If you are an English teacher whose first language is (shock, horror!) not English, you will probably have experienced some kind of discrimination in your working life, whether intentional or not, and whether you noticed it or not. This is especially true in the international TESOL industry, where more often than not (though this is changing), a white face has the advantage over a ‘non-native’ speaker teacher when it comes to applying for a job, even though how you look has absolutely nothing to do with the way that you teach.
I cannot believe that this is still the case, but sadly it’s true. The ‘native speakerism’ debate rages on, even where it should not even exist. This post is a response to the thousands of posts and articles I have read on social media, in academic literature and journals , and which prompt me to clench my jaw and shake my head at the industry we all work so hard to be part of. Here are five battles that I have seen mentioned again and again, and ways to act against this particularly nasty type of discrimination.
‘Non-native’ speaker teachers don’t have the same command of English as ‘NETs’
The Internet is full of certain groups of teachers correcting the grammar and spelling of second-language speakers on the topic of English teaching. ‘First, sort out your spelling if you want to teach English’, they say. Well, in a way, these comments are true - if you are writing about English Language education, it is not ideal if your public face can be shown up as inaccurate. However, the language of social media is far from accurate at the best of times, and I have to restrain myself from correcting ‘native speaker’ teachers in their / there / they’re own inaccuracies.
What social media critics do not take into account is the fact that the language we use on social media is not the same language we teach (at least I hope not, for the sake of a lot of students out there…). Teachers spend time preparing the content of their classes, how they will talk about the language they teach, and the accuracy levels required of their students, so the language of the classroom is typically much more considered than the language of a social media post. Until you hear the language which is used in the classroom, it is impossible to judge the professional ‘command of English’ of a teacher from a few facebook posts.
‘NNESTs’ don’t have the cultural knowledge of English that is required for the job
This is a tricky one - it’s true that the vast majority of English teachers in the world are not from English speaking countries, and may never have visited one, but as language educators, is this really necessary? Cultural knowledge should not be confused with language usage. Usage is a culturally-bound element of communication, but one which can be learnt. As second-language speakers, ‘non-native’ speaker teachers are often better placed to deal woith these unusual cultural elements of language with their learners, as they have been through the process of decoding idioms, thinking about the cultural differences between varieties of English that they meet, and puzzling out the strange usages that British, American and New Zealand English include (to name but a few). A Canadian in Glasgow would have more issue with language usage than a trained language educator preparing a text in Scottish English, no matter their first language or cultural experience.
Any teacher should know the language which is on the syllabus they teach, and what is likely to be tested in the exams and assessments their students will take; it is the culture of education which is important to a teacher. Cultures of education differ from country to country, and the person best placed to get inside that culture and present language in a way which is familiar and relevant to their learners’ goals and future study is someone who understands that culture of education best and has experienced it themselves. I have seen greater and more disastrous culture clashes between ‘native speaker’ teachers and ‘local’ education systems, sometimes leading to expensive ‘native speaker’ teachers being fired or walking out, than I have experienced issues with cultural understanding in ‘non-native’ teachers working with authentic texts or cultural content in class.
Parents want their children to study with their idea of a ‘native speaker’
Mum and Dad are the main stakeholders in a child’s English Language education in situations where the native speakerism debate rages (international schools and private language centres, for example), and the management’s opinion usually favours a white English teacher with a passport from an English-speaking country. There are several reasons why this is a misplaced opinion:
You can’t tell what kind of teacher someone is from their skin colour or passport.
You can’t tell if someone is a ‘native speaker’ from their skin colour or passport.
You can’t predict how parents will react to the quality of their kids’ language classes from skin colour or passport.
The most important problem with this idea that parents want ‘native speaker’ teachers is that it is missing the point. Parents want their kids to pass their exams, get to a good university and get a good job. This is universal, and the skin colour of their teachers has absolutely nothing to do with this. The language education industry sells the idea of white ‘native speaker’ teachers being the best way for kids to pass their exams (see any young learners language school’s marketing material for examples) and then blames the parents for putting pressure on the school to hire exactly that profile of teacher. This is a circular situation, and is simply not true.
The way for kids in a specific country to pass their exams and get on in their culture of education’s study is for teachers to develop how they teach language within the setting where they work. This includes finding out ways to work more effectively within the national education system and its assessments, looking for new ways of delivering the content that they teach, and working together to share best practices. Again, this is nothing to do with the language you speak or the colour of your skin. It’s what good teachers do.
‘Local’ qualifications are worth less than international qualifications in TEFL
Another assumption which I have heard in teachers’ rooms around the world is that a locally-accredited qualification or university degree in education is somehow less valuable than an internationally recognised Initial Teacher Education qualification such as the Cambridge CELTA.
This is a troubling argument, as any local education qualification works within the culture of education where it is studied. By definition, such a qualification prepares teachers to work in that culture of education. For a teacher who wants to travel and teach in other regions of the world, a local qualification may not be the best form of training, but it will give a depth of knowledge into the assumptions, principles and approaches which underlie the local system better than any international qualification in TESOL.
Again, I must say that the vast majority of English teachers in the world teach in state-funded schools which operate under their own systems, and aim at specific outcomes for their students. Often these aspects may not lead to the most effective language learning, but that is where development activity is important. With initial training in the educational setting where you are from, and development activity which aims to improve your classroom skills, you will become better qualified to teach English in your own culture of education than any visiting teacher, no matter where they are from or what language they speak.
Even qualified and experienced ‘non-native’ speaker teachers should take a CELTA to teach properly
Related to the last point, many teachers who I have trained on initial qualifications such as the CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL are experienced and even qualified to levels much higher than that of the course they are taking. However, they have been told that they need to ‘unlearn’ what they have been doing (perhaps successfully) for years, and take an international TESOL certificate to learn how to do it ‘properly’.
However, TEFL certificates and even internationally recognised courses like these are designed for initial teacher education, not for experienced teachers. They are training courses, not development activity, which is what trained and experienced teachers need. In addition, the language requirement for entry is CEFR C1 (IELTS 7), which is above the language proficiency of the vast majority of English teachers in the world. The majority of the world’s language educators use English to a B1-B2 level (IELTS 5-6.5), and teach learners at an A2 (IELTS 3) level. Along with the very high price of internationally-accredited qualifications, this prejudice comes from the fact that there is no qualification which is accessible to the majority of English teachers working today.
Until now, there have been very few teacher development courses which recognise prior learning and experience from any culture of education in the world, and lead to an internationally accredited qualification in language education. Trinity College recently launched their new Certificate for Practising Teachers, which is regulated at a level higher than that of the CELTA or CertTESOL courses, and can be accessed by teachers with a language proficiency of CEFR B2 (IELTS 6). This is a huge and encouraging step for teachers around the world, and a fantastic resource for your development not just as an English teacher, but as a respected professional working in your culture of education, whatever and wherever that may be.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our CertTESOL FAQ and CertPT FAQ pages for details.