The past of future educators

poslední zvonění (5)A couple of days ago, before I read this post, a rather disturbing idea crossed my mind: how come that there are teachers out there who don’t give a damn about professional development, yet, their students’ learning outcomes are just fine. On the other hand, there are teachers who enthusiastically follow all the new trends in ELT, yet, their students’ results are rather average.

In the post I mention above, Steven Watson argues:

It is not through conscious thought, nor through identifying the most effective means of learning that establishes the way we teach. Teaching is a cultural act that is passed on through generations, it is characterised by routines and dialogue that ensure the class runs smoothly.

In my opinion, there are at least four factors influencing the way we teach: 1) the way we were taught, 2) the way we think we should teach, 3) how experienced/competent we are (have become) as teachers and 4) the external conditions which determine what we will actually do, i.e. what our employers actually require us to do/expect from us.

This classification would explain why it is not always fundamental what you think about the efficiency of various teaching approaches. In other words, sometimes you simply can’t apply a method because the conditions and/or your teaching context don’t allow/enable you to do so. For example, some teachers believe that grades are a hindrance to effective learning rather than a useful tool. Still, they have no choice but to use summative assessment. Many teachers believe that technology is the future of education, but they don’t even have a computer available in the classroom.

It would also explain why teachers who used to be taught/trained by very competent instructors, who have a decent amount of experience, and whose conditions enable them to do what they think is best for their students, can be successful professionals regardless of their lack of interest in an ongoing professional development or current ELT trends.

Steven Watson’s made a couple of points which made me ponder what kind of a teacher I am myself, i.e. which factors influencing my teaching I regard dominant.

Although I see myself as an experienced and competent teacher keen on professional development, I must add that I teach in a state controlled school, which, coincidentally, I used to attend 25 years ago as a student.

As for the basic teaching philosophy, I would say that not much seems to have changed since I was a student. In other words, based on what I’ve observed and experienced, the school, i.e. its administration, has not undergone any major shifts in how it looks upon education in general. And I’m not sure whether it actually can. Although there have certainly been some beneficial changes since then, there are still classrooms with a traditional seating arrangement, there are grades, tests and coursebooks.

The way I was taught is the past and the external conditions seem to be given then. What is important now is the internal factors, i.e. my experience, which nobody can take away from me, and what I believe is best for my students, which is largely influenced by my professional training and professional development.

poslední zvonění (1)However, as experience comes to me quite automatically, with years, so to speak, I have no direct control over it really. Experience simply happens through practice. So, the only factor that I can influence directly  and consciously is how much I invest in my professional development, i.e. how much I read about ELT, how often I attend conferences and how much I’m willing to learn from my colleagues and PLN.

This brings me to a conclusion that an ongoing PD is the most powerful and liberating force out of the four which shape me as a teacher. I believe it is the most important factor because it is the only thing that is fully under my control. Thus, it is the source of creativity and endless opportunities, which can ultimately make up for all the potential deficiencies or seeming imperfections. But not only that; it also has the capacity to gradually change the current external conditions in education and thus positively shape the past of the future generations of teachers.

 

The source of true happiness …

foto 008After several things-that-worked-really-well-in-class-last-year posts, I’m finally in the mood for some quiet contemplation.

Last year was not a particularly exceptional year. Lots of things happened; some of them might be labelled as successes, others seemed to be failures. However, I can’t think of any major disasters or noteworthy achievements on my part, at least in the usual sense of the words.

Still, deep inside, I feel something truly significant happened, even though not in the ‘world of forms’. By the world of forms I mean all the things that happen around us, things that happen to us, things we see and the thoughts that usually come to us.

Towards the end of 2015, I came closer to a truth that transformed my life dramatically. The message that caused the change is nothing new under the sun, though; I’m sure you have come across the words a million times in your life – in many versions and under various circumstances. I had, too. And I had thought I understand so I hadn’t paid too much attention really. Until I suddenly saw where the words point to. Until the truth hit the very core of my heart ….. until it finally reached my soul.

