Having now moved back to the UK after working internationally for almost 20 years, our resident blogger David Dodgson takes time this month to look at current trends in ELT. In particular, he focuses on two positive trends that must continue to develop as our profession moves forwards while also highlighting work that still needs to be done.
One thing I have come to realise as my career reaches a new stage is that there is only really one good time to reflect: right now! Whether it is to focus on our own teaching, our students’ learning, our school’s performance, or the state of ELT in general, it is always good to take time to think, identify trends and issues, and consider changes and solutions moving forwards.
After a short stint in Kazakhstan at the end of a very long period of working abroad, I now find myself at the start of a new adventure – working in ELT in the UK for the first time. This (along with some much-needed summer holiday time) has given me cause to reflect on the current state of ELT. So, in this post, I’ve highlighted two positive trends that I feel are vital to the future development of language teachers and the profession as a whole (whilst acknowledging there are many other areas where change is also needed).
1) Greater Equality in Teacher Recruitment
When I first entered the world of ELT, native speakers ruled. I was told that my status as a native speaker, along with a CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL in my hand, would open doors for me pretty much anywhere. That turned out to be undeniably true. My Trinity course in Barcelona was filled with fellow Brits, a few Americans, a Canadian, and a New Zealander but not a local resident in sight. The same was true of the tutors and teaching staff in the school I trained at.
My first full-time job in Turkey continued the trend. The school proudly advertised its ‘native-speaker teachers only’ policy alongside its ‘No Turkish!’ rule. I later got a job working with primary school children despite no specialist training or prior experience, purely based on my citizenship. Again, it was a way to attract parents to the school with the promise of native speakers developing their child’s fluency (the local teachers would separately focus on the grammar side of things).
I went along with this all at first, but over time began to recognise the unfairness of it all. There I was with my 4-week training course finding better opportunities and conditions than people who had trained at university for four years. Thankfully, over the last few years there has been a positive change in this area. Initiatives like TEFL Equity Advocates have done an admirable job of not only raising awareness and challenging assumptions but also offering advice and support to non-native teachers in their career development.
I shadowed a Trinty CertTESOL course in 2016 and was pleased to see a mix of nationalities – several UK citizens and a couple of Americans but the fact the majority of prospective teachers were from EU countries and a few from further afield made for a positive learning experience for all. This has filtered into recruitment as well – over the last decade I have worked in schools with increasingly diverse teaching teams. One school even used it in their advertising, proudly proclaiming that with teachers from over 20 different countries, they could offer a truly international experience.
There is still much work to be done of course. Some countries still insist visas can only be issued to teachers from specified countries while individual schools still advertise ‘native speakers only’. However, we are moving in the right direction with attitudes changing amongst employers, students, and stakeholders.
2) Greater Inclusion
ELT has long been criticised for its ‘overly neutral’ approach to teaching materials. While coursebooks are a highly useful resource for many, publishers do tend to stick to generic topics, perhaps with a quirky twist to grab the students’ attention (‘The family who live without electricity’ or ‘My family has a pet spider!’). The same old topics of technology, the environment, family, work, and study dominate the glossy pages of our coursebooks, all backed up by stock photo visuals of nuclear families and groups of affluent friends enjoying themselves.
Over time there have been changes. Whilst working with young learners, I noticed that characters in wheelchairs started to appear in photo stories and comic strips (albeit usually with no reference to their disability whatsoever). The environment and climate change have also started to take a more prominent role in published materials. However, the idea persists that certain topics are taboo and best avoided in the classroom. Issues of inequality, discrimination, social injustice, poverty, and global politics are left out to avoid offence (or, cynically, avoid any negative impact on global sales).
There are individual teachers, of course, who create their own materials and use the opportunity to draw attention to global issues. However, there remains a distinct lack of diversity in materials. It is not solely a case of raising issues but also a matter of representation. Single parent families, same sex and mixed-race relationships, alternative lifestyles, and any signs of religion are absent both in the visuals and the text of ELT materials.
There have been a couple of recent well-received initiatives that demonstrate that a more diverse approach can work. Last year, on the British Council’s Teaching English website, Katherine Bilsborough shared a lesson plan and materials entitled ‘My Family’ which showcases a variety of family set-ups to better reflect the range of backgrounds our students may come from. More recently, Ila Coimbra and James Taylor have released a coursebook entitled Raise Up! which features a range of topics focusing on refugees, poverty, LGBTQI+, and working condition. Tyson Seburn has also designed a coursebook unit with greater representation in its language samples and accompanying visuals while still focusing on target language.
While we may not see ideas such as these in the next edition of any major coursebooks, these lesson plans and coursebook ideas show that there is no need to steer clear of any ‘controversial topics’. They can be incorporated into our lessons and used to engage students more than the typical bland materials that have dominated classrooms for so long.
It is great to see that these two assumptions of the pre-eminence of native speakers and the need to ignore alternative issues and difficult topics are now being widely challenged. There is still much work to be done and discussions to be had, but with initiatives like those highlighted in this post, we can use those discussions to exchange ideas, explore new directions, and improve the quality of teaching and learning in our ELT classrooms.
If you want to join the discussion now, why not start in the comments section below?