Understanding the Employment Conditions of English as an Additional Language Instructors of Adults in British Columbia


by Sherry Breshears

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2017 issue of TEAL News.]


This year marks BC TEAL’s 50th anniversary, and the present newsletter is dedicated to reflecting upon the past few decades of our professional practice. This is a time to reflect back on where we have come from and consider where we might take the profession in the future. At this landmark moment, I propose that we take up a theme that has permeated the dialogue about English as an additional language (EAL) teaching for years: the problem of poor working conditions for a significant segment of teachers in our field.

I became interested in the topic of EAL teachers’ working conditions early in my teaching career, and have explored the issue from various perspectives. I have taught in both the public and private language education sectors and have seen first-hand the work-related struggles that many adult educators experience. For several years I volunteered for the union at my workplace, and my master’s thesis focused on unionization among EAL teachers in the private sector (Breshears, 2008). In my current doctoral work, I am looking at work insecurity in EAL teaching through a labour studies lens, in particular through the lens of precarious employment. Precarious employment is a framework for understanding the complexities of work insecurity and includes an examination of the factors the come together to create precarious work situations.

In recent decades, a body of empirical evidence has emerged to support the sentiment that EAL teaching for adult learners in North America is, in large part, insecure work. The evidence shows that EAL teaching for adults involves a high reliance on part-time and temporary work, low wages, a high proportion of unpaid work, limited access to benefits, and a lack of professional and administrative support. Reports also suggest that such problematic working conditions affect teachers’ abilities to serve their students. As claims about difficult employment situations for teachers of adult EAL learners have emerged, so too has the concept of precarious employment, but there has been little intersection between them.

I propose here that we begin to think about what employment conditions are like for educators of adult EAL learners in British Columbia. Which EAL educators are most likely to experience precarious employment, and why is this so? What are the consequences of teacher working conditions for the sustainability and quality of adult EAL educational practice? These are the questions I hope to answer as I begin the research segment of my doctoral journey.

Previous Research: Employment Concerns for EAL Teachers in North America

In the 1990s in North America, several practitioners and scholars began to express their frustration with the unstable employment conditions and lack of professional status of the EAL field. In the early part of the decade, Elsa Auerbach, adult EAL literacy teacher and scholar, wrote:

A fact of life for [EAL] educators is that we are marginalized; college [EAL] instructors are often hired as adjunct faculty on a semester by semester basis to teach non-credit preparatory courses in academic skills centres. Elementary [EAL] teachers teach in pull-out programs, travelling from school to school and setting up shop in closets, corridors, and basements. Adult educators teaching survival [EAL] have to work two or three jobs in order to survive; jobs with benefits, living wages, and any measure of security are few and far between. (Auerbach, 1991, p.1)

Over the years, several surveys that examine the employment situations of teachers of adult EAL learners have been conducted by professional organizations, unions, universities, and other research organizations throughout North America (Power Analysis, 1998; Sanaoui, 1997; Smith & Hofer, 2003; Sun, 2010; Valeo & Faez, 2013; Valeo, 2013; White & Naylor, 2015). Although these reports vary somewhat in their focus, they consistently find that EAL teachers for adult learners often experience insecure employment conditions and that this has both personal and professional implications. I highlight here a few of the primary employment concerns identified by teachers across the surveys. 

A central issue for EAL teachers of adults is the lack of permanent positions in the field. For example, two large surveys of EAL teachers of adults in Ontario found that only about a quarter of respondents have continuing contracts, while all others are casual or limited-term (Power Analysis, 1998; Sanaoui, 1997). Another key problem for teachers is the lack of full-time work. Four different studies reported that a majority of respondents are part-time (Power Analysis, 1998; Smith, Hofer and Gillespie, 2001; Sun, 2010; White and Naylor, 2015). Further to this, temporary and part-time employment could lead to a situation where a teacher held multiple jobs in order to protect against job loss or to make up for a lack of adequate work (eg. Sun, 2010; Valeo & Faez, 2013).

