A cowboy outfit is a language school notorious among teachers for its high teacher turnover and a generally low level of success in teaching. Of course, for the more cynical among us, this can be interpreted to mean that, until students catch on that they ain't learning nuffin', they stay on longer than they would at a better school.
Factors involved in the label being conferred include:
- badly organised timetables - conspiracy theorists hold that these are intentional to prevent teachers getting the chance to exchange views...
- large distances between off-site classes and no payment for travelling time
- broken promises
- insistence on teachers being "flexible" - meaning that teachers are expected to cover for the school's inefficiency by giving up their free time if necessary.
- very large classes
- excessively noticeable differences in levels within classes
- lack of teaching resources, teachers' books, whiteboards, etc.
- no in-house training
- employment of unqualified "teachers", often using the catch-all "native teachers with university degrees"
- failure to pay staff
- paying some or all salaries "under the counter" to avoid paying taxes or other benefits (see below)
- employing staff on temporary contracts to avoid paying for employment protection or holidays
- general (often intentional) lack of incentives for teachers to stay on beyond a minimum "tour of duty"
- insisitence that teachers make a commitment beyond the terms of the contract despite the lack of incentives.
- classrooms badly-adapted to learning, i.e. poor lighting, noisy/lack of air-conditioning
- manipulation of student "results" based on factors other than the students' ability, including:
- manipulation of results in order in increase attendance at summer remedial classes
- manipulation of results in order to present inflated student progress reports to clients
How to avoid the cowboy outfits
If you are going to work for a language school you will want to avoid working for a cowboy outfit. You should consider these warning signs:
- If you are arranging work in another country and you have made arrangements with the school beforehand, they should help you with paperwork such as work permits. Failure to do so, or any suggestion that you "don't need papers" is a sure sign of a cowboy outfit.
- Is the school interested in your qualifications or experience? If you don't have any then this will obviously be what you are looking for, but a lack of interest in respect of this issue on their part indicates a lack of professionalism and the possibility of problems later.
- How keen is the school on employing you? It may seem great if they are very interested, but a school which seems excessively keen on employing you without knowing anything about you may have problems with high staff turnover.
- You should ask about the existence of any associations of language schools in the country. Even if they are not a member they should have information on the subject. Take evasiveness as a warning sign.
- Is there a written contract which you can understand? If not, can you get it translated? It is unwise to sign things you don't understand in a foreign country.
- What materials and equipment does the school have? Do they have a full range of the latest technology - whiteboards, coursebooks, internet access, etc - or will you be expected to invent lessons off the top of your head in a wooden hut?
- Is the school completely up-front about schedules, pay rates, holidays, sickness pay etc? Vagueness about these things is a sure indication that you should expect problems down the line.