I have followed the debate on native vs. non-native teachers with some interest. It is great to see and hear people addressing equality and the favouritism, in some sectors, towards natives despite them not always being as qualified as their non-native peers. As blog and Facebook posts on this subject have increased, so too have the comments. These have ranged from complaining about alleged backpacker natives who don’t know how to teach to qualified non-natives losing out to anyone who is labelled a ‘native’. What perhaps isn’t always covered is the perspective of the Native English Speaker Teacher (NEST). This is what I hope to cover her to help readdress the debate and to put forward some truths which I think are worth mentioning.
1) Are all NESTs unqualified backpackers?
Well, this depends where you work, to be honest. I have read numerous complaints about this and it is one reason perhaps some non-natives are angry because of maybe the poor teaching they received from alleged ‘foreign experts’. I’ve been one myself, having been given jobs without an interview solely on my passport.
If you look at the real language schools abroad, and by that I mean the many many that are not run by the British Council or big chains, you will still see schools like Oxbridge school of real English and Brighton British language school etc. These use red phone boxes and buses or the Australian flag and maple syrup for branding and you will still see them advertising native speaker teachers. Unless they are charging students over 70 Euros an hour, they can’t afford to pay more than 20. And as many just teach kids and provide books and handouts, they tend to want young teachers and pay them 10 to 18 Euros an hour. Now, it stands to reason that young 18-25 teachers who work with no contract, are hired locally and who work week to week probably won’t be super qualified but schools often cannot pay and do not want super qualified teachers too. My own response here is that I question the students or clients in that they should ask about the qualifications of teachers instead of just seeing ‘native’ and thinking they will absorb all the English language just by sitting near them.
2) Do all NESTs get amazing jobs in language schools?
I only speak from my own experience on this one but I have worked in quite a few language schools in different countries. I am still to see a single FT permanent contract. In fact, a contract of any description is rare. The reality is often week to week work or varying hours with no promise of pay and no idea if the school will go bust. They will also want your exclusive availability from 8 to 8/9 and at weekends. Some may ask you or tell you to work 6 or even 7 days a week. If you say no to any offered work, you might not get more. No paid holidays too and some schools even just pay cash. You could be told on a Saturday that you are no longer needed or replaced within a day. Worse still, as I have had at least 3 times is not getting paid and having to begin legal proceedings. This is not great and not a career anyone should really aim for so I’m not quite sure why NNESTs who may be able to get in the system in their own country would want it. Many of use TEFLers accept it and make do with 0 hours some months and 2/3 months of no work during holidays but I’m sure that at least 90% of us would jump at the chance of being local and getting in the local system, if that is possible. In theory, a REAL government school job would have a proper contract. In my experience, this has always been true but the pay has not always been better than in the private sector. This highlights the typical ‘the grass is always greener situation’. Getting 300 Euros a month from a uni compared to 1400 from a language school is a big difference.
But do NESTs get priority over these no contract sometimes badly paid and no security jobs? Well, I’d say sometimes they do IF the school is branded as a ‘native school’ type. In fact, many still only advertise for natives or even interview them. Sad but true. If a non-native managed to get it, they might not like what they find, especially the student and parent questions of “where are you from?”. In this respect, I would suggest non-natives and natives to find out which schools accept who. For instance, I never apply to schools that just use non-natives as I know that it will be very hard for me to get it and the work they do is based on the local school syllabus which I don’t know, everything is in the L1 which I’m not fluent at and there are other legal issues that may stop me as I’m not local.
3) Are NESTs taking jobs away from locals and NNESTs?
I really don’t think so. I have heard angry local Non-Native English Speaker Teachers (NNESTs) complain about foreigners getting jobs they want but when say a university only has 1 or 5% foreigners and those jobs are labelled as for ‘native experts’ or designed for people who have a background and experience in the British/Australian/Canadian style then perhaps we should respect that. After all, the decision for those jobs came from the top and even from a government level. Having some jobs that have relaxed rules to enable non-locals who are not in the system is helpful. I know plenty of NESTs who try and try to get jobs that locals have but fail. I’m not saying that we go back to, now the illegal, ‘for natives only’ style but having a few natives on a team to compliment the skilled and experienced NNESTs, can be useful. A multi-cultural and multi-lingual team can be a real asset.
As for the private sector, I’d say there are no jobs to take in away. For business English, clients can really pick who they want. Kid classes depend on the parents. I have heard the very upsetting instance of “we can’t find any natives for this kid class so we’ll have to use a local teacher but tell him to pretend to be English”. Why on earth? I VERY much doubt kids or parents would complain about a great teacher but MAYBE if they spoke the L1 a lot which I know plenty of NESTs do too so it doesn’t really make an issue nowadays.
4) Why do NNESTs do the CELTA?
This confuses me. When I started out, we all knew the CELTA was for natives. Now, it’s open to all which is better, in my opinion. Although some still see it as a British thing. Even as a native, I found it hard and was told I did not have RP. I was quite angry about that. Now, the CELTA is only recognised in the big TEFL schools but very very few other places only recognised in the UK but nowhere else. Personally, if I could do a free MA or PGCE style course in my own country for free, as some NNESTs have free education, I would. Instead, I had to pay for private course. Also, you don’t need the CELTA now, really. As few schools even know of it abroad, they take anyone with any kind of certificate or non. So, as I saw in a thread recently, if a NNEST finds a school and does the CELTA, they will, I’m sorry to say, find it hard to get a TEFL job. I saw one guy get really angry about this as he’d been promised lots of work. By who? The school delivering the CELTA course Why? Because they are for profit and sold a course and persuaded the customer with promises about benefits. Some people seem to forget that the CELTA is ‘for profit’ and schools that do it are generally the same. ANYONE who is thinking of getting into TEFL should REALLY research their future prospects. Native or not. Actually, it’s not just with the CELTA. I did a weekend teacher training course and it was the same thing. We were promised work and actually offered it too. The catch? We had to pay to do ‘voluntary’ work. Yes, really. The organisation made people pay to train and pay to teach.
