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.

What does a red phone box have to do with learning English in 2017? by Richard Willmsen

[From the editor: this post was originally published on Richard’s blog here and is republished here with his full consent]

One of my roles in life involves testing the English language to make sure it’s working properly. It’s in this capacity that I get to fly down to Mérida for a few days, eat sopa de lima and cochinita pibil in nice restaurants, and pay a visit to an excellent language school. It’s easy to find because it has a red phone box outside. Everyone I meet there is friendly and seems competent. The owners (both English, in their thirties) greet and chat to the students as they arrive; they seem to know their names and both speak very good Spanish. As for the teachers, they are young, cheerful, and seem to be mostly English.

The school, which goes by the name of the London Academy and has been open for around two years, is “the only British language school in Mérida with 100% qualified British teachers that offers a true British cultural experience”. The images on the walls show cool young people enjoying themselves in London. It’s unlike a lot of  ‘British’ schools I’ve worked at in the past in that there’s a refreshing lack of photos of Beefeaters and the Royal Family and the atmosphere is by no means austere and reserved as it is in some anglophone learning environments. Entering the school I worked at for several years in Lisbon was like going to the dentists: staid, forbidding and snobbish. The school in Mérida is selling an updated version of the UK. It certainly needs to stand out, because there are a lot of schools in that particular suburb. When I walk round the block I count another four. Some seem to be part of chains and most are selling themselves on cost: low prices, discounts if you pay upfront for online classes and year-long courses.

Ultimately it’s a question of marketing. What the London Academy is selling is a tourist experience. For the students (or at least for their parents) the school is a corner of a foreign field. They will be immersed in the classroom in an English-only environment with a representative of the target culture. What the teachers get is a reasonably-paid job and an experience of living abroad, one which gives them the chance to learn some of the language and, if they’re lucky, become friends, or possibly very good friends*, with some of the locals. Nowadays in the world of English language teaching this is quite a retro model. It is based on the promotion of the assumption that the teacher is a monolingual native speaker with no or little knowledge of the host culture. Bringing a new cohort of teachers over every year is very expensive at a time when there is more competition from schools which use other images and associations to promote the learning of English.

There also seems to be a growing recognition that the language study trips abroad business is similarly a branch of tourism. The school I worked at for several years in London has just been bought up by a language travel organisation. It is true that there is no easier environment to learn and teach in. The students get some experience of interacting in an English-speaking setting and they also make English-language friendships with each other. This doesn’t mean that they start watching Eastenders and spend every night down the rub-a-dub. Rather they bond over their dislike of the food, the absurd rents they have to pay and the hangovers they picked up (and the fellow students they didn’t) in bars and clubs where most other customers (and the staff) are also there to improve their English. This is perfectly natural; after all, on holiday, you tend to make friends with other tourists rather than the locals. Some students do arrive with the impression that it’s all about becoming “English” (which is a useful marketing illusion), but they soon knuckle down to the more important and less confusing task of developing an English-speaking life. It’s far more important for Mehmet, who lives in Istanbul and deals with Chinese people on the phone, to understand Wei Wei from Shandong than it is for him to understand what Russell Brand says**. As for the teacher, their job largely involves creating a environment conducive to social and cultural exchange, with their role a mix of tour guide, cultural mediator, facilitator and occasional counsellor.

Sadly, thanks to a combination of international competition in the education market, arbitrary and ill-thought-out changes to visa rules and the global economic situation, the language school industry in the UK (and London in particular) has taken a hammering over the last few years, with very well-established places going to the wall and the survivors getting snapped up by international concerns. It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed. Whereas most marketing of English courses tends to sell an image of mobility – in the words of an advert I saw recently, ‘Where can you go if you don’t know English?’ – all this talk of shutting borders is designed and destined to do permanent damage to one of the very remaining industries which the UK still dominates.

Another major change in the world of English language teaching is a shift away from the notion that native speakers automatically make better language teachers. That’s not to say that the assumption is by any means dead. Browsing websites advertising teaching jobs in Mexico recently I was shocked by the number of ads looking for ‘native speakers’ and specifying ‘no experience necessary’. I’d imagine that most people learning a language would want a teacher with experience. But the rationale for this never was pedagogical. Again, it’s more to do with marketing, to the extent that one term commonly used in China for a foreign teacher is ‘dancing monkey’. Anyone ‘foreign’ will do as long as they don’t have a Chinese face or name.

