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Volunteering to teach English is the new volunteering in an orphanage

Volunteering to teach English is the new volunteering in an orphanage

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].

Voluntourists - Travelling for Change. Image credit: Facebook
Voluntourists – Travelling for Change. Two Melbourne guys travelling to change the world. Image credit: Facebook

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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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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15 thoughts on “Volunteering to teach English is the new volunteering in an orphanage

  1. […] best interest to have several international volunteers each year, with no qualifications, “teaching” them English? What effect will accepting or sending international volunteers have on the best interests of these […]

  2. […] signed up for a voluntourism program in Vietnam. I was 18, and I was going to help street children learn English. For a week of “work,” I paid a little over 300 euros, which covered my accommodation and […]

  3. […] poignant articles have illustrated the uselessness, and even harmfulness, of poorly-conceived volunteer […]

  4. Andy

    I acquired my PGCE in the ’80s, and after almost 20 years of teaching in England, relocated to Cambodia where I have been teaching English for nine years now. I strongly share many of your concerns, especially the attitude that any native English speaker can be a teacher. However, one point I invite you to consider is the pragmatic one of what the alternatives are. There is a two-tier education system in Cambodia – private English schools are mushrooming for the rising middle classes, but in the public sector Khmer teachers typically earn under $100 per month. No political party here shows any sign of increasing government commitment to education. How do village schools and orphanages, therefore, recruit decent teachers? What usually happens in practice is that locals who either volunteer or accept very low wages are employed. They typically have a grasp of English that is barely above beginner level and do not have the ability to teach more than the basics. In this context, well-intentioned Western volunteers who stay for 6 months or so can make a positive contribution. Of course decently-trained and qualified local teachers would be preferable, but when they aren’t available, what do you do?

  5. grammar

    “Their are codes of conduct, much like law.”    It’s “there are”…. English is a difficult language and there is a code of laws (grammar) that one can learn from local teachers. However, to produce English naturally  without fossilized errors requires exposure to native speakers in some form. The earlier in life the better.    Local teachers cannot replicate this exposure. Hence, ESL teachers make $30 an hour in China because there is a market. Since that would constitute 10% of the GDP PPP per capita in Burundi that might be an issue. I will excuse your naivety about ESL methodology, training, and techniques as “real” teachers always look down their noses at anyone who teaches ESL.  I can’t  condone your condescending language that, by the second paragraph, would stop anyone considering teaching or volunteering from finishing the whole article. The same applies to your responses to most of the critiques on this article.

    1. Grammar – clever point made re grammar BUT I can see nowhere where the author suggests that ESL practitioners may not be valuable – am i missing something –

    2. You’d be surprised to hear that I have been an ESL teacher that I currently teach in a Master of TESOL program at the University of Melbourne. Teaching English as an additional language has moved away from prescriptive grammar and pedagogies around error correction. The focus is more on blended approaches, where communicative competency is the goal and errors are ok. (Much like the lexical error I made). So, my tone is not one of condescension, but of frustration that unqualified teachers are being given the responsibility for the learning of young children. This has nothing to do with qualified ESL/EAL teachers.

  6. […] realise that they could actually be doing damage due to their lack of skills and experience. Teaching English sounds sexy and leaving your mark on this world in the form of a newly built structure sounds cool but that […]

  7. I think that there is a difference between blatant voluntourism, which is often expensive and short-term, versus placing entry-level volunteers (ie graduate students with volunteer experience) as teachers in schools. I responded to this article on my blog. Feel free to comment back. Thanks for the stimulating read! It kept me thinking all day!

  8. I break down why I disagree in my latest blog post. Commens are welcomed.

  9. I think it is interesting to see these kinds of articles alongside ones with advice for aspiring development workers, the latter of which inevitably lament that there are practically no entry-level opportunities for young professionals to gain *paid* experience in a resource-poor setting. If most development positions will only consider professionals who have a year or two of experience living in developing countries, where do you think aspiring aid workers will look for that first rung? Precisely in these kinds of teaching positions. Many of them will provide housing and a small living stipend, which is all a recent grad needs to suspend student loan payments for a year and have something to put on a resume to send to their favorite development firm to secure a “real job.”

    I absolutely understand how frustrating this can be from the perspective of an education specialist – as someone who took a position “teaching” English in South Korea precisely for this reason, I was equally overwhelmed and horrified at the waves of unqualified recent graduates “teaching” English to young children – but if we want qualified professionals to enter development, perhaps we should focus on building appropriate recruitment and training opportunities for them.

    1. Hi Jessica. Yes, you need to do your volunteer stints, but don’t go and volunteer to teach in another country. I volunteered in Australia with ActionAid, Football United and other organisations. If you want to teach, sign up for the Teach for Australia program, which will support you both financially and professionally. There are alternatives. Work as a teacher in the Australian system for awhile. Build your technical expertise in Australia. This applies to U.S, Canada, etc.

  10. Lee-Ann Hawe

    Learning English as a second language is not a black and white issue, very different to volunteering in other areas. ESL is big business both in Australia and overseas, as it’s a pathway to employment, higher income and immigration to an English speaking country. People from developing countries like Cambodia and Ghana can barely afford the cost of a basic education let alone the high costs of an English language course. There is a supply and demand problem and although I agree that developing countries should have access to qualified and experienced ESL teachers, the gap will not be filled without the money to pay and train them. You also need take into account the challenge of enticing qualified teachers to work in a developing country as opposed to richer countries like China that offer a competitive higher wage.
    It’s probably more appropriate for these volunteer programs to change the word ‘teacher’ to ‘tutor’. The programs are filling a gap by providing students with the opportunity to practice their English with a native English speaker – essential to gaining fluency with a language that is rated as one of the most difficult in the world to learn.
    p.s. why trample on the good intentions of young ‘do-gooder’ volunteers? They have a desire to help and to gain an understanding and empathy for people in need in these countries, let them.

    1. Hi Lee-Ann, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Ghana doesn’t need teachers. They actually have more than enough within the public system. The challenges for the system is quality, teacher retention, salary, work conditions, professional development, resources, etc. The list goes on. It not about attracting teachers, but building the capacity of national teachers. Of teachers within Ghana, Cambodia and elsewhere.

      Good intentions are not enough; especially when it comes to the lives of children. Just because you mean well, doesn’t mean you should be allowed work with children. No way. Would Australians let unqualified, untrained people teach their children in schools? What about police background checks? Child protection policies and codes of conduct?

  11. surely,as facilitators, an important part of our role is to manage expectations Simon – and no question – one of the most time consuming and challenging roles for us – as you know many sending organisations, charitable or for profit don’t bother…..that road ruin.

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