Goal #1 2015: Support a Movement #30GoalsEdu

050520153831I realize I haven’t written about accomplishing a goal for quite some time now. I don’t feel guilty, though, because Shelly and the wonderful group of educators, who regularly take part in the amazing #30GoalsEdu challenge, have been on my mind all the time. How could I forget about them anyway? It was the #30GoalsEdu movement which inspired me to start my own blog, and it was them who gave me the courage to hit the publish button. More importantly, they were the first to plant a seed of reflective practice in my mind. I’m really grateful for all their help and encouragement, and if you wish to start blogging about teaching, I strongly recommend that you join this supportive crowd of educators.

I’d like to add that my not writing about accomplishing goals doesn’t mean that I have been idle all the time. I check out this Facebook group whenever I can and read the posts other members of the community have written and shared. I sit up and take notice whenever I spot something on Twitter including the 30GoalsEdu hashtag. The group and its spirit are always with me.

Nevertheless, after reading Vicky Loras’s post, I decided to roll up my sleeves again and write a post about a goal I had recently accomplished. Regular readers of my blog have probably noticed that I love blogging very much. I have so many ideas I’d like to write about that it sometimes drives me crazy. I think I would even post more often if I didn’t fear that it might finally put off some of my followers. My son keeps warning me that everybody hates spammers. However, I also love reading other people’s blogs, as well as articles about teaching and education. Don’t ask me how many blogs I follow! And when there are no new blog posts in my WordPress Reader, I’m really sad.

Anyway, about two weeks ago, my blogging passion pushed me to become a registered TeachingEnglish blogger. I think it was one the posts I had read on Sandy Millin’s blog which eventually inspired me to take action. So, I’m very proud to announce that yesterday my first post about assessment was published on their blog. Thus, I have become a member of the TeachingEnglish community, and I believe that by doing so I have actually started supporting another movement, which, as the definition says, is an organized effort by supporters of a common goal. As a member of this community, I’ll be able to talk to other teachers about my teaching and the issues that concern and interest me, and I’ll also be able to read the topical blogs and engage with other bloggers through commenting and sharing. And I invite you to do the same …

The real level of language proficiency

100420153730Every teacher would probably agree that the classroom should be a safe environment free of stress and anxiety. A lot has been written about ways of minimizing stress that interferes with learning. However, I believe that our attempts to keep stress at a zero level can sometimes be counter-productive.

A long, challenging week of the final state examinations is finally over in the school where I work, and I can announce with a great relief that none of our students failed the English part. My colleague and I examined 34 students in five days. During their oral English exam, the students were supposed to react to the examiner’s questions promptly, and they were expected to speak fluently and elaborately on various topics ranging from very personal ones to factual ones. We had to make sure that each performance was exactly 15 minutes long, which added to the stressfulness of the experience. I was the assessor, whose job was to listen carefully, note down errors as well as positive points, and grade each performance. My colleague, their English teacher, read the instructions, asked the questions and reacted to the examinee’s answers. We only had five minutes to agree on the final score before it was the next student’s turn.

It was obviously very stressful – both for us and the students. Unfortunately, this is the type of  situation you can never really prepare your students for. You can provide them with all the language input and the content they need to pass the exam, but you can never rehearse for the actual performance in advance simply because there is one aspect that you can’t simulate – stress. This, however, is one of the variables that have a huge impact on the quality of the student’s performance.

Under stress, your B2 students suddenly and miraculously turn into A2 learners – they make errors they never made in a relaxed atmosphere of the language classroom, where they cheerfully chattered about the burning problems of today’s world. During their final exam, students repeat the same low-level words again and again because they can’t remember the synonyms they are expected to use at their current level. They can’t remember the word ‘equipment’, for example, so they keep saying ‘things’ throughout the exam, which drives the examiner – their English teacher – crazy. Now and then, a fairly advanced student forgets to add an -s to the third person singular verbs but keeps using advanced fillers and linking devices, which proves his real level of proficiency. Unfortunately, points will finally have to be subtracted for these little failures, no matter how sorry you feel for your students and how well you know what they can actually do.

