Non-native speakers encouraged to apply – by Rob Sheppard

Without discrimination against ‘NNESTs’, I would never be an English teacher. I’d wager I’m not the only one.

In late August of 2006, somewhere in the crowded streets of Kangbuk District in Seoul, a woman with a master’s degree in English and tired eyes walked to the post office with a padded yellow mailer under her arm. The next stop after the post office was the bank. She probably walked with some hurried annoyance at being asked to perform this task, thinking of all the other things she had to do. Inside the mailer was my passport, and at the bank she’d wire me around $600, a full reimbursement of the cost of my flight to Korea.

When I arrived in Seoul about a week later I was so absorbed in my own exhaustion, excitement, and culture shock that all I thought when I met this woman, my new supervisor, was that she didn’t seem particularly friendly. I must have been a bit dense, because it took me a full six months to become fully cognizant of the uneven lay of the land.

Our school had 20 teachers: 10 Korean and 10 ‘foreign’ (a term I initially chafed at). The Korean teachers all held masters’ degrees from English speaking countries, while the requirement for foreign teachers was simply a bachelor’s degree and ‘native English,’ (which generally meant a desirable combination of passport and complexion). For the Korean teachers this was a career, but for most of the foreigners it was a gap year. The Korean teachers worked full time (which in Korea regularly means mandatory overtime); the foreigners only 15-20 hours per week. The Korean teachers made the equivalent of around $15 per hour: the foreign teachers something like 30% more than that.

These highly qualified, talented Korean English teachers watched kids like me cycle in and out of their country like it was spring break, make our bland observations about their culture, collect our paychecks, and saunter out of the office after 3 hours of work. That they still welcomed and befriended us rather than despising us is a graciousness I’ll never fathom.

The injustice of this situation really only hit me like it did because, by the time I finally recognized it, I was already good friends with several of these Korean teachers. At the time I dealt with it in the only way I knew how, in the staging of meaningless acts of protest: wearing shorts and a punk t-shirt to work, oblivious to the fact that this was only a further exercise in privilege.

Since then I like to think I’ve grown up some. Realizing this was more than a gap year, I got an MA TESOL and eventually got good at doing this teaching thing. So far I’ve been lucky. I’ve been given a shot more than once and hired above my experience level, and privilege of various kinds has no doubt factored into those opportunities.

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of leading teams of teachers, of hiring, training, and promoting some amazing ELT professionals. That first experience with the injustice of native-speakerism has stuck with me, and I’ve done what I can to make certain it never happens on my watch, in my programs. I can say with confidence that the three best hires I’ve ever made were of non-native speakers.

There are those who say that students would rather learn from native speakers, and as a program administrator at a nonprofit, my ultimate duty is to serve a population. So I have had to give this argument careful consideration. And indeed, I have heard rooms full of students affirm that they would prefer an “American teacher.” That attitude certainly exists. But more importantly I’ve seen that bias vanish in minutes, as they fall under the spell of their incredible new teacher whose first language happens to be Chinese, or Russian, or Portuguese.

Meeting student needs doesn’t always mean catering to every misguided want. Many students hold some serious misapprehensions about what ought to happen in a classroom. It is our responsibility as educators to disabuse them of these ideas.

To me the core argument against native-speakerism is two-fold:

First of all, the notion that native speakers have a leg up on non-natives is simply unfounded. A quick metaphor explains why. If I need to understand the inner workings of my computer, who’s the better resource: Paolo who built his own computer, or rich-kid Evan whose mom just bought his ungrateful ass a new iMac?

Once that illogic has been demonstrated, the more compelling part of the argument comes in. Saying you “prefer” a native speaker doesn’t change the fact that it’s discriminatory. In my experience, if the rationale for a policy or a preference or a belief about a group of people can be traced back to the circumstances of that group of those people’s birth, that’s usually a good time to start raising eyebrows and asking questions. A whole lot of injustice arises from that kind of reasoning, and this is no exception.

Recently, I’ve started my own business, Ginseng. It’s a mission-driven online English school offering live group classes to students around the world. As we state on our homepage, we see teachers as the most valuable resource we can offer, so we want the best. We intend to pay and treat them very well. With competition out there touting native speakers left and right, I certainly had to consider whether I would be wise to do the same. Business is business, right?

But why do people learn English? Why do we teach English?

