An Expose of ‘What Is An English Teacher

| March 31, 2002
An Expose of ‘What Is An English Teacher

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Ms. Susan Carmichael

Bio Data
Ms. Carrmichael obtained her Masters of Education from Leeds University, and has been a teacher trainer for 7 years in the U.K.

Before any logical research can delve into ‘pronunciation’ issues, an examination of the word “teacher” needs closer scrutiny, which till now, has made pedagogical assumptions (as related to the specific field of pronunciation teaching) that are no longer valid in the TEFL teaching world. All academic research uses the word “teacher” as if there were one clear and indisputable idea as to what is a “teacher.” This is fatalistic and research, models, ideas and proposals will flounder at the outset unless clear emphasis is given to just what is “a teacher.” Prator (1991, 17) says, “…in the teaching situation it is the methods used, more than any other factor, that determine the results achieved.” Crookes and Chaudron (1991, 46) suggest, “Our conception of the teacher is someone faced with a great number of decisions to be made at every moment of classroom instruction.”


English Teachers. Really?

Before any logical research can delve into ‘pronunciation’ issues, an examination of the word “teacher” needs closer scrutiny, which till now, has made pedagogical assumptions (as related to the specific field of pronunciation teaching) that are no longer valid in the TEFL teaching world. All academic research uses the word “teacher” as if there were one clear and indisputable idea as to what is a “teacher.” This is fatalistic and research, models, ideas and proposals will flounder at the outset unless clear emphasis is given to just what is “a teacher.” Prator (1991, 17) says, “…in the teaching situation it is the methods used, more than any other factor, that determine the results achieved.” Crookes and Chaudron (1991, 46) suggest, “Our conception of the teacher is someone faced with a great number of decisions to be made at every moment of classroom instruction.”

Peck (1991, 364) says, ” …that teachers should individualize ESL instruction so that they teach in the ways in which students learn.” Murcia and Goodwin (1991, 136) touch upon the quality, or at minimum, the desired quality of a ‘teacher’ by saying; “The teacher is ideally a native or near native speaker of the target language…” however they qualified their opinion in so far as they limit their comment to the field of pronunciation, and it does seem to exclude the possibility that a nonnative teacher can teach pronunciation, the antithesis of this work. However it is one of the isolated references to the fact and realization that ‘teachers’ of ESL do not need to be qualified at the outset.

H. Douglas Brown (1994, 279, 11.1) almost noted the importance of the word ‘teacher’ but limited his observations to a graph whereby against the word ‘teacher’ he wrote, “Attitude – training,” This he noted in relation to Krashen’s theory of Input and factors affecting it. Yet it is one of the few serious attempts to place responsibility fairly on the teacher. He does go on briefly to state; “A theory of second language acquisition includes an understanding … for classroom contexts, of what teaching is.” This begs the question, what does he think teaching is, and why leave such an important topic to be glossed over? However, the literature is endless whereby vague assumptions at the outset attach skills and or qualifications to the “teacher.” Pennington (1989, 7) does say that the ‘quality’ of teaching must be considered and taken into account in determining what results can be expected, but again offers no cues as to how to determine that quality, especially in a market place the size of the EFL world.

Bley-Vorman (1993:49) asks whether “…formal instruction really makes a difference in foreign language learning? Might not mere exposure to native speaker input be equally effective?” He notes that while some instruction may be successful, some in fact may be harmful and impede the learner, nevertheless he concludes without conviction that based on minimal research, and accepting the theories of Krashen and Seliger (1975), and Long (1983), it seems that instruction from a qualified teacher “…does aid foreign language learning.”

Universities and colleges around the world offer a three or four year university degree, or one year post graduate degree course to enable students of that country to qualify for a teaching certificate or license. Korean English teachers in Middle schools major in English at university, whilst Elementary school teachers have a more general education, yet education based. Some teach English within the Elementary curricula, whilst teachers who have majored in English are gradually becoming the norm.

However the world of TEFL is vastly different. With little exception, most non-English speaking countries will employ a native English speaker to “teach” English provided that person presents any degree from his countries university. That degree may range from Science with a major in Botany, to Psychology. In other words, anyone with a university degree can travel to non-English speaking country and become a “teacher of English as a second/foreign/another language.” Often it is these teachers that fall within the negative connotation of being an “…elitist or purist…” teacher. (Offner, 1995) These pseudo teachers often force ‘their superior form of language’ onto the foreign language student. (Offner, 1995).

Although there has been no research done and statistics are not available, it can be assumed that the majority of native English teachers teaching English in a given foreign country do not have formal second language teaching qualifications. They, nevertheless, are English teachers by virtue of their contract, albeit they may not have any idea or understanding of what it means to be a teacher, let alone the basic knowledge that goes to make up being an English teacher and its attendant responsibilities.