But what is the real level of proficiency? Is is what you can do in a relaxed atmosphere of an L2 classroom or is it the way you perform during a stressful situation? One way or the other, I believe there’s a certain core – the knowledge nobody can take away from you; the facts, data and skills resistant to any level of stress. Just above the core, there’s another layer, which, under certain circumstances, can be very unstable and vulnerable. This layer of knowledge needs to be consolidated before it becomes part of the safe and stable core.

It turned out that some of the knowledge and skills we expected during the examination were still in the unstable state, even though we believed that the students had already mastered them perfectly before. The question is whether (and how) we can find out what our students can really do. Can we find out in the rather unnatural (or inauthentic) setting of the L2 classroom at all?

Dictation – yes/no/why/how?

0The other day I read Scott Thornbury’s post D is for Dictation. Following the example set by the author, I decided to ponder the value of this popular classroom activity.

There must be something magical about dictation because it was one of the most frequent activities we did in Czech lessons during my formal education, and it still holds true nowadays. The thing is that my mother tongue is a very complicated language and it takes Czech kids ages to learn the rules of its written form. The only advantage is that unlike English, Czech is written as it is heard (with some exceptions, such as words with final voiced consonants, which are sometimes uttered voicelessly). Czech pupils start writing short dictations as soon as they start using a pen – around the age of 6-7 – and judging by the unflagging popularity of this classroom activity, it must be regarded one of the best ways of learning the language.

I’m not sure whether I use dictation for the same reasons why primary teachers over here use it to teach Czech, but I’m convinced that there is a place for dictation in an L2 classroom and that incorporating it into classes is beneficial in terms of language acquisition.

As my primary goal is to teach my students to communicate in English, I find it important to turn dictation into a communicative activity. Can I achieve this? What is a communicative activity at all? This is a question I already considered here and here. Anyway, I mainly use dictation to recycle written texts or audio recordings. My favourite activity is Write the last word you heard. This basically means that I play a recording my students are already familiar with, and at some point I stop the audio – usually where there is a full stop or after longer chunks of language. As the title of the activity implies, students write the last word they heard.

I believe that this procedure turns the dictation into a meaningful listening task; students are exposed to whole chunks/sentences, and they need to pay attention to the context, otherwise they won’t be able to pinpoint the last word. What’s more, while listening, they are forced to ‘replay’ bits and pieces of the text in the heads and they make quick, little choices before they finally zoom in on the word they are looking for. If possible, I deliberately select words that need to be practised – either because they were encountered in the previous lesson for the first time or because of their tricky spelling.

My students like this type of activity because it’s not too challenging – they don’t have to write long stretches of text, which is something they’re used to doing in Czech lessons. Nevertheless, you can obviously ask them to write more than just the last word. You can either ask them to write the first word, which will encourage them to hold each chunk in their memory for a while, or they can write as much as they manage within the time limit between the pauses. Alternatively, to give your learners more freedom, you can allow them to choose words they want to jot down. Later on, you can elaborate on this activity; your students can reconstruct the whole recording/text by completing the bits they’ve recorded. This resembles dictogloss – a classroom activity where learners are required to reconstruct a short text by listening and noting down the key words.

I believe that dictation plays a specific role in an L2 classroom, but it shouldn’t be overused – students need to be exposed to other forms of language practice after all. First of all, the teacher needs to get it clear why s/he wants to use it – is it to practise spelling, vocabulary, listening or something else? Is there a better, a more effective and a more communicative way of practising these language areas/skills or is dictation the right option? These are the decisions that must be made during the planning stage.

Do you practise what you preach?

Have you ever thought about the discrepancy between what you tell your students to believe and what you believe yourself? I mean, don’t you ever preach water and drink wine? I think I do, quite often, without even realizing so.

busy hands 2

For example, I often tell my students not to be afraid of making mistakes. However, I am terrified of making them myself. Regardless of the fact that my Teacher Self keeps telling me that making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning/doing practically anything, I’m not overly excited when I misspell a word when writing on the board or miscalculate a student’s test score.

