All names used in this article have been changed. The conversations and emails quoted in this article have been pieced together from various conversations the author has had over the years, which nevertheless in the author’s opinion accurately convey the current and real situation in the local ELT market.
I met Larry in a café close to the company where he had been teaching that day. A language school director who is still teaching himself – I liked that. Teachers usually make reasonable language school directors. They know the drill, they know what it means to get up early and what it is like to be all over the city all day. They know about split shifts and they know about lesson planning and all the struggles one can face with students.
He offered me two intermediate conversation classes with his school. We negotiated the salary and agreed on a starting date the following week. I wrote down his email address to send him all the data he needed to complete the contract and he said he needed to go because his next lesson started soon. All good. A successful interview. I still had to finish my coffee when he came back in after he had just walked out the door. He did not sit back down. “Just one more thing,” he said. “You can’t tell the students you’re a non-native. Just come up with a story. Your English is better than most Americans’ anyway.” He smiled and left.
And there I sat. Not the first time this had happened but it still puzzled me. It was a slow period in Prague at that time of the year and being in the middle of a Delta course I could not work a full-time teaching schedule anyway. I really needed the hours, especially because the salary was reasonable.
So I could go and pretend to be from Delaware, USA. And get paid on the 15th of the month and not think about it. Or I could stick to my principles and decide not to support language schools that discriminate nNESTs for not being born in an English speaking country.
It made me think of Monika. The director of another language school in Prague. I had done substitutions for her school on and off for over a year when one of the full-time teachers there left. She asked me to hand in my application and that she would not consider anyone else for the job. Until she saw my last name on my CV. And my nationality. She just always assumed I was American, had never asked. Eventually they employed a girl from Michigan. Fresh off a TEFL course. Instead of an experienced nNEST who basically had already been working with the school for a year. I ran into some of the students a while after that in a pub. “Cindy, the new teacher, left after two weeks. Now we have Sam. We don’t like him. Why didn’t you take the job?” I told them, I was turned down. Monika offered me to teach German instead. “I’m not qualified to teach German. I’m qualified to teach English.” I said. It wouldn’t matter, as it was my native language, she answered. I didn’t bother to explain that firstly, Swiss-German (my actual native language) is different from German and secondly, being a native speaker of a language did not make you a teacher of it and just said no. This conversation had gotten old a while ago.
It also reminded me of Sarka. The admin at another big language school who was at least honest: “Listen, we will fill up all the courses with every single and last native before we get to you. And having a Delta soon you will be too expensive anyway. I’m sorry.”
Back to the café: Taking a deep breath I grabbed my phone. “Dear Larry, thanks for meeting me today. Unfortunately I have to say I’m not ready to pretend to be a native speaker. I think this is what is wrong with our industry and it needs to change. It never will if nobody stands up for it. I know it’s something students demand. But have you ever asked them why they want a native speaker? I’m not sure they have an answer to that. All the best.”
Larry’s reply: “Dear Karin, unfortunately we have in our course description ‘conversation with native speaker’ and I agree that the people do not know why. But as you wish. Good luck.” I could not help it: “Dear Larry, I see. As you are the director and owner of the school you might want to think about changing the course description. Just an idea. Good luck to you too.”
Being Swiss I only knew positive discrimination until I started to teach English. Usually the Swiss are welcome in any country, even though we still refuse to become part of the EU, and everyone basically rubber stamps your work permit without asking many questions. Which surely is a privilege I have paid for with plenty of Karma points by now.
After gaining my TEFL certificate in 2012 I worked hard and had to take on horribly paid jobs, work long hours and travel outside the city to get by. I was turned down before even interviewed countless times, while many of my native English speaking friends, who had graduated with lower grades than me, had no issues whatsoever to get best paid jobs down town. Oh, and just by the way: None of them teach any more. Most of them have left the country. NEST or nNEST: The turnover rate for English teachers in Prague is spectacular. Weirdly most employers do not seem to be bothered much about all the mayflies. Unfortunately, dedication or consistency is not a criterion. Even now, soon to own a Delta diploma, I still get turned down for not being a native English speaker rather than being recognised as someone who clearly aims for a long-term cooperation.
