There’s a totem poll in development. On top is economics. Closely followed by a combination of medicine, public health, law, finance, international relations, HR, communications, social media and so on until we get to the two bottom.
Meet education and social work. This is clearly displayed when it comes to young, energetic do-gooders going abroad and either: a) having an epiphany about making a difference because of the two weeks they spent in [insert poor country]; or b) said epiphany occurred back in Melbourne and they are on their way to volunteer in [insert poor country].
This young, starry-eyed volunteer directs her (more often than not these two fields are still extremely gendered) efforts to one of two places: either into social work or education. By social work, I mean volunteering at orphanages. And by education, I mean volunteering to be an English teacher at a primary or secondary school.
I’m not going to beat the orphanage drum, which has had its fair share of drum solos. (See here, here, here). Little has been said about volunteer English teaching, which I find surprising. The duty of care of a teacher to the students is arguably on the same level as that of a social worker with vulnerable children. With little or no training, you can be given the care of anywhere between 10s and 100s of children in classrooms throughout the world. If you chose not to start an orphanage as a MONGO (My Own NGO), an education delivery service is usually next in line of the totem poll.
Take for example, this application form to teach at the Westminister Comprehensive School in Kumasi, Ghana. Qualifications are not sought, only “Teaching skills” and languages spoken. This testimonial from Nick Wood is particularly illustrative: “Whilst I had teaching experience from a year spent in France directly before I came to Ghana, don’t let it put you off if you haven’t taught before.” The only requirements listed on the school’s website are:
- 18 years or above
- Proficient in English or French
- Has interest in working with young people
- Should be independent
- Strongly motivated to make their stay in Ghana a success
Or take Volunteering Solutions, which offer a range of experiences in over 20 countries at a cost to the volunteer. (Is volunteering still volunteering when the volunteer has to pay a fee? Are you not then just a customer in a user-pays system?). After creating my account, the application page was very similar. I just needed to indicate my “language level”, motivation and medical conditions, followed by my credit card details. (There is an application fee of US$200).
It is no secret that disciplines and professions such as social work and education are looked down upon. They are at the bottom of the totem poll. This extends beyond volunteering opportunities in Ghana, Cambodia and elsewhere to Australia, the U.S. and Canada. Teachers are simultaneously praised and vilified, under-paid and over-worked. In order to attract more students and graduates, the professional life expectancy of a graduate teacher in Australia is just three years, more and more blended learning pathways to teaching are appearing. Teach for China, a cousin of Teach for America, has a very rigorous application process. However, when it comes to training before these young graduates are placed in southwest Yunnan province, the program is weeks. Not months, not years. Weeks.
[Soap box alert] Education is an academic discipline and a professional practice. It has a body of theories, epistemological and ontological debates, discussions and developments. It crosses disciplinary boundaries and rarely can educationalists be accused of spending too much time in an ivory tower. Education is all-encompassing. There are professional standards of practice, much like accounting. There are codes of conduct, much like law. The well-being of countless children are in educators’ hands, much like doctors.
It takes 1.5 years full-time at the University of Melbourne to earn your Masters of Teaching (secondary). It takes two years for the primary school stream. A Bachelor of Education (primary) at the University of Sydney takes four years fulltime. Years. Not weeks.
As Facebook friends are wont to tell us, through the selective quoting of Nelson Mandela [R.I.P], “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”. This weapon, however, is being brandished by amateurs. By those who don’t know whether the safety is on or off. The World Bank states that “Education is one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality and lays a foundation for sustained economic growth.”
Since 1950, we’ve witnessed astounding growth in access to education, with the average number of years of education an adult has rising from two years in 1950 to 7.2 years in 2010. Attention is quickly shifting from access to quality. (Despite the misleading path enrolment figures can take you down). And quality, I would argue, begins with teachers. It is estimated that 6.8 million teachers will be needed if universal primary education is to be achieved by 2015. There is a shortage of trained teachers in rural, deprived areas of countries like Ghana and Cambodia, and volunteer English teachers from abroad are not a solution, either stop-gap or long-term. Children deserve, and have the right to, better education and better teachers.
So, why can I spend five minutes in an online application, list my English proficiency, ethnicity and age, and be considered fit to teach English to Ghanaian primary and secondary school children?
If you want to teach, teach. If you want to travel, travel. Don’t do both. Don’t mix business with pleasure. Take the challenge. Teach for Australia appears to be a far more intensive, academic and practical program over two years; a mixture of placement, study, leadership training and mentoring, culminating in a Masters of Teaching. According to their website, 71% of alumni are still teaching beyond the program. Education is the most powerful weapon. Conditions apply. Please read instruction manual before using. Not safe for volunteers with no qualifications.
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