Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

A collaboration: impostor syndrome (native vs non native edition)

Impostor syndrome, you’ve heard of it right? You must have done. It’s all people talk about these days. Instead of just feeling a little bit down, or worrying slightly, people have been suffering from impostor syndrome.

However, it’s not a new thing. Impostor syndrome has been around since the beginning but is becoming more understood, and more prominent, amongst teachers. Here, we’re going to share our experiences to give you a little more insight into how it can happen so easily.

Helene:

Obviously, it’s not about being the best teacher. It’s about this feeling of being a fraud, as an EFL teacher. Native and non native teachers tend to react completely differently towards the language, and teach it differently as well. We do have our favorite topics to teach, a specific detail of language we enjoy, and perhaps others we just loathe.

As a non-native teacher myself, I hate, with every cell of my body, teaching pronunciation. Not only did I have a hard time learning it by myself (I just don’t hear the difference, despite being able to pronounce perfectly), but explaining it to someone else, who already has trouble with it, seems an impossible challenge. I am not ashamed of my pronunciation, far from it, but explaining it is another matter. And every time a student asks for clarification, I always feel like the earth is going to swallow me whole.

While I was completing my CELTA, I realised that I felt particularly at ease teaching grammar, because of the way I learned it, as a non-native speaker. Every rule was carefully laid out and it was the opposite of a natural learning, which means that I can explain a single detail for hours . I enjoy teaching grammar, it just makes sense to me, and as a result, I have realised that my students feel quite relaxed towards grammar.

Claire here, on the other hand, I felt absolutely awful teaching grammar during my CELTA and I can clearly remember not being able to answer even the most simple of questions. Questions that I look back now and see how completely easy they were. Honestly, I think because I started off being so scared of grammar, that the feeling hasn’t changed at all. So, if anyone has any tips on overcoming a fear of grammar – send them my way!

It’s hard for a NNS to teach English: ads are requesting NS 99% of the time, schools prefer to hire NS for numerous reasons (number one being ‘having the good accent’ like there is only one good accent – the simple fact that someone wrote that sentence is driving me crazy), students tend to ask the infamous question “where are you from?” like it’s normal to question your teacher’s place of birth. Everything is made to make you feel like you shouldn’t be here. I have been teaching for three years now (three years and one week, to be precise) and every month, I have had this crushing feeling that I am not good enough for this. That I have no legitimacy. That I should forget about it and resume my old boring job in real estate.

Am I afraid to make mistakes while talking in English? Of course, but I know, and that’s not bragging, I swear, that my English is better than my French. I make TONS of mistakes in French, way more than in English. Everybody makes mistakes, and it’s perfectly healthy. Most learners are afraid to make mistakes because they tend to believe that English speakers are flawless and will never ever make mistakes. Spoiler alert: it’s just human. Making mistakes is a natural part of learning, and believing that Native Speakers are just immune to it is not helping. 

Do I feel offended when I see ads requesting native speakers? Yes, and I will never stop feeling that way. I have been fighting inequalities for years now, and I am nowhere near ready to stop. But will I stop teaching because of this? Nope, not a chance. It took me a while to realise what I was made of, and what I was good at. The industry might be crooked, but I want to believe it’s changing.

Me again! As someone who has worked alongside many non-native speakers, Helene being the absolute best, of course. I find these adverts ridiculous. I think governments should not be limiting work-visas to ‘native speakers’ only and neither should schools enforce it. I can understand that schools want the best teachers, but that certainly doesn’t mean that native speakers are the only people who are capable. In fact, I have met plenty of non native speakers who can teach far more effectively that native speakers because;

Firstly, they have the passion to have learned English so fluently and secondly, they have learned English to a far higher level than many English people have, as we don’t get taught grammar at school or even University – so how can we be the experts on something we’ve never been taught?! “That’s just the way it is” is not an appropriate answer when explaining a grammar rule to a language student, for the most part, anyway!

Do I feel good enough after three years? A little tiny bit, because well, it’s been three years, because of my students, mostly. I still feel like a fraud though, because the industry of EFL is making me this way, and because I probably need therapy to overcome my constant anxiety. I guess that I will always feel a bit lousy about pronunciation, mostly because I purely don’t like it, and it’s not about to change anytime soon.

