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.”


Developing managers in the digital age

8 10 2014



I am very excited to be involved in organising an event in late November to mark the 25th anniversaries of the IATEFL Leadership and Management SIG and the London DoS Association.

The theme is managers and technology and we have a great line-up of speakers.

Here is the big sell:

Developing managers in the digital age

As the role of technology in education becomes more central, and the range and capability of online teaching & learning resources grow; as the expectations of EFL students and agents become more demanding, and the need to stand out in a crowded market place becomes more urgent; how can we as managers in Language Teaching Organisations ready ourselves to face the challenges of the digital age?

What role should technology play in ELT, and what are the best strategies to implement it in our schools?

And what are the digital literacies we need to develop to ensure we are at the forefront of education both as managers and educators?

The Iatefl Leadership and Management SIG and the London DoS Association have joined forces to mark their 25th anniversaries with an event to allow school owners, principals, academic managers, teacher trainers and teachers to explore these questions together.

Plenary Speakers:

Nicky Hockly, Fiona Thomas, Nik Peachey, Shaun Wilden & Philip Kerr

Friday November 28th

16.30 – 19.30 then drinks reception sponsored by Pearson

Saturday November 29th

09.00 – 17.00

Venue: St Giles International, 154 Southampton Row, London WC1B 5JX

Registration: http://secure.iatefl.org/events/event.php?id=84



It’s good to talk, isn’t it?

18 03 2014

English UK Management Conference 2014

It is becoming a commonly stated view that among all the possible forms of teacher development, having a good chat about teaching, with both colleagues and teachers elsewhere, is perhaps the most effective. Schools should be providing spaces, and academic managers looking for opportunities, to facilitate this. And beyond the school walls, the last couple of years have seen an explosion of teacher communities online – on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter – where weekly discussions on teaching best practice, materials-sharing and problem-solving abound.

But what about this kind of activity for managers? Do similar opportunities exist? If they do, where are they? And if they don’t, what’s stopping us? If having a good chat is good for teacher development, shouldn’t it also be good for manager development?

This session will look at ways for academic managers and directors of studies to get beyond their solitary existence! We’ll share some burning issues, consider what makes a successful community of practice, and see how we can join the ELT management conversation.

Questions to consider (please post thoughts in the Comments section):

  1. What opportunities exist for ELT managers to meet and chat?
  2. Do these opportunities meet our needs?
  3. Would ELT managers in the UK benefit from being part of a CoP?

Head Banging at IATEFL

19 06 2013

Early April in Liverpool, down by the docks…it was all very exciting to be once again at an IATEFL Conference. Especially as this year I was presenting for the first time at a PCE – Pre-Conference Event  – for the Leadership and Management Special Interest Group (LAMSIG)  – where the theme for the day was CPD.

There were around 80 attendees who were coming literally from all over the world. School owners, Principals, Academic managers, Directors of Studies, Teacher Managers, all looking for ideas and insights into setting up and maintaining CPD programmes, and most of all (everyone’s deep-down secret quest) – how to engage teachers in professional development.

The PCE Presenting Team consisted of myself and two great, experienced, and genuinely lovely people: Loraine Kennedy and Fiona Dunlop. I was feeling a bit daunted, partly by the international breadth and level of experience of the audience (ie what do I know compared to them?), and partly by the fact that I was taking the second slot which was going to be an hour and a half session (quite a long time to keep people engaged and involved). Also, as I got up that morning and started to get ready for the big day, I realized I’d left at home all my nicely ironed shirts that I was planning to wear at the conference – dah! Moment of panic. Until I realized I had a just-about-decent-casual top which could go with my jacket: presenter’s wardrobe-disaster averted, just!

Shirt did not attend IATEFL

Loraine took the first slot and gave us an overview of broad and current thinking to do with CPD. She is always brilliant – clear and thought-provoking; here are some of the relevant points I noted down from her:

CPD is about learning at work; about skills but also knowledge, about thinking differently. Learning is available everywhere, if your mind is open to it.

CPD benefits the individual, the team, the school and therefore the students.

Research tends to show that training courses are not always effective – people go back to work and carry on in the same way. CPD therefore has to be personalised to tap in to intrinsic motivation.

CPD is about having a positive learning environment; trust, mutual respect, support. What is your staff room like? Is it conducive to people sharing? (good question I thought).

Reflection – everyone says they do it, but may not do it effectively. Evaluation and analysis of reflection is key – Driscoll’s model provides a simple memorable tool – 3 questions:

  • What? (what happened, tell the facts of the situation)
  • So What? (why is this worthy of reflection? what happened against what should have happened?)
  • Now What? (in future how may your practice be different? how will you remember what to do in future?)

Fiona took the third slot and looked at the role of the manager in CPD. Also brilliant, Fiona has a knack of bringing anecdotes and insights from her experience into her sessions which make you both laugh and see things in a new way.

She highlighted 3 key points: to lead by example; to know your staff; to ensure developmental opportunities are integrated into academic systems.

And for the first point, she told us an anecdote about going to a (non-ELT) conference for business people years ago: she felt like a fish out of water, she said, but took away one idea which she followed up on, namely the “250 Achievements Activity” – can you list as many personal achievements as that? She tried it and found that over some time she was able to list that many, the point being that in order to lead a team, you have to be able to recognise your own achievements.

It is something I am now trying myself, and like Fiona said then, as well as making yourself feel good, it also helps you to see CPD in a new way – to realise that we (…and our teachers) are all actually achieving lots of things all the time.

My slot was in the middle of the 3 sessions, and focused on CPD for Teachers. I’m going to blog about it in a separate post (sometime soon…probably!), but broadly it revolved around the ideas of giving teachers choice, promoting collaboration, and how to bring in expertise from outside by connecting with other educators around the world via social media.

Photo by Mike Hogan

Panel Discussion – and getting away without a proper shirt?

The PCE Day finished with a panel discussion, which thankfully turned into more of an audience discussion, with some quite heart-felt questions and urgent-sounding problem-sharing. And this left a lasting impression: there we were, 80 or so academic managers, from schools and institutions all over the world, and the overriding feeling at the end of the day was one of really caring and passionate managers banging their heads against an apparent brick wall of teachers and CPD. We had shared some good ideas and insights and got people thinking in new ways perhaps about CPD. But still, it seemed for some in the room, the million-dollar question remained unanswered – how do we really get our teachers to engage with professional development?


(to be continued…)