For anyone not involved in English language teaching, NEST = Native English Speaker Teacher; non-NEST … well, I think you can probably work that out. This post is a few thoughts about how the two groups are regarded in the ELT business. But it’s also a description of a typical conference event.
Do read on even if you aren’t an ELT professional….
September 2007, the Macmillan Romania (Macrom) conference in the beautiful city of Braşov. Oana Nica, the dynamic Macrom manager, has put together a star-studded line-up of plenary speakers – Scott Thornbury, Luke Prodromou and Philip Kerr. At the last minute, she asks your humble blog-reporter Ken Wilson to join this illustrious team.
As usual, the Macrom event has attracted an audience of about 400 teachers. As usual, they are almost all women. And non-native speakers of English. And brilliant. I mean it – there’s something about Romanian English teachers (and English learners for that matter) that is very special indeed.
So I’m sitting at the back of Scott’s opening plenary. Scott is marvellous – thought-provoking and entertaining. But it occurs to me – why are all these very talented Romanians happy to listen to a bunch of foreign men telling them how to teach?
Scott himself says something related to that thought the next day. The four of us are sitting in the lobby of the hotel where the conference is taking place, and dealing with the participants as they file past.
Compliments are flying around.
“I really loved your talk yesterday.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“Can I just tell you that I’m your BIGGEST fan?”
*orchestrated blush* “You are too kind….”
“I saw you the first time about twenty-five—“
“Really! How NICE for you!”
Books were being offered for signatures.
“Who shall I dedicate it to?”
“My name is Eva Diaconescu.”
“Er … can I just write Eva?”
Four male egos are being stroked to death.
When things quieten down for a moment, Scott says:
“Why aren’t there more women giving plenaries at conferences like this?”
I think he was talking about native speaker women – authors, trainers, luminaries. There are some great women who are conference favourites, of course, but the reality is, especially away from the UK, the majority of plenary speakers are men. And native speakers. In an industry where the vast majority of teachers are non native-speaker women. And – let’s be honest – most of the men give the same plenary, whether it’s Braşov, Beijing or Buenos Aires.
But sitting in the hotel lobby, I’m thinking something a bit different. “Why aren’t the delegates being given the chance to listen to someone who teaches here in Romania?”
Between the four plenaries, there were, as usual, four series of workshops. We had a choice of about ten different ones to go to in each slot. Almost all of them were given by Romanian women. I went to four, all of them well-attended. Even though Braşov is a very nice tourist town, handy for visiting the southern Carpathian mountains, the delegates weren’t bunking off to do tourism. They were getting stuck in and making the most of the professional development on offer.
The five presenters I saw in the four workshops I attended were all very well prepared. One workshop was a bit slow-paced but interesting, and two were very interesting.
And one … well, it was utterly brilliant. Jaw-droppingly fantastic. One of the best I have ever seen anywhere. The format was very simple – two young teachers with just a couple of years experience each, demonstrating some activities that worked with their students. Useful classroom stuff that they wanted to share with their peers.
So, first of all, a name check for the two enthusiastic and imaginative presenters – Mirela Urluianu and Monica Mondiru. And a special extra bit of applause – this was the first time either of them had done a presentation at a conference. Even more extraordinary, they wrote the wildly-excitable abstract for their workshop with no idea what they would actually do.
One of the activities was so imaginative, but so easy to set up, that I asked them if I could use it in a book I was writing at the time – Drama and Improvisation – available in all good ELT book-stores, folks!
I asked Oana Nica if she would invite these two brilliant teachers to come back next year to do a plenary at Macrom 2008. She looked at me as if I’d gone mad.
“Of course not,” she said. “They aren’t native speakers.”
“But they’re brilliant,” I countered.
“No one knows who they are,” she retorted.
“They will if they do a plenary at Macrom 2008,” I replied.
Then Oana delivered the killer argument.
“You can’t have a workshop as a plenary.”
Aaaah! The dreaded a-workshop-isn’t-a-plenary argument.
Oana Nica is one of my favourite people in the world, but with the greatest respect, this argument doesn’t hold water. Do ALL plenaries HAVE to be monologues? Well, if it’s David Crystal or Jeremy Harmer, that’s fine. But for the rest of us, audiences DO SOMETIMES GO TO SLEEP if they aren’t asked to do something.
I have more to say on the subject of NESTs and non-NESTs and the possibly undeserved esteem that the former are held in. Next time.
Meanwhile, three issues have been raised here:
1 Why are conference plenaries a bit of a bloke-only zone?
2 Why don’t more local non-NESTs give plenary talks?
3 Why can’t a plenary be a workshop?
Comments welcome. And enjoy the rest of your week.