Claire:

It’s become obvious in recent months that impostor syndrome can affect all of us, especially teachers, regardless of our first language, our teacher training routes and the type of students we have. As a native speaker, and a relatively new teacher, I feel the burden of impostor syndrome nearly every day, although admittedly not as strongly as I used to. I completed the CELTA at one of the top training centres in the country, I have now worked for 3 top-100 schools in the UK and this is something I’m immensely proud of. Through working at these schools I have been able to develop my teaching skills, my knowledge of the language, and my confidence levels. (Honestly, I don’t even want to know what my CELTA trainers and colleagues must have thought of me the first time I ‘taught’ a lesson. I cringe just remembering those first 15 minutes).

Even now, teaching up against teachers with 10+ years experience, published authors or experts in grammar always sends me into a frenzy because my knowledge in that area is weaker than in others. I worry that I’m not the right person to be teaching grammar, or that my students won’t believe in me, even though I’ve gained more knowledge, and confidence, as each month passes. This is still an area I need to strengthen. 

On the other hand, I love teaching vocabulary. I love introducing students to synonyms, alternative phrases and ways to improve their daily conversations. I thrive during these types of classes. I’m able to answer all sorts of vocabulary questions, rephrasing, paraphrasing and so on, but if someone throws in a grammar question I might end up feeling a little bit flustered. One thing I have mastered is the perfect tenses. And man, does that feel good!

Helene here! Vocabulary was so hard for me at the beginning, mostly because I am teaching monolingual speakers (French), who are virtually using me as a human translator. Being asked, all of the sudden, to translate a specific word is not a walk in the park, even if you have an amazing level of English. I used to be ashamed to check, but now, I am actually telling them that I have to check – even though I am sometimes just checking to reassure myself more than anything else: I am turning this moment into a teaching one. It’s incredibly important to show our students that we are NOT machines, that we don’t have superpowers, and that it’s okay not to remember every damn word in the dictionary.

So when did I get to the stage of feeling confident? I suppose after a month of teaching, I realised I could relate well to my students and make lessons enjoyable, even if I didn’t know everything! Three years on, I’m feeling more confident about teaching overall, and I believe that I am able to make a solid impact on my students. I’m able to admit when I don’t know something, and although doing so makes me feel awful, I’m able to do it because I know that I’m human. We cannot know everything.

Since the beginning of 2020, I have been asked to take part in numerous research interviews, trial lessons, and other projects. Whilst I’m massively honoured and excited to be a part of all of these things, I am completely baffled that people have approached me. ME! Why me? I’m not a DELTA survivor, I’m not a CELTA trainer. I’m just me! During the two interviews I’ve been a part of this year, I knew exactly what the research was for and I knew what I wanted to say, but when I actually spoke my words came out as complete gibberish and I felt so stupid. I taught trial lessons on grammar I completely did not understand, yet somehow pulled it off. I’ve been asked to write pieces that I absolutely do not feel qualified to do.

Helene again! I was asked to participate at a conference in Qatar last year. The university flew me over, alongside my husband, and I had the opportunity to meet Claire Kramsch, who is literally my hero when it comes to EFL. When I grow up, I want to be Claire Kramsch.  You can imagine how thrilled I was to meet her, to sit next to her at a plenary, and to discuss  my research with her, which is based on her own. I mean, I tried to discuss my research, as it was mostly me stammering and her trying to follow what the hell I was trying to utter.

These kinds of projects make me undermine myself more than ever, and despite telling myself this was my ‘yes’ year, I feel as if I’m trying to take on more than I can handle.They are projects I would love to work on, but impostor syndrome is telling me that I’m under-qualified or not skilled enough to do them. Tempting me to reject the project. Why? Why can’t I say yes?

*Runs over to Twitter for support*.

Okay, I’ve got this.

So, why did we write this post together? Because, in case you don’t know us together, we are the best of friends! We met on our CELTA course 3 years ago and have barely stopped talking since. We’ve had sleepovers, days out, meet-ups, sent thousands of texts, spent hours and hours FaceTiming, Zoom-ing and any other possible way of keeping in touch. But we both teach, we both blog, and we both like to put the world to rights. So, we decided to collaborate on something we both experience and feel is important to share with the world. And, from two very different points of view.

