Thoughts on being a teacher trainer who happens not to be a native speaker

A few months ago I had the great pleasure of interviewing and introducing my friend  and colleague Zhenya and we talked a bit about ptec among other things. Zhenya is a teacher trainer (and trainer-trainer) from Ukraine who has been running courses in various places for a few years now. As we worked on the interview a question about being what is sometimes known as a “non-native” as a teacher trainer came up. I thought it might be an interesting blog post and asked Zhenya if she would consider writing a guest post on this issue and luckily she accepted. I thank her very much for this. Her thoughts are below. If you’d like to find out more about Zhenya and ptec please do click on the above links. She has also started a new blog and I strongly recommend checking it out. I’ll now turn it over to Zhenya… 

languagething

I am a teacher trainer and I am not a native-speaker of English. This is something I have been often asked about and keep discussing with my colleagues and trainers in training.

 On the one hand, being a learner of English is a great advantage for a trainer (or a teacher) because you have had that ‘formal’ learning experience and passed through many of the stages that are similar to the challenges that learners face in class. This awareness also helps you bring more simple explanations to the classroom, and an extra ‘bonus’ of comparing L1 and L2 can be helpful when planning lessons. Being a non-native trainer in a ‘third’ culture of the course participants (for example, when I am training a course in Korea) can smooth some of the cultural misunderstandings (the excuse ‘we all speak our L2′ has already been very helpful for me a couple times).  Coming from a country where English is a foreign language (as opposed to being a second language) also brings more ‘weight’ to some of the ideas discussed on a course. For example, in Korea it is often a big doubt about teaching English in English, and a  question I am often asked is whether or not I speak L1 when I teach students in my home country. Some other questions I am sometimes asked by non-native speaking participants are (and my answers are below in italics).

  • ‘How did you learn the language?’
    At school and college.

  • ‘Did you live abroad for a long time?’
    No, the longest I’ve stayed abroad is 9 weeks.  

  • ‘Are you married to someone from the US/UK?’
    No.  

Having learned the above, my non-native speaking colleagues and/or participants feel better and more confident about themselves (actually, there are many of us in this field who would have exactly the same answers as me!) To me, this ‘learning a language’ aspect opens a new level of intimacy or openness between co-trainers and course participants: the lens of learning a language together (for non-native participants) and learning from each other (when I co-train with native speakers). To illustrate what I said above: there are still things in English that I simply don’t ‘feel’ on a level that a native speaker does; there are endless differences I discover in my communication with my native friends and colleagues. An extra bonus of learning more about each other’s culture through the language, expressions used and idiom comparisons (the most recent point of laughter was when I mentioned a colloquial expression translated from Russian ‘cockroaches in one’s head’ in the meaning ‘having bugs’, or inner conflict or problems).

On the other hand, not being a native speaker of English might make being a trainer a little hard, especially at the beginning of a career. It is a lot about the attitude you have to yourself and your level of confidence. I remember the very first time I was working with 12 native speaker participants on my very first course in the US and the fears I had (thoughts like ‘what will I do if I don’t understand the answer to the question I asked during an input session?’, for example) Those fears do disappear once you get started and gain experience, and you can later even laugh at them together with the course participants.  An example: there was a time on a course in Poland when I could not understand what one (native-speaking) participant was saying, because he was speaking fast. At some point though, other (native-speaking) participants asked him to ‘speak English please’ (it appeared that his speech was hard to understand even to them!)

I think being a non-native trainer adds one more learning perspective into the job, and it is definitely a huge pro that outweighs many other possible cons! Learning the language (English) and learning to understand another culture (more Western culture than my own,for example), and having those two perspectives (native and non-native language and culture) can bring more meaning, critical thinking, questions to oneself, etc. One thing I often ask myself is how much of this (Western? English? American?) culture does one need to internalize to become a (successful?) international teacher trainer or educator? Where is the ‘borderline’ between native and non-native sides of a trainer personality? How do I/we preserve integrity in the work done and in general, in our life?

I have also been thinking about how being a (successful?) learner in a subject can help you be a (successful?) teacher in that same subject. Is the same true for being a teacher of teachers who are learning to teach that same subject (a long way to say ‘teacher trainer’) or a trainer of trainers?

