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Discrimination in English language teaching job ads: Interview with Lee Mackenzie

Recently, I’ve talked to Lee Mackenzie about discrimination in ELT job ads. Lee has researched different forms of discriminatory hiring practices in ELT and shares some insights into ageism, racism and native speakerism in ELT job ads in Colombia and other parts of the world.

Watch the video from our LIVE chat and read the blog post Lee’s written. In it he gives more detail about the research he’s conducted. 

Native-speakerism

In my over 15 years of experience as a ‘native-English-speaking’ teacher and teacher trainer across four continents, one injustice has remained constant: native-speakerism.

Native-speakerism, the belief that “teachers represent a ‘Western culture’ from which spring the ideals both of the English language and English language teaching methodology” (Holliday, 2006, p. 385), has no doubt furthered my own career (most notably in my work as a CELTA tutor for Cambridge English, and as a conference and workshop presenter in various contexts), while the careers of other more talented individuals, who happen to be from “non-native English speaking countries” have stalled.

A case in point is my Venezuelan wife, an excellent English language teacher who always receives glowing praise from her students, and whose commitment to the profession is laudable. 

Researching discrimination against non-native English-speaking teachers

But how does one go about investigating discrimination? Does one simply knock on the door of a native-speakerist institution (of which there are still far too many) and ask permission to investigate discriminatory practices?

And how many ‘non-native English-speaking’ teachers who have struggled so hard to make it in a biased industry would willingly speak of their experiences (especially given the increasingly precarious and casual nature of English teaching in many regions)?

One solution is provided by Selvi (2010) and Mahboob and Golden (2013) who both analyse job fora for evidence of discrimination. In Colombia, where I currently work, such jobs are regularly posted on Facebook groups for English teachers, and despite often angry responses from ‘non-native English-speaking’ teachers, many of these job postings continue to discriminate on the basis of “nativeness”.

For those reluctant to speak out due to the ease with which an English teacher can be shown the door in this region (‘native speaker’ or not), conducting an analysis of job ads on social media websites is a useful covert means of exposing discrimination.

What did I find?

What I found when conducting such an analysis in Colombia is that native-speakerism is also bound up with “coloniality” (Grosfoguel, 2000).

This ideology provides a compelling explanation for the inferiority complex many Colombians have expressed when speaking of their culture and nation vis a vis countries in the Global North in general, and the US in particular, and the findings in my study suggest that coloniality intersects with native-speakerism to stack the odds against ‘non-native English-speaking’ teachers. Surprisingly, while it has been suggested that native-speakerism is more prevalent in private institutions (the argument being that private schools are merely complying with students’ requests for ‘native English-speaking’ teachers), the policies of the Colombian government actively encourage native-speakerist practices.

The most blatant example of this is the government’s recent decision to recruit thousands of “native foreign educators” (MEN, 2016, para. 5) to work alongside Colombian teachers (often with a better salary and working conditions) regardless of whether these “native foreigners” actually have a teaching qualification or not.

My study also reveals that native-speakerism is not the only way that Colombian employers discriminate when hiring English teachers: discrimination on the basis of gender, age, accent and nationality was also found. These findings are particularly shocking given that Facebook is opposed to discrimination along the lines of “personal attributes such as race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, disability, medical or genetic condition” (Facebook, n.d., para. 1).

What is to be done?

I would argue that one of the main reasons that our profession is in such a mess (the increasing worldwide trend towards hourly contracts, larger and more heterogeneous classes, ever more unrealistic student demands, greater teacher accountability, more administrative control, increasing marketization and commodification of learning, exploitative working conditions/salaries and so on) is due to the preference for ‘native English-speaking’ teachers, regardless of their qualifications, level of experience or commitment.

Such “backpackerisation” (Mackenzie, 2020, p. 15) can only have negative consequences and has to stop for the sake of all passionate and dedicated English language teachers.

So how are we to counter such discriminatory practices?

One way is to conduct more research into discrimination, and to raise awareness of its continuing prevalence in the industry. And such discrimination does not end after recruitment: employers continue to prefer ‘native English-speaking’ teachers in the workplace, often paying them more; giving them the best teaching schedules, and the most enjoyable types of class; and promoting them over their often more qualified, more experienced ‘non-native English-speaking’ teacher counterparts (who must also endure the indignation of being observed, evaluated, “trained” and even hired by such ‘native English-speaking’ teachers).

If research is not your thing, I would also suggest countering discrimination in the classroom. Whenever a student suggests that “native speakers” are better teachers, or makes disparaging comments about ‘non-native English-speaking’ teachers, we can employ a three-step strategy: engagement, exploration, and exposure (Mackenzie, 2020).

We can start by engaging the student (who may also be a paying customer) in dialogue rather than dismissing her out of hand. This, then, leaves the door open for exploration of the prejudice by enquiring into the reasons behind it. This might involve asking the student to define a native-speaker:

  • Are Jamaicans native speakers?
  • What about Indians?
  • Singaporeans?
  • Welsh (for many of whom English is a second language)?
  • Canadians (including French Canadians)?

