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The Postscript: Erika Thorkelson on Vancouver's Private Language Schools

For our Spring 2017 cover story, "The Language of Profit," Erika Thorkelson delved into the not-so-well-regulated world of private language schools in Vancouver—centring on one, VEC, where the struggle to balance profit with educational needs eventually left students and teachers out on the street. Here, she talks about how her work as a language teacher informed her research for the piece—and about the ethics of covering a labour dispute. 

andrea bennett: You used to work as an ESL teacher. Where and how long did you work? Did you come across the kinds of labour issues that you wrote about in your piece?

Erika Thorkelson: I’ve been working with English language learners in different capacities on and off since I moved to Vancouver in 2009. Before that, I lived in Japan, where I also taught English. My first job [in Vancouver] was at a small downtown school similar to VEC—I worked there for three years.

I began as a tutor then moved into teaching. They put me in the classroom without any training, not even a TESOL certificate. The curriculum was very slapdash—just a textbook with the answers handwritten in by a former instructor and some handouts that had been photocopied so many times the words crawled off the page. I'm good on my feet, so I made it work, but looking back now, with a lot more experience and knowledge about language acquisition, I'm not sure the instruction was very effective.

The school's focus was always on selling classes to students rather than providing quality instruction. Teachers got little prep pay and weren’t paid at all for marking weekly tests. Classes could be taken away without warning or explanation, but it was hard for us to advocate for ourselves because we were always treated as replaceable short-term workers.  

Writing this, I feel like it sounds like I have an axe to grind with the industry—I don’t. I liked my manager, and I really enjoyed meeting the students and engaging them in conversations. I just don’t think the school took language education seriously, and I feel like that was bad for both the teachers and the students.

ab: When did you decide you wanted to write about the industry? Had you heard through the grapevine about difficulties with VEC, or was there another precipitating incident? 

ET: I've wanted to write about the industry for a long time. The language tourism industry in Vancouver is this large, complex subculture with its own language and rituals, yet it often goes ignored in the larger conversation about the character of the city. A lot of my writing has investigated different aspects of communities created around English teaching, including my graduate thesis, so it's always in the back of my mind.

I first heard about the strike through friends who are part of the union, but I didn't think much of it. There had been a number of schools to strike in recent years, and they had all ended with contracts for the teachers. But when VEC shut its doors and more details came out about the relationship between management and the teachers, I realized this was a moment where it was possible to talk about one important aspect of the industry—that tension between education and profit and how it plays out in labour practices in a city where work is increasingly precarious. 

ab: A lot of your knowledge about the industry comes from working in it and around it, and having access to a large network of others who do as well. But I know you ran into some trouble looking for stats and studies that would back up what you knew anecdotally and from experience. Is there information that Canada, or BC, could be collecting, that they're not collecting? Is this part of the problem when it comes to oversight and regulation? 

ET: Absolutely. It was quite difficult, for instance, to even approximate how many students come each year to study. Languages Canada keeps track of their own numbers, but there are many schools that aren't a part of that organization. It was even harder to find stats surrounding the number of workers in the industry. So much of what happens in language tourism is part of an informal economy—teachers who meet with students for a few hours a week in cafes around downtown. One source mentioned that the reason the government is reticent to regulate more is that they don't want to have to track down every one of those casual tutors. But, of course, there has to be a happy medium between total control and total freedom.

I think the unwillingness to collect statistics and the reticence to regulate further both grow out of the idea that the language industry isn't a serious part of post-secondary education in this province. These schools are still very much seen as part of the hospitality industry, which makes students into customers and teachers into little more than short-term-contract service workers. But on a larger level, even public post-secondary institutions are increasingly being treated as businesses, which forces teaching and learning into a customer service paradigm. I find this really disturbing.  

ab: Coming back to the piece, let's talk a bit about how to work with sources in contentious situations like this. I understand you had teachers and students who were on board—but then there's the other side of the labour dispute: the school's owners, and, to a certain extent, administration. 

I've personally been drawn to writing about social and economic justice issues, and I find the hardest part is often figuring out when and where and how to ethically and responsibly engage with the folks on the other side of the dispute, generally the person or people who have power. Before we get into the nitty gritty of the specific steps you took in this case, can you tell me a bit about where you stand when it comes to covering contentious issues? Where do you feel a journalist's responsibilities lie in these kinds of cases? 

ET: This is a big question—something I think about all the time. Honestly, I don’t think there exists a form of journalism that will keep you away from contentious issues. Most of my experience as a journalist is in the arts and entertainment section of the newspaper, but even there I’ve found myself juggling contradictory perspectives, hitting unexpected pockets of controversy. 

I definitely have an ethical framework that guides me. Some journalists are able to compartmentalize their beliefs—I'm not one of them. I'm drawn to writing about topics that I feel passionate about, which means I have opinions. I'd rather be honest about those opinions than pretend that I'm capable of total objectivity. You need only look to Fox News to see the terrible consequences of pretend objectivity.

