A closed-minded school in an open-minded country by Laura Brass

Friday, August 25, 2017: A bad interview and a bad haircut. In that order and equally frustrating. While I can get over the latter, telling myself that hair grows back, I cannot come to terms with the former. I keep thinking that closed-up people who do whatever they please in a free democratic country like Canada are simply dangerous. And outrageous. How this soul-crushing-eye-opening experience unfolded is the story I tell here.

After I had agreed to meet for an interview for an English teaching position at 3:30 pm, the HR person in charge of scheduling called again at 8 pm (I missed her call) and left a voicemail informing me that the interview had been switched to 1 pm. I found it odd, but I called back and confirmed.

Little did I know that this would be one of the worst experiences I have had in my eight and a half years of living and working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Canada. Correction: The worst job interview EVER. Full stop.

Kerrisdale Academy (one of the many private ESL schools that have sprung like mushrooms after the rain in beautiful British Columbia, Canada), is a Chinese owned school that specializes in prepping students in fields such as English, Math, and Physics. If you are a non-native English speaking (NNES) teacher like me, BEWARE! Better yet, you might want to stay away from this school. And if you’re stubborn, curious, eager, or any of the above, and decide to go in for an interview, be prepared to deal with people discriminating against any professional (regardless of how qualified, experienced, dedicated, etc., they are) who was not born in Canada! Linguicism (i.e., discrimination due to someone’s accent).

5 minutes to 1 pm, I was there. The receptionist, who also played the role of one of the interviewers, politely told me in English that Mr. Lee was not available yet, then switched back to Chinese and continued conversing with someone. About ten minutes later, Mr. Lee showed up and asked me to wait until he washed his hands. Ok!?

Then the three of us – Mr. Lee, the receptionist-HR-interviewer lady, and I – walked down a narrow hallway to a very small classroom with a few chairs, desks, a tiny board, and … well, that was it. Oh, and the paint on the walls was peeling here and there leaving them greyish. Or was that just dirt? I couldn’t tell. A bad omen.

While I was quickly taking in the room, I had flashbacks of other schools I had interviewed for, good ones such as EC in Toronto, Ontario, which had smart boards and polite professionals, or less so like Dorset College in Vancouver, BC, which refused to turn up the heat in the winter, so we had to wear our coats in the classroom. I am getting off topic. Let’s get back to August 25, 2017.

Mr. Lee pulled a chair (for himself) while I was left to find my way in front of him and the receptionist-HR lady. We all sat and he began what soon turned out to be a clear-cut example of ignorance and discrimination. Below is a paraphrase of the dialogue that followed:

Mr. Lee: What language do you speak in Romania?

Me: {I take a deep breath} In Romania we speak Romanian, a Latin-rooted language, like Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese.

Then I went on to tell him how helpful my first language (L1) is when I teach students whose L1 is Latin rooted. I could see that he was NOT interested.

I smiled to myself and looked at him for his next question. But there wasn’t a question per se. Instead, Mr. Lee’s tirade started, which he repeated verbatim THREE TIMES in a row.

Mr. Lee: You and me have an accent. I teach Math, you teach English. Students can complain about your accent. They don’t complain about Canadian teacher but they complain about teacher like you.

It crossed my mind that: (1) I should get my phone and record this guy (his monologue would make for some interesting research material) and (2) this was a complete waste of my time: I should simply get up and leave.

I did neither.

After patiently and politely listening to Mr. Lee ramble about my accent defining me as a rather faulty teacher, I had to say something.

Me: Are you saying that, if you hire a teacher and a student complains about their accent, you fire them?

Mr. Lee: No, but I want you to know that student may complain about your accent.

It became obvious that this conversation was a moot point.

Moving on, Mr. Lee did not care at all about me having finished my MEd in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) from the University of Calgary, Alberta (with a 4.0 GPA), as if that degree is non-existent.

