On the 31 October 1991 my ten-year old dream came true – I became an English teacher.
I was born in Belgrade, the capital of former Yugoslavia, today Serbia. I successfully passed my State Certification Exam there too. I worked not only as a teacher in a high-school but also as a Sworn Court Interpreter. I had an excellent score on TOEFL 620/700 and I obtained Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English. In other words, things were going great.
In 2002 my husband got a new job in the aeronautics and we moved to Toulouse in southern France. There, I was told that I had to redo my last two years of graduate studies if I wanted to work again as a teacher. Which I did.
I first did 3 years of French at the university obtaining the C2 level in French and the Certificate of Teaching French as a Foreign Language. Afterwards, I studied English at the French university for two years together with students who were almost half my age. I passed all my exams and went to teach in collèges (higher grades of elementary schools in France) and in Lycées (grammar schools).
The atmosphere was such that I very soon realised that I must hide the fact that I was from Serbia. I let the students for a long time believe that I was from Russia, since my name is Tatiana. I did not say it myself, but I never denied when they when they concluded (wrongly) that I am Russian.
Yet, how stupid and unnecessary seemed to me to have to do that. I do not like lying and I felt humiliated having to lie about my origin. I knew I was a good teacher of English and I never stopped believing in that. Little did I know that it was just the beginning of the ‘long and winding road’ (the name of one of Beatles’ songs).
I could not stand any longer having to lie to teenagers and found a job in a private school of foreign languages. I felt like an ugly duckling there. Some of the students and fellow teachers were treating me badly because of my origin – I was neither a native speaker of English nor a French teaching English. This lasted for a year and finally I decided to take some time off; otherwise, I felt I was going to burst.
So I quit and started doing private tutorial classes and giving volunteering teaching lessons to the groups of adults who were very kind and appreciated very much both my work and my personality. I kept on applying for teaching jobs. However, every time I met the school manager the first question I was asked was always “Where do you come from?”.
My friends told me to lie, to invent British parents, phony Anglosaxon name (a common phenomenon – when I worked in a collège I met an excellent teacher of English who was French, so good that she objectively did not need to lie about her origin, but who spoke French with a false English accent all the time), but lying my way through life was never my idea of living. So, many times the conversation with my potential employer was finished after just one question.
And then, suddenly, when I almost gave up hope, one employer did not ask me anything about my origin. One of the things he asked me at the job interview was to speak English and I got the job. From that moment on my life changed completely.
I became a self-employed teacher of English working full time and often overtime. I do ‘prépa concours’ courses preparing young French students for very complex and difficult entrance exams for Les Grandes Ecoles (Private Elite Universities). I also prepare students for IELTS, TOEFL, GMAT (verbal part), ACT, SAT, TOEIC, BULATS and other English language exams.
The proof that I am a good teacher is that my students pass their exams. I never hide from them where I am from. If they insist, I sometimes tell them my little life story and they find it inspiring because they are learners of English themselves.
In addition, with regard to the level of preparation of a teacher of a foreign language I can say that I have a C2 level of French and the Teaching Degree, but can I teach French to a C level student? I don’t know. I can definitely teach levels A1 – A2, I might help somebody who is a B1 level or B2 maximum.
However, never, never in my whole life has it happened to me to come to my lesson unprepared. Never. I am proud of myself and do not feel that my origin is a handicap, but a source of strength because a native English teacher wouldn’t know what it is like to learn English.
I am the member of TESOL France and I admire and respect a lot both my NNEST and NEST colleagues. They are my role models and my inspiration. They are my teachers and I will never stop learning from them. They are dedicated, serious and enthusiastic about their job just like me. We teachers understand that we must never stop developing ourselves professionally, learning from the best among us and modernising our teaching methods.
So this is my story with a happy-end. I think that I was very, very lucky. The important thing, though, is to never stop trying, to keep on searching – somehow at the end the pains will prove to be worth it. However, I am not sure that all similar stories have a happy ending like mine.
To sum up, I would like to emphasise that the quality of teaching does not necessarily come from being a NEST. It is simply based on doing our best, on loving our job and believing that we have become the teachers of English, the first world language today, in order to build bridges, connections and communication between people of different origins, thus diminishing any prejudice, discrimination and bias that degrades our human and professional dignity
Tatiana Njegovan, originally from Serbia is a self-employed tacher of English in Toulouse, France