In reflection: Lessons learned after 2 years of hiring NNESTS by Andrew Davison

My experience working with NNESTs started just over 2 years ago when I setup my business Learn English Budapest. We’re not a language school, but rather an agency that matches up private English teachers with students in the city. The aim when I set out was to give teachers a convenient alternative to putting up flyers and posting on expat forums.

For the first few months I, like many other schools sadly still do, had a negative opinion of non-native teachers. I assumed natives were simply better at teaching the language, and it wasn’t until I was approached by Marek Kiczkowiak, founder of TEFL Equity Advocates, that I had a chance to really question my views on the matter.

What started as an exchange of emails on the subject of natives vs. NNESTS, turned into an experiment on my part. I decided to start accepting NNESTS onto my team to see what the results were and not even a few of weeks later I realised I’d been making a mistake by avoiding recruiting them.

At the time, I summarised my findings in an interview. Today I’m back, and happy to announce the launch of my new website Teacher Finder. It’s the same concept, except this time we’ll be matching people with language teachers in over a dozen cities worldwide. We’ll also be expanding into new languages: Spanish, Italian, French, Hungarian, Arabic and German, just to name a few. Of course, non-native teachers are more than welcome to apply.

For anyone else out there running an agency or language school, and who might be hesitant to work with NNESTS, I decided to reveal some of my findings over the last 2 years.

Most students value experience more than the mother tongue

When it comes to teaching, it is obvious that the most important qualifications are the teacher’s ability to explain their subject and, well, teach. This is especially true for language teachers. In a world where English is the international lingua franca, and the ranks of non-native speakers outnumber the natives by at least three to one, it is ridiculous to think that non-natives can’t be as good teachers as the “chosen ones” who are born into an English-speaking language environment.

There is one thing you can’t learn from a textbook, however, and that is experience. Whenever I have the choice between an experienced non-native teacher and a newbie native one – the former gets the job. Teaching is one of those professions that is more like an art and it takes everyone time to perfect theirs. That is especially true when it comes to teaching private students – knowing how and to what extent to tailor the offered lessons to the student’s needs is something that only practice can teach.

Students won’t demand a native teacher if you don’t give them the option

Of course, “native” still have a certain stereotype attached to it, and given the option, most people will still opt for one. Indeed, there used to be a tick box on the signup form on the Learn English Budapest website that said, “Do you want a native English teacher? Yes/No”. Not surprisingly, most people ticked native or nothing at all.

I decided to remove this box and instead replace it with a question that asked students “Describe what you perfect teacher would be like?” Over the next few months, it became obvious that students weren’t looking for someone who was native. They were more interested in finding a teacher who shares their interests and can sufficiently explain the topic they’re interested in.

From then on, I have had no students contacting me to complain about being matched with a non-native English teacher. Most are pleasantly surprised to see how well (often, even better than native speakers) NNESTS can explain complicated grammar and draw parallels with their native languages.

NNESTS can be more proactive

One of the factors that speaks loudest in favour of NNESTs is that they have experience with learning a language themselves. They have great understanding of what their students are going through and what might be the biggest obstacles to fluency.

Their own language learning experience has oftentimes also taught them some innovative techniques in how to better explain and understand English.  When I asked my teachers about the secret tips and tricks they find most useful when teaching English, I quickly saw that the NNESTS were the ones who knew so much more about how to keep constantly improving their (and their students’) language skills.

NNESTS tend to have better resources for teaching

Again, since NNESTS have been through the goliath task of becoming fluent in another language, they have most likely scoured the landscape of possible language learning resources to find the best. While NESTs have the luxury to always be able to fall back on being native speakers and can come up with “resources” off the top of their heads, NNESTs usually cover that gap by being a lot better prepared for lessons.

They’re also the ones to introduce students to more off-the-book language learning methods and help them improve quicker with language hacking. I’ve noticed that, as a rule, they also put a lot more effort into creating their own resources and combining different strategies to find the best way to teach any given student.

When it comes to teaching children, NNESTS often do best

When I think back to my own school days and the foreign language classes we had, I can’t remember a single native language teacher. When it comes to beginners and children, the ability to explain a language in their native language and to limit the pressure learners feel is irreplaceable.

