#ELT chat summary on whether, or rather how leading ELT organisations should support non-Native English Speaking Teachers’ rights

The topic for the #ELT chat on March 18th was whether leading ELT organisations should support NNESTs (Non-Native English Speaking Teachers) and stop discrimination against them. Unfortunately, I feel this topic was not really addressed by the participants and the discussion focused mostly on the market demand for NS (Native English Speakers) and the various strengths and weaknesses each group typically has. You can read the full transcript here. To me, the question of whether leading ELT organisations should get involved is a rhetorical one. Of course they should. The question is how they could do this and why most don’t. In this article I’ll summarise the main points raised in the discussion and end with suggestions for how ELT organisations could indeed get involved to speak out for an industry that treats both NS and NNS (Non-Native English Speakers) equally.

Some background

For those of you less familiar with the issue, according to research NNS outnumber NS by about 5:1 (Crystal, 2013). Yet, numerous studies (e.g. Selvi, 2010; Kiczkowiak, 2015) have shown that about 70% of all ELT jobs advertised on-line are for NS only. In fact, as in the example below, some recruiters treat being a NS as a qualification. Any degrees in ‘nativeness’ anyone?

In some places it’s even worse. No qualifications or degrees required. “Anyone who shows a genuine interest” will be considered. As long as they are a NS. This reminded me of Ruecker and Ives’ (2014) findings which showed that ELT job ads tend to emphasise benefits (e.g. travel, exotic countries, good lifestyle, etc.) rather than experience, qualifications, or professionalism.

And by NS the recruiter doesn’t mean being completely proficient, e.g. IELTS 9. They mean somebody who was accidentally born in and has a passport from not any English-speaking country, but usually from the 9 “inner circle” ones, as Kachru (1982) put it. As a result, any potential native speakers from the remaining 51 sovereign states that also have English as one of their official languages are also excluded. A clear contravention of EU legislation and an example, some would argue, of race-based hiring policies (see Michael Griffin’s post about how it’s done in Korea).

Design: @Teflninja

Design: @Teflninja

The market demand

But NS is what students want, isn’t it. And ELT as any other business has to respond to the market demand, otherwise the customers will go somewhere else. This argument has become so deeply ingrained and is so often quoted that we hardly ever pause to question its validity.

Design @teflninja

Design @teflninja

Of course, there are students who prefer to be taught by NS. How many, though? Are they the majority? And would they always prefer any NEST over any NNEST? I honestly doubt it. Some might be initially prejudiced against NNESTs, because of negative previous experience. Others might think that only a NEST can teach them ‘real’ English, ‘correct’ pronunciation or give cultural insights. But many might have simply been duped by the ELT advertising machine, which has done its best over the years to convince their clients that their beliefs about NEST = BEST are well-founded. Can’t or rather shouldn’t the very same ELT advertising machine now do its best to educate their customers out of this misconception? Because we mustn’t forget that neither EFL students nor their parents are informed clients. They come to us, because they seek expert’s advice on how to best learn English. And we’re not afraid to give it to them and question numerous other misconceptions about learning languages they might have. Why aren’t we prepared to question their belief that only a NS can be a good English teacher? Imagine a patient coming to the doctor and requesting a certain type of treatment. The doctor knows that this treatment is a placebo, and that in fact there are numerous other more advanced treatments available on the market. Yet, the doctor feels obliged to respond to the customer’s demand for fear the patient might choose a different specialist next time. Sounds familiar? I find it morally questionable at least that we’re prepared to deceive our students into thinking that NESTs = BEST and to afraid to question this belief. And pathetic that the ELT industry agrees to shape its employment policies based on demands of those who know least about learning languages, while those who know most (click on the hyperlinks for opinions of teacher trainers, linguists and ELT professionals) have been saying for decades: that being a NS has nothing to do with being a good teacher. We’re deluding ourselves and lying to our students.

Design: @Teflninja

Design: @Teflninja

NS or NNS: who’s worth more:

This is a question posed by the great Peter Medgyes (1992), which has since attracted a lot of attention and – more recently – criticism. It was also discussed during the chat. There is no doubt that a stereotypical NNS has numerous strengths. For a brief overview you can read James Taylor’s post or watch Eszter Hajdics’ presentation. And I don’t think anyone would question that a stereotypical NS also has numerous virtues. However, I agree with Selvi (2014) and Michael Griffin that Medgyes’ question misses the point. By dividing teachers into two antagonistic and dichotomous camps, it plays into the numerous existing stereotypes and creates new ones. There are countries were a NS will typically get conversation classes. Because this is supposedly what they’re only good at. And a NNS will typically get low levels, because this is supposedly where their teaching strengths are. I really suggest we rethink this approach and talk about the qualities of good teachers instead. As David Crystal put it in this interview:  “It is metalinguistic knowledge, combined with fluency, that ultimately produces the most efficient language teachers. Fluency alone is not enough.” Nor being a NS.

Design @teflninja

Design @teflninja

It should anger you as a NS that your biggest asset is your passport, because this puts into serious doubt your professionalism, dedication and years of study to become the great teacher you are now. Have you ever realised that you might have been hired although there were better suited candidates who just happened to have been born in a non-English speaking country? While the terms NS and NNS might accurately describe the situation of other languages, they have become misnomers when it comes to English, a language which has gone global and is no longer owned by the British, the US, the Australians, the Irish, or any other nation. It’s become the property of the whole world, and we should do our best to embrace this change and reflect it in the classroom. And while the terms NS and NNS might be good approximations for the layman, they should really have no place in the professional EFL discourse. Especially, we should object to them being used in job advertisements and to evaluate prospective teachers. For as Peter Lahiff succinctly put it in this article, they are “unsound recruitment criteria”. And perhaps more importantly, because such ads contravene EU legislation.

