I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound
To the memories of yesterday’s clouds
I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound
And now I’m set free
I’m set free
I’m set free to find a new illusion…
“I’m Set Free” ~ The Velvet Underground
I got back to Australia early this year to find the dream well and truly over. Several months of hard walking on the Pacific Crest Trail and three of living with my girlfriend in the far less exhausting splendour of Switzerland were closely followed by debt, poverty, unemployment, and no more trails left to follow — except, potentially, the one to the dole office. Reality Crash, I call it. The Big Come-Down.
Luckily my old employer, a private English school in Brisbane where I’d worked between walks since 2003, came through with some relief teaching, and pretty soon I was offered a gig on their fairly new evening schedule. Night classes were enjoying some success with South American students, who typically clean houses and offices during the day before coming in (exhausted but, invariably, still able to talk for hours) after work for class.
I was grateful for the work, started killing off those debts, and enjoyed my own gruelling morning schedule of lattes, novels, writing and photographing for this blog, and walking 10 or 12km per day before work. But the school was noticeably different. Student numbers had plummeted; corridors once jammed with students were strewn with tumbleweeds. Other schools were closing. The floods, people said — at first. But the flood waters receded, they cleaned up the mud and debris, and still the numbers kept dropping.
Teaching English as a Foreign language is a precarious occupation at the best of times. You can work in a non-English-speaking country, where you will usually (in North Asia anyway) enjoy a one-year contract with the possibility of renewing it if you survive the year. In Australia the concept of job security is non-existent for most of us in private English schools — we survive on short-term contracts (or no contract at all) and a wage well beneath the Australian average.
That has always been the norm for we lowly labourers on the language farms. Everything depends on student numbers, we are always told, and this year they are parlous indeed. The reasons, summarised here, include:
visa changes, the rising dollar, aggressive competition in the international student market and image problems including the recent attacks on international students.
I don’t know why the job still holds any appeal for we EFL lifers. Decent conditions, interesting colleagues, a sense of doing something useful, freedom from a desk job, the stimulation and satisfaction of working with a good class — these will go some way towards mitigating a meagre income and pitiful job security. Also, many of us got into ESL because we were travellers who’d started teaching overseas, liked it, and got ourselves properly qualified to teach at home on our return.
For me, it was all of these, plus a love of the language — and the ability to take off every couple of years on my Next Big Trip, hopefully to return to the job when the money and white blazes ran out. I also liked knowing I could always split for an overseas gig if things got desperate. I’m lucky, I suppose: no mortgage, marriage, or car to run. It suits me.
Then a couple of weeks ago an envelope was placed on my desk. I’d been set free. I was not the first, and since then another two experienced, respected teachers have received similar envelopes. The school is in serious financial trouble, and management at the highest level have apparently elected not to renew the contracts of their more experienced (and hence slightly more expensive) staff. Even night classes and staff are shrinking. The atmosphere in the staff room is toxic; whispered conversations and worried glances are exchanged in corridors and the lunch room. Who’s going to be next?
Anyway, I’m grateful for the chance to get out of debt and put a few dollars aside. I’ve been given some relief teaching and should be okay in the short term. There are other colleagues I feel a lot sorrier for than myself. But my plans for another big year of rambling — my daypack was bulging with maps and guidebooks, my head with plans and ideas — are shot. For now, anyway.
But I soon got over the disappointment as I quickly formulated another Cunning Plan. I’m going to take advantage of my lack of ties here. Fly the coop, turn crisis into opportunity, as the cliche goes. The Big Trip can wait a year; adventure takes many forms. You’ll read about it all here in a few weeks, I hope.
On Friday we had a bit of a farewell party in the classroom. I’m sorry to say goodbye to these guys (apart from a Libyan, a Belgian, and a Turk, all are South American). We got on very well and the atmosphere was always boisterous but rewarding. Here’s their farewell message on the whiteboard (I admit to helping clean up a few grammatical errors):
And here’s the final class photo, where we demonstrate that so much of communication is non-verbal:
The handful of remaining night teachers and I had a little farewell party after class. I gave up the booze in January, so it was a sedate affair with cheesecake and cups of tea at 9:00pm. A rocking Friday night indeed. Actually, two of them couldn’t handle the pressure and went out for some colder refreshments, but even a six-pack of Mountain Goat-brand beer…
..couldn’t tempt me…much.
Thanks for the memories, folks.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote