Lion Tamers and Circus Clowns (by Troy Nahumko)

At any moment between 4:30 and 8pm here in Spain, thousands of unqualified people are standing in front of children pretending to be teachers. This, however, is not a game of make believe played by kids with bits of chalk in their hands, but an extremely lucrative industry spread throughout every town and village on the Iberian peninsula.

…and it’s a game I play every weekday.

There are two widely held myths in language teaching throughout the world. Myths so deeply engrained and widespread that they might supersede Thor’s hammer, Mohammed’s muse, Buddha’s finger and Jesus’ loaf of bread. What on earth could be more powerful and believable than those?

The following TEFL axioms:Statue

#1 Any native speaker can teach English.


#2 Any teacher of English can teach children.

The above myths, of course, are completely dependent on your definition of a teacher. If you define a teacher as someone who can simply stand, or even just sit in front of groups of people and speak English…well your faith in the above myths is secure. However, if your idea of what a teacher is consists of something more, matters of faith begin to fissure and shake. One of the main problems in the language teaching world today seems to be that the former has many more adherents than the latter.

Reasons for the spread of this fundamentalist thought abound (money anyone?) but one of the more easily overlooked explanations is simply the how and why people end up teaching English. We all know that TEFL teaching is more transitory than birdlife in the marshes of Mauritania; with the most common scenario being where ‘teachers’ find themselves in a country where they don’t speak the local language and need some money. A quick stop to a few of the local language schools and before they know it are knighted teachers and are thrown before the little lions.

I am no different from those above.

My TEFL career started in an Irish pub off of Tribunal square in Madrid. My travel companion, a qualified teacher, had been looking for a job for several days and had come up with nothing but rejection. Yet that afternoon she walked in and said that I, not her, started work the next day. The difference between her and I? While she had the qualifications and experience, I had the right passport.

It’s here where I could have flocked with the TEFLese Mauritanian geese, muddling through a year or two, relying on charm and plain old luck to keep the classes that would have me and moving just fast enough to find some more when the discerning wouldn’t, then moving on to get a ‘real’ job back in the comforting_33_0034 embrace of an English speaking country.

In fact, to a point I did, but after a time I was tired of blank looks and extremely sweaty afternoons trying to bluff my way through the present perfect. I then decided to get some training and did what most concerned ‘native’ speakers do in a similar situation, I took a CELTA course. My eyes were suddenly opened to the possibilities that existed in a language classroom and began to see what a language class could be. I had put my foot, or better said toe, in the door of a career that would take me through places like Yemen, Azerbaijan, Laos and Libya.

Training courses, TESOL conferences, workshops, mistakes, didactic epiphanies and hundreds of classroom hours later, I considered myself a proficient teacher. That’s not to say great, but I think I had been through enough different teaching experiences to call myself a veteran. I had finally earned that Certificate in English Language Teaching to ADULTS.

But wait a minute…If my entire career has been focused on the teaching of adults, from kalashnikov totting tribesmen in Yemen to oil workers in Baku, why was there suddenly a 4 year old boy biting my leg in my classroom in Caceres, Spain? Well, you’re a teacher aren’t you?

But is teaching adults the same as teaching kids?

I had taken a job in my wife’s hometown, decided to settle down, put down some roots and now had to extract a boy’s incisors from my calf. I unfortunately had once been a proponent of myth #1, but before I knew it, I had become an unwitting missionary for #2.

Out here beyond the sprawl of the capital, a new myth springs forth from #2 and goes as follows: In order to learn English, children must start as young as possible and must be exposed to ‘native speakers’, with some academies boasting classes with children as young as 18 months. All this regardless of whether or not these ‘natives’ have any YL training whatsoever…not to mention criminal backgrounds.

