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

New Year, Same You? 5 Ways to be the Best Teacher you can be in 2018

The new year is nearly here and with it comes the expectation to make resolutions to change something in your life; to become the best possible version of you. Or at least to make a list of the characteristics that the best possible version of you would have. Whether you will spend less time on Facebook, go swimming more often, and clean the juicer straight after using it, only you will know — but deciding to be the best possible teacher you can be will bring you joy, benefits to your students and to your career. 

Here are a handful of activities and habits that you can put into practice straight away to make you an even better professional.

1. Take a Course

While there may not be such a wide variety of courses for English teachers to take, there are some out there which are held in high regard and that will furnish you with ideas and inspiration that you can take with you for years to come. Some of the most well-known are run by Cambridge Assessment. TKT (Teaching Knowledge Test) is exactly what is says — a knowledge test that will bolster your CV. The DELTA is considered the main stepping stone after the CELTA. It is at master’s level, and for teachers who have been teaching for a few years. It is theoretical and practical and there is increasingly more flexibility in how you can take the modules. For something more specialised there is the Business Certificates (BEC) also from Cambridge which is divided into Preliminary, Vantage, and Higher.


Aside from these formal certifications there are online courses that you can do to support your development as an English-language teacher. For instance, Coursea and Future Learn offer MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which are designed as tasters to promote certain universities and their courses but nonetheless can have great content. With these you will not gain a qualification that you can necessarily put on your CV but you may well learn something useful and enjoy participating within the community of learners that attend the online courses.

2. Read Articles and Blogs

English teachers are often avid readers, and many of then are writers too. Sometimes at the end of a long day teaching a teacher would like to escape into the other-worldliness of a great novel. But putting aside some time to read around topics which interest you in teaching and learning can be equally engaging and can bring benefits to your teaching too. There are lots of academic articles and current research papers which can offer insights into what is happening now in the field of ELT and could help you to overcome issues you might be having with your own teaching.

Google Scholar is a good place to start for searching for articles on topics that interest you and institutions like The Linguistic Society of America offer insights and links to articles and here is a great website which offers lots of links to free articles on linguistics and teaching. If the day has been too chaotic for you to possibly read a full-length academic article then why not browse some of the many ELT blogs in cyberspace that have the right balance of light reading and deep insights? Check out this list of ELT Blogs to follow in 2018. And if you have something to say — why not create your own blog?

3. Join the Community

Being a part of something bigger and communicating with others about what you do can be reassuring and can offer much needed support. There are tons of different groups on social media where you can interact, share, and gain information. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ all offer something slightly different so take a look, join some groups and get involved! Additionally there are forums where you can chat about specific questions such as at and ESL Base.

Quora is a relatively new phenomenon which is somewhere between a forum and social media. It is a place to ask and answer questions, gain knowledge, and comment. There are not so many English teachers on there, but you can change that!

4. Self Appraise and Create a Training Plan

Reflection is a necessary step in effective learning, according to Kolb’s Learning Cycle. As teachers we might be too busy teaching to be learning because we might not have enough opportunity to reflect on what went well, what didn’t go so well in any given day. Setting aside some time for this and creating a learning path for yourself can give more confidence to your teaching, enable you to see what you have done in the past, and to make plans about how you want to develop in the future.

Self-appraisal is the start of this process. It can done as a simple list of Strengths and Weaknesses featuring what you know you are good at, and what you could do better. From there you can form personal objectives based on the areas you want to improve. You can plan how you will meet the objectives: will it be through peer observations? Reading contemporary research on the subject, or even carrying out your own small-scale research? Taking an extra qualification or attending a seminar? Any of the items in this post could serve as instruments for improvement, the important thing is to articulate what you want to do and follow through as best you can. If you would like a template for a teacher training plan you can contact me and I will send one to you.

5. Attend Conferences

From the plethora of conferences in the TEFL world we can see the dedication and vibrancy in the industry. There are conferences, large and small, across almost every continent, every month. Conferences serve multiple functions. The first of those is educational. When you attend you can prioritise the topics and speakers that mean the most to you. The speakers may be giants of the field or complete newbies giving their first presentation. The second benefit of attending conferences is meeting like-minded people. A lot is made in today’s world of social capital and networking but if that isn’t your thing then simply meeting people and having fun with TEFL professionals is a good enough reason to be there! And that brings us to the third point which is that conferences are exciting and fun. The vibrancy is tangible and it’s revitalising to mix with people who work in your field and with it comes a sense of community and mutual support.

These are some ways you can grow as a teacher but good habits, like dogs, are not just for Christmas; they are long-term investments in yourself that will pay dividends for a long time to come. But why wait till 2018!? There is time to do these things now!

If you have any other suggestions, then leave them in the comments below. Otherwise, have a wonderful Christmas and New Year!

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