TEFL Equity – why recruit non-native teachers

11 04 2016

In my previous post on teacher recruitment, I suggested that when recruiting, the first step is to know what you’re looking for. And when it comes down to it, what the Director of Studies always wants is a great teacher.

Simple, innit.

But when drawing up your job description/person specification, what to include? There are multiple qualities and ingredients in ‘what makes a great teacher’…Engaging, patient, professional, fun, able to convey meaning, a strong sense of learner needs, committed to designing lessons which meet those needs, reliable, with high standards, caring, and so on and so forth. The list is (potentially) endless.

In this follow-up post on recruitment, I want to consider if ‘native speaker‘ is one of those ingredients. Do you need to be a native speaker to be a great teacher? Should ‘native speaker’ ever be on the job description?

Looking at many adverts on online TEFL job sites, you’d think so.

But the question of TEFL Equity is currently gaining more and more attention in numerous forums, and there is a growing campaign to raise awareness of (continuing) discrimination against so-called non-native English speaker teachers (NNESTs). In fact, one of the plenary speakers at this year’s 50th IATEFL conference – Silvana Richardson – will be speaking on ‘The Native Factor‘ and looking at ‘…how the logic of the market is used to justify current discriminatory recruitment practices that still perpetuate the view that a(n unqualified) native speaker is preferable to a qualified and professional ‘non-native teacher’. And later, that same day at the conference, I will be part of a panel discussion on ‘Tackling native-speakerism: NNS, recruitment, teacher training and research perspectives‘, with me giving my perspective as a recruiter, alongside Burcu Akyol (NNS), Christopher Graham (teacher training) and Marek Kiczkowiak (research).

Being part of this proposed panel discussion led me to do some research via a survey into management attitudes towards recruiting non-native speaker teachers. I have gained some interesting insights, including comments like:

“I think they are often excellent teachers with the decided advantage of actually learning English themselves and I feel very conflicted about not employing them.”

“This is a non-issue for us. The key thing for us is that teachers are good enough to meet our standards.”

“I regret to say that in all the places I have worked in over the last 18 years there seems to be a mute expectation that in spite of some of the excellent CVs that we receive from NNests, they never actually make it to the shortlist. We seem to be silently advocating the myth that Nests are best.”

But first I want to look back on my experience. What’s my story been as a DOS recruiting NNESTs? Where have I stood within this debate?


Reflecting on my track record as a recruiter of teachers, my first thought was that I have always approached recruitment in a fair and equal way. I don’t recall deliberating much over the question of NESTs vs NNESTs, but I can think of numerous non-natives that I have interviewed in recent years, some of whom I have gone on to employ.

If I’m completely honest, though, looking further back, it perhaps hasn’t always been this way; I probably have fallen into the trap in the past of unconsciously thinking NEST is best.

The school I worked for in the mid 90s, like many others at the time in the UK, used the ‘native teachers only card’ as a selling point in its marketing, and when I became the DOS, it didn’t cross my mind too much when looking at CVs for potential teachers; as a new manager, I was keen to make the ‘right’ decisions, and consciously or unconsciously, I probably only really considered applications from native speakers.

Why was this?

Thinking back, I was never informed of a specific policy or directive, it was more that the school management could consistently be overheard telling prospective students and clients that ‘all the teachers are native speakers’, probably for reasons or perceptions such as these:

  • Native teachers would give a prestige factor
  • Students want to be taught by English mother-tongue teachers
  • Native teachers have a perfect grasp of the language
  • Students want to hear (& aim for) native pronunciation of the language
  • A need to be competitive with other local schools

As I gained more confidence as a manager, and began to develop my own managerial identity, I felt more able to break with this unspoken policy. The school was a teacher training centre, which meant I could sometimes select the best teachers from our courses, and, I recall that once, when in need of a new teacher, the latest best trainee happened to be a non-native teacher – Maja, from Slovenia. She had great English, and had just cruised successfully through the demands of a TESOL Certificate course; it was an easy decision to take her on.

Once I had this experience as a manager of recruiting and working with a non-native teacher, the benefits and advantages that NNESTs could bring to a teaching team were clear. I was much more interested in what non-native applicants could offer, and after Maja, other non-native recruits followed. I remember Marija, who brought a different kind of professionalism and experience to the team – she was certainly more serious about EFL than some of the other (native) teachers in the staffroom. And then there were a couple of Brazilian recruits – one was a Cambridge exam expert, and we needed someone like that for a new FCE course; the other used to talk about pedagogy with colleagues, try out alternative approaches in the classroom, and speak at conferences. I may have had occasional doubts about accent but his attitude towards CPD was something I was really keen to have on the team, and again, not necessarily typical of the native applicants or staff members at the time.