Interviews can go like the following:

Pulse: Check

EU passport guaranteeing easy paperwork: Check

Nordic appearance and barring that, U.K passport: Check

Qualified locals need not apply, that is of course if there’s fresh native speaking meat to be found. The abuse the children suffer aside, this is perhaps the most galling of all. Qualified, trained YL professionals are overlooked simply because of their passport. A C.D player can provide R.P phonemes, but a hungover backpacker can’t be bothered to brush up on his language acquisition for children under 8.

The fact that this is allowed to happen in so many different places around the world astounds me. Are myths so powerful? True, some governments have tried to legislate against this, but requiring University degrees does not mean you’ll get teachers, especially ones who understand Young Learners. A degree in nuclear physics doesn’t necessarily include knowledge of the cognitive capabilities of 5 year-olds.

So here I find myself faced with the following option, one that may be eerily familiar to some. Either take on some kids classes in order to fill up the timetable and make ends meet or take up a bit of performance art and hope for the best on the streets.

Lacking juggling skills, I chose the clown act in the classroom.

Where does this leave my classes? Basically it’s a question of damage control and learning that 5 year olds can’t do very intricate things with scissors. Some might argue that time and experience makes you a YL teacher, I would argue against it. Some might also say “find a new job” while those accused might respond, “I would if I could.” Whatever the case, the best idea is to make it as painless as possible for both parties involved, both the learner and the ‘Teacher’ of the moment.

Thankfully, YL coursebooks are coming out of the monochrome gap-fill dark ages, as are the photocopiable activity books that accompany them. Luckily my YL classes are only 60 minutes (waaaay too long in my opinion yet a world away from the 90 that some suffer). With a combination of class routines, coursebook work and the less than odd photocopy thrown in (or should I say AT them), objectives are theoretically reached and with a bit of the aforementioned faith, something learned.

Entertaining…well, not all clowns are funny, but with the help of materials made by actual professionals, at least the classes might be engaging, which in the end is all that can be asked of an unwilling or unprepared teacher.

The debate may rage whether a native speaker is the best option for adults, but in my mind there can be no debate regarding children. Those with the vocation and the training are best equipped to face the little lions, and as for the rest of us…well maybe it’s best that myths die away quietly.

Note: This article by Troy Nahumko originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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16 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks, Troy, for being willing to share your story. I really appreciate your honesty.

    I think there are a lot of “native speaker” teachers who share your frustrations with being thrown into classes unprepared.

    And, I think there are even more frustrated “local” teachers around the world–amazing, qualified teachers–who are passed over for jobs because they happen to speak English as a second language rather than a first.

    Perhaps we can work to get you out of the lion’s den, and get them into the circus 🙂

  2. Hi Troy,

    What a great read! Thanks for the engaging romp through your experience and thoughts.

    I taught elementary school kids part-time for 9 years and realized that it takes a special personality to keep at it. Not mine unfortunately.

    In my first years teaching 7 year-olds, a little boy, Hitoshi, was on the floor barking at me throughout my entire first lesson. He continued this for about 4 months (maybe he thought he was speaking something we could both understand).

    I finally got the swing of things when I realized that they could keep it together for 10-minute segments. As long as I did something new, or offered a big enough twist every 10 minutes, they pretty much stayed with me.

    Thanks for sharing your article. I really enjoyed it and will send it on to friends and colleagues.



  3. If there’s anything I should agree with, is sadly, myth holds true in many parts of the world. English is seldom abandoned; it is often assimilated. In this respect, it is a long shot to imagine a non-native English speaker, abled and more clever at dealing with kids, will be the one who will be lead teacher in an English classroom. Kids do not want to learn language, they want to understand the person from whom they are learning the language. The best of us is the one that can fasciliate between the environment is brought up in and the kids themselves.

  4. Eloquent and hard-hitting, this is a brilliantly written account of the reality which lies in teaching English to Young Learners – and the TEFL trade in general.

    I sympathized: some of my first classes, ever – pre-certificate, were teaching kids in HK and yes, Troy & Barbara I too have had my leg bitten and juggled children in either arm while bending over to get another to draw within the lines of the apple on his sheet.

    Did he really learn the letter “A”? I will never know.

