Is being a language teacher dangerous to your health?

March 13, 2012

Do you work in poor, run-down conditions? Or an old building that’s falling apart?

Amelia’s story

Amelia Labbe Sarah Eaton University of CalgaryWhen I started my Master’s degree in Spanish at the University of Calgary, I heard staff and professors complaining about the air quality and run down conditions in Craigie Hall, the building where the modern language departments are housed. I never really thought about it much, since I head my head buried in my books and I was learning to live in a new city and adjust to the pressures of being a young graduate student.

One of the first people to welcome me into the department was Amelia Labbé. A native of Bolivia, Amelia ran the university’s Centro de Tertulia (Spanish Centre). Officially, Amelia’s job was to provide opportunities for conversation with a native speaker. Unofficially, the Centro de Tertulia became a place where students would gather, socialize in Spanish, help one another with their homework, listen to music in Spanish and sometimes even watch telenovelas.  There was only one rule: When you crossed the threshold in to the Centro, it was Spanish only. No English. No French. Solamente español. It was her one rule and she stuck to it.

Amelia also became a mentor and unofficial advisor to many students who sought her council and words of wisdom, even though it was not part of her job. Officially, the university has designated student advisors and anyone who is not a designated advisor is not supposed to offer guidance to students. But that didn’t stop students from asking her what she thought and seeking her advice. Students trusted her. They could tell that she cared deeply about them… In fact, she cared more about the students than she did about regulations or rules. Over the course of her career, she touched the lives of thousands of students who studied Spanish at the University of Calgary, including mine.

Last fall, Amelia fell ill. She blamed it on the building where she worked, which was known to have asbestos in it. On November 8, 2011, Amelia passed away from pulmonary fibrosis. Along with many of my friends and colleagues, I attended the celebration of her life on November 19.

Faculty and staff complaints about poor air quality are blown off

Since then, twenty years of complaints about the state of the building and questions about its air quality have erupted into a full-scale war. I have gone from being a Master’s student to working in the Language Research Centre, where I now have the privilege of being a Research Associate and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, after finishing my Ph.D.

An informal investigation was held a few years ago when it was determined that an extraordinarily high percentage of the faculty and staff had been diagnosed with cancer. Many of them pointed to their physical working conditions as a factor in their illness. Tests were done. Faculty and staff were told that everything was fine. Sadly, the incidence of cancer diagnosis among language faculty continued. Others were diagnosed with asthma and unknown allergies. No one could prove any correlation between the physical environment and the incidence of illness.

Following Amelia’s passing, some faculty members and staff insisted that a full investigation be conducted. Today, the CBC published, “Teacher’s lung disease death prompts U of C building worries: But officials say Craigie Hall air quality not compromised by asbestos“. The story documents reactions to Amelia’s health issues and subsequent passing, and speculations that her physical work environment were the root cause of her death. Amelia’s husband and my colleague and mentor, Dr. Rachel Schmidt, publicly offered commentary to reports.The university released a statement declaring that “air quality and environment are within the acceptable guidelines“.

Language programs: Between a rock and a hard place

In my Ph.D. research I found that it is not uncommon for language programs at large institutions to be marginalized both politically and in terms of their physical placement on a campus.

Here’s an excerpt from my Ph.D. thesis:

Language programs, because they are not necessarily seen as academic in nature, do not always have a prominent place on campus. While it would be logical for ESL programs to be physically positioned in places that are easily accessible by foreign students who struggle with the language, “many … programs are housed in temporary bungalows, in basements, or on the periphery of our campuses” (Stoller, 1997, p. 40).

This assertion is echoed more recently by Quay Connection (2000, p. 14) whose research shows that “Many providers say their facilities are too run down, too small, impermanent, unattractive.” This speaks to the question of the legitimacy of such programs, which is discussed later on. For now it is enough to note that the physical placement of such programs on a campus is one indicator of how they are viewed by administration (Stoller, 1997). Program managers must often advocate for improved space and facilities for their programs. (Eaton, 2009, pp. 66-67).

My thesis dealt specifically with ESL programs. In the case of one of the programs I studied, it had just recently been relocated to the main floor of the building. Previous to that, it was located on the 14th floor of the building. The very odd thing about that particular building was that the 14th floor was accessible only by taking the elevator to the 13th floor and then taking the stairs up one more floor. So, non-native speakers of English were required to navigate a complex procedure in order to get to the program offices. Even native speakers had trouble figuring out how to get to their offices.

Even though the Department of French, Italian and Spanish has been renovated now, the Department of Germanic, Slavic and East Asian languages is still in need of renovations. Both language departments remain in an unattractive and outdated building with an elevator that is often broken down. The building is known to have asbestos.

A jumping off point

It seems that there is some evidence that shows that language programs are located in physical spaces that are far from ideal. In the work I have done with language programs at high schools, colleges and universities, this seems to be a common complaint… but with little to no research to identify whether or not this is indeed a problem in the field of language teaching. My guess is that large scale studies about the physical marginalization of language programs at institutions have never been done. (If you know of any such studies, please leave a comment!)

Language programs should not be relegated to old, run down buildings or pushed into basements. Language program administration and management includes advocating for programs and courses. As faculty and staff, it is our responsibility to advocate for one another, too. Some recommendations to consider:

  1. Have conversations with colleagues about the physical conditions in which you work. Are they adequate? Does your physical space promote health and well-being?
  2. Advocate for an improved location on your campus. Particularly in the case of ESL programs, students need to be able to find your offices.
  3. Engage in conversations and dialogue with faculty committees and administrators.
  4. If you suspect health issues that are due to your physical environment, keep detailed records and write it all down. Without documentation, it is more difficult to make a case for further investigation.
  5. Draw on support from your faculty association or union, if you have one. These bodies exist to protect workers’ rights, including their health.
  6. Take care of yourself. If  you are suffering ill effects and you believe that your work environment may be a contributing factor, do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy. I have colleagues in Craigie Hall who work as much as possible from home, one now works in another building and another brought in her own air filtration machine for her office. None of these is a perfect solution, but they may help. If nothing else, they give the employees a sense of empowerment, which is essential when you’re fighting cancer, or another life-threatening illness.

I’ve now watched a friend and colleague die and an alarming number of other friends have been diagnosed with cancer or asthma. No one knows for sure what the cause is. They’re all pretty convinced that the building where they work is a factor.

How’s the physical space where your language program is located?


Eaton, S.E. (2009). Marketing of Revenue-generating ESL Programs at the University of Calgary: A qualitative study. Thesis. University of Calgary, Canada.

Quay-Connection. (2000). Marketing ACE in Victoria. Annadale (Australia): Adult, Community and Further Education Board, Melbourne (Australia).

Stoller, F. L. (1997). The catalyst for change and innovation. In M. A. Christison & F. L. Stoller (Eds.), A handbook for language program administrators (pp. 33-48). Burlingame, CA: Alta Book Center Publishers.

Update on this story: On March 21, I was quoted in the Calgary Herald’s article, “Craigie Hall Asbestos Level Normal: Review“. The article was written after the university released a report stating that everything was fine with the air quality in the building. Still though… it is puzzling why so many staff complain of health concerns?


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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