Be grateful for always this moment, the now, no matter what form it takes.

Because the now is the only thing you have and by refusing it for whatever reason you only make yourself suffer. Because, in effect, the past and the future don’t exist – they are just mental forms in your heads, which often turn your life into hell.

Although this sudden realization changed the way I treat each and every moment of my life, my past self still tends to creep in. It tries to convince me that it feels good to be better than others. It urges me to cry over the spilled milk. It encourages me to regret the things I did or didn’t do. It invites me to judge people, myself included. And I sometimes join in and play the game, but I do so less often and less enthusiastically.

The change that occurred may not be visible to the outer world yet. Maybe the closest ones have sensed a minor shift, but otherwise, things appear to be the same. But it’s fascinating to observe that as my perspective is changing, things around me have started to ‘change’ too. My students suddenly seem better-behaved and more motivated. My eldest son, who is a bit of a troublemaker, doesn’t get on my nerves so much anymore. I’m coming across people who are on the same wavelength and those who aren’t are now completely out of sight. I’m bumping into books, movies, articles and posts in which people share insights which resonate with me like they have never before.

This makes me believe that I’m on the right track. The only thing I need to do now is to stay in touch with that place where black is as good as white, where cold is as good as warm, and where grief is as good as joy.

The place which is the only source of creativity and true happiness in life …

G526DET (6)

A win-win situation

20151117_131256The other day we had a regular parent-teacher conference at our school. Normally, the collective session lasts about 30 minutes – parents sitting in one room listening to the homeroom teacher. After that, parents usually go and talk to teachers of other subjects individually. They ask about the grades and behavior of their children.

Although these meetings are very important, nothing epoch-making really happens. However, last time was different. The collective session took two hours because the parents wanted to get things off their chest. When I think about it now, I’d say they must have trusted me completely at that moment because what they were saying took a lot of courage. It was clear that the things they were sharing on the spot had probably been on their mind for long.

Unfortunately, there was not much I could do to help them directly. The only thing I could do was to listen to them. Some of the opinions expressed resonated with me, others didn’t. However, I chose not to oppose too much. I don’t think it’s not my job anyway. My job is to listen patiently and help if it’s in my power. The parents sometimes started with “What do you think about this…….”. I felt that the aim of the question was not to find out what I think. The main aim was to air their views.

There were a couple of things I realized during the session. For one, parents may be afraid to express their opinions because they think their child might get into trouble. It’s hardly conceivable, but they believe that if they honestly say what’s on their mind, some kind of revenge will happen (the teacher will have it in for the kid from now on).

For two, each parent has a different view on education. For example, some think project-based lessons are a waste of time while others think they are a great way to learn things and connect with peers and friends of all ages.

Some parents think the teacher’s job is to teach the kids. Thus, nothing that has not been taught/mentioned in the lesson should later be tested. In other words, the teacher can’t test what’s not in the book or in the student’s notebook.

Some parents are convinced that kids should not be forced to learn millions of facts. Instead, they should be able to find the information they need to solve a problem. Others believe their kids had better learn the serious stuff (read: facts) and ‘play’ after school.

However, what surprised me most was that many parents are convinced that “teachers are stressed and over-worked”. How do they know? Are we all like that? Do they see us this way?

Anyway, whatever I believe, my job is to listen to what the parents have to say. It may come in handy after all, especially when dealing with problematic students. For example, some of my students are content with rather average scores, but as their teacher, I know that they could do better if they tried. So I talk to their parents only to discover that they themselves don’t regard grades, scores and the student’s overall performance terribly important. In other words, the student and the parents are on the same wavelength on this. This is probably because the family’s priorities differ from the priorities of the system, which, I suppose, is perfectly fine, but it just makes my job tough at times.

On the other hand, there are parents who cooperate closely with all the teachers and thus the kid knows that we are not enemies but allies. It’s a pretty straightforward logic; if the loving parents’ objectives are the same as the teacher’s ones, then, inevitably, the teacher must be a loving creature, too. And this realization, I believe, is a win-win situation for all parties involved.