Also, I constantly reassure my students that there’s no need to panic about giving a presentation in front of the whole class because nothing really disastrous can happen. The truth is, though, that I’ve rarely stayed calm in such a situation myself. I remember how terrible I felt when I had to give a 5-minute talk in front of a group of my fellow students at uni. I should add that it was supposed to be in German, in which I wasn’t exactly fluent, and it was only three years ago. Needless to say, my legs felt like jelly, my hands were shaking and I had butterflies in my stomach. What was worse, I had forgotten everything I had so laboriously memorized. Now that I think about it, my biggest problem was that at that time, I saw myself as an experienced English teacher, used to standing confidently in front of a bunch of teens. But all of a sudden, I felt like a schoolgirl again, which, under certain circumstances might have been exciting, except that it wasn’t.

I tell my students that it is learning that matters most – not the scores. I tell them that it’s primarily the process, not the result, which is the most valuable aspect of education. Still, I use grades to make my students learn. Obviously, there are many students who are internally motivated, and these love learning no matter the formal assessment, but there are some who just want to succeed. And it goes without saying that in their context, success equals decent grades.

I truly believe that it’s my job to help my students get used to accepting all sorts of feedback. Feedback is there to help them learn, after all. But I can clearly recall my exasperation when my German tutor gave me some rather unflattering feedback after the above-mentioned presentation. She was a little harsh, or, maybe, a tad too straightforward to my taste, but she was absolutely right. And I learned a lot from that particular lesson – mainly about myself and feedback.

Back then I felt it in my bones right from the start that my presentation wasn’t going to be a blockbuster, but it was not in my power to change the state of affairs prior the actual experience, simply because I didn’t have the knowledge needed for that change. All I could do was to learn from the failure and keep the newly-acquired knowledge for the future. This is what we often forget to take into consideration when giving feedback to our students; we sometimes reproach and reprimand, even though we use soft phrases like ‘You should have’, ‘Why didn’t you’, or ‘Next time you could’. But it’s not fair; our students rarely mess things up on purpose.

What’s the point in all the preaching then? I know too well that my students must experience failure and anxiety because it helps them grow. Likewise, I know that my little son is unlikely to stop worrying about monsters in the dark just because I reassure him they don’t exist. All I can do is to be there for him and with him. By the way, I’m sometimes afraid of the dark too.

And what about you? Do you drink water or wine? In what situations?

The best game ever! (How to increase student talking time)

11128056_10204932516485743_3420885650259449598_nOne of the rewards of teaching a class of 16 talented, motivated 12-year-olds is that you feel that almost every activity turns into something really valuable. Not that you don’t feel the same will other classes, it’s just that with young learners it’s somehow more tangible.

Today, a classic game-like activity – originally meant to be just a warm-up to start the class – changed itself into a complex, meaningful and authentic lesson. I deliberately said ‘changed itself’, but I should probably say ‘the students changed it so’. I had come up with an unexceptional idea, but it was them who changed it into a pure gem.

I’m sure everybody is familiar with Categories (aka The Alphabet Game). You divide your class into small groups (preferably groups of three or four). On the board, you write a few categories related to the current topic or syllabus of your course, and each student copies them on a separate piece of paper (A4). One of the team members randomly chooses a letter. Each member of the team must quickly write down a word for each of the categories that starts with that letter. The first member who has completed all the categories shouts ‘Stop’ and the other must stop writing immediately. The whole team then goes over the words together and each member gets a certain amount of points for each correct word.

Normally, it can get pretty complicated because the team members (or the teacher) often have to verify if a word actually exists, or if it’s spelt correctly. Also, the team members are competitors and they don’t want to accept each other’s answer – for obvious reasons. This time, the game took a totally different direction, though. A few minutes after the game started, while monitoring the class, I overheard a girl explaining her choice (I should stress that I hadn’t pointed out to the students that they should justify their answers). Anyway, the girl, Tereza, had chosen the word ‘doctor’ for the ‘future’ category. Normally, you would expect students to opt for spacecraft, robots, galaxy, or other words that are clearly related to the future world. But I heard her say (in English!): I chose ‘doctor’ because, in the future, I want to become a doctor. 

Now, her seemingly commonplace remark took my breath away. I stopped the activity immediately and told the students that Tereza had just inspired me and that we could make the game more interesting by adding a new aspect to it. From now on, you can choose whatever words you wish, but you will only get points from your peers if you can justify your choice. You must only speak English all the time. 