So, looking back at those perceived issues above, I came to realise that they didn’t really stand up. I don’t recall ever having any major complaints from students about these non-native teachers. They all had an excellent grasp of the language, having learnt it themselves to a very high level; their knowledge of grammar was arguably better than a lot of the native teachers on the team. And they were all popular, getting very good student feedback, and often requested by students booking 1-1 lessons, which is always a good sign.

And since then I have continued to consider and recruit non-native teachers, and it has, more often than not, been a very positive experience. Perhaps I needed Maja, to get me thinking differently about non-native teachers, to make me more aware of the benefits NNESTs can bring.

And my position now is this: when looking to recruit a great teacher, you absolutely should not discount applications from NNESTs. The process must be fair and equal. Students want to be taught by a great teacher, and the teacher’s mother-tongue is not an ingredient which defines how great a teacher they can be.


So, back to the management research. As mentioned above, I wanted to find out how other academic managers approached recruitment, and what attitudes there were towards recruiting non-native teachers.

I composed the following short survey and sent it to as many managers and management associations as I could reach:

1. Do you employ non-native English speaking teachers? (NNESTs)

2. If not, do you or your school have specific reasons for that?

3. If yes, what is the approximate ratio of non-natives to native speaker teachers on your teaching staff?

4. If yes, have you ever had any complaints or problems…

a. From students? (what about?)

b. From agents? (what about?)

5. What have you done in these cases? What was the outcome?

6. Any other comments about recruiting NNESTs?

There were 73 respondents, mostly from the UK and some from a number of other countries: UK 48, Italy 7, US 5, Ireland 3, Canada 3, Brazil 2, and 1 each from Argentina, Australia, Singapore, Thailand and The Ukraine.

This is admittedly small in scale but the research data and the broader comments from the respondents do provide some useful insights:

From the 73 respondents:

  • 63 = Yes they do recruit NNESTs
  • 10 = No they do not recruit NNESTs

Of the 63 who recruit non-native teachers:

  • 37 have had some complaints from students
  • 26 have had no complaints from students
  • 9 have had some complaints from agents
  • 54 have had no complaints from agents

The ratio of NNS to NS teachers: this varied hugely, depending on the context; for example, in Brazil and Argentina, 90% or more of the teachers in the respondents’ schools are non-natives. In the UK, the ratio ranges from 3% to 75%, but the average ratio is 20%.

Of the 10 respondents who do not recruit non-native teachers: none said that they have an explicit policy not to recruit NNESTs.

Student & agent complaints

According to the respondents, if students complain, it tends to be for the following reasons (in order of frequency):

  1. the pronunciation or accent of the non-native teacher
  2. they have travelled to an English-speaking country to learn English, and so expect to be taught by a native speaker
  3. the belief that they can learn real English from a native teacher
  4. a non-native teacher might sometimes use incorrect language
  5. students might use this as a pretext to try to move to another class (to join friends for example)
  6. a non-native teacher doesn’t know the culture of the context

If agents complain, it is because:

  • the agent felt native teachers were a selling point
  • they were not happy if the teacher is from the same country as the student
  • they send the students to a given country to be taught by native teachers

Some respondents commented that they were sometimes asked by agents or potential clients – ‘Are your teachers native speakers?’

Dealing with student & agent complaints

Managers dealing with these issues, or wary of potential complaints, proposed a number of strategies:

  • some might move the student to another class at the same level
  • some they might change the teacher
  • several suggested they may limit the teacher to lower level classes
  • one suggested they encourage the teacher to keep their L1 a secret
  • one said they might offer the student a discount to deal with a complaint
  • another said they would permit a free trial lesson before booking a course, to reassure a potential client
  • one said they are very clear to agents about their policy on recruiting NNS teachers and their agents trust them
  • another said they would do nothing if a student complained, they trust the teachers

The majority, however, said they would discuss the situation and explain the key information to the complaining student, namely that

  • their teachers are all well qualified
  • their teachers have good teaching experience
  • they have high recruitment standards
  • that non-native teachers have the advantage of having learnt the language to a very high level and so can empathise with their learners
  • that English is now an international language and students need exposure to multiple accents and varieties of English to survive in the real world
  • they adhere to an equal opportunities policy when recruiting
  • and that native teachers do not necessarily know the grammar as well as non-natives

Overall, it seems that there are some positives and some negatives in the responses. A majority of respondents do recruit NNESTs. Ten managers, however, do not. In some cases students and agents complain, but nearly all managers said they had resolved issues in a relatively simple way and come up with a range of strategies to handle them.