I, as a native English speaker, haven’t faced much discrimination as a teacher, but I know that Helene, and many other non-natives have. I’m appalled by this, but as I haven’t experienced it I don’t feel as if it is my ‘duty’ to write about it. I can, however, write about the ways in which impostor syndrome has impacted me and hope that by reading this, some of you may not feel so alone.

How are we working to overcome some of these feelings?*

Self-talk – tell yourself that you are worthy of your job, that you were hired because you displayed certain qualities

Self- love – believe in yourself. Don’t be negative (being realistic is okay!), don’t put yourself down. Show yourself as much kindness and support as you would your best friend. 

‘Fake it til you make it’ – some people completely disagree with this way of combating impostor syndrome, but for others it works perfectly. If you keep telling yourself you can do something, maybe you will. Tell yourself you are brave and strong and intelligent. You will start to believe it, and the more you believe it the more you will act accordingly.

Be honest with yourself and those around you – we are not, unfortunately, super-humans, nor robots. We can’t do everything and we can’t not have feelings. Which is why impostor syndrome is such a big issue these days. We feel too much, we worry too much and we get scared easily.

Don’t do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Worried? That’s okay. That’s you pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Scared? Really uncomfortable? No. At that point you need to evaluate what you’re doing or being asked to do and seriously consider what’s at stake and why you’re uncomfortable with it. Because if it is something that you are genuinely unable to do, what’s the point in doing it? If you can do something with a little difficulty, that’s okay. The best lives don’t come easy to us!

*These tips may not work for you, or others, but we wanted to share what is working for us.

Claire wrote about impostor syndrome back in January, which you can read here and this blog also follows up on my latest blog post which you can read here.We hope you’ve enjoyed our collaboration and would love to know what you think – so please feel free to leave a comment or connect with us on Twitter – Claire and Helene.

Let me get this straight

I hadn’t planned to write about this, I swear I was in a good mood. But this morning, as I was browsing Facebook and Twitter, my attention was caught by this simple sentence “want to speak like a native speaker?” and that was enough to set me on fire.

You can’t speak like a native speaker that easily.

Unless you are a speech therapist (and a good one), you can’t and you won’t change anybody’s way of talking. You may a great student, but you are not going to sound like you had spent twelve years in a British prep school after twenty, or fifty, or a hundred lessons. Same idea, you might be an amazing teacher, but you don’t have superpowers. This is FALSE ADVERTISEMENT, people.

Not everybody wants to speak English like a native speaker.

Believe it or not, not everybody wants to sound like an American or a British person. Having an accent is a part of your identity, and tampering it, or purely ignoring it is an attack against that identity. The reasons our students need English are numerous, but sounding like a native is rarely number one. Unless you are teaching spies, of course.

More non-native speakers are actually speaking in English

It is indeed proven that non-native speakers are way more than native speakers. As well, we know that most conversations in English are between two non-natives. So, again, why the whole supremacy of the native speaker? Let me say it out loudly once again: MARKETING. It makes non-native speakers sound like a fraud before they even start talking. And a lot of people can master fully two languages, that’s called bilingualism and it’s actually the norm (not monolingualism!)

We need real teachers, qualified teachers, more than native speakers.

You probably spend a few hours on the internet, like I do, and you probably encounter native speakers who are writing despicable English. This is not an insult in any way, I have received yesterday an email in French from a native French student and that was gibberish. Nothing made sense. Not everybody has the same command of the language, that’s just a fact. So, obviously, we need people who have a decent command of the English language to teach, not someone who was born in Liverpool and decided that was good enough (it’s an example, of course, I have nothing against people from Liverpool, and I loved discovering the city). The fact that it’s your first language doesn’t mean you have a decent command of it, sorry not sorry.

Find out why your students need English for

In this century, our students always have a reason to learn English: for exams such as Cambridge or IELTS, for their jobs (ESP), for university, to follow a specific course online, to understand what the hell Sheldon is talking about on The Big Bang Theory, whatever reason is a good one. But understanding this reason (or these reasons) is way more important than the rest. And way more important than sounding like a native speaker.