The fact that I am TESL Canada and TESOL Ontario accredited and I have over a decade EFL/ESL/EAP/IELTS/TOEFL/FCE/CAE teaching experience meant squat to Mr. Lee (whose English is far from fluent – accent not included).

Mr. Lee was, however, hell-bent on my BA in English and Literature from the University of Pitesti, Romania (which he heavily underlined on my resume) as if that was the only qualification I had that mattered.

To add insult to injury, Mr. Lee did not appreciate the fact that I had fast-tracked my masters (I explained to him what that meant). To him, it meant that I did not work while completing two MEd years in one.

I was speechless.

I felt like laughing, but decided to sit through the whole interview. Besides, I wanted to see how far this would go. So, I played along. Mr. Lee did ask me if during my masters I studied speaking and pronunciation! I told him that the Interdisciplinary MEd enabled me to build sound theoretical and pedagogical knowledge in specialized areas such as ESL curriculum design and development, teaching methods, language assessment, grammar, linguistic content, task-based approaches, digital literacies, etc. I invited him to view samples of teaching materials I have designed and implemented at and read articles that I have published.

All that was background noise to him.

There were other questions, as to levels taught, availability, salary rate, etc. Although ten seconds into the interview (when Mr. Lee started his monologue about my accent and the likelihood that students would complain about it) I knew I would never accept work from an institution that treats qualified professionals as if they are simply a geographic dot on a map, I kept it professional: I finished the interview.

Once the interview was over and I left the building, I cried. Then I wiped off my tears.

As I was telling my husband about this utterly frustrating experience, I realized how important it is to share it with the rest of the world and raise a red flag about institutions like Kerrisdale Academy based in Vancouver, BC, whose employers think it is ok to treat NNES ESL instructors the way Mr. Lee treated me.

I know I should have taped the interview. I know I should have given Mr. Lee a piece of my mind. I know I should have left the room the moment the interviewer implied the first time that having an accent erases ALL my experience, qualifications, and achievements, reducing me to a NNES who, in his opinion, is not a good teacher.

I also know that I am thankful for this experience, as it reminded me of who I am: a qualified NNES ESL teacher passionate about teaching English – my L2.

A bad haircut can be easily fixed. If anything, as time goes by, it becomes a thing of the past.

A bad interview, on the other hand, is a different story. As time passes, unless we all do something about it, it will not become a thing of the past. It is not that easy to change people like Mr. Lee’s mentality. As a matter of fact, it may never change.

This is not to say that I accept such behavior. On the contrary, I am a strong advocate of equality between NES and NNES ESL teachers whose employability should be based on their qualifications and abilities as instructors, not their accent or whatever ridiculous reasons individuals like Mr. Lee, born and most likely raised outside of Canada, find appropriate to bring from their own cultural biases.

We live in Canada 2018 – a welcoming home to thousands of immigrants and refugees from across the globe, as attested by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people … You are home. Welcome home.” (Trudeau, 2015).

It comes as no surprise that “Canada’s population grew by 1.7 million people since the last census in 2011. Immigrants accounted for two-thirds of the increase” (Campion-Smith, 2017) and that the number of foreign-trained skilled immigrants – NNES ESL teachers included – is steadily growing (CIC News, 2017).

Reminder for Mr. Lee and all the Mr. Lees out there: In Canada, linguicism is u-n-a-c-c-e-p-t-a-b-l-e.

Laura Brass Pic[17541]Laura Brass has an MEd in TESL from the University of Calgary, Canada, a BA in Education from the University of Pitesti, Romania, and is TESL Canada and TESOL Ontario certified. With over 15 years local and international experience under her belt, she has taught English to diverse learners for varied purposes (e.g., EFL, ESL, EAP, CAE, IELTS, TOEFL, etc.) in the public and private sectors. A language learner herself, she embraces a student-centered approach that keeps the students’ needs at the forefront and focuses on fostering autonomous L2 learners. She is interested in language and identity, multilingual acquisition, ESL curricula design, digital literacies, etc. You can view samples of her teaching materials at www.laurabrass.weebly.com. Her article, “Eleven Unexpected Lessons of Research Writing,” was recently published by the Canadian Journal for Teacher Research: http://www.teacherresearch.ca/blog/article/2017/07/30/333-eleven-unexpected-lessons-of-research-writing.

