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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.

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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

From Strangers to Friends: Making Peace with Madagascar’s Swarms of Small Children

Two Girls

From a city with more dogs than kids

Before coming to the Peace Corps, I lived in Seattle. I will forever think it’s one of the best places on earth, but it is also one of the most childless. Of all the American cities, it has the highest percentage of single adults and one of the lowest populations of children.

In contrast, when I came to Madagascar, there were suddenly children everywhere. Even so, I don’t think I initially drew the comparison between childless Seattle and child-abundant Madagascar. The presence/non-presence of children just seemed like another part of the landscape, and it took me about a year or so to separate this bit from the Larger Picture. I don’t know how it took this long though — I am surrounded by kids here. I wake up to the screams of children outside my door on the middle school compound, I frequently think to myself “oh. my. god. somanychildren somanychildren psfhfdaffffft” This is totally different from my life-before-Peace-Corps. I have absolutely no recollection of ever interacting with a kid in Seattle. I don’t think I ever even saw children on a regular basis. I was more likely to cross paths with small dogs than small humans around my Capitol Hill apartment.

Ohmygod they are everywhere

Given my lack of interaction with kids, their presence felt as foreign to me as everything else when I first arrived. Especially with the language barrier, they just seemed to be these little creatures with snot running down their upper lips, smelling of pee, and generally screaming/shouting/crying. While I was still in homestay, meaning my first month in Madagascar, a group of children took to following around my friend Steph and I while shouting “Stephan-IEEE! Jess-y-KA-KA!” They would then roll around the dirt in uproarious laughter, because of the easy one syllable leap from my name to my name + ‘poop’ (kaka) in Malagasy. I wanted to strangle the little jerks. But mostly, their everywhere-ness made me long for a world filled with small-dogs outside of coffee shops and adults who didn’t care what I did/who I was. I hated being the target of such immature jokes but didn’t know how to respond.

Okay, kids can be kind of cool…

Kids doing yogaInitially, children were, and often still are, just plain annoying. At the same time, they just. won’t. ever. go. away. They are always there, always, and I quickly realized that letting them remain this annoying entity would only drive me crazy(er). The first time I started thinking differently of kids was in the classroom. Though my students are noisy and get on my nerves (there’s just too many in one classroom) I keep myself sane by thinking of teaching 7th graders as a social experiment. Sometimes I tweak lessons from one class to another to test when they best absorb information, or try pairing up a girl with a boy to see which one is more intimidated at the notion.

Further along, I began discovering that kids can actually be kind of funny when the opportunity to laugh with them, rather than be laughed at by them, arises. For example, last weekend another PCV, Jackie, and I wanted to do yoga in a hotel’s garden, but peacefully, not under the Constant Gaze of curious Malagasy. I knew this would be impossible with a group of children milling about nearby but we went for it anyways. As expected the kids started giggling and mimicking us. I hate to admit it, but it was kind of cute seeing them join in, shifting from downward dog to plank, and falling over each other when Jackie and I turned sideways for side plank.

This would be simply unacceptable in America!

This never would have happened in a Seattle park. For one, there aren’t many children just bored and ‘hanging around’. Secondly, American parents would flip a shit if their children went to play with a couple of strangers, no matter how innocent the activity (yoga) or non-threatening the strangers (two young females in workout attire). Thirdly, the strangers themselves might be confused about why they’ve suddenly got themselves a posse of miniature people. It just doesn’t happen in America, but in Madagascar it would be strange if all the children in a 300-meter radius didn’t come flocking to us whenever we (foreigners) did something out of the ordinary.

In short, the division between ‘child’ and ‘adult’ has been blurred for me over the past 20 months. Especially as my Malagasy improves, they more often seem like ‘real people’. Even though they really do scream/cry/shout a lot, smell like pee half the time (Malagasy babies don’t exactly wear diapers), and I question whether I’d ever want one of these ‘things’ for myself, they confuse me less. They’re less mysterious, wonderful to take photos of, and I have a feeling that it will be strange, though quieter, to return somewhere where children aren’t everywhere.

