Traveling to teach or teaching to travel?

By Katie Raynak, VOFAIR researcher and content writer.

The notion of teaching English abroad has rapidly developed into a prosperous industry that provides western travelers with a practical way to seek volunteer opportunities abroad while only needing to possess the basic qualification of being a native speaker of English. Teaching English abroad can be beneficial to a society, schools, and individuals taking initiatives to learn a new language that will serve practical and professional purposes in their future. Unfortunately, this practice encounters many problematic issues and ultimately questions the ethical application and impact on communities receiving this foreign language aid.

Middle-man, placement companies can create false hopes and unrealistic expectations for volunteers, especially those that travel abroad with the purpose of being able to live in a new community and culture. Volunteers might not necessarily teach or be utilized in the classroom, but act as a figure of authentic English speaking origin and provide an intercultural opportunity for students, who may have never before interacted with a foreigner. In an industry that has become capitalized in recent years, volunteer English teachers might find themselves paying for a ‘long term vacation’ or costly fees to cover administrative expenses. China, for instance, holds the largest market for English teachers and a continuous demand for allure ‘authentic speakers’ to their classrooms, according to a recent analysis by Phiona Stanley. She continues to describe this type of oral assistance that is provided by native English speakers in schools by comparing them to a fish trying to provide instructions on how to scuba dive, emphasizing the fact that having a native ability does not make one apt to teach.[i] Because of this demand for ‘authenticity,’ the concept of helping a community is completely overlooked by the institutional side that makes such arrangements.

Teaching English abroad and promoting multilingualism is not a bad thought on its own; however, serving the volunteer for an exotic experience above recognizing the needs of a community destroys the purpose of development that is trying to be achieved. As Cora Jakubiak points out in Moral Ambivalence in English Language Voluntourism, many of these positions do not ask for specific qualifications—just simply a native speaking ability—so volunteers assume professional identities without the proper training to teach.[ii] Many volunteers only desire to participate for a short period of time, so that they can travel or return back to their own reality in their home country. Ultimately, this creates problems for the communities and schools in which they serve, since volunteer ‘teachers’ are constantly changing and students lose the consistent support and connection from their educators. In order to realize long term goals of a community to integrate multilingual education, English teaching volunteers should be aware of the impact of their time commitment and understand that their short-term work might lack value to the designated beneficiaries.

The exciting and out-of-the-ordinary appearance of teaching abroad masks the disappointing reality of its impact, but these opportunities should not be completely discounted. Interested persons should rather consider the industry’s flaws and how they go about finding volunteer teaching positions. Paying attention to the time commitment of a position and the marketing approach of a middle-man organization will help reveal its true ambitions—to serve a community, or to serve a volunteer.


[1] Stanley, Phiona. A Critical Ethnography of "Westerners" Teaching English in China: Shanghaied in Shanghai. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013.

[1] Mostafanezhad, Mary, Kevin Hannam, and Cori Jakubiak. "Chapter 8: Moral Ambivalence in English Language Voluntourism." In Moral Encounters in Tourism, 94-105. 2014.

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