Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL)
Do EFL Teachers Have Careers?
Author(s): Bill Johnston
Source: TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 681-712
Published by: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL)
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Do EFL TeachersHave Careers?
The terms careerand professionare increasinglycommon in discussions
of EFL/ESL teaching. Yet little is known about the working lives of
teachers in this field. It is time to gather empirical data on teachers'
livesin variouscontexts and to examine whether in fact these livescan
best be conceptualized in terms of careersand profession or whether
other theoretical approachesmight be more fruitful.
The present article describes a studybased upon life historyinter-
viewswith 17 EFLteachersin Poland. In light of a range of substantive
and theoretical problemswith applyingexisting teacher careermodels
to an EFLcontext, the studyemployed an innovativeanalysisbased on
the theory of language of MikhailBakhtin.Bakhtindescribeslanguage
as heteroglossic,or comprisingmultiple, competing discoursesthatare in
ongoing, dynamicdialogue with one another.In the present study,the
interviewtranscriptsare treated as discourse, and the central question
is: What discourses do teachers draw on in discursivelyconstructing
The analysisrevealsthatin teachers'discursivepresentationsof their
lives,teachers'life-storynarrativesdo not appearto be present. Rather,
teachers'storiesreflect dynamicand nonunitaryidentities thatinteract
discursivelyin complex wayswith a range of other discoursesfrom the
social, economic, and political context. The implications of this situa-
tion for the field of EFL/ESLare considered.
t has become common to speak of careers in EFL and ESL teaching
and to encounter references to EFL/ESL as a profession. A recent
informational brochure from TESOL, Inc. (1996), for example, de-
scribes TESOL as a "professional association" and the field as a "profes-
sion": "The teaching [of] English to speakers of other languages is a
professional activity that requires specialized training" (n.p.). Other
EFL/ESL organizations employ similar rhetoric, and advertisements in
teachers' journals offer assistance in building a career in TESOL. The
use of these terms-career and profession-thus far seems to have gone
TESOLQUARTERLYVol.31, No.4, Winter1997 681
The reality of teaching EFL/ESL,1 however, should at the very least
give pause for thought. Teachers in many national contexts-some
would say in most-tend to be underpaid and overworked, often
operating in difficult physical and psychological conditions. The occupa-
tion of EFL/ESL teaching as a whole lacks the status of the established
professions such as medicine and law. Many teachers work without job
security or benefits.
In light of this situation, and given TESOL's claim to be an "interna-
tional education association" (TESOL, 1996, n.p.), it seems important to
examine more closely the notions of career and profession in ESL/EFL
teaching. In fact, little is known about the lives of teachers who work in
this field. It is time to gather empirical data about the working lives of
actual teachers and to make these lives the focus of research. Can EFL/
ESL teachers be said to have careers? Do they regard themselves as
professionals? Is ESL/EFL teaching a profession? Do teachers have a life
story to tell? If not, how do they present their lives and their occupation?
And finally, an important theoretical and methodological question: In
what way or ways might these issues best be questioned?
THE LIVES OF TEACHERS
Teachers' Lives in Mainstream Education
In mainstream education, the working lives of teachers have been the
subject of a number of research projects over the past 15 years or so.
There have been at least three major studies. Fessler and Christensen
(1992) looked at 160 K-12 teachers in the U.S.; Huberman (1994)
interviewed 160 secondary school teachers in Geneva and Vaud canton,
Switzerland; and Sikes, Measor, and Woods (1985) examined the lives of
40 secondary school teachers of science and art in England. In each case,
data consisted of multiple extended, semistructured interviews with the
teachers. Each study offers a generic model of teachers' lives or careers
based on a composite analysis of the data.
For example, Fessler and Christensen (1992) devised the Teacher
Career Cycle Model, in which a central Career Cycle circle is influenced
by two sets of elements: Personal Environment and Organizational
1For the purposes of this discussion, I am lumping together EFL and ESL teaching. I
acknowledge the fact that there are crucial differences between these two broad categories and
that the categorization itself is problematic (Nayar, 1997). Nevertheless, I believe that questions
of teacher life stories are equally relevant to EFL and ESL contexts, however different those
contexts, and hence those life stories, may be.
Environment. The Career Cycle itself comprises eight stages, though
they are not necessarily conceived linearly: Preservice, Induction, Com-
petency Building, Enthusiastic and Growing, Career Frustration, Career
Stability, Career Wind-Down, and Career Exit.
All these studies offer valuable insights and advance the field's
knowledge of teachers' professional lives. However, they also evidence a
number of significant methodological and theoretical problems that
subsequent research has attempted to address. First, as Huberman
(1994) himself points out, a trade-off is involved in developing a
generalized model on the basis of large numbers of individual interviews:
The resulting model may reflect general patterns in the data but not be
an accurate portrayal of any one teacher's life. If, as Donmoyer (1990)
suggests, the very point of educational research is to help provide
specific solutions to particular problems, such a level of generalization
will be unhelpful and even misleading. Thus, Tripp (1994), for instance,
questions the generalizing purpose of such studies and suggests using
teachers' life histories as tools for the professional development of the
individual teachers concerned.
Second, all the researchers mentioned above have assumed a transpar-
ent and unproblematic relationship between "the word and the world"
(Burman & Parker, 1993, p. 5), that is, between what they heard in the
interviews and what the truth is. The language used by the interviewees
was by and large taken as a direct account of what is. An alternative
approach, grounded in postmodern theory, is to argue that language is
in fact constitutive of reality and that it is through language that
individuals constantly (re)create their world. Weiler (1992) and MacLure
(1993) see teachers' life stories as discursively constructed, a notion
utilized in the present study. To say that a life history is discursively
constructed is to say that, rather than simply describing a preexisting
reality-the life story-each telling of a life is created for the specific
occasion of that telling, partly using "available forms of discourse"
(Weiler, p. 41) but also in ways that are sensitive to the context and to the
various interests at stake. As MacLure puts it, "Whatgets remembered in
any given situation is an occasioned matter ... harnessed to the textual
conventions for constructing stories" (p. 377).
The third, related assumption is the very existence of stable and
unitary concepts like career,profession,and further identity,ambitions,and
so on. Again, recent work in postmodern frameworks has challenged this
idea and has questioned the overall coherence of such notions. Peirce
(1995), for instance, argues that identity is better conceived as being
"multiple, a site of struggle, and changing over time" (p. 14), whereas
Young and Tardif (1992) offer an alternative approach to life history
research by focusing on the question of voicein the life history interview.
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 683
Teachers' Lives in EFL/ESL
When one begins to look at the lives of teachers in EFL/ESL, these
theoretical and methodological issues are compounded by important
substantive problems. In the past decade, research in EFL/ESL has
moved away from an almost exclusive concern with the learner and has
come to focus on teachers and aspects of their work. Research in teacher
education and teacher development has grown (e.g., Freeman &Richards,
1996; Richards & Nunan, 1990). Much of this work has focused on issues
such as teachers' thinking or development over relatively short periods
of time. Nevertheless, there are the beginnings of interest in larger scale,
long-term matters of professional development. Bailey (1992) considers
the conditions necessary for teacher development; Pennington (1995)
presents a conceptual framework aimed at modeling teacher change;
Freeman (1992) conceives of teachers' learning in terms of discourses
drawn on by teachers in talking about their teaching; Pennington looks
at teachers' work satisfaction in ESL (1991) and the status of ESL
teachers (1992); and Edge (1996) explores the ethical component of the
occupation of teaching.
