should be) headed. It's definitely worth looking into.

  7. Beth,

    So sorry you've been ill. While we were all enjoying TESOLFr, you must have been draining your natural resistance to illness.

    I like the line about the maintenance crew announcing the lack of heat. It reminds me of the road signs 'Trous en formation' which always makes me think, 'well, don't put up a sign, just fill the ******* hole.'

    I agree with Ken about unions, although I can imagine it must still be difficult in France. And thirty years ago were the days of the parti socialiste and the parti communiste as strong political forces, who one might imagine would support or even encourage union membership.

    In fact, it doesn't really matter about the political alignment, it's a matter of 'confort du travail', with at the very least, heating in classrooms.

    What worries me more is the status of the 'travailleur independant' in France. After six years in the University of Lyon, I wanted to become a travailleur independant but the various 'cotisations' were so huge that I fled back to England. It seems that conditions for the 'travailleurs independants' are the same as or worse than they used to be.

    Please get better soon.

    Simon Greenall

  8. Dear Simon,

    Your post made me glance at those two hysterical conference organizer mugs you gave me at the TESOL France event. When it comes to working conditions, should we "Keep Calm and Carry On" or "Panic and Freak Out"?

    My biggest fear here in France is that I will join the great and powerless Complaint Cavalry: the people who just sit around and grumble about the issues without doing anything about it.

    Ken's suggestion to join a union is one worth investigating. Professional diversification is also a must, especially in ELT.

    I guess this is why I work so hard for TESOL France. We have the ability to concentrate our efforts on offering professional development to those who so desperately need it. I've said this before and I'll say it again: TESOL France is not a union. We are a support group. We are kinesitherapy for the classroom.

    And I see the difference we are making. I see how our events recharge those batteries. Each time we organize a conference or workshop I always learn something new. When we learn, I learn.

    Ok, so we need the Complaint Cavalry. But let's also be a part of the Action Battalion.

  9. Bethany I hope you will get better soon. I had a similar problem about 5 years ago in the military unit. The classsroom didin't have heating and even in summer (lack of natural light) was dark and cold. I hated the room and I had 4 hours a day in it! I made a fuss and I demanded a portable heater from the major in this unit. And a kettle with hot water to make tea/coffee. He refused. But one day I felt so bad that I fainted on the lesson...Then I got the heater and hot water...I really feel for you. Get well soon and take care of yourself! Ania

  10. Oh my heavens, Lord! Fainted! I hope your current work environment is better than that.

    I've had students feel faint due to lack of air ventilation in a room, but the teacher fainting! That's just NUTS!

    There's one room in a business school where I work - it's been dubbed "The Sauna". No windows. AC doesn't work. 15 chairs. So when there are 20 students, some are left sitting on the floor.

    I've threatened the school that I'll take all the kids out to a cafe the next time I'm given that room. The Director of Studies knows and backs me up. I'm secretly looking forward to the day I show up to Chez Pierre down the street with 20 MBA students in tow. Might be fun!

    Ania, I really really do hope you're now teaching in a place that's better than what you've described.

  11. Bethany,

    I share your comment with regards to the fact that language teachers tend to get the short end of the stick with regards to benefits and etc. It's no different in Canada. It's us who often are on contract and don't work, don't get paid. It's us who often work without adequate teacher's rooms or technology. Our programs are often considered the ugly-stepsister to the mainstream curriculum.

    On the bright side, entrepreneurship is applauded here. The government gives tax breaks for us; we can pay into the Unemployment Insurance (EI) fund like everyone else. Still, it's an uphill battle for most language educators as the work isn't always so easy to come by. And there's a respect for those that go out on their own. Of course, knowledge of how to work the system is key and few contract teachers full understand their rights. Fortunately, vital humane conditions like heating, don't really pop up too much.

    In any case, I hope you're feeling better and can work as a community to improve conditions in France.

  12. Thanks Tyson,

    I've consulted a few directors of higher education language departments here in France and it's just shocking how they are treated, as you correctly put it, like the ugly stepsister. The language departments get last pick on the time slots and the rooms. Time slots are sometimes canceled (thus leaving the temp English teachers -vacataires- unpaid) to make room for other departments' last-minute course decisions (or lack of organization). I really feel for the department heads here in France.

    As for France's entrepreneurial spirit...I think there is some level of respect (or awe) for those who choose to fly solo. But it's coupled with a pinch of skepticism too. Why give up 5 weeks mandatory vacation, sick leave, maternity leave, RTT (don't get me started), paid lunches, partially paid metro tickets, and a retirement package that "surely won't ever be put in the line of fire" by a tsunami of national debt.

    The way I see it, going freelance in the ELT industry is the best way to maintain at least some control over one's finances and one's future (should one choose to seek further opportunities outside the country and/or still live in this great hexagon).

  13. Marjorie RosenbergJuly 31, 2011 at 2:57 PM

    I had the same problem three times over the last couple of years and was faced with the dilemma of staying home and recovering or paying 'minor' bills like the mortgage or buying food. (Oh, the joys of free-lance or contract teaching) But getting ill was not due to unheated classrooms but to underheated hotel rooms while attending conferences, meetings or holding workshops. Unfortunately, complaining did nothing and in one case the owner told me that a room heated to 16 degrees in the winter is healthy (for his wallet perhaps but not for me).

    Anyway, this seems like a problem which is really difficult to deal with - I totally agree we shouldn't have to teach in unheated rooms (the teacher training college I taught in turned the heat off in the afternoons and on weekends although they scheduled lessons then) so we wore our coats in the classroom. Any suggestions of how to make people aware of the problem has got my vote as well.

    Perhaps we need to start blogging and naming the places who skimp on heat - that might have an effect.


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