Equal rights for nNESTs?

In this guest post Marek Kiczkowiak from the blog TEFL Reflections and the TEFL Equity Advocates campaign explores the issue of prejudice against non-native English speaker teachers and issues a plea for a more egalitarian approach to hiring teachers, placing more emphasis on skills and qualifications than on mother tongue.

Seeing yet another job ad which explicitly states that only a native speaker should apply can be disheartening. As a non-Native English Speaker Teacher (nNEST) you are a priori classified, in the eyes of many recruiters, as inferior to any Native English Speaker Teacher (NEST), despite the fact that your qualifications might be much higher, or that you might be more experienced.

Unfortunately, the TEFL/TESOL industry is rife with this prejudice, although perhaps many would like  “this issue to disappear […] asserting that this problem has already vanished!” (Nick Michelioudakis in this article). www.tefl.com, the biggest search engine for English teaching job-hunters, is a good case in point. Click on Search database, and put ‘Native speaker’ as the key search word to find out how many job ads are for native speakers only. The one below was retrieved on 10th August 2014 from www.tefl.com (underlining mine).


Whether you agree that NESTs and nNESTs are equal might actually be irrelevant in many cases as job ads like the one above are illegal in the EU. I wrote about this in this article. For example, a European Commission Communication from 12 November 2002 (COM (2002) 694 final) stresses that “advertisements requiring a particular language as a mother tongue are not acceptable.” In addition, responding to a question from German MEP Jo Leinen on 23 May 2003, the European Commission stated that: “The term native speaker is not acceptable, under any circumstance, under community law”.

Nevertheless, recruiters if questioned about their policies will still ‘justify’ their actions by, for example, asserting that being a native speaker is a necessary qualification. This is an obvious oxymoron since according to www.oxforddictionaries, a qualification refers to “a pass of an examination or an official completion of a course”. And to be frank, I have not yet seen any degree in ‘nativeness’.

Yet, there are numerous language certifications, such as IELTS or CPE, which can be used to assess the proficiency of a prospective teacher in a fair and transparent way. For some, of course, even having an ‘A’ in CPE or 9 in IELTS is still not quite on par with native speaker level. This is despite the fact that those same schools will still persuade their students to pay through the nose for language courses and exams promising that one day they might indeed be completely fluent.

Probably the most common ‘argument’ that is repeated by recruiters like a mantra is that students want to be taught by a native speaker. The problem is: students have not actually been asked. Because if they have, they would know that students would rather be taught by a motivating, well–prepared, knowledgeable, respectful, and a hard-working teacher, regardless of their native language. This is proven by numerous studies, such as this one.

Students, unlike some recruiters, are not naturally prejudiced. Unless they have had a previous bad experience with a NEST or a nNEST, they are likely to appreciate the different qualities native and non–native speakers can bring into the classroom. And being a nNEST can have numerous advantages, such as serving as a model for successfully mastering a language. James Taylor even wishes he was a non-native speaker in this article.

However, the point is not: ‘Who is worth more?’ (as Peter Medgyes phrased it), but rather that both NESTs and nNESTs can make either great or terrible teachers, depending not on their skin colour, gender, race or mother tongue, but on their teaching abilities. Therefore, I believe that the industry needs to acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of English teachers are discriminated against, and take steps to eradicate this.

With this in mind, in April this year I set up a website TEFL Equity Advocates and a FB page. Some of its main aims are sensitising the industry and the parties involved to the problem, debunking the most common myths about NESTs and nNESTs, and encouraging recruiters to adopt more egalitarian recruitment policies.

So although seeing so many job ads for native speakers only can indeed be disheartening, I do feel there is hope. Some important EFL organisations, such as TESOL and TESOL France, have already taken steps condemning discrimination against nNESTs. Many respected EFL professionals, such as Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, have also expressed their support for more egalitarian hiring policies.

I do hope then that one day we will all be teaching in a world in which the teachers won’t be judged by their ‘nativeness’, but by the content of their CVs.

photo-myOriginally from Poland, Marek has taught English in Latin America and Europe and is currently based in Holland, where he’s teaching freelance. He runs a blog about teaching and learning languages which you can read here (www.teflreflections.wordpress.com). He also started TEFL Equity Advocates (www.teflequityadvocates.com) – a campaign for equal opportunities and employment rights for non-native speakers.

11 thoughts on “Equal rights for nNESTs?”

  1. In your opinion would it be acceptable for an ad to say, “perfect American, British, and/or Canadian accent only”?

    I have sympathy for nNESTs and I think we need to change our thinking but hiring nNESTs will be more difficult as hiring managers will need to decide how many and what kind of fluency mistakes are acceptable for nNESTs in the classroom.

