My experience working with NNESTs started just over 2 years ago when I setup my business Learn English Budapest. We’re not a language school, but rather an agency that matches up private English teachers with students in the city. The aim when I set out was to give teachers a convenient alternative to putting up flyers and posting on expat forums.
For the first few months I, like many other schools sadly still do, had a negative opinion of non-native teachers. I assumed natives were simply better at teaching the language, and it wasn’t until I was approached by Marek Kiczkowiak, founder of TEFL Equity Advocates, that I had a chance to really question my views on the matter.
What started as an exchange of emails on the subject of natives vs. NNESTS, turned into an experiment on my part. I decided to start accepting NNESTS onto my team to see what the results were and not even a few of weeks later I realised I’d been making a mistake by avoiding recruiting them.
At the time, I summarised my findings in an interview. Today I’m back, and happy to announce the launch of my new website Teacher Finder. It’s the same concept, except this time we’ll be matching people with language teachers in over a dozen cities worldwide. We’ll also be expanding into new languages: Spanish, Italian, French, Hungarian, Arabic and German, just to name a few. Of course, non-native teachers are more than welcome to apply.
For anyone else out there running an agency or language school, and who might be hesitant to work with NNESTS, I decided to reveal some of my findings over the last 2 years.
Most students value experience more than the mother tongue
When it comes to teaching, it is obvious that the most important qualifications are the teacher’s ability to explain their subject and, well, teach. This is especially true for language teachers. In a world where English is the international lingua franca, and the ranks of non-native speakers outnumber the natives by at least three to one, it is ridiculous to think that non-natives can’t be as good teachers as the “chosen ones” who are born into an English-speaking language environment.
There is one thing you can’t learn from a textbook, however, and that is experience. Whenever I have the choice between an experienced non-native teacher and a newbie native one – the former gets the job. Teaching is one of those professions that is more like an art and it takes everyone time to perfect theirs. That is especially true when it comes to teaching private students – knowing how and to what extent to tailor the offered lessons to the student’s needs is something that only practice can teach.
Students won’t demand a native teacher if you don’t give them the option
Of course, “native” still have a certain stereotype attached to it, and given the option, most people will still opt for one. Indeed, there used to be a tick box on the signup form on the Learn English Budapest website that said, “Do you want a native English teacher? Yes/No”. Not surprisingly, most people ticked native or nothing at all.
I decided to remove this box and instead replace it with a question that asked students “Describe what you perfect teacher would be like?” Over the next few months, it became obvious that students weren’t looking for someone who was native. They were more interested in finding a teacher who shares their interests and can sufficiently explain the topic they’re interested in.
From then on, I have had no students contacting me to complain about being matched with a non-native English teacher. Most are pleasantly surprised to see how well (often, even better than native speakers) NNESTS can explain complicated grammar and draw parallels with their native languages.
NNESTS can be more proactive
One of the factors that speaks loudest in favour of NNESTs is that they have experience with learning a language themselves. They have great understanding of what their students are going through and what might be the biggest obstacles to fluency.
Their own language learning experience has oftentimes also taught them some innovative techniques in how to better explain and understand English. When I asked my teachers about the secret tips and tricks they find most useful when teaching English, I quickly saw that the NNESTS were the ones who knew so much more about how to keep constantly improving their (and their students’) language skills.
NNESTS tend to have better resources for teaching
Again, since NNESTS have been through the goliath task of becoming fluent in another language, they have most likely scoured the landscape of possible language learning resources to find the best. While NESTs have the luxury to always be able to fall back on being native speakers and can come up with “resources” off the top of their heads, NNESTs usually cover that gap by being a lot better prepared for lessons.
They’re also the ones to introduce students to more off-the-book language learning methods and help them improve quicker with language hacking. I’ve noticed that, as a rule, they also put a lot more effort into creating their own resources and combining different strategies to find the best way to teach any given student.
When it comes to teaching children, NNESTS often do best
When I think back to my own school days and the foreign language classes we had, I can’t remember a single native language teacher. When it comes to beginners and children, the ability to explain a language in their native language and to limit the pressure learners feel is irreplaceable.
When I was young and taking my first Spanish lessons, I wouldn’t have survived being confronted with an actual Spanish person listening to me make a mockery of their language. From what I’ve learned from the feedback I get from students they often feel the same way when they’re just starting off. The more advanced ones might be happy to be pushed out of their comfort zone, but children don’t tend to thrive in that environment.
Conclusion – While stereotypes about native teachers remain, NNESTs are often better equipped to teach English
Even on Teacher Finder, we still get people asking for native English teachers but, more often than not, they will not press the issue. We’ve also successfully managed to explain the benefits that come with having non-native English teachers.
I would say the biggest upside to having a NNEST teaching you is that they fully understand what you’re going through as a language learner. Since they themselves have struggled with the same grammar issues, they have an insight into what it takes to clearly explain the rules. This is especially important when teaching children, who can get discouraged by having a native teacher.
Although it, regretfully, took me a while to get there, I now realise that NNESTs can be better equipped and prepared to take on students than native teachers. In the end, all that really matters to students is to find someone they can connect with and who makes language learning fun, no matter whether they’re native or non-native.
Andrew Davison is the founder of Teacher Finder and also enjoys writing and travelling in his spare time. He splits his time between living in London and Budapest.