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Divine Right – The Nation

Can anyone realistically teach English?

8th May 2002

In God’s eyes everyone is equal. Unfortunately God isn’t responsible for the hiring of teachers in Thailand – mere fallible mortals are and therefore some people are more equal than others. This means that some people will be at a distinct advantage when it comes to getting a job teaching. The people are known in TEFL parlance as ‘Native Speakers’.

If you have ever found yourself wondering “What defines a native speaker?” then you aren’t one and as such, no matter what your qualifications, the job opportunities will be fewer and the salaries lower. Life isn’t fair but, to put a positive spin on things, the next time someone needs to learn Serbo-Croat, Tagalog or Burmese then they’ll be far less competition for you.

If you scan the constitution of any English speaking country you’ll find a clause, often hidden amongst the legalese, which states that having been born and bred in the aforesaid mentioned country you are entitled to teach English in any country with a lower GDP than your own.

In the UK we don’t have a constitution, no-one got round to it for some reason, but we have got the Magna Carta. This was the first attempt at laying down rules for an entire country. The writers divided the population into distinct groups for the first time – henceforth citizens would be known as either ‘us’ or ‘them’. ‘Us’ being the commissioners and writers of the charter, ‘them’ being the serfs to whom it was applied.

The charter covered all aspects of English life such as laying down the rules of cricket, instructions on making the perfect pot of Earl Grey and the correct pronunciation of the word ‘scone’. More importantly it also stated that as a citizen of the British Empire one could teach in any nation that is, was, will be or should have been a colony – especially if they have a warm tropical climate.

So, inbred into the psyche of every Native Speaker is the knowledge that should you ever really screw up and spend 6 months in an open jail then you will still be employable as an English teacher in some far off land simply because of your heritage.

I get loads of email from well meaning people who are out to make a difference. However, their main concern seems to be making a difference to their lives without thinking about the effect their adventures in TEFL land will have on others.

“I want to teach but I’m only 19 have no experience and have no plans to take a TEFL course because my English is good already. Also I only want to work for the summer holidays. I’m sure there must be some school that needs me to teach.”

I guess “need” is used in the ‘fish needing a bicycle’ sense.

I try to discourage people by offering alternative solutions to their dilemma about wanting to be constructive and do something to make a difference. Suggestions along the lines of recording a charity single to boost a deprived nation’s coffers, developing a cure for cancer or heading to Afghanistan to search for Osama Bin Laden all seem to offer more chance of success than being let loose on an unsuspecting class without having a clue about what you’re supposed to be doing.

After informing them of this, the standard reply to me is that the writer is pretty sure that most schools and TEFL course providers are in cahoots. The evidence for this is that they have a mate who’s in Bangkok now but doesn’t possess anything that could pass as a qualification other than a pale complexion, an ability to bullshit and the confidence to use it. The email usually ends with something along the lines of “My mate found his job easily but has just left XYZ school because they didn’t pay him what he was owed.” Why he writer doesn’t form some kind of idea about they type of school XYZ is and the possibility that it may not be the best place to work is beyond me.

The notion that many people have is that after 12 years of attending a half decent school and spending time observing the good, the bad and the ugly of the teaching profession first hand, they already have a pretty good idea of what’s what.

A few minutes reminiscence about the classes you enjoyed brings back memories of a pain free learning process, the teacher taking time to answer questions, no pointless rules in class, homework being thoroughly checked and useful advice given, the teacher remembering your name and giving you praise even if your answers weren’t always spot on. Armed with that knowledge and the subconscious ability to instinctively know when a sentence is correct or not you are ready to be a teacher.

What isn’t being thought about is the preparation the teacher did so that you enjoyed their lessons so much. If it was so simple, why weren’t all teachers and all lessons of the same calibre. Knowing when a sentence is incorrect is useful but it may be more useful if you can explain why it’s incorrect. How do you do this?

The bottom line is your genes will help you get a job but they can only take you so far. You’ve got to fight for your right to teach English.

This week’s column is dedicated to my Grandma who died on April 18, due to a combination of old age, sadness over the Queen Mum’s parting and anxiety brought on by Beckham’s metatarsal injury. Best remembered for taking her false teeth out in the car on the way back from my Great-Grandmother’s funeral when I was 8 or 9; the twin beliefs that Guinness was a miracle cure and anywhere south of Leeds was exotic; and for being convinced I had David Gower’s eyes.