Then a miracle happened. From then on, the students seemed less restricted by their vocabulary repertoire. At times, they chose crazy, seemingly inappropriate words for the categories. The crazier the words, though, the more effort they had to put into the justification stage. The student talk time increased dramatically because, all at once, they felt they needed to explain each of their choices, even the most obvious ones, such as I have ‘dog’ for the ‘animals’ category because …  Also, they were suddenly more tolerant and supportive of each other, and everybody was nodding in agreement all the time, even in cases I would have rejected out of hand.

It’s not always ideal if a warm-up activity extends across the whole lesson, but I couldn’t help letting it last for longer than originally planned. I did so because the students were fully engaged and creative, they were using the target language, thinking critically, revising vocabulary, and they were supportive of each other. I’m fully aware of the fact that it was not a sign of decent classroom management skills when all of a sudden, I interrupted the activity and changed the existing rules. But I just grabbed the opportunity and I didn’t regret it later on.

When the lesson was over, I thanked the students for having turned the lesson into such a meaningful activity. Upon leaving, one of the boys remarked enthusiastically, in English: This was the best game ever! 

Observation or Presentation nerves – #ELTChat summary

020520153826As the title suggests, the topic of the 13/5-noon #ELTchat was Observation or Presentation nerves – how to avoid them or overcome them. The first question was posed by the moderator, Angelos Bollas: ‘Who is nervous during observation?’ While few participants said they are hardly ever nervous because they take observation as any other lesson (@TheRedFellow), many of us admitted some kind of uneasiness during formal observation (@juliacphang). It is the fear of the unknown – the unpredictable – which may be one of the sources of this anxiety (@juliacphang). However, @Shaunwilden argued that it should be the observer’s job to limit the unknown.

We agreed that although a certain amount of anxiety can be beneficial, and even a good bit of adrenalin (@juliacphang), when there’s too much of it, it can interfere with the observee’s performance (@angelos_bollas). However, once we get going, it’s ok. Students usually soon forget the observer there (@juliacphang).

The next question that emerged at the beginning of the chat was ‘Do you do something special to overcome anxiety?’ One of the tips suggested by @angelos_bollas was to imagine the audience being naked, which, as some of us admitted, never worked, though. What also helps, for example, is 1) a 5-minute walk in fresh air (@BobK99), or 2) having observers very frequently, preferably once a week or more, which helps you stop feeling it’s strange (@GlenysHanson). Also, the more you observe others, the more you relax about being observed yourself (@TheRedFellow). The moderator concluded that it’s a matter of getting used to being observed.

Another part of the discussion revolved around the observer. Who is the observer? Is it a colleague, the administrator, a tutor, the manager, an inspector, or a parent? There seem to be different kinds of anxiety depending on who observes you (@angelos_bollas). For example, some of us said that parents don’t make us feel nervous because they aren’t professional observers, and they are primarily interested to see what their kids can do. Others argued, however, that the parents who come to observe their lessons are psychologists, educators, or teachers (@rmoyano5). Glenys Hanson, for instance, mainly had observers who were colleagues, only interested to see what she was doing. Also, she observed colleagues in order to learn from them. She argued that if the teacher feels the observer is there to judge, it’s bound to be anxiety inducing. Angelos Bollas later maintained that the less formal the context, the less stress one would feel. I added that the aim of the observer is also important; it makes a huge difference if s/he wants to see what the teacher can do or what they can’t do. The moderator concluded that the aims should be known to both parties before observation.

For the rest of the chat, the concept of observation intertwined with the concept of presentation. While class observation can be somewhat unpredictable, presentations are relatively predictable, some argued (@HanaHainsworth). One of the unpredictable elements of formal observations is the students. Generally, they are better behaved when the class is observed, but they may have a tendency to show off, or sometimes they just do things you don’t expect. With a presentation, on the other hand, you know exactly what you’re going to say (@juliacphang). One way or the other, there is a huge difference between being a teacher and a presenter (@Shaunwilden).

