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Yes, you can.

Three simple words, small in number but big on truth and certainty. If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably been contemplating a career as an English teacher. But you might doubt that you will be taken seriously as a non-native instructor, and therefore there is little point in even considering the possibility.

The idea that non-native English speakers can’t be TESOL teachers is a MYTH. Some of the best ESL teachers aren’t fluent – and there are often ADVANTAGES in hiring them over native-speakers.

Well, let me tell you a little about my 30+ year career as an academic manager in English language schools…

In that time, I have worked with hundreds of teachers. And one unassailable fact I have found is that there are people that have a knack for teaching and there are some that don’t. Some take to teaching like a duck to water, while others find the profession a constant struggle. And the nationality of a teacher NEVER has anything to do with it.

An Excellent Attitude

There are three things I look at when I’m considering hiring potential teachers: expertise, experience and attitude. Of course, expertise and experience, which can be viewed together as ability, are very important. TESOL teachers obviously have to be capable of doing the job.


Ability is nowhere near enough on its own. I’m a big believer in the 80/20 rule – success in teaching is 80% attitude and only 20% ability. My general rule is that when I’m assessing job applicants, I allocate 80% of my ‘grade’ to attitude. Ability levels can change, can be improved over time. But my experience is that attitudes about work almost never change.

Some of the best teachers I’ve ever had – the ones who prepare well, are passionate about doing their best, and are focused on helping students reach their potential – have been non-native speakers. When I talk to students about these teachers, the feedback that I get generally has one common theme – empathy.

Non-native English teachers can understand the problems and stresses their students face because they had to face the same problems learning English in the past. They know what it’s like first hand to learn a language from scratch. 

Understanding Grammar

From time to time, I conduct professional development sessions for my teachers. When the topic of these sessions is grammar, the vast majority of the time the non-native English teachers show that they have a better grasp of English grammar than the native English teachers. Their depth of understanding is almost always a lot deeper.

The reason why has to do with how people acquire a language. Native speakers start acquiring English from birth as an innate process. As babies, they don’t learn grammar rules – they just pick up language from the people around them. They learn it in certain contexts or for particular functions.

Then as they get older, they will generally be able to tell you if something they see or hear is grammatically correct or incorrect – but they usually won’t be able to tell you why.

On the other hand, non-native speakers who learn English after the age of 12 find it challenging because they use a different part of the brain than children do to process a new language. They have to think consciously rather than intuitively. This means they need to need to learn, know and understand grammar rules because they need these rules to organise and put across ideas and messages.

This superior knowledge of grammar rules gives non-native teachers a distinct advantage in the classroom. Native speakers often avoid teaching grammar in the classroom because students often know the rules better than they do. Non-native speakers are not only good at explaining what they know about the rules, they can also explain how they came to know – the processes they used.

For example, when it comes to discussing a grammar point like the differences between a defining and non-defining relative clause for example, non-native teachers have a more highly developed awareness of the structure of the language involved. This means they can anticipate problems students will have and will have highly effective explanations and examples ready to deal with those problems.

English is a global language – there’s no such thing as ‘correct’ English

English is considered to be a universal language and the world’s second native language. It’s the foremost language of academics, business, travel, science, medicine and the internet. As an international language, English cannot be linked to any one country or culture – it belongs to everyone who uses it.

This means that English is a very dynamic language and is constantly evolving. For example, the language of Shakespeare is very different to the language spoken in England in the 21st Century.

But it’s also important to remember that just because British English is the parent language, that doesn’t mean it trumps other varieties. There are many different versions of English spoken all over the world – which means there is no ‘correct’ version.

The ramifications of this for you as an English teacher are that your version of English is just as valid as anyone else’s. As long as you are using the English language as a bridge rather than a barrier, it is legitimate and acceptable.

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