Sirja Bessero on the nagging doubts of a non-native speaker teacher

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 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. 

28 thoughts on “Sirja Bessero on the nagging doubts of a non-native speaker teacher

  1. Congratulations to Sirja Bessero and excellent choice to Ken Wilson! I truly look forward to meeting you both in the near future!
    Wishing you all the best,

    1. Dear Eugenia,
      Your unwavering support makes my every single week!
      And yes, we will meet very soon, at the Loras English Network first Internation Workshop!!!
      Can’t wait!

  2. Thank you for sharing, Sirja (and Ken). You’ve expressed exactly how I feel as a non-native teacher. Beautiful metaphor. Happy to read there are more like me and that maybe that’s not so bad after all. Your post has reinforced my idea that by remaining an eager student myself I do not only reduce the risk of becoming a drowsy teacher, I will also keep on reaching milestones. Thank you.

    1. Hi Ingeborg,
      I am extremely glad to know that these reflections, these doubts and worries that are sometimes difficult to deal with, strike a chord with you too. Makes us stronger, doesn’t it 😉

    1. Yes! Keeps us on our toes. Can be truly exhausting but so very rewarding too, in the end!

  3. Don’t worry even Native teachers make mistakes!! When you’ve been living in a foreign country for too long false friends can trip you up and then there’s British versus other Englishes – when you correct a student and they say ‘but I’ve already seen/heard that the way I said it’.

    1. Hi Gorr,
      It’s a relief to read your lines. Sometimes, when my French speaking colleagues make language mistakes at work, I grab them by the sleeve and thank them for this sweet moment 😉

  4. I really loved it! So inspiring, most of us non native speakers need to prove to ourselves that learning English is a continuous process of learning and understanding. For sure, It was awesome the mountain metaphor!

    1. Hi Priscilla,
      thanks for your support!
      The mountain probably came because I am surrounded by them, literally!

  5. This is a great exploration of the L2 student in the role of the EFL teacher. I teach a TEFL methods course in South Korea for senior English majors and I am going to share this post with them. I think they will be able to identify with your perspective.

  6. Thank you for a really encouraging article which proves that I am not all alone in my doubts whether my knowledge of English is good enough for…you know, everything the teaching comprises.
    I am on maternity leave right now and I really miss teaching. I teach only 2 lessons a week and it is sometimes difficult to have enough time to make necessary preparations and even study hard and harder to get a feeling that I improve each and every moment.
    I really like your ‘vocabulary problem’. I feel som much depressed 🙂 when my students ask me to give the word in English which comes to my mind right at the end of the lesson when I am standing all alone with my students already gone :).
    Thank you one more time for a very encouraging article and please let me wish you all the best

    1. Hi Zuzana,
      Indeed, we are all familiar with this “on-the-tip-of-my-tongue” phenomenon 🙂 when that happens to me now, after 14 years of teaching, I look at my students whimsically and say “you got me!” and then ask them to look the word up in the dictionary. Or I might ask them to be patient and wait till the next lesson …
      Don’t worry about working too hard at the moment – first things first, especially the tiny ones 😉

  7. I love the self-compassion here ” I would like to pat this younger me on the shoulder, give an encouraging hug and utter some comforting words”. Something we all need to do once and a while. 🙂

    Thank you for this story Sirja. It made me look back on moments I felt the same, and also helped me see how much it pushed me to learn. There are definitely uncomfortable moments, but as long as we use them as a launching pad, then they are worth it.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Dear Josette,
      About self-compassion – sometimes, when I feel very bad, I imagine a little, tiny version of me living in my head and when I am nasty to myself, when I am the toughest critic on planet, I try to think of this small me who gets hurt by all this negativity … and I think I should rather cherish her and protect 😉

      Glad to have feedback from you!

  8. What a great article! One of the telling points was your explanation of the different reactions by native/non-native teachers to making a mistake. A native shrugs it off and a non-native worries about it.

