NESTS/non-NESTS – who’s BEST? (Part One)

Macrom conference, Brasov Romania, 2007; Scott Thornbury, Luke Prodromou, me, Philip Kerr. Oana Nica standing  behind us.
Macrom conference, Brasov Romania, 2007; Scott Thornbury, Luke Prodromou, me, Philip Kerr. Oana Nica standing behind us.

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.

27 thoughts on “NESTS/non-NESTS – who’s BEST? (Part One)

  1. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the flash from the past. 🙂 I’m not a ELT specialist, but I think the situation has changed over the years, at least in Romania. There are quite a few Romanian ELT lecturers now and some go regularly abroad to give lectures and, more often, workshops.

  2. Brilliant article, Ken….so well delivered in a personal way that relates to us, and I agreed with it all, totally! That is your effective weapon, just like Dave Allen, that great observational comedian. You are the great ELT observationalist…..and the comedian, too! Big compliments there, Ken!
    Having done some MA research into the NEST/Non-NEST issue, I have strong thoughts on the issue. Sadly, the Non-NESTs are still shy to promote themselves, especially the women, (from my experiences in Poland). However, there is a factor of enjoying listening to the different styles of NESTs at Conferences….so the Polish Non-NESTs tell me!

  3. Hi Ken and thanks for a very perceptive post. Your NEST Non-NEST divide is still going strong this way. In Greece, Non-NESTs invited to do keynote talks seem to fall into one of the following categories

    – They are local University Lecturers
    – They are non-ELT specialists (psychologists, dyslexia experts, etc)

    My own feeling is that this has to do with committees involved in planning these events. Somehow or other I have never seen one where everyone who has some sort of vested interest is not involved in some way. So when the time comes for decisions, it is often not a question of whether the speaker is or is not a NEST but rather whether other members of the committee feel they are offering free publicity to an organization rival to their own.

    Obviously the two categories accepted as keynote speakers do not constitute a threat to anyone involved in ELT and especially in Teacher Education.

    I myself have never been invited to do a plenary – once was asked to a panel of “experts”, and that’s all in a rather long career in local ELT.

    And somehow I don’t expect I will ever be given that chance in my own country.

    ELT is wonderful but we forget that it is also a business and when it is regulated by people in business, things like that are bound to happen, I guess.

  4. My first desire when I come to listen to NESTs is just to plunge into the language I love. To listen to its authentic music, intonation , phrases. If the NEST’s ideas are worth listening to (and they mostly are, only once I had a feeling that the speaker was just filling the gap)- we are all yours.

  5. Nice conversation, Gavin, and I’m sorry I hadn’t read it before. I think there’s a lot of good stuff in the replies to your original blog, but I think my main thought was about non-NESTs rather then women plenary speakers. Why don’t conference organisers take a chance on young local women or men, who can talk about a teaching situation that the audience knows? Almost always, locally-chosen plenary speakers are crusty old academics.

  6. Hi, Ken!

    This is just the best transcription of how ‘us’ non-nests feel at the very begining of our careers. More over, how non-nests in general feel about presenting at conferences.

    Here in Brazil, we do have lots of ELT conferences – such as ACINNE, ABCI and BRAZ-TESOL – but I still feel this awkward grayish cloud gliding over insecure Ts. ‘Should I present? If so, what should this workshop be about?’ ‘What if it’s too dull?’ Etc…

    I’ve never been invited to present, even though I do present whenever I have the opportunity – I just love the sharing!

    The truth is, Ts tend to attend coferences mostly because of the great names (eg. J. Harmer, K. Wilson, J. Stranks, Bee Dieu and many others) on the plennary list rather than because of the other workshops.

    Just a few – if I may put it like this – ‘have the guts’ to face the challenge and present something. Some regular Ts just feel threatened by those ‘stars’; not the plenary speakers – those Ts who find their just much better than us poor regular ones – with no masters or a long way career.

    How fair is this, ha?

  7. Hi Priscilla…

    great ideas, very well expressed.

    Jeff Stranks is a good example of someone who is (a) worth listening to and (b) based in Brazil, so he’s an excellent NEST choice for a conference in your country. Jeremy Harmer is always very good value, wherever he is – a very inspirational speaker.

