The fear of being unemployable

Until around a year ago, I didn’t give the NEST-NNEST dilemma much thought. No, let’s be completely frank – I didn’t give it any thought at all. I didn’t have to. I had a full-time job.

Then I moved from Croatia to Belgium. I couldn’t carry on working as a teacher and DoS at my school remotely, so I went freelance. Luckily, as it turned out, I began teaching online immediately and soon afterwards joined a project as a researcher, in both cases working for Croatian employers. I say luckily, because apparently if I’d started looking for ELT work in Belgium, it’s quite possible that I wouldn’t have found any.

I can’t be absolutely sure of this. I haven’t actually sent my CV out to any schools yet – for the record, I would have tried private language centers because that’s the sector I’ve been working in since 1997. It’s not only because I’ve seen ads for native speakers or UK/US passport holders – though that certainly hasn’t been encouraging – but for a number of administrative and personal reasons as well.

Eventually I grew ready to start looking for some traditional (and by this I mean offline) teaching work. And as that happened, I increasingly began coming across blog posts that spoke about discrimination against NNESTs. I’m sure there are many more, but I only started discovering them rather recently, and I’ll mention only three here: Michael Griffin’s post on race-based hiring practices in Korea, Marek Kiczkowiak’s “(Non)-Nativity Scenes”, and Christina Rebuffet-Broadus’s “Qualification required: Native English speaker” (the comments are well-worth a read in each case as well).

Take it from me – if you’re a NNEST, these will make you shrivel up a little inside. Especially if you’re a NNEST with plenty of experience who knows that he/she has a lot to offer to a prospective employer. When I was just starting out in the field, I fully expected to have to deal with being turned down for jobs, but now one of the crucial things I have going for me is experience. Or is it?

NESTs have it easier?
NESTs have it easier?

“Nest” by Dean Shareski is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Last Saturday Marek Kiczkowiak and Chris Holmes spoke about the NEST-NNEST issue at the BELTA Day in Brussels. It was a good talk, which I’m sure I would have enjoyed even more if the subject didn’t make me feel distinctly uncomfortable. They explored some common misconceptions of why NESTs make more desirable English teachers, eventually ending on a positive note and encouraging both camps to speak up against discriminatory practices. However, earlier in the day I’d had two disheartening conversations. One was with a NNEST who told me she’d spent the past year looking for teaching work with no success, and had recently started giving conversation lessons in her native language online. She’s not a trained teacher of her native language. The other was with a very sweet person who, in a genuine attempt to be helpful, asked if I’d considered teaching Croatian. I’m not a trained teacher of Croatian.

In their talk, Marek and Chris mentioned that they were working on research about perceptions of NESTs and NNESTs among students and recruiters, so I asked whether they had any data on specific countries (I was primarily interested in Croatia). There are no relevant data yet, but I’m quite sure I know what the results would show.

It’s actually quite popular for Croatians to be critical of their country for various reasons – mostly to do with politics and the economy – but here’s something we don’t have to criticize: we don’t discriminate against NNESTs. I can say this with some confidence, having worked in the private language training sector for a respectable number of years. During this time I remember ONE single client requesting a native speaker. And we’ve had several thousand students over the years. This is not to say that NESTs can’t find a job in Croatia. Granted, right now unemployment is at a record high and nobody is having an easy time finding a job. But in previous years our school had teachers from the US, UK, Russia and Hungary, all teaching English to Croatian (adult) students. Croatian teachers predominated by far. And it can’t have been much different in other schools because if they’d made NESTs their selling point, we would have had to keep up with the competition.

We don’t discriminate against NNESTs. Why is that? Open-minded as it sounds, I’m not sure that this is the practice in my country because of a strong sense of justice and fairness and a wish to uphold the right to equal employment opportunities. I’m actually a little baffled by it now that I see we apparently belong to the minority. I’ve heard the explanation (a long time ago) that this is because we have a strong language teaching tradition and chains like International House never got a foothold in Croatia. Is that the only reason? If anyone knows of another one, it would be great to hear it!

I hasten to add that all these Croatians teaching other Croatians English might make you think that we’re not very proficient users of the language. But that would be entirely untrue. The EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) doesn’t include Croatia in the results yet, but it does include our next-door neighbor Slovenia, which is likely to have similar results, and they’re in the “high proficiency” group.

