Here you are, native of a non-English speaking country, with a sincere passion in making a difference in the lives of children, and a yearning desire to start a new life in a place you have always dreamed of being. Your job hunting strategy consists of scrolling down to the Job Requirements section of any given teaching vacancy in a near-desperate attempt to figure out whether, despite all of the obstacles, you might qualify for it. Let’s face it, being a native speaker who knows the local language and has accumulated a good deal of experience in the teaching domain sounds like a great “catch” though found in the shallow waters. I challenge you to dive deeper and if necessary, omit the superficial in favor of the substantial factors. In my opinion, a few of those integral requirements gradually became outdated in view of a rapidly globalized world. Head of schools and educational organizations are in sheer need of adapting their recruitment strategies to the new environment in order to better prepare children for a more complex world and a changing labour market.
Being a native speaker
I have already touched upon this (controversial) subject in my previous blog posts. At the risk of repeating myself, however, I will reiterate my opinion as it is crucial for employers to understand the shifting landscape. Positively, “nativism” does come with its benefits – native speakers have advantage in language knowledge and pronunciation. They have a richer language background to draw on and the ability to pronounce words correctly and fluently. However, this doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
In his recent Ted Talk, Marc Green presents the argument that “eliminating your accent” is the most important aspect to reach native-speaker level proficiency. I couldn’t disagree more with this conviction in light of the fact that English has acquired an unprecedented global status. Nowadays, it is more likely to encounter a non-native speaker (with some sort of an accent) than a native speaker (with some sort of a regional accent). Therefore, the ultimate goal of teaching pronunciation is to make the student sound intelligible rather than making them sound like a native speaker. Educators of ESL should aim for supporting students’ ability to pronounce sounds in articulate/comprehensible form rather than reaching the “native” point.
Nativism also comes with a price. Another easily neglected aspect of the issue is the individualistic nature of some Western cultures. Positively, the candidate speaks fluent English and has a degree in Education but there is the slightest chance that they might possess an intense competitive rather than a collaborative drive – likely to erode the work culture. Ability to work well within a team is one of the major skills needed in the field of education.
Ironically, yet realistically, speaking there could be a benefit to teaching students an incorrect word (once in a while). Children will learn not to take things for granted but rather question and scrutinize the “facts” even if they are passed on by an authority.
Having Teaching Experience
What is the relative importance of having prior teaching experience as a determinant of success? The knowledge gained through a degree in education/ linguistics/ childhood psychology or through some sort of a teacher training program, does not necessarily equip you with the personality and skills needed to work with kids. To “qualify” as an early-years educator, one needs to exhibit a specific set of (if not even innate) characteristics. As long as the candidate enjoys spending time with kids, possesses highly reflective nature, enthusiasm and a great deal of patience, the lack of teaching experience should not be seen as a problem. Definitely, you need to have a basic understanding of child development theories and approaches to education but this certainly comes with practice as long as you question the behavior of children and have a mentor to rely on for guidance and clarifications. An incessant desire to understand why children behave the way they do and act upon your understanding, would help you reach far and beyond. Scrutinize children’s actions, reactions, and expressions, your own childhood memories as well as other people’s life paths in order to gain an understanding of what is needed to help shape healthy and happy individuals.
Knowing the native language
Even though I am an ardent advocate of learning the local language as a means of immersing yourself in the local culture, knowing the local language is not a necessity. To be honest, if you know the local language, I advise you to pretend the contrary. Kids are way smarter than some of us suspect and we should be definitely cautious about running the risk of underestimating their abilities. I’ve seen children progress at a slower speed when they know their teacher speaks their native language. Understandably, as every human being, they tend to take the shortcut and communicate with the teacher using their mother tongue. Instead, when kids know that English is the only means of communication with the teacher, believe me, they would do their best to produce words, phrases, and sentences in the target language. Moreover, have children teach the teacher words and phrases in their mother tongue, thus practicing transitioning from English to their native language. This is an incredible method of exercising children’s thinking and language skills with an astonishing language acquisition results (and a free and easy way for you to pick up new vocabulary if you are interested in the local language). Research shows that by teaching others, we reinforce our own learning.
On a side note, even if you choose not to learn the local language, you must learn words and phrases critical to children’s safety and well-being. As the kids are not fluent in the target language, the teacher’s foreign language level must be sufficient enough to understand what they are saying.