We don’t talk much about money in ELT, let alone pensions or anything else that would bring peace of mind, both now and in the future. Yet, even if we weren’t in a period of high inflation, a cost-of-living crisis and with the double threats of recession and AI leeching away jobs, money is one of the biggest causes of stress and mental health issues. In particular, the private language school (PLS) sector in ELT needs to address this elephant in the room (low pay aside, because that’s a whole other topic): we’re not doing enough to help people reduce their money stresses.

Why don’t we like talking about money in ELT?

I’ve worked for small language schools, the famous chains and one university, have a TESOL certificate and an MA in ELT, been to numerous conferences, and attended hours and hours of input sessions. Never once did anyone tell me how to do things like set rates as a freelancer, negotiate a better contract or take care of my financial security via a pension. I’m certain your professional development has been delivered in the exact same void as mine. That said, there are independent people like Ola Kowalska, Rachael Roberts, Gydion Kummer and Robbie Kane (who can be found online) teaching people how to treat English teaching like any other business. But for pensions, investing and personal finance . . . you’re on your own.

Teaching, like many helping professions, suffers from what I call ‘the nobility of poverty’ mindset. Education is seen as something pure, that you should do for the love of knowledge. We all tell our students that learning English will improve their university and job prospects and allow them to earn more, but we don’t think about that for ourselves.

The transience of teachers in the PLS, where so many of us start out, is also part of why we don’t know about this stuff. We end up believing that it’s not possible to take out pensions, or any other form of investments, because we’re moving countries a lot. It all just seems unmanageable (as well as unutterably boring and unimaginably far off, let’s be honest!).

But it’s not impossible or unmanageable. For one thing, at some point, most people do settle somewhere, or stay longer chunks of time, often going freelance or staying within the PLS. And for another, every single one of us will retire and need an income, not to mention how investing beyond pensions allows you to save and grow money faster for shorter term goals or passive supplementary income.

As for it being boring – is the idea of free money boring? because that’s essentially what pensions and investments are: free money, grown from your earned money, that builds over time thanks to the magical power of compound interest (interest that grows on interest).

What’s the status of our finance education in the PLS?

As a result of all this, there is a glaring lack of personal finance knowledge and awareness throughout the entire sector. The tutors who provide even high-level training, like the CELTA, DELTA and MAs, generally know little about personal finance. Despite sometimes many years living abroad, they often don’t know the options and implications of pensions and investing in the country they work in. This isn’t their fault – we’ve come up through the PLS ranks with no guidance on this from employers, certification providers or professional associations – so how would they know? There’s no onus on language schools to tell you how pensions work – in fact, there are strong reasons not to.

A former director of studies (DoS) told me about a meeting she attended while working for a private academy in Spain. The subject of pensions came up and was quickly moved aside because the owner didn’t want to ‘open the can of worms’. That can of worms is your financial security and future. If an employer starts talking about pensions, employees might start wanting a pension. That could cost the school because they might have to contribute to it. Also, they don’t want to deal with your questions. I’ve taught DoSs on my beginner investing course, and spoken to them at conferences and online – they don’t have this knowledge themselves.

Informally, I’ve been surveying ELT professionals and found that 27% of people have no form of emergency fund i.e. savings set aside for a period of no income. That’s a very precarious line to walk and a stressful place to be. It forces people into taking low-paid jobs which you might argue is good for employers as it keeps their costs down. But it also increases the rate at which people burn out, need time off work or leave for better pay. How much that costs employers is one thing but, as an industry, is that what we want for people? If not, what can we do to improve the situation?

What steps can we take to improve the situation?

At the moment, financial security is not part of the professional development on offer from CELTA or DELTA courses. And though I’ve submitted a talk on this to four conferences, I’ve only been accepted by one so far. By the time you read this, hopefully I will know if I’ll be giving a pensions and money talk at IATEFL 2024. As far as I know, most language schools offer neither workplace pensions nor guidance in any aspect of the local pension system.

So you’re probably just as on your own as I was a few years ago when I started looking at my dire finances and wondering what to do. I ended up teaching myself, from podcasts and articles here and there and piecing it all together through trial and error. Once I’d done that, I looked at my pre-existing skillset – teaching and materials writing – and my newfound interest in personal finance and the next step was obvious.

I created my own courses to teach this vital life knowledge no one ever taught me. On my two main courses, Pension Perfect and The Chilled Investor, I’ve taught people how to go about starting investments and pensions, why we need to do it and the impact of investing over the long term instead of in a mad panic in your mid-40s (or never). I created a free, and very popular, pdf guide on why and how to pay into the UK National Insurance system from overseas to get a full pension for anyone who’s lived and worked in the UK for three consecutive years – a nugget that was also missing from my entire professional career as an English teacher and freelance ELT materials writer.

I cover all sorts of things no one taught me, but which make a huge difference to anyone from the wandering nomadic teacher to the low-paid-but-settled teacher alike. Things that enable people to start building financial security from the basics like setting up an emergency fund to delving into your deeply held but harmful money beliefs to entering into a full range of investments. The big secret to it all is: none of it is really that complicated once you know.

In the vast majority of cases, based on all the people I’ve spoken to since starting my business in 2022 teaching people in ELT about investing, people who sign up for my courses empower themselves. They acquire essential knowledge for their own wellbeing and then want to pass that on, to friends, family, their kids, even their students sometimes. I’m not surprised I’ve had people enrol on my courses with that exact goal at the forefront of their minds. We in TEFL are a helping profession, it’s in our natures to do that – even if the topic of money sits a little strangely. We owe it to ourselves and to everyone entering the PLS after us to help in every way we can.

Nicola Prentis has been in ELT for about 20 years and, until two years ago, did not have her finances in order, including not having any form of pension. So she taught herself about investing and now teaches a beginner course aimed for people in ELT on how to make low-risk, long-term passive investments and pensions. www.chilledinvestor.com