 

 

When the pain is finally blown away …

IMG_20151028_120203The draft of this post was written a couple of days ago. It was written in a very vulnerable and unstable state of mind. When I calmed down later on, I decided not to post it. But earlier today, something eventually made me change my mind. A friend of mine told me about something that had happened to her, which I felt was in some way similar to what I had experienced.

Both stories have something to do with the fact that you have no control over what people think and what they say about you. If they say nasty things and they share them publicly, on social media, for example, you can’t but let it be when the pain goes away.

Here’s the original story.

As you probably know, I’m a homeroom teacher to a class of 25 teenagers. One of them recently set up a class blog. Soon afterward, I incidentally learned about the blog and I immediately whooped with delight.

I promptly shared my joy with the kids so from then on they knew I was visiting the blog. Over time, I’d discovered that only a handful of students were regularly contributing to the blog. Unfortunately, some of the stuff they shared verged on inappropriate. I suspected that the web was not a perfectly safe place, so the rest of the class probably preferred avoiding it. So I told the kids that they should be careful about what they post and that they were fully responsible for the content of the blog. I reminded them that cyberspace can be a tricky place. This story is an irrefutable proof of that.

The other day, the founder of the blog posted a ranty comment in which he complained about school. He mentioned a few teachers, including me. In his comment, he said that he had enough of Mrs. T, who constantly pokes her nose in everybody’s personal stuff. Another boy joined in and actually continued in the same vein – he complained about school and how annoying it was, how disgusting the food in the school canteen was, how irritating the homeroom teacher is – nothing new under the sun. Anyway, the first boy then replied to the second boy’s comment. This time, however, his comment was intentionally and openly rude.

I know teachers get on teenagers’ nerves; I have two teenagers at home after all. At this age, adults are probably seen as enemies and students feel the need to be rebellious at all costs. Nevertheless, I did feel sad when I saw the comments. The matter was complicated by the fact that I was at home on holiday and I couldn’t talk to the students face to face to get things straight.

So my sadness slowly turned into a mixture of disappointment, fear, and anger. I had always regarded the founder of the blog a nice boy and I was surprised how much bitterness there was within him. I think I particularly didn’t like the fact that he was manipulating others, infecting them with his negativity and disgruntlement, but the worst thing about the whole incident is that he knew I’d see the comment, so I couldn’t but take it personally.

However, I tried to stay rational. I used a technique that should be helpful in situations like this; whenever I thought of the incident, I started breathing slowly. I tried to recognize the pain, feel it and then let it go. This helped a bit. I went back to the website to find evidence that I was actually being paranoid and that nothing really terrible was happening. I re-read the comments, especially the last one. The pain came back again. I dosed myself with another breathing exercise. Was I expected to respond? They boy had sent out a clear message and believed I’d receive it at some point.

After a while, for a fleeting moment, my feelings changed; I suddenly felt admiration and respect towards the student. I realized how much courage it took to write such a comment and sign beneath it.

But the disappointment came back. It was impossible to fight it. I was hopeless and desperate. I had to act. I had to do something. I kept telling myself that these things simply happen, that they help me learn and grow. This purely cognitive approach helped, for a millisecond, but then the negativity was back again. I finally became angry with myself. I ended up blaming myself for being totally irrational, impulsive and over-sensitive.

Now, this is my train of thought: I might have pretended I hadn’t seen the comment at all. Or, I might have pretended that I didn’t give a damn about their website. I might well stop visiting the blog completely to save myself from potential trouble and tears.

IMG_20151028_112554Long story short, I chose the third option. However, I should add that I did talk to the boy as well (not face to face to face, though). I wanted him to know that I knew. I wanted the other kids to know too. I don’t know if it was right, but for me, it was the only way of handling this burdensome situation. And even now, when I’m relatively calm, I don’t regret it. Now I can finally let it be and forgive the boy and myself.

