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Resilience is the key: my journey as a non-native speaker teacher by Eleni Symeonidou

I am going to share my journey and lessons learnt as a non-native in the ELT industry in the hope that others will feel that they are not alone if they have had unpleasant experiences, and empowered about their teaching identity.

I come from Greece where I did my BA in English Language and Literature and where I started my teaching career in 2006.  After 6 years of teaching English in Greece and an MA in ELT, I decided, I wanted to experience teaching in a different part of the world.

That’s when I came across a phenomenon that was new to me. The phenomenon of native speakerism. I joined job search websites where companies from around the world were asking for native speaker teachers. 

For a couple of months, I was put off from even applying for positions, as in many application forms there would be a selection button for your country of origin with the only options of US, the UK and another 4 countries. After some time, I started hitting the first option on the list. The fact that I was very much lying was not something I was comfortable with, but I knew I would never even make it to the interview stage otherwise.

Eventually my plan worked!

I landed an interview where I was honest about my nationality and the reason why I had decided not to disclose it in the initial form. The Director of Studies that interviewed me was very understanding, and a few months later I found myself in China, in a city called Hangzhou, to teach English for a large private education company.

I was very confident about myself, feeling that I had all the right qualifications and experience necessary for the job. The industry was small where I was at the time, with around 15 English teachers in the whole area. I found that I was way more qualified than any of the other teachers, but native speakerism caught up with me again.

And surprisingly it didn’t come from my students, but other teachers.

Time and again I would be asked ‘Why are you teaching English? You are Greek.’ My answer was usually passive aggressive ‘I have x qualifications and x years of experience. Why are YOU teaching English?’ and then cut off the conversation. In hindsight this reaction did little to promote awareness on the issue.

I later understood that a more in-depth conversation about who English belongs to, and who should be teaching it would have been way more beneficial for all parties involved. They would have perhaps understood why this question was perceived as disrespectful from my perspective and I would have felt better if I had helped make a change in someone’s mindset.

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After a year in Hangzhou, I decided that I wanted to live in a larger city like Shanghai.

I started looking for jobs again and for the third time my nationality became an issue. Most companies wouldn’t even reply to my emails.

Once, I got an interview with a well-known company. Ten minutes in the interview, the recruiter told me that they are looking for more native accents. I was completely taken aback. I hadn’t even managed to talk about my skills and go beyond basic information about myself.

Anger and frustration surged again but I couldn’t let this experience stop me.

I had an interview with another company and at the end of it, the recruiter told me ‘You made my day. It’s not often that I get to interview people who are truly passionate about teaching. I will fight for you to get this job.’

And she did!

At the time the laws about who is eligible to teach in Shanghai were different and she managed to get me the job. I felt grateful that I had the luck to meet someone who understood what I could bring to the table and who looked beyond my passport. But the fact that she had to ‘fight’ for me still didn’t sit right with me.

Life went on and I started working in an adult language school. Similarly, to my first year in China, I was respected by my learners and never faced any issues regarding my nationality. In this new context I was able to thrive and eventually get my DipTESOL and become a teacher trainer. In my career as a trainer, I mainly worked with Chinese teachers.

I was proud to see them get senior teacher and DoS positions. I made sure to dedicate free time on my schedule to mentoring some of them personally to make sure that they will get the recognition they deserved. Whenever nationality would come up, I would use myself as an example of ‘Nothing is impossible’. I’d say ‘I’m a Greek, in China, training others how to teach English. If I can make it, anyone can.’

If I had to boil all these experiences into 3 key lessons, these would be:

  1. Resilience is key. As with anything in life, resilience is a skill that will go a long way when it comes to facing challenges regarding your nationality, accent etc. The NNEST journey may not always be easy, but persisting on your aims and goals and being flexible can never be wrong!
  2. People make all the difference. As in my case, there were people who chose to be’ negative and people who chose to be supportive. I found it was more productive to focus on the ones who would help me go further, than to sulk over the ones who would be barriers.
  3. Engage with the issue. Have conversations, read others’ experiences or write about your own. Any sort of engagement will help raise awareness on the challenges NNESTs face and hopefully close another inch in this gap in people’s perceptions.

About

Eleni is a teacher trainer and CertTESOL course director, who specializes in reflective skills and professional development. She has been in the ELT industry since 2006 and comes from sunny Greece. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature, an MA in ELT and a DipTESOL. She can be reached at elenisymeonidou@hotmail.com or on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/eleni-symeonidou/ 

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Rachel Tsateri
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Great article and well done Eleni!

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