To be or not to be…
I’ve never defined myself as a fighter. I’ve always followed the rules and believed that if everyone did so, the world would be a wonderful place to live. You might see my attitude as a little bit naïve but I’ve always believed in equality, in the end, we live in the 21st century, we’re getting smarter and more conscious every day. Nevertheless, until very recently I had not seen anything wrong about language schools wanting to hire only native speakers.
What has changed?
You might wonder how somebody, who’s always lived in their idealized bubble, finally realised that the world we lived in was not as perfect as it seemed. Well, it happened pretty much by accident. A couple of months ago, I attended a TESOL conference in Vitoria-Gasteiz. I had made a list of all the talks I wanted to attend, and the one about acting against native-speakerism was… not on my list. It was actually my boss who, the day before the conference, encouraged me to go to that talk. I had not had any expectations, and I think that’s why the talk affected me so much. I left the room with my legs shaking and a thousand thoughts running in my mind at the same time. I realised I had been a target and probably an object of discrimination. But, how was it possible that I hadn’t realized it before?
It’s all about being in the right place at the right time
After the talk, I started thinking about my “employment history” and I realised that luck was very important. Because of various reasons, I always looked for the job in the middle of school year. As you can probably imagine, if a language school looks for a substitute teacher in January or February, they need them asap. I have never been asked to pretend I am a native speaker or not to mention my origins. I just got the job I had been looking for without any problems. The life in my idealized bubble was just perfect. Thanks to the fact that I am a well-organized and hard-working person, usually modest too J, I’ve never had problems staying in a language school because my employers knew about my experience, qualifications and teaching style. Being a non-native was a fact but not a stumbling block.
All good things come to an end…
Some time ago, I started feeling a need to change something in my life. As an EFL teacher, I simply thought that it might not be a bad idea to change the place of living. My colleagues recommended I used tefl.com to apply for jobs. If you’ve ever used the webpage, you probably now that it’s full of job offers for EFL teachers you can apply for directly and instantly. At first I was pretty impressed by the number of offers. However, after some time, I realised that all of them had one thing in common: everyone was looking for native level English speakers.
Well, there is nothing wrong or incorrect about looking for proficient English speakers. As a teacher I know that the better the teacher’s English (by which I also mean qualifications), the more students will possibly benefit from classes. What struck me the most though, is the fact that experience is not as valuable to some employers as language proficiency.
Time to apply
Whenever I see an interesting job offer, I jump at the chance and send my application. I started the whole process around April. Since that moment, I hadn’t had any problems until the moment when I wanted to apply for a job and I suddenly saw this notification on the screen:
At first I thought it was just a system bug. In the end the job offer said “native level English speaker”, and if you just have a quick look at my profile, you’ll see that there’s no higher level of language competence than “fluent”. However, before the questions about the foreign languages, there is one tricky question: “Are you a native level English speaker?”. To your surprise, my answer to the question was “No”. Why? Firstly, what does native-like even mean? It is already quite problematic to decide who a native speaker actually is not to mention a native-like speaker. Well, I was not born in an English-speaking-like country, my parents do not speak an English-like language and my education was never in an English-like language. Thus, my answer to the question was “No”. Therefore, I could not apply for the job mentioned above.
What’s actually worth discussing
Since that moment I have been thinking a lot about this loophole in TEFL.COM’s system. Wouldn’t it be better to simply use CEFR (the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) which is widely accepted and respected to verify teachers’ English language proficiency? It is worth mentioning that according to CEFR a C2 English language speaker has “the capacity to deal with material which is academic or cognitively demanding, and to use language to good effect at a level of performance which may in certain respects be more advanced than that of an average native speaker”. You’ve probably noticed that being born and raised in an English speaking country is absolutely not a requirement here. Neither is an RP pronunciation. A C2 English speaker might actually have a better linguistic competence than a native speaker, now the question is, how does this influence the teaching process? Non-native speakers actually underwent the learning process themselves and know what it is like to be in students’ shoes. They quite often, just like me, have a teaching degree, postgraduate studies and CELTA. They’re simply prepared for the job because they’ve been working their whole life (or most of it) to do this job.
I am not a native speaker, a fact I am not ashamed of. Anyone who has studied a foreign language and is capable of teaching it knows how difficult and challenging this task is. I’ve found being judged, only on the basis of me being born and raised in a non-English speaking country, outrageous, offensive and unacceptable. I’ve been denied the possibility to apply for a job which is a pure example of discrimination. That was the moment my bubble burst and I felt the need to speak out against the discrimination of non-native English speaker teachers.
What’s the euphemism for irony?
If you’ve ever tried to post a job offer on tefl.com, you’ve probably seen this notification below which provides you with short information about what’s acceptable and unlawful within the EU.
First, Tefl.com inform school schools that it is illegal to advertise for native speakers. Consequently, the advertisers ask for “native-like” English speakers to comply with the law. At this point we have to be honest, those who advertise for “native-like level” are still looking for “native speakers”, they just put in politically correct words. As a result, unless I tick the box in my online resume that I am a ‘native-like level English speaker’, my application will be rejected right away.
The webpage’s terms and conditions are undoubtedly legal, but difficult to implement or stick to in practice thanks to the system which, probably, automatically discriminates against non-native-like speakers.
One more thing I have to clarify here. Before I did my CELTA, my application had also been rejected once or twice because I did not have “relevant” qualifications (some employers asked specifically for CELTA) which I found absolutely acceptable. But the very first moment I could not apply for a job because I was born and raised in Poland in a monolingual Polish speaking environment I decided to take an active stand.
“If moderation is a fault, then indifference is a crime.” ― Jack Kerouac
I have to admit, that even though discrimination itself is not a pleasant thing, it may be an eye-opening experience. After the talk in March, I was sort of aware that something similar might happen to me. However, what struck me even more than being discriminated on the grounds of my mother tongue, were my colleagues’ reactions. One of them, a teacher form Ireland, asked me directly why I did not say I was a native-like speaker in my profile (His justification – “Your English is better than mine”). He did admit I was right when I asked him if he would say that he was English instead of Irish in order to get a job.
I have no intention of denying who I am and where I come from. My colleague’s reactions showed me that we have to raise people’s awareness and highlight the current situation. We have to stand up to all those ridiculous requirements and fight for ourselves.
One for all and all for one
As I said in the beginning, I’ve never defined myself as a fighter but I’ve realised that if we do not want to live in the world where all teachers are equal but some teachers are more equal than others, we have to take an active stand and speak out against the discrimination now.
Paulina Woźniak officially started teaching English in 2013, however she says that she actually started the job at the age of… four. In 2015, she started teaching English in Spain and she’s recently started a new teaching job in the south of Spain. As a teacher she likes the challenges involved in the job, believes that chocolate can solve all of the problems and tries to pass on her passion for English to her students. After doing her CELTA, she’s now looking for a new challenge.