At the end of September, the Teacher Talk Community met up for the third monthly Teacher Talk Time. For this session, we went with something a little bit different. In the first two meetings, we chose themes related to teaching approaches and methodology, and these will continue to be our main focus, but last month we got together to talk about the differences and interplay between Native and Non-Native English Teachers.
This was a topic that I had taken an interest in in the weeks preceding the meeting, mostly by engaging in several online threads and conversations, and I was surprised to see how much contention there was between the two parties. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to get a mixed group of teachers together to explore the topic.
In attendance were local (Indonesian) non native English speakers (LNNES), expatriate non native English speakers (ENNES) and native English speakers (NES), and it turned out that there were indeed three different experiences to be discussed, rather than just the two sides of the conversation that I had encountered previously. We managed to conduct a very constructive and positive conversation, nevertheless, and I am pleased and proud to say that everybody demonstrated nothing but respect to all of the members of the group.
We found that being in any one of these subgroups (NES, LNNES, ENNES) brought with it both benefits and challenges, and I think we all came away with a better understanding of the experiences that our counterparts had had—I know I did.
For example, we heard that many LNNES teachers felt undervalued and even inferior to the NES teachers, and this was largely because of the high value that their institutions placed on NES teachers. NES teachers are often given higher salaries and different statuses within the institution when compared with NNES teachers. The workload is often lighter, with the institution not expecting the NES teachers to do all of the same paperwork and follow the same regulations as the local teachers. This, it seems, can be a point of contention for some local teachers, and understandably so, I would say.
Another area that local teachers held some negative feelings towards their NES counterparts was in the cultural domain. Some local teachers saw that NES teachers often did not recognise or encourage local traditions and cultures in the classroom the way local teachers might prefer. In this sense, the NES teacher is sometimes seen as a negative force, undermining culture and tradition and enforcing foreign values instead.
This part of the discussion was particularly interesting, and both sides of the argument contributed actively. In response, several of the NES teachers stated that, while they actually had a great deal of respect for local culture and traditions—and that in fact, they observed them much more practically in their personal lives—they felt that it was their duty in the classroom to introduce the students not only to the language but also to the culture with which it is intertwined. Certainly, I agree with this position.
For the Expat Non-Native English Speakers, a rather unique position somewhere between that of an NES teacher and a LNNES seemed to have developed. Here, the ENNES tends to be on a higher salary than the local ENNES, but still, there is not as much employment opportunity, nor are the salaries quite as high, as for the NES. Again, this seems to be a result of the special status that NES teachers are given, and especially related to perceived NES accents.
It seems that much of the value ascribed to the NES teacher is based—erroneously, I would say—on the importance of teachers having “the right accent”. This was definitely an impression that both local and expat NNES teachers had got from their various institutions, and it’s also something I have heard personally on numerous occasions.
Again, there was some interesting conversation and debate on this topic, though the consensus generally seemed to be that accent is not nearly as important as intelligibility. Indeed, the UK, as just one example of an NES country, has a broad array of accents, and a number of them are very difficult to understand for most NNES. Some of the NES teachers had in fact been encouraged by their employers to tone their accents down and be more neutral—this was the case for me in my early days as a teacher, for example.
For many of the ENNES teachers, this focus on accent was particularly frustrating, given that they were completely fluent English speakers, often having learned English from a young age at school and having then gone on to build their entire careers around it in some cases, and yet still they were devalued because of their European, Middle Eastern or other Non-Native accents. This is an area that all in attendance seemed to agree on, and I can confidently say on everybody’s behalf that we hope this changes sooner rather than later.
For their part, the NES teachers suggested that a particular hardship they faced was that, while the NNES teachers felt undervalued as English speaking role models, the NES teachers felt undervalued as serious teachers. Here in Indonesia, many institutions are keen to hire NES teachers because it makes their institutions more attractive to students and parents. However, because of this, the NES teachers are often seen more as a gimmick than a serious teacher. In fact, it is this that often leads to the NES being subject to lower standards than that other teachers.
Of course, for some NES teachers in the industry, this is seen as a bonus, a free ride. But for those of us present at the Teacher Talk Time, it was a disappointment. I for one have felt this way on a number occasions throughout my career. Unfortunately, I have met countless NES teachers who are only teaching as a way to fund their travel or for a memorable gap year experience, and the rest of us tend to get automatically lumped into that category.
For someone who is truly passionate about teaching and education, this is frustrating, and it is very demeaning to be treated by many institutions as just a marketing gimmick, even with the higher salary that NES teachers usually earn; I mean, let’s face it, we’re not exactly on amazing pay either!
Of course, there were a number of benefits that each group recognised too. We heard from several members that being a non-native speaker, whether local or expat, gives a unique insight into the struggle that students experience when learning English, and the NNES teachers were often able to recognise exactly what features of English the students were likely to have trouble with.
For NES teachers, of course, there is more ease to provide the students contact with the culture of the language, and most NES teachers are more immediately able to identify when and where something is appropriate and how best to respond in certain contexts, which some NNES teachers might have limited personal experience with.
All in all, I think everybody walked away with a deeper understanding of and, perhaps, even more respect for the challenges faced by other teachers. It is definitely a conversation that could have gone on for much longer, and I welcome anybody to continue the conversation in the comments below. At the same time, if you were present at the meeting and feel I have forgotten anything, please feel free to comment below or get in touch with me.
The next meeting will be some time towards the end of this month, and we’ll get back to discussing strategies, approaches and styles for effective teaching. In my mind right now, we’ll probably aim to have a session on a more contentious topic perhaps once every three or four meetings. I look forward to opportunities to discuss things like local curricula, education policy and the like. As always, I am open to suggestions for future topics.