By means of such questioning, the teacher can expose the prejudice for what it is: a belief based on an artificial construct which serves the interests of the core English-speaking countries (the US, Australia, UK, New Zealand) and often works against the interests of the very students who express such bias (TEFL Equity Academy has a whole course about raising students’ awareness of native speakerism).

Such a strategy can also be employed in online job for a since such discrimination, if unchallenged, will inevitably persist.

For the sake of all of us who care deeply about this profession, we should not and cannot remain silent.

References

  • Facebook. (n.d.). Discriminatory practices. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/policies/ads/prohibited_content/ discriminatory_practices
  • Grosfoguel, R. (2000). Developmentalism, modernity, and dependency theory in Latin America. Nepantla: Views From South, 1, 347–374
  • Holliday, A. (2006). Native-speakerism. ELT Journal, 60, 385–387. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccl030
  • Mackenzie, L. (2020). Discriminatory job advertisements for English language teachers in Colombia: An analysis of recruitment biases. TESOL Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.535
  • Mahboob, A., & Golden, R. (2013). Looking for native speakers of English: Discrimination in English language teaching job advertisements. Voices in Asia, 1, 72–81.
  • Selvi, A. F. (2010). All teachers are equal, but some teachers are more equal than others: Trend analysis of job advertisements in English language teaching. In B. Brady (Ed.), The WATESOL NNEST Caucus annual review (Vol. 1, pp. 156–181). Retrieved from https://www.watesol.org/NNEST-Caucus-Annual-Review

Lee Mackenzie was born and educated in the UK. He has worked as a teacher and teacher trainer across four continents and 18 countries. He  is currently based in Barranquilla, Colombia, where he works as a Business English teacher for Universidad del Norte. He is nearing completing of his PhD in Education and Social Justice. 

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Maria Fano
Maria Fano
1 month ago

Hi! This is very interesting. I have just finished my degree in Linguistics and in one of my assignments I did a study using corpus linguistics on discrimination in TEFL jobs in the U.K. and Spain and I found that there was more discrimination in Spanish adverts towards non-native speakers than in the U.K. adverts. In Spain they gave more importance to the nativism than to qualifications or experience whereas in the U.K. they valued the experience and qualifications more. In my research I even found evidence of non-native speakers feeling inferior after years of students and parents wanting NESTs… Read more »

Maria Fano
Maria Fano
1 month ago

Hi! Sorry I have only seen your message now. I have not published my study but will be happy to share my findings of course 🙂
Let me know how I could proceed to share it. Thank you.

Uschi Ensel
Uschi Ensel
1 month ago
Reply to  Maria Fano

Hi Maria, I used to work in Spain, mostly teaching my native language (German) and I totally agree with you. I worked for an academy that employed one non-native with excellent language knowledge and who spoke without a hint of an accent. – There were cases where the discrimination was passed on from the (company) clients, who insisted on an American speaker or who didn’t accept colleagues from the UK who were not white… Traditionally, when learning a language, who were interested in the culture as well. However, this is increasingly diminishing with English language teachign as English develops as… Read more »

Tessa R
1 month ago
Reply to  Maria Fano

I agree with you 100%. I am a so-called ‘native speaker’ (I’m from Scotland) and I used to wonder, while I was working in Spain, why there was such emphasis on NESTs in the adverts for academies in Spain. I learned that it was certainly an effective advertising strategy; parents would come in to where I worked, very keen to learn just how many native speakers we had in our tiny academy. It never made sense to me, particularly as I moved into Exam English teaching. After all, I was born speaking the language. I never learned it academically in… Read more »

Maria Fano
Maria Fano
1 month ago
Reply to  Tessa R

That is exactly it Tessa! You have spotted the main issue which is how all this “nativeness” affects everyone, all teachers as it is a shame that anybody that is a “native” even without qualifications or experience is considered a “good teacher” which diminishes the teachers that are well prepared affecting the job opportunities and benefits, because of anybody can do it why value good teachers? And academies keep making money out of it whereas well prepared teachers are not even paid for their prep time or marking time… Also, thank you for your discussion, it is very refreshing to… Read more »

Uschi Ensel
Uschi Ensel
1 month ago

Hi, Just listening to your interview and totally agree, particularly with what Lee said about discrimination in the actual interview. When working in Spain – admittedly about 20 years ago – I had non-white colleagues who were invited to interviews and as soon as they entered the room could see the jaws drop.

Last edited 1 month ago by Uschi Ensel
Oleksandr
Oleksandr
1 month ago

Speaking of neo-colonialism, it’s also terrible how there’s so much rampant discrimination in the EU, where schools will instantly trash the CVs of those from Ukraine, Colombia, Japan or India. (See the International House website for lots of examples!) It seems there’s a widespread belief that “European is better”, and schools won’t even bother investigating the minimal paperwork needed to hire non-EU teachers.

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