Finally, research specifically concerned with the professional lives of
teachers has begun to appear. At least two studies have examined EFL/
ESL teachers' careers on the basis of empirical data. The Centre for
British Teachers (CfBT) sponsored a study (1989) that analyzed two-page
questionnaires elicited from 160 British CfBT teachers, about one half of
whom were working in Brunei and the rest in various other locations.
Other than informational questions about present and past teaching
positions, the following questions were asked:
* Why did you decide to work in TEFL/TESL?
* What do you plan as the next step in your career?
* What are your longer term career plans?
* If you have left TEFL/TESL, or think you are likely to do so, what are
the main reasons?
The picture that emerges from the analysis of responses is not
comforting: "It is hard not to be a little surprised at the vagueness of
many teachers' plans and aspirations. A few frankly admit to having none
at all" (CfBT, 1989, p. 25). A heavy attrition rate is implied: "Bythe age of
45, a very small proportion [of EFL teachers] are left in full-time EFL
employment" (p. 29). The study suggests that a major reason for this is
the lack of an institutionalized career structure: "For most teachers who
have done their five or ten years at the coalface and have hopefully
collected their qualifications, there is probably nowhere to go but
sideways" (p. 17).
McKnight (1992) examined 116 questionnaire responses from gradu-
ates of a postgraduate diploma in TESOL from Victoria College,
Melbourne, Australia. His findings for Australian ESL echo those of the
CfBT study. He states that his study supports common assertions that
"TESOL has no proper career structure and that ESL teachers suffer
from low morale and low status, lack opportunities for study leave, have
high rates of attrition from the field, frequently lack a power base within
their institution, and may be treated as an underclass by colleagues and
superiors" (p. 30).
Such empirical findings are echoed elsewhere in the literature, for
example in Maley's (1992) description of EFL/ESL teaching as permeable,
meaning that it is an easy occupation to enter and to leave; and in
Clayton's (1989) condemnation of "unreal" (p. 56) teachers in EFL
(young, unqualified native speakers looking to spend a couple of years in
English teaching to make money, gain overseas working experience, and
These findings add problems of a substantive nature to the theoretical
and methodological problems with teacher career research outlined
above. If EFL/ESL teaching is so easy to slip into and out of, if the field
evidences such a high rate of attrition and so few older teachers, and if
there is "nowhere to go but sideways," then it seems a pointless and
indeed impossible task to try to shoehorn the working lives of large
numbers of teachers into a model such as the Teacher Career Cycle,
which is after all designed to describe a lifelong career (all three major
models draw explicitly on the "age-and-stage" life history literature, e.g.,
Erikson, 1959; Levinson, Darrow, Klein, Levinson, & Chiriboga, 1978).
Indeed, it can be argued that the assumption of coherence and of a
straightforward conceptual base, as mentioned above, is related to the
fact that the major studies have all been conducted in mainstream
education and in relatively stable sociopolitical and economic contexts.
In EFL/ESL teaching, which takes place in a broad range of national
contexts, many of which are far from stable, such assumptions are
misleading and in research terms may be counterproductive.
Such substantive issues in turn create a theoretical problem of how to
provide a conceptual framework that generates interesting insights
about teachers' lives without the restrictions of inappropriate models-
in other words, how to theorize the lives of EFL/ESL teachers in useful
and appropriate ways. The following section describes an attempt to
address this problem.
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 685
THEORIZING TEACHERS' LIVES:
A BAKHTINIAN FRAMEWORK
In this study, the interviews with teachers were analysed using a
theoretical framework derived from the theory of language of Bakhtin
(1981, 1986). Although Bakhtin's own research concentrated on litera-
ture, and although his work has been used in innovative analyses in fields
such as philosophy of science, anthropology, sociology, and more re-
cently education (e.g., Freedman, 1995; Hall, 1995), his entire approach
is grounded in a detailed theory of language and discourse and as such
seems to offer fascinating possibilities for the analysis of data such as
The Bakhtinian concepts that are of special relevance to the analysis
of life history interviews are those of heteroglossia,multipleand competing
discourses,and dialogism.Bakhtin rejects the notion of a unitary language
and instead proposes that language is heteroglossic, or multivoiced:
composed of multiple discourses that belong to particular social groups,
professional groups, genres, and so on. This much is familiar from the
concepts of dialect,register(Cruse, 1986), genre(Swales, 1990), and so on.
However, Bakhtin's novel contribution is to point out how these different
discourses coexist and, further, are in constant competition within the
speech of individuals. They are in dialogue with each other; this dialogue
is never resolved but constitutes an endless dynamic.
At any given moment of its historicalexistence, language is heteroglot from
top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of social-ideologicalcontradic-
tions between the present and the past, between different socio-ideological
groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth, all
given a bodily form. These "languages"of heteroglossia intersect each other
in a varietyof ways,forming new socially typifying"languages."(Bakhtin,
1981, p. 291)
(I have preferred the term discoursesto the use of languages in the
preceding, which is of course a translation from Bakhtin's Russian.)
Bakhtin sees language as something that is fundamentally in use (in
this, he has been seen by Todorov, 1984, and others as the founder of
pragmatics). But in Bakhtin's view, the meanings of words and phrases
are determined by their previous use in specific circumstances, so all
language is colored and marked by the situations in which it has already
appeared. As Bakhtin (1981) puts it,
There areno "neutral"wordsand forms-words and formsthatcan belong to
"no one"; language has been completely taken over, shot through with
intentions and accents.... Language,for the individualconsciousness,lies on
the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half
someone else's. (p. 293)
The discourses that enter into dialogue are, moreover, fundamentally
ideological in nature: They are competing "verbal-ideological belief
systems" (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 311), whereas language as a whole is in its
very essence "ideologically saturated" (p. 271).
Bakhtin's conception of multiple, opposing, ideological discourses is
echoed in modern work on what are varyingly called discursivepractices
(Candlin & Maley, 1995; Walkerdine, 1988), interpretativerepertoires(Pot-
ter & Wetherell, 1987), or practicalideologies(Burman & Parker, 1993). It
is also very similar to Foucault's (1972) notion of discursiveformationsand
Gee's (1991) concept of Discourses"with a big 'D"' (p. 142).
A Bakhtinian discourse analysis addresses many of the above-men-
tioned theoretical and substantive problems of looking at teachers' lives
in EFL/ESL. It is grounded resolutely in language itself and thus does
not make assumptions about the world-word relationship, which in this
case means that, rather than taking some normative, supposedly objec-
tive notion of career as a reference point, it views the professional life
story as being above all discursively constructed (MacLure, 1993).
Second, it provides a way of conceptualizing this discursive construction
as taking place amid competing discourses (Weiler, 1992) and thus
allowing for the possibility of contradictions without a general descent
into incoherence: Such contradictions can be read as indicating the
presence of opposing discourses in the teachers' talk. Third, it recog-
nizes the ideological, value-laden nature of discourses and acknowledges
the need to understand social context in exploring the nature of the
particular competing discourses in a given situation.
Overall, this framework makes it possible to avoid imposing normative
notions of career and instead to achieve a richer account of the data that
countenances tension and conflict and allows one to say something
interesting about them rather than trying to reduce them to a unitary yet
misleading coherence. It leads one to treat the title of this article as
playful in nature: Whether teachers have careers cannot be established;
only how they talk about their life stories can be.
The present article reports on a study (Johnston, 1995) that sought to
gather and analyze empirical data on teachers' lives in a single context:
that of post-1989 Poland. My aim has been to offer as full a picture as
possible of this context and of the life stories that are told in it, and, in
the tradition of qualitative research, to aim for transferability(Lincoln &
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 687
Guba, 1985): to allow these stories to resonate with other contexts with
which readers may be familiar and to leave largely to them the task of
determining to what extent, if any, my findings may also apply elsewhere.