Why should we get involved?

Because for decades the ELT community acquiesced to the marginalisation of their colleagues and now your colleagues need your help. Because the current state of affairs doesn’t reflect the incredible multiculturality and diversity of the English language. Because we are professionals who have studied hard to become teachers and the hiring policies don’t reflect this. And because we care about our students and want them to have the best possible teachers, chosen based on merit, qualifications and experience, not the content of their passport.

Design: @Teflninja

Design: @Teflninja

How can the leading ELT organisations get involved?

As I said at the start and have argued throughout, to me it is not a question of whether, but how. If you’re an individual interested in getting involved, see this link for some suggestions. If you’re a TA (Teaching Association), the first step you might want to take is to conduct a survey among your members to establish what they think about the issues described above. Next, issue a public statement against discrimination, such as this one first issued by TESOL International over two decades ago (for more anti-discrimination statements click here). If you have a job listings section on your website, filter out job ads which require the candidate to be a NS and contact the recruiters to rewrite their ad (hats off for TESOL International, TESOL France, MELTA and IATEFL for taking the lead here). If you consider these steps to be too political, controversial or beyond the remit of your TA, you could include webinars and workshops on the topic in your PD agenda and ensure that a balance between NS and NNS speakers is maintained. If you’re a publisher, consider giving opportunities for writing materials to aspiring NNS writers. There will no doubt be a growing need for NNS recordings and models as more and more students interact in English primarily with other NNS. By giving voice to the ever-growing diversity of English, your books might be at the cutting edge. The issues of what it means to be a good English teacher, respective strengths and weaknesses of NESTs and NNESTs could also make for very interesting discussion materials. If you’re a leading language school chain, adopt equal hiring policies to ensure you hire the best possible teachers out there. Do not allow your affiliate schools to post ads such as the one below. While they might be able to shape their recruitment strategy, it is in the best interest of everyone that it abides by the law:

[I have contacted Lucy Horsefield, Chief Operating Officer at IH World about this, and her response can be found below the article] Can’t “We only employ the best of the best” slogan be an equally good, if not a better marketing strategy than “We only employ NS”? This might put you at the forefront of change and steer you clear of contravening EU anti-discrimination laws. It will also ensure you actually hire the best possible candidate. And if you’re already committed to equal employment opportunities (e.g. the British Council), consider taking steps to spread equity beyond your organisation to the wider ELT community. This could be done through workshops and webinars, for example. Finally, if you’re an accrediting body, ensure that NNESTs and NESTs are indeed treated equally in a given school. Consider adopting a set of equality rules the school has to follow in order to become accredited. And encourage a frank and open dialogue with teachers about their working conditions.

Final thoughts

I might have painted a rather bleak picture of the current state of ELT. However, as I wrote in this post, I am convinced that change is indeed possible and that each and every one of us can be an agent of this change (see James Taylor’s post for more concrete ideas how to get involved). Let’s work together for an ELT industry that gives equal opportunities to everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin, gender, sexual orientation, age or mother tongue. Tweet about this to @TEFLequity with #TEA hashtag and join the campaign on FB/teflequityadvocates If you’d like to further support the campaign, please add this badge with a link to teflequityadvocates.com on your blog or site. You can visit #ELTchat website here and follow them on Twitter and FB. References:

  • Crystal, D. (2012). English as a global language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kachru, B. B. (1982). The Other Tongue. English Across Cultures. Urbana, Ill. University of Illinois Press
  • Kiczkowiak, M. (2015) NEST only. IATEFL Voices 243.
  • Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: Who’s worth more? ELT Journal, 46, 340–349.
  • Ruecker, T., & Ives, L. (2014). White Native English Speakers Needed: The Rhetorical Construction of Privilege in Online Teacher Recruitment Spaces. TESOL Quarterly. doi: 10.1002/tesq.195
  • Selvi, A. F. (2010). All teachers are equal, but some teachers are more equal than others: Trend analysis of job advertisements in English language teaching.WATESOL NNEST Caucus Annual Review, 1, 156-181.

Lucy Horsefield, Chief Operating Officer at IH World in response to my email concerning the ad from IH Katowice:

“Thank you for drawing our attention to this. The school concerned has been contacted and the advert will be changed.

We have been educating our affiliates on a regular basis about this and taking action to raise awareness. At our DOS conference in 2014 we had Prof. Péter Medgyes as our plenary speaker and indeed we discussed this very topic at our Directors’ Conference last week.

However, staff change in schools and I think on this occasion someone was been tasked with recruitment without being made aware of this issue. With this in mind we will contact all our schools again to bring the matter to their attention again. International House World Organisation strongly supports the employment of teachers based on their language proficiency, regardless of their nationality.

A person working at one of the IH schools has told me that all Directors of Studies at all IH schools have received an email from Lucy Horsefield reminding them that IH World is against using the term native speaker in the ads, believes teachers should be hired on merit and skills and that schools using discriminatory language in job ads might face legal action.

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3 thoughts on “#ELT chat summary on whether, or rather how leading ELT organisations should support non-Native English Speaking Teachers’ rights

  1. neilpma says:

    “It should anger you as a NS that your biggest asset is your passport, because this puts into serious doubt your professionalism, dedication and years of study to become the great teacher you are now.” Quite right, Marek. Thank you for the illuminating post.

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