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‘Cheeky Postcards: Lessons learned from being a trainer on TEFL courses’ by Daniel Baines

daniel bainesA teacher trainer, Daniel Baines, sheds light on the alleged advantages of native English speakers as language teachers from his experience on intensive initial teaching training courses. Daniel’s bio can be found below the article.

Intensive teaching certificate courses, or TEFL courses, flourish throughout Europe and a cross-section of a TEFL school at any given time during an intensive course shows an interesting and unique habitat.

In the classrooms: The future teachers, usually a mix of US, British and Australian citizens garnished with a bunch of Canadians and / or New Zealanders and one or two non-native English speakers. The trainees vary in their backgrounds and motivations. Many of them in their twenties, some far from it. Some undergrads, some career changers, some on their Euro trip, some serious, some not so much.

In the tutors’ office: A handful of trainers, trying to grasp the new course, making nerdy schwa jokes, discussing the possible pronunciations of “schedule” and trying to gorge their lunch before the next lesson.

This very habitat produces the native English speaking teachers that schools around the world scream and advertise for relentlessly while the non-native speaking teachers to graduate these courses are often harshly rejected like an uninvited by-product. Native or not: 4 weeks a teacher.

Prague, Czech Republic, a few courses back, week 1 of 4 on the course…

The trainers’ office is in a bit of an uproar because of cheeky Nandos. After their first day of teaching practice the trainees were exhausted and one of the Britons, Jim, gets a lot of laughs from his fellow countrymen for swearing about his inability to get “cheeky Nandos” in Prague. The trainers, two Americans and a Brit are startled. What is a cheeky Nando? What does one do with it and where is such an item purchased? Can it be bought at all? Or is it something you find within yourself rather than on a supermarket shelf? All we could tell was it had to be something desirable after a long day and Jim couldn’t get it – may this inability be extrinsic or intrinsic.  Nick, the Hungarian, laughs.  He’s spent the last 5 years living in Brixton and has been for more than a few “cheeky Nandos”, he says, on his way out into town for “a few jars”.

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/5fEukN

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/5fEukN

Fast forward: Week 2.  A row erupts between the trainees regarding a vocabulary activity designed to raise teacher awareness of small differences in meaning.  It’s a gap fill.  The answer is continually.  All of them (native speakers) bar three (two native speakers and a non-native) get this wrong and this is common, it happens every course, it’s the point of the activity really.  It usually ends with the tutor drawing a timeline on the board and explaining that continuous is without end and continual is repeated.  Not this time, however.  Nick comes to the rescue and casually and clearly explains the difference between them.  “How did you know that?” asks one trainee, mouth agape.  The answer was simple.  He learned it studying for his CPE exam.

Week 3: Trainees chuckle because Jack from Ohio, 54, who’s been living in the Czech Republic for over 15 years now, mispronounced Kanye West’s first name in an attempt to show that he’s as well informed as any twenty-something on the course.  Josh, a fresh from university young Englishman, tells a teaching practice group that he doesn’t actually know the prime minister of his own country.  And finally, to end the week, another row.  This time it’s about modal verb stacking.  Laura, from Louisiana argues that “I might could do that” is perfectly acceptable where she’s from.  This is met by universal derision.  She has more allies later, though, when studying the perfect aspect.  All the Americans jump to her defence to argue that when returning home to discover missing house keys, “Oh no! I lost my keys” is correct and, indeed, preferable to “Oh no! I’ve lost my keys”. Incidentally, Nick sided with the English stating that that’s what he was taught in school and heartily joined in with mockery.  He also knew the prime minister and how to pronounce Kanye, turns out he was a bit of a fan, (at least of the first three albums).

Week 4: Graduation! Happy faces. The trainees attend a so called job workshop where different language schools present themselves as potential future employers. All of them are looking for native speakers. Luckily there are loads of natives on the course.  Nick looks downhearted, and who could blame him? He moved to Prague with his Czech wife to be closer to his young daughter’s grandparents.  He took the course incredibly seriously, was loved by his students and was the only trainee that particular month to earn a distinction.  But apparently the jobs are off limits to him.

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Design @teflninja

I questioned one of the school directors some time later to ask why his employment policy is so discriminatory.  It was sad to hear the same sad reasons, repeated like a mantra.  He has no problem with non-native speakers, he is one himself, but native speakers have clear advantages.  Non-native speakers are great at teaching grammar because they understand it better, but natives are better at teaching vocabulary because they understand the nuances.  Native speakers are also better at teaching conversation courses, because they know how the language is used and can talk about things related to their culture, which is interesting for the students.  Of course, let’s not forget that native speakers have better pronunciation.