    Eventually things did settle down, I got some good books, found a rhythm to it and then promptly got out, got certified and moved on to teaching slightly older kids and finally, ended up teaching adults.

    But should I have been in that classroom back then: unqualified, inexperienced but with the right appearance and passport?

    I enjoyed your honesty very much and hearing more about your experiences traveling the world. Thanks for this and I also hope stories like this go some way to ending the myths that abound… and also prompt for a more professional take to our profession.


    • Troy says:

      When Barb first asked me to write this, she mentioned that she was sure it would strike a nerve with many teachers out there and it seems it has.

      As teachers who take the jobs in the first place, we could be blamed for some of this (and admittedly do share quite a bit of it really), but how ‘professional’ do academies and schools come off when they knowingly stick people with no clue in front of kids?

      No matter who’s at fault (teachers for talking the gig or even parents for sending their kids there), in my opinion it’s the schools that have to adopt some kind of code of conduct. The rest should then fall into place.

      Surprising really that Cambridge hasn’t jumped on board insisting on this, then flogging their YLCelta courses?

  5. Your experience would certainly be the same as most teachers of kids in Japan (including myself). From what I have heard this is the same in many other places.

    Does anyone know where one would go to find actual statistics on the industry in various countries i.e. who is teaching what age groups and with what qualifications. Everyone seems to agree that this is a problem. Maybe it’s time to do something about it.

    • Troy says:

      The part in the post regarding governments requiring degrees but nothing more was specifically directed at Japan, Korea and other Asian countries that demand this. A well meaning but misguided step really.

      It all boils down to qualifications. Would someone without any qualifications be permitted to teach kids in the U.K, Canada, Australia? Doubt it…

      If someone is going to teach people under 16 (maybe 14?) the equivalent of a PGSE, QTS or even a YLCelta should be required.

      Adults can choose their teachers while kids generally have them imposed on them.

      • Not only the are the education and qualification issues problematic but the security issues of allowing unvetted people to get anywhere near children should be addressed. It really is extraordinary that a country like Japan with its passion for paperwork and cautious approach to pretty much everything should allow this. I was in a classroom with small children a few days after arriving in the country on a tourist visa. My interview was about 15 minutes long and I had a trial lesson for another 15. What this proved, I will never know. Changed my life though. Beggars belief really.

  6. Barbara says:

    @Steven I think I had Hitoshi’s brother in one my classes. In that class, it was 5 minute attention spans.

    @Annie I agree that the ideal EFL teacher for young learners is one who is qualified to teach English to children AND understands the school system in that country AND understands the home culture of his or her students. That isn’t always the same as a distinction between foreign and local teachers. I would love to hear from some of the teachers passed up for the jobs Troy and others got. Do you know any who would be willing to share their stories?

    @Karenne First, thank you for encouraging me to ask Troy to write for me. His voice is vital if I hope to develop any sort of true picture. But, his reality is just one of the realities in our profession. Another, equally pervasive myth (IMO) is that “guest” or foreign teachers can only teach conversation. In secondary school contexts (at least in Asia) teachers like Steven and Dayle would teach oral language while a Japanese or Korean teacher handles the hard stuff–reading, writing, and grammar–often in Korean or Japanese. In some schools, it’s true team planning and teaching. In other cases, the foreign teacher is seen as a glorified pronunciation model 🙂

    Neither myth is terribly helpful for our students or teachers.

    @Patrick I have no idea where to find these kinds of statistics. If anyone does know, I hope he or she will contact me to add to this series! I assume that ministries of education know how many certified teachers are working in their various countries, and I assume that there are records of teachers who are in each country on teaching visas, but that wouldn’t help identify teachers who aren’t on a teaching visa or are certified but in another subject, or otherwise under the radar. I do have some teacher trainers who have agreed to share their stories in the future, so hopefully their contributions will help us develop a better understanding of this EFL elephant. If all we have are anecdotes, at least I can try to collect as many anecdotes as possible!

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