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.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in NNST vs. NEST and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Fighting my personal biases

  1. Tyson Seburn says:

    Very interesting post with a couple of great hypotheticals… 🙂

    Like

  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for reading, Tyson.

    Like

  3. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Hana,
    Thanks for writing this. I particularly like your point about balancing a teaching team with native and non-native teachers, an approach which I think is probably one of the most fruitful for all of us. I think we should question adverts where they’re seeking a NEST, rather than automatically shooting them down – they may have a valid reason for it, as you explain.
    As for training to teach kindergarten kids, I completely agree – I don’t fancy facing the hoards any time soon 😉 IH have recently started offering the IH Certificate in Teaching Very Young Learners: http://ihworld.com/online-training/course/ih_certificate_in_teaching_very_young_learners It’s a 60 hour (I think!) course which can be taken completely online, during which the teacher creates a portfolio which forms the basis for assessment. I’m not sure how many people have taken it so far, but I do know that some of the writers are among the best teachers I know 🙂
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Sandy,

      I agree that questioning something is much better than rejecting it out of hand (and this actually applies to anything in life). I know this is a not a very popular stance, but I understand why some companies in the Czech Republic are somewhat reluctant to employ young females, for example. My previous boss had always hired female teachers, but once the fourth teacher announced she would soon leave for the maternity leave (which can last from 2 to 4 years over here), I could see his desperate expression.
      Thanks for the info re. training to teach kindergarten kids. It looks interesting, but the fact that it can all be taken online sounds a bit suspicious to me. Anyway, I’d really love to know how popular such a course is.

      Like

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