I really do hope that one day people are going to understand that being a native or a non-native doesn’t matter, and that the only thing really important is being a good teacher. It’s very naive of me, I am aware of this. But I guess it’s better than just accepting the situation, and think of myself as a second-rate teacher.

I don’t want to teach online

Obviously, I don’t have a choice right now, as my school is closed, like the two companies I regularly teach at. Hear me out, I am doing it right now, because we cannot do otherwise. But I am not interested into doing it more than necessary.

I am fully aware that online teaching is huge within the ELT industry, that it’s comfortable to work from home, that it’s way more convenient, whatever, I am not interested. I didn’t become a teacher so I would sit in front of a computer. It’s a very reductive image, I know there is way more than just sitting down and talking to a screen, but that’s how I feel when I’m teaching online right now.

How are you supposed to pass on your passion, your love for the language you have been teaching for years when you cannot even see the genuine reaction of your students? I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted an easy path, a hideout, a 9 to 5 job. I had one years ago, I worked in a competitive atmosphere, and I hated every minute of it. I am not the only one who decided to become a teacher (worse, an EFL teacher) despite all the difficulties we all know about. I am getting tired to hear that we are just lazy people, sitting on their asses, that we are complaining about this or that, and now, a whiny EFL teacher doesn’t want to teach online. Yeah, I don’t want to, sue me.

I need to be in a classroom, I need to share the experience with my students, I need to know them, I need to be able to decipher their body language to get them, I need to be able to adjust my speech. My students are my priority, always have, always will. Teaching online is taking away all these things, and I just can’t cope. Call me old fashioned, but I can’t wait to go back to school for real.

I have a Teams chat with my students though, and that’s the bright side of this entire story. We are keeping in touch lightly, without any pressure, they are free to answer when they want. Our relationship changed, probably for the best: they are less afraid, I would say, to ask for some advice, to participate, to get involved. At the end of the day, I am still working for them.

It’s okay not to be okay

Turns out 2020 is not exactly what we have been hoping for.

Actually, it has been the complete opposite: seeing half of Europe quarantined, in lockdown, and hearing presidents, prime ministers talking about closing borders, closing schools up till September(to name a few), well, nobody thought about it.

Since the beginning of this whole lockdown thing, I have seen, heard, read about numerous ideas about how to cope with this difficult time. Extremely motivated people, some of them being my friends, seemed to have a lot of projects: “It’s great,” one friend told me, “you are going to be able to focus on your MA!” “I have decided to work out every day,” another told me. “I am going to learn Korean!” “I am going to learn how to cook!” “I am going to write a novel!” “I am going to read Lord of the Rings!” Let me tell you, the list was endless. And it made me feel like shit.

What have I done since the beginning of this nightmare? I called my parents, who are in Brittany, so roughly one thousand kilometers away from me every day for at least one hour. I binge watched Hannah Montana the second Disney + was available in France and The Chilling adventures of Sabrina before that. The only book I managed to finish was edited by Disney Press and is a part of the Twisted Tales collection (A whole new world – what if Jafar got the lamp before Aladdin?). I have worked maybe two hours on my MA because the current module is annoying me so much that I can’t focus on it. I have worked A LOT on my Italian because I can’t wait to go back there. I worked out a week or so, and gave up. I adopted a puppy. I haven’t written a novel, a short story, or even an article before this one.

The truth is, we don’t know what will happen. It’s hard to focus on the future when you don’t know what it will hold. Sure, it was okay for a few days to hang at home. It was (and it is still) an interesting experience to teach online college students and senior students. I am nowhere near to leave my current job to teach online full time though. As I said, it’s an experience, but I’ll be damn glad when it will be done.

Come on, I am not going to complain: my job will still be here at the end of this dreadful moment (actually, I’ll have a better job at the local college), I have a nice apartment, I have my husband, my cats and a lovely puppy who is glued to me 24/7. But I am also a teacher who is fighting against inequalities, who thinks that everybody should have the same chances, and who knows that the gap between the students is getting wider by the minute.