References:

Campion- Smith, B. (2017, February 8). Immigration fuels Canada’s population growth of 1.7 million in five years: latest census. The Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/02/08/canadas-population-grew-17m-in-5-years.html

Canada: Citizenship and Immigration Canada News (2017). (2016, September). Canada Immigration Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.cicnews.com/2016/09/canada-welcomed-record-320932-new-immigrants-immigration-numbers-set-increase-098533.html

Trudeau, J. (2015, December 11). You are home: Canada’s Justin Trudeau welcomes Syrian refugees. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9_zWhkS4oQ

20 thoughts on “A closed-minded school in an open-minded country by Laura Brass

  1. Kevin says:

    Quoting Justin Trudeau does not help the credibility of your argument. For the love of ‘peoplekind’, reference a professional authority!

  2. Shannon Storey says:

    I disagree, Kevin. Mr. Trudeau has stated an official stance that meshes with the way many Canadians want to think of ourselves and our country. However, we need to bring employer behaviours in our country more closely in line with that ideal.

    Speaking as academic coordinator of a teacher training program recognized by both TESL Canada and TESL Ontario, I can attest that some very talented teachers among my former students have had similar experiences, both in and outside of Canada. It really is time for the discrimination to stop. Well-trained NNES teachers are one of the most valuable resources in Canada’s programs for immigrant learners because they have experiences from which their students benefit – and with so many accents heard on every street and in every business in Canada and other parts of the world, English language learners need to hear a variety of accents in their English language classes, too. If students complain about a teacher’s accent, they should be made to understand this learning need, not have their ill-founded prejudices catered to by employers more concerned about dollars than ethics and effective teaching.

    An employer in Canada who discriminates on the basis of an accent that does not interfere with comprehensibility deserves to be taken before a human rights tribunal. If the employer is a language school that happens to belong to Languages Canada, they should be reported to Languages Canada.

    • ESP 1 says:

      I’m sorry, but I find it very ironic that the author’s main grievance is against not being evaluated on merit, and then references Justin Trudeau, who is the epitome of all privilege: racial, class, economic and native speakerist. As a TESL professional, how would you honestly assess the speaking fluency and accuracy of a non-native speaker who spoke as inarticulately (with non-lexical conversation sounds every few utterances) and ungrammatically (using non-existent vocabulary) as he does?

      • Laura Brass says:

        Hi ESP 1,

        Thank you for the message. Your comment reminds me of an intercultural workshop I recently attended, which ended with an interesting whole- group test. We were asked to line up in the middle of the room, and based on our answers to a bunch of questions, we’d take a step back or forth. One of the questions was whether our parents ever took us to a museum. I said, “Yes,” and so did another two women – a white Caucasian and an Asian – both born locally. Long story short, at the end of the exercise, the three of us were ahead of all the other participants. White power was brought up as one of the reasons to this difference among participants, which was rather inaccurate, given that there was an Asian woman born in Canada who was right next to me and the other white woman! I had been put on the spot for having an accent, now I was put on the spot for being white –a first! There are so many shades of white: Stressing out the whiteness of some runs the risk of turning mere generalizations into stereotypes. “The question becomes not who we are, but who we are perceived to be” (Khayatt, 2001, p. 79).

