Alex Kostogriz

Desperate and despondent: the truth about the way we treat immigrant teachers

In the battle to fix teacher shortages, much is made of recruiting teachers internationally. Three researchers reveal what happens when non-native English speaking immigrant teachers try to join the local workforce.

As Australia faces a serious shortage of teachers, how do we treat teachers who come to Australia as non-native speakers?

Non-native English speaking immigrant teachers (NNESITs) comprise around 10 % of teaching workforce in Australia today but we know little about their professional experiences impacting their professional selves. 

Early results of a large-scale study of 16 such teachers, analysing the narratives of their professional experiences across sectors, reveal this: they are treated unequally and inequitably from pre-migration up until they access their profession in Australia. 

Some take years to secure jobs.

Their experiences of marginalisation and differentiation repeatedly challenged them to claim their professional identity before and after migration to Australia. This continued in varied forms within their professional contexts and beyond. 

The key unique challenges involved are meeting requirements of the English language multiple times, getting their experiences and teaching qualifications fully recognised, and in some cases accepted even after their qualifications were recognised and upgraded to those of local equivalents.Then, despite meeting all eligibility criteria, these teachers still don’t get work. 

These challenges impacted them differently at material, social, cultural, emotional, and psychological levels. Even after accessing the profession, they were constantly judged by their non-native status, non-native English language uses, and their ethnicities.This leads them to feel like an imposter

Some did experience assistance in developing their professional identity but in our research we are focusing on the data of how the constitution of the professional identity of these teachers in Australia was challenged throughout the stages of migration and settlement, and how that impacted their professional identity. 

Before and after migration, these immigrant teachers (NNESITs) faced many professional challenges because of their cultural differences. Their professional status drastically dropped from a very high professional and social status to the one of the lowest. For instance, they had to meet English language requirements multiple times, such as for the purposes of immigration and for teacher registration. This also involves the change of requirements while applying for or renewing visas and applying for migration and  teacher registration.

For example, a high school teacher, Laura said, for migration, she “took the IELTS test (one of the many requirements for a Secondary Teacher) four times. … applied for reassessment of the result of the fourth take”. She had to spend around three months of her salary to pay for the fees for IELTS tests and review. 

The English language requirements stipulated by for NNESITs by VIT (Victorian Institute of Teacher) and AITSL (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) are both linguistically and racially discriminatory because the requirements do not apply for native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) from BANA (Britain and the Australasian and North American nations). 

Despite meeting all criteria, including gaining Australian qualification/s, getting an English language teaching teaching job was a monumental hurdle for them. Despite the English language and English language teaching being similar around the globe, it took months to years to access the profession before and/or after meeting the country-specific criteria. Most of them had no choice but to work in discriminatory cash-in hand, and/or low paid unskilled sectors: hospitality, cleaning services, children’s and aged care services, call centres, taxi industry and community services.

Raphael reminisced,

“I wanted a job. It didn’t matter what job I did. So I went and applied for a job as a train conductor … my first job in Melbourne. I’ve never found it hard to get a job, but I was willing to do some very, very low paid work. … I was a taxi driver for 10 years.”

A highly revered teacher from India, Mahati, landed a job in a Sri Lankan grocery that still haunts her like a nightmare, “cooking, cleaning, packing, selling, etc – the worst time of my life!”

Frida felt utterly despondent and “discouraged” finding herself unemployed after having been employed full time in the Philippines and internationally “since graduating from university”.

Failure to show Australian job experiences led Mandy to determine “I would apply for any kind of job [to] create income …”.

Jasha almost gave up and thought “I would never find a stable and interesting job”.

The impact of working in professionally unrelated and exploitative industries, the teachers’ professional identity was negatively impacted, their self-esteem and professional spirit were greatly diminished. 

Some were not called for job interviews until they had Australian qualifications and volunteer teaching experience, and some were repeatedly rejected after they were interviewed. Even after upgrading her teaching qualification at a renowned university in Melbourne, another high school teacher, Jigna, could not set her foot in a high school. 

“I started shortly as a casual relief teacher. … I got an interview for a teaching position at a public school in Cranbourne. I was unsuccessful on the grounds of lack of experience. Then again, I was interviewed telephonically by SERCO, but could not be successful on the grounds of lack of Australian experience. I took up employment as a Coordinator for an after-school Program (OSHC) with Camp Australia. It utilised my VIT licence and got me into a school. However, it was far from a teaching career.”

Now a TAFE teacher, Jasha believes “some schools even today are looking for ‘native speakers’ only”. She had a job interview for “TESOL training to international students” but shortly after the interview finished she received an email: “Unfortunately, the position has been filled.”

Some of our participants, despite being qualified and/or experienced high school and primary school teachers, chose to be employed in TAFE, community and ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) sectors because they did not wish to be unemployed.

Immigrant teachers face many challenges to reconstitute their professional identity in Australia. If Australia wants to utilise immigrant teachers to address the current teacher shortage, then it must address institutional and micro socio-cultural and professional barriers to entry. To accept NNESITs’ cultural professional repertoire as assets rather than deficit is the first step. Customised transition programs such as mentorship  and ongoing support within and beyond professional contexts are also essential to transition and develop them further in new interculturally enriched processional context. It is both ethical and ecological to recognise and fully include NNESITs as legitimate teachers within Australian teaching sectors. It is suggested to engage in intercultural dialogue productively and to listen and be open to those who appear to be culturally and professionally different and be responsible to them. 

When immigrant teachers no longer suffer the discrimination and marginalisation due to their cultural, linguistic and racial difference, they are then assured of equal rights and empowered to freely negotiate their professional identity. 

Nashid Nigar teaches Master of TESOL and Master of Education programs at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. She is a PhD candidate at Monash University, investigating immigrant teachers’ professional identity in Australia. Amongst her study interests are teacher professional identity and theories, career development, academic literacy, curriculum development, and English language teaching and learning in intercultural contexts. 

Alex Kostogriz is a Professor in Languages and TESOL Education at the Faculty of Education, Monash University. Alex’s current research projects focus on the professional practice and ethics of language teachers, teacher education and experiences of beginning teachers.

Mahtab Janfada is a Lecturer in Language and Literacy department at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, She coordinates subjects in the Master of TESOL/Additional Languages and Master of Education programs. Mahtab’s research captures Critical and Dialogic philosophy and pedagogy, and Academic Literacy in the plurilingual context of education.