What is a native-speaking EFL teacher worth? A rational approach

How much should language schools pay good teachers? Intuitively, one would expect that, if the students have had a great learning experience, any language school manager should be perfectly happy with the teacher’s performance and their decision to hire the teacher…and this is true…but only to a point…

School managers have more to worry about than providing great learning experiences. Yes, it is a very, very important factor for any dedicated school owner or director, but there is another very important factor that native-speaking EFL teachers may not always see so clearly – this is the business side.

Whereas language teachers need to be professional educators who keep on top of their planning and paperwork, their employers usually need to be all of that plus good leaders and business people. At the risk of sounding crass and making  language school owners out to be money-grubbing capitalists, employers have to pay attention to the bottom line in the same way any other businessperson would – they have to be rational. If they cannot cover the costs they incur today, they need to be reasonably sure that they will recoup them in the future, preferably with a little extra on top.

Anyone can see the importance of the teacher-student relationship. What is harder to appreciate is who brought the two together in the first place and the kind of hard work, stress, risk, sacrifice and expense it usually takes to accomplish this. In order to continue competing and bringing in new students and, thus, being able to hire teachers and pay their salaries, employers must pay very close attention to their budget, marketing expenses, HR policies, quality control, strategic planning and the demands of their clients, not to mention to their own teaching duties in many cases.

This means that, while a great native-speaking EFL teacher may be great at teaching, the decision to hire the teacher may only be great if the teacher can also be instrumental in creating enough new business to justify the cost of having him/her. When I speak of the cost of having the teacher, obviously, I am referring to more than salaries. There can be relocation costs; expenses connected with securing work permits; costs of finding, furnishing, retaining and maintaining accommodations; health insurance and social insurance costs to the employer; and training expenses to name a few. If the teacher doesn’t fit in or work out, there could be costs connected with lost goodwill and the dissatisfaction of other staff members – these costs are connected with risk.

Goodwill is an abstract, but very real, asset in business. It is essentially the value of the school’s reputation in the community it serves. When goodwill is lost, business is lost and the school is at a competitive disadvantage. Conversely, when the school is seen in a positive light and develops a prestigious reputation, demand is created and the school can grow…or raise tuition fees…and this is what rational employers like to see.

In addition, there may be ‘handholding’ costs. Teachers coming to a foreign country from abroad typically need much more personal attention than their local colleagues do. For instance, employers may have to help new teachers from abroad secure documentation and translations, assist in dealings with immigration officials, show them around, help them become socialized, accompany them to doctor or dentist appointments, interpret for them or sort out any number of other issues.

Of course, this is not the teacher’s fault – it’s just part of living in a foreign country, especially in one where there is a language or cultural barrier. It is clear that a person who is thrust into a foreign environment may have security issues that a local would not. Simply put, everyone expects to invest a little more time in the acclimatization process of a teacher from abroad. Nevertheless it is still a cost.

We can see that native-speaking EFL teachers can be more costly, although the costs may not be through any fault of their own – but do they cost more than they are worth? Well, no, of course they don’t – not if the decision to hire them is a rational one. However, as in every situation in which we lay out money or time in anticipation of a return, there are many factors that can come into play to make the investment go sour – there is always a risk.

When students finish a course and are so pleased with the quality of the teacher that they immediately sign up for another course next year, tell all their friends and convince their bosses to arrange courses for their colleagues at work, the school will consider it time and money very well spent. But when a student finishes a course and decides to try a course with a competing school next year, the implication is that the new teacher wasn’t able to clear the bar and so the employer may second-guess the decision – or, at least try to determine why the investment hasn’t yielded a return.

All of this means that, from a bottom-line business perspective, a rational employer who holds a native-speaking teacher’s success to the same yardstick with which they measure the value of a local EFL teacher might conclude that hiring local teachers is the more attractive option.

To illustrate, I have included a formula that an employer could use in assessing the value of any teacher to the school. I haven’t included all the fixed and administrative costs such as rent, utilities, administrative salaries and benefits, advertising, maintenance, supplies, telephone and Internet, insurance, equipment purchases and depreciation, interest, etc… But, this formula will illustrate the relative value of teachers in terms of variable costs.

Value of a teacher to the school = (tuition fees paid for his courses + value of goodwill gained) – (Wages paid to the teacher + cost of benefits + employer’s income tax, health insurance and social insurance contributions + value of goodwill lost + corporate taxes + costs to get the teacher there + cost of handholding)

 So, given two equally talented teachers, where one is a native-speaking teacher from abroad and the other is a local EFL teacher, the local teacher should be of greater value to the school provided that the school’s clients do not see ‘native speech’ as a prestige factor in itself, which would create goodwill. The local teacher is employed with less labour and bureaucracy and requires less handholding. They are less likely to leave in the middle of a course and this reduces the risk of losing goodwill. As an added bonus, they tend to be qualified pedagogues, and this can create goodwill.

This would be the rational approach. But, fortunately for would-be travelling teachers, the value of “native speech” can contribute significantly to goodwill, the market is not always rational and, depending on the country and region, there may not be enough good, qualified local teachers to meet the demand for language courses.

The reason I point this out is that, in my experience as a native-speaking teacher and as a language school owner, not every native-speaking EFL teacher gives much thought to the employer’s position or to how their wages are determined.

Most employers fully realize that travelling half way around the world to take a job for relatively little money is a big step for a teacher to make but, from a business point of view and in fairness to loyal and equally talented local teachers, that does not necessarily justify paying more for a teacher from outside.

From an employer’s perspective, the fruits of an EFL teacher’s work may not be assessed in exactly the same way that other stakeholders would assess them. So, as travelling teachers, we must take care not to “get too big for our britches”, and be as sensitive as we can to the needs, pressures and constraints confronting all of those who have an interest in our success.

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