Kid Ballons 1

Kid Ballons 2

Kid Ballons 3

Kid Ballons 4

Photos: (1) Kids playing at our hotel (2) Kids doing yoga (3-6) This is what happens when you give a group of kids a balloon

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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

My Second Year in the Peace Corps

DSC_0881

I wrote this blog post back in October at the beginning of the school year, but somewhere along the way failed to post it. It may have lost some of its relevancy, but seeing as how tomorrow is the end of Christmas vacation and the beginning of our second trimester, I thought I would go ahead and finally publish it, for whatever it may now stand for. It’s crazy to think that I only have 8 months left in Madagascar, and what the older volunteers have said in the past is definitely true: the second year is much easier, and passes so much quicker!

I am simultaneously dreading and excited for the upcoming school year that we began at the beginning of October. The dread stems from memories of last year, yelling at children to be quiet, and growing frustrated at not being able to communicate properly with my pre-intermediate level English students, and the thought that I have to do it all over again. Excitement shortly follows when I realize that I can explain myself significantly better and really believe I can do all of that better. As they told us in our Peace Corps training, “it’s a new job. You won’t be good at it immediately.” So much learning on the job, getting better through trial and repeat, occurs as a teacher.

What they didn’t tell us is that native English speakers tend to have a much higher learning curve for teaching English, according to an academic study which sought to answer “is it better to have a native-speaking teacher or an experienced one?” For starters, native-speakers tend to make more use of real English media (songs, magazine articles, radio clips, etc.), as opposed to the stuff textbooks provide, in the classroom. Ultimately, it is better for our students to grow accustomed to real-life usages of English than poised, polite, and often cheesy textbook dialogues. Additionally, we correct our mistakes quickly, and possibly because we aren’t concerned with how well we speak English, can focus more on our teaching techniques. Again, most new English teachers, especially the ones who have gotten hired with no teaching experience but solely based on their fluency in the language, realize their shortcomings and are anxious about compensating and becoming good teachers.

While their defense of the inexperienced, native-speaker oozes reassurance for our sorry lot, my one year of experience feels like my strongest armor against in-class riots and blank stares – especially since my Malagasy has improved tremendously and their level is too low for me to expect a class of 60+ students to pay attention without using their native language.

As for results, I have only been teaching for two weeks now, but have already taught them more in six hours of lessons than I probably accomplished in the whole first trimester last year. For starters, I have gotten over my shy-kid-loathing for singing in public (since songs engage students while giving large classes an opportunity to practice speaking and pronunciation without getting too rowdy) and taught my kids “Hello, Goodbye” by the Beatles. Lots of giggling was involved. Now I sometimes catch one or two singing it while we copy things from the board, and do something that was also rare this time last year: smile.

Photo: (1) Two girls who came out of the bushes to chat while I was hanging out at a waterfall in Ile Sainte Marie; the older one complained about how terrible her English teacher was!

Categories
Peace Corps Teaching Abroad

Where Christmas Snow is Only Ever Made of Paper

Creepy Santa

{Teaching Malagasy students about American Christmas traditions}

I taught my 7th grade (5eme) students how to make paper snowflakes and sing Christmas carols this week. When we started the activity, one student held up the test I had just passed back, jokingly suggesting that he would use that to make his paper snowflake. I shrugged because after all, I had used an old exam paper myself to make the demo-snowflake. After the laughter died and we finally began, I felt graciously surprised at the silent concentration that swept over my students as they tried to follow along with folding their papers into smaller and smaller triangles, then cutting it in all the right places. Somewhere along the way, a small din broke out as they passed scissors around the room – of 50 students, only 15 or 20 had scissors. My own pair even got momentarily lost in a crowd of boys each time I finished demonstrating where to cut a semi-circle or triangle into the folds of the ice-cream cone shaped piece of paper.

Once finished, they all held up their snowflakes – which was an awesomely logical and straightforward craft activity for a largely un-artistically inclined culture – muttering phrases like “milay be” (vey cool) or “good, good, teacher!” One boy even went as far as to kidnap my scissors and speedily made a whole pile of snowflakes, filling up one of the unused laboratory sinks with a paper blizzard.

Our Christmas decorations done with, I moved on to a song. When I taught the Christmas carol during the last class of the day (and of the week, the month, the year), two of my more enthusiastic students shouted the carol at the top of their lungs, overshadowing the confused murmurs of their classmates. We all found it tremendously hilarious when I isolated the aisle filled with my laziest and quietest students and their attempts to follow along with “We wish you a merry Christmas” fell apart at the first ‘merry’. Sadly — or humorously, depending on perspective – regardless of my students’ individual levels, they all sung the “Christmas” part in monotone while pronouncing it “Crees-mas”. “Wish” was pronounced “weesh”. Is it bad of me to say that their mispronunciations gave the whole performance a comical feel?

