Equity without myths or stereotypes by Michael Griffin

On 20th May James Taylor published a post on this blog entitled: Why I wish I was a non-native speaker of English, which caused quite a stir and a very enthusiastic response. I really encourage you to read both James’ post and the comments below it, before (or after) reading this post by Michael Griffin.

In a nutshell, James exposed the problem of discrimination against NNESTs in TEFL and showed that it is based on illogical prejudices:

“As someone from the UK who teaches English as a foreign language, the country of my birth is a huge advantage to me. As has been well documented on this blog, I am much more likely to get a job than someone from Japan, Algeria or Brazil, no matter how qualified or experienced they are. For some students, having a native speaker teacher has a certain cachet, as in most countries it is unusual and many of them think that it means they have a better teacher as a result. So both employers and students seem to think that because I’m English, I must be a better teacher, which has got to be good for me.”

In the post he argued that NNESTs are not worse teachers than NESTs, but that they actually have many strengths which the latter could never have, e.g. NNESTs can better advise students on language learning strategies. As many of us, James hopes these strengths are finally acknowledged by all recruiters and students, so that both NESTs and NNESTs are given equal opportunities of employment:

“I would rather be judged by my ability, experience and qualifications equally against anyone else who wishes to apply for the same job. It’s not to my advantage, but that’s the world I want to live in.”

While Michael Griffin shares James’ opinion that native speakers are unjustly favoured within TEFL, and that we need to start treating all teachers equally, he proposes a different approach to fight against the discrimination, which hopes to deal away with some prevalent myths and stereotypes.

Michael Griffin: “As a fan of this blog I was thrilled and honored when Marek Kiczkowiak asked me if I might be interested in contributing something here. I was even more honored and pleased when I saw one of the first pieces on the blog was an interview with Peter Medgyes which is well worth reading. Back in 2012 I wrote about some of my thoughts on what Medgyes listed as advantages of “NNEST” Teachers.

In this current post I’d like to share a more concise and maybe even more balanced view of my thoughts on the advantages Medgyes listed. I do this with full respect for Dr. Medgyes and full knowledge that his list comes from a long time ago and was a useful addition to the conversations of that time.  I am also aware what I am saying is not exactly groundbreaking and has been covered by others in much greater depth and with greater lucidity.

My excitement about writing a guest post on this blog turned into a bit of trepidation when I saw the excellent post from James Taylor last week because my post (which incidentally I wrote before seeing his) might seem to go against many of the points in his, especially at first glance. Something we surely agree on is that native speakers are often unjustly advantaged in the field and this is something that needs to change.

The final caveats before I truly start is to say I am not sure how helpful it is to continue talking in these binary terms nor I am sure exactly what terms like native speaker and non-native speaker really mean, but I will use them here for the purpose of discussion.

In “The Non-native Teacher” Medgyes shares some advantages of non-native teachers over native speaking teachers. They are as follows:

a) Only non-NESTS can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English…

b) Non-NESTS can teach learning strategies more effectively…

c) Non-NESTS can provide learners with more information about the English language…

d) Non-NESTs are more able to anticipate language difficulties…

e) Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners…

f) Only non-NESTS can benefit from sharing the learners’ mother tongue…

One key theme that emerged from the discussion on my aforementioned blog post was that Dr. Medgyes’s list might be more applicable to monolingual native speakers without training. If that is the case then perhaps the list is a bit more palatable and understandable for me.

The original list doesn’t seem to allow for native speakers who have learned another language, let alone the students’ L1, which seems both confusing and problematic. Surely an L1 user of English can be a nice model for her (as an example) Czech speaking students if she uses Czech to a high level. In this case, she is admittedly not an imitable model of a successful learner of English but is perhaps a good (and imitable) model of a language learner. The teacher I just described would, of course, also benefit from the ability to use the students’ mother tongue, albeit not as a mother tongue. By simply believing native speakers are capable of learning other languages and even the students’ L1 I think  we have called points F and A into question.

