Monthly Archives: May 2009

Eva Bernat

NNEST of the Month
May 2009
eva [dot] bernat [at] unsw [dot] edu [dot] au
Ana Wu: Could you tell us your background and why you decided to become an educator?
Prof. Bernat:Ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to be a teacher. I recall sitting my younger sister down in front of a small, A-frame blackboard, teaching her reading or writing and imagining I was in front of a classroom full of students. That was back in Poland in the 1970s. In the early 1980s with the rise of the pro-democracy ‘Solidarity’ movement, the inception of Martial Law (a ‘state of war’) and the eminent fall of Communism, Poland went through major social, political and economic changes. During the time of this unrest, my parents had decided to immigrate to Australia. Being the only a non-native English speaker in the whole school in Sydney’s Northern Districts, I was a rather curious novelty to everyone. In the beginning, I had found school challenging and the language barrier daunting, but I never let go of the dream of one day becoming a teacher. Yet at the time, my lack of proficiency in the English language meant that the dream was further from me than at any other time in my life. I had often wondered, how could I teach a language that was not my native tongue?

I believe that this question, to a greater or lesser degree, distresses many Non-Native Speaker Teachers (NNSTs), who tend to feel insecure at times about themselves as EFL professionals. As I have observed during my years of TESOL practicum supervisions, many NNSTs lack confidence in their own teaching skills sadly because they see these through the prism of their perceived inadequacies in English language skills, and worry whether they will measure of up their students’ expectations. A few years ago, I heard a comment from one of my young NNST trainees: “They don’t think I am a teacher; they don’t know who I am!” This comment ignited my desire to address the crippling feeling of ‘impostorhood’ among many NNSTs.

Ana Wu: In your article “Towards a pedagogy for empowerment: The case of ‘impostor syndrome’ among pre-service non-native speaker teachers in TESOL,” (2008) you argue that the native speaker paradigm and the NNS-NS dichotomy create perceptions of inadequacy in regard to English language proficiency.

How can we address negative self-perceptions and feelings of inadequacy among NNESTs?
Prof. Bernat: I teach pre-service and in-service TESOL teachers who come from various non-English speaking backgrounds, many of whom are international students. I have recently become passionate about building a pedagogical model geared towards non-native teacher empowerment in TESOL teacher education courses. This area of research was put forward by the TESOL Research Agenda (2000), which identified issues related to NNSTs as a Priority Research Area, and a question of research interest listed in the document is: To what extent, if any, are issues related to NNS professionals addressed by the TESOL teacher preparation curriculum?

Consequently, I devised a number of intervention strategies to help empower NNSTs. For example, one of the strategies I use is called ‘Near-Peer Role Modeling,’ which is theorized and widely used in social psychology. I found this to be a useful and powerful tool in my teacher education courses in recent years. Near Peer Role Models are people who are in some way ‘near’ to us – for example, in age, background, social status, profession, and so on. This is how it works. During the semester, teacher trainees are exposed to various models and ‘empowering discourses’ in their lectures on issues related to NNSTs – both from their Non-Native Speaker lecturer – myself, and two NNSTs who came to give talks on separate occasions. Trainees become informed of the gradually emerging global changes to the status of NNSTs, and informed that NNSTs currently outnumber Native Speaker Teachers in the world – a fact which the trainee teachers do not seem to be aware of and are always very pleasantly surprised to learn about. Furthermore, the visiting NNSTs who come to give personal testimonials about their own professional journey in the field of TESOL seem to have a very positive effect on the listeners. The speakers engage the trainees in lively and productive discussions and find that they are able to relate to each others’ feelings and experiences very well. I can see almost immediately the changes in attitude following this intervention.

In my lifetime, I hope to make a worthwhile contribution to teacher education, particularly to the education of NNSTs. I believe that well thought-out strategies of empowerment that aim to convince NNSTs of the important contribution they can make to foreign language education is as crucial now as ever.

Ana Wu: Your book “The Psychology of the Language Learner: A focus on beliefs and personality” was just released and you serve as an Associate Editor in two international peer-reviewed journals (The Asian EFL Journal and Journal of English as an International Language).

As an NNES, what advice would you give to graduate students and young professionals who are struggling with their academic writing skills? As a writer, what strategies have you employed to overcome writer’s block and deal with multiple revisions?
Prof. Bernat: I must admit that the proverbial writer’s block is my worst enemy. I admire people who claim that writing comes to them with ease. I wish I had a magic answer for dealing with writer’s block, but what often works for me is to walk away from my writing and engage in something totally different. This allows me to see my written thoughts from a new perspective when I return to them. I also find reading extensively and thinking about the issues from various points of view helpful. I usually go through quite a few drafts before I am happy with what I wrote.

Ana Wu: Besides teaching postgraduate courses, you are an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) research fellow and have been a guest speaker at national and international conferences. How do you balance your career with family?
Prof. Bernat:Balancing a career and family life can often be a challenge, particularly for women. I really admire women who combine the two, and who do it so well. Personally, I have been blessed with extensive support networks and owe much to my mother. In our field in Australia, we are also quite fortunate to have relatively flexible working hours and days, so this allows for juggling of responsibilities on all fronts. However, my biggest challenge is to learn to say ‘no’ to things that seem like a good idea at the time!

Ana Wu: As you attend conferences at various interesting countries, what do you bring back to your teachings, peers and students?
Prof. Bernat:I am currently traveling for a month through Korea, Japan, Poland and Turkey. Taking part in conferences, symposia and the like, and visiting other universities provide invaluable opportunities to build networks with colleagues in the field, as well as to learn about the kinds of issues and problems that exist in other contexts. It is also interesting to learn of new developments that take place in ELT. Just in the last few days, I have learned so much about the spread of English in South-East Asia and the ever-growing demand for English language instruction. I hear that there are some 100,000 Koreans going to the Philippines each year for English courses, and that Singapore is now importing teaching assistants from India to meet their needs. Such developments confirm that native-speaker teachers can no longer satisfy the demand for ELT world-wide, challenging the notion that the native-speaker is the prototypical language teacher of choice. Passing this information onto my trainee NNSTs will no doubt help them to understand their dominant positioning in the global TESOL arena.

Ana Wu: Thank you for this inspiring interview! I am looking forward to reading your next book!