A couple more thoughts:

1) I am endlessly grateful to have a job where I can develop so many skills, grow personally and professionally and meet great people worldwide (students, teachers and trainers). This all is possible to do in English, the language I am learning and feeling more and more motivated to learn more.

2) I would also like to say a big (no, not big but huge!) thank you to Mike for inviting me to his blog as a guest. I enjoy reading ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections, and you inspire me as a teacher and trainer with your questions, stories and thoughts.

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17 comments

  1. EnglishCentral

    Zhenya,

    Thanks so much for posting this and I’ll make sure other teachers in my circle read this, especially non native speakers. You raise many interesting points and I think many will connect with what you are saying. Also like how you emphasize the aspect of “shared learning” between teacher/teacher trainer and students. This can also be an interesting approach for a native speaker who is learning the language of the students. They each share some common ground. However, so many organizations take offence at a teacher talking about learning the local language and learning it from students. But why not? Students will learn lots too, if done well. They’ll learn as they both learn.

    PS. I spent a dream like year teaching English in Kyiv years ago. A great memory and learning experience for me!

    David

    • Zhenya

      Hi David,

      Thank you for reading and commenting! I agree that sharing the learning is a very important process. Perhaps when a teacher of English is learning a (local) language from the students of English, it helps to find ‘balance’ between the teaching and learning? I am wondering how much of this ‘mutual learning’ can happen in the classroom during the actual lesson of English, and what can be left for other times? For example, having a ‘club’ activity for the teachers learning a language and students? Also, would the same be true for a trainer learning the language that all the course participants (or teachers in training) speak?

      Thank you for letting me have new questions!

      (and… so good to hear from someone who has been to our part of the world! :-)

      Zhenya

  2. Pingback: ‘Thoughts on being a teacher trainer who happens not to be a native speaker’ by Michael Griffin | Rakesh Patel
  3. Josette

    Thank you for sharing your experience Zhenya! I think that this post will be a great source of inspiration and contemplation for teachers and trainers I know and will meet in the future. You speak for so many teachers. However, I’m not sure so many can speak so confidently. Your voice is energizing and hopeful. I’m so grateful to know you. :) Now, I can’t wait to work with you!

    PS. I still think “Cockroaches in my Head”, or something along those lines, would be a fantastic blog title. ;)

    • Zhenya

      Josette, thank you for your supportive comment: actually knowing that this post can make someone (even one teacher or trainer!) feel inspired would make me very, very happy, and confident too (almost typed ‘inspired’ instead of ‘confident’ but thought that I need to use other adjectives too :-) Thank you for your reminder about that blog title idea, do need to think about it!

  4. Matthew

    Zhenya, you sound like JUST the right kind of person to be a great teacher trainer. I’m just starting out down that path myself and find the spirit that comes through very inspiring. Also, I whole-heartedly agree with your points about the advantages of being a non-native speaker and along with that an ‘interlingual / intercultural veteran’. Personally, I don’t blink an eye when I see NNS teachers OR trainers because I simply take these things for granted! (Or at least try to, despite what’s sometimes out there in the air about this). Anyway, thanks for the great post. You’re a great writer too!

    • Zhenya

      Matthew,
      Thank you for your encouraging comment. I am a little jealous because you are starting your trainer career now and there are so many insights and learnings on the way! My favorite thing about teacher training (as well as about teaching) is that there is no way to make a course ‘perfect’ for all the participants, and this awareness helps tremendously. I (think?) I got used to the idea that ‘pros’ and ‘cons’, strengths and weaknesses exist in anything I am doing, any decision I am making. The fun part though is that there is so much more to learn! Never tired to repeat that we are so lucky in this professional field. Oh, wanted to say that I am still planning to respond to your blog post about NNS CELTA participants (coming soon :-)

  5. @natibrandi

    What an empowering article Zenhia. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I couldn’t agree more. There are soooo maaany things, us, ‘non-natives’ can benefit from, to help our students learn. First and foremost, we’ve been in their shoes.

  6. Zhenya

    @natibrandi, thank you for reading, responding and sharing! I do agree that we have been in the same shoes with our learners (or colleagues, if we think of teachers on a course) and this can be very helpful. To me, the most important part is the awareness that it is actually not about being NS or NNS these days, but all about professional knowledge and skills. There is no ‘better’ in this question, seems like.

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