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…
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?’
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.