I had been working as the Director of Studies (DoS) at a language school in Siberia for over a year when the time came to start the next recruitment drive for international teachers. My first year as DoS had been a steep, stressful learning curve, particularly with respect to various unforeseen challenges in human resource recruitment and management.
One Saturday morning when all was relatively calm, I found the recruitment instructions for foreign teachers and mused on the wording of our ad template:
English teachers sought
- Native speaker
- CELTA or equivalent
- Teaching experience preferred
Nothing out of the ordinary for a TEFL ad, yet the prejudice was there: Native speaker. The issue was also woven into our service package: lessons with ‘native speaker teachers’ were sold at a higher price compared to those taught by local teachers. Our international teachers were advertised as a unique attraction in the isolated expanses of Siberia – clients asked specifically for ‘native speaker’ teachers, and they were willing to pay more for them.
Teacher’s mother tongue makes no difference in the classroom
The problem was, of course, that the lessons with ‘native speakers’ were not necessarily higher in quality. In real terms, the passport and first language made no difference at the chalk face – only in the clients’ minds.
From an educational perspective, I knew our policy needed to be changed. So I petitioned the school directors to rewrite the job specifications, and for ‘non-native speakers’ resumes, which had previously been destined for the trash, to receive our attention.
My petition was based on experience and reasoning: I had been working in TEFL for 12 years internationally, and had witnessed the expertise and professionalism of teachers from all over the globe. The ‘non-native’ teachers I had spent my entire career with (one of whom was Marek Kiczkowiak, might I proudly add) had pedagogical knowledge and skills that were no different from ‘native’ teachers. Therefore, our school would benefit from opening the door to ‘non-native’ teachers too.
The outcome of hiring teachers based on qualifications, not mother tongue
The petition was successful, so I got straight to work on the recruitment advert:
English teachers sought
- Expert-user of English
- CELTA or equivalent
- Hard-working, organized and responsible
Several weeks after advertising, we had received a large number of resumes from teachers all over the globe, with roughly twice as many resumes from ‘native’ speakers compared with ‘non-native’ speakers. From thirty-odd resumes, we shortlisted nine for interview, five ‘native’ and four ‘non-native’, and we made our final decision. But as fate would have it, a few weeks later the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the borders and put our hiring plans on ice.
Despite this downbeat ending to our recruitment drive, the upshot was that we were able to select new teachers from a far richer pool of talent by advertising for ‘expert-users’ rather than ‘native speakers’. We greatly benefited from removing preoccupation with citizenship and first language, and shifting attention to factors which reliably indicate whether candidates meet the job requirements and match our company culture (credentials, qualifications, attitude, etc.)
As for me, my attention has been drawn to how teachers who get to see the logic and benefits of TEFL equity from their work experience are primed to reproduce this value in future. This experience has been part of my journey to becoming a director of studies, and I greatly appreciate having the privilege to be in a position where I can make a difference. Perhaps this is how deeply-embedded prejudices such as native-speakerism can be removed: piece-by-piece over time by individuals within the wider community, with the support of organizations such as TEFL Equity Advocates.
So if you are able to influence your school’s hiring policy, I hope that this narrative of our switch to ‘expert-user’ inspires you to bring about a similar change. By welcoming applications from teachers from the global ELT community without prejudice, you will benefit from a far wider choice of applicants. This, I firmly believe, will better enable you to build a professional team of teachers who fit into the company culture and work well together, which will result in a higher quality of service and business success.
About James Scholl
James Scholl has been a language teacher by trade for 13 years, and has worked at cultural institutes, public high schools, method schools and private academies. At present, he is employed as director of studies in Siberia, where he is working on his management and leadership skills.