Friday, September 17, 2004

Who Really Wants a Foreign Teacher

Got turned onto Scott Sommers' Taiwan Weblog by Blinger. In it Scott and several others are discussing issues related to articles that appear in Taiwan about whether students prefer foreign teacher of English as a Second/Foreign Language. It is a great discussion that has implications for every teacher or learner. I responded to the post and comments in this way.

Scott and everyone,
This is the first time that I have posted here. Great blog. Thanks for the stimulation. I live and teach EFL in Yokkaichi, Japan.

Actually read this post yesterday after following the links on Blinger's site. Interesting topic, but after meditating on it for a while, I think the way the question is framed is unethical and leads us to argue points that miss the main issue.

The question should not be whether "foreign teachers," "native speakers," choose your euphemism, are wanted. It should not be whether they dress or act appropriately. The question is, are these distinctions useful to our students and humankind in general? It is unethical to discriminate against people based on their race or nationality, among other things, which is exactly what this is all about. If businesses and schools would make personnel decisions based on finding the best people for the job, which is helping learners fulfill their language learning goals, many of these issues would disappear. As would many jobs that go to otherwise unqualified Caucasians from the US, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

Learners deserve the best teachers they can find. Language teachers deserve to be freed from the stereotypes and unfair treatment inherent in a system that favors people because of the passport they have, or the color of their skin. It is a lose/lose situation for everyone when there is this kind of distinction. Blinger's initial post was a case in point. He wears a suit to teach in while his colleagues do not. Which is better? Blinger believes that by wearing a suit he will fit the image learners, colleagues and administrators have of a college teacher in Korea. Question is, why was he hired? Was he hired as a "native speaker," there to impart his variety of English to his students in a nice sterile package, void of the cultural nasties that cling to each of us where ever we go? My professors in college sat on desks, drank soft drinks as they lectured, wore the clothes that they slept in, and didn't much care if I was in class that day or not. That is one kind of native speaker teacher. Is that what administrators wanted when they hired me? Probably not. Do they want me to speak Japanese, wear a suit, and be just like the teachers that my students had in high school? Probably not. Then what do they want?

Much of the time, they don't know either. I teach at a great school, where they hired me because I am serious about teaching English. I am also serious about being an active member of the communities to which I belong, which means that I can function in Japanese as well as English. I know that there are schools in Japan where teachers are hired because they are not Japanese and grew up in a place where they learned English as their first language. As time passes their relationships become strained because expectations are not met on both sides. I have heard of teachers losing their jobs because they were "too foreign," and I have heard of teachers losing their jobs because they were "too Japanese." Some people I work with value my input because I break out of the mold sometimes and present ideas in different ways. Some people I work with do not trust me because I am a Japanese-speaking foreigner and know too much.

The question of nationality, native speaker or not, causes problems, because among other things it is not even about nationality or first language, but about racial perceptions. In Japan that manifests itself into the hiring of Caucasians almost exclusively, who are then singled out in society for special treatment. The latest evidence of which is a court case in Hokkaido where a Caucasian Japanese national sued hot springs companies and a local government for discrimination. You can find an article about it here. It also renders perfectly qualified people totally unacceptable for certain jobs. It is unethical to hire or fire teachers based on this as a criteria. Teachers should be hired based on their ability to do a job, and students deserve to have the best help they can find. Tall order, but can be dealt with quickly and easily with the creation and enforcement of laws forbid discrimination and punish those who practice it.

I know, I know, I should have used Trackback on it. Haven't figured that out yet. Be patient.

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