In addition to job insecurity related to temporary and part-time employment, teachers in the reports expressed dissatisfaction with their salaries. The sufficiency of the income package is best understood in view of both paid and unpaid work time. Some surveys highlighted the fact that teachers of adult EAL learners often put a large proportion of unpaid time into lesson planning and preparation, grading, administrative duties, staff meetings, and meetings with students. For a number of teachers, this non-teaching time brought their total work load to above fifty hours per week (Crookes & Arakaki, 1999; White & Naylor, 2015). Other complicating factors that add to job insecurity included working shifts or teaching at multiple sites or in multiple programs (Crookes & Arakaki, 1999; Sun, 2010; Valeo & Faez, 2013). Taken together, these common characteristics of EAL teachers’ employment may be the reason that Sun’s (2010) survey of over 1000 adult EAL teachers indicated that 43 percent of respondents felt that job insecurity was their primary employment concern.

Such difficult working conditions affect teachers’ physical and mental well-being. In their study of over 100 adult educators in the public school system in B.C., White and Naylor (2015) found that teachers “spoke of their fatigue and, in some cases, ill-health because of their reports of ‘doing more with less’, constant lay-offs, and lack of prep time” (p. 8). Another concern is the relationship between challenging working conditions and life outside of work: “I really try to keep my work down to 40 hours a week. I want a quality personal life” (Crookes & Arakaki, 1999, p.17). Survey authors noted that work insecurity not only influenced educators on a personal level, but also “undermine[ed] the professionalism of the field because many educators have to contend with juggling several jobs, receiving low pay, and being prevented from improving their instructional practices or keeping abreast of current research” (Sun, p.142).

Over the decades, it seems that the concerns expressed by EAL teachers about their job conditions have not changed. And while the empirical evidence strongly suggests a prevalence of precarious work conditions in the EAL education sector, there is little critical assessment of the factors that contribute to employment insecurity in the sector. I suggest that we look to labour research for tools that can help to illuminate the conditions that contribute to precarious employment.

Work Insecurity for EAL Teachers: Part of a Growing Trend in Precarious Employment in Canada

There is an increasing trend toward work insecurity in Canada. Accompanying this trend is a growing dialogue about the diminishing quality of jobs. The term “precarious employment” has emerged as a way to conceptualize work that is uncertain in one or more ways. It generally includes temporary, part-time, and low-paid work, as well as work with minimal benefits and work that lacks union representation.

Precarious employment is best understood in contrast to the “standard employment relationship” which is conceived as “a stable, socially protected, dependent, full-time job” (Fudge, 2009, p.132). The standard employment relationship is what we typically think of when we talk about a “good job,” or at least this is what we used to expect. The standard employment relationship involves a work arrangement that is full-time and permanent. It likely includes benefits and may be unionized. It’s something one can build a career around. In contrast, precarious employment is based on a flexible model. It responds to the short-term, market-oriented or funding-dependent needs of the employer rather than an employee’s need for stability. Since the 1970s, there has been an overall decline in work characterized as standard employment, an increase in precarious forms of work, and an erosion of the social safety net. Precarious employment can have profound effects on an individual’s life, on quality of work, and on families.

The Usefulness of the Precarious Employment Framework for Understanding the Work of EAL Instructors

There are clear parallels between precarious employment in the general labour market and work insecurity in EAL teaching. But what is the usefulness of applying the framework of precarious employment to EAL teaching in B.C.? Several aspects of this framework can help shed light on EAL teachers’ work experiences beyond an education perspective, but with implications for educational practice.

First, aligning an analysis of adult EAL teachers’ work with common characteristics of precarious employment provides a language for understanding work insecurity in an educational context and provides a new level of analysis. Once precarious forms of work are identified, we can start to see how one form is entwined with other forms, creating a cumulative effect. For example, if a person works part-time, they may be ineligible for employment insurance benefits. This leads to a situation where a teacher is more likely to stay in a “bad job” because they cannot afford to leave it.

