Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Month: June 2020

The future of English lies with non-native speakers.

Sorry not sorry. I know I am adding wood to the fire.

I find it pretty offensive to still read, in 2020, listed as a requirement for a TEFL job, right under the qualifications, “native speaker.”

Let me rephrase it. What I find deeply offensive is to consider that a passport, from a very specific country, is enough to offer someone a job. Do you realize how insane this situation is? People work for months, years, to become teachers only to hear “sorry we only hire native speakers”, most of the time said with a smirk.

And let’s be honest, when we hear “native speakers” you can be sure it implies “white.” The perfect ESL teacher, according to job ads, is white and is coming from 6 countries, because as we all know, only 6 countries in the entire world can speak English properly. And the problem is, a lot of people are actually okay with this. I can give hundreds of stories of white native speakers who decided to teach English to travel and came back home, happy to share travel stories and pics.

I am a white EFL teacher, and I know I got at least two jobs because the recruiter had no idea that I was a NNS. Did I say anything to make him change his mind? No. The most recent one realized that I was French only when I gave him my passport in order to prepare the contract, two days before the start of the semester. He never, ever mentioned the fact that he wanted a NS during our interview, but we had it over Skype in July 2018, when I was studying at Yale. He thought I was a damn NS, and I said NOTHING. Does it make me an accomplice of this whole scheme? Yes. Would I have had the job if I had mentioned my passport? No.

Since this interview, a lot of things changed. I now only present English as an International language, and myself as an English as a Foreign language teacher. I teach in France, I hold a French passport, my dad is actually Italian, I grew up with two cultures which are not English or American, why should I pretend that I arrived five minutes ago with my backpack? This cliché continues only because we allow it: if people were responsible enough not to answer to these jobs ads which require native speakers, they would have dried out. It’s easier said than done, I am aware.

As teachers, what can we do? We can start by shutting down the “I can’t believe you speak so well English!” and the “are you sure you’re not American?” (I have heard these ones quite a lot) in the teachers’ lounge. We can emphasize to our students that English is a global language, and that they will probably only speak English to another non-native speaker (80% of English interaction are between NNS – Crystal, 2018). We can explain to our students that English as a Second Language or a Foreign Language is not used the same way than as a Native Language. We can use a course book which is “NNS friendly”. And of course, we can refuse to apply to jobs who ask specifically for native speakers, even if you are indeed a NS.

As human beings, what can we do? We can start by, outside the classroom, praising people who are trying to speak the language instead of mocking them (I am not implying that a lot of you do that, but I have seen people mocking others). We can start seeing the beauty of knowledge instead of monetizing it. We can start by praising teachers instead of saying that everybody can do “that.” Not everybody can be passionate about teaching, like not everybody cannot be into accounting. We can start by acknowledging that being a teacher is a real, serious job, and that you don’t fail if you decide to make education your future.

I turned my back on a very promising career in real estate management to embrace one in ELT, and despite everything, the racism, the poor conditions, the shitty salary, I wouldn’t go back.

Bibliography:

Crystal, D. (2018) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: CUP

Students are not clients

I mean, in some sense, we can say that they are indeed clients, as most of them are paying to be in language classroom. I have been working for three years now in ELT, so I am still a baby teacher with a lot to learn, but here is something I would like to highlight: when it comes to education, there shouldn’t be a notion of clientele whatsoever.

Let me explain why I am ranting about this precise topic right here, right now. My college students had to take a written exam today (technically a mock exam), and one of them decided to email me right after, to tell me that it was incredibly difficult. It was not, I had used a past paper, I didn’t overcomplicate the matter, and it was totally manageable for a student who had worked correctly this year. But this precise student hadn’t, and sent me another email, five seconds after the first one, asking me how she was supposed to know all these things?!?

I did NOT send an email like “Gee, IDK, work a bit, for a change?”. I really wanted to, but I just sent her an official document which stated the level of the exam. But she is not the only one reacting this way, as a client: she is barely listening in class, she never opens her mouth and never does any homework BUT she expects some results, and good grades.

The reason is fairly simple: education as been seen as an industry like any other else for so long that our students truly believe that it is indeed one. Let me hear, loud and clear, education is NOT an industry. We can’t promise any precise success early on, we can’t sign a contract based on results. As teachers, we do our best to educate, to adapt, to overcome difficulties, but we CAN’T just implement our knowledge in our students’ skulls. We can’t say on September 1st that an A1 student will be B1 on March 23rd, because we can’t promise these things.

The problem, when you see education as a real industry, is that you start to see the finances behind it, the wheels of rentability, and the clients’ satisfactory rate. We can’t use these tools in education. Our students are sitting in a classroom, normally, because they want to learn English (or they are being forced to learn English, let’s be honest). Their motivations can be various (to get a better job, to pass an exam, to live in another country, whatever, all are valid) but they are here to LEARN, not to CONSUME. We cannot put knowledge in a can.

Another problem, when you think of education as an industry, is the quality. I have seen like a gazillion of ads saying “teacher wanted” with literally no requirements; except being a native speaker (when it comes to languages) or to hold a degree (any type of degree would be just fine, thank you very much). I told people, years ago, that I was studying to become a teacher, and most of the time, the reaction was the same “do you really have to study to teach? I mean, it’s not that hard. “

Not so long ago, being a teacher meant something. It still does, to me at least, and to a lot of people. I never regretted my choice to leave the real estate industry behind me; it was crooked, it was unhealthy, it was all about the money. But I was a bit naive when I started, and I hadn’t realized that education, not only ELT, had became an industry. We want our students to succeed, we want to give good grades at exams, but we won’t just because we are told to do so. Education still means something, at some point. And giving out good grades and exams, it’s just devaluating it. I am not saying it that we have to be harsh, and severe, for the sake of it, that’s actually the opposite. We have to find back our place, as educators. And Education, with a big “E”, must remain out of the business world.

© 2020 Helene Combe

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