Attitudes to discrimination in ELT job ads – the importance of teaching experience by Dan Baines

The first article in this series of blogposts looked at the general attitudes to discrimination around the industry in general. This second piece will look at the disparity of belief between trainee and novice teacher and those who are more experienced.

Trainee teachers and native speakerism

When contrasting the views of trainee teachers with the rest of the industry it can be seen that some of the data is consistent with the overall tendencies whereas some shows more variation. Regarding visible tattoos, requiring EU passports, asking for C1 proficiency and employment of Caucasian teachers, there is very little difference in these attitudes except that trainee teachers seem marginally more likely (6%) to see a language requirement as justification and are slightly more likely (again 6%) to see racist hiring policies in China as unjustified.

However, there seems to be a much greater disparity with the issue of native speaker requirements. Promisingly, 68% of teachers in general found the requirement for native English speakers to be both discriminatory and unjustified while the number of trainee teachers stands at a much smaller 50% meaning that 50% find this practice either justifiable (20%) or simply not discriminatory at all (30%).

The data also suggests that teachers become more aware of native speakerism as a form of discrimination as they move through their career. As can be seen in chart 1, the likelihood of considering nativespeakerism to be an unjustifiable form of discrimination seem to rise with experience.

This data would seem to suggest one, or a combination, of scenarios.


1. As teachers become more experienced, they become less likely to see being a NNEST as being a hindrance or to see being a NEST as a legitimate “qualification”
2. The trainee teachers who believe being a NEST is a legitimate requirement simply leave the industry.
3. Perceptions of what a NES is change over time and therefore changes their attitude.

There also seems to be a difference in interpretation when respondents are considered by job (chart 2). The groups who found native speakerism the least justifiable are the people in jobs that typically require a greater amount of experience (academic management and teacher trainers). What is interesting in the case of academic management is that these are often the people responsible for the hiring of teachers, so, possibly due to market demand, directors of studies are enforcing prejudices they disagree with whilst adding to the further discrimination of NNESTs. What is striking is that 73% of ex-teachers felt that these hiring practices were unjustified, suggesting that the reason for the change in attitude is not down to teachers simply leaving the industry.


What is a native speaker?

There was much less variation between trainee teachers and more experienced teachers when it came to defining the term native speaker (they were instructed to choose as many as they agreed with, not to choose one definition). As can be seen from chart 3, the distribution is very similar with “born in an English speaking country” and “grew up speaking English at home” being the most chosen options by both groups. However, with the exception of other, each option was chosen more frequently overall than it was by the trainee teachers, suggesting that the more experienced were more confident about how to define this term. Some of the differences may suggest that trainee teachers are less knowledgeable about issues such as World Englishes and bilingualism. Twice as many trainees chose to fill in the “other” field, but many responses contained contained rather vague phrases such as “mother tongue” or “first language”.


The biggest surprise with the data was that there was no overall consensus on what being a native speaker means. 65% was the highest percentage, with nothing else breaking, or in many cases coming close to, the 60% mark. If the professionals that make up the industry can’t agree on what this term means, why do we see it nearly everywhere we look.


Textbook and non-textbook examples

At the outset it was expected that trainees’ interpretation of well-known forms of discrimination and non-discrimination (racism, sexism, ageism, relevant skills and qualifications) would mirror the overall tendencies of the group. However, whilst this was found to be true for racism and the requirement for a high English proficiency, others differed. The surrounding context of the women’s college and the summer camp led to variation in opinion, with many stating the requirements of this specific context as the reason to justify the discrimination.

With the issue of the native speaker requirement, on the other hand, there was no such contextual justification. Nothing about the country or the type of position was mentioned at any point, but just that students prefer it and that NEST may just be better in some areas. It’s not surprising that over time teachers encounter native speakerism within the profession, but how often is this addressed in pre-service and early service education? It wasn’t mentioned on my CELTA nor was there any mention of it on my DELTA or MA TESOL.