In the last 5 years I have trained over 1000 teachers and when you do that, some things become very evident, namely that these arguments hold no weight.  The examples above, Nick, Jack, Laura, Josh, serve to a series of simple facts.

  1. Native speakers do not always have an extensive lexical knowledge and those who do still have blind spots. I myself had to look up the word palpable after it was used by a Brazilian trainee in class and once watched a very well educated American girl teach a class that both George VI and Prince Charles could be considered ancestors of the Queen.
  1. Not all native speakers know a lot about their homeland culture and culture is so vast, how could they know it all anyway. I’m from a small seaside town in North West England and haven’t lived there for over a decade now. We don’t have Nando’s there, the nearest is 30 miles away, and I’d struggle to tell you anything about the culture these days as I take little interest in it.
  1. There is no one native speaker pronunciation. When I look back to my first ever lesson on my training course I still get a little red-faced remembering that my pronunciation was so hard for the students to follow that I had to write “bus” on the board for them to understand. It always raises a smile watching  students squirm in teaching practice trying to decipher the Glaswegian pronunciation of “girl”.

The biggest problem with this fantastical idea of the native speaker is not that all fit the profile described by the director above, which of course isn’t true, but the belief that somehow no non-native English speakers do.  Obviously, not all non-native speaker teachers have wonderfully rich vocabularies, excellent pronunciation, deep cultural awareness and native-like grammatical control.  There are many who don’t, just like there are many native speakers who also don’t.  Trust me, I’ve seen terrible non-native speaker English teachers, but I have seen equally inept native English speaker teachers. Being a native speaker of English doesn’t make you a teacher of it. Neither does being a non-native speaker of English. What does make you a good teacher is the ability to teach what you do know and, in many cases, a good amount of patience and charisma. Where someone is born doesn’t define their abilities to teach English at all. And I believe we should finally stop asking about birth places.

IMG_2145

One of the people who had everything it takes to make a brilliant teacher was Nick, our Hungarian trainee. So, where is he now? After the course he spent weeks sending out CVs only to get either no reply or a response saying they were looking for natives. He came in to see us asking for advice, so I suggested that he go around the schools door to door. Talk to them in person. Let them see how good his English is. Weeks later he came back, this time with a bottle of champagne for each of the tutors. It was a thank you gift. He told us how much he’d enjoyed the course, how much he’d learned, that he’d never forget it. He told us he’d only managed to get one interview and how he’d only been offered two lessons a week for one school. He told us how it had put a lot of strain on his marriage, how his wife had kicked him out because he wasn’t working, how he had to go back to Hungary to earn money again and leave his daughter behind. He also told us his bus left the following morning.  It was a thank you and leaving gift. It was heartbreaking, but all too familiar.  He worked as hard as anyone could to discover that it didn’t matter, because he wasn’t and never could be born in an English speaking country with the privilege of English as his mother tongue.  What are the qualities that make natives speakers the better option? I don’t know, but I’d certainly like to.  Answers on a postcard…

PS: apologies if you don’t get the reference, you might be a non-native speaker! Or a native speaker who didn’t grow up where/when I did. I’m sure you’re still a great teacher either way.

daniel bainesDan is a freelance teacher trainer from the North of England, based in Prague, who has been working in the EFL industry since 2004 and teacher training in some form of another for the last 7 years.  When not training the next wave of Prague’s English teachers he fills his time with teaching, course design, research and writing.  He has DELTA and a Master’s degree in TESOL and his dissertation is published and available through the British Council teach English page.  He is currently working in Nottingham where he is teaching presessional EAP to prepare overseas students to begin their post-graduate degrees in the autumn and generally hating the English weather, but loving the food.

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16 thoughts on “‘Cheeky Postcards: Lessons learned from being a trainer on TEFL courses’ by Daniel Baines

  1. Adrian Marriott says:

    I am continually amazed at the short shortsightedness of employers in the TEFL industry. I have seen many talented graduates from TEFL courses suffer the same fate as Nick and it is a sad loss to our profession. I guess their rationale is that it’s merely market forces.

    One suggestion I offer is for the teacher to send a video of themselves to potential employers. All the better if it’s of them teaching.

    Now I’m off for a cheeky slice for lunch.

    • Daniel Baines says:

      The video is a nice idea. Do you think that if the employers saw a video like this they would change their view? I feel that there is such an obsession with nativeness that even being the skills in action the lack of marketability would be the issue. After all it’s what the students want apparently.