The precarious employment framework also helps to clarify that work insecurity in EAL teaching is part of a broader trend in industrialized nations where companies and governments are shifting financial risks to workers by “flexibilizing” employment relationships. Current employment laws involve much fewer obligations on the part of the employer than they once did, and employers are thus less likely to retain workers on a permanent basis. Additionally, we could also examine the landscape of education policy that shapes the field. The shrinking of publicly funded language education for newcomers to Canada along with the simultaneous growth of international education for full fee paying students is currently having an effect on the field. This shift has played out in the recent layoffs at local colleges and school boards and may have other yet-to-be-identified consequences for teachers’ work.

A final consideration is that the concept of precarious employment offers a framework for distinguishing how employment practices in EAL line up with those in other occupations and to link such practices with identifiable characteristics of an occupation. For example, research shows that there are more women than men in precarious employment (Vosko, 2006). Similarly, the studies about the work of EAL teaching referred to above on average show that 85 percent of EAL teachers are women (eg. Sun, 2010). This may lead to explorations of EAL teaching as a gendered occupation.


The issue of employment conditions for EAL teachers of adult learners is an important one for organizations like BC TEAL who are committed to upholding professional standards and advocating for teachers. The framework of precarious employment offers a new lens for understanding the complexities of work insecurity in the field. As we come to understand the unique contours of EAL employment, we can start to recognize how to better support teachers so that teachers, in turn, can provide quality learning experiences for students.


Auerbach, E. (1991). Politics, pedagogy, and professionalism: challenging marginalization in ESL. College ESL, 1(1), 1-9.

Crookes, G., & Arakaki, L. (1999). Teaching idea sources and work conditions in an ESL program. TESOL Journal, 8(1), 15–19.

Fudge, J. (2009). The new workplace: Surveying the landscape. Manitoba Law Journal 33(1), 131-149.

Power Analysis Inc. (1998). Study of ESL/EFL services in Ontario. Retrieved from http://atwork.settlement.org/downloads/linc/ESLFSL.pdf

Sanaoui, R. (1997). Professional Characteristics and Concerns of Instructors Teaching English as a Second Language to Adults in Non-Credit Programs in Ontario. TESL Canada Journal, 14(2), 32–54.

Smith, C., & Hofer, J. (2003). The Characteristics and Concerns of Adult Basic Education Teachers. NCSALL Reports# 26. National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED508605

Smith, C., Hofer, J., & Gillespie, M. (2001). The working conditions of adult literacy teachers: Preliminary findings from the NSCALL staff development study. Focus on Basics, 4. Retrieved from http://www.ncsall.net/index.html@id=291.html

Sun, Y. (2010). Standards, equity, and advocacy: Employment conditions of ESOL teachers in adult basic education and literacy systems. TESOL Journal, 1(1), 142–158.

Valeo, A. (2013). The TESL Ontario member survey: A brief report. Contact Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.teslontario.net/uploads/pinterest/contactarticles/Survey_Valeo.pdf

Valeo, A., & Faez, F. (2013). Career Development and Professional Attrition of Novice ESL Teachers of Adults. TESL Canada Journal, 31(1), 1–19.

Vosko, L. F. (2006). Precarious employment: Towards an improved understanding of labour market insecurity. In L. F. Vosko (Ed.), Precarious employment: Understanding labour market insecurity in Canada, 3-39. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

White, M. and Naylor, C. (2015). Chapter Four: Working conditions and workload issues in adult education. Retrieved from https://bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Issues/Worklife/AdultEd/Chapter4.pdf

Biographical Information (From the Winter 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter)

Sherry Breshears is a PhD Candidate in Education with a Labour Studies focus at Simon Fraser University. Her research interests include language and literacy education, the employment conditions of EAL teachers of adults, and international education in British Columbia. Her work draws from methods that consider how policy contexts shape everyday lives in educational spaces.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Breshears, S. (2017, Winter). Understanding the employment conditions of English as an additional language instructors of adults in British Columbia. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Winter-2017.pdf

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