The semblance of an English teacher | Reflections

Do English teachers have a particular smell? Perhaps in your country, they smell of Chanel or something cheaper but not wholly unpleasant. Maybe where you come from, people associate this clade with some combination of body odour and/or cigarettes and/or coffee. Where I come from, people sometimes connect our glorious profession to the scent of jasmine. Why jasmine you ask? Well, if you adorn yourself with jasmine flowers, you are bound to smell like jasmine, no?

Okay, you are a bit confused but it’s all very logical you see. Jasmine flowers go with tresses of long, lustrous black hair (occasionally tied into a bun or cropped short). That hair goes with a sari (preferably silk or spun on a hand loom). And the sari of course goes on a woman (perhaps in her 40s or 50s) and that Indian woman is what I reckon a majority of people in my rhombus shaped nation immediately visualise when they think of an English teacher.

This whole discussion on NESTs, NNESTs and TEFL Equity is something I feel a little indifferent to. It’s not that I don’t empathise with the cause because I do. I have been through the gauntlet of countless applications and 100% guaranteed rejections; all these years of money and effort invested in learning Chinese only to hear that someone utterly unqualified got offered a position in China merely because the interviewer thought he looked like Harry Potter. So, I can understand the longing that Tesal Sangma and others who are in the spring of their ELT careers feel. In hindsight though, I am glad no one offered me a job because it spared me a lifetime of language school drudgery and sadomasochistic relationships with DOSes (gosh I find that abbreviation so weird). I enjoy my work with corporate India which provides me with opportunities to facilitate learning in a scope that’s far wider than ELT. While ELT is at the heart of my practice, informing my approaches and beliefs, it’s not necessarily what I want to design or deliver all the time.

So, you’d imagine that I don’t face the credibility issues my NNEST peers do worldwide. If only.

Indian English teachers

We don’t fit the box, nor do we ever want to.

Few seem to want to believe that people like my friend, Clarissa (in this photo) or I have any sort of credibility as ELT professionals because we don’t fit the ‘look’. At conferences, folks are stupefied when we tell them that we share their profession. They probe and discover that we don’t work with schools, tertiary institutions or government bodies, and then dismiss us outright. I still recall Clarissa complaining bitterly to a visiting academic from the UK at TEC15 about the contrived situation in which we are not considered teachers despite all our instructional zeal relative to our ostensibly chalk & talk critics.

What we have here is a knotted ball of multiple issues but there are three worth unbundling: gender, age and qualification.

A couple of years ago, a participant – a software professional – in one of my courses had a tête-à-tête with me about this job of mine. He wanted his wife to get a similar job because he thought and I quote that “it was a good job for married women, flexible and not very demanding.” I wasn’t being fatuous when I painted for you a picture of a woman in a sari as the archetypal Indian English teacher. It’s completely delusional to think that the number of female ELT academics in India is somehow indicative of how well they have done in the profession. Instead, I think it reflects the deep misogyny of a society which believes there are certain professions that are ‘suitable’ for women, ELT being among them.

And to be taken seriously by your peers in this undemanding, flexible profession that you find yourself in, you can’t be young. Young in India is a very subjective age range. While attending an induction recently, someone who I really hit it off with told me that on her table, two (older, sari-clad) teachers remarked on how young I was and how astonished they were to learn that I had already finished my Delta. I find this line of reasoning inane. I don’t consider myself young but that’s irrelevant because whether I have 2 or 12 years of work experience is not a reflection of my competence as an ELT professional.

I suppose one reason age is perceived as so very critical is the number of years you require to accumulate a booty of degrees and diplomas which funnily enough is the seen as the only way of demonstrating your credibility. India is the vortex of dud doctorates and post graduate degrees that do anything but further the disciplines of their study. A couple of years ago, I submitted a conference proposal which was rejected. I didn’t have any issues with this until I attended said conference and witnessed a dodgy professor presenting his even dodgier Multiple Intelligences study results; and he was one of the better ones. I wonder how much of my lack of academic credentialing contributed to my proposal being rejected. I can only speculate.

While globally, TEFL equity advocates are striving to redefine what it means to an ELT professional, in India no one acknowledges this rigid box labelled English teacher that you’re automatically meant to fit. To meet expectations, you have to be a woman. To make your voice heard, you need to be not young. To advance the discipline, you need a doctorate.

I don’t want to fit this box, nor do I want to live outside it; I’d like to tear up this meaningless semblance of an English teacher that’s foisted on us.


4 thoughts on “The semblance of an English teacher | Reflections

  1. “To meet expectations, you have to be a woman.
    To make your voice heard, you need to be not young.
    To advance the discipline,
    you need a doctorate.” – Well put, Adi. Very interesting and thought provoking. 🙂


  2. I am thinking after reading your post: is it just possible that there’s an element of jealousy in the critics’ categorical dismissal? If yes, then take heart: jealousy is a zealous form of admiration!

    The sari-clad, jasmine flowers-decked image is a stereotype – don’t you think? It used to be like that; especially in the South. However, things are changing…

    I grew up in Kolkata in the seventies, when it was still called Calcutta. There, those days, the typical English teacher was the Anglo-Indian teacher. At secondary school, we had Mr. Johnstone, a middle-aged gentleman as our English teacher – he brought to life passages and passed on his love for Literature to us.

    At the end of the day, that is what counts.

    Meanwhile, believe you me: in this modern world that lays so much emphasis on external appearances, being so easy on the eyes – dare I add, as the two ELT professionals are in the photo – is actually a boon.

    At least – as an attention grabber at the start of a class.

    Please to think about that…



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