I do, however, believe that journalists have a responsibility to be fair. That means engaging opposing perspectives in a respectful way and treating everyone with humanity. But it's important to keep in mind that idea of power—who has the power in this situation and who doesn't? What implicit biases am I walking into this situation with? Whose narrative am I privileging and why? 

I learned this lesson in a visceral way early on. When I first started freelancing for the Edmonton Journal, back in the early 2000s, I got wind of a disagreement between a homelessness advocacy group and the neighbourhood association (NA) in a downtrodden part of the inner city. The former accused the latter of gentrification in the pages of their magazine, which was distributed around the city for spare change. They said the rash of young families buying up property in the area was raising rent prices and pushing out the pre-existing population. The NA said they were just trying to clean up the neighbourhood to make it safer for their children.

I interviewed the head of the NA and the editor of the advocacy group’s magazine. The kinds of initiatives that both groups talked about were surprisingly similar, and it felt like they could get a lot done if they just worked together. Perhaps naively, I wanted to write an article that would help heal the rift between the two groups. I re-interviewed my sources and went back and forth with my editor writing draft after draft to get it just right.

Then, a few days before the article was set to run, the magazine editor called me in a panic. Apparently, the publisher of the magazine wasn’t happy with the controversy and the editor was in danger of losing her job. She told me that her job with the advocacy group was the thing keeping her and her kids off the street. When she wrote about the displaced homeless population, she was speaking from experience. 

I realized I’d gotten the story all wrong. Where I had seen two figures with equal power, there was, in fact, a huge power disparity. The NA, a group of predominantly white, middle-class families, was worried that their children might see uncomfortable things. This woman was worried for the survival of herself and her children. Rather than help, my interest in the topic as a journalist had put added pressure onto an already precarious position.

In the end, the editor was fired. Without one of the primary sources, the article died before it ever ran, but the lesson stayed with me. 

As a journalist, I have tremendous power over the people I write about. When people trust me with their stories, it's a huge responsibility that should never be approached with glibness or flippancy. It's too easy to shut off that part of your brain that feels empathy for your subjects. I refuse to allow that to happen to me. Maybe that means I'll never be the hard news type. I'm fine with that.

ab: What specific steps did you take in this case to make sure that Ken Gardner, the owner of the VEC, got the chance to tell his side of the story and respond to the criticisms levied? Which other potentially contentious sources, beyond Gardner, did you attempt to engage—and if you managed to connect, how'd that go?

ET: I'm not generally shy about getting in touch with people for an article. I learned early on that people tend to be forthcoming if you approach them with kindness and honesty. Getting in touch with Ken Gardner, however, was tricky. I had begun by speaking with Kim Fissel a couple days after the school closed, long before I even had a home for the article, and she had put me in touch with students and other teachers. I knew I had to move quickly because the students would soon disperse to other schools or go back to their home countries. I also wanted to get all my ducks in a row before approaching Gardner, because I wasn't sure what kind of access I would get. 

Gardner has a Facebook profile, but I know how easy it is to ignore Facebook messages, so I needed something more direct. I got his phone number and address from searching private claims that had been filed against him and the school, but I wasn't ready to start showing up on people's doorsteps unannounced—I'm not sure I'll ever be that kind of journalist. Meanwhile, I connected with industry people, and it was through them that I was able to track down Gardner's active email address.

Once I'd gotten a pretty rounded picture of events, I sent an email offering him an opportunity to refute what was being said in the media already. I honestly didn't think he would respond, but he did right away. He asked to keep communication to email because he didn't have a lawyer on retainer, which I respect. We wrote back and forth a number of times. I'm grateful for his responses. I think his perspective gives the article depth and makes it clear that the problems are bigger than just him.

The hardest people to find were members of the administrative staff. I found some possible names on the website and through LinkedIn and just started contacting people any way I could—mostly through Facebook. After months of trying, I got one bite. That person led me to others, none of whom wanted to speak openly for professional reasons, but again, their points of view confirmed some things I'd been told and gave depth to others.

[There was one more person] I really wanted to speak to, a former student who seemed to have had a hand in some of the stranger decisions that were made around the school. I had a name, but that was it. Everyone I spoke to mentioned him in some way, often with a surprising amount of spite. But he wasn't on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. No one had an active contact for him except Gardner himself. In one of our final exchanges, Gardner said he would pass on my contact info to the man, but I never heard from him.  

ab: I have just one more question, if there isn't anything else you'd like to cover. You came to the piece with good general knowledge and experience in the field you were covering. Did anything shock or surprise you?

ET: I was familiar with the industry from the inside, but what surprised me was what happened when I started looking at it from the outside. I didn't realize how confusing it would be for a student even to choose a school, for instance. I didn't have a lot of space to examine this in the article, but I'd love to look further into how these schools are marketing themselves outside of the country. What are students told when they purchase these classes and in what ways might that differ from the reality on the ground?