I felt ridiculous for other reasons as well. Mainly, these students have no idea how much I disdain singing in public and the personal sacrifice I’m making by standing in front of this giggle-prone audience and belting out the tunes to English pop songs. I hate it, but after so many requests to learn English Christmas carols I knew I should relinquish a little pride and work it into a lesson. The tattoo of a music stanza on my arm probably throws them off. (Side note: Interestingly, in every country I go people who see my tattoo have a different idea as to how I’m musically inclined. In Central America, people frequently asked if I played guitar. In America, people generally ask whether or not I play any musical instrument. However, in Madagascar the most popular reactions to my tattoo are either “LA MUSIQUE!!” or “do you sing?” It seems as though women play instruments even more rarely here than in the West, meaning a music tattoo could only imply that I am a singer.)

Anyways, it’s difficult to get in the Christmas spirit while wearing tank tops and summer dresses, even if most of the more prestigious shops, restaurants, and bars owners in town have decked out their establishments in shimmery, Chinese-made garland. However, harvesting my students’ enthusiasm about Christmas and the upcoming two-week vacation certainly helped me be more present about the imminent approach of the Christmas holidays.

Tratra ny Kristmasy daholo!
Merry Christmas everyone!

Photo: (1) Creepy Santa giving Malagasy children candy at a friend’s Christmas work party

*I teach all 200 of the 5eme students (equivilant to the American 7th grade) at a public middle school (CEG) in Madagascar. The students are split up into 4 sections, which study English for three hours every week.
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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

My Peace Corps House is a Middle School

neighbor

In the late night cover of darkness, I wander out to the naked goal post in the school’s field. The gates are locked up, the lights turned off, and blissfully, all the schoolchildren have gone home. The grounds have become nothing more than a cluster of sealed off, dark and empty buildings. I jump up to hang from the goal post, emulating the teenage boys that monkey around on it between classes. I try to do a pull-up, and fail. Suddenly the thought occurs to me: I’m the odd, unmarried schoolteacher from out-of-town living in a little house on the school compound; the teacher I read about in historical fiction novels about small towns with one-room schoolhouses in pre-industrialized America. The thought depresses me as I retreat to the pink doll-house I call home, and read myself to sleep.

Among Madagascar’s education PCVs, living on the school compound, often in an old classroom, isn’t all that unusual. I feel lucky to have a house separate from the building itself, but for whatever other problems it saves me, I still wake up to the sound of hundreds of screaming, laughing children, boys banging coins on the metal goal post, and the obnoxious drumming out of beats on wooden desks. I forever remain both impressed and horrified that these kids can make their voices sound so ugly, with a guttural shout I lack sufficient words to describe. In these moments, at precisely 7:00am, 9:00am, and 3:30pm each day, the nightmares of being trapped in a room with my overly-energetic little brother, age 11, come rushing back. Sitting though these breaks make me feel as though I’m living with 200 duplicates of his 11-year-old self, only this time I can’t shout “seriously, would you STOP that?!?”

To add to the terror, every once in awhile a stampede of children storm through my front gate on the pretext of cleaning the school compound. My first warning arrives in a deadly silence broken by a roar of shouts as assembly disperses. It is quickly followed by the pattering of kids running to fetch brooms, flip-flops slapping against their feet. I know what’s coming and rush to close up my doors and windows before I hear the ubiquitous slap-slap of my wooden gate. “My god, I’m under attack! Quick, get out of here!” I think. I know cleaning my backyard area is a part of cleaning the school – and we all know I’m not going to sweep up a yard full of dirt – but I hate being the subject of my students’ curiosity, hate that if I leave a door or window open they seize the opportunity to peer in (once while I was changing), and hate that they steal the unripe peaches off my tree in peach season. In this arrangement, the idea of keeping professional and personal lives separate falls apart. Or maybe, it never existed?

