Choosing ESL Teachers: To Go Native Or Not?

For many students and schools in China, having native English speakers as language teachers is the gold standard, but one teacher is eager to point out that it hardly matters…

0616_opedWe had a choice to make. As a Foreign Teacher Manager, I – and my Chinese Principal – had to choose between a young, dreadlocked Canadian teacher and a Filipino teacher. We watched their “demo” classes closely. The Canadian sucked, the Filipino was quite good. At the Chinese Principal’s insistence, we immediately set about hiring the Canadian Rastafarian. The teacher lasted all of three months before I – not the Chinese Principal – had to fire him. This was, obviously, after we had let him money to buy new shoes as the only pair he had were full of holes.

Why did I feel the need to tell you this tale? Well, because really, it doesn’t matter where an English teacher comes from as long as he meets certain criteria. And I’m not talking about the legalities of employing a teacher in China, but what makes a good teacher a good teacher. Put simply: A Native English Speaking Teacher (NEST) doesn’t necessarily make a better teacher than a Non-Native English Speaking Teacher (NNEST). Check out these facts.

English speaking circles
English is spoken as a first language by around 375 million people and around one billion more people speak it as a foreign language. You can also divide the use of English into three concentric circles.

The inner circle is the traditional base of English and includes countries such as the UK and Ireland and the Anglophone populations of various countries, many of them former British colonies. These include the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.

In the outer circle are those countries where English has official or historical importance. These include many Commonwealth nations, including populous countries such as India, Pakistan and Nigeria and others such as the Philippines, all under the sphere of influence of English-speaking countries.

Every time I hear a student or parent say they would like only an American or British English-teacher, I have to chuckle (it keeps me from stabbing my eyeballs out with the nearest pencil)…

The expanding circle refers to those countries where English has no official role, but is nonetheless important for certain functions, most notably international trade. According to the British Council, the number of non-native English speakers outnumber the number of native speakers by a factor of three.

Let me write that last sentence again (well, copy and paste): according to the British Council, the number of non-native English speakers outnumber the number of native speakers by a factor of three.

English is remarkable for its diversity and its propensity to evolve. This has resulted in both a variety of forms of English and also a mix of cultural contexts within which English is used. Given the factor of three issue, it stands to reason that the main areas of development in English comes from non-native
English speakers.

With this in mind, every time I hear a student or parent say they would like only an American or British English-teacher, I have to chuckle (it keeps me from stabbing my eyeballs out with the nearest pencil), while thinking that surely they should be happy to be taught something more than the standard robotic reply “I’m fine thanks, and you?” every time they are asked how they are.

Defining good Ttachers
So if it isn’t English ‘nativeness,’ then what should learners of English look for in an English teacher?

Proficiency, yes, but proficiency alone is not enough. Nativeness does not equal teaching ability. Both NESTs and NNESTs can make good and bad English teachers. What it comes down to are any number of things, including: personal traits, qualifications, experience and demonstrable language proficiency. What it is not about is your mother tongue, place of birth, sexual orientation, gender, body type, height, or skin color. If your child is scared of a certain type of person, let me assure you that the little dear will quickly get over it if the teacher in question possesses the attributes of being a good teacher. If you are an adult and don’t like a teacher simply because of his physical attributes, then you must ask yourself why you are bothering learning English at all.

As for myself? I am a NEST, so you could argue that I’m shooting myself in the foot in my defense of NNESTs, but I am not worried by any extra competition. I am secure in my ability as a teacher. And NESTs that aren’t confident in the skills would be better off losing any sense of entitlement and resentment, and start by honing your craft and becoming as good a teacher as you can be. So, get cracking and write those lesson plans!

Category Op-Ed