Friday, April 4, 2014

Realism, Idealism and Teaching Abroad

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Blog Carnival , a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. The host for this month is ‘Reach To Teach’, here you can find other similar articles. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article to this blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at, and he’ll let you know how you can start participating!

I did a lot of research on teaching English abroad during my senior year in college. I read tons of personal blogs from young people teaching around the world. I read advice columns on where to apply, how to apply, what to bring, how to prepare. I researched online TEFL courses, I connected with friends of friends who had taught abroad. I lived and breathed the search for an English teaching position in a foreign country where I could do my work well, learn a new language and experience a different culture.

A lot of myths were addressed and discarded in all of this reading material, but one myth that was somewhat pervasive, and not often addressed, was the often underlying idea of a “savior complex”. 

Let me explain – most people I know who go to teach English abroad go because they want to travel and they like to teach. And that’s about it. Not some deep, subconscious desire for greatness or heroic deeds. A lot of people do it to make money, like any job, and they look at jobs in China or South Korea. But when it comes to the jobs labeled “volunteer” or the jobs in developing countries, underlying much of the promotional material and idealistic applicants is this idea of swooping in as a hero, of somehow “saving” the poor students from whatever educational morass they have fallen into. The savior complex is found at some point in just about every volunteer opportunity, both local and abroad.

I came across this article recently that argues that volunteering to teach English abroad is problematic. I disagree with it for many reasons, mostly because I was an English teacher and most of my fellow teachers were qualified, serious about teaching, seeking to improve, and devoted enough to talk advanced grammar points over beers. (Also, even if the English teacher is under-qualified, isn't it better than having no English teacher?) (Also, why not mix work and play/teaching and travel? Don’t we all choose jobs and schools based on other factors, such as location or if they have awesome hang gliding/ice skating/whatever-your-hobby-is opportunities?) (Ok, maybe I need a whole post to refute this article.)

Let me say it again, I THINK GOING TO TEACH ENGLISH ABROAD IS A GREAT THING AND AWESOME OPPORTUNITY! But I think the existence of the article speaks to the fact that the myth of being an English teaching “savior” still exists. Unqualified, starry-eyed hopefuls are still going out there not because they want to be good teachers, and not (I think) just because they want to travel, but because they have an idea of “changing the world” (read: save the poor little children).  We hope to encourage kids to break out of their tiny village and go on to bigger and better (read: our idea of better) things. We want to turn the school around, get the parents more involved and make the other teachers as idealistic and pumped as we are. Those are good things. But we don’t need to save someone. We don’t need to come in to change people, we need to come in open and humble enough to allow ourselves to be changed, and brave and bold enough to try new things, teach new things and sometimes be the “new thing” that broadens perspective.

Changing the world is not a myth, I’m still a believer enough to say that. But the idea that the students we teach need a foreign English-speaking hero to save them from something is, indeed, mythological. They DO need good teachers doing good work, who encourage and believe in them and get them excited about learning, and I think foreign teachers can fill that role! We might not be able to, or even need to, “save” anyone, but we can open their eyes to different ways of being, to different countries and customs. We can change one child's world by sparking their interest in a new language and giving them confidence to learn! 

I was proud of the work I did in the country of Georgia. I didn't save anyone, I didn't change the entire culture of the school (cheating was still pervasive) or instill a deeper regard for education among the population of the town. But I did teach some students that English could be fun, even the grammar parts. I did take some of the weight off the local English teachers by making tests, doing grading and stepping in as substitute. In the Dominican Republic, I helped my adult students, mostly Haitian vendors, get more business opportunities by adding English phrases to their repertoire. And those are all good things. That was what I was supposed to do. I was paid (in the case of Georgia) to help the local teachers and introduce games and activities. I volunteered (in the case of the DR) to widen opportunities for Haitian immigrants.

The myth of coming in as “savior” can be harmful, because it 1. Puts way too much pressure on us as teachers 2. It focuses so much on what WE should do or want to change and closes us off from what the locals have to teach us or what they want and 3. If we are coming in as savior, it’s going to be really hard to just be. To just live. To make friends.

So get rid of that myth. Take that load off. Do your research, learn everything you can, pay attention in your training sessions. Be the very best teacher you can possibly be. Travel. Learn. Grow. And yes, in your own personal, small way, change the world. 


  1. Wonderful post, Mary Ellen! While I haven't taught English as a volunteer abroad, parts of your post reminded me of how I had to adjust my expectations (lower them) when I taught in Spain. After being there in the schools and seeing first-hand what my particular situation was going to be like that year, I had to let go of the ideas I'd formed and the projects that I'd envisioned back before I left home.

  2. Great post Mary Ellen.
    Like Rebe, I haven't taught English as a volunteer before so it was interesting to gain some perspective. I like your term 'savior complex', I can definitely relate to your thinking there and what a positive message to give out into the void, just be a good teacher and inspire, it's a hell of a lot easier than trying to be 'the one' to change the world.

    Great read :)

  3. Thanks for reading everyone! Yes, I think the "savior complex" is a media myth that we Americans are fed a lot and especially pops up when we head to volunteer positions, whether domestically or abroad. It's an important thing to be aware of before we enter a situation!

  4. I love this idea to reinforce and practise using English. I am considering doing volunteer work in my community by teaching ESL

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