My final set of (rather suggestive) questions would be this: Do I have the right to feel emotional in such a situation? Do I have the right to tell my students how much it hurts to hear the nasty things they utter. Should I teach my students about the rules of decent (online) communication? Or should I stop controlling them, i.e. should I stop poking my nose into their stuff, and let them discover things for themselves?

On trust and other virtues

IMG_20151007_204405Some see life as a string of lessons. When I think about it, it’s interesting that we call the moments of insight ‘lessons’. Taking into consideration traditional education, I quite understand why we use the idiom to teach someone a lesson when talking about punishment. But if you learn your lesson, the kind of experience we mean doesn’t really have much in common with those lessons we usually take at school.

First of all, there’s no teacher who judges us or assesses us. These lessons are never planned in advance and as there’s no teacher, there are no objectives or expected learning outcomes. In fact, there’s nobody (but you) to expect learning to take place. When you learn your lesson, things just happen and oftentimes, you realize with a little delay that learning actually happened.

Anyway, back to my lesson. I’d say that I’ve always known what my weaknesses are. For example, I’m aware of the fact that I jump to conclusions too quickly and that I can be easily deceived by the things I see and hear. I believe in intuition, but I admit that my vision is often blurred by prejudice. I tend to use my previous experience to judge the present, thus a stimulus can often create a totally wrong response on my part. However, I’m proud to announce that I recently learned my lesson and finally managed to save the day by widening the space between a stimulus and my response.

But first things first. A few days ago, the following incident happened. Towards the end of a class, I asked a couple of students (14-year-olds) to clean the board. The rest of the group, including myself, left the room before they finished the job. When I came back to the same room 10 minutes later to teach another class (19-year-olds), I noticed a potentially abusive symbol materializing itself on the board (somebody had scribbled it down with a finger and it took the doodle some time to show up on the drying board). It was not a big deal but it was somewhat embarrassing and unexpected so I asked the 19-year-olds if they had done it. They said they hadn’t. So I went and asked the two younger students if they had done it. Obviously, they said they hadn’t. I really don’t know why I wanted to make a mountain out of a molehill, but I suddenly couldn’t step back anymore.

IMG_20151007_185235The problem is that I automatically trusted the older students and accused the younger ones with no evidence whatsoever. I just supposed that the younger kids would be more inclined to do such a thing. I should stress that the younger boys (let’s call them John and Peter) are no angels. Nevertheless, they felt pretty aggrieved that I didn’t trust them and they expressed their attitude quite openly (read: in a somewhat rude manner). Anyway, they came to me voluntarily the next day and we clarified things a bit. I apologized for my prejudice and they apologized for having been rude. I’ll conclude this story saying that I’ll probably never find out if they did it or not and that it’s actually not important in relation to what I’m about to say now.

The next week, another incident happened. I found out that a boy from my class had created a website. I was happy when I incidentally learned about it and as their homeroom teacher, I was obviously curious to see what my students were up to. I checked the website a couple of times and everything seemed ok at first. However, a few days later somebody tampered with the cover photo adding some ambiguous (religious and political) symbols. To cut a long story short, I automatically assumed that it was John who had done it because of my previous experience and because he was one of the administrators of the website. I thought I had enough clues to believe he was the culprit. Again, it was not a big deal but I got a bit angry with John because he seemed to be mocking all the effort the other boy put in the website.

In retrospect, I must say that luckily, I didn’t take action, such as informing the parents, immediately. The next day I talked to a couple of kids from the class and finally learned that John was not guilty of tampering with the cover photo, even though he had allegedly posted some inappropriate content, which the creator of the website decided to delete (and which I have never seen). Ironically, the person responsible for adding the symbols was someone I trusted unconditionally.

The morals of the story:

  1. Things are not always what they seem to be.
  2. Stick to the presumption of innocence rule.
  3. If you don’t have hard evidence proving someone’s guilt, you’d better trust them.
  4. Trust is very fragile. Try not to break it.

