Are native teachers better? Non-native teachers and self-esteem

20th August 2019

By Cristina Ene

Teaching is not always a walk in the park. In fact, it is not only stressful but also draining as teachers give so much of themselves. I would argue that non-native teachers have an added stress: low self-esteem. “Are they good enough? Are they doing their jobs properly? Are the students happy? Are the students judging them based on their accent?” These are common questions that most non-native teachers ask themselves. It is true that native teachers ask themselves these questions too. However, non-native teachers might ask themselves these questions once too often, and they will probably give a negative answer. What happens then is that their self-esteem gets lower and lower, their performance suffers and students become unhappy. It is a self- fulfilling prophecy.

Being a non-native teacher does not mean that you will go through this or that, if you do, there is no way out of this situation. In this article, I will argue that you need to (i) know your subject, (ii) get qualified and (iii) challenge yourself in order to build-up your self-esteem and have a successful teaching career.


Know your subject

It is common sense that if you are to teach anything, you must master it first. Thus if you are going to become an English teacher, you must know your subject very well. Getting to C2 (proficiency) level is only the first aim in becoming an English teacher. Once you have reached this level, a common pitfall to avoid is thinking that it is the final stage. In reality, all languages are fluid, there is no actual beginning and end to any level. That translates to constant learning and improving, be it learning new words, improving fluency or accuracy. What many non-native teachers feel is that besides this being a life-long goal, it can feel almost impossible to reach it as there is always something new to learn. Moreover, it is not unheard of for non-natives to feel that they will never reach this stage and ‘competing’ with natives is pointless as they get a ‘head start’. While that is true, it does not automatically mean that natives are better teachers or that they can better explain the language to students.

One major advantage non-native teachers have – and there is a tendency of downplaying it as it is turning into a cliché – is that they have learnt the language themselves, actively and consciously. They are very much aware of the effort and time required to learn the language, of the joy and the frustration that learning can bring. Speaking the students’ mother tongue is not mandatory although teachers who speak it have an extra advantage – they are more aware of the specific problems students might encounter when learning English. Not speaking it does not take away anything as the teacher is still able to empathise with the students. Non-native teachers can serve as a role model for the students as they are living proof of what can be achieved.

Reaching success as a non-native teacher involves hard work. However, what it really needs is a change of mentality. Many students, especially at lower levels, are not always able to tell that their teacher is native or not, be it due to their language ability or the teacher’s high command of English. What happens when the students say “Oh, you’re native, right?” is that many non-native teachers immediately feel that the students want a native teacher and if possible, it is better to pass for one. Quite a few non-native teachers and students regard being native as the ideal while being a fully proficient English speaker is what they should be aiming for. In the long run, this works against non-native teachers because it makes it less obvious for students that there are many non-native teachers who have achieved a very high level of English and are very talented teachers.


Get qualified

Knowing your subject is only the first step in becoming a successful English teacher. Again, non-native teachers might feel that things are not fair as it is sometimes easier for natives to get jobs without being qualified while non-natives find it harder, if not impossible. Be that as it may, being qualified is a must, not just because it makes getting a job easier, but because qualified teachers are more confident and have higher levels of self-esteem. As I mentioned in the previous point, this can also turn into a life-long journey: getting qualified is not just about getting the CELTA (or other initial TEFL qualifications), but getting further qualifications, such as the YL extension to CELTA (or IHCYLT), DELTA and other certificates (like for example the online or face-to-face IH courses).

Many non-native teachers complain that there are many of them doing these qualifications while some students still say that learning can only happen with a native teacher. While it is true that some students do not appreciate qualifications, it does not mean that they are worthless. On the contrary, being qualified is what makes one a good teacher. Gone are the days when teachers were ‘God’ in the classroom and regarded as the only vessel of knowledge. Although change is slow in certain parts of the world, this traditional view is being challenged and a more modern one is becoming more common. While the teacher needs to be a master of her trade, just knowing a great deal about grammar and having a certain accent will not suffice. It is the teacher’s ability to engage the students, to enable them to take responsibility for their own learning, and to guide them. This is what qualifications offer teachers.

 Moreover, when a non-native decides to become an English teacher and turn this into a life-long career, it is unquestionable that what drives them to do this is a great love of the English language and working with people as well as a desire to help them. This means that investing the time, energy and money into getting qualified should not feel as unfair, as something asked only of non-natives but as something asked of all those who what to be teachers (for shorter or longer periods).


Challenge yourself

A common situation that many non-native teachers find themselves in is the following: they have achieved a certifiably high level of English, they are qualified, they have some experience teaching, and yet they do not feel as confident as they should. While this can be a personal issue, chances are that what they need is a challenge. Once they have mastered teaching a certain level or type of class, they need to move on to something new. Contrary to popular belief, mastering a certain skill – in this case teaching a particular level or age group – will not necessarily result in a significant increase in self- confidence overall. Once one masters teaching a certain level or age group, there are no challenges and they take it for granted. It begins to feel easy therefore it must be easy which means they are not doing anything that great.

Reaching a plateau is a common problem for many teachers and the only solution to this, as well as a way of giving yourself a confidence boost, is to challenge yourself. A non-exhaustive list of examples includes starting teaching a new level (especially a high level, even C2) or type of class (exam-preparation or 121 with important clients), become a Cambridge or IELTS speaking examiner or take on mentoring responsibilities. Yes, this will imply working with native teachers, examining with a native teacher and mentoring a native teacher and while this might sound daunting, it is outside the comfort zone that growth happens.

Although getting a job usually involves competing against other candidates, working with other teachers does not have to be a competition, as there is so much to learn from other people. Despite students sometimes saying that they prefer native teachers and the nerve-racking feeling that your accent doesn’t sound as nice as a native teacher’s, there is also the reverse: sometimes native teachers can’t identify with the students, they don’t understand what is too difficult for them, what problems they might have. Working with native teachers can be mutually beneficial: non-natives can share their knowledge of what students need and how to explain language while native teachers can share their knowledge of the language. Cooperating is in everybody’s interest: the students get better teachers, the teachers get more knowledge and self-esteem knowing they are becoming better teachers.

To sum up, being native or non-native is not what makes someone a good teacher. It is the hard work you put into becoming a better teacher and your passion for teaching which is the driving force behind it. For all the non-native teachers fretting about their suitability as English teachers, here is something to consider: think of every time you helped a student, or every time they said admiringly they wanted to achieve the same level of English. Being a good teacher is something that can be learnt, and as all other jobs out there, it requires constant professional development.

Cristina Ene

Cristina Ene is a CELTA-qualified teacher with 5 years’ experience. She has taught all levels and age groups, as well as General, Business and Exam preparation classes. She is also a Cambridge Speaking Examiner and a speaker at different ELT conferences.

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