The goal of the NNEST of the Month Blog is to showcase the many faces of educators from different countries who promote professional equity in the teaching community.
This month, our guest is Lakshmi Kala Prakash. Lakshmi is completing a Ph.D. in English for Professional Development at Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
We met Lakshmi on the NNEST Facebook page, when she told us that she spoke out against the discriminatory job advertisements posted by a company called VIPKID, which advertises “The North American Elementary School experience to Chinese children” and only hires “Native English Speakers from North America.”
Edit (3/2/2017): Rosa Aronson, Executive Director of TESOL International, has informed us that VIPKID now advertises “an international learning experience” and “passionate, qualified teachers.” We have edited some parts of this post, originally published on 2/22/2017, to reflect their change in practices, while still commending Lakshmi on her efforts in NNEST advocacy.
Thank you for joining us as a guest on the NNEST of the Month Blog!
1) Could you start by telling us a little about your academic and professional background?
As a lifelong learner, my journey in academics began in India, the country of my birth, where I received a Bachelor of Science. Interested in the field of Medicine, I pursued an Associates in Respiratory Therapy at Wichita State University in the US. Several years later and following a change in career to teaching English to Foreign Language students in Iran, I decided to procure my Masters in TESOL. This desire brought me to Thailand in 2012, where I received an MA in TESOL in 2013 from Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The passion for knowledge and eagerness to share with my colleagues, students, and the public at large guided me into enrolling for a Ph.D. in English for Professional Development at Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, Thailand. I have recently submitted my dissertation manuscript to my Faculty of Advisors for their comments. On the professional side, my career has taken me through several disciplines from applying my skills as a Registered Respiratory Therapist, successfully running and establishing a business in clothing and jewelry, to the present and the most rewarding, teaching English. My present career began in 2002 in Tehran, Iran.
2) You mentioned previously that you got involved in an online discussion with one of VIPKID’s teachers, who seemed to support their discrimination against NNESTs. Speaking out can be intimidating. Could you tell us a bit more about the situation, what you found problematic, and what you did about it?
Finding ways to engage with those who unwittingly appear to support discrimination can be a challenge to anyone. As an educator, I am a strong proponent against discriminatory practices in general and against NNESTs in particular. However, when such instances are blatantly advertised and made to appear as acceptable by everyone, perhaps, the responsibility to speak up against such practices falls on the shoulders of those who hold the minds of the future in our hands. Recently, a posting for an online teaching position on the Facebook page called Chiang Rai Everything, catering to classifieds on any issue, sparked my decision to get more involved and confront the wordings in the posting.
The person who had shared the VIPKID advertisement might have, from his point of view, felt that he was doing a good thing for other Americans currently living in Chiang Rai, Thailand. However, when interacting with him it became clear to me that he was not ready to accept the fact that the wordings in the advertisement were generally discriminatory. The exchange with him was a heated one and I tried to instill some sort of awareness regarding the effects of his involvement with such discriminating organizations. Although I tried to keep the discussion on point, the man involved and in support of him a few other American men, decided to take it personally. My initial steps to try and raise awareness on this issue was apparently turning nasty. I decided that I had to step out of it as it was clear that the person had made up his mind that he was not doing anything that was hurtful or wrong. Yet, I am hopeful that my words would have made an impression on his future actions and thoughts on the topic.
Since the intervention of NNEST and TESOL, the VIPKID posting has been expertly reworded to protect their interests. However, here is a link to an online interaction between a teacher from the online platform VIPKID and English teachers looking for online opportunities from several parts of the World before the changes were made by VIPKID, which support the original advertisement that quirked my interest to face up to the challenge, https://teacheslonlineanywhere.com/join-vipkid/.
3) How do you think advertisements like this affect TESOL as a scholarly and professional field?
When I was teaching a group of English Major students at a University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I asked them about their future career goals. I was shocked to learn that none of them selected Teaching English. When I probed the reasons for this, they replied, “Teacher have you seen the job advertisements on websites like Ajarn.com, TeachEnglish.com and even the websites of Thai schools or Universities?” They continued, “We have no chance in getting a job in teaching, or earning well teaching English in Thailand.” Furthermore, discussion with people who have no awareness of the negative effects of their actions leads me to believe that discriminatory advertisements, media jokes on the pronunciation skills of Non-native teachers, and little attempt at bridging the widening gap do have a profound effect on the community and their hiring practices in the field of TESOL.