Given the stress placed on the vital role of contextual features and on the
diverse nature of EFL/ESL teaching, this goal seems preferable to that of
generalizability, which in any case is highly problematic with a small
sample in a single setting.
The interviews for this study were conducted in the autumn of 1994,
5 years after the fall of communism in Poland. Given the emphasis I have
placed on the need to consider context in understanding teachers' lives,
it is important to outline the complex and dynamic situation of Poland
and Polish EFL in the years since 1989.
To begin with, I should say a few words about why Polish EFL is of
interest to me. There are two reasons. First, I worked in Poland for
several years and acquired an extensive knowledge of Polish and of many
aspects of the culture, especially education. I believed that in a study of
the lives of teachers in which knowledge of context was vital, my own
status as informed outsider would give me a head start in understanding
emic contextual features as well as provide an easier point of entry into
the world of Polish EFL in terms of making contacts and gathering
information. Another, less personal reason, however, is the fact that
among the countries of the former Soviet bloc Poland has led the way
both in its general socioeconomic development and specifically in the
expansion of EFL. Thus, though as mentioned above the issue of
generalizability is an open one, whatever can be said about teachers in
Polish EFL does seem to have considerable potential relevance for the
situation of teachers in many other countries of central and eastern
Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The Poland of today looks hardly anything like the Poland of 10 years
ago. Virtually every aspect of the society has changed, from the economy
and the political system to the lifestyles of families and individuals.
Although economists regard the economic changes as broadly successful
(Slay, 1994), change at the societal level has led to more lasting social
tensions and difficulties (Coenen-Huther & Synak, 1993).
Before 1989, there was only a limited amount of activity in English
teaching in Poland (Fisiak, 1994). As in other countries in the Soviet
bloc, the primary foreign language was Russian. Teaching was hampered
by restricted access to materials and technology (e.g., copiers, comput-
ers) and by the difficulty of contact with Western countries.
This situation changed radically with the end of communism in 1989.
Western books and other publications can now be obtained without any
problem, and there are bookstores specializing in EFL materials. Anyone
can own and use a copier, a computer, or a fax machine. In addition,
many Poles have satellite TV that carries English-language stations.
Travel restrictions have been lifted. And above all, the sheer amount of
English teaching has increased exponentially.
At the same time, perhaps the most profound changes have occurred
in the economy. Restrictions on trading and on imports and exports
were virtually abolished; the result was an explosion of economic activity
of immense variety. In EFL, this resulted in the burgeoning of private
language schools throughout the country.
While the private economy was booming, the public economy had
inherited grotesque debts from the previous communist regime. Al-
though some of this debt was canceled by Western creditors, the Polish
public sector economy is still in deep water. As a result, public funding
for fields such as education is hard to come by.
Despite these difficulties, there have been important changes in the
education system (Kuzma, 1994). One major reform has been the
creation of 70 language teacher training colleges, which were intended
among other things to provide up to 25,000 new teachers of English for
the public schools, in line with plans to make foreign language instruc-
tion available to all Polish children (Ministerstwo Edukacji Narodowej,
Data for this study come from extended life history interviews with 17
EFL teachers in the Polish city of N., an important cultural and historical
center. The interviews were conducted in the autumn of 1994.
The decision to restrict the study to teachers in a single city was partly
practical and partly theoretically motivated. While reducing claims to
generalizability even within a single national context, it offers more
opportunities to compare data across informants and to gain a fuller
picture of the teaching context in what is admittedly not an ethno-
The relatively small number of informants was intentional. The aim
was to collect richer data and have the opportunity to perform more
sensitive analyses on it than in the case of studies with greater numbers of
informants. This study is intended to provide in-depth data from a few
cases in order to supplement survey research such as the two studies
mentioned above and Tann's (1994) tracer study of language teacher
training college graduates in Poland. It seemed particularly important to
allow the voices of the teachers themselves to be heard and to explore in
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 689
some detail their own perceptions of their working lives, something that
is difficult to do in survey-based research.
Within these restrictions, I decided to elicit interviews with as wide a
range of teachers as possible. In accordance with the principle of
maximum variation sampling (Patton, 1990), the 17 teachers selected
represented a cross-section of the English teaching community of the
city. Particular attention was given to certain salient variables: male versus
female teachers, Polish versus expatriate teachers,2 age, employment in
private versus public education, and length of teaching experience.
The final set of 17 also roughly reflected the relative numbers of
teachers in the city (and in Polish EFL generally): There were more
women than men (11 versus 6), more Poles (8 females, 4 males) than
native speakers of English (3 females, 2 males), and more younger
teachers than older ones (10 teachers were in their 20s, 4 in their 30s,
1 in her 40s, and 2 in their 50s).
Interviews were conducted according to the standard methods of
qualitative interviewing (Kvale, 1996; Rubin & Rubin, 1995; Spradley,
1979). Each informant was interviewed once; interviews lasted 1-2 hours.
The interviews were semistructured: They centered on an interview
schedule (see Appendix A) containing core and peripheral questions
based on the teacher career literature and on what is known about the
situation of Polish EFL before and after 1989, but even core questions
were not asked in any set order, and informants were free to introduce
and explore any relevant topics.
All Polish-speaking informants were given the choice of being inter-
viewed in Polish or in English. Seven of the 12 elected to conduct the
interview in Polish.
Finally, to ensure confidentiality, each informant chose for her- or
himself a first-name pseudonym to be used in the study. To the same end,
the names of institutions and some minor details have been altered, and
the city in question has not been identified. Several of the informants
revealed certain information only on condition of anonymity.
All the interviews were tape-recorded. They were subsequently tran-
scribed in full, and the transcripts were returned to the informants for
comments. The transcripts were then subjected to analysis.
2The relevance and validity of the distinction between native- and nonnative-speaking
teachers has been questioned by many (e.g. Rampton, 1990), though others have found it
useful (Medgyes, 1992). My own sympathies lie with the questioners. However, in terms of the
working lives of EFL teachers, there would seem to be an important difference between those
who are of Polish nationality and those whose principal country of residence is elsewhere.
In a Bakhtinian analysis, the transcripts are treated as discourse.
Instead of beginning with a normative notion of career, the central
question is: What discourses do EFL teachers draw on in talking about
their working lives? The focus is not on whether teachers' lives fit into
generalized models but on how teachers themselves discursively con-
struct and present these lives.
Furthermore, a Bakhtinian approach suggests a careful, respectful
reading of the transcripts akin to a literary analysis. Rather than relatively
mechanical, quasi-quantitative methods such as content analysis, a more
context-sensitive, holistic reading is required to identify competing
Bearing in mind the fact that in such an analysis important questions
might emerge in the course of the analysis itself, I asked the following
preliminary questions of the data:
1. What discourses (professional, social, political, personal) do the
teachers draw on in talking about their lives and work?
2. How do the teachers tell the story of their lives? Do they draw on a
discourse of career? Is there a teacher life story (or more than one)
that they seem to draw on? How else do they discursively organize
DISCUSSION: TEACHERSTALKABOUT THEIR LIVES
In considering the bare facts of the lives of the teachers in this study,
I can make a few broad generalizations. Firstly, almost all the teachers
had some form of training in language teaching methodology. Nearly all
the Polish teachers had a university degree or teacher training college
diploma in English, and even the least qualified native speakers had the
Royal Society of Arts (RSA)/Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English
as a Foreign Language to Adults (CTEFLA).
Secondly, nearly all the teachers held down two jobs or even more,
along with other work such as private lessons. Incidentally, many of the
teachers worked for considerable hours in both the private and the
public sector. Thus, the private/public distinction mentioned in the
context of informant selection turned out not to be a relevant issue.
