The pandemic forced the vast majority of us in the most diverse teaching contexts to convert to emergency remote teaching, with many now describing the experience as bittersweet. I think we can say that the world was reduced to a screen. The screen shows no geographical borders and so suddenly, teachers and students could be 10, 100, 1000 or even 10,000 kilometres apart.
Whereas the remote emergency teaching presented its difficulties, I think it was quite successful and to all teachers, academic and general staff, I salute you. So, if the pivoting to emergency online teaching was so successful, imagine what can be achieved with rested minds and good planning! The possibilities are endless, and this is something positive.
Not positive at all is the fact that many teachers have lost their jobs and schools have closed down. In many contexts, we have certainly realised how fragile ELT can be. But now we have begun the journey to the new ‘normal’ which will probably mean looking for new students and bringing back old ones. Right now, the quality of courses and the engagement of teachers are fundamental for schools to keep afloat. But there is another very important variable in this equation: the marketing department and your type of advertising.
Advertising is basically the communication of a product or service to a target audience. And this is my issue today: what schools communicate to bring back old students and find new ones. COVID-19 left many schools in very poor shape including major global payers, so the urge to do anything to find and keep students is perfectly understandable. But one of the strategies that should not be implemented is the use of someone’s passport as a selling point — in other words, advertising that the school has teachers whose native language is English.
With online teaching being so successful, the biggest players in international ELT such as the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia can potentially advertise their courses by implying that students can learn more/better from their native teachers. Teachers from the same countries might also have increased appeal because of their passports and not their teaching. I trust I am painting a very ugly picture here, but have high hopes that none of it will happen.
The native speaker teacher
The native speaker teacher can be defined in a variety of ways ranging from incredibly simplistic to utterly complex ones. In the most simplistic way, non-native English-speaking professionals are those who were born in foreign countries and who learned English in EFL contexts and thus lack native proficiency in English. Despite much effort from researchers and practitioners, this unfortunate, simplistic and imperialistic view is still much present in many contexts.
It is clear, then, that the native speaker is a very problematic concept that has been debated for decades. The dichotomy of native speaker versus non-native speaker teacher is an even more difficult construct to discuss. To write about these issues, I would probably use all my future blogposts, and it still wouldn’t be enough. A much more helpful debate is about what makes a good teacher regardless of the origin of their passports.
However, in many countries, many of us still suffer discrimination for not being a native speaker. I have. As a Brazilian living in Australia, I too was subjected to the judgment of my peers and superiors not about my teaching, but about the way I looked and/or sounded. That was when I found Marek Kiczkowiak’s website TEFL Advocates. He shares plenty of resources to help understand and fight discrimination against non-native speakers. A resource I particularly like is the letter/email template you can use/adapt to respond to job advertisements looking for “native speakers only”.
A school which invests in – and is committed to – professional development and has many good teachers is highly likely to have students who are learning and are satisfied with their course. I think you might agree that students who can actually use English, and because of that are achieving their goals, make a much better selling point than advertising that the school employs native speakers.
Marketing and product differentiation
It is true. We are all teaching English. So, what makes your school or course different? A possible answer to this question lies in product differentiation, which is a process to distinguish a product or service from other similar ones available in the market. The aim is to find/develop a unique selling proposition; in other words, what is it that the school/course offers that sets them apart from the other competitors. Also think about what is it that the school/course accomplishes that the competition does not.
There are many features that can be used in product differentiation such as price, looks, location, and brand image. But my favourite are:
- Features – what the course teaches and how it does it
- Quality – how well the course is designed/how qualified the teachers are
- Reliability – course taught by teacher x in the morning is the same as the one with teacher y in the evening; if I do this course and follow the instructions, I am likely to achieve my goals
- Post-sale support – the academic and non-academic staff is available to help me
I am unable to give recommendations on how to differentiate your English course from others simply because there are too many contexts in ELT. What I can do instead is suggest a possibility to help you and your team find the answer yourselves. Have you heard of design thinking?
Design thinking is a collective and collaborative approach to problem-solving focused on people. The approach tries to map and combine cultural experiences and world views to find a better and/or more complete solution to problems. This process also leads to the identification of potential barriers to the solutions and often includes viable alternatives to overcome them. Design thinking starts from the real needs of people, so it is predominantly a humanistic approach that can be used in any area, including education.
By adopting design thinking, you become deeply interested in understanding the people whom you are designing products or services for. The key focus on the initial part of this process is empathy. When you empathise with students’ problems and needs, you put aside common assumptions and start working with their real needs.
A good way to start using design thinking is by turning problems into questions and continue in this process until you find a root question. This root question is what will help you find your new course or strategy. Most importantly, since design thinking is a humanistic approach, we need people to collaborate, which means that all staff can (should) be involved as they have different points views which greatly helps innovative ideas to bloom. By involving teachers and other members of the staff, it becomes easier to understand unmet needs of students and that is a great way to think about new courses, new ways of teaching and different ways to communicate.
Advertising jobs for “Native Speakers only” is an illegal practice in many places around the world. However, it is those places where it is NOT illegal that I am mostly concerned. Choosing a teacher because of this person’s birth location is, at least, questionable, let alone advertising it as a selling point. As a multi-million worldwide industry, we can do better. We must.
So, let’s take the unfortunate situation that COVID-19 has put us in and do better. I hope you can use my tips on marketing and design thinking to help overcome the damage caused by the pandemic.
Do you have any successful stories you would like to share? I’d love to read them.