Issues in the Professionalization of English Teaching in Asia

At least on Dave’s ESL Cafe, some of the most difficult issues that English teaching in Asia is currently struggling with concern the professional status of the occupation. Dave’s regularly posts discussions that address whether or not there is such a thing as a ‘real teacher’, what qualifies one to be a ‘real teacher’, and discussions of the personal behaviour and deportment of people involved in teaching English in Asia. TEFL in Asia is not a particularly self-reflective occupation. What I mean is that while there is a great deal of discussion about the status and qualification of TEFL teachers, there seems to be very little effort toward understanding the problem. The only academic discussion that I am aware of is David Nunan’s . However, his thoughts on the matter draw from a model of professionalism based in a sociological theory called structural-functionalism. Subsequently, his analysis focuses on the education and self-regulation of practitioners. While not wrong, it fails to take into account many of the more important aspects of professionalization that TEFL in Asia is struggling with. More recent studies of professional development, such as Burrage and Torstendahl, Thomas Haskell , and Terence Johnson’s 1972 classic ‘Professions and Power’ describe professions that work in a very different fashion from that which David Nunan assumes, and thus raise some different questions for the professionalization of TEFL in Asia.

What qualifies someone to teach TEFL?

From my point of view, the most significant questions concerning this issue involve the problem of certification. What qualifies someone to teach TEFL? The answer to this question varies enormously depending on who you ask. TESOL qualifications, for example, except at the lowest levels (in language schools for overseas students and migrants), are decided by the same groups that decide who teaches math in your public schools. Likewise, the practitioners of TEFL have very little say about what is important in a practitioner. The licensing of TEFL practitioners in Asia is decided by immigration and labour bureaus of the national governments when they issue working permits.

Is there such a thing as an ‘English teaching qualification’?

The reason for this last point is one of the main problems that continually emerge on Dave’s ESL Cafe; what does one can call a TEFOL qualification? While there is little doubt that an M.A.TESOL from the Monterey Institute of International Studies ‘qualifies’ one to teach language, what about the myriad of other qualifications available? This is especially disturbing when it comes to the well-known language teacher training programs referred to as CELTA and DELTA. Individuals qualified by these programs insist that they are among the highest level certification possible. Needless to say, this is not a universally recognized opinion.

While each individual reader will have a clear idea about the answer, it is important to realize that there is no standard answer to this question.

What is the relationship between TEFL and education?

Related to the questions above is the problem of where people with a B.Ed, M. Ed, or GDE sit in all of this. Should training that would qualify one to teach TESOL in a public school qualify one to teach to teach TEFL? Holders of an M.A. TEFL that I have spoken to don’t always express positive opinions about such degrees. And if that’s the case, where does this leave holders of an M.A. in linguistics or English?

It is possible to establish a hierarchy of qualification, and this is what employers do in real life. But if this is a legitimate practice, does that mean that someone with an M.A. in sociolinguistics or even no degree at all could also be ‘qualified’ if an employer deemed it necessary or appropriate?

How can ‘qualified’ English teachers recognize each other?

Much of the problem of qualification has arisen because there really is no standardized body of knowledge that ‘qualified’ English teachers need to master to become qualified. Put another way, could a ‘qualified’ English teacher detect someone who was not really qualified? My experience is that the answer to this is no. Unlike well-organized professions, such as medicine or law, the holder of an M.A.TESOL would not know questions or standard practices that would differentiate themselves from colleagues without such education. I base this statement on personal observations of colleagues who hold an M.A.TESOL who have called similarly qualified colleagues “unqualified”. In one case, the teacher became quite upset when I confronted him with the fact that the colleague in question did in fact hold the same degree as he did.

My feeling is that what a TEFL/TESOL practitioner ‘knows’ is much more related to what kind of certification they have and where it was obtained than anything else. Different kinds of certification stress different aspects of language; different schools stress differing amounts of practice or theory–or even completely different theories.

I may be wrong with this point, but if I am, I would like someone to point out the questions or practices that would make such a distinction.

What is the function of our professional organizations?

What all of this boils down to is the inability of TEFL organizations to gain control over the process that qualifies its practitioners. In fact, such organizations repeatedly state that they want nothing to do with advocacy for their members. While TESOL in the USA is attempting to establish a strong police voice and every state has a teacher’s organizations that advocate for political power for members, TEFL in Asia lacks any such organizations. As a result, TEFL practitioners left at the mercy of government regulatory bodies, are unable to define themselves.


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