It is all quite funny if I think about it now, with a pile of Business English books to choose from on one side, a pile of email to respond to, and a pile of thoughts to put in order at some point.
I had just come back home and got called in for an interview by what sounded like a great potential employer of Business English teachers in Milan. Milan is known to be the city of business in Italy, so no wonder they’d be in dire need of qualified, competent Business English teacher, right? Little did I know that apparently, what Milan is in dire need of is native speakers of English who also coincidentally can teach Business English. And as I sat through an almost two-hour-long interview, discussing all sorts of fascinating methodological aspects of teaching with an equally fascinating, interesting teacher, I certainly did not expect it to end with a polite and incredibly disappointing “I think you’re a great teacher, but I cannot hire you because of your name and nationality. I would not be able to sell you to my clients”.
As I try to describe this while sounding as little bitter as possible – and yes, failing miserably – I think back to what brought me to that interview. A semester in London, three years at one of the top Interpreting and Translation Schools in Europe, a year working at Google as a language specialist, a Master’s Degree in TESOL and Translation in England, and a really exciting, however short, career in teaching: a year as a teacher of EAP and IELTS at Aston University, a summer teaching in summer schools in England, a semester teaching in a language school in Spain, and a few months of Business English and online teaching in Milan.
While I did acknowledge that I was quite inexperienced (and I still am now), I would have just loved it if the employer of the interview had rejected me because of my lack of experience. I did not and I still do not, however, accept it on the grounds of my nativeness, or lack thereof: the one single piece of information I did not think I should use (the scholarship reserved to native speakers I got at Aston University) turned out to be the decisive factor I should have probably used.
Coming back to Italy, which is the place in which I was born, raised, schooled and fed pasta (no, it’s not a stereotype, it’s the happy truth), was a turning point for me. I had already noticed a fair degree of discrimination in job ads asking for native speakers, but it got me thinking: was it right for me to pretend to be one, just because people never noticed I was not one? How would this affect me, my personality and the way in which all of this normally has repercussions on one’s teaching?
I gave a talk at TESOL Italy in Rome in November 2015, where I met a bunch of great, like-minded teachers and Marek. He made me reflect on how this type of discrimination is in fact unfair and how it should end.
I have therefore come up with two lists that might not be the best idea (if a potential of former employer of mine is reading, please scroll down to the bottom, where I plan to describe how brilliantly I am doing at the moment), but for the sake of the cause: reasons why I should be hired and reasons why I shouldn’t.
Reasons why I should be hired:
- I am reliable
- I am trustworthy (unless you trust me with your chocolate or something)
- I am active and energetic in my classes
- I am thorough in my class preparation
- I have a background in L2 acquisition, not only teaching, which gives me a great insight into learners’ difficulties
Reasons why I shouldn’t be hired:
- I become easily stressed
- I have frequent headaches which can sometimes jeopardise my performance
- I have a tendency to remember very small details and sometimes forget absolutely crucial things
- I cannot draw and sometimes use the board in very questionable ways
- I am incredibly clumsy, which I believe can make me look less professional, especially in a Business English environment
I suppose you will have noticed that none of these reasons are related to me not being a native speaker. I know quite a few native speakers who are incredibly skilled teachers of English. I have always respected them and asked for their advice not because of their nativeness, but because of their commitment, personality, background and creativity. By the same token, I do not appreciate a native speaker who will not put any thought into planning a class just like I do not appreciate a non-native teacher doing the same.
To conclude what would probably go on to be a sad attempt to make one of my hidden dreams come true (yes, I would have absolutely loved to be a lawyer, and a wordy one at that), let me describe what I’m doing at the moment. I have worked as a Business English Teacher in Milan for almost a year, complementing it with my interpreting, translation and online teaching work. I recently got hired by a management consulting firm who has trusted me with organising and managing all their Business English courses. I have thus gone full freelance, I have tested and grouped the students, and I will start my own courses, with my own materials and syllabus, next week (good luck messages are more than welcome).
I do not believe I have achieved a lot and I know that I still need to study and work hard to learn how to be a good teacher; I do however believe that I have achieved what I would not have thought possible had I stopped at that first “no”.
If you are reading this and you have had similar experiences, I would like to recommend a couple of things. Firstly, study, study, study: from my perspective, this is what ultimately makes the difference. Secondly, when they tell you no because “you’re not a native speaker”, don’t stop searching and don’t stop believing in yourself. Try to get as many internationally recognised qualifications as possible (CELTA, DELTA, CELTA for YL, MA TESOL, etc.). Brand yourself: Linkedin, local websites for teachers and your own website (which you can create easily and for free on Weebly or WordPress) can take you a longer way than you might think. Keep up to date, develop in your profession, take care of your students, obtain good references from your employers: just like with most other jobs, you are the asset and you can in no way let your nationality of “mother tongue” prevent you from becoming who you want to be. That is, an excellent teacher – or at least one who can’t be trusted with chocolate like me but will still put all the effort into being professional and passionate, and making the difference in the students’ lives.
Chiara is an English teacher and translator based in Milan. She has taught English as a second language in England, Spain and Italy. She has a BA in Interpreting and Translation (University of Bologna) and an MA in TESOL and Translation Studies (Aston University, Birmingham). Her main interests in the TESOL field are pronunciation, comparative grammar, the teaching of listening skills and communicative language teaching applied to business contexts. She’s now the course manager and Business English teacher at a management consulting firm in Milan.