    But the key question for me is this – when you go to a conference, and all the plenary speakers are native speakers who are NOT based in your country, are they ALL worth listening to?

    If they aren’t, then it may be time to suggest that one, just one, plenary slot be given up to a teacher, or team of teachers, from your country with something to say that is valuable for people who work in your circumstances.

    And why not let them do a workshop – for 2,000 people!

    Hope you’re enjoying the blog!

  8. Very interesting article, Ken, with lots of food for thought here. Prix did mention one Brazillian woman who does get invited to give plenaries, both in Brazil and elsewhere (although not nearly enough if you ask me) – Barbara Dieu.

    You can find out more on her website:

    Of course, it’s not nearly enough, and perhaps it has a lot to do with the attitudes of those in charge of organising speakers at conferences? Or maybe (and this is mentioned in your comments) what is really needed here is a sea change in the way that non-native speaker teachers are viewed.

    Perhaps it’s coming – I got to know Barbara Dieu through the Webheads in Action, one of the most vibrant online Communities of Practice in ELT (if not the most vibrant), dedicated mainly to exploring learning technologies. I have to say that the most active members of the community are women and most of these are not native speakers of English ( – I’m also happy to say that this is never an issue in the online events where the Webheads present and through the discussions that take place in the mailing list. In fact, I’d not even thought about it until reading your article here.

    One thing I think would help is for international conference organisers to take the lead and invite a range of different plenary speakers. Although, I do think to some extent this is being done at conferences such as IATEFL nowadays.

    1. Hellooo Graham,

      I think it really does boil down to two issues:

      1 When you have seen 4 native speaker plenary speakers, have they ALL been good?
      2 When will local conference organisers have the confidence to invite someone young and local to address their peers?

      It’s funny that the Macrom conference was when I first thought seriously about this. I thought all four of us were very good that weekend! 🙂

  9. Had half this conversation (the female/male half) in the pub a couple of nights ago, interestingly.

    However, the last conference I attended in Romania (Quest Conference in Iasi in June), had among the usual procession of NEST men of a certain age (and I hope none of them will mind me referring to them as such) – Rossner, Carrier, Heyworth, Rusch (though, to be fair, Paul Rusch is a NGST rather than a NEST), the excellent (and young) Ioana Ursache doing a plenary. So, it does happen!

  10. Coming from the US, I have to admit of the conferences I have attended, I have never seen a non-NEST speaker on the list. I know this comes as no surprise to many.
    However, the majority of the ELT researchers I have read and materials and ideas I use come from non-NEST. There have been various studies in using social media and Web 2.0 tools for EFL, which have come from various countries. Recently, I moved to Germany and was hoping to attend conferences with names I recognized from my research. Therefore, I hope this situation has improved, because I believe that some of the best research and case studies do come from non-NEST who have a deep empathy with student obstacles in learning English in their countries. Non-NEST have first-hand experience in learning English and I have seen this unique perspective translated in their research. I don’t mean to belittle NEST research at all. I just agree that I do feel as if I am missing something from not having the opportunity to see a non-NEST presenter.

    1. It means a lot to me, too!! Looks like we make a great team Moni!!! Thanx a lot Ken!!! I loved your plenaries and workshops at Macrom just as much!!! Besides, you do have a point here!! Many times it’s the Non Nests that teach EFL, right? at least in their countries, and not only sometimes…Greetings from the US!!! Mirela

      1. Hi Mirela – glad you got to read the accolade about your workshop. Don’t stay in USA too long – your country needs you! 🙂

  11. Ken, what was your experience after Novi Sad seminar? You speak about Romanian experience. What about your experience with non-Nest speakers who had papers?

  12. Hi Zorica,

    the Serbs who gave talks at Novi Sad were great. But the conference DID have a NEST plenary speaker who may not have been the best choice. I’m not saying any more! 🙂

    Have a great weekend.

  13. Thanks, Ken!

    As a non NEST, I have felt some kind of discrimination over the years…
    However, it is also true that we must be the first ones to shake this feeling of inferiority and submit a proposal when we see a call for papers.

