What is an English-language Teacher?

My first teacher trainer was fantastic. She gave me encouragement and matter-of-fact feedback that enabled me to attain my goal of becoming a confident teacher, which in turn changed the direction of my life. We are still in contact and she continues to inspire me and to give me feedback. She is tall. She is a she. She drank a lot of tea. She was born in Siberia.

Most of these details are sort of interesting but are mostly irrelevant and only a couple of them really matter to me. And yet as teachers we continue to not only judge members of our community on such irrelevant information but also to fight about these insignificant details with other teachers —  people who by definition should be seeking to promote understanding and tolerance rather than stubbornness and conflict.

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The dispute over whether native or non-native teachers are superior goes on, and we each have our own opinion on it. Either we think non-native teachers have certain attributes that native teachers don’t have, or we think native teachers are the only capable English teacher.

Or, possibly, we think something within or about these polarised positions. Personally, and maybe due to mental laziness, I don’t really think much about the dispute. I choose a non-position. I am Switzerland. I ignore the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ because to me they are misleadingly binary and because I don’t think either extreme position is correct.  

By using these black and white terms we fortify the dichotomy, and by mistaking the extremes for the content we do ourselves a disservice and lose the multitude of colours which lie in-between.

Putting people into categories is at times helpful as it gives us a common way to talk about things but misleading when we forget the categories necessarily simplify what we talk about. As adults we know that life is messy, it strays over the lines, and it doesn’t fit well into the tightly starched clothing we occasionally try to dress it in, and it kicks back when we try to fit the whole of humanity into just two distinct categories.

A woman born in Chicago brought up attending international schools from the age of 2 in Kuwait and Hong Kong?

A man born in Iran and raised in Auckland from 3 years old?

Born in Yorkshire, UK with little grammar awareness and a strong regional accent?

Born and raised in Helsinki with perfect received pronunciation and excellent command of grammar?

A Singaporean?

If we must be divisive and if we have to discriminate and if we need to fight about who is what and what is who then can it possibly be between and about ‘teachers’ and ‘non-teachers’ or even better how we can collaboratively improve the field of ELT / TEFL instead of over the tiring and tired ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ terms?

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I have seen that a lot of people can agree on the idea that the language your parents speak or the colour of your passport does not influence in a meaningful way your ability to teach. Some people are good at teaching, some people are not, some people are OK, regardless of the colour of their passports. Some want to be lifelong teachers, they want to grow, develop, and help students around the world achieve their educational goals. Some others want pocket money while they backpack.

For the TEFL community and industry to grow we would do better to focus on nurturing those teachers who have a real passion for professional development and for their student’s learning, and finding ways for recruiters to identify them and for employers to reward them. This, in my opinion, would be a good application of our energy.

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Without wanting to lessen the cause of those on the extremes of this native v non-native battle I suggest we move on to promote TEFL in a positive way and turn our attention to education and away from in-fighting.  Either way, I’d like to move now to a more fascinating aspect of this topic — why have we been getting so angry?!

I have found in teaching that most of us have instinctive beliefs about what teaching and learning is. We might not be able to articulate it, and we might not know why we believe it but we do, and it undoubtedly influences how we teach and how we react to opposing claims of what a teacher is and does. But the question ‘What does an English-language teacher do?’ is not as simple as it might first sound. Are we motivators? Educators? Lecturers? Task-setters? Information-givers? Facilitators? All of the above? Whatever you believe will influence how you teach and your position in debates such as those about native v non-native teachers.

If for you a teacher is exclusively a facilitator then you may think that it’s not so important whether the teacher is a native speaker or not, since the teacher’s skills lie in planning and setting up tasks. If on the other hand you think one of the main roles of the teacher is to model ‘native-like’ pronunciation and to give guidance on the nuances of idiomatic phrases, you may be sure that a teacher should be a native speaker, or at a native-like level.

The interesting thing is that it seems we don’t always recognise what we believe, and even if we do the bias may well be based on past experience of teaching and learning on the job as well as acquired habits rather than being informed by relevant and up-to-date academic research.

There is a boatload of great research on language learning and teaching that most us don’t know how to or don’t want to access. Speaking from personal experience the sheer magnitude of research papers from relevant fields such as Corpus Linguistics, Neurolinguistics, TEFL etc. is too much for me to get through in one lifetime. But what if some of the wealth of knowledge from the researchers and academics within the field could be distilled and placed in our communal chalice for us to drink?

So, I decided to ask experts in the field of language acquisition the question: What is an English-language teacher?

Well, I didn’t ask them that question exactly, but I did create a questionnaire designed to solicit expert’s views on what the primarily role of an English-language teacher is, the results of which could potentially be used as a reference point for us as teachers. If the results were valid they could inform future practice and could possibly provide some insights into how to deal with certain topics and debates within our community.  

I created a survey and I approached some experts in the various fields of linguistics, second-language acquisition, and TEFL. I have so far received a sizeable amount of responses which offer some remarkable insights, but I would like to collect more responses before we look at the results together.

What I have noticed so far is that a lot of the responses are clearly emotion or instinct-led, and not necessarily based on the research that the participants are involved in. For instance in response to the question of what the primary function of a teacher is one respondent helpfully replied ‘teach the subject’. Nonetheless, I hope we will uncover some insightful and practical information.

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Over the coming weeks I will share the information from each set of questions which range from asking the experts what the primarily function of a teacher is, to whether they think L1 is useful for teaching adults. If would like to receive the posts as they come out (approximately one every few weeks) then you can subscribe here.

Before I go I would like to thank Natasha (the teacher trainer of the first paragraph) for her thoughts and feedback on the idea to send a survey out, and Mike Casey of the English Teachers in Spain Facebook group for continually posting stimulating articles and promoting open discussion, one of which provided the idea for this small-scale research.

If you are interested in learning more about the plight of non-native teachers in the TEFL industry then I would recommend looking at some of the videos and articles on the TEFL Equity Advocates website.

To read other blog posts, click here.

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Posted by in Challenges for ELT, ELT, Inclusivity, native v non-native