4) TESOL International entered into a strategic partnership with VIPKID in November 2016. Rosa Aronson, the Executive Director of TESOL International told several leaders in the NNEST community that she’d had extensive conversations with VIPKID prior to entering a partnership, asserting that discrimination against NNESTs was a violation of TESOL International’s core values and dedication to increasing professionalism and equity in the field. She was under the impression that they had changed their ways and was appalled to learn that they had not done so. Now, nearly three months after the original announcement, VIPKID seems to have removed some discriminatory language from their website, but still advertises the North American elementary experience to Chinese children. What action, if any, do you think TESOL should take at this time? Where do we as NNEST advocates go from here?
This is a challenge for any organization and a community of practice in general. Initiating this dialogue with TESOL as the NNEST Interest Section has done was merely the very first step. Following these discussions and bringing to light the advertising practices (not only those by VIPKID), which also reflect, up to a point, the mindset of the people behind it, during seminars, conferences, or TESOL meetings can be further steps that all members of the TESOL community can partake in.
Edit (3/2/2017): Rosa Aronson, Executive Director of TESOL International, has informed us that VIPKID now advertises “an international learning experience” and “passionate, qualified teachers.” The discriminatory language has been removed since the original posting of this blog.
5) Sometimes students are wary of teachers they perceive as nonnative speakers and question their professional expertise. How can we as TESOL professionals shed light on and change these ideologies?
I believe education is the key to bringing about equal practices or changing present ideologies between the native and nonnative speakers in the mindset of all stakeholders in general. However, organizations such as TESOL, or NNEST, should formally approach the Ministries of Education of countries, where such practices are rampant and request to implement further regulations in the hiring and advertising practices of qualified English language teachers regardless of their nativeness.
6) What other advice would you give to other TESOL professionals and activists in increasing equity in TESOL as a professional and scholarly field?
Professional Development that aligns with increasing informed and positive dialogues on this topic among all stakeholders could help minimize a persisting gap between Native and Nonnative teacher perceptions of each other’s role in the overall production of a truly successful user of English.
Edit (3/3/2017) Since VIPKID has since changed the language on their website, we followed up with Lakshmi to ask one last question.
7) Since the original publication of this post, VIPKID has revised their website and recruitment materials to advertise “an international learning experience” and “passionate, qualified teachers.” As someone who was on the front lines, what are your thoughts on these changes? What will their impact be, and how can we continue to increase equity in the field?”
Let me first begin with how we can continue to increase equity in the field by sharing with all of you the opinions and suggestions of a colleague. Mrs. Jena Lynch, a native English speaker. After reading my responses on the NNEST blog of the month, she had this to add to the discussion:
“I can study English grammar and use a corpus to back up my intuitions, but I’ll never have the credibility of someone who learned English as an additional language. What I think hiring managers and ministries need to be looking at is: (1) A desire to coach students in the learning process; (2) Teaching methodology and approach in the classroom; (3) Proficiency.
Having the knowledge and skill in English to teach students to be intelligible is obviously important, but there’s no need to be a native speaker (a.k.a. non-learner) to do that. What I’m getting at is I guess the conversation between NNEST and NEST needs to include a more balanced picture. Teachers should be asking each other: (1) How do you teach ______?; (2) Why do you teach it that way?; (3) Have you ever thought of _______?; (4) I understand _____ this way. How do you see it?”
In other words the focus of all those involved in ELT, including of course the administrative stakeholders, need to shift from practices that exclude abilities based on inconsequential features, which marginalize, otherwise, capable practitioners and realign our practices to drawing on the positive traits in each one of us that could ultimately sustain successful English language teaching and learning.
As to my thoughts on the changes made by VIPKID, of course I am quite satisfied with their physical display of words. Everyone deserves a chance to rectify an oversight. Only with time and continued efforts can this negative wave of discrimination be overturned. I would like to leave you all with the famous words by Martin Luther King Jr. as retrieved from searchquotes.com:
“If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today, I still have a dream.”