When is a carpenter a carpenter, or a roofer a roofer? Is it after we pass a test and receive a certification, or some other time? It's a good question, and one that I was recently asked by a reader who was curious about my stance on being referred to as a Language Facilitator at work rather than an English teacher.
Here is an excerpt of the email I received:
Why is language one of the few professions (in your opinion) where "li[f]e experience" doesn't seem to add up to a hill of beans? It should be enough for a native speaker to take a "teahing [sic] course" with standards equal to the CELTA. I think a person with over 20 years experience using a language that earns a certification should be considered qualified without having an MFA.CELTA
is the Certification in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages; otherwise known as TESOL
. Under most circumstances, I would say that a person who has earned such a certification can certainly call themselves an English Teacher if they so choose however, being the kind of guy I am, I would be remiss to say anyone with CELTA can be considered a teacher.
According to the second greatest dictionary in the world, Wikipedia, a teacher is defined as follows:
In education, a teacher is a person who educates others. A teacher who educates an individual student may also be described as a personal tutor. The role of teacher is often formal and ongoing, carried out by way of occupation or profession at a school or other place of formal education.
By this definition, anyone that works in any role where they provide people with new information, thus enhancing the benefactor's skills, can be considered a teacher. But can this definition really be true for everyone?
Apples and Oranges
When I think back to elementary and high school, teachers were people who encouraged us to use our brains to discover things for ourselves. They gave us confidence to use what knowledge we gained, while simultaneously pushing us just a little bit farther than we could go. When we couldn't understand something, they could break the problem down into bite-sized pieces and explain it clearly. The really great teachers had the added gift of being able to infect students with enthusiasm for the subject, turning something seemingly as mundane as a terminal moraine or drumlin into something worth remembering. To this day I still find geology incredibly interesting thanks to Mr. Neil's classes and remember nearly everything from his classes seventeen years ago.
But can I do the same?
For the better part of my adult life, I've been enraptured with computers. Many people who spend as much time talking to a computer as I do often have rather poor communication skills. However, thanks to an insatiable need to read, I've been able to maintain a large repertoire of language that most people will likely never need under all but the most obscure of circumstances. On top of this, my spelling and grammar usage is usually spot on 99.985% of the time … which is what everyone should expect from a language instructor. While in the classroom I emulate some of my personal educational heroes, such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson … but is this enough?
Perhaps it is for some, but I have one flaw that has yet to be fixed: explaining why we use English the way we do.
Sure, I can sit down with someone and do grammar exercises, give countless examples, show how the English language follows a very particular formula in almost every common situation, but ask me to explain when we should use third conditionals, vanishing adverbs, and the nuances between antonym prefixes … and I'm lost. I've been speaking English for over a quarter century, and have been correcting people's use of the language for at least three-quarters that. But, despite my best intentions, I've failed to completely grasp 100% of the Whys and Whens regarding How we use certain grammar.
I've met a lot of people in Japan who call themselves English teachers that have told me up front that when a student asks a very specific question that they can't answer they either say "that's the way it is" or, worse, make something up on the spot. What offends me the most is that it's more often the latter than the former.
The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession.
-- Sherlock Holmes
What I don't understand, though, is how this is supposed to help the student learn a particular grammar point. Regardless of how trivial we might think it is, if a student has a question, they deserve an honest answer. Just listen to some of the people around the world who have studied English for years with native speakers and you'll agree … some of us do a pretty poor job of helping improve people's language skills.
This is why I will not call myself an English teacher.
Many people will argue that nobody can know everything about a language and that even the most educated teachers need to reach for a book every once in a while to learn something new themselves, but this is really beside the point. Despite emulating my educational heroes while in the classroom, sharing information as accurately as I possibly can whenever someone asks a question, and having a relatively high customer satisfaction record at the office, I cannot call myself a teacher so long as I am not a master of my subject.
People who go through the training to earn CELTA, TESOL, and other ESL certifications can certainly call themselves teachers. I have no qualms with people who use the title. My wife is an English teacher, and it's her third language.
For me, though, I will be a "language facilitator" until I have mastered my craft. Doing otherwise would be disrespectful to all the teachers I ever looked up to.