Anticipating language difficulties, as in point D, is not something only NNESTs can do, is it? I can see how knowing the students’ L1 could be helpful here but I don’t think it is the only factor. What about training? What about thorough planning? What about experience and reflecting on experience? What about a knowledge of language and second language acquisition? What about knowing our students and having strategies and techniques to know them and their abilities? I think these are key factors in teachers anticipating language difficulties and more important than the simple fact of the teacher’s L1. On a personal level I’d like to think that all those hours I spent in pain with About Language were not in vain. I’d like think that this experience and knowledge can be and has been helpful for my students.

Point E reads, ”Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners.” Sure they can be. So can men. And women. And physics teachers. And math teachers. And teachers born on Tuesdays. Or left-handed teachers. Or not. I don’t think this category makes much sense and I don’t think NNESTs have a monopoly on empathy. Could we agree that this comes down to more individual and personal factors?

Just like empathy, I don’t think NNESTs inherently have a greater ability to teach learning strategies or information about the English language. Nor do I think NESTS do. There are variations about the degree of knowledge in these areas that vary widely and wildly and are not necessarily based on the teacher’s L1. I have personally met many native speakers armed with a thorough knowledge of learning strategies and way for effectively highlighting and teaching these. I have met NNESTs with very limited knowledge in these areas. I have also met NNESTs who were convinced their way of learning English was the only way and I have watched as they forcibly and to my mind unsuccessfully pushed these ways on students. I am not indicting all NNESTS for this, because that would be silly. It is just something I have seen. I have met NNESTS with wide knowledge of learning strategies. I have also met NNESTS with an incredibly deep knowledge on the English language and NESTS without. And vice versa. And all points between.

I don’t mean to disregard or disrespect the work that English teachers around the world (the vast majority of them NNESTs) do and I surely don’t want to ignore the efforts many have made to become successful users of English. From my view, the idea that native speakers are automatically better teachers is equally as wrong as the idea they are automatically worse in the areas listed above. Likewise, I don’t think NESTS are inherently better or worse at teaching speaking or listening nor do I think NNESTS are inherently better or worse at teaching grammar or learning strategies. I don’t think anyone is a better or worse teacher based only on their mother tongue. I hope I provided at least some food for thought here without sounding like someone who is whining and defending the reputations of a group that probably doesn’t need much defending. I thank you very much for reading and I thank Marek for offering me the chance to share some thoughts here. I am looking forward to continuing the discussion in the comments.”

Michael Griffin, currently working in the Graduate School of International Studies at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, has been in the ELT field for nearly 15 years. In that time he has held a wide variety of positions and titles including cover instructor, curriculum designer, teacher-trainer, trainer-trainer, general layabout, English camp instructor, and Assistant Director. He is actively involved in #KELTchat and is an #iTDi mentor. You can read his blog here and is @michaelegriffin on Twitter.

0 thoughts on “Equity without myths or stereotypes by Michael Griffin”

  1. There are some fabulous non-native teachers around and I’ve worked with quite a few ,I am not sure why this is now such an issue , communication breakdown maybe or just a whole lot of complexes having a tiff.

    1. Hi Sandy,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I’ve worked with and met great native and non-native teachers as well. However, the latter seem to be discriminated against almost wherever you look. It’s much more difficult to get a job if you’re a NNEST (in some countries, e.g. Italy or South Korea, next to impossible).
      Most recruiters will tell you they need NESTs because:
      1. Students want them.
      2. Only Nests provide a ‘good’ language model
      3. Only NESTs can transmit the target culture
      4. NESTs are better for PR
      All of these are based on hearsay and have little to do with reality. I discuss point in this post: http://teflequityadvocates.wordpress.com/2014/05/11/only-nests-can-provide-a-good-language-model-really/
      What do you think?

  2. The main argument here seems to be: Someone from one category is not necessarily better/worse than someone from the other category. True. But does this get anywhere near the roots of the problem?

    In my experience, some schools owners know full well that NEST teachers can be worse – far worse – that NNEST teachers, and yet a certain number of jobs are reserved for NESTs, regardless of whether that is explicitly mentioned in any job advert that might be published. Why? Isn’t it because the NEST sells?

