Focus on English: Are teachers of English ‘professionals?’

For language learners, finding the right instructor can be a confusing task

Image: Tima Miroshnichenko via Pexels

A woman was in my office recently, enquiring on behalf of her daughter about courses for teachers of English. I asked her, in Spanish, if she was a teacher herself. “No, señor,” she replied, drawing herself up to her full if diminutive height. “I’m a professional.” 

Rightly or wrongly, I felt a little put out and the incident stuck in my memory. But her implied questions: “Is teaching a profession?” and “Should teachers be considered professionals?” are worth pursuing.

The Argentine “English teacher” can be many things: private or state; primary, secondary or tertiary; full time or part time; large school class or small institute class; native speaker of English or second language speaker; graduate of teacher-training college or untrained; experienced or novice; employed or free-lance; group or one-to-one; the list is long. 

An “English teacher” may be a full-time teacher in a top bilingual secondary school, a semi-trained teacher in a provincial state primary school, a secretary who teaches an hour or so after before and after work three times a week, or a housewife who helps a neighbor’s child with their homework. Clearly, the word “profession” cannot be applied willy-nilly to all these kinds of “teacher”.

And it’s equally hard to pin down the meaning of the word “professional.” In the sporting sense of “professional” versus “amateur” it clearly means one who makes their living from an activity, sometimes with the connotation, to quote a handy reference book, of “a term disparagingly applied to one who makes a trade of anything that is properly pursued from higher motives.” 

Making a living

But there is another meaning of ”professional,” somebody who is skilled at something, good enough to make a living from it rather than just dabble. When people talk of the “professions,” they often think of lawyers, architects, accountants, and the like. This is what my visitor had in mind when she unwittingly insulted me. 

Improved public access to information and knowledge has stripped away much of the mystique of many professions. Do-it-yourself books cover everything from litigation to filing tax returns. Technological developments have led to revaluations of the relationship between the client and the professional. The expertise, behavior and indispensability of the professional has become increasingly challenged.

A parallel in teaching is the rise of learner autonomy and self-access. The client (read student) has in many cases the option of assuming a new role, that of informed participant in the decision-making process. This is one of the healthier new developments in current teaching methodology.

In Argentina, there is a relatively small number of trained English teachers who are native speakers, and most are in the private sector. Many non-native teachers have a national teacher-training diploma; some Argentine teacher training colleges can hold their heads high on the world stage. Sadly, many of these excellent graduates see better career prospects in the private sector, an issue that has become something of a hot potato these days. 

An unpoliced market

Non-graduate native English speakers and other untrained teachers also tend to end up in the private sector, in private bilingual schools and institutes, teaching in companies or as private teachers. Trained translators and interpreters with no knowledge of teaching methodology join the fray. This market is unpoliced. 

There are a great many untrained non-native English teachers out there doing excellent work in schools, institutes and business environments. Many students at teacher-training colleges teach while they study, doing their best to apply what they are learning and getting valuable experience. 

However, as in any business, there is also a number of teachers in the same places who have a very shaky hold on the language and very little idea indeed about how to teach it, let alone design courses, adapt materials, carry out evaluations and needs analyses. The same can be said for certain teaching institutions: put bluntly, there are people and places that would be a disgrace to a real “profession.”

This should hardly surprise us, as the same happens in many other unregulated areas of human activity. There are good teachers and schools and not-so-good ones. Sadly, the client often has no way of knowing which is which. Regulation is unlikely to provide an answer, and in any case, we already have a form of national accreditation. 

Perhaps the solution lies in the hands of real “professionals” in the field who might eventually join forces in a bit of consciousness-raising among the public at large, making learners a little more aware of their options.


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