    The thing that is needed is an independent fluency test that would cover pronunciation and fluency at a number of different levels.

    • I guess it would. However, what is perfect British accent? Do you mean the RP, or Manchester, or perhaps Birmingham? Let’s not forget that we all have an accent, natives and non-natives alike.In my opinion, CPE or IELTS 9 is more than enough that we should be asking for. And until a more difficult test is devised (I’m not sure whether that’s possible), there is no reason to doubt in language competency of anyone who has CPE or IELTS 9.
      I also think that a more balanced approach to hiring is needed which would qive equal emphasis to language proficiency, qualifications, experience and personal qualities. We can’t discard 80% of teachers only based on their mother tongue. It does not make any logical sense.
      What do you think?

  2. Excellent article – a couple of points.

    A bilingual teacher can ‘code switch’ and bring creativity, and culture change to the classroom.

    And the other thing I wanted to mention was ‘job advertising’ which excludes women. I noticed it happening with frequency on Linkedin and wasn’t happy about it. Linkedin permit it, the Polytechs support it, government condone it – and we don’t do anything about it.

    Mmm I think schools targeting ‘men only’, ‘native only’ and ‘Celta Delta only’ are a dodgy bunch, archaic and biased.

  3. This topic is doing the rounds lately.

    Yes, it’s not ideal but I doubt it will change. If it does, most of us British TEFLers will be out of a job 🙁

    Just one thing I don’t agree with:

    “Students would rather be taught by a motivating, well–prepared, knowledgeable, respectful, and a hard-working teacher, regardless of their native language.”

    I don’t know any of those and I have never taught any in 15 years. If students are paying customers, they want natives in my experience. Especially, if they are learning in the UK. Imagine a Belgian who saves up all their money for a summer in the UK and gets taught by a Belgian teacher.

    In my experience of being a ‘foreign expert’ or ‘British teacher’, the local teachers do all the teaching and we just do oral and written work. Very very few schools and unis ask natives to teach grammar and low level classes that I know of.

    Another factor is culture. I worked with a terrible native teacher. No degree, no TEFL and very unprofessional but he got all the classes because students wanted a native. they complained if they got others. I never saw him prepare or move from his chair. His secret? Students wanted to learn more about his culture and speak to a native than learn English.

    Personally, I would find it odd that local teachers learn English at school and uni and then teach English to other locals there or in language schools which are often set up by foreign English natives. Maybe hiring people from other countries is the answer but would you ask for IELTS band 9 or CPE A? If so, would you get many applicants?

    Another factor are classes. When I was in China, they hired Brits for British culture classes, Americans for American and an Irish man for Irish. These were great classes which local teachers could not have done and they admitted it. Even though I know PhD professors with decades of experience in these subjects, they understand the benefits of native teachers for introductory courses. Of course, for year 2, 3, MA and dissertation research, the PhD teachers are the experts but natives still do dissertation tutoring and add the language aspect for thesis defences.

    • Thanks for your comment, Phil.
      I don’t think British, or any other native teachers, will be out of job. There is plenty of room for all teachers. And the positive side of things is that such change would force all of us to improve our qualifications, get more experience, etc. by making the job market positively more competitive.
      I think there is a lot of anecdotal evidence for sts wanting to have classes with native speakers, but no research has really confirmed it. You might disagree with the quote based on your experience, however, I am slightly more inclined to believe the research.
      The other day I interviewed the DoS in IH London (you can read it on http://www.teflequityadvocates.com). She said that indeed she has received some complaints from sts who were disappointed not to be taught by a native, but there has been only about 4 such sts in her 4 years as a DoS, which is much less than 1% of all the sts in that school.
      You also say that if we ask for IELTS 9 we might not get many non-native applicants. Perhaps. But perhaps not. The point is that at least the application process would finally be fairer and more logical. I would be delighted to see this change in tefl job ads.
      Regarding teaching in the UK, it is by far the most non-native friendly country. There are numerous Nnests who teach here, both in language schools and in universities. Of course a student might be disappointed if they do not get a local teacher, but most sts would be even more disappointed if they got a very bad teacher.
      Finally, whether we agree or not that both native and non-native teachers make good educators, discriminating people based on their mother tongue is illegal in the EU. We might agree or not with the law, but the least the schools could do is respect it.
      What do you think?

  4. The thing no one has mentioned is the inherent bias of most students in their home country. I’ve come across this in Thailand,Turkey and Czech Republic (and probably others with the exception of the UK actually but have got so used to students telling me they have to have a NS that I probably don’t notice anymore) and like with many other aspects of their language learning, students don’t know what they need.