The precious language outcome

IMG_20151002_220221Like every weekend this school year, I’m busy correcting a set of my students’ written assignments right now. When planning the senior class course back in August, I thought it would be a good idea to have the students write a lot and often. Based on my experience, students tend to grumble when they are required to produce something longer now and then. However, once the writing practice becomes regular, they get used to it and they finally start to like it (and, believe it or not, ultimately, you may even start enjoying all the correcting too).

Each Monday, before handing out the corrected essays, I give my students collected feedback. I put a couple of the recurrent errors on the board and provide quick explanations. Most of the time, they nod in agreement: “This is so obvious! Why on earth is she telling us? I’d never make such a silly mistake, would I?” But sometimes, I can spot a sign of surprise in their eyes: “Oh dear, she must be talking about my essay now!”.

Every Monday, when sharing the collected feedback, I say something along the lines: “Remember? Last Monday we talked about the difference between other and another. Yet, some of you got it wrong again. We also discussed the difference between it’s and its, still, many of you used these words incorrectly again.” I try not to be harsh. I hope I always say the words with an understanding smile. I want my students to know that I don’t judge them; I want to reassure them that these things just happen. But I also want to let them know that there’s still a lot to learn and refine, especially through writing and language production in general.

One would think that the above examples are the easiest things for your students to grasp and internalize. One would suppose that B1/B2 students can’t possibly get the possessive its wrong. But they do. Over and over again. No matter how often I tell my students that they should keep articles in mind, they will rarely use them correctly if they are not ready yet. It’s a never-ending story; I correct their essays, give them extensive feedback, revise the rules for using articles but whack! – next time they make the same mistakes or invent even more bizzare examples of language use.

But I don’t despair because it’s their mistakes and their language outcome – something I try to value despite all the imperfections. I will gently keep reminding them of the little flaws as long as they need it. And I believe that they’ll finally get it. Some of them will get it tomorrow, others will need more time. Anyway, I can see they get a little better with each new essay. They are more confident and more eager to get it right this time. I know new problems will always come up along the way, but I would never be able to find out about the potential problems without having them constantly produce something genuine, something of their own.

A point of connection

Teaching English in classes where everybody IMG_20150831_193020shares the same L1 is not one of the most authentic experiences. At times, it can even feel somewhat ridiculous.  You ask a question in English, for example, but a student replies in Czech. In an attempt to indicate that this is not exactly what you expected, you pretend you didn’t understand. You ask, with a quick but perceptible wink, “Pardon? Can you repeat it, please? I didn’t understand”.  But while most of the class is giggling  and chuckling now, the student in question has failed to see through your trap and obediently repeats his original answer, in Czech again. He doesn’t get it till the whole class bursts in laughter and his best friend whispers: “In English, dimwit!”

The use of L1 in English lessons is a frequently debated issue. Some teachers insist on L2 only while others believe that using L1 is justifiable since it can be beneficial under certain circumstances. One way or the other, if your students all share the same L1, you will probably never eradicate it from your lessons completely.

Having said that, I’m happy to announce that for the first time in my life, I’m teaching a multilingual class. There are 24 students whose mother tongue is Czech and Chi Kit, a 15-year-old Chinese boy, who joined the class a week ago. Needless to say, his arrival dramatically changed the whole L1 vs. L2 situation.

Chi Kit is here to gain experience. As none of us speaks Chinese and he speaks next to no Czech yet, the only possible means of communication are body language and English. Body language can be quite tricky because Chi Kit comes from a totally different culture, where certain gestures are used and interpreted differently. Thus, English has become the most reliable bridge between us and him.

This has had a tremendously positive impact. First of all, English is no more a mere subject for my students. It’s not something they use to please the teacher or to pass their exams. It’s not something that has to be 100% accurate and correct to be worthwhile. It’s not important what accent tints our speech or which English we choose to use. For the first time ever, it is a genuine means of communication and the only thing that really matters is to be understood and to get the message across.

Chi Kit’s arrival has an impact on other teachers too. As some of my colleagues don’t speak English, they need to find ways to communicate with Chi Kit in their own subjects. They can either ask me or other English teachers to help out, but I’ve reassured them that Chi Kit’s peers can easily translate and interpret for them if need be. These are some of the greatest motivation moments for those talented students who previously felt under-challenged.