    The world of English is not a world of equity. Perhaps it would be if English were only ever seen as a neutral language of communication between foreigners. But it is not. The English language has not separated itself from its imperial past. The field of language internationally remains a field of empire – not the sort of 19th century-style empire with direct rule from London, but still a form of empire nevertheless. It is an empire of brands and other forms of cultural capital, is it not? Certain things sell more than others. The British Council is investing in promoting the British brand, cashing in on things like connections to the Queen’s English and the image of a supposedly superior educational establishment. Articles about stereotypes within the profession don’t engage with the broader field of perceptions that constitute the market for English, which schools try to connect with by doing things like putting images of Big Ben on their school signs and sitting a native speaker in the shop window.

    Given the broader structure of the business, could anyone expect equity to emerge simply by pointing out to people within the business that one category of teacher is not necessarily any worse than another?

    If equity is the goal, it would be nice for someone to write an article speculating what would actually have to change in order to achieve it. What would the business as a whole look like?

    BTW, our own overview of the ELT business, mentioning the NNEST issue in passing, is here:


    1. Hello and thanks for reading and commenting.
      I (the writer of the post above) apologize for not dealing with all your points.

      I enjoyed your overview on the business of ELT and think it is well worth reading.

      Regarding the post above, you write, “The main argument here seems to be: Someone from one category is not necessarily better/worse than someone from the other category. True. But does this get anywhere near the roots of the problem?” I think one point I’d like to make is that it might in fact be useless to keep talking in terms of NNEST and NEST. I think this gets near the root of a problem or many problems. I just don’t think the way to argue against unfair stereotypes is with more of them.

      I love your points regarding the broader market/empire(s) of English and I think they are important to consider. Thanks again for the comments.

      1. Mike, Thanks for the reply. You highlight the idea that the NEST-NNEST distinction should be dropped (by people like those taking part in the conversation here). WE shouldn’t talk in this way any more. The impulse behind that (the impulse for equity) is respectable and not to be dismissed, but there is room here for at least one more post on your blog looking at two issues:

        1. The question of strategy: Compare the civil rights movement in the US. Doubtless one or two people suggested to Malcolm X that talk of black and white should be dropped. We are all people. We should learn to love each other and treat each other equally. Was Malcolm X wrong to reject that approach? There was a power struggle. The whites that needed to be challenged were not interested in delicate discussions of principle. There were simply out to defend their privileged position of power. Malcolm X judged that in that context the strategy ought to be one, not of trying to spread a racial blindness, but of insisting on black power until the white man came to the table willing to establish a more just arrangement. Is there not a comparison – ever so slight but still distinct – to be drawn here with the situation in world of English?

        If there were a Malcolm X of the TEFL world, he or she might be insisting that the NNEST term be dropped because it relies entirely upon a negative definition (the linguistic blacks being labeled as non-whites), suggesting a more positive self-definition of their making, and then pushing for the educational establishment in the relevant area to reorganise itself so that it is no longer subservient to the real centres of NESTish power – centres like UK exam boards and councils and publishing houses that impose their own standards and defintions and notions of what matters and what doesn’t.

        What matters strategically, in other words, is to establish a new balance of power, does it not?

        2. Then there is the question of theory: We need to understand what is going on. A comparison here, perhaps, is the economy. We want far greater justice. At the moment there is outrageous inequity between those who own the means of production (capitalists) and those who don’t (the proletariat). Talk of capitalists and the proletariat can be seen as divisive, but it is a division which exists in reality. We need to focus on that reality and understand how it works in theory. To do that we need distinctions like “capitalist” and “proletariat”, even if the ultimate intention is to create a new system which will abolish those distinctions. We need that theory to understand what needs to be changed in order to effect that abolition. While not wishing to deny the role of discourse in the construction of reality, we need to see the folly of simply calling on people to drop the linguistic categories.

        And that example reinforces the previous point: There has been a successful silencing of talk of capitalism, and the discourse of the capitalists vs the proletariat has all but disappeared. And the result has been what? Equity? Revolution? No, the result has been an unprecedented entrenchment of the capitalist system and a massive rise in inequality.

