A little while ago, I did some fascinating research for an article about how to volunteer responsibly abroad. Among the things I listed were transparency, integration of community members, background checks on anyone working with children, and of course: responsible volunteer programs will not place volunteers in a local community at the expense of taking jobs away from locals.
Take construction projects, for example. In most developing countries, cheap, manual labor isn’t difficult to find, so why would they need you, the inexperienced Westerner to build a house? There are reasons — with Habitat for Humanity, the presence of a few extra helping hands isn’t necessarily the biggest impact on the community, but rather the monetary donations that these volunteers make to help locals afford supplies. They also employ locals for their projects and create, rather than take away jobs.
So then, what about teaching abroad?
Do we take away jobs from locals by teaching abroad?
Ethically speaking, you as a foreigner should only be taking a job that no one else in the country can do. In some places, that’s the case for ESL teachers since foreign ESL teachers are part of a rare cohort who can speak English in a fluent and natural manner.
That was my experience in Madagascar — so few people spoke English (including some of the English teachers I worked with) that having it as my native tongue put me in hot demand. Schools requested me to compensate for lack of qualified teachers; qualified teachers that they weren’t going to be getting any time soon. In this scenario, the answer was no.
But then look at Central and South America. There’s already a big enough flow of people between Latin America and the U.S. that this first qualifier, being able to speak English, isn’t as rare. I’d almost argue that a Salvadoran returning to El Salvador from the U.S. with perfect English language skills, and looking to teach English, is more valuable than a foreign hire because they are more likely to stay longer and treat it as a permanent job, not just one that allows them to travel for a little while. Though, are they the ones getting the jobs? And why or why not?
And then, there’s the booming Asia market. In China and South Korea, foreign teachers, especially attractive, white, foreign teachers, frequently win out in a job interview against a local. Even if the local speaks perfect English and has teaching experience (with ESL or otherwise) and the foreigner doesn’t, there are still schools that would prefer to take the foreign teacher. It’s blatantly race based. “They just look like they’d speak better English,” a friend said, quoting her South Korean cousin.
“They just look like they’d speak better English,” a friend said, quoting her South Korean cousin.
(Note: While this is a common problem, it is by no means true to every school in China and South Korea. There are some established and reputable schools that would never make a hiring decision based on race alone, but focus rather on what’s important: skills, professionalism, and experience.)
Maybe they do speak better English, but then that begs the question:
Is a native speaking teacher even better for students in the first place?
In some ways, having a native speaking teacher is great because they are more likely to use the language the way it really is used, pronunciation is flawless, and we often use real films, magazine articles, and such in the classroom instead of textbooks. In short, the exposure to English outside the ESL learner bubble is expanded.
However, all of these perks lose their value when you’re faced with a non-native speaking teacher who has experience, and a native-speaking wannabe teacher with no experience. Experience, even that minimal TEFL / CELTA certificate, is what gets you good at teaching the language. Because, lets be real, just because you speak English doesn’t mean you can teach it. I’ve seen several fluent but inexperienced to-be teachers flail and fail in the classroom.
Unfortunately, data on these questions has been hard to track down, and I mostly wanted to write this piece to put the questions out there, see if anyone has answers, and rewrite this piece with more authority and information. So, if your head was bursting with commentary while reading the above, please share that inner commentary below.