There seems to be growing acceptance nowadays that the best attribute a teacher can have is the ability to teach, regardless of where they happen to have been born. The spread of English as a lingua franca has led to a growing recognition that it does not ‘belong’ to any one national group. Indeed, it helps to have consciously learnt the language you’re teaching. Having done so gives the teacher insights into the learning experience which allow them to give their students shortcuts and to identify potential pitfalls and misunderstandings. Non-native teachers also make more realistic role models, as the old joke about an English learner saying that when he grows up he wants to be a native speaker acknowledges. Plus it’s also true that a ‘native’ level of English is not a desirable goal. In international settings it is often British, American and Australians who have most difficulty making themselves understood, given their reliance on irony and idioms which may be lost on people who don’t share their cultural background. The trend is partly driven by economic changes – although native speakers are more profitable, non-native teachers are cheaper – but it has a positive effect as better teachers find it easier to get work.

The notion of ‘native speaker’ is problematic in any case. I’m one of them, yet there are lots of lots of ‘foreigners’ who use(d) ‘my’ language better than I do: Conrad, Nabokov, Zizek and Varoufakis all spring immediately to mind. My Italian wife writes things in her job that are much better than anything I could produce***. The idea that a ‘native speaker’ is an exemplary model has given way to a focus on proficient, competent or expert speakers. Similarly, the category of ‘mother tongue’ speaker does not take account of people who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school. Ultimately, nation state and language are just not a very good fit, especially in relation to English.

I myself found out quickly in Portugal many years ago that in a monolingual EFL classroom it’s the monolingual teacher who has problems expressing what they want, especially when dealing with teenagers. Students know their own culture and can communicate perfectly well with each other. Hence they can run rings round a teacher who has little training and almost no experience of inspiring learning and imposing discipline. Such a relationship depends partly on the personality of the teacher and partly on their ability to assert their authority over the language on the basis of their national identity. Anyone who has taught in such a context will recognise the frustrations described by George Orwell in his story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘. It is all too common for fledgling (and sometimes veteran) EFL teachers to develop the attitude of a colonial policeman and to dismiss the ‘natives’ as lazy, stupid “evil-spirited little beasts” who are out to “make (your) job impossible”.

This doesn’t mean that teaching and learning is impossible in such a context but where it does take place it tends to be by accident. My own ‘teaching journey’ has taught me that any meaningful educational experience has to be based on cultural exchange. Every teacher who sticks at it works out eventually that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. The model I’ve been describing is about trying to impose one identity on another. What must take place instead is a recognition and validation of each others’ identities. This involves drawing on the students’ expert knowledge of their language, their experiences, expertise and social roles rather than dismissing all of the above and relying instead on a combination of communication games, bullying and luck.

I would like therefore to put forward five suggestions for roles that EFL teachers can usefully adopt in a monolingual teaching/learning environment:

