The trials and tribulations of a non-native TEFL teacher

The trials and tribulations of a non-native TEFL teacher

A personal account of the difficulties encountered in the TEFL industry by a non-native teacher.

I made up my mind that I wanted to become a TEFL teacher almost three years ago. At the time I was working in a big yuppie international company where everyone seemed excited about their job and/or the table tennis in the hall. I was really unhappy and possibly falling into depression, unable to share my co-workers' enthusiasm and struggling to find a meaning in what occupied 8 hours of my day. When I told my boss I wanted to leave because I thought the work didn't suit me, he asked if I really wanted to go and milk cows in central Italy as if that was the only alternative to a job in marketing (I really have no clue where he took this idea from, I can't remember ever talking to him about my supposed passion for milking cows).

So I chucked away my Masters' degree in Economics and disappointed my mum one more time (much disappointment was yet to come: I'm thirty, not married, no kids, no stable work or mum's last birthday wishes ended with 'sort out your life now'), came to London and got a CELTA with the intention of finding work in the TEFL industry.

I soon found out that, being a non-native, it wasn't going to be easy. My first job was teaching English to the military personnel in a dodgy school that was on the TEFL black-list (it did cross my mind to just teach them incorrect or simply bizarre English). Talking to the director of studies, I was 'encouraged' bluffing when asked about where I was from. After two weeks I left as I had been offered a job in a 'proper' school in Milan. Again I was urged to lie and say my mum was English. At first that made me laugh: my mum couldn't and can't speak a single word of English and had never even set foot in England

However, in my first group lesson, one of my students got really excited when she found out my mum was 'from London' (the only city I knew in the UK) and asked me out for a coffee. Taken slightly aback and not knowing what to reply, I accepted and found myself making it up about my time in London and how I missed it. When I left her I felt awful.

Months after, this same student questioned me while I was making photocopies in reception. I had the feeling she had looked up my profile somewhere and wanted to find weaknesses in my story. Because I had just started in the industry and really wanted to keep my job, the whole thing was putting me under a lot of pressure.

And that situation happened again and again often with students I had got to really like. One woman gave me a present for Christmas and again I felt so bad about all the lies I had told her because when you teach a language, in one way or another, you end up chatting also about your life. But I could never talk about mine. I'd sometimes be scared of mixing up the lies I'd told and being caught and bumping into students outside the school was always a bit nerve- racking. In class, when using anecdotes to explain a language point, I always had to double-check that I wasn't somehow giving myself away. I now feel that, because of my lying, I was missing out a lot on what a teacher is supposed to be.

Another student even told me that from everything I said she could clearly tell I was English. After her course had finished, she started working in a company where I was also teaching. To enter the building I had to show my Italian ID to the receptionist. Every time I met this student in the corridor or on the stairs I felt tremendously ashamed: what if the receptionist had told her I wasn't actually English? What if she was going to complain with the company that was paying the course to its employees? What if she told her colleagues and so discredit my reputation? The whole thing was so stressful.

In an attempt to improve my economic situation (the school I was working for was in the process of fucking up all teachers by cutting our pay by 20% read more here), I found a job in an early years language academy. It was a small business and everything was supposed to be 'emotional and unique': emotional learning, unique methodology and also 'we're a small business, we love you but can't give you a contract/sick pay/ holiday pay or whatever all other rights are out there because we're small'. By the end, I was meeting my boss after work to pick up my paltry month's pay in a brown envelope. That is what I got after getting blisters painting the walls of the school/sweeping the floor after the Christmas party/ paying 500 euros for the mandatory two-day course / attending unpaid social events like parents' evenings, summer camps' presentations etc. That was where I learnt that when you work with kids, people seem to expect you to do it out of sheer love for children: 'what is rent (bills/transport/food/ when you're helping kids learn English?', this mission should be rewarding enough.

I left Italy and moved to London. And then it became clear that finding TEFL work was going to be even harder. Pretty much as soon as I got to London I actually got offered a position as an Italian teacher which I wasn't qualified for (but I was a native of course! The level of ignorance of people running language schools never ceases to amaze me). Teaching Italian is way more difficult for me than teaching English. I'm not very aware of how my native language works and never questioned a lot of it. On the other hand, when I was doing my CELTA course (where I was the only non native) my classmates started calling me 'grammar woman' as I seemed to know much more than any of them as far as English grammar was concerned.

Feeling under pressure and paranoid about my English, I have developed the annoying habit of repeating myself: I repeat the same sentence two or three times, every time slightly changing it, like Brick from The Middle. I'm currently trying to get rid of this habit after my boyfriend shouted at me on several occasions.

However, I've now managed to find a few hours here and there and I now mostly teach (English) privately or online with students I had in Italy who wanted to continue their lessons with me.

More recently, I got called by an agency that needed me to teach some teenagers on a school trip to London. I got pretty excited about it until the assignment was called off at the last minute because the students' school had requested a native teacher. Another knock to my already flaky self-esteem which is slowly being worn out by having to explain, every single time, that 'yes, I know it sounds weird that I'm Italian and I live in London and I teach English'. And so what? Do you need to be from Mars to teach astronomy?

