Teaching English Abroad: Do’s and Don’ts

I’ve been in Mumbai the last four or five weeks, working at the SP Jain Institute’s NGO Abhyudaya. The organization runs a program that gives Mumbai children from various low-income neighborhoods an opportunity to get better education and extracurricular enrichment. One of the components of this is teaching the students English.

Knowing in English in India is a very big deal and is a key ingredient in social mobility and economic advancement. It will be difficult to get a high-paying job without knowing English. This is true in many parts of the world where English is not the primary language. There are many initiatives to teach English to underprivileged students in such countries. I don’t actually teach English, but I do design the curriculum and see how teachers implement it in their lessons, seeing what works and doesn’t work. My job is to give the best possible curriculum so that these children have a solid path to success.

So, the thing is that there are a lot of people in the US who go abroad to teach English as some kind of humanitarian mission. They’re often led through churches or NGOs. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing to try and go help someone else get ahead in life by teaching them something you know. But there are a lot of problems with the way some “voluntourism” often pans out, and you do need to be mindful of those things. With that, here are some things that you need to know before you go teach English abroad:

1. You are in a foreign country.

This may seem like a very obvious fact to most people, but it’s so often ignored. You need to be mindful of the fact that you are foreign and in a different society. Be humble to your hosts and try learn more about the places that your students are coming from. You cannot expect to teach them anything unless you understand their needs. Try to learn some of the local language and do things with local people. I’m Indian-American, but I know nothing about Indian people’s lives in India. I’m always learning new things about the kids who come for the program. I’ve been to the slums and I’ve been learning about their education up to the point at which they enter the program. This helps me write lessons that are more suited to their needs and skills they really need to develop.

2. Get out of your savior complex.

These students have their own plans, families, and futures. You are there to help them with just one subject and you are not the end-all-be-all of their education. This goes back to being humble. These students lead their own lives just fine without you, even if they do have it rough, rougher than even struggling people in the US can imagine. They don’t need you to tell them what to do. I have to keep this in mind when I write the lessons. The lessons can’t be about international travel or other lofty rich people stuff because that isn’t something they need to learn. They are not afforded the privilege of learning a foreign language for fun or as an expendable school subject, and they require it for their long-term success. Don’t treat your English teaching stint as a joke and take the students and the job seriously.

3. You’re not a tourist; you are being employed to teach English.

I realize that there are many “voluntourism” packages out there, that seek to engage foreign visitors in meaningful work in a developing country. This is the epitome of intrusive and fundamentally unhelpful behavior. If you’re coming to another country to teach kids English, don’t treat the students, teachers, or the organization as some kind of accessory to a pleasure trip. If that was the plan in the first place, don’t go at all. I’m completely serious. These organizations work their asses off to bring better education and help kids who otherwise might not have the opportunity. You should treat them with respect and take them seriously for the work that they do. I work nearly every day to contribute to the curriculum, always revising and observing. Don’t waste their time by Instagram-ing pictures of your work and not do any work.

I hope this helps people who are considering going to do this type of work abroad. Please don’t forget to share and comment!

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I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.