Cultural gatekeepers make for bad teachers

The lock on the gates at Yarls Wood Detention centre, photo from the Action Foundation

A bad native speaker teacher sees the British as we and the students as they, as ‘Johnny foreigner’.

By Phil Hall

For many years I taught Asylum Seekers. Many of them had been in the UK for quite a few years. What upset me was to come across young people who had been in the UK for the same amount of time as my own children, but who still spoke English with an accent. They made many mistakes and had trouble writing essays.

In particular, I remember one young woman. She was from Peru, a vivacious 17-year-old. She told me her family had left Peru because they had lived in an area where the Sendero Luminoso and the Army were at loggerheads. This student had arrived five years before, but her English was still weak.

I think I know how it happened.

When you become a vet, you don’t imagine that you will spend time putting down animals. When you become a librarian, you never think you will spend much of your time throwing away books. When you become a park ranger to protect wildlife, perhaps you don’t imagine that you will be culling deer or rooting out ‘alien’ species of plant. When you become a social worker, you don’t foresee that you will be breaking up families.

When you become a vet, you don’t imagine that you will spend time putting down animals.

When you become a teacher, sometimes inadvertently, you don’t imagine that you will destroy people’s ability to learn and their self-esteem. Think of it. A student embarks on an adventure of learning. He is barely out of the harbour when he* is told.

You are an average student, or You are not achieving, or You are ‘quite’ good.

The teacher ranks her students and passes and fails them right from the beginning.

But this is an innocent, someone new to a subject who might just begin to conceive a desire for knowledge. Before this student even gets properly started the student is labeled. Expectations of the student are controlled from the beginning.

I remember when I went on a racism awareness course organised by my local authority. In fact, the course seemed designed to reinforce racism. A balding, grey-white man in a polyester suit ran it.

The racism awareness course actually began by otherising everyone who wasn’t white.

He gathered together the white teachers in the adult education college I worked at–including a few east Europeans, Portuguese and Spanish. Then he asked the questions:

What do we think about them?

How do we feel about them?

Think about that for a second. What do we think about them? The racism awareness course actually began by otherising everyone who wasn’t white. Interestingly, it also seemed to presuppose that all white Europeans had a natural solidarity and affinity.

When we arrived back in the UK from Mexico, two of my children were a little older and they had an accent in English. The youngest was too young to appear on the radar. They were more familiar with Spanish because they were born there and had lived in Mexico up to that point. This made them a prime ‘target’ for Special Needs teachers and English Language Assistants who, ordinarily, might do a good job.

Imagine giving an intelligence test to someone in a language that isn’t their own.

Imagine giving an intelligence test to someone in a language that isn’t their own. Of what use is it? Surely you can’t regard such a test given to someone who is getting to grips with England, the English language, English people and English culture–and we all know that English culture is an acquired taste – as a legitimate test of intelligence.

Both older children resisted the ‘generous’ offers of help, and they were lucky to have been able to do so. In fact, in some cases English Assistants and Special Needs teachers recruit the wrong pupils. When they do so they can destroy the futures of these children. My oldest is a now a qualified doctor and my second oldest is a lawyer. If they had been made to feel ‘Mexican’ and that English was not their language, would they have achieved as much? I doubt it.

If [my children] had been made to feel Mexican and that English was not their language, would they have achieved as much? I doubt it.

Students’ futures can be destroyed in two ways by people who are supposed to be helping them: In the first place, when the wrong children are incorporated into these programmes, learning doesn’t accelerate, it slows down. The teachers and language assistants can waste children’s time (the ones who shouldn’t be in these programmes in the first place) by teaching them nothing that is of any great use.

By otherising immigrants, you stop them from easily acquiring a British identity.

Captive students are taught obviousness; that the sky is blue and that the clouds are white and the sun is yellow. (In the case of the UK is this even true?) Have a look at the ESL syllabus to see how insipid and soul-destroying some aspects of it are.

In second place, they teach these young people that they differ from other English young people. They teach them to internalise difference, internalise a reality that says that they will never, ever be the same as ‘real’ English people.

As a language professional, one of my areas of language study is the relationship between language and identity. By otherising immigrants, you stop them from easily acquiring a British identity.

If you ask a northerner to speak like a cockney he won’t. Because he is a northerner. If you constantly lump Farsee speaking students together and keep referring to them as Iranians or Afghans, and not including them into a broader British identity, they will not think of themselves as British.

In addition, the teacher teaching the student English, and English culture, will often view the student as someone who does not possess the language; therefore the student does not feel he has any right to judge use of English.

The teacher, who considers herself to possess the language, ascribes to herself an almost papal authority over the correctness of language. The subtleties of how the student might develop his own voice in English through an evolving interlanguage are ignored as the teacher asserts her authority.

A bad teacher, sees the English as we and the students as they, as foreigners.

A bad teacher is a cultural gatekeeper. A bad teacher sees the English as we and the students as they, as foreigners. The students feel the teacher’s attitude in class, just as students are made to feel like foreigners outside class. So that when a student speaks English he begins to feel like an imposter.

A student who allows himself to internalise this toxic teacher’s view of him will never fully adopt an English accent; he has been made to feel that English doesn’t belong to him. A student like this will probably continue to speak English with a Spanish, or Punjabi accent, and continue to stumble and hesitate.

How many English teachers are there who feel threatened when their student speaks good English, or speaks it with a native accent? How many of these teachers then decide to take those students with a higher than expected competence down a peg or two, one way or another? Sadly, there are too many teachers who enjoy authority and a feeling of privileged knowledge.

The animal loving vet becomes an expert at euthanasia, the language teacher becomes a cultural gatekeeper and prevents immigrants from integrating fully.


  • Throughout this article I will refer to the teacher as ‘she’ or ‘her’ and to the student as ‘he’ or ‘him’.

Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.