  1. The students’ knowledge of their own language is an essential classroom resource. This means that both the teacher and the students sometimes need to play the role of translators. It also implies a ceding of control and a certain amount of humility on the part of the teacher. My students know their own languages better than I do and sometime meanings have to be negotiated and dictionaries referred to. This has the advantage of reflecting real language use; in any given human interaction where more than one language is involved discussions over corresponding forms, functions and meanings are ever-present and sometimes other authorities have to be invoked. Clearly there are activities where this is not appropriate, and the teacher needs to establish when and why only the target language should be used. In a cooperative environment with purposeful activities students will be happy to go along with this.
  2. Tip number 1 implies that the teacher should speak or be learning the language of their students. There are, bizarrely, language teachers who have no experience of learning another language or who have never done so successfully. Such teachers are not able to understand and relate to the frustrations and ritual humiliations their students are exposing themselves to. Several times in my teaching career I have been put on the spot by a student asking me to perform a task I have asked them to do. Such experiences have helped me to reflect on how useful and how ‘doable’ the activity I’m imposing is. Once, with a class of Italian teenagers who were traumatised by the prospect of their Trinity Exam, I did the task myself in very imperfect Italian, getting them to play the role of examiners. A light bulb went on. They realised that they didn’t need to be completely fluent and that it was fine to make mistakes as long as they basically made themselves understood. They all went on to pass the exam. In order to be a teacher you also need to be a learner. This is a role no teacher should ever stop playing; there are always new things to learn.
  3. If you are teaching in another country you are also a model of someone immersed, out of their depth, occasionally thrown in at the deep end, experiencing anxiety, and sometimes losing face. Your ability to articulate these feelings and reflect on those experiences in English will be better than that of your students****. This involves drawing on your own experiences.  This paragraph itself could generate a very useful lesson for students struggling to articulate their own experiences with the language. It doesn’t mean that the teacher is an exemplary language learner but as someone who learns and also thinks about language a lot you do have insights to offer.
  4. A teacher needs most of all to be a teacher, with a range of approaches and techniques to suit each particular class. Hence our role is not that of an oracle on our language and culture. Both students and teachers have gaps in their knowledge of the world. That is fine. A classroom can be a very useful place to identify things that we don’t know and to figure out how we can find out. It very often happens that I learn new things in English*****, and when that happens I point it out to my students. As a language teacher I know that some students fail to understand that one’s command of a language is never total. Pointing it out by using yourself as an example helps students to recognise that their English need not and can not ever be ‘perfect’. I am there in the classroom because of my teaching experience and ability, and not as a proxy for the Queen or for Cambridge University.
  5. Teachers should also facilitate sharing of emotional experiences. We can help the students visualise their learning experience and identify specific examples of progress. One excellent way to do this is to explore learning metaphors: are they on a journey, climbing a mountain, working out in a gym, hanging out with some friends once a week? In tackling such themes the teacher is playing the role of a counsellor. In order for this to be effective the teacher needs to work constantly on creating an encouraging and forgiving environment based on an ethic of cooperation rather than on shaming people who make mistakes.

These tips are written with the teaching of English in mind. Some of them also apply to other languages. For example, I can’t say that the list of characteristics of various French supermarkets I spent ninety minutes learning in an intermediate French class a few years ago has helped me a great deal when talking to recent Senegalese immigrants in Rome. The same applies to Spanish and to an extent Portuguese; there’s not much point learning to lithp or to use o senhor appropriately when you’re off to live in Mexico or Brazil. Some other-language courses I’ve encountered have confused language competence and grammatical knowledge, with little room for error and a very narrow definition of success. The teaching of English does have something to offer language teaching in general given that there is simply more practise and research taking place.

It’s different with, say, German, Italian, Japanese or Finnish, since almost all speakers of these languages are from those countries or have spent time there. Then learning things like the names of personalities and radio advertising jingles is important. At the moment I live in Italy, where what hinders my comprehension most is a lack of knowledge of the (admitedly very complex) culture. It is, however, only one of many possible experiences. In past I’ve tended to assume that my own learning experiences are the only or the ultimate model, which is clearly not the case.

Several years ago in London there was a best-selling book/CD for English language learners called ‘Get Rid Of Your Accent‘. The cover featured a woman who looked like Agatha Christie and sounded like Lord Reith’s elocutionist. As David Crystal points out, learners do need a pronunciation role model but the notion there is one way of speaking is absurd. People certainly need to have a command of Standard English, but in a globalised world intelligibility is the main issue. The same goes for local varieties of grammar. A former colleague used to teach his newly-arrived elementary students to ask everyone they met “What do you do work-wise?”, a question guaranteed to draw a blank look from Akiko from Kyoto. It can be useful to teach students to understand local accents in questions like ‘wotjado?’ and ‘naamean?’, but it’s pointless and unfair to ask them to speak in that way. Sometimes over the years my lessons have been about making students talk just like me. That,to briefly use a particularly British English term, is bollocks.

* In some cases, very many very close friends.

** Mind you, there’s a wonderful story about teaching TEFL from the man himself here.

*** This is not meant to suggest that I have a number of wives from different countries. Maybe I should ask her how to rephrase it to make it more clearer.