Another really annoying thing is when people (read friends) suggest that I go back to my old career. They can't seem to get their head around the fact that 'yes, I want to be a teacher and no, I'm not doing it because I couldn't find anything better and no, it's not temporary, I actually hope I'll do it for the rest of my life''.

Last week, during a job interview, the school's manager told me that she absolutely doesn't discriminate against non-natives. But strangely enough on the school website it says they employ 'only native teachers'.

Anyway, on the positive side, a few months ago I started a blog about learning English that has got quite popular. I also get a lot of enquiries from people who, having read my posts and thought I'm a native, would 'like to speak English with a true English mothertongue'. It makes me smile. Well, to be honest, it's more a sneer than a smile.

Posted By

Angry Language ...
Jun 5 2014 06:21


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jef costello
Jun 5 2014 06:35

Thanks for sharing your story. Native speakers are a big selling point so that's unlikely to change, especially as a lot of people don't understand teaching, especially language teaching, and seem to think that anyone can do it. I would say that in London you've got a much lower chance of finding work because there are tons of people with TEFL qualifications looking for work.

Jun 5 2014 08:01

Yep I saw a lot of these kinds of pressures on non-native teachers at the academy I worked at in Madrid. I was one of the coveted, magical native teachers but frankly I'm a much worse English teacher than the non-natives at that school. Try telling that to the helicopter parents though.

Serge Forward
Jun 6 2014 10:36

Private TEFL schools can be real shitholes. If you're still in the UK, have you thought of public sector ESOL or EAP at a uni?

Swell Map
Jun 6 2014 12:33

Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm a TEFL teacher myself in Turkey, also a "native-speaker", and because of this I've got it way easier than non-native speakers, not just in terms of getting and maybe securing a job, but I can be way more at ease with how I present myself to students. If they want to know anything about me or where I'm from, I can choose how much of my actual self to give away, but at least it's my own story - whereas for non-native speakers in my school, they mostly have to keep up some facade of being from the US, or New Zealand or some other English-speaking country ("but my mother was from Iran" and such...) One of the non-alienating aspects of the work is actually getting to know students personally (though your privacy does seem non-existent at times) and this would be way different for me if I was trying to maintain some false narrative about myself all because the school that hired me and the wider industry perpetuate this fetish for native-speakers only.
And to echo a previous comment, most of us actual "native-speakers" are not the better teachers in the company.
We're all overworked, and it's always a reliable aspect of a lesson knowing that often the students may just want to discuss something and practice their speaking. So on this front, it also just plainly spares time in terms of planning your lessons.
Glad to see this blog started up by the way - will be following it for sure.
(Apologies if the quotation marks around "native speaker" seemed unnecessary - the language of TEFL or maybe just the imagery that comes to mind when I hear myself talk about "natives" is still something kinda preposterous to me)

Caiman del Barrio
Jun 6 2014 20:31

Hello, thanks for sharing. I'm sorry you had that experience - I've certainly heard similar bullshit (cos that's what it is) from both students and grumpy teachers in the staff room. Your point about understanding a language you've learnt much better than your native one also rings true: I basically learnt English grammar via my Spanish and French classes.

As a further point, 80% of English speakers around the world are non native speakers, so I'm always rather puzzled when students say they wanna speak "authentic British English" (notwithstanding the problematic notions with that!). Apart from a quaint romanticism about Beefeaters (which is what language school agents sell across the world about London, I have a class about Asian Dub Foundation to try and refute this), there's far more value in learning the international form of English, which is increasingly shaped by the common errors of non native speakers communicating across national and language borders.

FWIW, my current (main) employer has had non-natives for the past 2 DOSes. Feel free to PM if you'd like - i sometimes get emails desperately looking for teachers.

Jun 18 2014 17:23

Coraggio raga'!

I'm English and last year returned from teaching English in Italy and I apologise for taking some jobs in my local communita' montana primary schools! But I was never 'di ruolo' and with the crisi those hours disappeared.

But some years before after I did my CELTA in the UK I also ended up doing an Italian beginners' class on the basis of childhood Italian and a decent accent. I'm sure that you could teach Italian, particularly at the lower levels you are likely to encounter. Try one of the local FE colleges, and once they get to know you some ESOL/EFL classes might follow. One of my evening class colleagues was Italian, studying at the same college. She later moved elsewhere in the UK and started teaching English, and subsequently moved to another anglophone country where she now works at a university. It does take contacts, but your networking seems pretty effective so I'm sure you'll be fine.

Jun 18 2014 17:38

I missed this blog when it was first posted. It sucks that that has been your experience, I'm sorry. As Caiman says, that's a good point about grammar. I obviously speak fluent English, but I don't have a clue about grammar or any of that.

Not really sure what else to say other than thanks for sharing and good luck!