Consider Greece, the domain of teaching as overseen by both Cambridge University and the Greek PALSO (1) organization, a quasi-governmental agency setting standards and levels for the “Frontesterio” system of private language schools. Over 7,600 private schools exist to teach English in Greece. The only qualification by the Greek government for the native speaker of English is that he/she has ‘any’ university degree. This teacher will then be responsible for teaching classes ranging from elementary level to the ultimate proficiency level. Proficiency level exams are conducted by Cambridge University and administered by that institution. The successful candidates can go on to either open private language schools or teach in them.

Consider the Czech Republic, so long dominated by communism and its non-democratic ways. There any native English speaker will qualify as a teacher. A degree is desirable, but the difficulty in finding a native teacher to work in the Czech Republic where wages are minimal means that the requirement of presenting a degree can be overlooked. A correspondence course TEFL certificate will do just fine. And the native English teacher in that country will be expected to give lessons from both primary and supplementary materials.

The Korean system is more rigid in that the native English teacher must present a degree to receive his work visa as a teacher. However, it is widely known that private schools employ non-degreed teachers as often no others can be found. It is also known that U.S. military personnel give English lessons to students despite their total lack of educative knowledge.

And although I say teachers in ‘foreign countries’ are generally untrained, consider the American school system, viz. “As the number of linguistically and culturally diverse students entering American schools increases, more and more teachers are faced with the challenge of educating children with limited English skills. Many of these teachers, however, have had little or no training in second language development and need guidelines to help them understand the process young children undergo as they learn a second language.” (ERIC. 1995) However, the standard for threshold test gives no ‘guidelines?’

Thus this use of the word “teacher” is the fundamental flaw of hitherto research wholus bolus. The assumption that a teacher is qualified limits the validity of any notion that “teachers can make a difference” in the teaching of pronunciation. For the purpose of this paper, native teachers of English will be referred to as “qualified teachers,” or “non qualified teachers.” The former are those defined as presenting an accepted university qualification beyond or equivalent to a teaching degree/license in their native country and having had at least one years minimum foreign teaching experience of the English language. The latter are those employed as teachers of English to teach English to foreign students whilst not possessing any recognized or formal teaching qualification from a recognized/registered institution.

To this extent one must briefly consider Certificates, such as TEFL certificates or the like (the market place is now amply endowed with short term certificate courses) yet some courses are of minimal duration. This is not to say the certificate is not useful, but I argue the possession of such a certificate does not entitle the holder to call himself a (qualified) English teacher.

Teaching English as a foreign language is severely hampered by the fact that teachers are on the whole, nonspecifically educated teachers. That raises the questions, namely are these teachers competent to teach to a satisfactory level, and in addition, are formally educated teachers able to effectively teach pronunciation skills? Consider the recent “requirements” for one to be a teacher of TEFL, employed in such positions as a Teacher trainer (EPIK. English Program in Korea, 2) and Classroom assistant (Japan JET program, 3)

EPIK. Level 1 teacher A university degree, a TEFL certificate and at least two years teaching experience.
Level 2 teacher. Any university degree and some experience teaching.
Level 3 teacher. Any university degree.

However, in EPIK, despite the categories, most teachers do the same job, namely teaching in Teacher Training Institutes or District Boards of Education, and advising Korean English teachers just how to teach English. Just what is taught is left to the imagination of the individual with no ongoing or preliminary assessment, whereas in Japan the native teacher is alongside a Japanese teacher and both (in theory) assist in teaching or giving information to students. This program (EPIK) is far more ambitious than the JET (Japan) program that seems more balanced to promoting cultural relationships and understandings between Japanese children and western persons. (This program generally employs first year university graduates who need not be specifically trained in education.) EPIK wisely concentrates on Teacher development, whilst JET concentrates on student development. However, the program has collapsed from its 1996 heyday of 1000 Non Native teachers per year to the current 80 or so teachers who come into the program. The reasons are beyond the scope of this work, but seemingly relate to low pay as compared to the ‘hogwon’ industry.

Also to be considered is the Chinese NET program, where the demand is on qualifications and experience, but more rigid than the foregoing two systems in so far as emphasis is placed on the actual educational qualification as opposed to the ‘any other scenario.’ Nevertheless, teachers employed under this program are placed in a Band 1- 5 schools to teach High school students with little or no thought given to the efficient rendering of services by highly qualified personnel. In “A comparative study of the EPIK and JET program,” (Ahn, Park, Ono, 1998) it was found in a survey of Epik teachers that only 26% of the native English teachers in Korea had a teaching certificate, (this including a TEFL certificate.) At that stage of the report, the teachers the subject of the report (both countries) were employed to teach in middle and high schools alongside Korean or Japanese teachers in a team-teaching situation. The survey, whilst flawed by regional bias, indicated on one hand that the “…most serious problems arose from cultural conflicts. Some ELI’s (English language instructors) “…argued with teachers and yelled at them.” Clearly this shows just what a world of difference there exists in expectations as to what a native English teacher should be!

