I’m Chiva, I’m Guatemalan, and for 3 years I was a Non-native English Speaking Teacher (NNEST) in China. Meaning, I taught English even though English is not my first language.
How did that come to happen you might ask? Well, it all started when I was four and living a care-free life among mountains and active volcanoes in my little tropical paradise. It turns out that year my dad got a job in Tennessee (of all places, right?) as a construction worker, and so my brother and I were informed we were moving soon. We flew to Houston and drove the rest of the way. We bought a portable cooler and filled it with food for the 3-day trip. One morning after another long night-drive, I woke up in Cleveland, home sweet home at last. None of us spoke a word of English.
“This pink, this no pink”
My mom says I started trying to reproduce words and sounds from my new environment, but only gibberish would come out. It wasn’t until my first year of school that I really had the opportunity to immerse myself and become fluent in English. One thing that really motivated me, even as a kid, was seeing my parents struggle from not knowing the language. I remember one time my dad and I went to buy a camera and he was given the wrong color. He wanted a blue one instead of a pink one, but all he could say was “This pink, this no pink!” and point angrily at both. It was funny, but it also made me realize I wanted to help them and not find myself in that kind of situation.
We moved back to Guatemala after that first and only year of school I did in Cleveland. I continued to work hard on perfecting my English throughout school. I had a great head start but still had to study a lot to keep my advantage and fluency. After graduating, I eventually decided I wanted to be a teacher and help others on their path to learning English. I found out about TEFL through my friend Patty (also NNEST) and we both signed up for the course together. I enjoyed every second of it and finished with a Pass Excellent.
Looking for a job
What I soon learned: over 70% of the posts advertised on the biggest search engines for TEFL job seekers are exclusively for NESTs- Native English Speaking Teachers. Stubbornly, my friend Patty and I still tried applying to these jobs, but would get emails like these often:
Even the school where I was accepted to do my TEFL training would only hire NESTs for their English learning program. We focused on Asia since we heard it would be easier to get a job there as a NNEST. I would get my hopes up for a few days when I received a positive reply, but if being NNEST wasn’t a problem, our nationality would be the issue:
Korea and Japan were even more difficult to get in. I will admit, I felt discouraged at times, but my friend was determined not to give up. The turning point came when we decided to get in touch with a recruitment agency in China. Recruitment agencies have strong relationships with English schools all over the country and know which ones would be willing to make an exception to the NEST requirement if you’re good. After sending some recordings to them, we finally got a shot at a decent school in Chengdu, Sichuan. I felt like a million quetzales. I was in!
Guatemalans have visa-free access to 119 countries, which is not bad but still about 50 countries less than US passport holders. This is the case for a lot of other Latin American countries, so if you’re from this part of the world, plan your visa transactions well in advance! To move to China I had to get a Chinese visa + US visa as my flight was going through LA. I knew many friends and family members who had had their visa requests denied without explanation, and I was nervous. I went in with my stack of documents and sat down waiting while I saw
whole families walk away after being turned down. I heard my name being called out and walked as bravely as I could towards the counter. After a couple of questions from my interviewer, he literally said: “You don’t meet the requirements, but your China story is so ludicrous that I’m going to give you the visa”.
Let the teaching commence!
The school that hired me asked me to lie about my nationality from the start. They “didn’t want the parents to start asking questions or make them feel uneasy” and so for 3 years I was Ana from Los Angeles, California. I’ve never been to Los Angeles in my life. Some students would come up to me and ask why my eyes weren’t blue or my hair “yellow”. They didn’t mean wrong, they were genuinely curious since all of the other teachers looked like this. I was never able to tell any of them or their parents where I was from or share my cultural background with them like other teachers did in their classrooms.
During this time I taught kids from ages 4 to teenagers and even some adults. After a year I also started working part-time in a Primary School, to save more money, and honestly because I enjoyed it. Younger kids were easily entertained although require super high levels of energy. The beautiful thing about students this age is that they are free to make mistakes and laugh at themselves. If you can keep their attention, they will make you feel like the funniest most important person in the world. You face a completely different challenge when teaching teenagers, but what really worked for me was letting myself be silly and again making fun of myself a bit in class. This would immediately make them feel more comfortable around me.
You also gotta be able to improvise and think on your feet. One day we were playing “2 truths and a lie” with my older students when a girl decided to confess her love for another girl through the game. Um, I don’t remember this chapter from my TEFL manual? It was a rollercoaster, but my kids and my boss were happy.
Being a Guatemalan in China taught me more about tolerance, patience, and understanding than any other experience I’ve lived through. I would get mad at people for saying things like “Oh you’re from Guatemala, that’s in Mexico right? I love Cancun!” But I also laughed so hard when I was asked by a Chinese coworker if “Watemala” was where all “watermelons” came from. Money transfers took 2 hours, accompanied of nervous giggles and curious stares from the bank staff. They would literally push each other towards where I was standing because nobody wanted to go through the hassle of helping me out! It also took me through crazy situations, like going to Japan for a passport renewal because there were no other Guatemala embassies in Asia that printed passports. But we ended up getting a bit drunk on Ron Zacapa at the ambassador’s house for dinner on my first night in Tokyo, just don’t tell him I told y’all.
In the end, I decided to stop teaching because my visa situation in China was getting complicated. China can be particularly difficult because they are constantly changing and updating their entrance rules. I could have moved on to another country, but after 3 years I was ready to go home.
Why NNEST are good teachers too
First of all, we can provide our students with a great role model of how to study and succeed. We are able to say “Hey, I know how you feel, I know how frustrating learning this language can be but I promise it can be done and I will guide you through it” and mean it. Empathy and understanding are crucial aspects of language teaching and NNESTs hold the advantage here.
It is also important to familiarize students with the variety that is ‘out there’. Kids are not being given a very diverse or real image of what the English speaking world really looks like. This is wrong and even counterproductive. Now more than ever we are aware that accents exist, they are a reality, a reality we should all live with.
In the end, I don’t think one is better than the other. I just want to be judged by my ability, experience, and qualifications equally against anyone else who wishes to apply for the same job and speak freely of my background. Thankfully, everywhere I’ve worked as a teacher I’ve had positive reviews from both students and employers. Patty is an excellent grammar teacher because she knows the tips and tricks to learning it herself. So this is all I have to say to anyone wanting to teach English but feeling they don’t meet the requirement because of their nationality or race: “Remain as forward-looking as you can. Remember that we are working in the middle of a transitional period between mindsets, which can be a long and painful process. Tell the world about your experience because it’s voices like yours which help to change climates of opinion.” You won’t regret it.