NNEST Power!

As a TESOL trainer in Canada, I have the privilege of teaching trainees that hail from a variety of places and bring with them a rich diversity of teaching backgrounds: retired and semi-retired teachers from the public school sector, undergraduate students, international EAP students looking to take a specialized course to practice their English, native speakers aspiring to travel and teach overseas, and non-native English-speaking teachers who have taught EFL in their home countries. Along with this variety in  teaching experience is the range of cultures my TESOLers come from: a certain percentage are Canadians, but more and more, my TESOL cohorts include a mosaic of international cultures including Brazil, China, Colombia, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. Over the past five years or so, my international TESOL trainees have not only begun to outnumber my native-speaking trainees, but the qualifications and experience these non-native trainees bring with them has steadily become more impressive: it is now far less common to encounter international trainees who are true novices to the field. Instead, these individuals have often taught for a number of years, have undergraduate and graduate degrees related to education, and better still, have worked in an EFL or ESL capacity in their home countries or in Canada.

These realizations are not necessarily new, but while working on the English in the World course during the MA TESOL at the New School, I was struck by the topics of World Englishes, ELF, and the status and rights of NNESTs – enough that it inspired me to take a critical look at the content of my own TESOL programs and wonder if I could be giving my international trainees more opportunities to reflect on their personal backgrounds and experiences during these courses. I started to ask my non-native trainees deeper questions about their own teaching and their attitudes towards teaching, particularly from their own perspectives as NNESTs. Throughout this time, I was further cementing my view that we absolutely need more of these teachers on our faculties in Canada and within our TESOL programs.

This very casual “field research” led me to design a small case study with one of the NNESTs that I work with. I conducted the study over six weeks this past spring as my Independent Study for the MA TESOL. The project included classroom observations, interviews with the teacher, and a focus group discussion and survey with his core ESL students. Although the study was originally created to compare and contrast the classroom strategies that two of my NNEST colleagues use, one teacher was only scheduled part time and therefore not able to fully carry out the project. This has left the door open for further research down the road! The teacher who participated in the study is a native Spanish speaker from Colombia. He has been in Canada for close to eighteen years but has only recently begun pursuing a teaching career. He has certification at both TESL Canada and TESL Ontario levels, along with post-certification courses in advanced grammar and teaching culture. He has taught at my institute for a little over one year.

During my research, I was able to gain a much richer understanding of the teacher’s personal language learning experience, his attitudes towards learning, teaching, and lesson planning, and perhaps most importantly, the wealth of support for language learning he brings to his ESL students. I would like to share some things that came out of the interviews I conducted with the NNEST along with some discoveries I made during the focus group discussion with his students. I’ve chosen to focus on just a few statements made by the NNEST (who took the pseudonym “John” for the study) and the students, as the comments were so strikingly aligned.

During my interviews with John and in the focus group discussion, I really wanted to explore the impact the teacher’sown learning had on his teaching approach and strategies. A marked advantage of NNESTs is that they can fully relate to their students’ classroom experiences as they have truly lived through such experiences themselves.To me, this stands NNESTs apart from native English-speaking teachers; it almost goes without saying that we native speakers haven’t had comparable learning experiences with English since we were learning it as our native language (although it can absolutely be argued that multilingual NESTs fall into quite another category and may often share commonalities with NNESTs).

The excerpts from the teacher interviews relate with the topic of taking risks, the pedagogical value in making mistakes, and the capacity for NNESTs to empathize with their students. This is some of what John shared:

“It’s extremely important that students feel comfortable making mistakes. You have to first make a mistake to learn.”

“Sometimes when it comes to error correction I blame myself, rather than blame the student.”

By this John meant that he used his own difficulties and errors with a particular language structure as an example. The pronunciation of the word “procrastination” proved difficult for his class, so he broke the word down into syllables and explained how difficult it was for him to master the pronunciation when he was learning English. John summarized his reasoning by arguing that, “You don’t show that ego that you’re the teacher you know everything. Then they feel more – there is a better connection I think.”

In another interview, John goes into further detail about how his learning experience benefits his teaching and his rapport with his students:

“The fact that I had the opportunity to learn two languages I can easily put myself in my students’ shoes. I can empathize with them, right? They would have the chance to trust. And once we have their trust, students will share their worries, their concerns, their frustrations… then you can actually impact students’ learning progress in a very positive way.”

Later, John stressed the role his own learning experience plays by saying: “Because you know… what kind of strategies you can use to improve students’ learning skills. The worst thing for teachers is when you don’t have that confidence with the students… Because I empathize with them then you can actually feel more comfortable… so they can actually share their concerns and frustrations.”

This approach to teaching has greatly endeared John to his students. Following are transcription segments from the focus group discussion, in which students had this to say about their NNEST:

Student 1: Being wrong is not always bad. Being wrong is mean that (.) I’m learning. This tip is actually really, really helping me. Like when I made a mistake? this is not mean I-I-I like I’m falling down. Nope. This is mean I’m going up. This is mean I’m learning. But if I’m going without mistake?this is mean I’m going without experiences.

Student 2: John always make me feel comfortable in anything, even if I read wrong. He make me feel that I did it good. If I don’t feel comfortable, I can’t learn. I can’t. So John always make us comfortable. Always.

When asked about their NNEST’s status as a non-native speaking teacher, several students volunteered comments that directly referenced his ability to empathize with their situation precisely because he had lived through the experience of learning English himself. One student even went so far as to argue that John “understands them” more than his native speaking counterparts, by virtue of his language learning experience.

While my case study was a small one conducted over a relatively short period, it was enough to scratch the surface and shed insight into the tremendous impact NNESTs can have in the classroom and on their students. My experience with this research was deeply rewarding and certainly accomplished what valuable research experience often does: it brought forward more questions, and it presented opportunities for further research on NNEST teaching and classroom strategies. I am privileged to be teaching –and training– at an institute with an ever-diversifying faculty of native and non-native speakers, but of course there is always room for more growth! It is my hope that more of my non-native trainees will see an increase in employment opportunities, at both private and public levels as our curricula, our teaching faculties, and our ESL students are all the richer for having them in our classrooms!


Author’s Biography: Jennifer Jones has been in the ESL field for more than thirteen years and has taught in Canada for the past twelve. She is Head of Academics and Head TESOL Instructor at London Language Institute, where she runs the TESOL Program and has developed curriculum for all ESL and EAP levels.