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 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.