In any case, I now feel quite unprepared for such a different situation in Belgium. And more than a little discouraged.

Teaching Croatian is not an option I’m rushing to embrace for two reasons.

  1. I don’t know if I could do it. The last time I had Croatian class was in the third grade of elementary school. I worry about the mistakes I make in my written Croatian. Besides, languages aren’t static and changes in Croatian have been perhaps even more numerous than a language would normally experience over a twenty-year period, due to the war.  I suppose I could do it. I sometimes translate into Croatian as well, and no one has complained yet. But this brings me to the next reason.
  2. I want to teach English. That’s all I’ve ever done, it’s what I enjoy doing and I’m good at it.

I didn’t set out to write this post with any particular aim in mind. These are essentially just thoughts that have been troubling me with increasing frequency since the beginning of the year. I suppose that I’m lucky to the extent that right now I don’t have to put finding a job to the test if I choose not to, and I certainly can’t complain that I have nothing to do, but at the same time I don’t want to hide behind that.

I did have one more conversation at the BELTA Day, just before the end. It was with a Belgian teacher who had taught English abroad. His advice was to deliver your CV to your prospective employer in person, not by email. This strategy had apparently been successful on a number of occasions, although it’s not quite what I was expecting to have to do in this day and age. But compared to the rest of this post, it’s as close to a positive ending as I’m going to get.

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16 thoughts on “The fear of being unemployable

  1. Hana Tichá

    Thank you for this post, Vedrana. And I really mean it because it was only yesterday when I pondered the same question. I would say that it’s a coincidence, but I don’t believe in coincidences. Although I’m not unemployed (luckily, I have a full-time teaching job) I sometimes look at various ELT ads, out of mere curiosity. Like you, I also believe that I have plenty of experience in ELT and I’m a fully qualified English teacher here in the Czech Republic. Yesterday I came across this ad for teaching opportunities with the British Council in the Czech Republic (http://www.britishcouncil.org/czechrepublic-about-us-vacancies.htm) claiming that they are “looking for the best teachers with a strong track record and proven professional expertise”. So far so good, one would say. While reading on, you stumble upon this sentence: “To be considered you must have an externally validated, internationally recognized first teaching qualification. This is typically a CELTA or Trinity Certificate”. At this point I’m already out of the question. My fault, I say to myself, along with my MA degree I should have got a CELTA, even though it’s not typical or necessary for Czech teachers to get a qualification like this. But the following sentence sounds a little suspicious: you must have “legal status to work in the Czech Republic as a freelance teacher (for EU citizens this can be arranged on arrival)”. Conclusion: everybody knows that it’s discriminatory to ask for native speakers explicitly but I believe that the BC asks for them implicitly anyway, or at least excludes a fully qualified Czech teacher of English saying “only candidates who meet the above requirements will be contacted”. Maybe I’m being a little paranoid but it makes me a little disillusioned all the same. Why all the life-long professional development and vast experience when all you need first of all is a few weeks of an intensive (and expensive) methodology course (with a prestigious name).

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    1. Hi Hana,

      Thanks for reading and commenting at such length! I’ve had a look at the BC ad and yes, I agree with you that Czech teachers are “discouraged” from applying. It would be interesting to apply if you were a Czech teacher with a CELTA though! I do wonder what kind of response you’d get. The ad for IELTS examiners is different though, and I think Czech teachers would be considered here, but it seems like different people are managing the applications process.
      You make an interesting point in your last sentence when you say how long the CELTA takes (only a few weeks). I haven’t done it myself, but we had a few (Croatian) teachers at our school who took the CELTA course (in addition to their BA/MA degree from the University of Zagreb), and one did the DELTA as well, so I had the opportunity to hear from them in detail how these courses are structured and how demanding they are. Before that I used to be more than a little skeptical and saw it (the CELTA in particular) as a crash course in methodology that expats who found themselves at a loose end would do. But, for instance, I first found out about CCQs from one of our CELTA-trained teachers, not my university program. So I think the structure/methodology behind it is actually very sound.
      However, I completely agree that it shouldn’t be considered inherently superior to, as the BC ad puts it, non-internationally recognized teaching qualifications.

