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You are here: Home > Online Articles > International Schools and Parents, Do I Have to Be a Native English Speaker to Teach Your Child?



International Schools and Parents, Do I Have to Be a Native English Speaker to Teach Your Child?

By Francis T Chapuredima


International Schools and Parents, Do I Have to Be  a Native English Speaker to Teach Your Child?
For a while now, I have been seeing job specifications that strongly state “all applicants except those from [insert host country] must be native English speakers from the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia, New Zealand, or—get ready for this—South Africa. This last is almost invariably last on the list.

As an educator, my blood boils when I see such posts, and this is what drove me to opine. This article or rant comes from an international educator who is not a native English speaker but who strongly feels that schools should be open to educators from all walks of life, and not restrict the pool of applicants to those hailing from a handful of countries.

I seek to engage learners, parents, school leaders, teachers, and recruiters on this issue. Do we think that native English speakers are the only people qualified to teach in schools where English is the main language of instruction?

Are we not excluding talented individuals who could enrich our learners’ experiences simply because they are not native English speakers? Who is a native English speaker? Do we have a running definition?

I am from Zimbabwe. My country was colonized by Britain. From Grade 1, and even before that, I have studied all my subjects in English, except Shona, my mother tongue. Zimbabwe adopted the Cambridge system and I sat for Cambridge examinations. All universities in Zimbabwe teach in English. So in all practical senses, I am competent in English. But am I a native? No. So, automatically, I am excluded from such schools.

Let me take it down to South Africa. Is English a native language in South Africa? There are several mother tongues in South Africa. One is Xhosa, so if these schools come across a CV from, say, Fezeka, hailing from Eastern Cape, will that individual pass for a native speaker?
But South Africa made the list. Let us make it more exciting, how about Piet’s CV? He happens to be from Diepsloot. His native language is Afrikaans. Will he pass for a native speaker? How will schools be able to judge on the English-native aspect of such candidates?
What if someone was born in Standish, Maine (U.S.) to immigrant parents from Poland? When such a CV lands on the desk of a recruiter, do they assume the individual is a native English speaker? If their mother tongue is Polish but their nationality is American, where do we place them? All this gets extremely convoluted and I fear that recruiters end up resorting to appearances.

Hello, parents. Do you think that only native speakers can competently deliver content in English? I have met lots of native English speakers from these green-lighted countries who are very difficult to listen to, let alone understand. Would you rather just be happy that your child is taught by a native English speaker, regardless of all other factors that go into making a great teacher?

Parents, what exactly are we saying or teaching our children when we are happy they are in a great school which is great because of the nationality of the teachers? Who wants to run an International Baccalaureate (IB) school with teachers from only six or so countries? What happened to international mindedness?

As a person who learned English as a second language, will I not relate more to English Language Learners (ELL) because I have been in their shoes and take nothing for granted? I will know what they are going through and will be able to support your child equally as well as my native colleague.

I know nonnative English speakers who have PhDs in Teaching ELLs. Would these individuals not be qualified to teach in your school? I know nonnative speakers who have PhDs in Education, a subject they extensively studied in English. They secured these qualifications in countries where English is non-native. Are schools willing to let such expertise go because they would rather have their students taught Economics by a native English speaker? What is going on?

Do I have to be a native English speaker to teach Mathematics, TOK, Chemistry, or even English? I strongly hope all stakeholders in international education think hard about this. There is a reason our field is called “international education.”

When it comes down to the wire, with two top candidates in a face-off, what criteria are school leaders using to determine who fits the native criterion? Passports? Mother tongues? LinkedIn profiles? What are we asking for, exactly, when we demand that only native English speakers apply? We should catch ourselves when we say that and go on to list some of the countries that are taking in so many immigrants from all over the world.

Anyway, here is the irony of my story, I only learned English because Zimbabwe was colonized by Britain. Now the same language that was forced on me is being used to exclude me. I thought by embracing your language, I would be embraced by your elite international schools. Something is not right here.

Educators, please take some time to think about this. I am actually very fortunate that I work for an organization that hired me for who I am and what I bring to the table. However, I know not everyone is in my shoes. This is something we need to be talking about. I am eager to hear your thoughts.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:

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07/03/2020 - J
Thank you for this article. I find it baffling that whole native English speaker requirement...
06/11/2020 - Matt
You missed one little point on your analysis. All the big 5 countries that get the tag of ‘native speaker passports’ are WHITE! Except South Africa, but that only the demography of the land. For all intents and purposes, South Africa is a white country. These Anglo Saxon counties wield their influence far and wide and international education is no exception.

When a Chinese, Korean or Indian parents wants a native speaker, they mean they want White teachers, Western teachers, western qualifications are held in grey esteem in many Asian countries. It is nothing but neo-colonialism. And white Heads and School admins have found it convenient to maintain the status quo - hire and promote their own.

