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.

A little rant

It distresses me that by writing this post I might make some people annoyed. That’s why I’d like to reassure the reader in advance that it is not my intention – this post is not aimed at specific people. Please, don’t take any of this personally.

It’s that I just noticed something. Maybe it’s always been around and it’s recently become salient for me, for god-knows-what reasons. Maybe it’s actually me who takes things personally. The trouble is that everywhere I look I come across a mention or a plethora of mentions of a certain internationally recognised teaching qualification. I don’t mean the type of posts or articles where the author looks at things with a critical eye and questions the current status quo. I’m talking about the type of discourse which people use to promote something they deem good. I’d like to stress that I can fully understand why teachers, who I respect and admire, are proud to have achieved this particular qualification. I’m convinced that the experience was challenging and beneficial. What bugs me then?

I remember I first heard of this highly rewarded qualification at the start of my MA programme a couple of years ago. During the introductory speech the DoS said in passing: “Yes, and by the way, I shouldn’t forget to mention that your two-year intensive course leading to an MA degree will actually be less valued than the four-week X course.” Although I was a little surprised by his rather cruel off-topic remark, I didn’t actually care very much because I was thrilled to be taking part in a programme of my dreams, and nothing else mattered to me then. Anyway, I didn’t even know what course he was talking about.

After my graduation, a brand new horizons opened for me; I met lots of wonderful people (my precious PLN) and I started learning from them. However, I also realised that the DoS was right. You know, I can’t help feeling excluded at times. I mean, when I’m going through the topics of an upcoming ELT-related Twitter chat and see that one, or even two, of them are directly related to the highly rewarded teaching qualification, I can’t but feel discouraged. How am I going to contribute to the discussion if the topic wins? I’ll be automatically excluded. It would be similar to suggest a topic in which people would be asked to discuss the following question: What are the benefits of using Headway? Why did I choose it and how do I work with it in class? Pardon? I don’t use Headway! How on earth can I discuss the topic? And are Headway users a special group?

This reminds me that I once came across a remark that you can never provide truly valuable feedback on an observed lesson unless you hold a certain certificate and not another. Wow. This has really stuck with me. At times it feels like there are two groups out there – the one which consists of the said certificate holders and the other one including those who did a different teaching qualification. It’s Us and the Others.

I felt a similar controversy when people discussed what blog creation tool is best to use. The discussion eventually narrowed down to two tools. It’s quite obvious that you can only say which of the two options is better if you try both of them. Otherwise you can only say what is good for you. If you like something, for whatever reason, you obviously tend to promote it and recommend it. This is absolutely fine. But once you start feeling that you are attracted to one option just because it’s been chosen by the majority out there, you should become alert. Why do you feel like that?

My point is that any type of discourse can become inherently biased. Moreover, by promoting something we like as the only and the best option we may be actually promoting somebody’s profitable business. And those owning the business must be rubbing their hands together. Because honestly, the things I’ve discussed in my post are profitable businesses and I believe that’s how they should be looked at.