‘I am Hank, or being a NNEST in Prague’ by Karin Krummenacher

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

California Stylist Cover

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 krummenacherKarin 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.

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11 thoughts on “‘I am Hank, or being a NNEST in Prague’ by Karin Krummenacher

  1. Rachael Clugston says:

    Hi Hank,

    I have been learning German in Germany – and for once, I had a Czech with brilliant German teach me. She had a slight accent, and I thought, ‘maybe she is from Bayern’, but no! And she is brilliant – I learnt much more in her class than with anyone else. She knew where we would struggle, and she knew the strategies we needed. And she had credibility due to her competence – and then, our admiration as a role model. Keep on! The myth of the native speaker is ridiculous and no more authentic than what you are doing. Too much time is spent trying to compare non native speakers to native speaker competency. It’s not neccessary, or even worth striving for. Speak the language on your own terms: it’s legit and empowering!

    • Karin says:

      Hi Rachael, thanks for your response. Your story is very encouraging. There’s a great amount of Czech teachers who are extremely competent in German and well-qualified (same goes for English). It’s good to hear that there are schools in Germany supporting them and I hope the number of those schools will increase in the future. I’m glad you had such a positive learning experience! Alles Gute!

  2. Lucie says:

    Hello Karin,

    thank you for this interesting insight into how the hiring in Prague language schools works. I completely understand your frustration and truly believe that this system should be change.

    I would like to add one factor that I think is very important. You say that we need to change the “native speaker equals great teacher” narrative, which is surely true. The other side of this statement is something which I think plays maybe even a bigger role: that a “non-native speaker (read: a Czech person) equals a bad teacher”. It is a fact that most Czech people who had a language teacher in primary or secondary schools have had a bad experience with them. This is true especially for the previous generation. Before 1989, Russian was compulsory in schools and after the revolution, many Russian language teachers suddenly transformed into English language teachers. They lacked motivation and especially the language skills. Their pronunciation was bad. I imagine that this has improved greatly ever since, but this thinking still stays with many parents who sign up their children for language courses. With a NEST, you at least have a guarantee that their pronunciation will be correct (albeit often unintelligible, depending on where they come from :P). This thinking is of course not desirable, but it is like that.

    Anyway, thank you for this and good luck!

    Lucie

    • Karin says:

      Dear Lucie,

      I couldn’t agree more with you! I’ve learned about the historical background and the transformed Russian teachers. It’s a very logical explanation for what has happened in the past and it’s a development nobody can really be blamed for; I don’t think I was a very motivated teacher if I was asked to teach a language I barely speak. I also agree with you that we have to make people aware of this misconception, of the fact that times have changed and that we should move on.
      Thanks a lot for your response and your input, it’s extremely valuable.

      Karin

  3. Ally says:

    Hi Karin,
    As a NEST, I do feel a little guilty that I am so highly valued in this industry simply because of the lottery of where I was born (England). I also agree with what I think the main point of your article is; that professional enthusiasm and qualifications come before being a native English speaker in making a good TEFL teacher.

    However I think that the explanation (possibly justified) behind why NESTs are so highly valued is that because the English Language is so archaically structured, even dedicated non-native students of the language will never comprehensively understand its nuances. However a native with just a reasonable education will, and as Lucy noted, if nothing else, can provide the correct pronunciation. I mean, your English is apparently impeccable, but your level is probably only in the top 0.1 percent of nNESTs.

    On the other hand, nNESTs are much more likely to be career orientated, and therefore professional however NESTS typically see TEFLing as a means to an end, lack the aptitude for it, and/or are industry cowboys. For instance, I’m probably a ‘middle of the road’ TEFLer in terms of quality however I remember one of my students state that I was the best she had ever had, though I hasten to add, explained that her previous ‘teacher’ had merely turned up for lessons and basically chatted. So I think the teacher quality levels are probably more consistent with nNESTs.

    Overall, I always assumed that NESTs and nNESTs were each other’s ying and yang; If one wants grammar, go to a nNEST. If one wants conversation and vocabulary, go to a NEST. They are both valued in their own way. I do agree that schools should seek a qualified TEFLer before they seek a native but a qualified native is always going to be more qualified than a non native because natives hold the final key in unlocking this language they say is easy to learn but hard to master.