    Hence the bilingual, Italian-English mother-tongue teacher I worked with whose students requested another teacher the minute she told them she was Italian. It was based on where she grew up, even though she spoke English just like I did, a lack of difference that her pre-int students couldn’t perceive.

    Hence the students I had who were half paying for the status that having the blond English girl appear at their house or office brought, and that everyone knew.

    Hence the student who told me that she had got rid of a teacher who had a Mancunian accent because it wasn’t a “proper British accent”.

    The list is endless. I think it’s partly this idea that so many countries have that the West is somehow superior and so they have a self esteem problem that doesn’t allow them to recognise the achievement and role model that a NNS teacher provides. I think this is less prevalent in students that come to the UK because they are already getting the status aspect of being in the UK and being able to say that they came here to study. They also assume that they are in a country full of NS, so the school (which they probably perceive as better than the schools in their city because it’s in the UK) would only hire NNS that were up to the job. Whereas at home they don’t trust the language schools as much since they have to recruit from who’s available.

    I think it’s students you need to convince, not the language teaching community, despite some of the comments above!

    • Hi Nicola,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I think there is a lot of anecdotal evidence for students wanting to have classes with NESTs although no study has ever confirmed it (as I mention in the article). I have personally never experienced any discrimination from students. Perhaps because I have alsways worked in schools that had quite a good balance of NESTs and NNESTs, which meant that most sts will have had exposure to good non-native teachers too. Some studies highlight that those sts who have had good etachers from both groups are much less likely to be prejudiced.
      As far as the actual number of sts who want NESTs goes, my hunch is that it is a very small one. I talked to the Director of Studies of IH LOndon the other day (the interview can be found on http://www.teflequityadvocates.com) and she said that she has had about 4 or 5 students in the last 4 years that have explicitly requested a NEST and could not in any way have been persuaded to have classes with a NNEST. I think the vast majority of sts might not know what makes a good teacher, and since the industry has been telling them that only NESTs make good teachers, they are inclined to believe it. A fair proportion might also have certain prejudices against NNESTs (especially if they are from the same country), due to perhaps bad previous experience. However, I am convinced that there is only a tiny proportion who will refuse to listen to arguments and will always prefer a NEST. Of course, this might differe from country to country.
      Consequently, in my opinion, what really needs to happen is a shift in mentality among school owners and Academic Directors. If they really care about their customers, they should perhaps conduct a survey to find out how many of their sts want NESTs. They should also talk to sts who request a NEST about their motivations for it (is it just prejudice or is it motivated by their learning objectives). Finally, the ELT community needs to accept the fact that refusing to accept a NNEST is an example of discrimination, and cannot be condoned. As recruiters we have a moral obligation to stand up against ill founded demands of the market, whether the majority of our sts want NESTs or not.
      I don’t believe that having fair balance between NESTs and NNESTs in the staff room would put any school in jeopardy. On the contrary, usually the best schools employ teachers regardless of tehir mother tongue, and as a result increase the satisfaction of their sts by providing arguably higher teaching standards and by exposing sts to the best the two groups of teachers have to offer.

  5. Hi Marek,

    I sent you a message a while back offering to write a post critiquing some of your arguments. I’m afraid I’ve been a bit lazy, but I will get round to it.

    I completely agree with all your points you make here about job adverts. However, I would say that:

    1. The vast majority of ELT jobs internationally are not advertised online and are open to NNESTs only.

    2. NNESTs often have other advantages such as being able to take on private clients. My contract at the moment expressly forbids me from taking on any extra work outside the school. Me being caught doing so could lead to a termination of my contract and cancellation of my visa.

    • Hi Thomas,
      Please do get around to it when you get a chance 🙂
      Regarding your points:
      1. This might be true. I don’t have any statistics to back this or contradict. My hunch would be that most jobs in the local public sector, i.e. public schools are not advertised on-line, and the positions there will be filled with the local NNESTs. However, as far as the international ELT sector goes, even if many jobs were not advertised on-line, the usual thing to do before going abroad is to look for a job on the Internet, which means that as a NNEST your chances of getting one are drastically reduced. Frankly, I’ve heard many NNESTs say that they simply gave up when they saw how many NESTs only job ads there were.
      2. This might be true, and it is probably an example of unequal employment opportunities, just as native only ads are (at least in my view). So while I see your point, I can’t really see how it undermines my argument for a more egalitarian approach to hiring teachers.

      • Hi Marek,

        Your comments about online job ads are spot on. I completely agree with you. But I don’t think that life for NNESTS is as bleak as you have made out on your blog. Many of them do very well indeed.

        I’ll be in touch soon about that blogpost 😉

        • Im not sure my meaning was entirely clear there, Marek. My second comment was an example of how NNESTs often have advantages of the NEST which you haven’t acknowledge on your blog.


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