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Britannia Waives the Rules

It’s never fun when the debate begins from a point of consensus, so I’ve been sat here trying to think of a way that I could argue that yes, it matters what passport you’re carrying when you want to become an English teacher. I don’t know if I’ve managed yet, but I’m going to try anyway. This is despite very eloquent posts from the usual crowd and even more eloquent comments from their avid followers.

For now, I’m going to ask those advocates of NNESTs whether or not they are seriously telling us that they can be trusted to have a real feel for our English language? Whether or not they can ever hope to assimilate Our culture? Whether or not they can ever teach proper pronunciation like what Our Queen does speak? Whether or not they can ever know the correct way to interpret our texts? Whether or not they can ever be relied upon to instinctively know the right way to say something using our grammar.

Of course, these questions are all rhetorical. They answer is bleedin’ obvious, and the answer is, “NO! NEVER!”

With bad cliffhangers like that, I feel a little bit like Jeffrey Archer (whose woeful books are full of them). But I’m sticking to my guns because English is not our language; the culture is not our culture; the queen is not our queen (and most definitely not my queen!); the texts are not our texts; and, unsurprisingly, the grammar is not our grammar. The fact of the matter is that there might even be an case for arguing that NNESTs are the first ever native speakers of English as a Lingua Franca.

I have long been of the opinion that, as a professional group, we focus too much on the “English language” element of our job description and not enough on the “teacher” part. And it may well be that you are reading this from the Middle East where the whiteness of your skin and/or the Native-speakerness of your speaking has secured you a wage that your colleagues at the university can only ever dream of, because they are not white Europeans or Americans or Australasians. They might even be merely Palestinian which means that they’re pretty much on the bottom of the heap.¬†Of course, they might also have half decent teaching qualifications; they might be better-versed in pedagogical theories than you; they might have studied education for up to four years, whilst you did a four week Certificate course down in Bognor Regis. Does that make them any better? Any worse?

To find the answer to that question, you’d really need to observe them in the classroom and talk to their students. Because, as far as I can see, it doesn’t really matter what language you grew up speaking when it comes to establishing a good relationship with your students. What matters is that you know how to communicate. It doesn’t matter if you fumble over a word because that’s what everybody does no matter which language they’re speaking. It doesn’t matter if you pronounce a word incorrectly because people do. But I think a line must be drawn somewhere. I don’t think it’s right when people who can barely speak English are told that they must go and teach it to a class of students. Just as I don’t think it right to hear stories in the UK of how a maths teacher got a job at a school, but was made responsible for teaching French as well. I don’t think it’s right, but I suspect it’s not avoidable either – given the constraints on resources for many schools.

And what about Dogme and NNESTs? Are they disadvantaged by their handicap? Are they limited to mugging up by reading the teacher’s book before the lesson starts? Do they take sugar? Can a non-native English speaker be expected to go and teach a class without any materials or without any pre-planned ideas of what is going to unfold in the classroom? Let’s see: can a non-native English speaker care for her students? Can she be interested in their lives? Can she provide the linguistic resources that the students might need to talk about their lives? If not, can she find these resources with the students and consult them? Can she talk about her own life? Can she either use or find the resources available to help her do this? The Magic 8 ball has spoken.

But will she do this perfectly? Might she not use language that sounds slightly off? Might she not accidentally include archaic language or syntactically-questionable utterances? Might it be that her students also pick up on these inaccuracies and then use them in their speech? Won’t this create less-than-perfect English? Won’t the students make a fool of themselves when they travel abroad and use this incorrect English in an important metting when the lives of millions hang in the balance? Won’t the teacher be single-handedly responsible for mass deaths, starvation and rapine? Or might the focus be more on the process by which the learners discover this language rather than the language itself? Might the world find a bit of space for non-standard usage of the English language? Might most students rarely need to use English to communicate with native English-speaking peoples? And in moments of possible miscomprehension, might most people not try to check that they have understood what their conversation partner was saying?

NNEST and NEST are unpleasant acronyms. They depend upon us differentiating between people because of where they cme from rather than what they can do. I’ve had a crawling sensation on my skin every time I’ve used them here. We either have people who are able to teach (PWAATT) or people who aren’t able to teach (PWAATT…oh!). As educators we should hopefully have progressed beyond labelling people using a Deficiency Model ( “I believe that the new teacher is non-penile. I assume we’ll be paying her less?”). Imagine a world where we all filled in “Can’t do” statements. Dogme can be done by anybody – whether they are teachers or not. In fact, teacher-education may well be a handicap to a dogmetic way of education.

People who said it better than me:

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