Teaching Abroad · The Nomadic Life

Are Foregin ESL Teachers Taking Away Jobs from Locals?

Middle School Students Madagascar

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.

Thoughts?

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.

11 thoughts on “Are Foregin ESL Teachers Taking Away Jobs from Locals?

  1. “Ethically speaking, you as a foreigner should only be taking a job that no one else in the country can do.”

    I disagree with this statement. If you are a more skilled, better qualified, and more experienced teacher, then it benefits students to have you standing in front of them and not somebody who cannot do as good a job, citizen of that country or not. It benefits the profession by raising standards and quite obviously benefits the students.

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    1. That’s kind of what I was getting at. If you’re better qualified, more skilled, and more experienced then you are, in a sense, able to do a job no one else can do: an excellent one.

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  2. I tried getting an English-teaching job in Thailand, but because I’m Asian American, nobody would hire me. I ended up in China instead. Since it’s a bigger country, there are more opportunities, but forget applying to popular cities like Shanghai. I went to a small city about two hours away from Shanghai. It never failed, every semester the students would have a confused look on their faces as I walked through the door. They were expecting a white guy, but instead got me :) I’m glad I opened up their minds as to what an American looks like.

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    1. Me as well, Jason. I think the racial based hiring system is only hurting esl learners in Asia. But I’m glad you got a job in the end and changed your students perceptions a bit. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. I can only speak from experience, not from any hard backed data…..but I’d have to agree with Philosophermouse a little here that learning from a local teacher may create some “cheating.” When looking at things from a “billingual perspective” it’s a slippery slope for teachers – when I taught as an English Assistant on Reunion Island, I made the mistake of telling my students that I spoke French – from that point on, they would only speak to me in French, with a few English words here and there. While when au pairing in Switzerland my kids knew that I didn’t speak any Swiss German (shocking I know), so we were equally forced to learn our respective languages through other means – body language, yelling, smiling, and sometimes, trial and error. By the end of one year, we understood each other very well, and after 2 years of au pairs, the youngest was speaking English comfortably.

    You’re right about the racist problem, however, where schools hire using racist manners (I’ve heard stories about Asian Americans not getting that job in South Korea because they didn’t look right…). And even though all of us had our CELTA certificates in Moscow, not everyone really wanted, or knew how to teach…..but at least my students were forced to try expressing themselves in English, since my Russian was abysmal.

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    1. All really good points, Laura (it’s Laura, right?). You can definitely make the argument that foreign teachers are advantageous for language learners since it forces them to communicate with their teacher in the language they’re learning. When I was teaching a summer camp in the D.C. area to South Korean immersion students, they clearly told me one of the reasons they hired me as a teacher was because I didn’t know any Korean. It’s probably the only time where ignorance was an asset in a job hunt!

      In the end though, it’s mostly just a matter of having a great teacher — foreign or otherwise — in front of the classroom. :)

      Super cool that you taught in La Reunion btw! I love that island!

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  4. Looking at this in a reverse fashion, I can say from a great deal of experience in research/training bilingual teachers for the US schools, that it is very rare for someone to be functionally bilingual enough to teach in a foreign language. (Like a native Spanish Speaker (L1-first language) being hired to teach bilingual instruction using both languages Spanish and English (L2 – 2nd language)
    A person may be conversationally bilingual in L2, but not have the verbal skills/command of the language/vocabulary/language “sounds” to teach instructional content in L2. Often hired “bilingual’ teachers end up teaching 90% or more in their own native language (L1) when they are supposed to be transitioning students to English. Many districts end up pleading with publishers for Spanish versions of the English language textbooks since the bilingual teachers HAve difficulty comprehending the English teachers’ editions ( not understanding there aren’t direct equivalent translations)
    ESL uses different techniques and methods. I would think a returning ESL teacher could identify more with the student’s task and use that when teaching.
    But each language has specific sounds, rhythms that only a native speaker really masters. (One reason it’s important for very young children to be exposed to linguistic sounds of different languages. The “ear” acquires the way language sounds very early. That sound recognition lasts a lifetime.)
    Don’t know if this helps. You might search for research on the topic here: http://eric.ed.gov/

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Thoughts?

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