        I quoted Justin Trudeau at the end of my story to show that open-mindedness should be the driving force in Canada – a country where immigrants make up a considerable percentage of the population: “On Census Day, 21.9% of the population reported they were or had ever been a landed immigrant or permanent resident in Canada” (Statistics Canada, 2017). All kinds of visible and less visible differences are inherent (accents included), hence acceptance should be the norm. Had Trudeau been Asian, or Afro-Carribean, etc, I would still have quoted him because of what he stands for (Canada’s Prime Minister) and not who he is (a white Caucasian male). If you only saw irony in my quoting Canada’s PM, there’s nothing I can say to make you see what I mean: Your opinion is deeply ingrained in your own background, culture, upbringing, biases, etc. However, I would like to end my response to you with a short quote: “The toxicity of our political (and religious) non-conversations is a true tragedy of the modern world” (Anderson, 2017, p. 62).

        References:
        Anderson, C. (2017). TED Talks: The official TED guide to public speaking. Toronto, Ontario, CA: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

        Khayatt, D. (2001). Revealing moments: The voice of the one who lives with labels. In James, C. E., & Shadd, A. (Eds.), Talking about identity: Encounters in race, ethnicity, and language. (pp. 35- 54). Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines.

    • Laura Brass says:

      Hi Shannon,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my post. Coming from an academic coordinator, your message means a great deal.

      • You are right: Given that we interact with people of different accents on a daily basis, accurately speaking English with an accent shouldn’t be a major concern for hiring bodies across Canada. The funny thing about my story is that I was told repeatedly that I have an accent by a speaker whose accent was heavier than mine, let alone his faulty English. I did a few job interviews prior to that infamous one but never before was it assumed without any proof whatsoever that I wasn’t a good teacher because of my accent.

      • I have never had a student complain about my accent, which makes me wonder if it really is the students or the hiring bodies who use this argument against NNES ESL/EFL teachers. Assuming that a student does complain about the teacher’s accent, is this really grounds for not hiring or letting go of that teacher? According to Grace Vaccarelli, a lawyer at the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, “Denying employment over a job seeker’s accent contravenes the Ontario Human Rights Code. Although language is not explicitly reflected in the code, it is related to ancestry, ethnic origin, place of origin or race — all prohibited grounds” (2017). Here’s the link to this great article I came across recently: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/the-accent-effect-toronto-3-1.4409181. If accent was indeed everything, then why study to become a language teacher? Anyone who’s a native speaker could teach English! This preconceived idea that students will learn better English if their teacher doesn’t have an accent is no sine qua non of those students learning to speak English with a near-native accent or accurately for that matter. Learning a thing or two about SLA and human rights might come in handy for HRs like Mr. Lee.

      • You mentioned that, “If the employer is a language school that happens to belong to Languages Canada, they should be reported to Languages Canada,” which made me realize that I should have acted on it; instead, I put it on the back burner. I guess it is human nature to tend to put negative experiences behind, the same way we tend to avoid hanging out with negative people. I get the feeling that some of these small private ESL schools with rather overstated names (e.g., Academy, Herald, etc.) have nothing to do with Languages Canada, otherwise they would (and should) be aware of the minimum ethical requirements of job interviewing.

      Laura

  3. nemuyoake says:

    That’s when I read things like these that I’m feeling really lucky. I’m French and I work at a private Japanese high school, teaching English. I didn’t have any problem to find a job and I am now a tenured teacher at this HS. But I have a Japanese teaching license and that’s the difference with all the native speakers here.

    • Laura Brass says:

      Hello Nemuyoake,

      Thanks for reading my story. Glad to hear that your L1 poses no issues to teaching English in Japan. It’s refreshing to know that acquiring a Japanese teaching license has opened doors for you. If only this was the case with all countries where ESL/EFL is taught! My interviewer did not even touch on my TESL Canada and TESL Ontario teaching credentials/licenses: I guess they were of no interest to him, or maybe he didn’t know what they actually mean.