    After being convinced by my mentor and close friend, Susan Hillyard, I did this for the first time this year, and, to my surprise, got my paper accepted for the E-schooling conference in Santiago, Chile.

    The experience was wonderful and I must admit nobody ever mentioned my being a non NEST as an issue.

    I believe this eventually lies in the hands of conference organizers as well as our own!

  14. Ken opened a very intriguing topic for discussion. I have a very good experience attending IATEFL Confrences and subimitting papers. Non of them were rejected because they were written in good Englsih and the topic was properly covered. I had to bear in mind dead lines for paper submission and of course to pay the necessary fees. The exchange of information was in due time and I had to pay attention to the procedure of submimitting the papers.
    There is discrimination, perhaps in other fields. I only know that the aim of such conferences is to exchange as many news as possible and to get new experience and finally to meet fellow colleagues from all corners of the world.
    Zorica, teacher from Belgrade, Serbia

  15. 1 Why are conference plenaries a bit of a bloke-only zone?
    Maybe because guys are more available to travel while women are cat-like attached to their territory, not willing to absent the nest, or abandon their lovely students?
    2 Why don’t more local non-NESTs give plenary talks?
    Because the organisers still think natives are the best to talk about their language? As wrong as it is, there is the tendency to think like that. Somebody from abroad always seems to spice up the talk 🙂 Too much spice in your food not always makes it better.
    3 Why can’t a plenary be a workshop?
    My ideas are over…

    1. Thanks, Agata…

      I sometimes think that if I was, for example, a teacher of Spanish, who would I prefer to see at a conference? A visiting professor from the University of Buenos Aires or a British Spanish teacher? I would go for the speaker from BA – but if she/he wasn’t very good, I wouldn’t go back.

  16. “NESTS/non-NESTS – who’s BEST?”
    That is the question!
    Non-Nests like to hear the latest experience in the field of teaching, textbook publishing and finally NESTs speaking at plenary sessions. There are no radios, tapes and now modern gadgets CDs or computer programes which recordered in ‘antiseptic’environment provide news in the field of teaching.
    I do not think there is gender discrimination. Both men and women teachers are ambitous to participate in the plenary sessions.
    My personal opinion is that a good presenter is very important regardless whether he/she is a”NEST/non-NESTS.

  17. Hello Ken, I’m so happy and proud that you have wonderful memories from the Romanian MacMillan Conferences. Yes, you are right Monica and Mirela were great at that workshop,i also attended. They deserved to be invited to do a plenary at a conference, what a pity, they were not.
    i have just return from the 8 th Macrom conference that was this year in Mamaia , a resort by the Black Sea.The conference was a success as the other conferences, brilliant guests: Phillip Kerr, Lindsay Clandfield, Carol Read[ a fantastic teacher]and Colin Granger. We all missed you. It was Philip who gave us your blog.

    Everything was excellent at the conference: plenaries and workshops. We were very sad to hear that Oana leaves Macrom for another job after 11 years work with MacMillan. She did great things for us ,teachers. I won’t forget her. hope to see you next year in Romania. Enjoy the rest of the weekend

    1. Thanks Rodica – it will be very strange to think of Macmillan Romania without Oana Nica! And I do hope to come back to Romania soon – I came about 12 times in 4 years and then not at all for the last 4 years. Time to change that!

  18. Hi Ken,
    I’m one of those hundreds of teachers attending the Macrom conferences since 2001 and giving workshops since 2003. I actually missed the Macrom in Brasov when you were here last and was very sad about it.
    I have several things to say about NEST/non-NEST speakers at conferences and the feelings I had over the years about all these, but I intend to have an entry on this topic in my personal, newly-started blog (if you’re curious, please visit ; you’ll find I put a link to your blog there, without asking for your permission, hope you’re OK with it).
    I will come to the end of this by stressing Rodica’s words: you were missed at the Macrom this year.
    All the best to you and Dede!

    1. Hi Melania,

      I missed being at Macrom this year too, especially in Mamaia! I like the look of your blog and I’ve added it to my blogroll, too.

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