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An objective look at volunteering

May 04, 2007

Hello again,

Teaching English as a volunteer has, on the surface, many advantages. You can help people in developing ...

...countries; you experience new cultures and you can gain teaching experience. It sounds like a win-win situation all round.

But, frankly, I have my doubts. Okay, as someone wishing to test the ELT water, you may have an opportunity to teach without going to the trouble of obtaining qualifications. But who benefits from that? The students will have to learn from a teacher who has no professional training. Is that fair to them? And it is not easy to learn to teach by trial and error. Resources are likely to be meagre and you may find it very stressful to be thrown in at the deep end without any tried and tested teaching skills. What is worse professionally, you may start to get into bad teaching habits that will be difficult to break.

Please don’t think I want to discourage teachers from volunteering. Far from it. If had no family responsibilities I would be off to Thailand to train teachers myself. But that is because I have a professional background that gives me the confidence to believe I have something to offer. If you are a qualified and experienced teacher and you can afford to take time off from paid work, then it would be of enormous benefit to a developing community if you were to offer your services.

My suggestion for would-be volunteers is first gain a qualification. Then choose your location carefully. Volunteering is not like a working holiday. It requires the ability to
tolerate often quite harsh conditions and to persevere in difficult teaching situations. For those who have the stamina and determination, I am certain that it is enormously satisfying. One organisation that offers a teacher training and volunteering package is Global Vision (http://www.gvi.co.uk/). But the package is quite expensive and you need to work out which route is best for you.

To sum up, yes I think it is wonderful for English teachers to do voluntary work. However, I do not think that unqualified teachers should be doing this. There is plenty of other voluntary activity that you can undertake in which all that is needed is enthusiasm and a willingness to work. But teaching requires professional expertise and I don’t see how either students or volunteers can benefit from well-meaning but untrained contributions

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  1. junglejayne Says:

    Hear Hear!!!
    Excellent article Brenda!
    You forgot to mention the frustration of teaching and unteaching that is required when a group of students have been seriously misled by an unqualified teacher. Especially basic grammar, the foundation of their english future, and basic verb conjugation. Unlearning has been the rottenest part of my 8 years teaching in third world countries. Time wasted, frustration and alot of anger and remorse sometimes, from the students when they realize that what they learnt, is all wrong.

  1. Chris Says:

    I would hardly call this an "objective look". Yes, other things being equal, someone with training will probably cope better and with less stress to themselves, than someone without. It does also depend on the resources and structure on site.

    I have looked at several websites with schemes which combine a short training course with volunteering for a large package price. Presumably these folk are booking airline tickets in some reasonable volume, and I conclude that they are exploiting the idealism of their student-volunteers for their own gain.I think that there is a simple rule of thumb, "It shouldn't cost to volunteer." If you contribute your time and energy, then someone else should contribute the out of pocket expenses.

    If the predictions about young folk changing careers in their working lifetimes is halfway correct, and employers insist on the current idiot level of picky specific qualifications, then the "20 something" group will be spending about half their lives in university or college. As one retired teacher expressed it to me, "Soon you will need a certificate to shovel the snow off your own patch of sidewalk."

    At some point, we have to trust a certain level of intelligence and self analysis, and let people grow into jobs, since the training in many technical areas is out of date by the time it is complete.

    I do enjoy most of your columns though.

  1. Btownsend Says:

    I am not advocating qualifications for shovelling snow. My objectivity is perhaps more accurately unsentimentality. I find it patronising qnd unhelpful to developing communities that we seem to believe that anyone, regardless of their expertise or skills, who has time available can contribute something useful, especially if they dabble in professional fields they do not understand. I doubt if you would advocate the use of unqualified teachers in your own local schools and colleges so why suggest that developing countries should be grateful to acept well-meaning but inept lay folk?

    To be of real use, a volunteer needs tried and tested competence. And it does not have to be only the young who volunteer.

