Does it matter to students whether their teacher is a nNEST? by Bella Ruth Reichard

This is not a success story about employment, but about my own perception of myself as a non-native English speaking teacher. I teach EAP (English for Academic Purposes) to mainly Asian students with IELTS 5.5-8, based at a UK university.

Starting out

I first came into contact with EAP as an international student at Durham University, where I took in-sessional classes. A year or so later, when I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, my in-sessional teacher suggested that I do a CELTA and become an EAP teacher. My immediate response was: How can I teach English, my English is nowhere near good enough! (Only IELTS 8 plus a year of academic writing at Masters level.) Rubbish, she said. So I went ahead. During my CELTA, I was further encouraged by my fellow trainees, who made a big deal of having very little language awareness and kept saying how much of an advantage it is for me to have learned English as a foreign language. Still, I was always a bit self-conscious, especially when teaching German students – what would they say if they came to the UK to learn English, only to be taught by a German? But they never really said anything.

Employers and colleagues…

…never had a problem with my first language. On the contrary, I have always worked alongside other non-native English speakers; colleagues enjoy speaking German to me or ask me questions about Germany; team members and leaders see it as valuable to have an ex-EAP student on board. So no discrimination but lots of encouragement. Take that as the first success – I didn’t have to fight for it, which I’m sure can be seen as a success in itself.

How about the students?

students11

Still, I was conscious about the students. I always secretly played the game of “how long does it take them to find out”, which usually was “never”, because neither my name nor my accent is a clear giveaway, at least not to overseas students. I got concerned when I first taught a group of very high level students, some of whom were actually native speakers of some English variety and accordingly did not see why they had to study English as part of their programme in the first place. What would they say if they knew that their teacher was not a native English speaker, and therefore arguably was inferior to them at the subject? Would my effort of convincing them that EAP is different from just English have to include that I can still be better at EAP than they are?

I never lied outright about my nationality or my first language, but never cleared up any “where are you from if you’re not British”-questions. Partly, this was a game for me, but partly it was an attempt to protect my authority.

Coming out

When I taught my current course for the second time, I was chatting to two native English speaker students, about halfway through the 9-month course. I accidentally said in some context that my children are bilingual, one question led to another, and the students were very surprised and found it hard to believe (and accept?) that I’m German. From then on, I perceived a change in attitude among the higher-level students. Did they query me more often? Were they more skeptical of corrections that I made?

Really, they were not, it just felt like it at the time. A few months after the end of the course, I spoke to one of the two students who found out first, and he was surprised to learn of my concern. He assured me that none of the students in the group really cared what my first language was. They simply respected me as an experienced academic who has more expertise in academic English than they had.

Moving on

Currently, I am teaching two groups, one high-level group and a group with roughly IELTS 5.5. Somehow, students in the lower-level group found out that I’m German – a colleague might have told them. A few weeks into the course, one student approached me to ask how my English got so good – which reminded me of the view of a non-native English teacher as a role model. Around the same time, Marek, who runs this website, commented on a post on my own blog, strongly encouraging me not to hide my identity.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/5285505796/

These two prompts made me grow in confidence, and I told my high-level group much more openly that I’m not British and that my first language is not English. It doesn’t seem to make any difference for my students, but I feel much more comfortable now.

I hope that this experience can encourage other self-conscious doubters to believe that they are right: students care about the teacher’s expertise, in teaching and in the subject, but less about the language with which the teacher happened to be raised.

Bella RuthBella came to the UK from Germany as an international student. In 2010, she did a CELTA and worked part-time as a teacher of English and German. In 2012, she started teaching EAP, and in 2013 she completed an MA in Applied Language Studies for TESOL. Since then, Bella has been teaching at a UK university on pre-sessional, in-sessional and pathway programmes. Currently, she is EAP Tutor and Module Leader on the International Diploma in Business.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Does it matter to students whether their teacher is a nNEST? by Bella Ruth Reichard

  1. Joseph Olubodun FAKINLEDE says:

    Language teaching seems to me at times like a neurologist who is also a psychiatrist who, after about two hours at the crucial operation room with his patient, asked himself if his own brain was functioning perfectly now while still examining another person’s brain! I want to believe that there’s hardly a non-native English language teacher who doesn’t initially feel this way. The awareness itself is the safety valve. The teaching profession is not for those who would like to vegetate. A good teacher will remember he will have to remain a student of his subject for the rest of his life. Here is an example of the way the non-native teacher has an edge over the native teacher: the countable and uncountable nouns; the native teachers don’t know how hard this is for the non-natives! What about the sequence of tenses, esp. the difference between the simple past and the present perfect tenses? How about the stress and the rhythmic flow at the utterance level? These are things the non-native teacher has to grapple with and which the native speaker has taken for granted. His awareness of these makes him a better equipped teacher.

    However, since language teaching is also a behavioral thing, the native speaker is a good resource material as a role model in exposure to the ‘noise’ of the language. And this can’t be over-emphasized. In my part of the world a school head master had to rue it when he gave the native English teacher the O/L class to handle. But the English Literature is o.k.

  2. Sonja says:

    Dear Bella,

    Reading about how you moved from hiding your identity to being open about it has been very inspiring for me. Like you, I am German and a teacher of English with university degrees in TESOL and Adult Education as well as a DELTA Module 3 certificate. I passed my CEP with a C2, Grade A. Now, I don’t want to come off as bragging about what I have achieved. Millions of others have achieved the same. What I want to make clear is that despite attaining the goals that I had, I am a big old doubter – and for the exact same reasons you mention in your text. When possible, I usually try to hide my identity as a non-native speaker of English fearing that students will call into question my authority of the language and thus my capability to help them improve their English as well as their cultural knowledge. More often than not, I have been able to get away with it. It doesn’t really feel good, though, because it makes me feel like a cheater.
    Your thoughts have inspired me to perhaps try being a little more open about my background and gaining self-confidence from the fact that I have worked hard to get to the level of English I am at now as well as to complete my teaching degrees.

    Thank you, Bella, keep sharing your success with us, please.

    Sonja

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s