25th March 2019

Overcoming self-doubt as a non-native English teacher

By Karin Xie

Teachers and teacher trainers, native speakers and non-native speakers alike, although having some of the best qualifications around, still have the odd stumble and doubt their language ability. Doubts can arise with vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation. I've noticed this happens more with non-native speakers like myself. I hold a range of certificates in English and TESOL including the highest in Mainland China for English major students – TEM 8, and a Trinity Diploma in TESOL. I feel it's important to discuss these doubts and embrace the idea that all English teachers should remain as language learners as part of our own development.

Reflecting on the problem above, our feeling of being uncertain and unconfident could come from the following reasons: firstly, as non-native speakers we've learned too much about the rules, i.e., vocabulary and grammar for exams rather than communication skills and language skills when we studied English in school. It is a very different context at work using English for practical and communicative purposes. Secondly, our exposure of language depends largely on our life experiences. For example, I have never used the word “ladle” in my life because I was never exposed to it in real life and it escaped all my random reading and movie watching. So it’s very possible for us to come across some random language items that we think we should know (even in our L1!) but we don’t. Thirdly, for the majority of our teaching time we need to grade our language down to make it comprehensible for our learners. We've all had the issues with breaking instructions down when dealing with beginner students. After doing this for years, our own English could drop more than we realise if we don’t deliberately keep learning (this applies to native English teachers too). Last but not least, English as the most widely used language is always evolving. There is new stuff to learn every single day. There’s a definite need for teachers to maintain the role of a language learner to adapt to the ever-changing language.

It’s fine to feel uncertain as long as we are prepared to keep learning. The key point is, how do we continue learning? Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Find learning resources that suit you and fit into our busy schedules. Podcasts are my favourite go-to resources because they are super convenient, varied and inspiring. “TEFL Training Institute” and “TESOL Pop” are both bite-sized podcasts that provide useful insights and practical suggestions for teachers, trainers and managers. I have seen teachers use magazines, e-books, APPs, websites, blogs and even TV series to keep their English skills sharp as well as picking up other skills like cooking. Using English as a tool to learn about things you are interested in or simply to entertain ourselves is the best way to learn.
  2. Keep an “authentic English environment” for yourself. My English improved faster than ever, when I started using English at work. If you don’t work with English speaking people, going to social events where you can speak English is a good idea. Language exchange APPs like “Hello Talk” could also work if you are shy or like online chatting.
  3. During lesson planning, make good use of resources such as corpus, online dictionary and English Profile to research about and analyse the frequency, function and collocation of the target language. Don’t be afraid to say to your students, “I’m not so sure about that. Shall we do some research and find out more together later?” when you are teaching.
  4. Learn beyond the language. Social and cultural factors contribute substantially to the language which are often not included in books. Traveling is probably the best way to experience and learn about them.
  5. Learn about classroom discourse and meta-language. It is important for teachers to study the language we need to manage learning in the classroom and communicate effectively with other English teachers in professional contexts. The learning of “meta-language” enables us to speak the language used within the English language teaching community. Obtaining international qualifications and joining CPD programs are some of the best ways to reach that level. Future Learn often has good online courses on pedagogy and linguistics.

Being a language learner gives us a lot of advantages as a non-native language teacher. It allows us to be in our students’ shoes, understanding their motivations and needs and the strategies needed for learning the language as well. Forget about teachers as the perfect model for language. Remaining as an English learner can be rewarding both personally and professionally.

Are you dealing with doubts as an English language teacher? If you're in Hong Kong, come and join one of our upcoming professional development workshops hosted by teacher trainers at English for Asia. 

Karin Xie began her ESL career teaching kids and then moved on to teach a range of age and skill levels. In 2015 she completed her Trinity CertTESOL and completed her Trinity DipTESOL in 2017. Karin has also worked as a Senior Teacher and an in-center trainer, presented at and organized two Teachers' Conferences and conducted research for her Diploma in TESOL on teacher questioning in classrooms, learner autonomy and the impact English environment has on learning. She is now the academic manager for Trinity China office.