Lee Mackenzie: Nothing prepares you for telling teachers they have failed a lesson

I had the pleasure of interviewing an experienced ELT professional based in Colombia. We talked about a variety of topics that may interest developing teachers who are thinking of getting advanced qualifications. I hope you enjoy it!

Lee Mackenzie is a teacher, teacher trainer, and researcher from the UK. After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in English in 2004, he spent several years working in Europe. Lee completed his Delta1 in 2010 and became a CELTA tutor two years later. He was responsible for running the first CELTA course at IH Lima in 2015. Lee then moved to Colombia, and he has been working as a lecturer and researcher at Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla since July 2017. In addition to a Master’s degree in TESOL, he also holds a PhD in Education.

Lee Mackenzie: Nothing prepares you for telling teachers they have failed a lesson

Let’s begin with a question about Barranquilla. How do you cope with the hot and humid weather in the city?

Two words: air conditioning. It’s necessary to have it on even at night!

You spent a year working in Lima. Are there any similarities between the ELT markets in Colombia and Peru?

I’d say the discourse of associating English with the West and importing ‘better’ methodologies from those countries. There are also issues in teacher education and the tendency to talk in the classroom like you are on a stage. Students often don’t get many opportunities to speak, and the learning that they have comes from private tuition or private education because there aren’t a lot of resources in the public sector. It doesn’t seem to be a priority for a lot of governments in the region, so it’s not a surprise that the levels of English are low in both countries.

I started my teaching career in Colombia through one of the volunteer programmes supported by the government. Do you think that this strategy is effective?

I actually wrote a paper on the Colombian government’s bilingualism policies, in which I analysed the ways they lead to social injustices. Some of those programmes don’t require teaching qualifications, but the foreign teachers are paid the same salary as public school teachers, who have a lot more work to do. It’s strange to see foreigners being promoted over locals for jobs that the locals can do. I think that when you look at the education system as a whole, they should be using the resources they have in Colombia and empowering the local teachers.

You have been a CELTA tutor for nine years. Could you briefly explain how one can land this position?

I think it’s about being in the right place at the right time. First of all, you need to work for a centre running CELTA courses, and they need to be willing to train you up. There is a lot of hard work, which is often unpaid, and then you have to do three courses at the same centre. Of course, now it’s not easy to fly to other countries to deliver courses there because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I see CELTA tutoring as a niche in the private sector, but there also other opportunities that are financially more interesting. For example, I’d recommend getting an MA and looking for work at universities.

The online CELTA is now a permanent option. What do you think of courses delivered fully online?

I think we are moving towards the hybrid model now. Some things work better face-to-face, but other ones can be done online, so I think the blended model of the CELTA would provide a good balance. You could do the teaching practice in person and other components such as the assignments online. It’s true that the face-to-face CELTA doesn’t fully prepare you for teaching online, yet there are many things missing when teaching only online; for example, grouping students on Zoom and in the physical classroom is completely different.

Do you think that having only a CELTA is enough for teachers?

Think about other professions that allow you to take a four-week course and start working full-time; it usually doesn’t happen. The CELTA just gives people an idea of what they are doing. Some candidates struggle with the course because it’s really intensive, so it can put you through your paces if you aren’t academically minded. An interesting fact is that most CELTA holders leave the profession within two years. Those who stay in ELT typically do the Delta or specialise in an area. There is so much to learn about English and how to teach it, and you can’t cover many different strategies and methodologies on a one-month course.

What was your Delta experience like?

I did my Delta at IH Barcelona, where Scott Thornbury used to work. I was lucky to be trained by Neil Forrest, who is an excellent tutor. During my eight-week Module Two course, I felt like a footballer who has to perform at their best every single match. I think it’s really difficult to sustain that level of performance in a stressful environment, and as a perfectionist I was disappointed when I taught a terrible lesson. I got through it in the end thanks to my tutors’ support, and the Delta helped me get my Master’s faster thanks to credit exemptions. Sadly, IH Barcelona closed last year. It does feel like an end of an era when big schools like that disappear.

Did the Delta prepare you for your role as a teacher trainer?

I think there is a gap there. When you come off the Delta, you’re not prepared to give feedback to people who have just taught their first lesson in English. You sometimes have to tell someone that they have failed their lesson, which can make you feel terrible. I don’t think anything prepares you for that, so you have to learn through experience. The best thing to do is to make candidates understand what went wrong and why they didn’t meet the criteria, but some of them aren’t open to accepting negative feedback.

Congratulations for completing your PhD! Do you believe that it’s worth pursuing a doctoral degree?