5) What will a future be like with no NEST teachers abroad ?
This is a tricky one as we all know there are now more non-native English speakers than native and so probably teachers too. The argument of ‘NESTs help students learn the culture’ is a weak one, in my opinion as I have seen teachers milk this and just, as they put it, “teach students about British/Irish/American/Australian culture” instead of teaching. The sad thing is though that not 1 student ever complained about that and some even requested those teachers.
Fast forward 20/30 years and classes all around the world will probably have less natives given the increased competition from non-natives, the ending of ‘for natives only’ posts and the smaller the ratio of natives to non. students miss out on funny anecdotes about pubs and soccer? Will the CELTA method disappear in favour of the standard local methodology being applied to TEFL? And also, more importantly, if more and more jobs are removed from the NEST’s grasp, what will they do? The knee jerk reaction by some employers against the ‘equality card’ will be not to hire any. Maybe all us TEFLers abroad will have to return to the UK and then we will go back to the old system where kids were shipped off to the UK for a ‘cultural experience’.
6) Are NESTs a ‘token hire’?
Sometimes yes. A mate was hired as the head of a language school and paraded around at events. He didn’t speak the local language and was used for branding and PR. I’ve also seen natives used on open days, in adverts and become required hires on a quota system. The problem I had with this was when I started teaching. The students at one place just expected me to be ‘fun’ and complained and demanded their 21 year old surfer dude from California back and he had taken them all out drinking the year before. This for me is what REALLY annoys me as a NEST. I, and many many of us, are REAL teachers. I worked my backside off to become as qualified and experienced as possible and I put my heart and soul into all my lessons but still 1) Some NNESTs still see me and others as ‘token hires’ and not real teachers as we have what they call ‘unrecognised qualifications’ 2) A lot of students expect me to be fun fun fun and think of English native classes as a break. One even told me that “we learn English from our real local teachers and then have fun with the natives”. A previous colleague highlighted this when she asked me in a thesis defence “what is your real job?” and then said how lucky I was to get such a job that thousands of locals will kill for. Well, personally, I think I deserved to be there.
7) What do I want?
I firmly believe in equality but it has to be equal. We need to provide it for everyone. If we just stop all NEST hires If we keep systems that refuse to recognise foreign qualifications, that is neither. Actually, I looked into EU employment law and as the EU law guy said in his email “there is no law that requires any state to accept any qualification”, it is entirely up to them. Therefore, many won’t recognise qualifications, even MAs and BAs. PhDs too. This to me is insane, unless the awarding university is very suspect. In really, many of us know the real level of qualifications and that UK awards are actually higher than some others just as UK ones are lower than others. Unofficially. Fine but we need to set rules and stop building barriers. Free movement of people? Really? One of the pillars of Europe if I remember.
Another point is regarding levels. We all know native and non-natives who are not C2. On most days, I don’t feel it 😉 On some, I don’t even feel B2. We need to set a very high standard for ALL teachers. It makes sense. I don’t care what your passport says, you should be proficient in the language to be able to teach it. This, of course, means IELTS 9 or CPE A. I have tested natives and not always given 9. Teachers should be the best of the best. If we allow B2 teachers, native or not, then that will slip and eventually they will be B1 or A2. I’ve seen it. If we just hire natives based on being native, they may actually have poor English. Standards slip so a B2 teachers may produce B1 students who will then teach at B1 level and so on. For me, education has to be the best at all .
Maybe some of you remember that infamous Guardian article ridiculing the TEFL industry that riled people but quite a few others agreed with it. Online schools that now pay teachers 5 to 10 dollars are making our image worse and only attracting people who will take that money i.e. unqualified and experienced people with poor levels. Students have to pay for quality. Natives or non-natives with good qualifications, English level and style charge a higher rate and deserve it but not everyone can afford that. Sadly, many won’t pay it and go for the cheaper option then complain. Well, I don’t think that’s fair. You get what you pay for and I really stress to clients that you have to research who the teacher is and their experience. A native relying on the typical ‘I’m from London’ and only mentioning highschool on his CV won’t be able to deliver and really isn’t a teacher at all. A non-native with a degree in English is automatically more qualified, if they have an MA or a teaching qualification then it’s even better. What does annoy me is that not everyone compare like for like on this issue. You cannot say a native with an A level in History is better at teaching than a non-native with a degree in teaching.
We also must talk to the students and clients and policy makers. We need to know if organisations want teachers or ‘token hires’ and what the positive or negative perceptions of native teachers are. I believe that the more of us native and non-native who study and become the best we can and welcome and embrace native and non-native teams and colleagues, the better we are making ELT. Picking fights and throwing stones is not.
2 things that are worth considering now are 1) what does ‘native’ mean? 2) what qualifications and experience does someone need to be called a teacher?
Phil Wade is an English teacher, trainer and coach. He has a PGCE, the MA TESOL, the CELTA and DELTA module 3 as well as certificates in Executive Coaching and Mentoring. He has been a language school teacher and course coordinator, a university teacher, a corporate English trainer and coach, an online teacher, examiner, teacher trainer, materials writer, elearning author, app content creator and ebook writer. He has written for numerous ELT magazines, blogs and publishers. Phil is currently interested in policy and decision making in education and is studying a PhD.