Per Aspera ad Astra by Lina Gordyshevskaya

I did not really plan to be an English teacher. As most things in my life, it happened by accident rather than according to some plan.

I was fresh out of the university (Edinburgh) holding an MA in Scandinavian Studies, and I had no idea what to do with my life. There was an offer from a university in Sweden for a master’s programme in the same field, but I had been postponing making a decision whether I should accept it or not. I did not want to study for two more years and write another thesis, you see.

Finally, I made up my mind: I would go to Japan and continue learning Japanese, my recent hobby. Meanwhile, I would teach English since I had already been doing it for some time but voluntarily, and enjoyed it. The future finally seemed bright, and I could not think of any potential problems to face. How naïve I was…

To equip myself with some methodological knowledge and to raise my employability, I took a TEFL course in my hometown in Russia. In Japan, I started with a kid entertainer job (chatting to kids in English while they were waiting in the queue for the activity), which I did not like and escaped as soon as I felt I just could not take it anymore.

Finding a teaching job was tough: most schools seemed so cool with their websites filled with pictures of people in business suits laughing together; I was simply afraid, I did not feel qualified enough. And Kobe itself just did not have many opportunities.

I managed to become a substitute teacher at some small eikaiwa teaching a couple of days per month (if I was lucky). In April, I started a second job, with guaranteed hours. I was promised to get 15-16 hours, and I was really happy. However, I only got 6. When I asked why, I was told that many parents were not satisfied with me being new and young, so they signed their kids up for other teachers’ classes. Nothing was said of my non-nativeness – yet.

While teaching those 6 hours a week, I realised that teaching young learners was not really my thing. It was ok, but it did not inspire me. I decided to take a break – and CELTA. It blew my mind. Literally. It gave me that self-confidence I lacked before. I moved to Kanto and started looking for a job that would be suitable for my post-CELTA teaching experience. It appeared that the problem was not finding a suitable job but me being suitable for teaching English.

‘Native English speaker’.

‘Must hold a passport from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand’.

‘Seeking for a native English instructor’.

‘Only preferable candidates will be contacted after our initial screening’. I was not preferable. I did not have the ‘right’ passport.

I could not understand why.

Why does having a Russian passport supposedly make me worse teacher than any native teacher?

Why does being born in a non-English-speaking country make me less employable?

Why does having a degree from a university in the UK and two teaching qualifications mean nothing if English is my second language (by the way, I have been learning it since I was 4)?

I felt humiliated. I felt desperate. I cried on my husband’s shoulder asking him all these questions interrupted with sobs after every other word. He tried his best to support me, and eventually, after getting a headache and blocked nose, I would tell to myself ‘OK, I’ll try once again and take it easy’.

I tried to apply for universities as well since they hire non-natives but lacked teaching experience at the university level and did not hold a relevant degree, and did not have publications.

Finally, I got an offer from a big chain eikaiwa, the only one among many that hired non-natives quite actively. And yet, almost all non-natives I met there were on part-time contracts while 90% of full-time-contract instructors were from the countries where English is the first language. Despite anything, I was grateful to be there. I was grateful to them for hiring me, a non-native teacher. Only now, I think how twisted it is to be grateful for something that is (should be!) natural.

I did not give up on getting a university job. The thing is that I wanted to teach groups of young adults using a communicative approach, and it was hardly possible in the eikaiwa. I also did not like being constantly reminded that we are selling a product. I do not sell a product. I teach. T-E-A-C-H. So I tried and tried again and again.

And I got it.

I was lucky, I guess. It was the only university that required neither specific teaching experience (just general would do) nor publications. I had to prove during model teaching that I was able to teach communicative lessons, and I did.

When I got a job offer, my heart froze and then started beating crazily. I could not believe my own eyes. I could not breathe. I was ecstatic. I did it. I won this battle.

I know I will face discrimination in the ELT field again – we simply cannot change things just in the blink of an eye. However, next time I will choose not to feel humiliated but proud of who I am.