Living on a school compound is stressful at breaks, eerily quiet on Sundays and at night (although the architecture of Malagasy schools thankfully lack the quintessentially creepy high-school hallway popular in 80s slasher films), yet convenient on the odd morning I oversleep before class. I don’t think I’ll ever quite be used to the constant chatter of children, the bats that live in our rafters, or half a dozen students saying “hello teacher!” while I make my way across the yard from front door to “toilet” (it hardly deserves the title), but such are the challenges Peace Corps throws at us.

Photo: My neighbor’s son; the school is his playground.

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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

Madagascar: Life as an Education Volunteer for the Peace Corps

"Lets Learn English" Coloring Page

In the midst of a looming thunderstorm I discovered the pink and purple postcard of a sunset in Seattle. Once the initial excitement of receiving mail (real, actual, physical mail!!) from a friend subsided, I read it.

“How do you fill your days?” she asked.

Although I joke about the endless hours spent eating peanuts and watching the chickens in my backyard, I insist that I do work as well. Sometimes this means chasing chickens out of the English Center (although my students are far better at it than me), and sometimes this means actually standing in front of a classroom and getting my hands dirty — with chalk, of course.

I teach 7th graders
Most of the volunteers here are assigned to teaching at the Middle and High school levels. I teach the baby 7th graders who are in their second year of English. But raging in age from 9 to 15, not all of them are that “baby”.

I’m developing resources & filling up the bookshelves of our English Center (ECANT)
The first volunteer at my site (I’m number 4) set up an English Center that’s modeled after one in a nearby city, called Antsirabe. However, it’s seriously lacking in easy English readers (Where’s the Dr.Seuss!?!) and some of the other teachers I work with have expressed a need for new English learning games. Fortunately, there’s tons of organizations willing to donate books.

Creating fun events at the English Center
Already I’ve hosted a conversation club, which was intended for adults but ended up being a group of fantastic and motivated high school students. Also, we show kids films every Saturday with our wonky, sort of broken DVD player, and I’m working on burning a few new ones they haven’t seen before. The other week, we watched Madagascar… with the chicken.

But there’s still room for more! Starting in January and February I hope to get story time and games nights going. We also begin our Adult English course.

I teach a monthly cooking class…
And then of course there’s cooking classes with the teachers! So far, we’ve only had one, but we made some delicious chocolate pudding in spirit of the holiday season. I count it as an accomplishment that it’s now made its way to one of my students’ Christmas menus.

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Teaching Abroad

The Guilt Complex of Teaching English Abroad

Imperialism is dead, right?

We certainly aren’t grabbing land in the way our colonialist forefathers were, but I still can’t make this statement with absolute certainty. And it’s just this thought that inspired a discussion with other English language teachers and students about whether our presence in other countries is OK — morally sound and the like. As ESL teachers, we are also passing along our cultures and values, not just our language, and some worry that by doing so we are replacing equally valid cultural practices. That by making English the de facto language of international business, we are likewise creating a sphere where British and American standards of business conduct take precedence over others and become the “norm”. It implies hierarchy and hegemony.

But if we are to assume that, what linguist Phillipson refers to as “linguistic imperialism” — or the concept that a one-way transfer of language demonstrates assertion of power — is taking place, we are also making the assumption that non-Anglophone countries have no part in deciding if they want their populations learning English. We are also ignoring the value the international community has placed on knowing many languages, not just English.

Lesson Planning with Shaina in Costa Rica

Furthermore, this idea that ESL teachers may be doing something wrong and oddly neo-colonialist didn’t occur so much to my students as it did to my colleagues. Instead, the English language learners I’ve worked with and befriended have continually expressed that they view English as a way to interact with an international community and advance within their careers.

“With English, I can travel anywhere, talk to anyone” a student at a Korean test prep center told me last summer. And its (mostly) true. Unlike many other languages we have the option of learning, English gives students access not just to English-speaking cultures, but almost any culture they’re interested in.

So, should we feel guilty about teaching ESL abroad? Probably not — as language teachers we have the creative freedom to touch on a vast array of topics, meaning, if English has become the first step towards entering an international community, why shouldn’t our classrooms be as well?

Globally Focused Lesson Plan Ideas:

TEFL.net: This is a collection of “talking point” ideas aimed at getting your students to discuss a variety of topics. Not all are globally focused, but it’s worth sifting through. Mostly geared towards adult learners.

ESLflow: Here you can find a good collection of materials and ready-made lesson plans for discussing cultures and customs.