This is the first guest post I’ve posted in quite a while. It’s been written by Sirja Bessero, an Estonian teacher of English living and working in Switzerland.
I followed a link to her excellent blog http://swisssirja.wordpress.com where I found lots of thoughtful posts about teaching, amusingly presented. Sirja is clearly a talented speaker of the language she teaches, and yet in one of her blogs, I found a very interesting description of the nagging doubts that Non-NESTs can experience in their working life. I asked her to write something about it for my blog, and here it is.
I guess it was the tactlessness, or maybe the sheer arrogance, but that moment got imprinted into my brain, into my memory hard-disk like a nasty stain…
A couple of years ago, as I was attending yet another great conference for English teachers, I witnessed an intense moment of unease, one of those being-stark-naked-in-public moments.
One of the workshops was given by a non-native speaker English teacher. At one point during the presentation, she said something native speakers would probably not say, a word or an expression which apparently didn’t sound right to native ears. Instead of letting it be, a woman in the first row corrected the speaker in a rather reprimanding way. I couldn’t believe my ears! I was shocked. Yet at the same time I felt that woman had pushed my panic button, her haughty remark had brought my own fears into the piercing daylight, made the doubts I harbour at the back of my mind materialize.
There’s no fiercer critic than the one residing within ourselves. Being a non-native speaker teacher of English offers ample opportunity to strongly feel doubt or the daunting idea of inadequacy. I can still recall the first year in my current school, when I spent a couple of sleepless nights over a small and what now seems ridiculous error. One student asked how to say a word in English, quite out of the blue actually, and I gave a hasty answer. After the lesson, it suddenly struck me that I had made a mistake.
You can only imagine the mental turmoil it sent me into! Not only did I frantically search for possible remedies, I actually started re-considering my entire career choice. Now as I read these lines, it makes me smile. I would like to pat this younger me on the shoulder, give an encouraging hug and utter some comforting words, a la Stop being ridiculous. But this tiny error which got blown out of all proportion, does tell a much more profound story.
Would a native speaker have reacted in the same way? Very likely not. I guess s(he) would simply have blamed the tricks the memory plays, or the twists the tongue makes and brush it all off. After all, what’s the big deal?! However, being a non-native teacher, even tiny errors can tap into the vulnerable area of legitimacy.
I started teaching English when still in Estonia. There, I never interrogated myself whether I was up to it or whether I had enough knowledge to teach the basics of this language to my fellow countrymen and women. But then life (and someone in particular) lured me to Switzerland and I was to start anew.
I love teaching (it runs in the family, really!) and I am passionate about English, so it seemed obvious that I should carry on teaching. However, being an Estonian who teaches English to French-speaking Swiss, I began to have feelings I had never experienced before. I started to have the constant need to prove myself, to validate not only my English skills but my status as a teacher as well. It is as if I am a teacher and a student at the same time. On one hand, I pass on the knowledge I myself have acquired over the years and then test my students’ progress. Yet on the other hand, I keep testing myself remorselessly too. It is as if I need to constantly prove to myself I have the right to do this job, that I am not a cheat.
These feelings of doubt and this need to get validated are not necessarily a bad thing (as long as it comes in digestible doses!). For one thing, I keep pushing myself hard all the time. As I don’t have the privilege of speaking English with no effort whatsoever, I am always on the lookout for improvement. I guess I get elf-pointed ears when listening to English. Not one unknown word should slip by, not one before unheard expression should go unnoticed.
Also, travelling the path of learning myself means I can ease myself with no effort into my students’ shoes. I can steer them away from possible pitfalls and share the learning techniques I myself am using.
And what’s more, I guess I make quite a down-to-earth role model. My English level is a realistic milestone for my students, something they could reach if they truly wanted to.
For me, English is like an enormous mountain that I have conquered to some extent, yet there are still peaks I can see and dream of reaching. So it is an endless climb. There are moments of despair where I doubt I’ll ever make it. And then these moments of pure bliss, when another milestone has been reached, the sun is out and the sky clear. This mountain will never be mine. But I guess I have wandered on its slopes for long enough to feel comfortable guiding others along similar paths.