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  2. Hi Vedrana! This is a great post and I can completely relate to it (not only because I almost shouted “That was me!” when reading about the NNEST who is now teaching her native language online haha). The fear of being unemployable hit me hard last year when I realized all my education and experience as an English teacher seemed to be worthless here in Belgium. I am glad, though, that I am not starving and that I can use all the free time to learn Dutch, network and to think and research options. I wish you a much better experience than mine and if you want to check the teaching website: http://www.italki.com/

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    1. Hi Ana,
      Thanks for your supportive comment! Yes, that was you in the post. 🙂 Hearing your story shook me up a little right at the start of the conference. Your line of thinking is wonderfully positive though. One of the reasons I didn’t immediately start looking for a full-time job was actually the fact that I wanted to have a little more free time than I did in Croatia. Looking back, I’m very glad that was the way things developed because I was able to focus fully on teaching online, which then led to being asked to join another project, and these are great opportunities for personal and professional growth.
      I’ll keep you posted on the responses I get when I finally start looking for offline work, and thanks for the website recommendation!

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  3. Hi,
    A great post. I really enjoyed reading it.
    It’s interesting what you say about Croatia, and as I said during the conference, I think you should feel really proud of your country 🙂
    The advice your friend gave you probably indicates that the whole notion of advertising for NS only is based on a misconception that a NNEST would not speak native-like English (and hearing you speak at the conference, you could clearly pass off as a NS). Such hiring practices are based entirely on hear-say and unfounded prejudices. Recruiters make us believe that students WANT native speakers. But this is contradicted by a number of studies on the qualities of ideal teachers, none of which ever mentions being a NEST.
    If you could spread the questionnaires among the students you know, as well as fellow teachers or recruiters, I’d really appreciate it. You might also be interested in joining our FB group: Budapest NNEST (contrary to what the name might suggest, it’s grown far beyond Budapest).
    Thanks again for the post.
    Best,

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    1. Hi Marek,
      Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. I thought your talk on Saturday was really good; the topic is very important – well I would say that, wouldn’t I? 🙂 – and I also liked the way you presented it. Loved the video!
      Like I said in the post, and at the conference (I think), I’m not at all sure hiring practices in the private language school sector in Croatia reflect a national policy, but at least we seem to be doing something right. It would, however, be very interesting to hear from a NEST with experience of the Croatian job market and see what their perspective is. Preferably not experience limited to the last couple of years, because we simply don’t seem to be able to shake off the recession.
      Regarding your comment about sounding like a native speaker, I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago at MachinEVO. I chose an international-sounding name for my avatar in SL (I wasn’t trying to trick anyone or prove a point or anything; it was simply because my name is difficult for non-Croats to pronounce and I wanted things to be easier). The name was Serena. We worked in groups for a couple of weeks, and talked online, but I thought it was absolutely clear to everyone that I was a NNS. For a start, I used my real name in our Google community. Then, towards the end of the course, it turned out that (some of) the other group members had thought I was a NS, having heard me speak. They were non-native speakers themselves, but that is exactly my target group of learners! So maybe the lesson here is that I should change my name. 🙂
      On a more serious note, I can’t remember if you mentioned this source in your talk, but I find what V. Cook says about the NS issue interesting, for instance here
      I’ll spread the word about the survey and look forward to reading about your findings.

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  4. Leslie Bohon

    Thank you, Vedrana…many of us, both NESTs and NNESTs, are passionate about this topic of misconceptions regarding NESTs and NNESTs issues. It’s important for the people who hire to understand these misconceptions, as well as the clientele! Best, Leslie Bohon, USA

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    1. Hi Leslie,
      Thank you very much for reading the post and for your supportive comment! I agree, recruiters and clients should be made aware of the misconceptions, and it’s incredibly encouraging to see native speakers feeling this way as well, especially in today’s highly competitive environment when it is probably much easier to sit back and enjoy the benefits of a smaller pool of qualified applicants. But I think in the long run that harms all of us, the profession and and the clients.
      So thanks once more for your comment.