        1. Or, in other words, perhaps what is being suggested on this post is not equity without myth, but equity as myth, i.e. equity as a form of utopian thinking – the utopianism involved in assuming that we can leave the empire of English unchallenged, and as long as we all stop talking in a divisive way about mythical native speakers and non-native speakers, we will all live in an equitable harmony within that empire.

          The result? No one will mention “native speaker” in job adverts. But there won’t be much change in the number of jobs going to white, able-bodied, RP-accented speakers holding passports bearing things like the heraldic insignia of the Queen of England.

          1. Hi Torn,
            Thanks for the comments. Some food for thought.
            You made some really important points, and I don’t think I’ve got any ready-made answers to them just yet.
            Regarding the issue of dropping – or not – the term native, I agree with your analogy to the civil rights movement in the US. I think a similar strategy could work in this case as well. Once the campaign here has gathered some momentum and force, Teaching Association and key players in TEFL might be more willing to sit down and negotiate. As you say, the danger of dropping the term all together, might lead to the problem becoming clandestine rather than it disappearing.
            Having said that, I would like to see fewer job ads which mention the term native. Even if they are not meant to discriminate against NNESTs, they do discourage them from even applying, by giving off the wrong impression.
            All the comments you’ve made would make an excellent blog post. Let me know if you’d like to write something. My email’s marek_kiczkowiak@hotmail.com

          2. Thanks for this poignant series of comments.
            “Equity as myth” hit me pretty hard! 🙂

            From where I am sitting it is not about simply avoiding a label because it is simply uncomfortable or something like that.

            It is also about the fact that native speaker is such a fuzzy term and non native speaker starts from the deficit.

            That said, I think you points about framing it from a place of exerting change (like a movement). Thanks again.

  3. I’m inclined to add that the concept of “Native” is confusing to me. I’m from the United States so I will use my own cultural context. Let’s say an American (caucasian) is hired because he/she is a native speaker. But what does “native” mean? His/her parents could have immigrated from Italy or Germany whose 1st language is NOT English….The teacher is about as Native as I am even though I was born in Korea and went to the states as a wee baby of 18 months and I too have immigrant parents. If you want to talk about “Native” this word makes no sense in this situation. Does BIRTHPLACE play a role in the “native” status? It’s about as insane as saying we only hire Math teachers who are Native mathemeticians or Scientists who are Native Scientists. What the heck is a “native” speaker!

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Angie. Native speaker is such a fuzzy term that although in everyday language it might still be useful, it should be abandoned in TEFL for the sake of clarity if anything.
      Actually, the question: Who is a native speaker? would make for an excellent blog post if you feel up for the challenge 🙂

  4. I think your example, Angie, relates to why I wrote, “I am not sure how helpful it is to continue talking in these binary terms nor I am sure exactly what terms like native speaker and non-native speaker really mean, but I will use them here for the purpose of discussion.” T I fully agree with you on these terms being confusing and with lots of room for different interpretations and meanings attached. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  6. Thanks for sharing your reflections Mike, and as you can imagine, I’m broadly in agreement with you in that there are plenty of things that NEST’s can do to make up for the differences I pointed out in my post. Language learning and training are the minimum requirements.

    The point of my post, however, was to embolden the NNEST’s and to give them the confidence to assert themselves and their strengths. While I like your idea of abandoning the “binary terms” that frame this discussion, I don’t see how this process of ’emboldening’ is possible without a collective banner of “self-definition” (as Torn Halves calls it in the comment above) to rally behind. The label provides a point of unity, essential if change can truly be brought about.

    1. Thanks for the response, James. As I said in the post I was a bit leery following your great post (especially since I wrote mine before reading yours and mostly as a revamp of a post I wrote ages ago on the ideas of Medgyes, which seem to be very well connected with yours.)

      You wrote that the point of your post “was to embolden the NNESTs and give them confidence to assert themselves and their strengths.” It looks from here that it was successful based on the positive response your post got.

      Aside from the use of the NNEST label (which I think there is a lot to think about) I am still unsure if more talk of deficits (real, imagined, stereotypical, perceived or whatever) is the way forward for anyone.

