Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the NNEST Caucus
1. Could you tell us your linguistic and professional background, and why you decided to be an educator?
2. You grew up in Trinidad, Morocco, Germany, and California, and holds an M.A. in Germanic Studies. As a native speaker of English, what made you be interested in NNEST issues? Why did you join the NNEST Caucus? What insights have you gained from this experience?
3. As an expert in nonnative English speaking teachers in K-12 education and language teacher professional development, what do you think of the NS-NNS dichotomy?
4. You were the NNEST Caucus Chair in 2006-2007. In 2008, the Caucus celebrates its 10th anniversary. What would you like to see its members do or initiate? What other areas of NNEST issues do you think need further investigation?
5. You have extensively written about collaborative approaches and mentoring practices. In a NNEST-NEST collaborative model, what can both parties gain from this peer collaboration?
Nonnative Speaker and TEFL Carpetbagger:
A Not-so-short Story of How I Became an NNEST, in Three Acts
Karen L. Newman
Act One: Facing the prospect of the summer unemployment that’s a perennial part of teaching, I’m relieved when I receive an invitation to interview for a position in a high school German immersion program that’s partnering with the university where I work as a teaching assistant for undergraduate German. Although it’s been almost two decades now since that muggy May day of my interview, I vividly remember walking to the building, sitting in the waiting area, and being introduced to the program director, who is about to interview me. I’m wearing my special “interview suit”, the one that I’d saved up from my meager TA salary to buy for the occasion, and some high heels that made me look taller than I am, and that were pinching my toes. With the can-do attitude of my then-youthful self, I shake the director’s hand, feeling completely confident that this is one job that’s “in the bag”. After all, I’d spent many years working hard to achieve a high degree of spoken and written proficiency in this complex language that has 16 permutations of the definite article, and I’d gotten decent teaching evaluations from my most recent second-year German students. I’d also gotten a number of awards for my undergraduate studies in German and my language proficiency, and many native speakers told me that they’d never met an American whose German skills were as strong as mine.
As I ease into the director’s wooden office chair and we begin to chat, I share my interest in the position, and launch into my rehearsed spiel about my background and qualifications. Barely do I say a few words before I sense that something is “off” in the room. The director is looking oddly at me, and the thought occurs to me that, like a bad date, this interview might be slipping south in a hurry. Well, let’s see how it progresses, I muse, as it’s not over yet. The director leans forward, cocking her head toward me, and her eyes narrow to small, bird-like slits, as if she’s scrutinizing something on me that was out of place. Was my makeup wilting in the heat, I wonder, or worse yet, was a remnant of my recent lunch still stuck between my teeth? I knew I should have visited the ladies’ room for one last check before this interview!
I continue to plod through my script, imagining that I must have forgotten to take the price tag off my suit, or that some other wardrobe malfunction is befalling me. But before I can wonder any further about the director’s perturbation, she puts up a hand to interrupt me, and lobs a question at me for which I don’t have a pat, prepared answer: “So… are you a native speaker, then?” Uh-oh, I think. Now what? Let’s see, deflect away from my weaknesses and accentuate my strengths, that’s what the book of interview tips told me to do, right? And boy, do I really need this job, but I’ll be found out if I bluff it at this interview, so, o.k. then, I guess I’d better tell the truth. Here it comes: “Well, n-no,” I stammer, “but I do have lots of experience with…” “Well, then, thank you very much for coming, but we’re not interested,” she says, flashing me a momentary faux-smile. “We only hire native speakers in this program. That’s what the paying parents and students expect, and that’s what we offer. Good-day!”
She bolts up from her desk, and motions me toward the door, as if she’d just discovered that I’d committed some bizarre act, like the man I’d read about in the campus newspaper who’d been found crawling on the carpet under the library carrels, sniffing unsuspecting women’s feet. I continue to sit in the chair with my mouth open, but the words just aren’t coming out, and the bell isn’t yet ringing. What have I done wrong? Oh, I get it now, I’m getting the hook! This interview’s over, Karen, time to get up and leave.
I mutter some sort of apology and a half-hearted “thank you”, but thank you for what, and why was I apologizing, I asked myself, as I feel the words slip out. Am I not an example of what students might hope to achieve in their language study? I stagger my way out of the building, lingering in front of it for a few minutes as my anger slowly rises, and I debate whether I shouldn’t turn around, go back inside, and insist that the director take a closer look at my resume. Or maybe I should take the matter up with the administration, I think, because supposedly, they have these anti-discrimination rules here at the university. But wait, there’s nothing on the books about language, is there? And what if it costs me my future, and ruins my chances of finishing my degree? What if I gain the reputation as a troublemaker? I have no ammunition or words. In the end, I do nothing, but I do take off my heels and walk home barefoot, in tears, occasionally checking over my shoulder to assure myself that the campus foot-sniffer isn’t following me. In my naïvete, I lack an understanding of what has just happened, but know that it was horribly unfair, because the door was already closed before I stepped through it. I’m not a native German speaker and never will be, no matter how many awards they hang on me, or how many compliments I get. Maybe it’s time for another job. I spend that summer filing papers for $3.35 an hour at a local bank, and within a few months of my degree, I become a secretary, tutoring German on the side, and those few months turn into a few years.