Another point related to a rather high degree of unpredictability of observation concerned the fact the observees don’t always know in advance that/when they will be observed. Personally, I believe that we teachers should have the right to choose when we would like to be observed since the opportunity to prepare more thoroughly than usual diminishes the level of anxiety. Others argued, however, that they don’t mind experimenting, getting negative feedback, and learning from their mistakes (@Shaunwilden, @angelos_bollas).

A large bulk of useful tips was shared by the participants on how to prepare for a presentation. Here are some of them: Start solo, then do a presentation in front of small groups, and finally, present to the whole class (@TheRedFellow). ‘Fake it ’til you make it’ seems to work for @MrHoika. Some participants revealed that they like recording their voice and then video themselves before an observation/presentation (@angelos_bollas), while others admitted that they can’t stand listening to recordings of themselves (@TheRedFellow). Shaun Wilden argued, however, that it is a useful way of finding your faults. You can learn a lot from the recordings, and you can change things that need to be changed, such as timing, pausing, intonation, etc. (@angelos_bollas).

Another interesting idea was proposed by the moderator again, who believes that when it comes to professional presentations, what helps is presenting something online first before you do so face-to-face. @HanaHainsworth finds it best to find an audience to do it with because that way you can get feedback. A very practical tip came from @rmoyano5, who summed it up as follows: 1. Good knowledge of the topic 2. Anticipate questions 3. Good nite’s sleep!

Towards the end of the discussion, @teflgeek suggested that feeling positive beforehand may help a great deal because it’s not the presentation that causes nerves – it’s our thinking about the presentation. He argued that there’s a difference between preparation in terms of content, and nerves and anxiety in terms of delivery. We were advised against making the assumption that the presentation will go wrong. Also, there is no difference between pretending to have confidence and actually having confidence itself. So, we shouldn’t anticipate a reaction, we should just experiment by giving the presentation and seeing what reaction we get. Angelos Bollas concluded that perhaps, it’s a mindset difficult to teach, and I tend to agree; one either has it or not. I’d say it’s a question of experience rather than conscious learning.

Here’s the link to the transcript.

Technology attacks

I had this feeling that apart from the fact that I was probably the only English teacher registered on Blogger, I was also the last person in the world who didn’t have a smartphone. The truth is that I had been thinking of getting one for ages, but at the same time, I had deliberately resisted the change. The thing is that I have a tendency to get addicted to gadgets of all sorts. I already had a laptop and an i-pad, after all, so I knew that when one of these were within easy reach, I couldn’t resist the temptation to constantly check e-mails, all the social media notifications, latest blog posts, etc. I realized all too well that having a smartphone meant having it at my disposal all the time, which, in consequence, meant I would constantly be tapping the shiny screen.

But I don’t live in a vacuum and I know I have to adjust from time to time. I remember that whenever I was about to take a picture with my good, old phone, my students would smile understandingly and they would automatically offer their phones. They didn’t want to believe that my Nokia was actually quite good at taking photos. Anyway, I always kindly refused their generosity and stubbornly used my old buddy.

But it’s not just my students who make me reconsider my attitudes. I remember an occasion when Shaun Wilden asked us participants of his workshop at IH Brno to take out our phones. I looked around and saw the embarrassed expressions on some teachers’ faces. Shaun reacted promptly, saying: “Don’t be ashamed. It doesn’t matter what type of phone you have. By the way, I know that teachers typically have the worst phones in the world”.

As I had used my phone in the lessons on a regular basis, for example, to take pictures of the board or to make videos of parts of the lessons, my students immediately noticed and appreciated the upgrade. The first picture I took with my smartphone in class was a drawing one of my students had done on the board (see above). I was so excited about the fact that a student had taken the effort to draw such a beautiful scribble that I wanted to share it. And I did. And I immediately realized the power of this cool mobile device.

Some say progress is optional, but I think it’s inevitable. It’s not about feeling concerned about the type of phone you have; it’s about keeping up with people around you – in this case, your students. Also, having a smartphone myself, I’ll be able to get familiar with all the yet unexplored ways of learning English. Take Instagram, for example; by using English hashtags and comments, your students can interact with people all around the world and practice the language in a meaningful, authentic way. The possibilities technology offers are infinite. Let’s start exploring …

The story behind the chip card

I love the kind of lessons when you manage to successfully complete something you have always wished to try. I’m not talking about completing a grammar exercise or something likewise commonplace. I’m talking about methods, approaches and principles you strongly believe in, but which you somehow never have time (or the courage) to apply. 