Forget that he is not qualified or alternatively very qualified; the report specifically looks to the more embarrassing cultural conflicts that may arise. The report further criticized the EPIK teachers, viz., “They are not professionally trained teachers and have difficulties in controlling the class when they teach alone.” This despite the fact team teaching meant the Epik did not teach alone! However, in a nutshell it can be said the idea of team-teaching had great merit but suffered from innumerable overwhelming problems. Had the program been attempted in Elementary schools, (for reasons to lengthy to go into) it arguably would have been a wonderful success.

The Japanese program, JET, said of its native English teachers;- “Due to the increased exposure to spoken English, students listening and speaking skills greatly improved.” And as the JET teachers taught phonics,… “It seemed they (the students) improved their pronunciation due to this.” However in summary, the authors conclude, “In both EPIK and JET programs very few ALTs and ELIs have had prior teaching experience or (hold) teaching certificates. They lack professionalism as teachers.”

Sadly a so-called academic report fails to objectively identify the actual problems, thus lacks face validity and whose answers similarly lacked objective validity. The report merely suggests, prima facie, that it is not ‘teaching professionalism’ that the authorities want. However, the experience of the 1990s has been replaced with the wisdom of the experience. Nevertheless, it does, if nothing else shows that ‘qualified professional teachers,’ are to the greater extent, not teaching EFL classes in government programs in Korea and Japan.

However the foregoing is the ‘upper end” of the spectrum in so far as ‘teaching credentials” go, for private institutions merely require ‘any’ qualification. Of course Universities demand a minimum of a Ma, however the amazing flaw in this demand is that one can have a degree in Forestry and a Masters in the same field, and be ‘qualified’ to teach English at University level. The stories and reports of incompetent teaching are legend and plentiful! Students at well-known Korean National University, for example, recently queried why their foreign ‘professors’ did not hold teaching qualifications, only to be informed that employment of foreign professors was done by an outside agency!

One final thought on teaching that deserves place in such an inquiry is an opinion on salaries. For many years second language teaching was the domain of backpacking non-qualified English speaking persons as they roamed the world. Nowadays there has been a shift towards recruiting the more professional or experienced teacher. However, although studies are non-existent, those native English speakers who teach second languages may fall into one of the following categories.
i) those seeking a one or two year adventure away from their homeland
ii) those specifically hired for a project (N.E.T. JET. EPIK) who must fulfill entry requirements
iii) Those who can’t find a job in their homeland Interestingly, most second language teachers in Asia seem to be Canadian, where unemployment runs high, whilst in Europe the teachers are predominantly from the United Kingdom, however this has more to do with European Union law than any other factor, whilst in the former soviet satellites, the predominant teacher is from the United States.
iv) Those qualified and professional teachers who have made their target country their second home and accept local conditions

Those who teach English as a second language in another country have to accept that countries system of payment. However, when compared to the major English speaking countries, U.S. U.K or Australia, salaries in the second language teaching country are far below what a professional can get at home. Hence this raises questions about just what professional will leave his well paid job with benefits and go and teach in another country. The answer is patently obvious. No one! The Korean Herald (9th May 2000) notes that most professional western English educators head to Japan for the financial rewards offered by that country, and sadly laments that only unqualified western ‘teachers’ teach in Korea. Whilst based on no apparent empirical data, it definitely overlooks the proven fact that Koreans score far better on the TOEFL test than Japanese students; Korea holds 19th position whilst Japan holds 41st! Thus an argument can be made (inter-alia) that the ‘teachers’ in Korea are doing a far better job than their counterparts in Japan!

But it is unrealistic for the second language country to expect or demand teachers with high qualifications when they offer benefits far below what can be obtained home. What they can demand is that the teachers have a minimum of applicable qualifications at the least. However, it must be asserted forcefully that the quality of teaching of second languages in countries where English is not the native tongue will fall far below the levels that that country would ideally desire, as language teachers are not rightfully language teachers in the majority of circumstances.
One alternative to worrying about the native English speaker’s competence would be, if that teacher was a nonprofessional teacher, then his sole duty would be to facilitate ‘communication classes.’ As Ellis (1996) notes, “…three functions of foreigner talk can be identified,
(1) to promote communication,
(2) to signal implicitly or explicitly, speakers attitudes towards their interlocutors,
(3) to teach the target language implicitly.”

