Ilá Coimbra tackles the native v non-native teacher debate

Whether we like it or not, the distinction between native and non-native teachers is often made. Ilá Coimbra tactfully dealt with this thorny issue for the latest Braz-TESOL Newsletter, a great reading material which is only accessible to members (speaking of which, are you a member of Brazil’s biggest English language teacher association?). She now brings this discussion to our blog and reminds teachers they need to work on their language proficiency, a topic which will also be discussed in our next BrELT webinar.

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Is it a myth that students prefer native speakers?

So there we are, in the middle of the teachers’ room, or of a conference or of a hanging out with fellow teachers, when the 6-letter word comes up: native. Friendliness and kindness give room to strong arguments on how much better non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs) can be when compared to native English speaking teachers (NESTs); how much more has to be taken into consideration when deciding what a good teacher is, etc, etc, etc. But the issue is: is it true that students prefer NESTs? If so, why and how much are institutions fighting that illusion?

In order to contribute to the discussion and to save money with therapy, I’m going to share a personal anecdote: the year was 2011 and I was trying to get a summer camp teaching position in a renewed school in an English speaking country. As any other applicant, I took part in the whole selective process: CV analysis, Skype interview, travelling availability, etc, and I was thrilled to hear from the DOS herself that I was suitable for the position. However, at that point of the process, I was made an unusual if not bizarre request: she asked me if I would mind lying to the students by telling them that although I was Brazilian, I was raised and also lived in the US. Although I was astonished by that, I confess I ended up agreeing with that ‘white lie’, especially because I was eager to get the job. In the end, the course unfortunately turned out to be cancelled due to the low number of students and I fortunately didn’t have to lie.

Five years later and that request still nags me and makes me wonder why they asked me to lie like that. The first thing that comes to my mind is that students would feel disappointed, maybe even angry, if they didn’t have a native speaker as a teacher. After all, they are going to an English speaking country, thus a NEST is expected. But again, is it a real expectation? If so, how realistic is it, since the vast majority of English teachers around the world are NNESTs? Plus, how much is the institution actually trying to change students’ minds and what about us, NNESTs, how much are we contributing to reverse this situation?

First of all, regarding the institution’s role, I cannot say that this particular one has preferences for NESTs since they were willing to hire me. However, they don’t try to change the students’ mind whatsoever. On the contrary, they just found an easy solution to try to please both sides – students, by offering them a ‘native teacher’ and the TEFL community, by hiring a NNEST to teach in an English speaking country.

Moreover, the school might have taken for granted that the students going to their program were expecting a NEST, but were they really? Immersion is much more that just having English lessons with a NEST: it is about living the culture and experiencing the language on a daily basis outside the classroom. Would they be that offended, then, by having a NNEST? If so, maybe talking to them and demystifying NESTs could have been a much better solution and could have helped the TEFL field much more. But then, unfortunately this will never be known.

Secondly, it’s always good to shift perspective and think about the role that we, NNESTs, play in this scenario. We all know that it is not difficult to find students that have had bad experiences with teachers, being those NESTs or NNESTs, and what they really look for in a teacher is simply good teaching. However, most students might think that a NEST is more knowledgeable when language is involved and feel that a NEST will provide them with better input and more effective error correction then a NNEST. They are terribly wrong, since a well trained and experienced teacher is absolutely capable of catering to any student’s needs. Nevertheless, there is a huge parcel of English teachers that has unaddressed language issues and, much as I hate to admit it, a big part of those are NNESTs.

Taking the Brazilian context into consideration, the general level of our English teacher might be around B2, as I see it, which is far from being enough to provide the high-quality input students expect. I’m absolutely aware that this is a much more complex problem that involves our old-fashioned and severely defective educational system, our extremely low salary and the poor working conditions offered by most language institutions and regular schools. All these factors just contribute to the lack of reasons for English professionals to seek professional development. However, the less we develop ourselves as competent teachers and especially as proficient speakers, the more the myth of NESTs being better teachers will perpetuate. The biggest contribution we, NNESTs, can give to change the scenario is simply to be the best teacher we can be, which means striving for excellence in all realms of our profession, pedagogic and language-wise.

The point I’m trying to make by sharing that experience with you, besides saving money with therapy, is that although renowned and respectable institutions might be beyond the prejudice against NNESTs by hiring NNESTs (or at least trying to), they are still doing very little to make real difference. However, it is also of major importance that we, teachers as a whole – NNESTs or NESTs, seek linguistic and pedagogical excellence and fight for that being the only criteria for choosing a teacher.

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11401297_989687444397033_843261195526028729_nIlá Coimbra has been a teacher for over 12 years. After obtaining her degree in Languages from Universidade de Sao Paulo, she lived in Ireland, where she obtained her Cambridge English CAE & CPE. She currently teaches adults, especially preparing them for exams such as IELTS and CAE, and she is also a teacher trainer at SEVEN Idiomas in São Paulo. As part of her professional development, Ilá has obtained the CELTA and ICELT certificates, and she is considering taking a TESOL Diploma in 2016.

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