Many years ago, I encountered a participant on the IDLTM who had, shall we say, interesting views. She was the owner-director of a fairly successful language school in Germany, and had lots of fairly strong opinions about how management should work. I could tell a number of fairly shocking stories about her “unusual” views, but for this blog post I will just share the one which was possibly the most shocking – the one which left the rest of the group most open mouthed. This was when, during a discussion on recruitment, she revealed that she didn’t hire black teachers. I think she was taken aback by the collective gasp on this announcement, and she defended herself saying that her customers wouldn’t be happy with a black teacher. After picking my jaw off the floor, I jumped in and asked her how she knew that, and she announced that she was sure it was true, that German business people would not want a black teacher (this was an LTO which primarily worked with business English). Now, obviously I was not in a position to claim a greater knowledge of that market and those customers (even though I found this claim hard to believe). So, instead I told her that even if what she said about attitudes were the case, that we have a duty to take a stand and make it clear that such attitudes have no basis in reality, and if there were customers that had such racist views, then it was up to us, language school managers, to educate them and not pander to that kind of thinking.
I have no idea if my words (and the support and agreement with my arguments from all of her classmates) had any effect. Honestly I suspect not. And with hindsight I wonder if I could handled it better – by perhaps reporting her in some way (I’m quite sure such hiring discrimination is entirely illegal in Germany). But it is an incident that I suspect I will never forget.
So, why am I telling this story now? Well, I was reminded of this event very vividly last week during Silvana Richardson’s fantastic plenary about the continuing existence of prejudice against English teachers who have a language other than English as their first language (as Silvana pointed out, “Non-native English speaking teacher” is not a terribly positive description). The plenary was passionate, inspiring, and still also backed up with solid and strong research and great use of the literature to support the arguments made. It could have just been about passion and anger, but it never was, and instead was a thorough debunking of all the various reasons that are given and held such that native speakers get advantages in ELT.
I won’t review and comment on all of it, because I could not possibly do it justice, and anyway, I really think everyone should watch it for themselves, but one of the main sections of her talk is on overcoming the myth that “This is what students want”, and as I listened I was taken back to that experience mentioned above, when a similar argument was given to me for engaging in another discriminatory hiring practice. From an academic managers perspective, then, I think it is our responsibility to get past this belief that students want native speakers. Partly because it’s unlikely to be true (watch Silvana’s talk for the research data) but partly because even if it is true, we have the duty to change people’s perceptions – and we do that by changing our hiring practices. From this point forward, if anybody who has responsibility for recruitment says in one of my sessions “We have to hire native speakers, because the students expect/want it”, I will respond as I did back then, that even if that is 100% true it’s not a good enough answer. I am also going to see how I, in my various strands of work, can support TEFL Equity Advocates. If you haven’t seen Silvana’s plenary, and you have any form of bias towards hiring native speaker teachers (as opposed to simply the best teachers), for whatever reason, conscious or unconscious, I urge you to watch the video. It takes an hour, but it’ll be one of the more important professional hours you spend this year. I guarantee that.