Many respondents commented that it was important for non-natives to have a high level of competence in English, which for some also meant having an accent which was not overly pronounced:

“We don’t look at N or NN status when we are employing a teacher. We look at the same skill set for both (experience, attitude, language analysis, clear pron etc.) and make a decision on that. Our NN teachers are amongst the best and most popular. Something they all have in common though is that they have nearly no L1 accent when speaking English…”

“Can be incredibly…invaluable in terms of having learnt a language to a high level themselves, empathy for learners and so on…For me, however, their command and production of English needs to be  pretty much perfect.”

On the whole, looking at the comments that respondents submitted, I definitely get an overwhelming sense of managers viewing the recruitment of non-native teachers positively. The clear majority of respondents go on to elaborate on the positives that incorporating NNESTs onto their teaching team has brought them, including (in order of frequency):

  • Better understanding of SLA; can draw on their own language learning experience
  • Ability to empathise with learners
  • Tend to have excellent grammar knowledge
  • Can provide a model for students which is motivating
  • Can bring diversity in experience and background to the teaching team
  • Tend to be more serious about EFL as a career choice
  • Can have better training/qualifications
  • Can bring exposure to a variety of English as a world language

“NNESTs often have a strong sense of vocation –it is a chosen career, rather than something that they ‘end up in’ (see Scott Thornbury, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of EFL’). In my experience those employed in the UK are less prone to coasting.
They’ve achieved to a very high degree what our learners are aspiring to do. They know the classroom from the other side, and they know the problems and challenges that learners face because they have faced and overcome them themselves. As a result they are often adept at lowering the affective filter. Their language awareness is often far superior to the novice TEFLI English native speaker (actually, considerably beyond novice – it’s the advantage  four or five years studying and learning English at degree level can give you!).”

“I would emphasize that there have been few complaints of this type, and NNESTs have consistently been among my best and most popular teachers.  Most share the fact that they are not native speakers with their students and use their background to inspire and motivate students.  Often students trust NNESTs more than native speakers in grammar lessons.  I think many students either do not realize their teacher is a NNEST or feel it is irrelevant.  It’s rarely an issue.  Overall, I’d say it’s considered a positive by students and staff alike, as NNESTs give us more diverse backgrounds and offer more insight into English as a world language.”

“On FAM trips and agent visits we make a point that some of our best teachers are NNESTs, they have unique insights into the language learning process as they have been through it themselves, they can help with motivation and speak with authority on learning English successfully to a very high standard.”

What next?

Despite some of the positives coming out of this small scale research, it is clear that discrimination and prejudice continue to occur in ELT recruitment.

The main reasons given for not recruiting non-native teachers, however, are based on stereotypes and false assumptions. Recruiters still continue to value teachers more highly because of where they are from, even to the point of ignoring applicants with better qualifications, experience and teaching skills.

An important step in finding a solution to this is certainly to do with raising awareness, and one way of doing that is through networks and associations.

Back in November, as Chair of the London DOS Association, I invited Varinder Unlu, DOS at IH London, to lead a workshop on the theme; her session ‘NESTs vs NNESTs’ highlighted the reality of English as an International Language, raised awareness of discrimination in TEFL job advertising, presented us with best practices in recruitment, shared some success stories in NNEST recruitment, and got us started as an association on formulating a Statement of Support for the TEFL Equity Campaign. (You can see the resulting statement here).

What was reassuring in that meeting was the level of conviction among the members present in the need for fair recruitment practices, and the range of positive experiences in working with non-native teachers in London. I might add that it is also encouraging to see non-native Directors of Studies becoming more and more common in our association.

These kind of stories need to be heard!

Managers need to understand that NNESTs offer many positives, and that student and agent expectations can be dealt with and explained away. I think my research shows that in the UK, a large number of schools employ non-native teachers with positive outcomes, and if it works here, where the majority of students are incoming visitors, then it should work in other contexts. I hope that the recruiters who do not recruit non-natives reflect on these positive experiences.

As one respondent to my survey said, “Since hiring my first NNEST I now look a lot more closely at NNEST applicants as the experience has been very good and we were able to manage the perceptions of students & parents. So to sum up, definitely the perception is out there that native is best…but if you have a strong relationship with parents and students it is not insurmountable to shift things and lots of positives can come through that.”