Beyond these basic facts, however, other patterns emerged. The major
findings of the study can be summarized as follows.
1. The teachers told their life stories within a complex discursive
context in which many occupational, socioeconomic, and cultural
discourses competed for dominance.
2. Teachers presented their entry into teaching as accidental or as a
second choice and did not draw on notions of vocation.
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 691
3. A lack of agency is also evident in the way movement from one job to
another was portrayed; such moves may be shown to represent
skillful adaptation to changing circumstances rather than progres-
sion along a career path.
4. Leaving teaching was a possibility that was constantly present in the
5. Teachers often drew on alternative identities; nonnative speakers of
English preferred the identity of expert speaker of English to that of
6. A discourse of professionalism was absent from the teachers' discur-
sive construction of their working lives; altruism was in some cases
ironized whereas commitment was seen only in day-to-day terms.
The rest of this section provides evidence for each of these findings
and discusses their significance in the Polish context.
The Discursive Context
Polish EFL teachers, like most other people in Poland, lead busy lives.
Nearly all of those I interviewed held multiple jobs, not all connected
with teaching. Low wages combined with a cost of living approaching
that of a Western country means that teachers need to make more money
than most single positions will give them.
A typical example is Rafal,3 a graduate of the English department at
the university in N., who was working at a prestigious high school. Along
with his four classes in the high school, which were scheduled in the
mornings, in the afternoons he taught at a private language school for
which he also occasionally did translation work. Finally, 2 days a week in
the early evening Rafal attended a postgraduate program in business
studies at the university. Rafal himself described his time as "prettymuch
filled up every day."
Rafal's routine reflects some of the complexity of life in post-1989
Poland. Other teachers sometimes have three jobs; many give one-on-
one private lessons, and some earn money outside of teaching, for
example, by selling real estate or life insurance. In any case, in order to
make enough money to get by, teachers can generally not restrict
themselves to a single teaching position; and at the same time, like Rafal
with his business studies program, they must keep an eye on the future
and to act on a number of different fronts at once.
3Brief notes about each of the teachers mentioned in this paper can be found in Appen-
The complexity of teachers' lifestyles finds its discursive analogue in
the complexity of the discursive context in which Rafat and the other
teachers in the study lead their lives. These lives are lived at the meeting
point of multiple discourses, each with its own set of ideological values,
and each in competition with others. Two examples will have to suffice.
Firstly,there is a discursive opposition between the need to do a good
job at teaching and the need to make money. Many of the teachers in the
study described how the need to make money led them to take on extra
work, often resulting in a long working day in which they may have had
insufficient time for proper lesson preparation (see Joanna's statement
below for a frank admission of this fact). The socioeconomic discourses
of the broader society in this way impinged upon the educational
context, showing that it is impossible to conceptualize teachers' lives and
work without an understanding of the sociopolitical context in which
they are lived.
Secondly, in general language teachers can be said to work at the
meeting point of at least two cultures and hence of what might be called
macrodiscourses-in this case, Polish and Anglophone (in the Polish
context this predominantly means British). In the situation of Polish
EFL, this meeting point represents the encounter of a set of discourses
(of education and, in particular, of language learning) rooted strongly in
local realities and a range of often colonizing, predatory discourses of
export-variety EFL (Pennycook, 1994; Phillipson, 1992), including those
of communicative language teaching and British- or U.S.-based testing
practices. The individual teacher constitutes the locus at which these
discourses "fight it out" (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 360).
An example of this clash is seen in attitudes toward the Cambridge
exams. These exams, a suite of "communicatively based" tests developed
and administered by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations
Syndicate in England, have become very popular in Poland; enrolment
in the exams has increased several hundred percent since 1989, and
many language programs concentrate on preparing students for the
various levels. Jan, a British teacher of Polish origins who had worked in
N. for several years, resisted the imperialistic implications of the Cam-
bridge exams. Speaking of the latest revision of the exam format, which
brings with it new sets of published exam preparation materials, he said,4
1. It's like a wonderful bacteriathat you can't destroy,a wonderful virus.
You think you've discoveredthe antibodythat will get rid of it, so they
4Transcription conventions are as follows:
[???] Inaudible material
[...] Omitted material
(tr) Interview originally conducted in Polish; passage has been translated
Other interpolations are self-explanatory.
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 693
change, theychange it. It'slikeAIDS,it'sjustlike that;and it'scorrupted
the whole of EFLin Poland. Cambridge,Cambridge.We'reall,we're all
Cambridge-positive.And it's terminal.
At the same time, though, in another context, Jan held these exams
up as a model of achievement, with the assumption that getting one's
students to pass the exams is an objective indication of teaching ability.
In offering evidence for the high level of expertise of one of his
colleagues, he said,
2. This teacher's results also have been incredible; a pass rate [in the
exams] thatis, is almostperfect, I mean nearlya 100%passrateoverthe
last 20 years.
This aporia (Derrida, 1993), that is, apparent contradiction or incon-
sistency, represents the presence of two competing discourses in Jan's
speech: one rooted in the British macrodiscourse and the other in its
Polish opposition. One discourse values the exams as objective measures;
the other regards them as harmful to the practice of language teaching.
Jan's talk constitutes the locus at which these ideologically opposed
positions come into contact.
Thus, rather than indicating overall discursive incoherence, the
presence of competing discourses is an integral feature of the complex
discursive context in which the teachers try to make sense of their lives.
These discourses constitute the environment in which teachers set about
telling their stories and, to a large extent, also the material from which
the stories may be fashioned.
Entry Into Teaching
It is noteworthy that, in describing their entry into the occupation of
teaching, none of the teachers spoke in terms of a vocation or claimed
that it was their first choice of occupation. For some, like Szczesna, Jan,
or Sarah (see below), it represented in fact a second career. For others,
like Ewa, it arose naturally out of an interest in, and study of, English.
Ewa studied English at the university but did not think about teaching till
her final year, when a friend of hers suggested the idea to her.
3. And he said he, he'd got himself ajob at the Language Center,and he
enjoyed it, and we were contemporariesat some point at the university,
but then I think I think I draggeda little bit [laughs], and I graduated1
yearlater;so he'd alreadybeen teachingwhen, when I graduated.So he
told me about thejob and uh, I knewDS [the Directorof the Language
Center], who was our teacher at the university,he, he taught practical
English in the 5th year I think; and Ijust approached him and said I
thought it was a good job, do you think I could try; and he said I
definitely could. So it was very easy; and um, some people wouldn't
believe me that it wasso easy,it definitelywas,getting it. A little bit of
good luck, a little bit of, I don't knowwhat;itjust happened.
Ewa's account is interesting because it discursively presents her entry
into teaching as depending partly on chance ("alittle bit of good luck").
The rest of the story belies this apparent lack of agency-after all, it was
Ewa who approached her teacher to ask about work-but this presenta-
tion remains. Ewa's appeal to luck is a discursive strategy: a use of
rhetorical features of discourse that allows her to present the story in a
To a greater or lesser extent, every teacher in the study talked about
entering teaching in comparable terms. Szczecsna, for example, had a
budding academic career as a biologist interrupted by serious illness.
During her convalescence, she took up the study of English. Then one
evening, walking her dog, she bumped into an acquaintance who
suggested she teach English at his child's school, where there was
currently a vacancy. Thus began her involvement in English teaching.
No teacher made any discursive appeal to a "calling." Rather, entry
into teaching was portrayed as a response to external circumstances; in
this sense, the relative absence of agency noted above with regard to Ewa
was found in every case.
