Should you really be teaching English abroad?

illustration by Kazvare Made It

I’m aware that this piece is going to hurt a lot of Beckys out on these white liberal streets. She’s an upper-middle-class girl who wears elephant printed harem pants, a nose ring (not the stud, of course) and smells permanently of your grandma’s mahogany chest. Becky is left wing, supports Black Lives Matter (side note: Becky doesn’t know anyone in the black community, but knows that supporting BLM is part of the “woke” agenda) and typically lives in gentrified neighbourhoods.

As a woman of colour, Becky makes you shudder but you never know why. She casually mentions how she taught English abroad in a “developing” country that you call your motherland. Proclaiming that she lived it out “rough” on those supposedly dirty lands, it’s on the tip of your tongue why her actions bother you. Personally, it’s taken me years to formulate my critique on teaching English abroad. And I realised what it was finally.

Why are people teaching English in a country that doesn’t speak English as a second or even third language? Why is English a necessity for a good education?”

Why are people teaching English in a country that doesn’t speak English as a second or even third language? Why is English a necessity for a good education?

Quite frankly, the Western hemisphere has somewhat of an obsession with travelling to other countries for educational purposes. Be it missionaries, semester study abroad programmes in universities or fellowship programs. Paradoxically, there is a lack of knowledge about travelling and how these programmes are created. For example, the Fulbright Student Program is widely popular in liberal arts colleges in the United States with thousands of seniors applying to its research or English teaching program. But the actual founder, US Senator J. William Fulbright, was an infamous segregationist and objected to the US civil rights laws.

The godfather of international scholarships in America is The Rhodes Scholarship, named after Cecil Rhodes, a bona fide asshole in every aspect. He was essentially a white supremacist who was an avid fan of British imperialism and the brainchild of the South African apartheid. That’s right. The god damn apartheid. What’s even more frightening is that many of these fellowships, including the Fulbright, was based on the Rhodes Scholarship program. Essentially meaning, these fellowships are based on imperialism and institutionalised racism.

“People teach English abroad with little to no background in it, while in academic institutions in the Western hemisphere require an immense amount of qualification before being a qualified TA or teacher”

In addition, there is the double standard which is in the teaching qualifications. People teach English abroad with little to no background in it, whilst academic institutions in the Western hemisphere require an immense amount of qualifications before being a TA or teacher. To be a teacher in America requires at least a Masters degree in education even if you’re a native speaker of the language you want to teach. To even be a TA requires having a withstanding relationship with the professor you’re assisting in and an actual educational background in that respective course.

In contrast, programs like TEFL only require a 150-hour online course to be a certified teacher abroad, with additional classes in “intercultural training”. While Fulbright justifies their lack of background check with proclamations that they are also sending “cultural ambassadors of the US” in addition to teaching English. These claims have all made me incredibly suspicious. Why are cultural ambassadors necessary? What the hell is intercultural training?

I can’t help but feel that these programmes view foreign countries as zoos and the West as the viewing customer who points, ridicule and observes them. There is this patronising, dehumanising element that is purely neo-imperialistic. These privileged, predominantly white postgrads, are travelling to our countries to teach English when in actuality, it is not a language necessary to learn. If anything, I feel that the influence of English in these countries has created an even stronger class issue, in that speaking English is a sign of being more educated and “modern”.

I can’t help but feel that these programmes view foreign countries as zoos and the West as the viewing customer who points, ridicule and observes them”

Internalised colonisation, or the more proper term “colonial mentality” has made some countries feel that their own culture is embarrassingly backwards, when in actuality, we really should be celebrating our history that is vibrant, enduring and incredibly beautiful. Having these teaching English abroad programs is like pouring salt into these deep wounds, exacerbating the issue which is cultural turmoil.

The icing on the cake is that most folks who join these programmes don’t even want to be teachers or have any sort of cultural ties to these countries. I assume it is because they want to “explore” another country that is completely different from what they’re used to and found a programme that also looks good on their CV, is cost effective and is easy to get a work visa for. In my college, we had a whole course that was just about getting into Fulbright, which included writing optimal essays that best fit the “exploring a new culture” mindset of the programme and choosing countries that were rarely picked. Again, this is incredibly… strange, to say the least. Instead of choosing countries that you actually would want to understand the culture more and or feel a personal connection with, students are choosing any random country that will give them a free pass to visit southeast Asia or eastern Europe. Wonderful.

I admit, I really do sound rather pessimistic as some folks really don’t have the means or money to justify an extended trip to another country. But I do think there is a better way of travelling. Rather than entering with the lens of educating others, you can try and educate yourself. There are programs such as WWOOF where you can stay at a farm for free while providing manual labour. Look up research fellowships that involve you learning from these communities. Don’t fear picking up the local language even if you sound pretty awful; it’s not like us first-gens speak perfectly as well.

Dive into the cultural pit that makes  countries in the global south unique, rather than gazing from the outside. Don’t pity the history of the oppressed as we have endured much more than you see outside on our bustling streets, instead try to understand how we got to where we are. Don’t live it out “rough” when you can stay in a nice place or at a comfortable homestay: you’ll probably enjoy your experience more. You see, a country is a lot like a person: You can’t expect change from someone, it comes from themselves. A country won’t change because some Becky from the US drops pseudo-knowledge bombs that they’ve picked up from their Developmental Economics class. We’ve unfortunately learned that lesson before. When you come in with humility yet awareness we more than likely will welcome you. There is a reason why we have lasted through invasions, slavery, and genocide; we have continually healed from our past and given people a second chance… if they have earned our respect.

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