I know this sounds like a cliché, but it has made me a better person. I think that’s the most important reason for anybody to study anything. I don’t take things for granted and now I look at them from a more critical perspective. In my thesis, I focused on how education can promote social justice as well as injustice. When it comes to job prospects, a PhD itself isn’t enough because you also need to be publishing. If you want to work in a university, a PhD is obviously a big help. You can also benefit from it financially, which is another point to consider.

I really liked your interview with Marek Kiczkowiak on native speakerism and discrimination in ELT job ads. As someone who has been researching this area, do you see any positive signs when it comes to these issues?

I recommend looking up Robert Phillipson’s work on language ideologies. He says there are five fallacies in ELT, and native speakerism is one of them. It’s important that people like Marek speak about the issue because not everyone is aware of these ideologies. We just have to keep pushing and challenging in very gentle ways. In my paper on job advertisements in Colombia, I looked at posts on Facebook. What I recommend is reporting those ads that are discriminatory. Even as a teacher, you can ask your students what they mean when they refer to native English speakers. I think there are some encouraging signs. Nobody was talking about the issue twenty years ago, so the fact that many people are speaking out against native speakerism shows that things are changing.

1 The qualification was called DELTA at that time. Its name was amended to Delta in 2011, and the current title is used on this blog even when referring to courses that took place before the change.

The curious case of native speakerism in Colombia

A lot has been written on the topic of native speakerism. In short, some people believe that a teacher’s passport is more important than their actual qualifications and experience. That kind of thinking obviously isn’t very enlightened, but it’s something non-native English speakers have to deal with if they decide to get involved in teaching.

Fortunately, there are people who fight against this type of prejudice. If you aren’t familiar with the work of Marek Kiczkowiak from TEFL Equity Advocates & Academy, you can watch him being interviewed on the subject of native speakerism in English and Spanish. I believe that he provides relevant arguments to support his point of view. Most of that is common sense, but convincing people to change their long-held beliefs is the tricky part. I think Hugh Dellar made some great points in his post The curse of native speakerism, which was published just a few days ago.

Dealing with native speakerism

My own experience with native speakerism has been rather peculiar. When I got my first teaching position in Colombia, another teacher and I delivered classes to professionals involved in tourism. Both of us were referred to as ‘nativos’, even though neither of us qualify as native English speakers and we wouldn’t be able to get a visa in some Asian countries. I just figured that it was probably a marketing ploy to promote Colombia Bilingüe, which is an ambitious programme run by the Ministry of Education. Our classes were free of charge, so I just let it go.

Fast forward a few months, and I started teaching in a private language institute. When I introduced myself to my students, I openly talked about my origins. I described some traditions from my country and taught a few Czech words to my students. After the course had finished, the students were asked to fill in a survey and evaluate my performance. To my surprise, quite a few of them said that it was great to be taught by a native English speaker. Hold on, that doesn’t make much sense…

Then I realised that it wasn’t just my students who thought that way. I had sent my CV to the language centre of a university, and its director decided to interview me via Skype. It was quite an ordinary conversation until the director said, ‘Our new teachers have to take a language proficiency exam, but since you are a native English speaker, you don’t need to do that.’ I didn’t want to take the job anyway, so I didn’t respond to that. I guess they didn’t even bother to properly read my CV.

It all got even stranger when I spoke to a teacher born and bred in the USA who told me that some Colombians didn’t believe that she was from her country of birth. Then I read Cristine Khan’s research paper that focused on the same issue, and it confirmed my suspicions that it’s not just about your passport or accent. I think it’s obvious why I am incorrectly considered to be from an English speaking country while genuine native English speakers have their identity questioned. In many people’s eyes, a ‘nativo’ is simply a white foreigner.

I think this misconception stems from the way stereotypes work. If you look like a native English speaker, then you must be a native English speaker. To be honest, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable at times. I often get asked by students or their parents for private classes because they want to be taught by a ‘nativo’. When I tell them that I am not a native English speaker, they can’t get their head around it. If I am too busy to offer private classes, I recommend that the students contact some of the local teachers who might be available. Of course, there are many amazing Colombian teachers here. Some of them actually grew up in the US and their accent is more “native-like” than mine. Sadly, my suggestion usually isn’t met with enthusiasm.

As you can see, we are dealing with something completely irrational. If you wish to get involved in TEFL in Colombia, you need to be ready for the fact the country is still a bit conservative in some respects. I have already mentioned that your CV should include a photo when applying for a job. It’s really strange to see that some irrelevant features can be so advantageous. I know these stereotypes won’t disappear in the near future, but I feel it’s important to share my thoughts. When someone brings up this subject, I always say that looking at someone’s passport and complexion is a pretty unreliable way of judging their ability to teach English. We need to move on from those unhelpful ideas and make sure that teachers are given equal opportunities to prove their worth.