      Laura

  4. Natalia says:

    Living and working in the Middle East, I have a different story to tell. Here teachers are judged by their passports, not their qualifications. Therefore, Americans and British as passport holders (many of them are not even natives) are given a better priority and a higher salary than non-natives like me. Yet I have MA from a respected British University and over 20 years experience of teaching. Sad and frustrating…

    • Laura Brass says:

      Dear Natalia,

      Sorry to hear about the situation in the Middle East: Being defined by a piece of paper seems utterly ridiculous. A passport has so little to do with who we are as individuals, professionals, etc., not to mention that some of us have more than one passport. What does that say about us, that we have a split of personality, just as we have a dual citizenship?

      Laura

  5. Daniel says:

    Sad to see such a case of discrimination. But try to see the positives, it didn’t look like a good place to work, so no loss. You surely found something better.

    • Laura Brass says:

      Thanks for the encouraging words, Daniel. Looking back, I see this interview as a test meant to prove to myself that I know who I am, no matter what Mr. Lee’s of the world might say. I did find something better which, in turn, helped me to heal, grow, and motivated me to share this story.

      Laura

  6. Lexical Leo says:

    Hi Laura,
    I enjoyed reading your post. I don’t live in Canada so I don’t have any beef with Justin Trudeau, which is clearly the case for some of those who live there. In any case, reading this passionately written piece and singling out one quote to pick on is similar to what your misguided interviewer did at the interview you describe.
    Good luck in your job hunting. I’m sure with your experience and qualifications you’ll find something in no time.
    Leo

    • Laura Brass says:

      Thank you so much for the positive feedback, Leo!

      It’s funny how we might miss the big picture and instead see only what we want to see: Tunnel vision. The accent issue was staring us right in the face, and yet it was ignored by a couple readers. Apparently, politics is a delicate issue – if not a taboo.

      When I least expected it, I had an amazing interview with a reputable college that offered me a teaching position the next day. Then, a couple months later, I was head-hunted by a company based in Toronto, ON, to teach English for a major media outlet – an awesome gig! When it rains, it pours.

      Laura

  7. Mike Casey says:

    I sympathise wholly with Laura, but even though Mr Lee’s statement about accent and complaints is discriminatory, it still needs to be dealt with.
    It is true that many students will come to a language academy expecting to hear native Standard accents. How should a language academy and/teacher respond to students/clients who had expected to be taught by a teacher with a native Standard accent (RP, General, etc.)?

    • Laura Brass says:

      Hi Mike,

      Thank you for leaving a comment. From what I’ve seen, sometimes this idea of being taught English by a native speaker is planted in the students’ head by those who think that this is the only selling point (when, in fact, it isn’t). I’d highly recommend the HRs to sit in a class taught by a NNES teacher so they can see for themselves that these teachers are as fun, efficient, etc. as natives. Given that these days, group interviews and demo lessons are gaining in popularity, seeing the teacher in action would give HRs a clearer picture of whom they’re hiring.

      Laura

  8. Shannon Storey says:

    At least in part, by educating the students about the need to be exposed to many accents, and the greater importance of the teacher’s skills in teaching.

  9. shanshan says:

    Thank you for sharing this story and making the school name known to us. I AGREE with you that employability of teachers should be based on their qualifications and expertise rather than nationalities and I feel sorry for what you experienced. As for Mr. Lee, I actually feel his own identity issue when he attacked you as a NNST with a so-called non-standard accent. In my view, he himself has a strong sense of inferiority because he is not a native speaker of English, a fact which sadly cannot be changed. That’s why he kept picking on your accent during the interview. He attacked you just because he had been doing the same thing to himself since he started learning English. How sad that he was victimized by native-speakerism but not aware and in turn he got brainwashed and began to use the same toxic logic to inflict pain on others like him. We are all NON-NATIVE speakers, right? Of course, this is no excuse for his rude speech and behavior to you. But I hope it can make you feel better because you know he is actually weak inside and you are, at least, stronger than him. Wish you all the best in your life!

  10. Karina says:

    I’m sorry to hear you had such a bad experience…I applaud you for remaining so professional during this ‘interview’ and for sharing your story. I hope that you’ve found a great school to work in, where you’re respected and valued for your professionalism and skills. All the best 🙂

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