Last week at IATEFL, Silvana Richardson delivered a rousing, righteous plenary tracing the historical roots of – and critiquing – the institutionalised mechanisms and habits of mind that continue to privilege native=speaker teachers over non-natives. The talk can be viewed online here and speaks for itself, so suffice it to say that it was a powerful and impassioned plea for equality at a pertinent moment in time when we finally seem to be nearing some kind of tipping point and shift towards the acknowledgement that the debate about native / non-native is essentially the wrong one, that instead we need to be discussing what makes a good teacher good – and recognising that good teachers are made, not created at birth! There have been plenty of other weighty contributions to this debate over recent years, not least the great work done by Marek Kiczkowiak, via his TEFL Equity Advocates project, which has the simple aim of agitating for equal employment opportunities for both native and non-native teachers.
However, amidst all these positive developments, there remains a very sizable elephant in the room that very few seem keen to draw attention to – and that’s the CELTA course, the Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Silvana herself is currently Head of Teacher Development at Bell, one of the largest providers of English language and academic programmes in the UK and, of course, providers too of CELTAs. On Twitter last week, I slightly flippantly suggested that a major step towards greater equality would be for BELL to simply refuse to deliver such courses anymore and instead push for a better model of initial qualification. I say flippantly, because as I’m all too well aware, we can’t always match our personal principles to the demands of our employers as closely as we might like to, and individuals within large institutions generally struggle to bring about positive large-scale change that may conflict with the immediate demands of the monster that is The Market!
Yet, of course, there’s a dark irony here, for just as The Market is often offered up as a defence for the continued privileging of natives over non-natives in ELT employment contexts (“Students want natives”, the cry goes, “so that’s what we give them” . . . despite the mass of evidence suggesting that what students REALLY want most of the time is a good teacher – full stop) so too is it invoked to support the current status quo that positions CELTA courses as the gold-standard entry point into teaching EFL as a global profession. Before I go on, I think it’s important to recognise the fact that there are many excellent teacher trainers and educators out there running CELTA courses, whom I am in no way intending to critcise for their work. On top of that, of course, there’s the fact that the courses themselves vary wildly from the somewhat retrograde to the extremely progressive, so to even talk about them as one single monolith is perhaps problematic.
Nevertheless, the fact remains – and it needs saying more often and by more of us within the profession – that CELTA courses offer an inadequate entry to the profession, perpetuate the devalued status of EFL teachers around the world . . . and, perhaps most pertinently in the context of this post, inordinately favour native-speakers. In the Twitter discussion that flowed from my initial flippant suggestion mentioned above, it was notable that those who jumped most readily to CELTA’s defence were actually non-natives. I suspect this is down to the fact that they arrived on the courses having already learned English to an excellent standard, thus having both considerable experience of being in language classes that have engendered success and also having already acquired a considerable amount of knowledge of how languages work. On top of this, many non-natives who turn to CELTA courses as a way to travel and work abroad outside their own L1-speaking contexts will already have done a three- or four-year pedagogical degree and perhaps also have several years of direct teaching experience in often quite challenging classrooms. For these teachers, of course the practical, methodological orientation of most CELTA courses may well help refresh practice and offer the odd extra trick to add to an already impressive repertoire.
For natives such as myself, however, who arrive on courses often having spectacularly failed to learn a foreign language at school, with little or no ability to articulate and explain how language works and with no teaching experience whatsoever, a CELTA offers a crash course in how to fake it. A while back, there was a popular reality TV show on Channel 4 entitled Faking It which tried to teach unlikely candidates how to pass themselves off as a genuine example of someone alien. So, for instance, they’d take an Eton public school boy and coach him how to be a doorman / bouncer in a rough East London club. And the time frame within which this coaching occurred? You guessed it: one month! I can’t have been the only native-speaker teacher who saw uncomfortable parallels with their own entry into ELT because – and I’m being brutally honest here – on leaving my own CTEFLA course (as it was back then in 1993), I was little more than a competent fake, an extrovert performer able to gloss over the gaping holes in my linguistic knowledge with running dictations, a bit of TPR and some jazz chants. And yet in the eyes of the market, I was as qualified as any one of my Polish or Brazilian colleagues who’d done the same course – and of course I was also ‘privileged’ to be a native, despite all their bilingualism and prior experience.
Many on Twitter have pointed out that Cambridge themselves have been surveying current trainers and are keen to revamp the syllabus. We could look at this as a positive sign, of course; we could remind ourselves that many in the profession start from an even lower base and blag their way into work on the back of a week-long course or even a weekend-long one or, in extreme (but nevertheless still depressingly common) instances, simply on the back of having been born in the UK or US! We could embrace any changes and think it’s better than nothing.
Or we could rise up and say enough’s enough. We could refuse to teach on or offer CELTA courses as they’re inadequate preparation for the realities of teaching. We could point out the ridiculous advantages their continued status confers upon natives and just down tools, walk away and instead imagine a better, brighter future where ELT starts seeing itself more as a serious profession, and not one you can claim membership of simply by having done six assessed hours of teaching and twenty mornings of input.
The choice is ours.