Movement Within Teaching
A similar lack of agency can also be detected in many accounts of how,
once in teaching, teachers moved from one job to another. Perhaps the
most striking example of this comes from Sarah, an expatriate teacher
who at the time of the study was in her 4th year of teaching in Poland.
Sarah completed her RSA Certificate abroad and returned to England to
look for work with the international chain of private schools with which
she was affiliated.
4. By the time I returned to England it was quite late in the year, the
academicyear,it wasAugust,I think,so when I looked at the vacancylist
there wasn'tan awfullot to choose from [laughs],which is, I hate to say,
probablythe reasonI came here. There wasRumania,Poland,Hungary;
I, I don't reallyknow why I chose Poland at all; I mean, Ijust sort of
thought, oh, that might be interesting; it was a bit sort of like eeny
meeny minymoe, which one shallI choose. Um, and I did wantto work
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 695
In this passage Sarah discursively portrays what might be considered
an important life decision as virtually a whim ("eeny meeny miny moe").
Again, as with Ewa, some real sense of agency and motivation is also
present ("I did want to work in Europe"), but it must coexist with a
discursive version of the story in which agency is minimized.
At first sight, then, the telling of these lives seems to lack a sense of a
teacher life story, or of a career in the sense of a progression over which
the individual had some control. Yet both Ewa and Sarah have remained
in teaching for several years. It seems that whereas whim or chance might
account for the decision to begin a particular job, it is hardly sufficient
motivation to remain in it for long. It is likely that there is some other
way in which teachers can appeal to notions of causality and continuity
(Linde, 1993) in telling their life stories.
One possibility arises in Danka's story of how she came to set up the
private school she now runs. Previously, Danka had taught at the
university Language Center (where she worked with Ewa). Yet at one
point in the late 1980s she found herself facing something of a crisis.
5. Interviewer: Tell me about how you came to set this school up.
Danka: Well [laughs]; it was 5 years ago; a little bit more than
that;it wasright before the holidays;and I used to do a
lot of translationsfor friends who workedwith the Civic
Theaterin N.; and one dayI rememberJanusz[a theater
manager] took me for a drink, and he said, Danka,we
won't survive;we have to do something about our lives;
and he saidartisnot reallythe areanow that,thatI mean
you can afford to get involved in unless you are a very
rich man; so he said why don't we open language
courses?And I said no, no, no, I mean I workwith the
university,I don't wantto get involvedin anythingelse;at
that time I had private lessons, and that was my extra
source of income. ButfinallyI agreed to teachwiththose
coursesfor 6 weeks,before the holiday;and thisis how it
Here, like Ewa above, Danka presents a major decision profoundly
affecting her working life as having its origins in forces beyond her
control. Yet several years later she was still in this position and by her own
account enjoyed her work, and her school was considered to be one of
the best in the city. Thus, her discursive construction of this event in her
life perhaps should be read not as evidence of a lack of agency but as a
discursive strategy of a different kind. A typical Western career path,
mapped out by the teacher herself, is not present; yet the story still
recounts a successful way of dealing with emergent contextual factors.
That this is a success story is confirmed by the immediate continuation of
the extract cited above.
6. I mean all of a sudden I realized that it is possible to organize a place
where you teach the waythat you reallybelieve you should teach, that
you have a chance to use all the methods, techniques that you have
learned before;thatit is possible to organizeteaching in such a waythat
you havethe equipment thatyou need, the books, thatyou don't haveto
strive for everything, to look for classrooms, that everything can be
ready,waiting for teachers, that the atmosphere may be pleasant, and
finallythat I mean you're paid decently.
Danka's story, then, may represent an alternative approach to the
discursive construction of the life story, one in which interaction with
dynamically changing circumstances is prized over movement through a
preestablished set of positions. In the context of postcommunist Poland,
this approach seems as appropriate as any.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The absence of a binding teacher life story makes occupational
flexibility easier in a situation like that of post-1989 Poland. Yet it also
means that teachers are freer discursively to talk about leaving the field.
Many of the teachers in the study talked about the idea of dropping out.
Here I focus on two interesting cases: Bernadette and Rafal.
Bernadette, a British teacher, was the most "successful" of the native
speakers in this study: She had an MA in applied linguistics and held a
prestigious and responsible post with the British Council. She men-
tioned the idea of studying for a PhD. Yet in speaking of her future plans,
Bernadette also said the following.
7. Interviewer: What, what other thoughts have you had [???]if you
don't do the doctorate?
Bernadette: If don't do a doctorate? Well, I think it's; [laughs] this
isn'tbeing flippant.It's,if I'vegot enough money to stop,
I'll stop [laughs]. I'll go to artschool; or I'll;mymother
has an art gallery; I'll go and work with her for a while; or
I'll, I'll do something else. I, I want a break;this is very
intense, sort of, this work.
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 697
Although it is perhaps not so surprising when a young teacher talks of
leaving teaching, it is striking that one hears the same thing from
someone who appears on the surface to be devoted long term to this
occupation. The way Bernadette talks about her plans demonstrates an
important fact about the discursive construction of life stories in EFL.
The very fact that she can say "I'll stop" shows that she is drawing on a
discourse in which such things can be said. In her interview and
elsewhere in the study, EFL is discursively presented as an occupation
that it is easy both to enter and to leave. It is indeed, in Maley's (1992)
term, permeable.Although such permeability may have its advantages
(Maley, for example, suggests that it renders the field more receptive to
new blood and "brilliant 'naturals"' [p. 98]), it, like the discursive
strategies mentioned above, militates against the possibility of a strong
discourse of the teacher life story.
As stated above, Bernadette was not the only teacher who talked of
quitting. This is not exactly surprising, given that EFL/ESL is said to have
high attrition rates (CfBT, 1989; McKnight, 1992). In the Polish context,
estimates are that only between 60% (Drury, 1994) and 35% (Tann,
1994) of graduates of the new teacher training colleges go into public
sector teaching even in the 1st year after graduation. Given that
subsequent further attrition is more than likely and that one reason the
colleges were set up in the first place was that hardly any graduates of
university English departments were entering teaching, these figures
would seem to be a matter for some concern.
In this context, it is informative to look at the reasons Rafal gives for
wanting to leave the field. Though it is not possible to establish
objectively how likely teachers are to leave teaching, Rafal seemed fairly
firmly committed to entering the field of business. He was already in the
second year of his business studies diploma, and in the interview he went
into his future plans in some detail. His explanation of his decision to
quit teaching included the following statement.
8. Interviewer: So you're going to drop out of teaching?
Rafal: I think so, because generally speaking the English lan-
guage teaching market,the language teaching market,is
predominantly female, because it's something women
can afford to do who have let's sayhusbandswho make
good money and who don't have to support themselves
from what they earn. And personally I don't see any
chance of leading anykindof normallife if I'm supposed
to be a good teacher who devotes most of his time to
teaching. Itjust isn't physicallypossible. (tr)
For Rafal, then, the economic discourses of present-day Poland were
too powerful and dominated the occupational discourses of English
teaching. For him, as for other teachers in the study (many of whom, I
learned on a recent return visit to N., have in fact since dropped out of
teaching), the exigencies of the context were too great to allow him to
continue to work as a teacher. That leaving teaching was Rafat's discur-
sive presentation of his situation rather than an objective necessity is
shown by the fact that other teachers, including men with families to
support, do stay in teaching. Thus, Rafal's portrayal constitutes a
discursive strategy-an interested presentation of his present and future
life through language-rather than necessarily being a reflection of what
Incidentally, though gender issues are not a focus of this article, it is
hard not to respond to Rafal's claim that only women could afford to be
teachers, for example, by suggesting that the logic he used might be
turned on its head: The low levels of pay in teaching may be due
precisely to the fact that teachers are predominantly women. This
important matter deserves separate consideration elsewhere.