I’m glad that international education leaders, recruiters, schools are being asked to introspect.
06/08/2020 - Daniel
You are absolutely correct about this, Francis. Is it partly a reflection of the Eurocentricity and (north-) 'american-ness' of international education? Is it partly a reflection of the flawed nature (content) of professional development institutes that drum a white, Eurocentric/North-American beat into the heads of aspiring administrators? Does it partly reflect the business model that is used to direct or manage so many international schools these days, with HR departments holding a business perspective rather than an education perspective? Is it partly linked to the nepotism that clearly exists in recruitment generally and among education administrators specifically? Of course, it is down to all of these, and more. Sadly, it is also down to wilful ignorance as most (but thankfully not all) recruiters refuse to question their own prejudices let alone make an effort to explore the qualities of a candidate who cannot be easily pigeon-holed. Mind you, the 'elephant in the room' (mentioned also in another TIE article) is clearly racism. It's not only skin-colour racism but also academic-intellectual 'racism' because if your degree, education, training does not originate in one of these aforementioned nations (the ones that you identify in your first paragraph), then you cannot possibly be properly educated and you are clearly not suitable for this exalted institution. Change is needed in recruitment practices and so we must continue to highlight these flaws so that talented individuals can indeed be allowed to enrich the classrooms of schools worldwide.
05/29/2020 - Llm
This is so well written! I wish there would be an organization that we could bring this up with. It makes me sick when I sit through assemblies where the head of school talks about international mindedness and then I take a walk down the halls of the school only to see the names on the classroom doors: all teachers are native English speakers and all TAs are locals. What are the children to understand of that? What are the local children supposed to feel? That if you are not a native english speaker you are not good enough to be successful in life? It sure feels like it ...
05/13/2020 - T.I
Well argued article my brother
05/12/2020 - Eras
Well observed brother.I have noticed this native issue on most international schools' job adverts.Something is very wrong for sure.South Africa qualifies on native English speakers on what basis??. It's so sad they assert that native English language speakers automatically happen to be competent educators.It's high time international schools become international in their mindsets!
05/12/2020 - svk
I've been on this situation too many times.

I've come to the conclusion that because the people recruiting don't know enough English to judge how good the person applying for a job is, using this "native English" criterion makes it easy for them to select (even if it's blindly). It's also easier for them to market an NES teacher to parents. Instead of saying "we have good, qualified teachers", they just say "we have NES" and leave it to the parents (who probably don't know better) to figure it out.

And finally, just human psychology (something that can be unlearned). If you went to a Thai restaurant and were told that the chef was Thai, you would unconsciously assume that the food they served was authentic, when in fact, the chef might not have been a cook at all back home.
05/12/2020 - Tee
It was never about being native speaker
Let’s not fool ourselves
05/12/2020 - Knowmore Mhasho
This is a true masterpiece. I agree with you and it’s so sad how parents are led to buy into the English school rhetoric. Speaking as a parent and a recruiter I have noticed that this is just a psychological game plan. As a recruiter when it comes to hiring a competent professional for any role, it’s unfortunate that l don’t consider the school you have learnt or if you are coming from an English speaking school or not. It’s all about your competence and attitude that counts more. Thank you Francis. This is an eye opener.
05/12/2020 - Linda
Excellent article on a very troubling issue. It's ironic that international schools, of all places, often have such a narrow range of eligibility for teaching positions. There is huge value to having linguistic, national and cultural diversity among the faculty. The notion that only passport holders from dominant western countries are qualified to teach is insulting and insular.
05/12/2020 - uno
Great article! People speak or write a taught language to a very high standard than they do their mother tongue. If someone is learning, say French for example, they will probably listen to French news a lot on France '24, therefore, will speak media standard French... This obsession with native speakers is absolutely misplaced. I have seen native speakers that struggle to write correct grammar and spelling for their language. I have seen meating instead of meeting, two instead of too.
05/12/2020 - Preeti
Thank you for this. This perspective needs to be repeated over and over again. We are in 2020 and the exact same problems of 'native vs. non-natives' are thriving in international school recruitment policies. It's a shame that the catering of international schools to discriminating policies and perspectives be it parents or administrators continues to create disparity. Thanks to all those educators out there that work hard towards bridging this divide.
05/09/2020 - Jame
I completely agree with the author. I was teaching in Asia for 5 years and in those countries and even in Middle East,they judge you by your appearances even if you speak native English. So you should not fear to say it is going to be appearance based criteria.

There are many top students in North American universities who are not native English speakers but qualified in every standard of measurements.

I think one should not worry about those recruiters who are trying to make money by appeasing some schools who believe in Native language speakers. Though I believe speaking English properly is very important, there are many native English speakers who do not know correct grammar. Sometimes those who work hard to learn the language are better than them in teaching English. The fact is I saw many teachers from Africa who teaches at British Schools because they are qualified in the subjects they teach such as Math and Physics. Some schools have no choice but they will be hire those teachers when they could not find native English Teachers. I have been turned out by many administrators because I have accent as I speak more than four languages. However, I have never been unemployed and actually I always end up being hired and earn much higher salary than those who judge me with my accent without even knowing my qualifications.

So, I don't really worry about those recruiters as there are always others who will hire teacher who are non-"native English Speakers".
05/07/2020 - Dan Slevin
This is an issue that also feel strongly about and am glad you have raised. English is the language of the world and not the preserve of those born into places where it is the state language. If fact, people from places where English is not the first language are likely to be multi-lingual and very effective communicators.
As a school leader, when interviewing, country of origin matters not to me however their ability to communicate and answer intelligently through interview does. If someone from a non-English country can demonstrate that they have the better knowledge and skills in an English-medium interview, then they deserve the job - not somebody who is less strong but with a golden passport.

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