The Myth of the Native Teacher

The Myth of the Native Teacher

All of our teachers are native speakers”. It’s highly likely that you’ve seen or heard this phrase in many an advert for language schools or academies in the past. In actual fact, whether the teachers are native speakers is a very common question asked by students and parents alike when they enquire about classes at London School. This shows us that we are still living in a world where it’s assumed that the term ‘native speaker’ is synonymous with ‘good teacher’. However, the question we really need to ask is whether the mere fact of being a native speaker of a certain language guarantees that this person will make a good teacher. Despite the fact that this is a commonly held belief, the answer, of course, is a resounding no.

What we can assume is that when language schools and academies profess to only employing native teachers, what they are really saying is that all of their teachers speak English well, which in itself doesn’t really mean anything. Of course, the fact that an English teacher actually knows English is as desirable an attribute as a surgeon knowing about medicine. However, in the case of the latter, nobody would even think to ask the surgeon who was about to operate on us, “I’m sorry Doctor, you have actually studied medicine, right?”. Potentially the biggest myth that needs to be dispelled here is the fact that knowing English is not the same as being an English teacher in the same way as knowing about medicine does not make you a doctor.

As an established Teacher Training Centre, at London School we have had the privilege of training over 250 teachers over the past few years, both native and non-native. The fundamental requirement for acceptance onto the CELTA course (one of the most prestigious English teaching qualifications in the world) is a good command of English, regardless of which country they are from. This means that the ability to speak English is a basic requirement to start your training to become a teacher, but it doesn’t make you a teacher. During the teaching practice element of the course, we’ve seen native speakers buckle in front of a class over a grammar question, due to the fact they have never studied it, or simply that they are unable to explain the meaning of a word.

So, if being native isn’t the key to being a good teacher, what is? As you will find in many other professions, there are many factors which affect how good someone is at what they do. Perhaps one of the most reliable factors to guarantee a teacher’s ability in the classroom is the training they have received. This sounds obvious, but students and parents never consider asking whether their prospective teacher is well-trained, only whether or not they are native. “I’m sorry doctor, you do know about medicine, don’t you?”

At London School, we have spent many years fighting for professionalism within our industry and particularly within English language academies. It’s surprising (or not, perhaps) the number of CVs that we get from candidates who want to work for us without any kind of training or teaching qualifications, beyond just having a good command of the English language. One recent case particularly stood out for us as an example of this. An unemployed English (native, of course) Cellist in a symphony orchestra sent us his CV and requested an interview. Our response was that in order for us to consider his application, he first had to complete the CELTA course, just as it would be the case that you’d have to study music to play in an orchestra. To our surprise, he told us that he would continue looking for work in another academy that wouldn’t require him to get any qualification; one of those in which you only have to be a native speaker, we might assume. Why was the idea of playing in an orchestra without any formal training so absurd, yet completely natural for this candidate to assume that someone could work in a language academy without any training? The answer is simple, because this kind of thing happens all the time and will continue to happen as long as our biggest worry is that our teacher needs to be native as opposed to being qualified.

In short, we have to dispel the myth of the native teacher. Being a native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean being a good teacher, unless of course they are well-qualified with experience and the qualities that have very little to do with just having learnt the language in one way or another. We will continue to work on increasing professionalism within ELT and the teaching of English in language academies. Whilst this is not going to be easy, we’ll know we’ve achieved something when we stop receiving CVs from candidates without any formal training and above all, when language schools stop using the phrase ‘all our teachers are natives’ as a marketing tool, instead substituting it for ‘all our teachers are qualified’.

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