For example, I always listen in awe to Jamie Keddie’s talks about the power of storytelling and I’m also a fan of teaching with the use of realia. By realia I mean objects or activities used to relate classroom teaching to the real life. I believe that when these two methods merge in one, the lesson can become amazingly authentic and interesting. 

I should point out that although I love listening to people telling stories, I’m actually not exactly confident in telling stories myself – be it in my mother tongue or English. One of the reasons may be my deep-rooted conviction that I’m hopeless at storytelling, as well as telling jokes. Perhaps I also believe that nobody would be interested. Who cares about my life anyway? My students have better anecdotes to listen to. Well, the trouble is that once you start to believe something, it usually becomes part of your reality. It simply becomes the truth. So, perhaps, I’m a bad storyteller just because I’m convinced I’m a bad storyteller. 

Anyway, enough of self-flagellation. Earlier today, I stumbled upon a blue plastic card – the OV-chipkaart – which I had got hold of while on a short visit to the Netherlands. As soon as I came back to the Czech Republic, the card obviously became totally unusable, so this morning, I was about to dispose of it for good. But then I remembered the story behind the card and the unusual way I had obtained it, and I decided to keep it and exploit it in class. 

The story goes like this: As soon as I arrived at Eindhoven Airport, I needed to take a bus to get to the main station. While standing at the bus stop, desperately looking for some change for the ticket machine, a stranger (presumably an Englishman) approached me and said: “Here’s a bus card. I thought it might come in handy. There’s still some money left on it, but I’m leaving the country, so you can keep it.” I was taken aback by his generosity and the fact that he knew what I was up to, so I stammered a few words of thanks and appreciation. Nevertheless, he was in a hurry to catch his plane and disappeared instantly.  

Since it was a very pleasant experience, I knew immediately that at some point I’d share the story with my students. However, I soon forgot about it and/or there wasn’t an opportunity until earlier today. But as I know that I’m not a great raconteur, and the punchline of my story is always lost in translation, I decided to share it in a different way; I decided to turn the activity into a classic guessing game and leave some of the responsibility up to the students (cowardly me!). For starters, I gave away a small part of the story: Look at this card. I wanted to throw it away this morning, but I changed my mind because there is an interesting story behind it. I want you to find out how it came into my possession. The students were only allowed to ask yes/no questions to get to the true story, as close as possible

I did the activity in two classes (with pre-intermediate 16-year-olds and intermediate 18-year-olds) and the course of events was similar in both cases; at first the students were pretty confused by the aim of the activity and that’s probably why they asked some totally ineffective questions. However, as they got closer to the denouement of the story, they became really interested. Their questions got more sophisticated, complex, as well as to the point. Needless to say, I was over the moon. 

You know, something strange happens when students get really involved in a speaking task; even the best learners start making quite a few errors, maybe because their excitement and the need to get their message across switch off their accuracy guard. They start messing up conditionals and all the tenses in a way they normally don’t. Suddenly, they get all the prepositions wrong without even noticing. Although this is seemingly undesirable for a teacher to observe, for me it’s a sign that my students are really communicating in the L2. This is one of the signs of the authenticity of a task. 

One thing is for sure; stories are powerful tools, no matter whether they are real or made up. If the story strikes a chord with us, it evokes imagination and incites curiosity. In addition and most importantly, in an L2 classroom, stories are likely to make the language more memorable. 

Fighting my personal biases

The debates about discriminatory hiring practices in ELT are giving me sleepless nights. Although I’m trying hard to be a good girl and stay on the right side of the barricade, I can’t pretend there are no fleeting moments of hesitation and doubt. I mean, I strongly admire all those educators who publicly stand up for the rights of non-native teachers of English. As a NNEST myself, I am happy to see that brave people all over the word are fighting for my rights. Thanks for your bravery; I honestly appreciate it.