    • Karin says:

      Dear Ally,

      Thank you for taking the time to reply. I can see where you’re coming from, but I hope you don’t mind me picking up on a couple of points I’m not too sure about:

      When you say a native, if nothing else, can provide at least correct pronunciation: Which English are we talking about? What is correct pronunciation? Are there more correct and less correct ways of speaking English within the native speaking community? Is a good teacher a good model or someone who can teach students how to produce a certain sound in English? Or both?
      I believe many NESTs and nNESTS are very competent when it comes to pronunciation and, I’m sorry to say, I’ve also experienced lots of experienced nNESTS and NESTs feeling extremely uncomfortable teaching pronunciation. Being a great model is a good thing but does not automatically make a competent teacher. And maybe the NEST teacher’s accent is not the learner’s target accent – what now? Do you think techniques could be more important than being a model? If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where a student simply couldn’t hear the difference between what he produces and what it should sound like, correct modelling won’t have taken you far. Techniques will though.

      A different angle and some more thoughts on https://teflequityadvocates.com/2014/10/26/can-nnests-also-be-good-pronunciation-teachers-by-laura-patsko-and-katy-simpson/

      I also don’t believe we should generalise the professional attitude of teachers based on their native language. Bad teachers are like bad chefs: You find them everywhere. Just like good chefs. You don’t have to be French to take cooking seriously and you don’t have to be a nNEST to take English teaching seriously. I’m proud to say that I’ve met dedicated English teachers from various countries.

      Although the yin yang analogy sounds nice, I believe it underestimates the skills of both, nNESTs and NESTs. I know that many schools use NESTs for communication and nNESTs for grammar, but I strongly disagree. From an extreme point of view this degrades NESTs to entertainers, having no competency in analysing their language structurally whatsoever. It implies they are living a life oblivious of the subject they teach. At the same time it suggests nNESTs are boring bookworms and sticklers to rules they’ve learned but can’t apply to real life. This, quite frankly, is an insult to both of us and shouldn’t be a thing at all.

      You say: “Natives hold the final key in unlocking this language they say is easy to learn but hard to master”. I’ve met plenty of NESTs who didn’t have that key. That key involves lots of skills. And I’ve also met many nNESTs able to give students an access to English. It might have nothing to do with their native language but with their attitude, language awareness and qualification.

      A nNEST will never be a NEST. I agree. But maybe the difference between the two is to 99.8% not crucial to language teaching.

      All I wanted to say with my article is, and I think here we come back to points we agree on: There are great language teachers and there are not so great language teachers. In most cases their native language has got very little to do with it.

  4. Helen Strong says:

    Hi Karin,

    I saw your name in the list of participants in Tyson Seburn’s webinar this afternoon and then found your blog post here. I enjoyed reading your story (despite the frustrating incidents!) and in fact couldn’t help laughing out loud at your reporting of some of your experiences (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.) It’s so absurd it’s laughable!

    Anyway, I wanted to respond to your comment: “I disagree with any website that posts job adverts asking for NESTs only” by letting you know that some of us in the field are indeed working to do something about this. I’m Chair of MELTA and we no longer accept job ads which include the term “native speaker”. Marek Interviewed me about this decision and you can read the full text here: https://teflequityadvocates.com/2015/02/25/refusing-to-accept-job-ads-for-native-speakers-only-interview-with-helen-strong/

    It may seem like our fight for equality in ELT is a slow and arduous struggle, Karin, but, to coin a well-known contemporary phrase, “Wir schaffen das” 😉

    Thanks for posting!

    Helen

    • Karin Krummenacher says:

      Hi Helen,

      Now it clicked! When I saw you in the webinar I knew your name was familiar. I read your interview when it was published.
      I work as a trainer for a Trinity accredited TEFL school in Prague and often receive job ads from language schools asking to spread the word.
      Frustratingly most of them ask for native speakers. The wording of the reply I send them was actually strongly inspired by the suggestions you made. So: Thank you!

      Dealing with language schools is daunting but thanks to people like you I know it’s not a lost cause. Thanks for your message!

      Karin

    • Karin says:

      Hi Andrew,

      Thank you so much for your offer! Actually, the article was written a while ago. I’ve been working as a full time teacher trainer for a whole while now and love it very much. However, I’m very happy to recommend your page to our trainees, we run 12 CertTESOL courses a year. Many of our trainees are multilingual. Thanks for reaching out!
      Karin

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