Gavin Dudeney recently wrote an interesting post on his blog about egos and self-promotion on twitter. As interesting as that discussion has become, the title of my blog post here looks at a different angle when it comes to egos and what VIPs in ELT do or do not say (well).
I (possibly like you) have met my fair share of ELT VIPs. For the most part, I can say with all confidence that they are some of the most interesting, likeable, and considerate people any profession could wish for in the way of motivators and role models.
However, fairly or unfairly, ELT is an industry that tends to create some absolutely enormous egos, and I'm not entirely sure that the holders of those egos actually realise the damage they are capable of inflicting, especially when they are careless enough to remain ignorant of a particular learning context while at the same time making some pretty big claims about what should or shouldn't be happening there.
At a recent conference in East Asia, a particularly eminent VIP chose his main plenary speech to lament the preponderance and negative influence of so-called "backpacker teachers" in Asia. "Lack of teaching qualifications" he railed, "eroding the quality of our profession", "just out and about to travel and have a good time", and that sort of stuff. Actually, it was borderline out-and-out mockery, from what I hear. Given this VIP was presenting at a conference in a country where a considerable number of what might be defined (in his terms - technically anyone without an education degree, a CELTA or possibly even an MA TESOL) "backpacker teachers" were present, this little rant pleased some people and really insulted a lot of others. Considering the VIP's stature in the profession, it also put up some steel bulwarks around an already solidifying stereotypical generalisation.
Probably most importantly, however, the comments came from an unqualified perspective (this man has never taught in this particular context) and did absolutely nothing to help understand or rectify what are actually potentially valid concerns.
This VIP was careful not to attack the private institutes (who buy his coursebooks in droves, of course), whose selection criteria for new teachers from abroad most often consists of "native speaker? capable of movement? pulse?" (and not necessarily in that order). He was also very careful not to criticise the laws and policies of the country in question, which (let's face it) become the governing threshold determining what sorts of 'teachers' can legally gain entry to start with.
In fact, he was very careful to leave the chickens alone entirely, feathers completely unruffled, and go directly for the eggs. And eggs of a particular colour, too. He focused specifically on the "native speakers" and (again, showing a rather selective sense of diplomacy) completely ignored the fact that a great many local teachers are as or even less qualified to teach English as the native speakers they work alongside.
I'm up for more teacher development and certification. I'm particularly up for promoting this at the institute level, where even the most inexperienced and 'unqualified' teacher (irrespective of native or non-native status), over the course of a one year contract, can become really bloody good at what they do, provided they have a supportive environment that includes regular in-service training and development. It's NOT actually that hard to do. And while there is certainly a level of reliability attached to CELTAs, I've met and worked with holders of dodgy cereal packet (my apologies in advance, but the majority of them were Canadian) TESOL Certs who were actually less prepared for this particular teaching context than the people who came with nothing but an open mind and a willingness to learn on the job, and respect the environment in which they had come to work.
I'm wondering if this VIP was aware of the vilification native speaker teachers have been experiencing in this country based on some very one-sided media coverage that took a few isolated examples of "naughty" or generally less than professional behaviour, plus a few fake degree holders, and made them into generalisations bordering on dangerous. Perhaps he did in fact know, and was just pandering to it. Perhaps he had no clue at all, read a newspaper on the plane, and threw it into his plenary figuring it was going to make him look all aware and down-to-earth with his conference audience. And/or, perhaps - just perhaps, this wally actually had no idea what he was talking about.
I'm not saying ELT VIPs need to jet in and address a particular context's English teaching trials and tribulations with a vengeance. I am saying, however, if you don't actually know what you are talking about, or what effect it could have (lasting a whole lot longer than it takes for the VIP to catch the taxi back to the airport), then - well, shut your trap. Concentrate on something else like task-based learning or corpus-based linguistics, which teachers love to hear about because it's not something they're likely to ever be able to use in their classrooms...
By the way, the particular ELT context I have addressed here has a very prominent chain of English language academies called TOSS ENGLISH (check them out - seems they're gearing up for a Winter TOSS Fest). I have a strong suspicion that they sponsored the plenary speaker in question, or at least - um, lent a hand in some way or another.