Teaching is a profession, and, as in any other profession, skills matter more than nationality. I have met amazing and inspiring teachers from all over the world, and it is not their nativeness – or non-nativeness – that makes them amazing and inspiring. It is their passion for teaching and developing as professionals. I think these two should be the minimum requirements instead of that one you can find in every single teaching job ad.

linaLina graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA (Hons) in Scandinavian Studies in 2015. She obtained TEFL in 2015 and CELTA in 2016. This August, she was invited to teach demonstration lessons for a CELTA course in St Petersburg. Lina has taught YL, teenagers, and adults of various levels both in groups and privately. Currently, she teaches EAP (discussion) at a university in Japan and loves her job. She blogs regularly for https://eltbylinablog.wordpress.com/.

10 thoughts on “Per Aspera ad Astra by Lina Gordyshevskaya

  1. Elizabeth Bekes says:

    What a great and inspiring story, Lina! Japan is really difficult territory for a number of reasons. So having made it is a shining example that getting employed is possible if you invest enough time and money in your professional development and just don’t take “No” for an answer. Congratulations, I’m sure you’re students love your academic discussions.

    • Lina says:

      Thank you for the comment, Elizabeth! You’re right, Japan is indeed quite difficult for nNESTs to get a job but as Dan Brown said, ‘everything is possible; the impossible just takes longer.’
      I hope they do; at least I heard them saying ‘I enjoyed today’s lesson’ to each other couple of times 😀

  2. Galina Khinchuk says:

    Thank you for sharing your story Lina! I was quite fortunate to get to know Marek and realise my strength as a non-native English teacher in the beginning of my journey as an ESL teacher in Berlin, where inequality of job opportunities is striking!

    • Lina says:

      Thank you for the comment, Galina! Yes, you were indeed lucky! It’s always nice to meet people who help you learn more about yourself.

  3. Aleksei Nekhaev says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience – it’s very helpful and I think it’s inspiring for other teachers. I didn’t find any trouble in finding job in Thailand, though here it’s also not that easy in some parts of the country. Once I’ve visited Taiwan and fell in love with the country, but I was shocked when found out that NNEST are not able to get work permit and ARC – only the holders of passports from 7 eligible countries can. I’ve met many NES colleagues and most of them also don’t quite understand that discrimination, yet nobody can change anything. I’ve given up for a while and hope to find a way out.

  4. Houda says:

    Thank you for your inspiring story. It gave me a little bit of hope, as I’m a non-native teacher who aspires to work in Japan.
    I have many apprehensions when I think about applying there, considering that I’m a non-native with English being my third (or fourth) language, I have a TEFL but not university degree (yet!), and I’m from a Arab/African country. Even though I’m currently working as a full time English teacher (in my country) and working on getting a university degree, knowing how biased the ESL job market is, I’m worried my aspirations will go down in flames.
    Any words of advice??

  5. Lina Gordyshevskaya says:

    Hi Aleksei and thank you for sharing your thoughts on this post.
    I’m happy to hear that Thailand is opened for NNESTs, and you didn’t have any problems with finding a job. And it’s awful to get to know about this law they have in Taiwan! I can’t understand such requirements approved by the government.

  6. Lina Gordyshevskaya says:

    Hi Houda and thank you for leaving a comment!
    I’m amazed by the fact that English is your third language. I myself speak several languages with Swedish being my third but I definitely can’t teach any language apart from English (not even my mother tongue).
    Well, the only advice I can give is to get a Master’s degree (preferably in teaching) and to try your luck in getting a university job. I hope it helps…

  7. Lyman says:

    Hi Lina, I must say I am highly inspired by your effort and determination. You have ignited me with burning inspiration never to leave any stone unturned. Lina, sometimes I feel such countries need someone to open up their eyes on who an English teacher is. For example, I don’t hold the ‘native passport’ but English is not an issue to me. Though it is not my mother tongue, English is our official language. We use English in all important events. Yet for countries like Japan and China I still do not qualify to teach English!! English is acquired in various ways including exposure to any English environment ( which does not always need an English speaking country!!

  8. Lyman says:

    A certain agent told me bluntly: You fully qualify to be an English teacher, but I am sorry the schools don’t accept black teachers! My response was whatever the case, rain, snore, sunshine or storm, one day you will see my black face in front of the students. To me teaching ois a noble profession. It is about educating the entire child. Teaching itself should be a platform to promote equal human worth!!!!

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