It took me a while and a dear friend contemplating teaching without a qualification, as she was a native speaker anyway, to realise how passionate I am about equality in our industry. And about employing qualified teachers. Kirstie was in Prague to live abroad for a while and before leaving to go back home to Australia she wanted to teach for a little bit to be able to afford travelling before going back home. That she was thinking of doing that without any kind of qualification got me furious. Eventually she took one of the best TEFL courses in the city and was extremely happy that she had done so. She realised that being born an English speaker, does not mean you can teach English.
We need to start to ask questions. Questions about qualifications and mainly the question “why?” To demand a native English speaker for their lessons is very common for students here in Prague. But why? Because that is how language schools advertise it? Because the students like the idea of having a new American friend? We need to find out and make this right. The customer, our students, needs to realise what they are asking for and why.
English lessons are, compared to the average income in the Czech Republic, an expensive hobby and at the very same time a necessary evil if one wants to keep up with the competition on the job market. Not only for misanthropic reasons it seems like a good idea to educate students about the product they purchase. The offers need to become more transparent. What they pay for and what they get should be quality English lessons. Not English lessons with a native speaker. Especially as the native speaker may or may not only pretend to be one to fit the course description.
The question of how to get rid of this misconception is a tough one to answer. I believe it needs to be a well-timed campaign that unites language schools, teachers and the local media. We need to educate students and unravel the myth of “native speaker equals great teacher”. As soon as students demand quality instead of nativity language schools will follow. We need to raise awareness through local media and get students thinking about the money they invest and how they invest it. At the same time language schools need to be made aware of the fact that discriminating nNESTs is in fact against EU law and not only a moral bagatelle and force them to change the terminology of their course descriptions. Additionally, language schools need to provide a proper needs analysis in which they question students’ claims if necessary to find out if students actually are insisting on NESTs and if so why. The schools should address the issue and be concerned with providing high quality before anything else. However, this requires schools with a vision of their product and their mission. Unfortunately these schools are rare and the ones who are just looking for the fastest and most profitable way to market their services are the majority.
And finally we need teachers, natives as well as non-natives, to stand up for themselves and their colleagues and advocate equality. We need to get to a point where the question of nationality is a personal one. One students ask after the third lesson. Just like: “Are you married?” A question of personal interest.
I disagree with any website that posts job adverts asking for NESTs only. I disagree with any school that asks me to pretend I’m from an English speaking country. And I feel sorry for every fellow teacher who is not strong enough to stand up to it and pretends to be from “somewhere in the US” to be able to survive in this industry.
We are the walking, talking evidence that language teaching works. That someone can become proficient in a foreign language without being born in that country or having lived there.
English is the new lingua franca and there are loads of competent nNESTs out there. Why does this not reflect on the industry?
The perfect Prague teacher: EU passport holder, native English speaker, works for no money and happily takes on lessons in the middle of nowhere at 7.00 in the morning. Let’s face it: None of the criteria language schools in Prague ask for have anything to do with the quality of the delivered lessons. Before anybody asks for your qualification, your proficiency or language awareness, your experience or your teaching methodology, they ask for your country of birth. And yes, there are exceptions, but too few and far between.
I am not proud to present the state of the TEFL industry in Prague: A woman walks into a hairdresser’s shop and asks for a natural blonde stylist to dye her hair blonde. And even though there are three very competent stylists who have lots of experience and have their own hair dyed blonde the woman insists on the natural blonde who has never dyed anyone’s hair before. The owner of the shop finds that a totally reasonable approach and starts to advertise that they have a natural blonde stylist and employs many more natural blondes without even asking for their qualifications. Because they are naturally blonde, and because the customers ask for them.
To ask for a native English speaker as a teacher is as reasonable as asking for a natural blonde hair stylist instead of asking for the best, most qualified or most experienced stylist.
And you know what? My stylist, Hank, would look at me and after probably dropping a swear word or two ask the only question you can ask, facing such a stupid request: “Why?”
I am Hank. You should be too.
Karin Krummenacher, originally from Switzerland, has been teaching English for language schools in Prague, Czech Republic, since 2012. She also works on initial teacher training courses and takes an active interest in teacher development. She is currently studying part-time to earn the DELTA Diploma and is shockingly passionate about most things in her life, representing the famous Swiss neutrality only on very rare occasions. She does not like chocolate much either.