**** If it isn’t, you may have wandered into an INSET session by mistake.

***** Such as how to spell ‘bizarrely’.

richard-willmsenI’m an DELTA-qualified English teacher and IELTS examiner from the UK and I’ve taught in Ireland, the UK, Portugal, Spain, China and Mexico. I’m currently working at a university in Rome. I post regularly about EFL, languages, politics and whatever else takes my fancy at www.infinite-coincidence.com.

 

Does it matter to students whether their teacher is a nNEST? by Bella Ruth Reichard

This is not a success story about employment, but about my own perception of myself as a non-native English speaking teacher. I teach EAP (English for Academic Purposes) to mainly Asian students with IELTS 5.5-8, based at a UK university.

Starting out

I first came into contact with EAP as an international student at Durham University, where I took in-sessional classes. A year or so later, when I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, my in-sessional teacher suggested that I do a CELTA and become an EAP teacher. My immediate response was: How can I teach English, my English is nowhere near good enough! (Only IELTS 8 plus a year of academic writing at Masters level.) Rubbish, she said. So I went ahead. During my CELTA, I was further encouraged by my fellow trainees, who made a big deal of having very little language awareness and kept saying how much of an advantage it is for me to have learned English as a foreign language. Still, I was always a bit self-conscious, especially when teaching German students – what would they say if they came to the UK to learn English, only to be taught by a German? But they never really said anything.

Employers and colleagues…

…never had a problem with my first language. On the contrary, I have always worked alongside other non-native English speakers; colleagues enjoy speaking German to me or ask me questions about Germany; team members and leaders see it as valuable to have an ex-EAP student on board. So no discrimination but lots of encouragement. Take that as the first success – I didn’t have to fight for it, which I’m sure can be seen as a success in itself.

How about the students?

students11

Still, I was conscious about the students. I always secretly played the game of “how long does it take them to find out”, which usually was “never”, because neither my name nor my accent is a clear giveaway, at least not to overseas students. I got concerned when I first taught a group of very high level students, some of whom were actually native speakers of some English variety and accordingly did not see why they had to study English as part of their programme in the first place. What would they say if they knew that their teacher was not a native English speaker, and therefore arguably was inferior to them at the subject? Would my effort of convincing them that EAP is different from just English have to include that I can still be better at EAP than they are?

I never lied outright about my nationality or my first language, but never cleared up any “where are you from if you’re not British”-questions. Partly, this was a game for me, but partly it was an attempt to protect my authority.

Coming out

When I taught my current course for the second time, I was chatting to two native English speaker students, about halfway through the 9-month course. I accidentally said in some context that my children are bilingual, one question led to another, and the students were very surprised and found it hard to believe (and accept?) that I’m German. From then on, I perceived a change in attitude among the higher-level students. Did they query me more often? Were they more skeptical of corrections that I made?

Really, they were not, it just felt like it at the time. A few months after the end of the course, I spoke to one of the two students who found out first, and he was surprised to learn of my concern. He assured me that none of the students in the group really cared what my first language was. They simply respected me as an experienced academic who has more expertise in academic English than they had.

Moving on

Currently, I am teaching two groups, one high-level group and a group with roughly IELTS 5.5. Somehow, students in the lower-level group found out that I’m German – a colleague might have told them. A few weeks into the course, one student approached me to ask how my English got so good – which reminded me of the view of a non-native English teacher as a role model. Around the same time, Marek, who runs this website, commented on a post on my own blog, strongly encouraging me not to hide my identity.

students25

These two prompts made me grow in confidence, and I told my high-level group much more openly that I’m not British and that my first language is not English. It doesn’t seem to make any difference for my students, but I feel much more comfortable now.

I hope that this experience can encourage other self-conscious doubters to believe that they are right: students care about the teacher’s expertise, in teaching and in the subject, but less about the language with which the teacher happened to be raised.

Bella RuthBella came to the UK from Germany as an international student. In 2010, she did a CELTA and worked part-time as a teacher of English and German. In 2012, she started teaching EAP, and in 2013 she completed an MA in Applied Language Studies for TESOL. Since then, Bella has been teaching at a UK university on pre-sessional, in-sessional and pathway programmes. Currently, she is EAP Tutor and Module Leader on the International Diploma in Business.