      We might also note that the other side of Medgyes point was addressing the “language deficiencies” of NNESTs.

      In any case I think that is one of the great things about this blog, in that a whole range of opinions and thoughts are welcomed. Thanks again for the exchange

  7. I’ll concede that you have a point when you say that the NNEST label highlights what those teachers are not as opposed to what they are – any suggestions for a better label? 🙂

    1. Hi James,

      I am partial to the term “L2 user of English” but at the same time I think this could just be seen as dressing things up and trying to be over the top politically correct.

      One of the many important takeaways from the NNEST EVO course I took this winter was that the term NNEST is often favored as part of the movement (which I think speaks to your point about a sense of unity and self definition.)

      I think in the last few months I have become less sensitive to the terms NS and NNES and such (house style on my blog calls for scare quotes on native speaker, mostly because I think it is so hazy.)

      I think I am still sensitive to assigning characteristics for members of these (potentially false) dichotomies regardless of the words we use to label the groups.

      I aplogize if I am not making much sense!

      Thanks again for the exchange.

      1. Hi James and Michael,
        The only time where I really object to the two ‘n’ words, is in job ads. I’d like to see a move towards a more inclusive label, e.g. proficient speakers.
        Other than that, as Michael said, it is just a bit clumsy to try and avoid the two labels as they are very handy (whether we like it or not). Sometimes being to PC doesn’t really work.
        I can see the point some people make that the ‘non’ part can suggest inferiority. However, I think it’s up to us (who are involved in the movement) to change it.
        Having said that, I’d like people to be more aware of the actual meaning of the two labels (or lack thereof), especially in serious contexts, e.g. job ads. More often than not, recruiters don’t just discriminate NNESTs when they require their applicants to be native speakers. Actually, many take the ‘n’ word to mean whatever they please, or they mis/preconceptions dictate them, which a large number of native speakers don’t fit.
        What do you think?

  8. Hey! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog.
    Is it very hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick.
    I’m thinking about creating my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any ideas or suggestions?
    Appreciate it

  9. Pingback: Is it always preferable to employ native English speaking teachers? | British Council Voices

  10. I enjoyed the blog – food for thought indeed.

    It would also be interesting to open this idea out to include teachers of other languages, as this is far from an ELT issue.

    A number of my friends, for example, have found themselves pretending to be from Spain in order to get more lucrative deals with private learners of thy language here in Moscow. This has included a couple of native Spanish speakers from Latin America (which echoes the point already made about NESTs not from traditionally recognised English-speaking nations).

    Unfair? Dishonest? Perhaps, but these teachers felt it was the only way to make a decent living.

    I wonder, then, if this is common in all language teaching situations and what the reaction is to non-natives teaching other languages outside state schools.

    1. Hi Simon,
      Thanks for commenting and raising this issue.
      I would be very happy to post an article about the situation teachers of other languages face. I think the readership here would find the story interesting. I’d also be delighted to support any endeavours through this website to eradicate the discrimination in cases like the one you mentioned.
      Feel free to get in touch through the Contact’s section. WOuld you be interested in writing an article about it for the blog?

  11. My ELT timeline upon reflection in light of the above posts:
    1) the ‘native Arab’ head of an institution in the Middle East rejects my application (without mincing his words) because of their policy to hire NESTs.
    2) British Council across the road from the same institution rejects my application for want of CELTA, but lets me in on an admin position which I accept to get a foot in the door.
    3) Post CELTA, British Council hires me with immediate effect. I accumulate almost three years of full time teaching experience although in a part-time teaching capacity.
    4) I refuse the offer of a full-time teacher – Local based (Home based i.e. UK natives are on a different ‘read higher’ pay scale entirely), in anticipation of my pending immigration to Canada.
    5) A Toronto based private ESL school hires me on the spot because of the British Council experience.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Iffat. Sounds like an interesting story. And a successful one as well. Would you like to describe it n an article? I would be quite keen to publish it in the Teacher Success Stories section. You can get in touch through the Contact page.

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      1. You are welcome. I am sorry I haven’t seen it before. I have just posted a few comments in a group discussion. Take a look! I really felt the need to react.

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