  1. zen Says:

    Personally I think it depends very much on the individual. I have seen some "untrained" people who are natural teachers and do a much better job than qualified teachers. Also, personally as someone who has qualifications, most of what I believe makes me a decent teacher I learnt by just doing it. A lot of what they teach at teachers college in my opinion is a complete waste of time. Of course if you have natural abilities and you get a chance to do some study beforehand, great.

  1. Sue Jones Says:

    Hi. An interesting topic.

    I take the view that volunteering is a two way street. You offer your skills and experience and in return you get a rewarding experience and (in some cases) food and accommodation.

    With this in mind how can you expect to just go and teach with no qualification or significant experience. Volunteering is not about what you will gain from it, it is about what YOU CAN GIVE. I think this is especially significant when teaching English. You cannot expect to just walk into a classroom and teach. That is not fair to your students.

    Having said that I am bemused why some organisations charge for offering you a volunteer placement. Even though volunteering is about what you can give that should not give organisations the opportunity to exploit people and charge them for the privilege. I have looked at various organisations who offer volunteer positions and was shocked by what they expect you to pay.

    Having recently qualified I am currently gaining teaching experience before I feel comfortable - and confident - enough to take my skills to a volunteer post.

  1. Neil Says:

    Dear Brenda,

    As a voluntary teacher of adult migrants in Melbourne Aust. for the past 15 months, having previously gained teaching qualifications here,
    I found your article covered the main issues involved re. voluntary teaching and the need to gain some practical experience vis-a-vis the need
    to make a living.
    Despite occasional problems and frustrations, I have found my that voluntary teaching has given me a firm basis in correct methods of teaching,
    and the special difficulties faced by ESL students in an english-speaking country. I would therefor recommend it to any aspiring teacher of ESL, even if it means the extra hassle involved in moving to another country and teaching without being paid for it. After all, what better cure is there for ' teacher's stagefright ?

  1. Frauke Says:

    Dear Brenda,

    Your article does have some merits. I completely agree that a certain qualification or - if not available - some type of inter-personal skill is needed to undergo teaching. However, I do also agree to Chris that high standard qualifications do not always imply that the teacher is in fact competent. I have been taught by many English teachers over the past 26 years, who all had a high level of education/qualification in their specific field of linguistics, yet not always possessed the necessary inter-personal skills, which is a human trade that cannot be learnt at an academic institution ;)
    Only when I took up teaching myself (to younger pupils in Germany) some ten years ago, I was required to engage in the English language on a deeper basis in order to "unlearn" my own grammatical misperceptions which had been established firmly from a very young age . I studied grammar according to a plain and simple grammar book ;) ... English grammar is not the most difficult one ... it is plain and simple ... and should be taught the same way. My students were those type of children who suffered from an incompetence of their teachers' inter-personal skills and had failed the entire school year several times. After studying with me for 2 years they hit top scores.
    For any volunteer who manages to pull together his mind and courage to go to the developing/third world and live under, sometimes, extremely harsh conditions, the actual teaching will be less of a problem compared to the living circumstances he/she will find him/herself in.
    Teaching others begins with self-motivation and building up trust/confidence in one's very own ability to be a contributing individual to society in general. Teaching is less of a science and more of an ethic profession. And let's face the real-life situation: teachers are needed, and "qualified" ones teach for cash only. I have now obtained my "indispensable" qualification so that I can claim to be a good teacher for all those who attach more importance to a piece of paper than to the actual human being.

  1. Helen Says:

    A volunteer is not necessarily an unqualified or inexperienced teacher! The level of training required for the job and the level of on the job support provided varies considerably, in both paid and volunteer positions. As a qualified teacher with several years' experience, I volunteered part time at an elementary school in Ecuador. I taught there 2 mornings a week, and the rest of the time I had a paid teaching position. My own experience of my volunteer position was extremely positive, and I had a great relationship with the school in question. However, I have heard complaints from other teachers who have worked in other volunteer positions that they have not always been taken seriously by students, parents and other people they work with, because sadly many people assume that free English must be low quality.

