- Thank you for joining me in this conversation. To start, could you tell us about your linguistic and professional background?
Dita Phillips: Thank you for inviting me, Ana. I first started learning English when I was 6 years old. I have been an English teacher for 15 years and a teacher trainer for 7. My mother tongue is Czech.
- What was it like to start a teaching job in Oxford as an NNES? How was it different from now?
Dita Phillips: When I moved to Oxford from the Czech Republic 11 years ago, I was already fully qualified (MA in English, CELTA) and had 4 years of teaching experience under my belt. Even so, I had to wait nearly 2 years for my first teaching job. This was only partly to do with NNEST discrimination (a number of schools told me that they didn’t employ non-native speakers). It was also due to timing, as I started applying for work in September, which is not a good month to apply in the UK as many schools tend to shrink after the summer.
My first job was with a large language school chain. They hired me despite my very un-English sounding maiden name and did not give me instructions on how to conduct myself as a NNEST. Nevertheless, I still felt very anxious, because I knew that most students generally tend to prefer native teachers. The moment when I ‘came out’ as a NNEST to my first class changed my life. The students made me realize that the fact that I was a non-native teacher (which I thought was something I needed to hide) was actually something they came to value and respect. The fact that I had learnt English myself made me an instant role model for my learners. Seeing myself through their eyes gave me the confidence to value myself as a teacher and helped me to pursue my career in EFL in the UK.
- Congratulations on your IATEFL 2016 “I am a non-native English Speaker teacher – hear me roar!” You have also been an active participant in the NNEST Group on Facebook. What can teacher trainers do to educate students, NES and NNES, on the issues of nativeness and professional equity? I heard a couple of times trainers and professors being resistant in bringing this topic to the classroom because “it is not relevant to the NES students.”
Dita Phillips: Thank you! There is a nice summary of my IATEFL talk on Lizzie Pinard’s blog: https://reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/2016/04/16/iatefl2016-nnest-hear-me-roar-dita-phillips/
I have always been very lucky with the schools where I have worked. My current school employs both NS and NNES, and I have always had the support of my managers and colleagues in including this topic on CELTA courses and on the ‘refresher’ courses we run for experienced teachers. I believe it is extremely important to include this topic on courses, especially on pre-service courses, because we are in an extremely influential position: We are educating future trainers, school managers, and directors of studies, all of whose attitudes regarding ELT might not yet be fully formed. Obviously, I can understand that on courses where trainers and trainees are all NS, this could be seen as an artificially imposed discussion. But that does not really take into account the global context which today’s teachers work in, and so avoiding this discussion can actually do trainees a real disservice. It is, of course, easier to make these topics relevant when you have a mixed group of trainees, but it is still possible on courses with only NES trainees. I offered some practical ideas for this in my talk at IATEFL Birmingham. For example, you can include sessions on your course which look at ‘English as a Lingua Franca’, or at different World Englishes (i.e. English as it is spoken in particular regions of the globe, such as South Asia, Africa, etc.). In my experience, NES trainees are not always aware of these issues, and so they can learn a great deal from these types of session. One more idea is to introduce trainees to teachers’ blogs or professional teachers’ groups online (e.g. on Facebook or Twitter). This fits in well with sessions on Continuous Professional Development (CPD), but equally importantly, it also shows trainees that there is a whole community of English teachers around the world, and that NNES teachers are a huge part of that community.
- At the IATEFL 2016, besides yours, there were other discussions on NNEST issues. For example, the panel “Tackling Native Speakerism” with Marek Kiczkowiak, Burcu Akyol, Christopher Graham and Josh Round, and the powerful plenary of Silvana Richardson, “The Native factor – the haves and the have-nots.” What other topics on the discussion of Nativeness, NES-NNES dichotomy, and equity and equality in the workplace would you like to see more in conferences like IATEFL and TESOL?
Dita Phillips: I was very pleased to find out that this topic was going to be the theme of this year’s IATEFL conference. A few people have been reporting on and speaking out against this sort of discrimination for years, but change has only come very slowly. In markets where language schools pride themselves on offering NES teachers, it can be very difficult for individual schools to change their hiring policies or to start educating clients about teacher qualifications, because they worry about losing potential customers to competing schools. For this reason, I don’t think we will start to see real equality in recruitment policies until more teachers’ organisations (internationally and in individual countries) make a coordinated effort to tackle this issue – for example, by talking to managers responsible for hiring teachers and by putting pressure on all language schools in particular towns or cities at the same time. And hopefully, by doing this, teachers’ organisations and schools can together persuade language learners that what matters is not where their teacher comes from, but that he or she is properly qualified.
- As a teacher trainer, have you had to deal with the issues of pronunciation and accent? If so, how did you help your trainees? Have you ever helped NES with accent issues?
Dita Phillips: In terms of accents, I try to help my trainees (both native and non-native) by providing reassurance. On CELTA courses, native trainees with regional accents sometimes ask if it’s a problem that they don’t speak with an RP [Received Pronunciation] accent (i.e. the regionally neutral form of British English traditionally based on educated speech in southern England). Non-native trainees often feel bad about their accents because they think that the accents immediately give them away as non-natives. All NNES trainees worry about not being good enough pronunciation models for their students and, as a result, they tend to avoid addressing pronunciation in their lessons altogether, which is the worst thing they can do for their students. Students need the opportunity to practise and experiment with pronouncing English, and it is the teacher’s job to give them feedback on this – I tell trainees that regardless of their own accents, they are still the best-placed people to help students with pronunciation.
- Do you tell your trainees that you are an NNES? What are their reactions? Could you tell us any vivid anecdotes of being an NNES teacher trainer?
Dita Phillips: Yes, I do tell them. On CELTA courses, I make sure that trainees find out on day one during the initial ‘getting-to-know-each-other’ activity. Many of the non-native trainees who study with us need to be reassured that being a NNES is a positive thing, and most of the native trainees also benefit from seeing a non-native trainer as a role model. On ‘refresher’ courses with experienced overseas teachers, I usually wait a little longer before telling teachers that I am a NNES, because on courses like these there are more expectations to manage, and also, when I tell them, they are usually more surprised. But telling them is definitely the right thing to do, and usually they immediately ask me how I ended up teaching in the UK and whether I think they could do something similar. The answer, of course, is yes.
Thank you for this interesting interview! Your trainees are lucky to have you!
Interview by Ana Wu