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Sharing stories out of school

TEFL teachers need to learn to listen to each other’s voices, says Melanie Butler

Students around the world are returning to class after the latest lockdowns, masks on and rapid test kits at the ready. But what of the teachers?

In the USA and the UK, union voices are being heard arguing for vaccines. Union voices are growing louder in the world of EFL elsewhere, but the demands are more basic: legal contracts, holiday pay and – as we report on page 6 – even National Minimum Wage.

Language schools around the world, crushed by Covid, may see this as unfair, but the simple fact is that unions are on the rise again across the West. Besides, membership of a union has long been part of teachers’ identities across education, so why not EFL teachers?

The oldest union in Malta was formed by teachers. This year, when Maltese teachers were sleeping in their cars as they waited for Covid payments, it was a teacher’s union that fought their corner.

Teacher identity is a major issue. For the non-native speakers there is the fear of being seen as inferior to a native speaker. For the native speaker, it is the fear of being seen as a backpacker, interchangeable with any other graduate with the right passport and, shamefully, a white skin.

“Countries around the world are demanding that native-speaker teachers have 
not only a degree, but a recognised and accredited certificate”

Why? It seems pretty obvious when you think about it that bilingual teachers are better: why choose a teacher who speaks one language, when you can have a teacher who speaks two?

Target language level, as the ELLiE project showed in 2011, is more important for teachers than methodology, particularly with younger learners.

The British Council seems to agree. As we report on page 10, they are funding a groundbreaking experiment using British language schools to deliver digital English language classes to teachers in the developing world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

There is a danger, though, that language level can become a stick to beat teachers with. As Gill Ragsdale reports on page 8, non-native speaker teachers in Chile, who need to be at C1 level to teach English at all, are weighed by demands for ever higher levels with teacher efficacy given no importance at all.

Local teachers, parents all over the world continue to believe, are always second best to a native speaker. But the empirical evidence simply doesn’t bear this out. A 2017 cohort study of British children learning French in the last two years of primary school found that the children who studied with local teachers, whose level of French was below B1, learned next to nothing. However, children who learned from a local teacher with a degree in the language did better than those with a qualified native speaker when tested at the end of primary school.

When tested again a year later, however, children who had a native speaker teacher in primary did slightly better at certain aspects of syntax (onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ lang.12251).

It isn’t all milk and honey for the native speaker either. The days are long gone when an English-speaking backpacker could turns up in a sunny clime with no qualification other

than their passport and a white skin and get a well-paying job. Countries around the world

are demanding that native-speaker teachers have not only a degree, but ‘a recognised and accredited’ certificate. For an explanation of what that means, turn to our teacher qualifications supplement on page 15. And check out the lowdown on the USA from Bridge on page 50.

As one Chinese government official put it: a degree, some training and ideally some classroom experience is the least we can expect from someone who calls themselves a teacher,

So, we have two groups of teachers, each with a crisis of identity. The non-native speakers are seen as second class citizens by students and their parents, and are under pressure from their government to get their language levels ever higher. Meanwhile, native speakers are under pressure from governments to have ever higher qualifications while parents, students and even language schools care only about the nationality on their passport and the colour of their skin.

Teacher identity in EFL can form a gulf between the language-anxious local teachers and qualification-anxious native speakers. Dr Jane Evison, of Nottingham University, has long researched this subject. As part of their process of professsionalisation, she tells us on page 44 the two groups of teachers must learn to ‘share their stories’.

It’s time we started talking.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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