This time TEFL Equity Advocates talked to Ken Lackman, a freelance teacher trainer and a former Director of Studies at EF Toronto. For more interviews and articles from ELT experts, visit the Talk to The Expert section.
- Why do you think so many language schools decide to recruit only native speakers despite the fact that in many countries (e.g. the EU member states) it is illegal to do so?
I think that the people who run language schools often feel that their students would prefer to learn from native speakers. In short, they feel that a school staffed mostly by native speakers would be more marketable. This is perfectly understandable. If you had a school that claimed to teach something, you’d want to staff the school with teachers who were experts in that something. The question for language schools and their students is whether being a native speaker makes you an expert in that language and whether being a so-called “expert” speaker translates into being an expert teacher.
- How important is ‘nativeness’ – or lack thereof – for being a good or a bad teacher?
This is a huge question. The answer depends on what determines good and bad teaching. If, for example, proficiency with teaching a grammar-based syllabus was considered good teaching, then a non-native speaker might have a distinct advantage, having learned the grammar relatively recently and probably more comprehensively. If teaching were more lexically based, then a native speaker might have an advantage. However, I believe the teaching of languages should be based on teaching learning strategies. I think Michael Lewis was right when he claimed that languages were learned, not taught. I think what language teachers should be doing is teaching students to process language they are exposed to as a means of understanding and acquiring language. With a strategic approach, knowledge of strategies to process language is far more important than knowledge of the language itself. This is the approach that I try to use and I find, even as a fairly well-educated native speaker, that I learn new things about the language every day. I learn along with my students.
- What in your opinion is necessary to become a successful teacher?
When I was in a supervisory position, I used to tell the teachers I was working with that they only needed to do two things to be successful; have fun and leave students with the feeling that they’d learned something. Since nobody really knows exactly how languages are learned and it’s virtually impossible to know exactly what language students might have actually acquired in a lesson, the most important thing is that the students FEEL like they learned something. And if they really enjoyed the class, then that means there should be no reason for those students to complain about their lessons. That should mean continued employment for their teacher. But, more specifically, I think being the best teacher you can be means constantly learning about what might be the best way to teach, experimenting with ways of implementing those ideas in the classroom, and, more cynically, walking a line between that way of teaching and how your school or book expects you to teach.
- What implications should this have on hiring policies, i.e. if you were responsible for hiring new teachers for the school, how would you go about it?
As I suggested in the answer to the last question, I’d be looking for someone who was methodologically flexible. I believe that teaching should be about adapting to the learner, whether it’s their needs and interests or recent theories on how their language brain functions. And this is where nNESTs may have a distinct advantage as it would be much easier for them to be able to understand their learners and to have an idea about what they need and how they learn best.
- What can EFLers do to promote equality between NESTs and nNESTs?
Every teacher has their strengths and weaknesses. NESTs and nNESTs may have strengths and weaknesses based on their language experience. While a NEST may have more extensive lexical knowledge, for example, a nNEST may have a better understanding of English grammar and the way students learn. Unless we have, as many schools do, a very narrow definition of what teaching is about, what NESTs and nNESTs bring to the teaching table should be considered equally valuable. But we need to have that teaching table. That needs to come from the top. Schools need to encourage (and probably pay for) professional development and the kind of collegiality that would have NESTs and nNESTs learning from each other.
- What message would you give to aspiring teachers who have faced or heard about the issue of discrimination in TEFL?
Your value as a teacher is not based on the language you speak but the language you teach. Go to workshops and conferences, either in person or online. Read books, magazines and blogs and talk to other teachers. Nobody really fully understands how languages are learned, so nobody really fully knows how languages should be taught. Find out as much as you can about teaching and keep experimenting in the classroom. That’s what will make you a great teacher; not the language you speak but the language your students learn.
Ken Lackman spent seven years in Prague teaching and developing materials for The Caledonian School. He left there in 2002 to do the DELTA course in Wroclaw before returning to Toronto in 2003. After spending five years as Director of Studies at EF Toronto, he left to pursue a career as a freelance teacher trainer and writer. He has had several articles published in English Teaching Professional and is a frequent presenter at conferences in Canada as well as the IATEFL conference in the UK.