Learning English Native Speakerism Personal

How to introduce yourself as an English teacher

As someone who started studying English at the age of 8, with 2/3 languages already in the mix, I immediately perceived it as my language because I had a more consistent relationship with it and could take it with me in other contexts no matter where I was.

My family moved a lot, therefore I grew up in a variety of contexts and finding one identity to conform to was not an easy task. I went to an international school in Malaysia and that is where my journey with English began. I later moved to the U.S. for just under a year, but to this day it seems as though those were the experiences that led to me knowing English and becoming an English teacher today. That could not be farther from the truth, and I realised that well into my adulthood.

Before my big realisation, I continued to validate my knowledge and skills as an English teacher saying things like “I’m from Armenia, BUT I teach English because I used to live in Malaysia”, “BUT I attended a school in the States”, “BUT I speak English daily to my brother-in-law who is Irish”, or “BUT my grandma used to be an English teacher”, and the list goes on.

It wasn’t until I went to a conference that I spotted my own flawed narrative which gave little to no power to the main character of my life: me!

Why was I not giving myself credit for learning and studying to become an English teacher? Why did I have to distance myself from my own origin to comply with some kind of “norm” that in order to know English, you had to have come in touch with an anglophone culture, or you must have had a distant relative who spoke English to you as a child! It was paradoxical that I was trying to justify having this skill in the way that I was, and it took me several attempts at presenting myself at conferences to catch my own bias towards myself.

Flashforward to the present day:

I am totally confident about being who I am as an English teacher.

I smile when someone asks me if I’m from England or from the States. I say I am neither, I am Armenian.

I no longer feel there is a need to add anything else other than “I’m an English teacher” to anyone I meet for the first time…

…this is obviously followed by the question “where are you from?” with the anticipation of placing me in an anglophone context, and to which I answer, “I’m from Armenia, English is not the official language there, or the second language people speak”.

Most of the times, my confidence in saying that conveys the right message to my interlocutor and they begin to connect the dots. I feel that since my mindset has shifted, I can do much more for the non-native speaker category and help others make the same realisation, that is to say: a skill is not intimately tied to one’s birthplace or experience growing up in an English speaking country.

How to introduce yourself as an English teacher

I’ve created this little worksheet for you that you can use to keep your impostor syndrome on track. Please use it and share any interesting finding in the comments.

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Native Speakerism Personal Teacher Talk

I have a dream…(NN)EST

My journey teaching English as a non-native English speaking teacher.

When my parents named me they wrote my name in Armenian, as they are Armenians at birth themselves and so am I.

The Armenian language is very complex and ancient. It has 39 letters and it is really hard to learn. I personally never learned how to write Armenian, but that’s another story.

My name was spelled “մէրի” (mēri)… and it is pronounced like the English “Mary” name. However, since our documents had to be translated into a more international and known language, my name was suddenly spelled M-E-R-I.

The way my name was spelled soon brought on to many misconceptions as to who I really was. Spelling errors which could have been easily avoided, bureaucratic problems and mistrust, a bunch of lost opportunities in ELT and, well…funny stories too.

I will not get into now.

Instead, I will tell you how I got my first students.

Flash forward to when I came to live in Parma, Italy.

I began working in Italy as an English teacher, I quickly realised it was a better idea to write “Mary” on public ads to get a callback and say I was a mother tongue speaker instead of saying I was an English teacher with this or that qualification. It always worked. It was easier to start a conversation by saying that rather than have no conversation at all. Soon enough I had my first private students and a year’s contract.

I concluded I would first teach a lesson to later speak about who I actually was. Once I had earned my students’ trust, I could come clean and explain my position, as I am doing right now here in writing. I still feel like a fraud when I spell my name M-A-R-Y in public ads, btw.

My son running around in Piazza Duomo, Parma (Italy) – May 2021

I needed to make a living and I was being penalised for a spelling mistake, and even more so for being Armenian (the unknown country that would scare pupils away).

On paper, I had no business teaching English in Italy, and unless I somehow had a chance to speak to a recruiter directly in English they would never hire me based on my CV alone. This still continues today.

My conclusions:

People are afraid of the unknown. The old fight or flight response has seen generations after generations make the same mistakes in judgement, that is categorising people based on their origin, name, colour, accent, etc.

Somehow it is easier to make sense of the world by sticking labels onto things so as to keep everything well organised, in specific slots. If you give “it” a name, “it” will seem more friendly and less unknown.

I do think this reasoning might have made more sense in the past when one was born and raised in a given town or city, had spent their entire life in their hometown, and never as much as laid foot in another territory. Maybe their general traits could be more easily identified or guessed based on their environment. Yet, I also realise we could argue that we would not be able to define and categorise a person in that circumstance much like any other human being. We can be complex that way.

So what is the dream I have?

I dream for English teachers not to be categorised into Native vs. Non Native speaking teachers. It is not a competition as much as it is a desire to have equal opportunities in the job market.

I wish I never have to explain WHY I can speak English as someone who was born in a Non English Speaking Country ( or whose name is spelled Meri) to anyone who is pondering whether to hire me as their English teacher – in my experience, no one expects Armenians to know English well, and frankly, not many know what “Armenia” is. What people do know is that Armenia is not the UK, and definitely not the US, and that is just enough to blow any deal as of today.

The long and winding road of TEFL/ TESL. The_Non_Native_Speaker.