Do you trust your students when they smile in class? by Nicky Sekino

Your job may not be secure when your class is going well. Maybe, your students are making progress. Maybe, there are laughers in the class. Maybe, you have a higher academic degree. But all that will be of little value if you are a non-native speaker of English – at least in my case.

It was a company in Tokyo that dismissed me from an English education program for its employees. According to my employer, an educational institute, the company in Tokyo said, “It was about time to replace him with a new instructor, who is a native speaker of English.” I am certainly a non-native speaker of English. My mother tongue is Japanese. My employer, however, did little to protest this discriminatory dismissal. I am now of the impression that the commercial maxim of, “The customer is always right,” has worked.

My employer knows I have an M.A. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Teachers College Columbia University. I am, maybe, the longest-working teacher in the institute’s payroll.

The news devastated me because my class had been going well. When the course started a year ago, my students spoke less than survival English. If I said, “Who is he?” my students would say, “Yes.” When the students’ English comprehension was virtually zero, the progress of the class was very slow. I consulted with my employer and it suggested for a bilingual class. I asked my students if they wanted me to talk to them in Japanese when I give instructions and do the rest of the class in English. To my surprise, they said, “No.” They wanted me to do the class in English only: a nice surprise.

Something strange happened. The company in Tokyo complained about the “English-only” policy. Being surprised, I asked my students if they changed their mind. They said, “No.” They managed to hint, in a broken fashion, a fabricating act in the part of their employer.

So, I decided to do the class in English and speak very slowly. It was, however, painful to say, “Doo youu uundeerstaand?” One year later, I did not have to speak at a ridiculously slow speed.

My students were engineers. They wanted to study technical English, too. I happily accepted this wish. I asked them if they would prepare short speeches with some technical contents. I said this because I knew they wrote English reasonably well. My students said, “Yes.” Afterward, they prepared short speeches and presented them in each class. In fact, their speeches were good after some error correction.

The course came to an end in a year.  I asked my students if they wanted to continue the study. They said, “Yes,” – with a smile. I went home with a smile.

The following day, the company in Tokyo contacted my employer to say that it would renew the contract with one new condition. The condition was to replace “the instructor with someone else who is a native speaker of English.” My employer accepted the request.


This experience of mine with the company in Tokyo is not new. It is another case of many more incidents with similar developments, which reminds me that I live in the Japanese world of English education.

I no longer blame people openly for discrimination. If I did, it would just stun them because many people have no idea about racial discrimination – especially from the view of someone who is on the receiving end. They would think I am insane who is complaining about something that does not exist. As the readers may have suspected, the company in Tokyo did not know they had committed racial discrimination.

Besides racial discrimination, the Japanese world of English education has some other issues to tackle. Motivation is one. Many people think students will learn English more if the class is fun. This idea is generally true, but it is not so simple with business people who believe in the native speaker fallacy that native speakers of English would make better teachers.

I sometimes forget that Japanese is an implicit language. English, on the other hand, is a descriptive language. So, for instance, “Yes,” means “Yes,” in English. However, “Yes,” means “Yes,” or “Maybe yes,” or, “Yes, I have heard you,” in Japanese. It was maybe my naiveté to believe in my students when they requested for a monolingual class. Maybe they were saying, “Yes” to please me but, in fact, they were thinking, “No.” I do not know. A friendly warning for the readers is to be aware of the dichotomy of the Japanese language. Students are speaking English but they are possibly following a communication logic that is outside of the English language.

About the author:

nicky sekinoMr. Nicky Sekino is an experienced teacher of English. He began teaching at American universities and Japanese vocational schools in the 1980’s. Since then, he has continued teaching and the number of his past students has exceeded 2000. His current teaching context is the business world and his students are business people. He has an MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Teachers College Columbia University.

5 thoughts on “Do you trust your students when they smile in class? by Nicky Sekino

  1. says:

    You are absolutely right!
    I have been through a similar experience in my previous job. Despite having ELT experience of more than 10 years at university level, masters in applied linguistics research, masters in TEFL and CELTA from UK, at my last job I was told that my students thought I was not motivating them( may be it wasn’t all fun) so I should resign.
    Although I religiously followed the lesson plans provided, it was not enough. It all came from the management lady who didn’t know anything about ELT. Students were Central Asians, EFL background with weak English language skills.
    It is unfortunate but true that majority native teachers only have a privilege of speaking English with accent and acting in front of the class( no offence intended).

    • Nicky Sekino says:

      I understand you perfectly. And thank you for responding to my essay.

      Generally speaking, many managers in educational institutes have little ideas about English education. This is why they will pay more attention to the teacher reputation. When this happens it will cause some issues that are outside the realms of English education.

      The management of client companies is typically looking for a fun class, so the students will continue to come. In fact, they are more interested in the student attendance than educational quality. A defense, if I say so, is that corporate managers are not educators.

      The students, while under the pressure of the everyday work load, want an easy class.

      The combination of the three conditions will make it difficult for a teacher to do a serious class – as you already know.

      Some teachers in Japan know such is the reality and will play the role of a likable teacher. If you are handsome man from an inner-circle country, for instance,it will be very easy for you. You smile a lot and crack jokes and demand little from the students. Believe me I have seen teachers like that.

      I have tried to write in a more calm manner but as I write I begin to feel cynical in me: a result of teaching English in Japan for a long time. Let me clarify that I have met teachers who are not like them that I mention. They are both native and non-native speakers of English.

  2. mariatheologidou says:

    Unfortunately, the situation is more or less similar in the Greek context as well. Although I haven’t experienced this type of discrimination (yet), native speakers are still considered of a higher status, especially when it comes to teaching Speaking or Writing. If/When language school owners are ELT professionals they ask -at least- for basic qualifications, however I know that’s not the case with many schools and directors. As for the students I’m not sure iit’s a language/culture issue – I think it mostly has to do with the fixed idea many students have of the teacher being the class authority therefore they try not to come across as rude or insensitive. Although I appreciate moments of laughter in class, I’m always worried when I see them looking back at me with that fixed smile and blank eyes.

  3. Nicky Sekino says:

    Thank you for reading my essay and even responding to me.

    I like the description of ‘fixed smile and blank eyes.’

    So, my experience is not limited to Japan but there are similar stories in the world. It is sad to hear them, of course, but voices from the world support the position that racial discrimination does exist against non-native speakers of English.

    Welcome to the world of English education, Mariatheologidou! Believe me, I will stay there even though some aspects of our profession are difficult to swallow.

    By the way, how many syllables does your name have?

  4. mariatheologidou says:

    It is a sad reality and one I’ve seen in the 10+ years I’m in the field. I’ve seen wonderful native speakers who have helped and contributed to the school community and others who simply were there. So it all comes down to how we choose to define an EFL/ELT teacher and what his/her role is.
    Btw, my user name is actually my first name and my surname combined 🙂 It’s Maria Theologidou

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