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  5. Such a good post. I agree with everything that you’re saying, and I’d like to add a bit of food for thought: that many non-white NESTs, like myself, are in a boat not too different from your own and would gladly throw our lot in with you. Although I am a native speaker and have Anglicized my name, I am constantly taken as a NNEST both at home and abroad and it has been used to discredit and silence me. I’m sure that others have felt the same, and I don’t mean to say that the injustice is that I’m mistaken as NNEST. The injustice is that it matters at all, for anyone, when aptitude and credentials should be able to speak for themselves.

    Anyway. Great post. Now to read the others that you linked!

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    1. Hi Anjelica,
      Thanks for reading and commenting, and especially for drawing attention to the problems non-white NESTs face. You may have seen one of the comments on Mike’s post (which I linked to in mine) – I was appalled when I read that one school sent an applicant a rejection letter saying the requirement was for white teachers! Yes, aptitude and credentials should speak for themselves, I couldn’t agree more. But, idealistic as it may sound at first, I think there is something to be said for taking Marek’s approach (also in the comments on Mike’s post), i.e. speaking up against practices that are unjust and morally wrong. Time will tell. Good luck and I hope things work out for you!

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  8. Hi Vedrana,
    This is a very good post, and makes a lot of important points. I wrote about ‘wanting a native speaker’ here, so I’m not going to repeat myself: https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/i-want-a-native-speaker/
    I’d like to defend International House a bit, and correct one minor point. IH is not a chain – that implies that every school is the same, in much the same way as something like Zara or McDonald’s. Instead, it is an affiliate network. Schools are run independently by people based in the area, and they have to meet strict standards enforced by inspections which take place every couple of years: http://ihworld.com/school/join
    Nowhere in the organisation (as far as I know) is there anything about native or non-native speaking teachers, and at many schools there is a high proportion of non-native teachers – the first school I worked at in Brno was about 50/50 native/non-native. Instead, there is a requirement to have an appropriate level of English.
    As I understand it, candidates for teaching posts within IH are encouraged to have the CELTA/Trinity Certificate/Delta not because a local BA/MA isn’t valued, but because the communicative method can be very different to what is covered on university courses, as I can attest to based on some of the trainees I’ve had on CELTA courses I’ve been working on in the last few months. I don’t think that the CELTA is the be-all and end-all, but it does encourage a different way of being in the classroom which I believe can supplement the BA/MA route, rather than replacing it.
    I don’t know if that adds to the discussion or not, but I wanted to show that IH is not the root of the NEST/NNEST dilemma.
    Sandy

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    1. Hi Sandy,
      Thanks for commenting on this post and for adding the link to yours on the same topic. I remember reading James’s post and sharing it on Twitter, but I think I only started following your blog when you wrote about your experiences learning Russian (highly motivating!), and don’t remember reading this. I can’t speak for all NNESTs but I always find it encouraging when I see qualified NESTs speaking out against favoring native speakers. It would be much easier not to do so especially given the highly competitive job market in many countries. So thank you!
      I’m also really glad that you clarified how IH works. I actually did think it was a chain, although for me this held no negative connotations with regard to the quality of teaching. I can see though that I implied in the post that IH (and another organization I had in mind when I wrote was Bell) might have contributed to the NEST/NNEST divide in countries other than Croatia. It sounded like a reasonable explanation to me when I first heard it, because I assumed that IH operated in the same way as Berlitz – they were in Croatia for a while (perhaps they still are) and made NESTs their selling point. So thanks for making this important addition to the discussion.
      As for the CELTA being a very useful supplement to a BA/MA, I completely agree – I wrote in more detail about this in my reply to Hana’s comment.

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    1. Hi Mixal,

      I apologize for the embarrassingly long time it took for me to approve your comment and respond. My access to a keyboard over the past few weeks has been pretty limited and so I’ve stayed away from WordPress.

      I actually still haven’t had the chance to find out how I’d fare as a NNEST in Belgium because the work I do online for Croatian employers means I don’t have much of an incentive (or time) to look for offline teaching. However, as I do miss f2f work, I might look for some offline teaching hours come September. If I do, I’ll probably blog about it – if the experience doesn’t turn out to be too dispiriting! Thanks for stopping by and for the question.

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