The idiom ‘the elephant in the room’ is popular within some communities of English users to denote something that is present or obvious, but for some reason, no-one is acknowledging it. So it has been that, approximately since the turn of the century, the number of experienced non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) on courses such as the Cambridge CELTA and the Trinity CertTESOL has steadily increased. Yet until very recently, there was very little discussion of it as a changing reality. It was more frequently greeted as a puzzling oddity by trainers: “Why would they want to do this course?” While many centres welcomed NNESTs as a new source of revenue, trainers were sometimes less welcoming; “Just as long as they don’t expect me to change anything”, as I heard one trainer recently declare. The attitude of many in the industry, even today, is that this course is meant to be ‘initial’, so anyone who doesn’t fit the historical mould must like it or lump it. If required, the syllabus is invoked to justify this, where it is stated that CELTA,

… is an introductory course for candidates who have little or no previous English language teaching experience. It may also be suitable for candidates with some experience but little previous training (Cambridge ELA, 2018, p. 2).

So that’s that. Case closed. “I’m in my rights”, the recalcitrant trainer might conclude.

Outing the elephant

At IATEFL Brighton in April, as well as presenting both quantitative and qualitative evidence indicating significant differences between the backgrounds, needs, and future teaching contexts of native and non-native speaker participants on CELTAs and CertTESOLs (see Anderson, 2016, 2018a), I also predicted (also based on data) that 2018 may be the first year that candidates self-identifying as non-native speakers of English will outnumber those self-identifying as native speakers. I also presented data indicating that such non-native speakers are c.8 times more likely to have prior experience than their native speaker counterparts (Anderson, 2018c). So, although there is massive variation between course contexts, the reality is that most trainers today are delivering a course historically created (and still intended) for inexperienced teachers to cohorts consisting either entirely of experienced NNESTs (as frequently happens outside Anglophone countries) or combinations of experienced (mainly non-native) teachers and inexperienced (mainly) native speakers with very different personal backgrounds, needs and future prospects.

At the same IATEFL conference, I listened to a representative of Cambridge ELA make frequent reference to the fact that the Cambridge CELTA is “swallowing up other courses for breakfast”, revealing a concern within the organisation that, despite their efforts, it is attracting candidates who should, in their opinion, be taking courses designed specifically for experienced NNESTs, such as the ICELT, the CELT-P and the CELT-S. The implication, intended or not, was that the CELTA is out of control.

So what exactly is happening?

Clubbed together Cambridge CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL certify between 10,000 and 20,000 teachers annually. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? However, there are approximately 85 million teachers working at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels in the world (Roser, 2017), at least 5 million of whom are, at least sometimes, teachers of English (my estimate). What’s happening is that a tiny percentage of this 5 million are choosing to take these courses, and thereby having a serious impact on course participant demographics.

So why are qualified, experienced teachers taking such courses? Well, for a full overview, please see my research into this (Anderson, 2016, 2018a, 2018b), but, in a nutshell, most are doing it for a combination of two reasons: career development and personal interest, although the relationship between these two factors is complex and varies for each teacher. With regard to career development, those either in, or hoping to move into the more lucrative private sector see such initial certification courses (henceforth ICCs) as a useful boost to their CV and earning potential. Private primary and secondary schools in some countries are even marketing the fact that they have ‘Cambridge qualified teachers’ to attract new students. With regard to personal interest, there also seems to be genuine interest in the methodology behind a qualification that so many Anglophone teachers of English seem to have, and organisations like the British Council require for employment. What’s more, they’re paying for it out of their own pocket, which for many teachers in Egypt or India means investing over a year’s salary in a 4-week course (Anderson, 2018b). That makes it very high stakes for some participants.

After completing ICCs, approximately half of the teachers in one of my studies (Anderson, 2018a) reported a positive impact on their career development, meaning that it is reaping rewards for some. However, the other half painted a rather different picture, one of international discrimination to NNESTs already well documented in the ELT industry (Mahboob & Golden, 2013; Richardson, 2016; also see For example, one science teacher who had a UK PGCE and several years of teaching experience in the UK, after taking a CertTESOL to enable her to work in English medium schools internationally, met blatant discrimination towards her, just because her first language happened to be French:

Last year I applied for a job in a top International School in Bangkok and they openly told me they would only consider English native speakers for the position, even for the teaching of Science. (from Anderson, 2018a, p. 43)

For many others, the “dream” of international mobility—almost guaranteed to English native-speaker graduates irrespective of their prior experience—remained just that; a dream, despite the fact that most also had significantly more extensive training (often 1 year) than a 4-week course can offer.

With regard to the methodology, a similar picture emerged. Most find it possible to make use of what they learn on ICCs, although significant adaptation is often required, what I have called “critical appropriation” of course content (Anderson, 2018c), something that CELTA and CertTESOL tutors should be aware of. And others have found that the course had a very different impact in their classrooms:

I decided to use all the knowledge [learnt on the course] in my lessons of English. To my great disappointment, students began to complain and leave the group saying that my lessons are too complicated and they didn’t understand anything. (from Anderson, 2016, p. 269)

She went on to report that she lost her job (unpublished data). This was an exceptional story, but not the only one of this type I learnt of.

