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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.