The cases of Rafal and Bernadette reveal that the unavailability of a
strong teacher life story, while giving teachers more room for maneuver,
also makes it harder to justify discursively the choice to stay in this
Insofar as the teachers in this study had in most cases invested
considerable time and resources in their education and training (in
Poland a basic university program, for example, lasts 5 years, whereas a
college diploma takes 3), it seems in some ways odd that they should
have been so willing to abandon teaching and move into some other
occupation. Yet, as was seen in the previous section, several of the
teachers were consideringjust this; indeed, some, like Rafal, had already
taken the first steps.
From the point of view of a coherent life story as a teacher, such moves
seem not to make sense. Yet as has already been seen, in the context of
post-1989 Poland they seem much more understandable. In a context
where teaching is poorly paid, it is entirely reasonable to be flexible and
to consider utilizing the skills one has to enter a better-paid occupation.
What, then, of causality and continuity, the discursive elements in
what Linde (1993) calls the coherenceprinciplein telling the life story? If
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 699
Polish EFL teachers do not draw on a teacher life story, what do they use
to give their life stories at least partial coherence?
An answer to this question may be discerned in the following passage.
Wojtek, a final-year student of the teacher training college in N. who was
already teaching part time both in a public high school and in a private
school, talked of his future plans in this way.
9. Sometimes I have a feeling thatit'snot thatwhatI'm going to do, thatI
want to have something, [laughs] again more ambitious, whatever,I
know that it just, um; well, more ambitious for me; it doesn't mean
Englishteaching is not ambitious.But on the other hand it'ssomething
thatI'vebeen doing for a fewyearsand I'm, maybeI'm not verygood at
it but stillI have some experience, and I can, I can improveit;so, um, if
you, ifyou stickto it, in the sense thatyou,wellI can, I don't haveto stick
to teaching English,I can translatethings,I can be an interpreter,I can,
uh, evenworkin businessusingmyEnglish;um, so, but againit'sjust,it's
just continuing something that I've started.
To talk of a move into translation or business as "continuing some-
thing I've started" suggests strongly that the identity Wojtek had chosen
to lend discursive coherence to his potential decisions was not that of
teacher but that of expert speaker of English. This identity makes it
possible to see teaching, translating, and business as being united by the
fact that they require a competent speaker of the language. As with the
informants in Linde's (1993) research, it allows the (former) teacher to
retain discursive coherence across a change of occupation. Other
teachers also drew on this discursive strategy.Joanna, for example, said
she had given up earlier plans to enter medicine or computing, but she
was thinking about moving into translation; she talked about this by
saying that she had "decided to stay in English."
As above, such a discursive strategy is advantageous in the uncertain,
rapidly changing context of Poland in the 1990s, lending the teacher
greater flexibility. Yet it works against the likelihood of teachers remain-
ing in their occupation over the long term. Furthermore, it constitutes
another facet of the popular belief that native speakers (the ultimate
"experts" in procedural terms) make the best teachers and that by
definition nonnative-speaking teachers are "deficient users of English"
(Medgyes, 1992, p. 345). This strategy has the effect of devaluing other
crucial teacher attributes such as specialized knowledge, interpersonal
skills, pedagogical skills, or experience; in this way, the teacher's identity
as teacher is rendered vulnerable.
Another interesting way in which alternative identities subverted or
hampered the possibility of a teacher life story was the presence of
alternative life stories in the interviews. Several of the teachers, the native
speakers in particular, drew on past identities that made it more difficult
for them to construct a coherent life story as a teacher. For example,
whenJan was asked at the beginning of the interview to "tell the story of
his life," he produced a lengthy narrative about how he had become an
art critic and scholar. His original reason for accepting a teachingjob in
Poland had been to allow him to stay in the country to conduct research
for a graduate degree in art without paying exorbitant exchange rates.
The first version of his life story begins and ends as follows.
10. I did my A-levelsin Barrowand decided that I was going to opt for a
career in art and design, so I did a foundation course at Barrow
Polytechnic.It'sa course that followsthe Bauhausmodel, I don't know
whetheryou'refamiliarwiththe foundation coursewhichwasrun at the
Bauhausin the 1920s,atWeimarthen afterwardsatDessau;well,the one
at BarrowPolytechnicisveryverysimilarto the Bauhausone. Then Iwas
offered ajob as artcritic [...]
[...] I married one of the participants, and basically burned my
bridges;wasunable to leave, mywifewasunable to leave, thiswas 1988,
she wasunable to, theyrefused to giveher a passport.I wasn'tprepared
to go backmyself,so we stayedan extrayear;bywhichtime itwastoo late
to go back [...]. So I lost the grant;so I didn'tgo back,stayedin Poland;
and here I am.
The interesting thing here is that these final three words-"here I
am"-collapse several years of Jan's life as an English teacher. Later on,
perhaps as a result of his realizing that what I, the interviewer, was after
was a teacher life story,Jan made an attempt at this, saying amongst other
things the following.
11. [Teaching] requires a lot of hard work,and I've spent the last 7 years
perfecting my techniques, and I think that as things are at the moment
I'm, I'm good at what I'm doing, I'm respected. Myexam results, the
exam resultsof myparticipantshavebeen extremelygood, the feedback
has been verypositive.
But the fact remains that his previous counternarrative of himself as
art critic precedes, opposes, and undermines his account of his life as a
teacher. In this case, competing discourses consist of competing life
Sarah too had a former identity: Before entering teaching, she had
worked in film production. At the time of the interview, she was still
undecided whether to remain in teaching or to try and return to film
work. At one point in the interview, I confronted her with these two
12. Interviewer: OK,let'scome backnow to yourplansfor the future.You
said, you mentioned two things: One of them was the
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 701
idea of going to Australia[to teach], and the other was
the notion, if I understood rightly,of returning to work
[...] in film and television and so on. How do those two
Sarah: They, they don't really relate at all; I think of it as two
completely separatefields in my life.
Here, Sarah is explicitly offered the opportunity to create discursive
coherence. Yet she chooses not to and leaves this aporia in her life story.
Once again, competing narratives create a complex and dynamic image
of the life story that cannot meaningfully be reduced to a single schema.
IS EFL TEACHING IN POLAND A PROFESSION?
At the beginning of this article, I suggested that the matter of whether
EFL/ESL teaching is a profession remains an open question. In the study
described here, one of my aims was to take something of a phenomeno-
logical approach to this issue: to find out whether the teachers in the
study saw themselves as professionals and how they portrayed discursively
the meaning of terms like professionand professionalism.
It must be made clear from the outset that my interest in the question
of professionalism is by no means tantamount to an assumption that
EFL/ESL should be or become a profession. In mainstream education a
number of persuasive voices (e.g., Burbules &Densmore, 1991; Popkewitz,
1994; Welker, 1992) have argued that teaching is a very different kind of
occupation from the established professions such as medicine and the
law and that professionalization brings with it many undesirable conse-
quences. I am fully in accord with this position. I also concur with
Phillipson's (1992) view that the professionalization of British EFL
teaching has served the interests of a neo-imperialist foreign policy and
of a narrow circle of native-speaker "experts" rather than those of
language learners around the world.
