Chad is an American in his early twenties. He completed a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, but didn’t know what to do with his life after graduation. He got average grades in college, is reasonably smart, but lacks marketable skills. His choices after graduation are entry-level positions at a few local companies, but he doesn’t want to sit at a desk all day. Eventually, Chad hears about a friend who’s working as an English teacher in Japan. According to this friend, the salary is good, the women are beautiful, and the job is easy.
“Do you need teaching experience to get a job like that?” Chad asks his friend.
“No,” his friend replies. “You just need to be a native speaker of English.”
Chad is eventually hired in a similar school in Japan. He begins teaching classes. He is called “teacher.” He comes up with creative ideas for how to teach his classes, and the students seem to enjoy them. Chad tells the students that, “learning English is like learning to play music. If you work hard, you can do it.” Chad, however, cannot speak any language other than English.
Another teacher in Japan is named Sakiko. She recently returned from the United States after completing her Masters in English education. Before starting her Master’s, Sakiko had already studied for one year in the United States as part of her undergraduate studies, and worked as an English teacher in a night school for two years after graduating. While in her Master’s program, Sakiko taught English classes to international students at her university. Sakiko got excellent grades in her graduate and undergraduate programs, and her TOEFL and TOEIC scores are almost perfect.
After returning to Japan, Sakiko took a job at the same English school where Chad works. They receive the same salary.
Is this right?
There seems to be something problematic about Chad and Sakiko being treated as equally competent English teachers. Chad has no background in education or teaching, and has never successfully learned a second language. Thus, his opinions about language learning and Sakiko’s opinions about language learning cannot be treated as equally valid?
This is a situation that many native and non-native English teachers find themselves in. A native speaker with no background or teaching experience is hired to teach English precisely because he or she is a native speaker. At the same time, non-native speakers of English who have worked very hard to develop their English skills are hired into similar positions.
This can create a subtle level of tension at work. For example, Sakiko develops her lessons carefully based on sound educational practice, and her experiences learning English herself. Chad is more creative, spends much less time planning his lessons, and bases what he teaches on what he thinks language is. Many students in the school recognize and appreciate the work that Sakiko puts into her lessons, yet they also feel obligated to attend Chad’s classes because he’s a native speaker of English, and many students believe that learning English from a native speaker is the best way to study.
Yet, Chad also faces a number of challenges.
It can easily be the case that native speaking teachers working abroad, in large part because they do not speak the local language, are excluded from the decision making process at their schools. This leads to the native-speakers feeling frustrated because they are not being taken seriously as professionals, while the non-native teachers sit quietly thinking, “Well, you’re not really professionals, are you? You were only hired because you’re a native speaker.”
When we think about language education in a given country, what exactly should the role of native-speaking teachers be? What about the role of non-native teachers? Should there be a difference at all?
I was at a conference recently in Japan. We had taken a break for lunch, and had gone to the cafeteria to eat. As I waited in line for my food, I noticed that another foreign English teacher, a native speaker of English, was screaming at the cashier and one of the restaurant managers in English. Clearly he could not speak any Japanese, and this surprised me. I recognized him as a long-term resident of Japan, and a fixture at local conferences.
Because he teaches at a college, he must have at least a Master’s degree, which means that he must have had some exposure to second language acquisition theory, along with teacher training. Yet, should he be taken seriously as a language educator in Japan when he has not bothered to learn his student’s language? Does theoretical knowledge about language acquisition supersede the practical experience of actually studying a second language? What about someone who speaks many languages, but has no training in language education or language acquisition theory? Are they more or less qualified than this man, who potentially speaks no second language, but is a contributing member to the “field” of language teaching?
I have many native speaking colleagues teaching English in countries all over the world. Many feel frustrated because few people seem to appreciate their ideas at work. These colleagues have largely embraced the somewhat romantic idea of the “traveling English teacher,” and are trying to build careers moving from one country to the next. It’s a nice idea, which many people do eventually make into a reality for themselves. Yet, if someone isn’t willing to stay long enough to invest themselves in one country’s future, should they really expect to have a say in how that country’s education works?
What about people like Chad? He was hired because he’s a native speaker of English. This means that he was not hired because of any skills that make him individually valuable to the school. Another way of saying this is that he was hired to be a “professional foreigner,’ and as a consequence, he can easily be replaced by another foreigner. His “foreignness” and his “native-speaker-ness” are symbolic of the purpose behind his job, and this makes him a prop, not a professional. Is he being exploited?
And Sakiko? She’s obviously invested a great deal of herself into the English teaching field. Shouldn’t her compensation, at least, be different from Chad’s?
What does it mean to be an English teaching professional? Is it the ability to speak English? The ability to teach English? The professional credentials attendant to both? Or a combination of tangible and intangible elements—like the ability to speak English coupled with the ability to think creatively and connect with people from different cultures?
I don’t know.
But I know one thing: if I were Sakiko, I’d be pretty angry.