Equity in ELT – who do we need to convince? by Kenneth Arnold

I fully support TEFL Equity advocates and want to fight discrimination, so I clicked on the link here about what we could do. One of the suggestions is to make a blog post about it, so here is my attempt.

Not discriminating against someone due to their place of birth seems such an obvious thing, I started wondering who we need to convince. Obviously we need to convince someone or it wouldn’t still be a problem. I have tried to narrow the situation down to four basic groups for the sake of simplification. I am speaking very generally here.

  1. Experienced teachers/Teacher Trainers: I’ll start with the category that I fall into. I’ve been involved in ESL for about 20 years now as have most of the people I work with and we have worked in a number of countries in Europe and Asia.

You only need to look around this blog or watch videos produced by all of the big names in this profession to see the support against discrimination. I personally don’t know of any teacher trainers who believe in native speakerism. This has no doubt come about through experience. Just working in this industry for any length of time will put you into contact with talented, qualified NNESTs. You can’t avoid them. And any teacher trainer will tell you there are strong and weak NNEST just like native speakers. NNESTs tend to have certain advantages, such as being about to empathize with their students. While you might occasionally find an experienced native teacher, teaching in isolation, who believes that “natives are the best”, it’s fairly clear that they have no real influence on the profession and for all intents are “flat-Earthers”.

So why are we spending time lecturing each other in conferences or by writing blogs trying to convince each other? It’s fairly clear you are preaching to the choir when it comes to convincing those who have experience in this area. I’m fully aware that anyone frequenting this blog doesn’t need any convincing.

  1. New/Pre-service teachers: A friend of mine did some research that demonstrated that new and pre-service teachers are much less likely to notice discrimination in general in our industry. This makes sense. Quite often this might come from marketing for TEFL courses (“If you can speak English, you can teach English.”) With native speakers, they are probably less likely to notice it because it is discrimination in their favour. Particularly if you are only planning on being in this profession for a short time, why not take advantage of it. And in general, more than anything, it could just be a lack of exposure/interest.

I know that for myself, as a young teacher all those years ago, I hadn’t really thought about it until I observed an experienced non-native at my school. She taught such a knowledgeable, organized lesson that I left feeling inadequate in my own teaching. Of course, it inspired me to try harder, learn more grammar and try to improve in many ways.

I see this on a monthly basis in my training courses. Native speakers are routinely convinced of non-native teachers’ effectiveness just by being around them, seeing them teach. Recently, I had a native speaker trainee, in the final week of the course, tell a Belgian trainee just how impressed with her he was, being able to do what he was doing, all in a second language. Evidence of a clear convert.

So while we can preach to new teachers about discrimination, you probably don’t need to hit them over the head with it. Just being around, working in the industry with NNESTs of ability should convince them. To be honest, new teachers are not involved in the hiring process anyway. So if they stay in the profession for any length of time and become an experienced teacher or trainer they should convert.

(Interestingly, NNESTs seem to not support each other on occasion. I remember at a conference, watching the eye-rolling of the audience of NNESTs when the next presenter with a clearly non-English sounding name was announced. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies)

  1. Language schools/Employers: It is pretty common to see Native Speaker clearly labelled among job adverts in any country it seems, quite often, almost without thought. (A local ad advertised “Real Native Speaker” as the first requirement. I wonder what prompted that the “real” be included? Of course, as a friend points out, it doesn’t specify “of English” so technically everyone is a “Native Speaker” of some language.)

In the EU, it is quite clearly against the regulations of discriminatory practice but still happens constantly. Most school owners will sheepishly shrug their shoulders and say that native speakers are what the clients demand.

Now why is this? In Prague, there is often a clear case of “Keeping up with the Jones’s”. Native speakers were once rarer therefore more prestigious to have. Students could boast, “I have an actual British teacher.” And feel better than their friends who were learning from a native Czech who had been teaching Russian up until everything changed. In the old days, teachers might be only a few units ahead of their students in the course books. Of course these days are long gone, but the hangover still remains.

While the language school owners’ answers might appear sheepish, they do strike at the heart of the matter. They are in a service industry and will do whatever the students demand. If, for some reason, students believed they were better taught by pink-haired female teachers with interesting dress sense, then you’d see hiring ads like “REAL pink haired teachers only.” In many ways, the owners are just following the market trends, like all businesses.

  1. Students: Which leaves us firmly in the lap of the students. For whatever misguided reasons, this myth is perpetuated by the clients. Theirs is the attitude which needs be changed to have any hope of ending the discrimination. As a former colleague once told me, “It all comes down to the students’ attitudes.”

And how do we change their attitudes? I’m open to ideas. Anyone? Anyone?

kenneth-arnoldKenneth Arnold has degrees in education and English and has worked in TEFL teaching and training since 1997. Originally from St. Louis, he completed his higher education with the Shenker TEFL certificate in Italy and the Cambridge DELTA. Kenneth has taught English in various countries including Malaysia, South Bohemia, Italy, Spain, and the U.S., in many academic settings. He currently works for TEFL Worldwide Prague. When not teaching or training, Kenneth enjoys history, reading, and spending time with his young daughters.

2 thoughts on “Equity in ELT – who do we need to convince? by Kenneth Arnold

  1. JT83 says:

    Good topic. You missed out a big one though – the actual countries themselves. Whilst the EU has free movement, visa laws are tight outside it and this makes it impossible to even discuss it most of the time. “Cant get a visa”.

    Even if non-natives can get a visa, the monetary investment to reward rate and utter slog of it is enough to put people off. The better jobs require you to already be living here (Japan), and this is usually stated on the job ad.

    And I can’t see these countries being in a hurry to change their visa laws, with many of them being expressly anti-immigration as it is.

    • Kenneth Arnold says:

      True enough. I guess I was trying to limit the topic to things which people in our profession have some influence over. I don’t know of any teachers in any countries who can influence visa laws. As you say, those things won’t change anytime soon.

      Thanks for the comment.
      Kenneth

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