Reasons for individual differences

Above I outlined 3 possible reasons for the disparity between trainees and the rest of the industry on the issue of native speakerism, but the evidence presented seems to suggest that there is only one conceivable reason for it. Firstly, there doesn’t seem to be a huge shift in definitions of what a NES is. If you separate the charts and lay one on top of the other, the distribution is nearly identical with the only significant differences being the open-mindedness in general responses, indicated by the higher percentages for each descriptor. The idea that those unaware of native speakerism or those who feel it is justified are leaving the industry also seems to be unfounded as ex-teachers were one of the most likely to see native speaker based discrimination to be unjustifiable. Which takes us back to the first explanation that awareness of the issue comes with experience.

Native speakerism and teacher training

This begs a couple of very important questions. Why is it taking so long for more teachers to acknowledge the discrimination in ELT? Why isn’t there any focus on issues of discrimination in teacher education courses? It seems unlikely that there is some kind of conspiracy to keep this a secret to protect the interests of NESTs, but more likely that when trying to force methodology, language awareness, teaching practice etc. into 120 hours, some issues are seen as simply less important. Silvana Richardson’s recent IATEFL plenary was a great step forward in addressing the elephant that has been camped in the room for decades, but in many ways she was preaching to the choir. The standing ovation at the end was deserved and you could see the emotion in the eyes of those present as she described their experiences through her own, but these people are the industry. How are we sending the message to those who have yet to join?

Many institutions, TESOL France and IATEFL, to name a couple, have taken a firm stance on job advertisements with discriminatory language, but the fact still remains that dozens of ads are posted elsewhere everyday that go unchecked. The jobs themselves are frequently aimed at teachers with minimal classroom experience, instead preferring a place of birth as the experience to supplement CELTA/Cert TESOL, making them appealing for teachers fresh from training courses. As a result, many teachers unknowingly fuel the fire of this discrimination by applying for and accepting these jobs and furthering the idea that NS status makes a significant difference to one’s ability to do the job. If this is the case, teachers deserve to be fully informed about the myth they are perpetuating and the biases in the industry; some will inevitably exploit to their own ends, but others may take a stand and educate others.

There has been a lot of recent debate about whether initial teacher training courses privilege NEST and there have been many fine arguments put forward by both sides. However, what does remain clear is that there is definitely inadequate attention given to issues such as this despite there being so many opportunities for its inclusion. Most courses offer some kind of career support, so why not take 15 minutes to highlight the kind of prejudice that exists? Why not find an hour to look at qualities of good teaching/teachers and explore where this fits within the NEST/NNEST dichotomy?

[from the editor: If you’re looking for inspiration for activities, check out the article Dan Baines co-wrote with Marek Kiczkowiak and Karin Krummenacher, which is available here. You might also want to take a look at sample lesson plans here, or attend the upcoming webinar with Michael Griffin and Zhenya Polosatova entitled: Exploring NNS issues in a teacher training course.]

daniel bainesDaniel Baines is the Director of Studies at Oxford House Prague and a Trinity CertTESOL and DipTESOL tutor. He holds an MA TESOL from Sheffield Hallam University and has given talks at conferences in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Spain and most recently at IATEFL in the UK. His primary research interests are native speakerism in ELT and reflection in initial teacher training. He was a finalist in the 2014 British Council ELT Masters Dissertation Award.

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4 years ago

I only hire teaching staff who are a) qualified and experienced teachers and b) who were socialized in a country where English is the official language (de jure or de facto). I would not hire anyone who doesn’t satisfy both requirements.


[…] you know that 50% of trainees on certificate level TEFL courses Dan Baines surveyed find job ads for ‘native speakers’ only acceptable? In other words, 50% of people taking […]


[…] a shame these topics are not part of the curriculum because when Dan Baines surveyed several hundreds of trainees, teachers, trainers and directors of studies; it turned out 97% of the […]

3 years ago

Personally the market is what the market is. Going on a campaign towards changing it is a waste of time. Better to analyse the weak spots in it and exploit it to your native or non-native advantage. Personally as a foreign native in this city I get mistreated by some landlords, shopowners, etc so the chance to get a one up on the system is an opportunity I take every time.

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