When I was young and taking my first Spanish lessons, I wouldn’t have survived being confronted with an actual Spanish person listening to me make a mockery of their language. From what I’ve learned from the feedback I get from students they often feel the same way when they’re just starting off. The more advanced ones might be happy to be pushed out of their comfort zone, but children don’t tend to thrive in that environment.

Conclusion – While stereotypes about native teachers remain, NNESTs are often better equipped to teach English

Even on Teacher Finder, we still get people asking for native English teachers but, more often than not, they will not press the issue. We’ve also successfully managed to explain the benefits that come with having non-native English teachers.

I would say the biggest upside to having a NNEST teaching you is that they fully understand what you’re going through as a language learner. Since they themselves have struggled with the same grammar issues, they have an insight into what it takes to clearly explain the rules. This is especially important when teaching children, who can get discouraged by having a native teacher.

Although it, regretfully, took me a while to get there, I now realise that NNESTs can be better equipped and prepared to take on students than native teachers. In the end, all that really matters to students is to find someone they can connect with and who makes language learning fun, no matter whether they’re native or non-native.

andrew5041Andrew Davison is the founder of Teacher Finder and also enjoys writing and travelling in his spare time. He splits his time between living in London and Budapest.

Advertisements

9 thoughts on “In reflection: Lessons learned after 2 years of hiring NNESTS by Andrew Davison

  1. Leda says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Good thing you’ve decided to counter the stereotype head on. The world needs more and more of that – let good teachers do their job!
    Just one thing I found confusing – it is known that the number of L2 speakers of English nowadays outnumbers that of L1 speakers, nearly double according to a Wikipedia chart, so what did you mean by ‘starting to’ outnumber natives?
    https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/english-effect-report-v2.pdf
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Englishes
    Good luck with your new website!
    Leda

  2. Michael says:

    Only one small thing that I’d like to point out – I don’t agree that NNEST’s are better for teaching children in all environments. I taught complete beginners (1st class) in a regular primary school for 4 years, and I think I succeeded despite rarely using their L1.

    But I also came up with my own way of teaching. It would probably horrify most DELTA, Cambridge Examiner, MA TESOL types, but it was based around making the children comfortable. Lessons were slow paced, with the idea that it was better to teach the same concept in a variety of ways rather than to rush through the material like you’d find in the average language school. A lot of it was based around play, taking advantage of small class sizes (no more than 16) and a lack of pressure.

    It wouldn’t work in a traditional language school of course, nor would it work in a school that demanded huge progress – but it worked very, very well for making kids comfortable with being spoken to in English.

    It really depends on the expectations of the school. If kids are under pressure to learn and perform, then a NNEST is always going to be better in the beginning, because they can take shortcuts by virtue of speaking the language (well) of the kids. But I think in the long run, it does more harm than good, as kids then become dependent on the L1 and never really feel comfortable asking for help in the L2.

    Having said that, the current fashion for native speakers in kindergartens is frankly hilarious, not least because most of them are clearly an “add-on”, nothing more.

    • Andrew Davison says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for sharing your views. We only place teachers for private teaching settings – so I don’t have much insight into how things are in schools – but I’d say that lessons done at the child’s home probably fall into the ‘low pressure’ category.

      That being the case teachers have the opportunity to be more creative with their methods and fit them around the needs of the child. As you point out, in these situations, native/non-native is less important to the methods and techniques used.

      Andrew

  3. Tom Walton (@Tom_IHBCN) says:

    While I agree whole-heartedly that “non-natives” can be just as good as “natives” as teachers, I’m not sure I agree on the issue of experience.

    I was fortunate: after a couple of years I started working for a school which employed about 50/50 natives/non-natives as a matter of course — so I’ve had nearly 40 years appreciating what brilliant language teachers “non-natives” can make. But many of the “non-native” colleagues I started out were also young and inexperienced.

    What you say about experience is true; but my young, inexperienced colleagues brought something that I’ve seen lots of teachers lose over time: enthusiasm.

    Assuming the young teacher more or less knows what they’re doing, give me an enthusiastic teacher, one who is still learning, and eager to do so, over an experienced one that knows it “all” !

    • Andrew Davison says:

      Hi Tom,

      Completely agree with you! When we’re reading an application from a potential teacher, we’re far more interested in their path to becoming a teacher, what motivates them about the profession and what their plans are for the future, than we are about their nationality.

      That said, a CELTA, TEFL or some other formal training certification is a real must to make sure they fall into that “knows what they’re doing” category.

      Andrew

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s