So now, I am not okay. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back home (my real home – Aosta Valley, Italy). I don’t know if my students are going to find a deeper motivation within themselves. I hate the uncertainty. I hate to ignore where I am going, it has been giving me anxiety for the past thirty years; imagine how terrifying the world is to me now.

But I am not going to write a book, start a blog about cooking, learn an exotic foreign language. If I am considered lazy, or depressed, or whatever, well, be it. I am not going to pretend that it’s all going to be fine because it’s important to stay positive. I made peace with the fact that I’m not okay, that I am nowhere near to be okay, and with the fact that pretending is not gonna work for me. Self-acceptance, you say?

The problem with Native Speakers (within the field of ELT)

If there is one thing a bright new English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL), or English as an International Language (EIL) teacher can notice quite quickly while entering the job market, is that an enormous amount of job advertisement is specifically asking for native speakers.

All these wonderful acronyms seems all the same, but it’s not. In my specific context, France, I am teaching EFL: French people don’t need English to carry on their lives, it’s not important whatsoever to work in the country, academic life doesn’t depend on English and so on. I felt more than discouraged when I moved back to France after teaching in England because pretty much all the job ads I was seeing were about NES while the need for teaching qualification was actually not even mentioned.

Not only that discourages brilliant non-native teachers, but it promotes nativeness, and diminishes the importance of being properly trained as a teacher. It often appears that the mere notion of ESL/EFL/EIL teacher is quite blurry for a lot of people, and that it could be summarize as a conversation class, while a native speaker would speak and the students would magically pick up. Most schools tend to justify this “need” of native speakers by the importance of the accent, despite the fact that “80% of the conversation in English is between two non-natives speakers of English” (Crystal, 2017) and that native speakers are largely outnumbered by non-native speakers. Spoiler alert marketing guys: you can’t catch an accent just by sitting one hour, maybe two hours (let’s be crazy) a week with someone who speaks English. It’s not the linguistic equivalent of the flu.

Moreover, it is clear now that English as an International Language (EIL), and more specifically, as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is actually more common than English as a Native Language (ENL). We do not teach a native language the way we teach a second or a foreign one, we all know that, we can all agree on that, but despite that, NES are still being voted in.

A lot of my (adult) students tend to say that they start too late, that they should have started early on. Some others are saying that learning a second language should be more natural, like when you are learning your native language. Spoiler alert number two of this article: an adult brain doesn’t react the way a child’s brain does. It’s never really too late to learn, but the way of learning is going to be different. The knowledge will be more procedural than declarative, but in the end, what’s the real difference?

Accents. That’s the one and only element which will change. And why are NES still hired everywhere in the world despite having no qualifications whatsoever? Accents. There is no good or bad accents, this is not a haircut we are talking about here, we are talking about someone’s personality, background, linguistic history. Nobody has the same accent, and everybody’s accent is evolving, even in your native tongue (sorry, people who thinks accents are written in stone. They are not.) A child MAY speak later on with a native-like accent, but so can an adult. Is it really the point anyway?

Take the example of France. It’s not necessary at all to speak English with a C1, or even B2, level to work there, and it would be presumptuous to say that 50% of the population speaks with a B1 level as well. The indicated level at the end of high school is A2 (no joke here) and the test mainly done while in college is basic TOEIC, which doesn’t require any oral production. Why, then, the primary concern is the accent, and not the fact that basic grammar elements (such as present continuous) is still not known correctly? (Once again, this is not a joke. Half of my MA students have no idea how to build present continuous.)

Promoting only NES to speak English is literally sending the opposite message: it is saying “you will never be as good anyway because you are not native.” As a learner, a student need a “language sherpa, someone who struggled with the language and conquered it. (…) There is much to be said for learning a language as an adult from someone who knows the terrain.” (Roberts and Kreuz, 2015:89)

I am not saying here NES teachers are bad teachers, this is not my point at all. The most common belief is that it’s necessary, or somehow better, to learn a language from a native speaker, and it diminishes the abilities and the skills of numerous NNES. It’s just discrimination, pure and simple, hidden under a fancy curtain marketing (and racism) designed.

Sources:

Crystal, D. (2017) The English language, 3rd edition. Cambridge: CUP

Robert, R. and Kreuz, R. (2015) Becoming Fluent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

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