seemed to keep telling me I had a knack for teaching. It started as a
child when I helped the neighbors’ children with their homework. Then,
as a teenager, my English teacher asked struggling students to sit next
to me. When I moved to England, I instinctively helped other non-native
English speakers whenever they needed. And even in 2010, when I finally
summoned the courage to walk in a room full of native speakers who were
also training to teach english as a second language, the trainer asked
me at the end of the class, “Have you taught before? You’re a natural!”
course not, I wasn’t good enough — at least, so I thought. I decided to
keep my TEFL certificate in a drawer. I had learned how to teach ESL,
but I was still a non-native English speaker. I was eager, but too
afraid to give it a try. My I-can’t-do-this attitude haunted me for the
next 18 months.
was only in Mexico, after having accidentally bought a flight from
Honduras for the wrong day, lost $400 in a house robbery, and cracked
the headlight of a rented car while leaving a car park in Merida that I
reconsidered. It felt like I had been playing a game of chess in
quicksand, and it was time to try something new. Maybe it was time to
face my fears and finally start teaching ESL abroad, and so I did. This
is what my journey as an ESL teacher AND a non-native English speaker
used to ask myself, “What if I had ‘an accent?’” I mean I certainly had
one, but what if my future students could not understand me? In the
end, the time I spent worrying about it was a waste of time. I could
speak faster or slower depending on the students’ levels and they always
understood me, even those who also had classes with American and
British teachers. Actually, after a few months of teaching ESL abroad, a
new native teacher came in from the Midlands in England, and she was
the one who had to deal with what I used to fear. Having lived in the UK
before, I didn’t have a problem understanding her, but the same could
not be said for the students.
Your accent – contrary to what you might think – will not be as big of a barrier between you and your students.
other question I used to ask myself was, “What if didn’t know the
answers to my students’ questions?” It was obvious I didn’t know the
answer to all of them, but neither did the other ESL teachers, not even
those who had high academic degrees and previous teaching experience.
as every student is unique and has a different perspective on life, so
are their doubts. No one knows the answer to all possible questions.
Naturally, sometimes natives struggle in explaining something they’ve
always just, I don’t know, known. They do not know what it is like to
have to learn their own language – an awkward truth I also had to face
when I was asked to teach my mother tongue. But, as a non-native English
speaker, I had to figure English out too. All those things that didn’t
make sense to the students, at some point, were confusing to me too.
As a non-native English speaker, you have the advantage of knowing how to learn English.
warm, humid day, the school supervisor and I headed into a hotel to
teach English to a few groups of students who were very frustrated with
their teacher, and consequently very unhappy with the school. We
prepared four classes together to prevent disaster and decided I would
teach first. As I started, the students pointed out they had already
learned that. It turned out the notes left on the folders for those
classes were all wrong. Suddenly, a light went off for a moment, the
supervisor’s face looked panicked. I stood up for a moment looking at
the right page, I thought of one activity. The light came back on. I
presented the new terms and while the students were working on that
activity, I quickly worked the next one out.
When the class was over I turned to my supervisor and I said, “It’s your turn.”
“No. You do it,” he said.
“But I haven’t planned,” I replied in panic.
“Are you going to tell me you planned that class?” We laughed.
my Portuguese heritage had something to do with this, maybe it was the
inherent quick creativity of being a non-native English speaker, but I
attributed the cause of this achievement to being a traveler.
Travelers make the best teachers, we’re quick on our feet and know how to roll with the punches.
one in the world is accustomed to improvising like a traveler. We
naturally go with the flow and find ways of moving forward, though
sometimes slowly, even when things draw us back.
know now that many non-native English speakers are put off from their
dream because it seems to us that English natives are blessed with the
opportunity of quickly and easily teaching English in a foreign country.
Nonetheless, good ESL teachers come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s
not defined by certification or nationality. A good English teacher
cares about their students and has a genuine interest in helping others.
Teaching ESL abroad is not about dumping information, it is about
helping students think in a new language. It’s about being compassionate
when a student struggles. And, in the case of a non-native teacher,
it’s to remind them that’s it’s okay. If we can do it, they can do it
Teaching English abroad is all about being able to connect with students and keep them engaged.
So, the cliff notes are: a native english speaker does not make an English teacher.
There will always be advantages and disadvantages as a non-native
English speaking teacher teaching ESL abroad, but that shouldn’t prevent
anyone from realizing their dreams, getting that TEFL or TESOL
certification, and starting a meaningful career abroad as an ESL
teacher. Take it from this non-native English speaker — it can be done.