For me at least it’s in large part because of the opportunities it affords my students. I didn’t come here to found the next E.F.  So what kind of hypocrite would I be if I professed to be increasing opportunity, only to go and offer that opportunity only to those who were born into the privilege of native English?

It was this that led me to enthusiastically embrace the mission of TEFL Equity. It was also this that led me to commit 10% of our student slots to providing free classes to those who can’t afford to pay. If your values align with ours, and are interested in joining a team, I hope you’ll check out Ginseng’s job listings, complete with the TEFL Equity badge. Non-native speakers are encouraged to apply.

rob shephardRob Sheppard is senior director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources and the founder of Ginseng English, an online, mission-driven English school that will fully launch in late 2017. He also serves on the community advisory council at First Literacy, is a member of the Open Door Collective, and is co-chair elect of TESOL’s Adult Education Interest Section.


18 thoughts on “Non-native speakers encouraged to apply – by Rob Sheppard”

  1. Elizabeth Bekes

    Rob, That is such a succint summary of what is ging on, how reflection on your experience can inform your practice and even your business ideas. I will encourage my colleagues to read the article and even apply! I am a Hungarian English teacher in Ecuador. I think there is a lot we could share. I’ll pass on my e-mail to Marek for you so that we can get in touch.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth! I’m hopeful that this generation of teachers will be as entrepreneurial as the generation at large, and that we’ll see plenty more people doing the same!

      I hope all is well in Ecuador! Please do encourage colleagues to apply. Thank you!

  2. Reblogged this on Halina's Thoughts and commented:
    I am a professional non- native English teacher fully qualified to give classes and courses online.
    I teach English as a foreign language. I also conduct lectures in English on Polish History and Culture for students from all over the world. I have been participating in online teacher’s training courses since 2010.
    I am striving to involve students in all kinds of activities like connecting and exchanging information. I find Virtual Classes tremendously exciting and challenging; they make attendees feel like having real meetings and discussions.
    Who is a native English speaker?
    Also, who is a native American?
    The answers differ, don’t they?

  3. Like you I wouldn’t have been given an opportunity if not an NES and similarly have “hopefully” become much more aware of the privilege offered to me and how awful I was on day 1.
    Bravo for your approach I hope it’s a great success.

  4. Sylbester NzalleNngonde

    i am an English Teacher in Thailand, after reading your write up, I am encouraged to apply

    1. I’m so glad to hear that! And we hope you will apply! Since TEFL Equity was kind enough to publish this post, we’ve gotten over 20 applications, from an array of teachers with diverse language backgrounds.

  5. Maria Cristina Bermudez

    Hi Rob, Mae here, from the Philippines.. At first I was hesitant whether to leave a comment or not, but surely I’d be glad if one day there would be no discrimination whether one is native speaker or not. Been teaching in Cambodia, Vietnam and now here in China. Teaching is for everyone not due to color skin. If this happens, it would open more doors to all aspiring Esl teachers from all over the world. More power to your Ginseng. God bless.

  6. Very nice to read that Rob. Thanks for sharing. I did feel the pain of your Korean friends being myself a teacher and teacher trainer whose first language is not English. I wish you all the luck and hope we can work together on a project in the future.

  7. I agree with the sentiments you express Rob, its the same in other fields too – e.g. teaching social dance (where “native” is equivalent to “superstar, medal-winner”, or native to the country of origin of the dance, or racially similar to the place where the dance was born). I’ve seen black Irish dancer teachers discriminated against, white kizomba dance teachers (I’m one!) discriminated against. How do we open the students’ minds? It’s a question of education, and experience, I guess…

  8. Pingback: [Guest post] The Most Important Question in ELT? | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

  9. Hi Rob,

    I appreciate this article, and your humility. My dream is to work in South Korea as an English teacher, but after looking for job adverts online it seems like only those eligible for an E-2 visa can apply — meaning only native speakers of English have any chance of finding work there as English teachers.

    It frustrates me to tears to know this, because I spent 21 years of my life in English-speaking educational institutions – 7 years in the USA where I learned English through ESL, 6 years in Europe at a Cambridge-certified international school, and 3 years in a UK university. I passed the TOEFL with a 118/120. I have a spotless permanent record. I’ve been studying Korean to better understand what kind of attitude my students would be approaching English with. I worked for the better part of the past year to get a TESOL certificate and gather teaching experience. But I don’t qualify.

    I’m crushed, and immensely envious of those like you who have the opportunity to do what I dream of.

    Kind regards,

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