    I have met a number of native speakers who made many errors but purely because they were native they were hired over non-natives who had not only better grammatical knowledge and skills but in some cases a much “cleaner” accent.

    This needs to change!

    1. Thank you for stopping by and leaving your encouraging thoughts behind!
      Sunny greetings

  9. What a reflective touching post! Congratulations for the wonderful thought , for sharing such sincere feelings and for teaching us all invaluable lessons!

  10. Likewise…I’m constantly feeling the need to improve my English (now, anybody correct my continuous for feel?!..). I must. I used to be very conscious about every single word I say in front of students, I still am but now I’m kinder to myself. I make mistakes – and I correct them. My students help me find a better way to say something, we think about the language together, solving these tricky issues if I get stuck because of that out-of-the-blue question. I think I’ve come to the moment when I feel at ease presenting myself in the classroom openly both as a teacher and a learner at the same time. As you say, a very down-to-earth role model.
    I’d find some words to say to that nasty front-row smart alec.

    See you at some conference very soon, Sirja!=)

    1. Dear Ann,
      Absolutely, a teacher and a learner at the same time, I love that.
      I’m so glad to be part of your PLN!
      Sunny greetings and hope to meet you in 3D soon 😉

  11. Thanks a million for sharing your reflections on this fear at least I have experienced often. However looking back, I think that when I started teaching I felt a lot less self aware about my level of proficiency in the language compared to native teachers . I could grab the mic in a conference and speak without any confidence issue.
    Then as time went by, I even experimented some moments of panic when it came to speaking in front of colleagues. And yes, there were moments that my internal devil tried to push me away from teaching. But teaching has always been my passion. I could not do without my students and I could not do without knowledge as my daily companion.
    Then with the tech revolution I felt like a newbie again, but rather than scaring me it has encouraged to climb a little higher. We might meet sometime over one of our hills waving our flags, I hope so.

    1. Hi Debbie,
      I wonder what it was that made you suddenly feel less self-confident about English… someone’s remark, something you read, hm?!
      As for being a tech newbie, I find it admirable when teachers who have been working for years with books and paper and feel absolutely cosy in that mould, take the leap into the unknown and go with the flow. Well done!
      And yes, the flags continue their ascent 🙂
      Best greetings from the Alps

  12. Hi!

    Excellent post. It is a climb for all of us, even NESTS
    You know, I realized a while ago that the people I respect highly, also highly respect me. That made me put things in perspective. You can’t win all the people all the time because they have their own issues.

    I am constantly reinforcing to both NESTS and NON NESTS that it isn’t the perfect accent, or birth certificate, or number of degrees you have but learning, growing, and teaching HIGHLY effectively. That is the climb.

    1. Thank you, Aisha for your thoughts here.
      It’s so empowering to know teachers like you are out there! and it is even greater to know that you share your beliefs about teaching with others as well. If that helps to change at least some people’s deeply rooted beliefs about NESTS being the best, well then you have earned your good cuppa 😉 As for the rest, as you said, they have their own issues …
      Sunny greetings

  13. Dear Sirja,
    Thank you for your very interesting article. It’s a complete reflection on how I usually feel. I’ve been teaching for more than five years. I’ve taught to a variety of students of different levels ( from Beginner to Advanced) in Russia, but I still have a feeling that there is an abyss between my level of English and a native speaker’s one. My husband is American, and it used to be very hard for us when it came to British and American English as I studied British one. Now I know two variants of some expressions and constructions. But still when it comes to looking for a job overseas, I petrify when I see “Native English speakers only”. It really demotivates me, and start feeling useless even having CELTA and TEFL certificates.

    The situation you described about the correction is another example of different attitudes of native and non-native speakers towards errors and mistakes. Moreover, it really depends on people and their behaviour because what that woman did was very impolite. It wasn’t a lesson where she was a teacher or an assessor, and it wasn’t her presentation either. Different people have different attitudes towards errors and mistakes but when correcting a person we should also think about his/her feelings and further confidence in English.

    Best wishes,


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