Hatch, (1983) in reference to point 1, indicates that the teacher can simplify and make language utterances easier between student and teacher. Clearly the nonprofessional teacher has a role in the communicative form of teaching. Richards. J. (1990, 67) notes a place for the untrained teacher but also highlights the lack of clear thought as to just what role a teacher should really take on; “The conversation class is something of an enigma in language teaching. In some language programs it is an opportunity for untrained native speakers to get students to talk for the duration of a class period using whatever resources and techniques the teacher can think of. In language programs where trained teachers are available they are left to their own resources…”

However the teacher, trained or untrained, according to Hatch, (1983) must learn to adjust his speech to the student, namely by simplifying and clarifying his responses in accordance with the feedback he receives from the communication learner. The other 2 points referred to by Ellis (1996) above are beyond the teaching competence of the nonprofessional teacher to facilitate. (also see; Speech coach chapter herein and Teacher talk)

Pickert (1978) suggests that “…good language learners…” want a teacher who is systematic, and logical, and easy to understand, but rather take charge of their own learning than have the teacher control this aspect, thus treating them as ‘informants’ rather than a stereotypical teacher. This places a serious burden on a teacher to self evaluate his style and adapt accordingly, though it does suggest the teacher needs a double personality, one for good language learners and one for the others. This idea is further expanded subsequently in this study under ‘speech coach.’

Klein (1995, 167) suggests there is much more to do even before we can successfully begin to teach teachers how to teach a second language. “Research on second language acquisition has too short a history to supply conclusive evidence on any important question. “…in some areas there are the indications of a firm foundation upon which we can build.”
What can be said is that with the development of the market place, which grows significantly each year in the number of language learners, the number of schools teaching English, and the number of ‘teachers’ entering the market place, much greater consideration and emphasis will be placed on the qualities of the teacher, not only by the teaching institutions, but by the students themselves.

Non-native English teachers.

Of course one significant difference between the nonnative teacher and visiting native English teacher will be that the nonnative English teacher will have received his/her qualification from an institution of higher learning. This immediately places that teacher as a professional teacher, and undoubtedly there can be feelings of quiet discontent between the two teachers, for the nonnative English teacher sees themselves as qualified whereas their counterpart, the native English speaker is probably not. Yet the nonnative teacher may naturally feel ‘inferior,’ for his/her pronunciation/fluency will not meet the standards of the native English speaker. And undoubtedly some nonnative English teachers will not enjoy speaking in English and conduct their classes with as minimal a spoken English as possible.

Yet the non native’s knowledge of English grammar will most likely be perfect, indeed far superior to the native speaker for the native English speaker rarely studies grammar during schooling or university, unless training specifically for that.
All that can be suggested for nonnative English teachers is that there is no substitute for oral practice, no matter how good or bad their perceived level of English is. Indeed, one of the clear psychological factors present in many nonnative English teachers is a belief that their ‘pronunciation’ of English is bad, when in fact it is not. It is suggested that those who hold this belief indeed show their acute awareness of the depth and intensity of ‘pronunciation’ and are well on the road to speaking with what can only be termed, ‘a very satisfactory level’ of English pronunciation.

The English teacher’s goals.

Irrespective of who the teacher is, (if we accept, and it seems a ‘must’ situation, that teachers can be unqualified) then according to Nation.I. (1995) the four learning goals that the teacher will encounter are: –
§ Language: vocabulary, grammar, phonology.
§ Ideas: content of subject matter.
§ Skill: fluency, accuracy, strategies, process skills, speed-reading, note taking, essay writing.
§ Text: discourse rules, text types (narrative, problem solving, instructions, inquiry.)

Of course not every item is inherent in every teaching system. Some are emphasized at the expense of others on national levels. For example the Czech Republic ignores the issue of writing skills and concentrates on reading and speaking. Greece utilizes all skills, whilst Korea currently emphasizes reading and listening, however the Government is now attempting to encourage speaking skills, especially at the elementary level despite not introducing or installing a vocabulary level sufficient to achieve this ideal. Unfortunately, despite Hirsch.D. (1997) suggesting that teachers have to pose the question, “What am I trying to teach my learners?” the teacher of English often has no such choice to make as he follows a set text that may or may not achieve something useful and tangible. But Hirsch.D (1977) does suggest that activities should be seen to be suitable and that the teacher be prepared to give assistance in achieving that goal. And to that end he suggests ‘goal setting’ as the ultimate tool for successful teaching. And the choice of learning goals is an activity that depends largely on the learning needs of the learners and their current level.

Given the rapid developments pertaining to the advantages of Meaning Negotiations (Pica, 1994; Gass, 1997; Long, 1996; Schmidt, 1990; Shehadeh, 1999) in the second language classroom, it could be forcefully argued that L2 instructors have, if educated in meaning negotiations, provide an important role specifically for SLA and not only as teachers of pronunciation.

1. PALSO. Pan Hellenic Langauge Schools Asscoiation. Non government authority that oversees Greece’s private school system.
2. EPIK. English Program In Korea. Korean government funded foreign langauge teacher program .
3. JET. Japanese government funded program for foreign language tecahers in Japan


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