My first experience of teaching ELT came on my initial 4-week teaching course, the Trinity CertTESOL, in 2007. I’d decided to take the course before coming to Korea to teach, and before then had never stood at the front of a classroom to deliver a lesson in my life. I know that people are divided over the effectiveness of these type of courses and whether they can make someone a better teacher or not, and while I am sure that there are good reasons on either side of the argument, I would say that my experience was generally very positive overall. We were a group of 12, and had 4 tutors on the course, which meant plenty of opportunities to discuss with the tutors and get their opinions. The focus of this post, however, is not on the course tutors, but instead some of the other trainees on the course.
Out of the 12 of us, three had prior teaching experience/knowledge, and I quickly came to learn that speaking with these three people was just as good, and in some cases better, than the course tutors for feedback, teaching ideas, etc. I was lucky to meet some of these people on the course because some of the things I learned from them have stuck with me. Below, I’d like to describe these three teachers as best I can remember, with names changed for anonymity’s sake.
Sarah was fresh out of her PGCE (the course that all teachers have to take in the UK to become qualified to teach in the state schools). I think she’d done the secondary PGCE, which would mean she would be teaching pupils aged 11-18. She said that she’d enjoyed the course, but wasn’t 100% sure whether she wanted to go into a state school to teach yet. She was doing the Trinity course to broaden her options before making the final decision. I don’t remember her age exactly, but she must have been mid-late 20s. I didn’t get that much of an opportunity to speak with her throughout the course because she was in a different TP group to me. There is one thing that happened during one of her observations though that I remember hearing about after the class. She was teaching the pre-intermediate group, some of whom were probably lower than that. At one point in the class, she’d tried to explain the meaning of a word, but one of the students disagreed with her, quite strongly by all accounts. The student, an older middle-Eastern male, refused to accept that she was right (she was right, by the way).
The student became quite angry in the class, but rather than panicking, Sarah calmly dealt with the situation and explained that she could speak with the student after class. She continued without losing her composure and got through the lesson. I know that after the lesson she was quite shaken up, and needed to be consoled, but she never let that get in the way of her lesson, and ploughed through.
What I learned from this is that teaching can be an emotional at times, but when you’re in class, you often have to put your emotions on hold and learn to resolve unexpected situations/interruptions as they arise.
Jack was the most experienced teacher in our class, and had spent the last 30+ years teaching younger primary aged learners. He had other teaching qualifications, but his school wanted him to take the Trinity course to get some new ideas, and it was hoped that he would be able to go back to his school and assist newer teachers. I sat next to Jack for most of our input sessions, so got the chance to speak to him while we were learning.
Some of the ideas he had were quite rigid at times, but he never tried to impose his ideas on me or any of the other trainees on the course. Rather, he explained that these are things that he has found to be effective for his teaching context over the years. Like Sarah, Jack was not in my TP group, so I didn’t get to see him in action all that much, however on the second (or third–I don’t remember) day, everyone had to do a 10-minute micro-teaching session. We were split into two groups of six and I was in the group with Jack.
The mirco-teaching sessions were allowed to be on anything we wanted, not necessarily teaching English–one girl did cocktail making, for example. Because Jack was used to teaching younger kids, he chose to teach us (the other, adult, trainees) a nursery song, complete with actions. You can imagine the thoughts that were going through some of our minds when he first told us this. I think it took about 2 minutes before any inhibitions we might have had were thrown out of the window. Jack’s enthusiasm shone through, and for the next 8 minutes he had us up flapping our arms like birds, singing (I don’t sing), and just laughing and having a good time. At the end of the ten minutes, it’s fair to say, we’d learned his song.
Sometimes the content you’re given to teach, or the group of students in front of you, is not ideal. I learned from Jack that it’s important to go into the class with an enthusiastic mindset and that you can make a class work in difficult circumstances.
Kevin was another experienced teacher, in his late 30s or possibly early 40s. He had been teaching in Japan for the past 6 years, but had never taken a formal teaching course before. He was working at a Japanese university at the time teaching freshman English, but was on his summer break so decided to travel back home and to a few other countries in Europe before going back to Japan for the new semester in September of that year.
He was an extremely calm, considerate and highly intelligent teacher. I was thrilled to learn that I was in his TP group because I immediately identified that he was very knowledgeable about teaching English. By being in his TP group, I got to observe six of his lessons, which were always very polished, and it was clear he had honed his skill over time. He often complained about all the lesson planning that was involved in the course, but kept reassuring me, and other trainees, that this would not be expected in the ‘real world’ of teaching. He was probably a bit of a pain in the neck to the course tutors, but for the other trainees he had some excellent insights.
I was really lucky to have the chance to work/teach with Kevin for those 4 weeks, and every day, we would go to the cafeteria for lunch together, with the other two members of our TP group, and discuss what we’d covered that day, or what had happened during our observed classes. Kevin was very supportive of everyone, but wasn’t shy of offering constructive feedback when it was needed. And because he didn’t have to follow the positive-negative-positive sandwich style, tick-box, feedback that the course tutors were required to do, somehow his feedback seemed more valuable, at least to me.
If I had a question about any of my lessons, he’d be the first person I’d go to speak to, and often he could immediately identify what he thought would work well, and what I should cut.
As he had quite a bit of experience of teaching abroad in Asia, he was also able to give me lots of useful advice about moving abroad to teach. From advice about how to deal with Asian students, to learning the language and using it (or not) in class. From finding and teaching students on a 1-to-1 basis and how to deal with administration.
I felt then, and I still do now, that I learned more from Kevin during those 4 weeks than any one other individual (trainee, trainer or student).
Something in common
All three of these educators were great teachers, and I admired them greatly. They, however, also all shared something else in common in addition to being excellent teachers; All three of them were non-native speakers of English.
They’d all been born in other countries and grew up speaking a language other than English. Sarah was German and had moved to the UK to study her PGCE only a year earlier. Jack was Vietnamese, and had been a primary school teacher in Vietnam all his working life. He still had some gaps in his English ability, but for his teaching context, it was more than enough. Kevin was Swiss and grew up speaking French and German. He could also speak Italian and Japanese, and one more language (maybe Spanish). He knew more about the structure of English than any of the other trainees on the course, and taught me about things such as the be-verb, gerunds, phrasal verbs and more.
While I’ve thought about these teachers’ skills/techniques/abilities often throughout my teaching career, it’s something that I’ve been considering more in recent months and especially over the last week or so. Perhaps meeting these teachers right at the beginning of my teaching pulled the wool over my eyes a little towards the negative attitudes towards non-native English speaking teachers. Also, perhaps being in Korea, where it’s just par for the course that almost all foreign English teachers will be native-English speakers because of the government’s policy on issuing teaching visas, has made me blind to the struggle that some non-native English speaking teachers have to go through in order to secure a teaching job, simply because I don’t get the chance to meet that many people not from the UK, US, Ireland, NZ, Aus, South Africa & Canada in person in Korea.
As I said though, I have become more aware/vocal of the issue thanks in large part to the work of Marek Kiczkowiak (@MarekKiczkowiak) who runs the blog TEFL Equity Advocates. And last week, Mike Griffin (@MichaelEGriffin) put up a post on his blog, which really helped me to think and get involved in the dialogue in relation to the situation here in Korea.
I guess my message to anyone advocating positions for native English speakers only, or perhaps for people sat on the fence or just ignorant to the issue would be to STOP and think about it for a minute. Is there anything that would inherently make a native English speaker a better teacher than a non-native speaker? If your answer is YES, I’d suggest you haven’t thought hard enough and you need to go away and do some more thinking.