Yet at the same time I cannot help seeing the matter from the point of
view of Polish classroom teachers and their interests, and from this
perspective it seems that certain aspects of professionalization would be
advantageous. Amongst the usual attributes of a profession, Freidson
(1994) includes such features as control over entry into the profession,
autonomy in terms of establishing and evaluating acceptable practices,
representation by a powerful institution (like the American Medical
Association), and a body of knowledge and skills that is recognized and
highly regarded by the broader society. The Polish context recalls the
literature referred to above in which EFL teaching is seen as marginalized
and the teachers lack influence, status, and power-while at the same
time, it might be added, doing a highly creditable job in very tough
circumstances. In such conditions, for teachers to have control over their
own practices, to have an influential national organization watching over
their rights and well-being, and for their skills and experience as teachers
to be recognized would seem to be of advantage. Furthermore, one
feature of the current situation in language education in Poland,
especially at the elementary level, is a rapid turnover of teachers, such
that continuity from one year to the next is often impossible to achieve.
I was told many stories of classes starting from the beginner's level 2 or 3
years in succession because new teachers were not informed of the class's
progress. It would be in the interests of the students if more teachers
were able to stay longer in the same occupation and the same position.
For these reasons, while acknowledging the potential dangers, I suggest
that in the Polish context certain features of professionalization would
be desirable for both teachers and learners, those traditionally in
positions of least power in educational settings.
The teachers in the study were asked whether they thought of
themselves as professionals, whether they saw EFL as a profession, and
what it meant to be a professional. Interestingly, answers to these
questions were widely divergent. For Danka, being a professional above
all meant doing one's job successfully, as measured for instance by exam
results. For Ewa, her co-worker, the key quality of a professional was a
"100%dedication" to one'sjob and devotion to one occupation only. For
Ania, a professional was someone with long-term commitment to ajob: A
new teacher by definition cannot yet be called a professional. For Adam,
it meant earning a respectable salary.
One overall conclusion is that a shared discourse of profession is
absent in Polish EFL. The very diversity of responses indicates that
notions of profession are little more than privately held beliefs. At the
same time, all those who took part in the study gave every indication of
being competent teachers who always strove their best to do a good job.
Thus, the absence of a discourse of profession must be seen not as an
individual failing but as a broader contextual problem.
One aspect in particular of this matter seems worth mentioning. In
discussing questions of commitment and professionalism,Jan said amongst
other things the following.
13. Interviewer: How do you feel about the, the role of Englishlanguage
teaching in your life? Is that, do you feel committed to
Jan: Um, committed?In whatrespect?
Interviewer: Well,let's takenow;I meanjust thejob thatyou're doing
rightnow;how,whatsortof sense of commitmentdo you
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 703
feel about the job or jobs that you do now in terms of
Jan: Wellif you mean is myapproachperfunctory,no it isn't;
um, my day-to-daycommitment is obviously100%.
Here,Jan interprets "commitment" to refer to a short-term, day-to-day
dedication to doing the job well. What is lacking in his response, and in
those of other teachers in the study, is any sense of a longer term
commitment to the occupation. Such a commitment is rendered impos-
sible by the dynamic nature of the broader social and economic context.
Another example of this interplay between teachers' work and the
context it takes place in can be seen in certain comments by some of the
teachers regarding the question of service or altruism in their work.
Freidson (1994) includes a commitment to service as one of the key
values of a profession. Yet for Polish teachers, this is a difficult ideal in
light of the exigencies of everyday life. Monika and Marek both referred
to this notion by applying to the occupation of teaching the adjective
spoleczna,literally "social," meaning something like "charity"work done
for a good cause and without financial reward. Monika taught English in
an elementary school, but she and her husband lived principally off his
earnings. Of her own job, she said,
14. You have to have another means of support to be able to afford to do
such charitywork,because that'svirtuallywhatit is. (tr)
Marek taught in an elite private high school, but he also espoused the
principle of equal educational opportunities for all. I suggested that his
talents might be more needed in the public sector. He defended his
decision to take a higher paying job in the private sector.
15. It'sjust thatI'm not such an idealistas to saythatit'sa charitablematter
and thatyou simplyhave to [???]workfor free; that'snot how it is. (tr)
In both of these examples, the notion of altruism-that is, the
professional's devotion to service-is ironized or, in Bakhtin's (1981)
term, "reaccentuated" (p. 417) by the competing discourses of making
money and looking after one's own interests. These discourses, in turn,
are not merely individual ones but are socially shared discourses rooted
in the economic realities of post-1989 Poland.
Perhaps the most telling statement on professionalism comes from
Joanna, a recent graduate of the teacher training college, who was
working in a public high school. Joanna had been identified to me as a
teacher of exceptional ability and promise. Yet she responded as follows
to the question of whether she considered herself to be a professional.
16. I think I could be; but I'm not, at school, because I don't have time to
organize my classes in such a waythat they would look like, as if, well,
they are organizedbya professionalperson;because I'm not workingas
much as I could perhaps to get the most of the book, and the time I
have; well, and all other possibilities. But I'm not going to do more
because firstof all I don't have time, and secondly it's not paid enough
to workmore, I think;and then I'm not going to do something, as I said
I'm not an altruist,and it's a cheat-off,actually,whatwe're doing, with
the, well, the Ministryof Education,and what'sgoing on in this country,
I mean the workyou have and the money you get for it, I think it's a
huge misunderstandingand I'm not going to put up with it.
In this eloquent passage, part confession and part accusation, not only
does Joanna reveal that a discourse of profession is absent from the way
she talks about her work, but she also actively resists such a discourse; the
reason for her resistance is found in the sociopolitical context in which
her teaching takes place.
To conclude, I repeat what was said above: All those who took part in
this study appeared to be competent teachers who performed their job
well. Yet they found themselves restricted to a kind of "semi-professionism"
(MacLure, 1993, p. 320) that put discursive limits on the ways in which
they could talk about their work. This situation recalls what MacLure
suggests in the context of teaching in Britain: that "the old iconogra-
phies of teacherhood, with their virtues of vocation, care, dedication and
self-investment, are being eroded under the pressures and interventions
of the late twentieth century" (p. 319). With the caveats mentioned
above regarding the limitations and dangers of professionalization, in
the case of Polish teachers of EFL I would argue that the unavailability of
a discourse of profession is detrimental to individual teachers and to the
system as a whole.
The findings of this study indicate that for many teachers in Polish
EFL, the straightforward notions of career and profession assumed in
mainstream research on teachers' lives are not very helpful in conceptu-
alizing the teachers' lives and the way they construct them discursively.
To grasp the complexity of these teachers' life stories, a more context-
and discourse-sensitive approach is needed, one that can countenance
the contradictions of competing discourses, a nonunitary view of iden-
tity, and the interplay of occupational and broader socioeconomic
The Bakhtinian analysis undertaken in this study shows that teachers
do not tell teacher life stories and do not rely on a teacher identity.
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 705
Rather, their accounts draw on different discursive strategies involving a
multilayered sense of identity. Polish teachers often prefer to present
themselves as expert speakers of English, thus lending coherence to
occupational moves outside of teaching. Another discursive strategy
involves presenting EFL as a permeable occupation that is easy to enter
Such strategies are in many ways advantageous to teachers who are
attempting to deal with difficult circumstances and a complex, rapidly
changing socioeconomic context. But these discursive preferences may
have certain disadvantages. By presenting themselves as expert speakers,
for instance, Polish teachers are choosing to ignore the other skills,
expertise, and knowledge they possess as teachers and may thus be
making it more difficult for teachers as a group to gain the status and
influence they deserve in the broader society.
Still on this topic, prospects for professionalization are also seen to be
limited because, although teachers act professionally in the day-to-day
sense of working conscientiously and responsibly, the socioeconomic
conditions make it impossible (or at least extremely unwise) for them to
make a long-term commitment to EFL teaching. Again, although this
lack of commitment is probably the best move for the teachers them-
selves, it perpetuates systemic problems of rapid teacher turnover and
lack of qualified teachers for many posts, especially in public education
and especially for younger learners.