My problem is that most of my formal education took place at the time when such a debate was absolutely unthinkable. What? NNESTs can be as good as NESTs? Are you kidding me? We used to look up to them and what they said was taken as the ultimate truth. Ironically, later on at university, right after the fall of communism, when there was a boom of ‘backpackers’ from the west, we students preferred NNESTs – probably because they seemed more organized in what they did and because they could teach us the rules of the language. Lessons with NESTs were generally fun and truly beneficial acquisition-wise, but they were utter and complete chaos (with some exceptions, of course). But still, whenever there was a problem, we were told to go and ask a native speaker.

Anyway, the debate which is going on these days is intriguing. Sometimes, though, to my utter consternation, I catch myself not nodding all along the way. Throughout my career, I’ve taught very young kids, as well as teenagers and adults. I also became a student at the tertiary level again for a while back in 2011. I apologize for my impudent generalization, but judging by what I’ve observed so far, I can’t say that here in the Czech Republic we are ready to claim that qualified NESTs are as good as qualified NNESTs. Based on my random observations, in other countries the situation is slightly different – they have a much longer tradition of learning languages, their mother tongue is somehow related to English and thus they acquire it faster or easier, they have been able to travel more, etc. It’s getting better here, it surely is, and I believe there are loads of teachers who are already exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking, there’s an awful long way for us to go before we’re able to join the crowd of confident NNESTs fighting boldly for their rights in the ELT business. We need to remain humble and work hard rather than ‘join the demonstration’ just because everybody else has. If you are from the Czech Republic and you feel I’m being biased and unfair, I’m sorry but that’s how I see it….

The debate about discriminatory hiring practices in ELT I’m following with great interest constantly makes me ask hypothetical questions: What if there are two equally qualified teachers, with the same amount of experience, applying for the job of an English teacher at a Czech school – one NEST and one NNEST? What criteria come into play in such a situation? I’m sure that the employer will probably have to consider other factors, sometimes equally discriminatory, without explicitly saying so, such as the applicant’s ability to speak the students’ L1, her pretty face, his congenial manners, or the fact that one of the applicants is a young female about to start a family.

Or what if a school really likes to have a mixture of NESTs and NNESTs, which is perfectly justifiable in our teaching environment, and as they already have six NNESTs and no NESTs, they desperately need to hire one NEST. Is this discriminatory?

In one of my previous posts, I had a fruitful discussion with Vedrana Vojkovic, touching on the issue of NESTs vs. NNESTs. When re-reading the comment section, I realized I had sounded pretty biased. Unfortunately, I can’t change my view yet. The debate revolved around teaching English to very little kids, precisely those at kindergartens (which, by the way, wasn’t Vedrana’s original intention, but I stubbornly stuck to the topic anyway). As I see it, the more proficient the teacher, the higher level they usually want to/are asked to teach. So it goes without saying that those who have achieved a native-like proficiency are not likely to end up teaching English in kindergarten, unless they really love small kids. They will become teachers at the tertiary level or do something completely different. Yet, quite a few pre-school institutions offer optional English lessons. These are usually taught by someone, anyone, who can speak some English. These teachers are either fully qualified kindergarten teachers, who are, however, not qualified to teach English, or students who need some pocket money. One way or the other, it seems to be a general consensus that after all, you don’t need to be terribly proficient if you want to teach little kids.

One thing is certain; as far as I know, there are no teacher training programs for language teachers working at a pre-school level. Taking into account L1 acquisition principles, I’m convinced that if you want to teach very young learners, you need special training, very different from the one we normally get as teachers aiming at the primary/secondary/tertiary level. And I’m not only talking about methods but also about one’s language proficiency. This lead me to a conclusion that a chatter with a NEST might be more valuable at this level than a lesson with an unqualified teacher of English, who teaches a few random words a day. Needless to say, little kids acquire these words precisely the way they hear them, i.e. out of context, sometimes with totally wrong or imprecise pronunciations, which later on hinder understanding and communication. I was once told by an owner of a language school: “Just go there and do something. It doesn’t really matter what you’ll do, does it?”

These were some of the random thoughts that are swirling in my head these days. If you happen to have sensed some kind of bias in my voice, I’d like to make it clear that the way I reason stems from my life experience. Also, I realize that some of my convictions may appear as mere generalizations. However, I’m not saying that what I claim here is right or wrong. It’s just the way I see it now.