Personally, I feel that speaking English in front of the class is no more a constant reflection of power inequality, i.e. of the fact that I have something my students don’t and they are there to learn it whether they like it or not. I feel that I use English because it is what we all know. And this shared knowledge helps us become closer as human beings.

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?

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?

On the NEST vs. NNEST issue

When this happened for the first time, I thought it was pretty insignificant. I pondered for a while and then let go of the thought immediately. When it happened for the second time, I realised it was worth a mention here on my blog.
Scene 1: 
I’m sitting in the classroom, cooperating with Margaret, a lady from the UK (a native speaker of English). We’re working on a task Daniele, the presenter of the workshop we are participating in, has just asked us to complete. We’re looking at a list of some vocabulary items when Margaret mentions that she’s really enjoying the day here at the conference. Later on I ask her about her background and she briefly explains that she used to be a primary teacher in the UK. Now she’s retired and she’s been travelling a bit around the world and she’s having a great time. She’s come to the Czech Republic to visit her son – a teacher trainer based in Brno. Suddenly, Daniele, whose name and surname definitely sound English to me, utters a Czech male name with such a perfect pronunciation that it occurs to me that her L1 might actually be Czech. I’ve noticed that it is particularly people’s names, as well as, say, names of Czech places that reveal your true identity when you pronounce them in front of a Czech audience. Anyway, I mention to Margaret in passing that Daniele is one of my favourite presenters and I wonder whether she’s a native speaker of English. Margaret stops to think for a second and then she says: “Well, I really don’t know but she sounds English to me”. And then she adds: “And Paula, the presenter I saw before, sounded English to me too.” I’m a bit surprised because I know Paula is Czech and although her English is flawless, it’s definitely her L2.
Scene 2: 
I’m sitting in the classroom listening to Nick, a very friendly-looking native speaker of English, who’s giving a presentation on a brand new, bottom-up, approach to teaching listening and reading. At some point he asks if there are any native speakers present in the classroom. I think he wants to explain how difficult it is for NSs, let alone NNSs, to understand spoken English and he wants somebody to confirm his assertion. One guy puts up his hand – it’s James. Nick nods and then he looks at David, a nice guy I saw presenting at conferences in the past too, and, a little puzzled, asks: “And you? You are a native speaker, too, aren’t you?” David shakes his head – he’s actually Dutch. “Really?? I thought you were a native speaker”, adds Nick a little doubtfully. His puzzlement doesn’t surprise me because I heard David speak on many occasions before and he sounded perfectly native-like. But I’m a NNEST, so you can trick me easily, you know. 
And that’s the point. Being a native speaker of Czech, I’m convinced that I can tell with an absolute certainty whether somebody’s Czech is their L1 or L2, and I was really surprised to see that native speakers of English can’t. This is truly intriguing. Although both Nick and Margaret came from totally different environments, they had something in common; Nick probably works with teachers all around the world, so he may have adjusted to all sorts of accents which he accepts as fully-fledged varieties of English. Margaret loves travelling, so like Nick, she may have stopped distinguishing between ‘real’ English and other Englishes long ago. 
So it made me wonder why there’s so much the fuss about NESTs and NNESTs because apparently, even NESTs can’t tell the difference between native and non-native Englishes. It really makes no difference what Daniele’s, Paula’s or David’s linguistic backgrounds are – one of their parents may be a native speaker after all, or they might have spent most of their lives in an English speaking country. Or maybe they managed to acquire English in such a way that nobody can say if it’s actually their L1 or L2. Thus it’s clear that it is the outcome, i.e. your linguistic ability (plus teaching qualifications) that makes you a good teacher, not your history, i.e. the place of your birth or the data recorded in your passport. 
Note: the storied above are real stories, both of which happened quite recently, and the names of the people mentioned are real too (even though I admit I might have played with the spelling a bit).