What does this mean for the ‘future of training’?

First, we should qualify what we mean by ‘training’. Here I’m presuming we’re talking about the future of the delivery of initial certification courses marketed at candidates intending to teach adults in the private EFL industry, rather than, for example, national teacher education qualifications certifying them to work in mainstream education in their own country, where the vast majority of ‘training’ of teachers happens—few people in TEFL are qualified to make any predictions about the latter.

That qualified, I think we can expect the current trend to continue, with experienced non-native speakers becoming pretty much the default candidate profile. And we can expect the syllabi to gradually change to accommodate this. Such changes have already occurred, with the CertTESOL course objectives changing in 2017 on the Trinity website to recognise that alongside inexperienced trainees, it may also be taken by teachers “with experience who require an internationally recognised initial teacher education qualification” (Trinity College London, n.d.), and the CELTA syllabus finally explicitly recognising the L1 as a valid resource for teaching earlier this year (Cambridge ELA, 2018, p. 11). But syllabi are always necessarily conservative, and will tend to follow where the practices and beliefs of the community lead. That’s where we come in as trainers, or rather, as teacher educators…

Teacher ‘trainers’ or ‘educators’?

If we consider ourselves to truly be teacher educators, rather than merely deliverers of training (see Freeman, 1989), we must recognise that we can lead on these imminent changes, by understanding what the syllabi are and aren’t saying, so that we can accommodate the needs of our teacher-learners (I refuse to use the word ‘trainee’ to refer to experienced colleagues) more effectively. Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of working with some of the most experienced CELTA tutors on the planet and one thing I’ve learned from them (among many) is that if you truly understand the syllabi of such courses, they are actually surprisingly flexible, and allow for a wide range of input sessions, significant adaptation of assignments, and varying interpretations of both teaching and planning criteria appropriate to learners, materials, contexts and constraints. They allow us to conduct TP feedback so that we (including me, the tutor) explore our beliefs about teaching and learning critically in ways that are edifying to all.

Of course, there are criteria to be met, and on that front I recommend that you step away from personal investment in such criteria. Don’t see them as best practice (there’s no evidence that they are), posit them as a shared goal for everyone (both you and your teacher-learners) within the course community. Explain that when you do offer recommendations for change, it is merely to meet these criteria, and that you do not intend to criticise them as teachers or to criticise their wider classroom practice. This is likely to reduce conflict, remove affective barriers (at least in part) and establish a stronger community of practice that will enable the suggested exploration to occur.

Of course, you don’t have to change anything. If you want, you can continue to train cohorts with the same assumptions that you’ve always had. You can continue to keep your own values and beliefs unchallenged, repeating the same 4-weeks’ experience over and over again, rather than gaining (new) experience yourself. You can continue to perpetuate the pattern of discrimination, native-speakerism and methodological dogmatism that exists in the industry, despite the fact that you may have no understanding of the context to which these teachers are returning, or the impact that your ‘training’ may have on their future careers, or their students’ livelihoods. That’s your choice: to be a trainer or to be a teacher educator.

jason andersonJason Anderson is a teacher, teacher educator and award-winning author of books and research for language teachers. He will be participating in the IH Future of Training Conference (23-24 November 2018) at IH London. He has recently developed three CELTA / CertTESOL inputs useful on courses with experienced participants, all of which are freely available on his website (Resources section), where links to all of his papers and talk below can also be found:


Anderson, J. (2016). Initial teacher training courses and non-native speaker teachers.” ELT Journal, 70(3), 261–274.

Anderson, J. (2018a). The role of initial teacher training courses in the professional development of experienced non-native-speaker English language teachers. ELT Education and Development, 21, 37-46.

Anderson, J. (2018b). ‘Buying in’ to communicative language teaching: The impact of ‘initial’ certification courses on the classroom practices of experienced teachers of English. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching (advance access).

Anderson, J. (2018c, April). What impact does CELTA have on the classroom practices of experienced teachers? Paper presented at the 52nd IATEFL Annual Conference, Brighton, UK. Slides here:

Cambridge ELA. (2018). CELTA syllabus and assessment guidelines(5th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge English Language Assessment.

Freeman, D. (1989). Teacher training, development, and decision making: A model of teaching and related strategies for language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly, 23(1), 27-45.

Mahboob, A. & Golden, R. (2013). Looking for native speakers of English: Discrimination in English language teaching job advertisements. Voices in Asia Journal, 1(1), 72–81.

Richardson, S. (2016). The ‘native factor’, the haves and the have-nots… and why we still need to talk about this in 2016. Paper presented at the 50th IATEFL Annual Conference, Birmingham, UK.

Roser, M. (2017). Teachers and professors. Published online at Retrieved from:

Trinity College, London. (n.d.). CertTESOL Course Objectives.Published online at Retrieved from:

Learn from our experts at IH London

We’d love for you to visit and learn with us. Explore our courses and if you’d like any help choosing a course, just let us know. 

Contact us

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *