Casual

I qualified as a teacher of EFL in 1999. In 2004, ish, I shunted sideways into ESOL. In 2005, six years since first stepping in front of a whiteboard, I got a 0.5 permanent contract, and in 2006 I got lucky and managed to bump that up to a full time, permanent post, a status I have held onto with a careful eye on the world behind me. So that is around seven years between qualifying and gaining a full time post, that is, a job with paid holidays, sick leave, and all the rest, and in the intervening 11 or so years, I have yet to forgive either the private EFL sector, or the public ESOL one for that horrible gnawing sense that at any time, your income is about to be dragged out from under your feet.

It wasn’t just the uncertainty, either. There were all those teasing glimpses of hope. I lost track of the times I got told that “X is retiring soon” or “Our numbers are up this year, so I’m confident I’ll be able to get some permanent contracts approved”. I think I almost openly sneered last time I heard it. I don’t blame my line managers in this – after all, they probably genuinely did believe what they were saying. My learning from this? Nod, smile, and don’t believe a word until the advert is out. And even then, remember that there is no guarantee until you’ve signed on the dotted line.

Then there are the catches in the casual contract, like how the contract often “includes holidays and marking/admin/planning time/anything we haven’t thought of yet”, an argument, which, once followed through, means that you could probably earn more stacking shelves at Asda.

Don’t forget the CPD, of course. As an hourly paid member of staff, you are expected to attend a certain amount of professional development, even when that professional development is the non-learning of listening to some senior managers talk about stuff. If you’re lucky, of course, you get compensated for that time, perhaps at a reduced rate of pay, but you get paid for committing that time. Even then, however, a compulsory training day can easily leave you out of pocket, because you had three lessons cancelled that day. Very often the planning of these things favours the full time, permanent staff member over the hourly paid member of staff. For the full timer, a day off teaching and planning is perhaps seen as a bonus, even if you do pay for it with far too many senior management talks. For the part timer, it’s a pain. Don’t normally work that day because of childcare / a second job / sanity? Tough, it’s in your contract to attend. You will have to work around it for us.

For me, however, the very worst part of hourly paid work, is that horrible dry pay day at the end of September, where (having not worked part of August), you get about a week’s worth of pay, if that. This is exacerbated by the fact that you may have even worked through September, so you get the psychic grief of working a whole month or so, and getting nothing but a smile and a fart at the end. I know that this shouldn’t be unexpected. After all, it’s a fact of life for an hourly paid teacher, and you know it’s going to happen, but it still feels horrible. From a managerial perspective, it is exceedlingly easy to reduce it all to simple numbers – “we pay person X this much money, and it’s their problem if they can’t manage their finances”.

Don’t get me wrong, casual contracts can be great for some people: where it forms part of a supplementary income, for example, then a few hours a week on a casual contract can be perfect. Or perhaps you are simply are not in a position to commit to a given job or organisation. Perhaps you have other commitments, which always surprises people, who seem to assume that you live only for the job you do for them. Again, the full timer prejudice comes into play here. As a full timer, you are expected to offer a certain degree of full time commitment, but when hourly paid, it’s a bit trickier than that. You might not have time or mental space to commit full time, and this is why you work part time. Or perhaps you are sensible and stick to your guns: you get paid to teach those classes, do the planning, marking and record keeping for those classes, and that is it. Either way, you have only apportioned part of your time to that job. The clue is in the name “part time, hourly paid”.

It doesn’t make it any less stressful either. You might only teach a few lessons a week, but those few lessons can be just as stressful. It’s highly unlikely that an hourly paid member of staff teaching two lessons a week spends the rest of their time with their feet up watching Jeremy Kyle, so their time at work is just as stressful as it is for a full timer, if not more so, because they have to mentally shift roles and carry sometimes several sets of responsibility.

You’d think, however, that over ten years of relative contractural comfort I would have grown out of this grudge. Instead, however, it’s evolved. It’s informed the sense of commitment I have to an organisation. When I was hourly paid I used to do all sorts of extras, in the naive, desperate hope that it would stand me in good stead when the permanent contracts came up. Evening and weekend trips, hours at home preparing resources, giving up free time for promotional events, and generally believing in an organisation. In time, however, I came to the perhaps slightly cynical viewpoint that my commitment to an organisation extended only to the end of my pay cheque: a business agreement, as it were.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, because an organisation is more than simply the name on the sign outside: it is people: colleagues and students. And you do things for these people that are sometimes beyond the boundaries of your contract. However, when it comes to it, there are other students, other colleagues, and, if you’re very lucky, other contracts than that hourly paid one. If it’s a different employer, then don’t let anyone’s handwringing stop you from going. Nobody ever blames you for moving on from a job when for whatever reason that job no longer fits.

Being hourly paid sucks, and I will always remember that when I some senior member of the FE sector demands loyalty for free. I love teaching, I love my colleagues and I love my students. Nobody should ever have to give more than that.

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6 comments

  1. As someone who walked straight out of her PGCE into a full time permanent job in ESOL I have often felt guilty for having it and bad for agency colleagues. When my ex husband and I were together, he was an agency lecturer and every year the stress of it nearly killed me and it wasn’t even my job. The stress being, ‘how the hell are we going to cope with half a wage at the end of July and no wage at the end of August and at the end of September’. It was truly hideous.

  2. “Don’t get me wrong, casual contracts can be great for some people”

    That’s not the point though – it’s a profession, not pocket money.

    1. No, but where I work there are a (very small) number of people for whom the flexibility of the contract works well, and, to their great credit, they game the system to their benefit. That said, there are fractional contracts which allow for a lot of flexibility (enabling childcare or other types of work, for example.), and which do acknowledge the professional nature of our work.

  3. I completely agree with this article. I worked as a casual for 15 years and then was lucky enough to get a permanent position. The quality of my work life then improved immensely and i was able to take on a mortgage and plan my life better. I also feel more able to speak up about controversial issues, knowing that my work hours will not be quietly cut back and then cut out to punish me.

  4. “I have yet to forgive either the private EFL sector, or the public ESOL one for that horrible gnawing sense that at any time, your income is about to be dragged out from under your feet.”

    Oh god, yes, this. I managed to wangle myself a 0.5 permanent contract about a year ago and I STILL get nauseous thinking about times when level tests would lead management to believe a certain group would be open for the week, only for it to be shut by the Monday afternoon, leaving me with no work and no chance to find it.

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