I am not suggesting that all teachers should follow a teacher life story.
My point is that it would be advantageous to have such an option
available: It would allow teachers who enjoy their work and are compe-
tent at it to discursively construct a life as a teacher and thus to envision
staying in this occupation longer. At present, that discursive option does
not seem to exist, to the detriment of teachers and students alike.
Teacher identities are frail in comparison with competing economic and
other discourses. To put it at its simplest, for many teachers in Poland, it
is not in their own interests to remain teachers.
In terms of the Polish context, the findings of this study are consonant
with trends that have been noted in larger scale survey research (Drury,
1994; Tann, 1994). If this is the case, certain conclusions suggest
themselves. One is that, given the impermanence in the occupation of
teaching English, the newly established teacher training colleges may
well fail in the long run to produce the large numbers of teachers they
were supposed to. Another conclusion is that Polish teachers' organiza-
tions such as IATEFLPoland need to move toward an advocacy role and
to militate for improved working conditions and an improved public
image for English teachers, especially in the public sector. Of course,
certain of the features of teachers' lives that have been examined here
are true of Polish teachers generally under the conditions obtaining after
1989. To the extent that this is so, prospects for change are constrained
by the overall development of social, political, and economic structures,
in particular those relating to education.
At a theoretical level, the Bakhtinian framework has proved useful in
detecting and unraveling the multiple, competing discourses present in
the teachers' speech. The framework makes it possible to conceptualize
teachers' lives in EFL/ESL in a way that captures the complexities and
contradictions of those lives without a general descent into incoherence.
It produces an image of identity as multiple and dynamic. Further, it
reveals how these lives are embedded in a complex occupational, social,
economic, and political context; yet, by seeing this context in terms of
discursive practices, it avoids the assumption of a simplistic world-word
Overall, the findings here echo those of the CfBT (1989) and
McKnight (1992) studies summarized above. At one level, they confirm
empirically what was already suspected: that EFL/ESL can be an un-
stable, marginalized, impermanent occupation. It is important that such
generalizations be grounded in actual data. In this case, qualitative data
support the survey findings of the earlier reports.
The study also goes beyond an empirical confirmation of what is
commonly believed. It suggests that assumptions about the status of
EFL/ESL as a profession and about the possibility of careers in this field
are highly questionable. It serves as a prompt to look beyond the
classroom for an understanding of how teachers' lives develop. And it
raises the question of how best to safeguard the interests of teachers and
students-those most disempowered in the educational process.
This article represents a first attempt to gather empirical, in-depth
data on teachers' working lives in EFL/ESL teaching. A relatively small-
scale study such as this, of course, raises more questions than it answers.
Do the findings reflect the lives and the conditions (discursive and
sociopolitical) of EFL/ESL teachers elsewhere? Informal comments
from audience members in various venues where I have given presenta-
tions on this research project have suggested that it rings true for many
national contexts (e.g., Greece, Mexico, Russia, Korea, the U.S.) but not
all (e.g. Germany, Japan); empirical evidence is again needed. What
aspects of the Polish situation are found in other countries? What
options exist to offer teachers greater stability and security in their work?
It seems to me that the answers to these questions should be of interest
to administrators and teacher educators in all contexts and, of course, to
the teachers themselves. The field must surely benefit from a deepened
understanding of teachers' lives set in the rich context in which they are
To return to the title of this article, the question it asks will have to go
unanswered. Indeed, it seems clear from what has gone before that it is
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 707
not merely playful: It is the wrong question to ask if we as educators are
to gain a better understanding of teachers' working lives in EFL/ESL.
These lives are lived in complex contexts in which personal, educational,
political, and socioeconomic discourses all influence the way the life is
told. It is only by recognizing these fundamental truths that we can begin
to make headway in understanding the lives of teachers in our field.
I wish to thank all those teachers who gave of their time to be interviewed for this
study. I am grateful to two anonymous TESOL Quarterlyreviewers for helpful
comments on an earlier version of this article.
Bill Johnston is Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota. The Immediate
Past Chair of TESOL's Teacher Education Interest Section, he has worked as a
teacher and teacher educator in Poland, France, the United Kingdom, Hawaii, and
other places in the U.S. His interests include language teacher education and
teacher development, discourse analysis, and postmodern research methodologies.
He also works as a literary translator.
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The Life Story
*Tell the story of your life as a teacher so far.
*How did you get into teaching?
*Whydid you move to each newjob?
*Whydid you leave thatjob?
*What qualifications do you have?
Why did you choose to get those qualifications and not others?
*Do you plan to take other qualifications?
*What have been the most important turning points in your life as a teacher?
*What ambitions and plans do you have for the future?
Looking at your life overall, does it seem to have coherence?
*What personal or family factors have affected your working life (e.g., marriage, divorce,
*What other paths might you have followed in life?
Have you ever been tempted to leave English language teaching (ELT)?
Why did you stay?
Do you have, or have you had, other jobs beside your main one (translating, private lessons,
How do you feel about this?
*What interests and plans do you have outside ELT?
Career and Profession
*Is ELT a profession?
*Are you a professional?
*What, in your opinion, is a professional?
*Do you see yourself as having a career?
*What does this mean to you (career and having a career)?
*To what degree are you committed to teaching/ELT?
Relationships and Social Status
How do you feel about your students?
What kind of relationships do you have with your colleagues?
Do you tend to socialize with other ELT people or with people not connected to the field?
How do you feel about your work when you tell others what you do?
Are you proud, embarrassed, indifferent?
The Polish Context
*How do you feel about the changes that have taken place in Poland over the past 5 years or so?
*What are the major changes in Polish life?
*What are the major changes in EFL?
*Core question, asked in every interview.
DO EFL TEACHERS HAVE CAREERS? 711
Teachers Mentioned in the Article
Adam: Male, late 20s. Teaches in a private language school affiliated with a Western chain of
schools. Also translates, has his own publishing business, deals in real estate.
Ania: Female, early 20s. Graduate of teacher training college. Teaches at a liceum(high school).
Danka: Female, early 40s. Director of Studies of a prestigious private language school and
private teacher training college; teacher, teacher trainer. Also teaches at the British
Council Centre at the university.
Ewa:Female, mid-30s. Teaches at the British Council Centre. Also worksas teacher and teacher
trainer at the private school run by Danka.
Joanna: Female, early 20s. Teaches part time at a liceum.Graduated from the language teacher
training college, summer 1994. Also studying at the university extramurally for an MA.
Marek:Male, mid-20s. Teaches in a private liceum.Also sells life insurance. Graduated from the
language teacher training college, summer 1994.
Monika: Female, mid-20s. Teaches in a public primary school. In her 1st year of English
teaching. Has an MA in cultural education.
Rafal:Male, mid-20s. Teaches in a prestigious public liceum.Also teaches in a private language
school and translates. Studying for postgraduate qualification in business studies.
Szczesna: Female, mid-50s. Teaches in the same liceumas Rafal. Also runs a small private
language school. Holds a PhD in microbiology; requalified as an English teacher about 10
Wojtek: Male, mid-20s. Teaches in a liceumand in a private school. Graduated from the
language teacher training college, summer 1994.
Native Speakers of English
Bernadette: Female, British, late 30s. British Council Regional Teacher Trainer at the teacher
Jan: Male, British, mid-30s. Teaches at the British Council Centre at the university.
Sarah: Female, British, 30. Teaches at a private school affiliated to an international chain of
language schools. Currently preparing to be a teacher trainer.