Act Two: It’s five years later, and I’m in Vienna’s First District, walking down Wollzeile towards Café Diglas, where I go most days after school to read the International Herald Tribune and drink a mélange, served artfully by Herr Jahn, my favorite waiter, and in whose section of the café I always sit. A few months earlier, I’d submitted an application to teach English in Austria through the Fulbright Association. To get my part-time teaching job at a local, top-tier Gymnasium, all I’d had to do was to write an essay, check off the box that I was an American citizen and native speaker of English in possession of an undergraduate degree, and wait for the results of the committee. Did I mention that my teaching experience or knowledge of the local language weren’t prerequisite? I board a plane, happen into a beautiful new apartment in sight of vineyard-covered hills, meet a pair of fellow English teachers who become my closest confidants and travel buddies, and as a teacher, I enjoy minor cult status at my school, particularly with the 6th grade students, who beg me to translate the lyrics to their favorite Backstreet Boys’ songs and wait outside the teachers’ room for a chance to practice their English with me when I emerge. I’m living the expat life, seeing Europe on a shoestring and savoring every minute, from nights in the standing room section at the Vienna State Opera, to weekend walks in the Vienna Woods or visits to “Blaues”, where we know the owner and drinks are on the house. Students and parents alike beg me to tutor them in English, and are willing to pay whatever my asking fee might be.
As I walk down Wollzeile, and see my reflection in one of the expensive shop windows, it dawns on me that there’s something wrong with this perfect picture. Earlier that day, Beate, my native Viennese colleague who has opened her heart and home to me, tells me that, despite her many years of seniority and training, and her full-time position in our school, she and I earn the same meager teacher’s salary. How can it be that I earn the same for half the amount of work, and half the experience, I wonder. Nobody asks her to tutor them. And sometimes, I notice that the students are rude to her and scoff at her when she’s teaching. They question the accuracy of her English when she grades their work, and their parents sometimes do, too. People turn to me as the native-speaker “authority”, the “real” arbiter of English, even though couldn’t explain predicate phrase rules if my life depended on it. With a growing sense of guilt, I realize that I’m profiting from a situation that I didn’t create, but that I am complicit to. My presence in our school is touted as a plus, but at what cost to my colleagues? Am I little more than a TEFL carpetbagger, I wonder, moving in to take advantage of a vulnerable situation, an actor in a bizarre play that prompts my colleagues to look over their shoulders and resent my presence? I’m a native English speaker, and nothing I do can change that. This dubious “award” is given to me by accident of birth, not merit. But how do I promote my colleagues’ strengths in the face of this happenstance? I’m at a loss, and I do nothing. I finish out the year and, with a sad heart, return to the U.S., leaving my question unanswered.
Act Three: I’m studying for my Ph.D. in Language Education at Indiana University, taking a course with Bill Johnston on issues in teacher education. In the classroom are then-fellow graduate students Ahmar Mahboob (University of Sydney, Australia), Karl Uhrig (Kent State University), Semen Yildiz (Bogazici University, Turkey) and Sibel Tatar (Bogazici University, Turkey). Bill has assigned to us to read several chapters of George Braine’s recently-published 1999 book, and to come to class ready to discuss them. We’ve read them, and boy, are we ready! In small-group discussion, the five of us talk about this manifesto on the inequity that pervades our field of English language teaching. We read of the painful experiences of colleagues who have suffered at the hands of biased employers and an unsympathetic public, and whose professional lives have been constrained by the native speaker fallacy. Bill challenges me to consider whether my carpetbagging has implicated me as his “postmodern paladin” (see Johnston, 1999), a witting or unwitting courtier in world of English teaching, or whether I can champion the hope of making our profession a true profession, with a defined knowledge base, system of apprenticeship, and equitable hiring practices for its diverse members.
I recognize that Bill, George and colleagues whom I am soon to meet in TESOL’s NNEST Caucus, have given me the words to comprehend and mediate the ignorance that I myself encountered as a nonnative German teacher in the U.S., and circumstances that I myself profited from and to which I was complicit as a native English teacher abroad. I know that “my” English is but one of a variety of World Englishes, each with its own unique history and validity. What to do? This time, I’m not as ignorant. Ahmar, Karl and I set to work on a research study to understand the extent to which hiring practices in our own U.S.-based TESOL programs exclude nonnative English speaking teachers. We document a pattern of bias, based on such spurious factors as accent and citizenship. Lia Kamhi-Stein publishes our paper in her 2004 volume. Our personal and professional lives are forever changed by our friendships and our understanding of the power and politics that have touched each of us in Bill’s class and beyond, and that each of us have the power to overcome as activists and advocates for a teacher equity based not on birthright, but on merit and professionalism. We all have the ammunition, and we have only to forge it ourselves. We meet other like-minded professionals in the NNEST Caucus, and commit ourselves, each in our own milieu, to working for the justice we seek and which we desire for all professionals in our field.
These three acts that I share, are among those that have had the most powerful impact on my personal and professional identity as a humanist, teacher, researcher, and teacher educator in foreign and second language education. Our profession, unlike many others, is one where the personal and professional intersect, and where identity and teaching practice are so closely tied together. People sometimes inquire why I, as a native speaker, am a member of the NNEST Caucus. How can I not be? If my identity as teacher educator includes the commitment to uphold professional and moral standards, drawing from my own lived experiences, then it is my responsibility to confront discrimination and ignorance toward our practitioners whenever I can. And as a member of an international profession, I know that we are all nonnative speakers of some language, and if one of us native speaker-teachers profits, it is at the expense of another—that somewhere, one of us “nonnatives” is losing out.