  1. Tuan Ton Says:

    Do teachers who volunteer to teach English in other countries need to be educated and credentialed? The answer or answers depend on the objective(s) of the teaching program. Are we teaching speaking and listening skills? Or are we teaching the language art skills?

    Schools in these countries require students to take 2 or 3 years of a foreign language. All native teachers in these countries are qualified and credentialed teachers. They teach a foreign language with a high and formal standard. Many students who have earned an acceptable grade in these foreign language classes can read and write very decently. What they actually need is to improve on their listening and speaking skills. Their teachers also need these skills as well.

    My hat down to those of you volunteers teaching non-English speaking learners abroad. You are doing more good than harm. Do not worry about grammar. There are books in their native languages about English grammar. You can teach grammar if you think you are competent. But don’t teach it if you are not sure. Just give students a chance to listen and speak to a native speaker.

  1. adlazi Says:

    I totally agree with the comments in this article. I was given the opportunity to work as an English Language Assistant in Spain 7 years ago, never having worked in a classroom before. Just over two years ago, I decided to formalise my experience and did a TESOL course which helped me to focus my ideas and how to use resources. Doing this course has helped not only me, but also the teachers with whom I work and, needless to say, the pupils. I am taking early retirement this year and am considering doing some volunteer teaching. I would not even have considered this without previous training and experience and feel that most of the organisations offering these positions are simply interested in the economics and have scant regard for the people in these developing countries. I really fail to see how someone who has had no previous teaching experience or, as is the case in the UK, no knowledge of grammar, can help anyone learn English. Enthusiasm is no substitute for good teaching practices. It is a long process and requires consistency, not a constant flow of 'gappers' every month.

  1. canuckophile Says:

    Sorry to be so cynical, but the notion (especially in Asia) that "trained teachers" are the paid ones is almost ludicrous. I can't think of a single country (Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, Taiwan are the main employers) that actually REQUIRES trained teachers. All they ask is a BA.

    So what is the difference between a volunteer and a paid teacher in most of Asia?????

    Perhaps the volunteer would take more of an interest since presumably the act of volunteering shows a serious commitment to teaching, or (contrariwise) maybe the volunteer is not as motivated because s/he doesn't have to worry about a paycheque.

    In any event, if you wish to volunteer overseas, Americans can choose the Peace Corps (which provides a lot of English language classes) and I assume other nationalities can also find bona fide organizations to volunteer with ... and such organizations are likely to provide training prior to the teaching assignment.

  1. Jean Says:

    I am now a qualified ESL teacher and volunteered teaching English in Nepal at 19 yrs before doing my university and CELTA training. It was difficult with meagre resources and little support and guidance and I probably didn't do a very good job. A fact of the volunteer industry is there are many young idealistic individuals without qualifications or skills and NGO's advertise 'volunteer placements' teaching English without any skills required which is appealing to this particular market. Some third world schools (particulary government run schools) are so pathetic that even a kid out of High school from an English speaking background is often better then the current teachers. On returning to Nepal recently with my teaching background I was so appauled at their lack of resources and inadequete teaching methods and supplies. English teachers that can't even construct sentences and textbooks with incorrect spelling and syntax! Of course it is a difficult world and being a trained teacher benefits the community better but my attitude is if you want to do it...go for it as there is a huge need out there.

  1. Cindy Says:

    There are qualifications and then there are qualifications. Are we talking about some obscure degree that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with teaching? I am an Early Childhood Educator (which only carries a diploma), as well as TESOL certified. I am currently teaching 3-5 year-olds in China. I work with teachers who have degrees and to be frank - they have little or no idea how to teach young children. Unfortunately, because they went to college and now hold a four-year degree (in any subject!!) they are considered superior to someone actually trained to teach young children. I think when schools and employers are looking for teachers, they need to look at the degree and training - and how that degree can be applied to the actual job of teaching.

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