Three years after my dissertation on the adjustment process on a few members of this population, I am still interested in conducting research on sojourning ELTs. After noticing an interesting pattern on social media and the blogosphere over a year ago, I launched a couple new research projects to investigate a wider range of the population. The first project is underway with data collected and analyzed. In a month or two, I will start the second project, which is more closely aligned to this blog as it investigates culture learning of English language teachers.
Who are sojourning English language teachers again?
I borrowed the term “sojourning” from the literature on acculturation psychology (Ting-Toomey, 1999; Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001). A sojourner is one who travels abroad for work or study for an extended period of time, usually more than a year, with the intention of returning to one’s home country after a few years. The two most researched sojourning populations in psychology are international students and corporate workers. Sojourners are one group or type of expatriates categorized by length of stay. Those who live abroad for up to a year are “tourists” and those who stay for closer to a decade or longer are “immigrants.”
Who cares about sojourning ELTs?
I think this group is worth researching because, for most members, it’s a group in a career transition. Many of them are entering the workforce full-time for the first time while some of them are deciding to make career changes, leaving a job or lifestyle they were getting tired of in their home country. Many of them can also be classified as native speakers, a term I dislike using. For more on the issue of native-speakerism in the ELT industry, I recommend visiting the TEFL Equity Advocates website at https://teflequityadvocates.com/.
My assumption, based on experience, observation, and very limited formal research, is that most sojourning ELTs are recent college graduates from countries where English is the dominant language, in Kachru’s Inner Circle of World Englishes (1992) or Holliday’s BANA countries (1994), which I wrote about a couple years ago here. My hypothesis (which seems pretty obvious to anyone with TEFL experience) is that the sojourning ELT lifestyle is an extension of the college lifestyle, which ends if and when the individual decides to seriously join the ELT profession or quit. However, this hypothesis mainly applies to sojourning ELTs who come straight from college. There are a number of sojourning ELTs who go abroad many years or decades after their early 20s. However, no matter their age, all sojourning ELTs go through a steep culture learning curve during their first year aboard, which may define their ELT identity.
Another reason I think this group is worthy of research is that they represent their home country and the entire ELT profession to a large proportion of English language learners around the world. They are able to make a bigger impression on students than most more established and/or “professional” ELTs, which brings me to the distinction between the sojourning ELT “newbies” and the “professional” ELTs. I am very interested in learning more about what separates these two in the minds of both groups. For example, I had little to no access to “professional” ELTs when I was a new sojourning ELT. After earning my graduate degrees in education, I’ve noticed a certain “othering” of sojourning ELTs by my peers or by local ELTs. I want to learn more about this. I have my hunches, which I have overheard in grad schools and teacher conferences, and read on social media, such as:
These sojourning ELTs:
- Are not qualified to teach
- Are backpackers (in the 90s) or digital nomads (in this decade)
- Are privileged native speakers
- Are unprofessional, don’t take the job seriously
- Are “scabs,” willing to teach for cheap
I recently learned that the last bullet point is a cause for concern for some members in teacher support groups, such as the Teachers as Workers Special Interest Group and the TEFL Guild. These groups help to provide all ELTs, sojourning and not, representation and voice in the industry, so we can learn that these impressions should not be generalized. The argument that I recently encountered is that the constant supply of college graduates keeps the demand stable or low enough that there is no need to provide benefits to more experienced teachers. I am just scratching the surface here, so I urge readers to visit the websites of both groups to learn more about these issues.
Another idea I would like to explore is the notion of privilege. Perhaps a decade or two ago, sojourning ELTs had a better chance of finding a higher paying job just for having a college degree and appearing as/sounding like a native speaker. For better and for worse, this is changing. “Native speakers” still have more privilege than non-native speakers, but in some places the difference in pay is shrinking. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the pay for non-native speaking teachers or local ELTs is increasing. Are we getting closer to equalization in pay or is this part of a larger trend of not paying teachers, especially language teachers, enough overall? I definitely believe the world has a higher proportion of well-qualified English language teachers than it did, but this is not necessarily to the students’ advantage as it is to the employers’.
Finally, although being a sojourning ELT in this decade may not pay as well or be as safe (in terms of political instability) as it was a decade or two ago. I believe the newer sojourning ELTs are entering the industry or profession with more (better?) resources to improve their teaching and to learn about the host culture. They are also more connected to other ELTs around the world as well as the friends and family who they “left behind.” In this sense, it may not be as isolating as it was when the jobs were more lucrative.
Within a year or two, I hope to share evidence supporting or refuting my speculation about the sojourning ELT population. I promise to blog more, especially when my second research project begins within the next few months.
Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate methodology and social context. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating across cultures. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Ward, C., Bochner, S. & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock, (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.