      • Daniel Baines says:

        Should learn to proofread my comments first.

        *I feel that there is such an obsession with nativeness that, even after seeing the skills in action, the lack of marketability of a NNEST would still be the issue.

      • marekkiczkowiak says:

        But the interesting thing is that there’s absolutely no evidence to support the view that the majority of students prefer any NS to any NNS, regardless of everything else. And we’re talking about over two decades of academic studies done in different countries. Actually, there’s a lot of evidence that shows that students appreciate and are aware of the different strengths and weaknesses NS and NNS might bring into the class.

  2. Kurtis says:

    Exactly! This is so, so, so spot on. The very notion of being a native speaker is problematic. Native speaker of what? British, Canadian, Scots, Indian English? The vocab, pronunciation, and even grammar are different for each variety. I am from the Midwest in the USA and have had trouble understanding the variety of English spoken by someone two states south of where I teach international students now. The variety is way more vast than we tend to think, which means that not only can no one claim to understand and represent English as a whole, but that there is no reason for or even wanting that even if it were possible.

    • Daniel Baines says:

      “Native speaker of what?”

      This is a really good point. I guess that if ‘native speaker’ is one of the criteria, I probably shouldn’t even attempt to teach students who want to learn ‘American English’. I don’t deal with the ‘Queen’s English” too well either. I just need to wait for a huge boom of people who want to move to Northern England…

  3. Simon Battersby says:

    Very well written and I saw a similar article by Karin on the same topic. I would still argue that yes non-native teachers are going to kick our arse at grammar all day long and rightly so, but, and there is always a but; in almost every other aspect we have an advantage.

    Yes, it was pure luck as to where we were born, and yes non-native teachers can, in some cases easily, overcome this to become superb teachers, better than some native teachers. However, in general they are going to have to work significantly harder to be better at it and as such it is less likely to be the case, so why blame the schools for making a seemingly good bet?

    I have also met excellent non-native teachers and have also seen them turned down ostensibly just to save the time the language schools would have otherwise spent interviewing the many NNESTs who would have applied without a similar set of skills (Taken anybody?) if the opportunity was there.

    I don’t take a strong view in either direction, I just don’t fully agree with everything you write here and found the topic interesting enough to warrant a comment.

    Hope you are well.

  4. Pete Bright says:

    For anybody reading this, listen to Dan. He knows what he’s talking about. Worked with the guy in teacher training and know his mettle. Experience is a wonderful thing.

  5. José says:

    First of all, an excellent post. An evidence of what a friend was telling me- schools just think native English-speaking teachers are the best, and the ones to have. But I must say that the story of the Nick, the trainee, brought tears to my eyes. Absolutely sad! That’s horrible! All the best, sir.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Excellent post. As the head of dept at a primary school in Argentina, I’ve tried hard to have some native speakers in my staff. The main reason being that (at least at first) children must speak English to them. We often hide the fact they can speak Spanish. We don’t get away with it for long, but the kids address them in English most of the time anyway.
    They are also a good marketing tool, harsh as this may sound, but parents seem to think the school is “better” if it has native speakers among their staff. However, I make sure the groups get solid non-native teachers the following year, especially because native-speakers, in my experience, are usually worse not only at teaching gramar but at correcting pronunciation as well. So kids who have a good ear for the language improve their sounds naturally, but the rest usually don’t.
    I believe native speakers help kids become more open to other cultures but I wouldn’t try to have an all-native staff. And good point Kurtis, a native speaker of what?

  7. Penny says:

    Schools (state schools or private language schools) could insist on NES having at least a basic knowledge of the students’ mother tongue which would solve one problem (ie the inability of some NES to teach English grammar/vocab in a way which is sympathetic to the students’ mother tongue). It was only after I gained a basic working knowledge of Finnish grammar and vocabulary that I felt confident about teaching English up here, even though I had previous TEFL experience from France (I am bilingual English/French). An understanding of the students’ mother tongue also helps with teaching pronunciation.
    What is more challenging for me, is dealing with multicultural classes where I have Russians, Finns, Africans and Asians all in the same room.

    It’s a nice article but I think it fails to highlight one point: four-week TEFL courses are invariably aimed at getting native speakers up to speed in things like English grammar. They rarely teach things like the IPA and don’t even touch on things like pedagogics eg learning theories, different teaching methodologies.

    Something like a B.Ed/M.Ed or PGCE is possibly more valuable than any kind of TEFL qualification. That and experience in another field (business, engineering, law etc). More so now that ever before given the plethora of materials available.

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