Teach English Abroad Volunteer Programs for Education Abroad

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Brittany Edwardes is a Fulbright-Malaysia Alumna and current Teach for America Corps Member. Before becoming a special educator teaching in an urban school in D.C., Brittany started her teaching career in a rural Malaysian high school. In this article, Brittany will be reflecting on her time in Malaysia and passing along pedagogy, tips, and anything she wishes she had known starting out as a first-time ESL teacher. She’ll also be giving you some insight into the world of teaching English abroad and how to make the most impact on your placement.

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A few years ago, I had a very vague idea of how I wanted to change the world. I understood that in order for good things to happen in a community, education was important and that many countries around the world are unable to sufficiently educate their populations. I also understood that as a college-educated American, I had a privileged education that many people in many places could only dream of. These certainties led me to decide that the best way for someone like me, who has always loved both educating and being educated, to change the world was to teach.

After researching a variety of programs, I had the great fortune of applying to and being accepted into the The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Program funded by the United States Department of State. (Note: there are non-governmental organizations such as Global Vision International, which will also pay you a stipend to teach English overseas.) I was soon off, jetting around the world to Malaysia where I knew little more about my future position except that I would be acting as a sort of assistant to an English teacher in a Malaysian public school. Upon leaving America, I did not know what age, location, or size of school that I would be teaching at. All I knew was that I was ready to serve and that I simply could not wait to be just as good a teacher as all of those fantastic and formative teachers I had during my childhood.

Upon arriving in Malaysia, I immediately fell in love with my placement. I was placed in a rural Malaysian high school teaching English and geography. The school, which consisted mostly of open-air classrooms and broad, sandy play areas, was beautiful, nestled between the coast and misty, lush rainforests mountains. My school itself was extremely ethnically diverse, being about with 30% Malay, 60% Chinese, and 10% Indian students. Although my school was large and poor, the students took immense pride in caring for their school and their community. I was excited to take my place as their new American English teacher and was welcomed with fantastic ceremonies and enthusiasm from my seventeen classes of students. I thought I was ready to make some change and be the teacher I wanted to be.

A few months later, I realized that while I had not been wrong, I had been both naïve and underprepared for either the reality of the life of a teacher or the challenge of living isolated abroad. I was struggling, hard. I was struggling to survive as the only gangly, tall white person in a country with almost no mat sallehs, or white foreigners. I was also struggling to connect with over 500 beautiful, inquisitive, but rowdy Malaysian children who spoke very little English, no matter what the lovely brochures had told me about Malaysia’s developing English competencies. As a teacher, I was failing because, quite simply, I did not know how to teach abroad.

My initial assumptions about how the educational world works were not quite wrong, just severely underdeveloped. In this article, I am going to do my best to keep you from finding yourself in my shoes, which would have been shushing a rowdy outdoor classroom for most of my first few months of teaching. I’m going to try to take you through a few realities of teaching abroad, a sprinkling of pedagogy and best practices, and some reading to help you develop even further as an educator abroad.

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Part 1: What to Expect from Teaching Abroad

First things first– there are incredible educators all around the world. I know this might sound obvious and simple, but I’m telling you this because this was not something that was messaged to me when I first began the process of going to teach English abroad. When I was looking to teach, I seemed to think that there was some kind of international teacher shortage and that kids all over the world were simply going without teachers.

This is not usually the case. What happens instead is that programs and schools seek to advertise and hire native English speakers as a way to either supplement their student’s education by giving them exposure to native English speakers, or in some cases, attract higher-level clientele who want their children to learn English only from native English speakers. While there are many studies (such as this one) that examine the data behind learning English from native versus non-native speakers, there can be excellent English teachers from either group. However, because government programs and other organizations can sometimes hold native English teachers in a higher esteem, some non-native English speakers can become frustrated with teaching alongside under-qualified native English speaking teachers. This problem is worsened by the fact that English teachers who speak English as a native language often nab some of the most well-paid jobs at international schools and other exclusive teaching positions. In fact, some native speakers are paid more than native-speaking English teachers teaching in the same position!

Okay, I know, it’s a little overwhelming to imagine that all of your future colleagues are already dreading the arrival of the newest international volunteer. I don’t want you to think that’s the case at all. What I do want to encourage you to do is to work with your colleagues, to allow them to mentor and foster communication between you and your students in ways that impossible without them. Upon my arrival at my school, it took me about a week to realize that, for better or for worse, I wanted to be a teacher for the rest of my life. Part of what made my experience so positive was that I had local teachers who coached me every step of the stay. With their guidance and acceptance, I was able to be helped along through sometimes excruciatingly awkward cultural miscommunications and mishaps while also forging permanent bonds with teachers who, to this day, I respect immensely.

The second thing that international English educators should be aware of is that teaching English is (and should be) a lot more intensive than teaching a few songs and American pop-culture facts to a group of star-struck kids. Learning English should be fun– but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be rigorous as well. When I first began teaching English, I felt pressure, both from the program that I was working with and my school, to be as fun and as activity-oriented as possible. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that my students had needs that simply couldn’t be covered in a quick thirty-minute production. I soon found myself creating unit plans and lesson plans, researching grammar and conventions so that I could only give my kids the best, and most importantly, asking my students what they wanted most out of having a native English-speaking teacher at their disposal. In my experience, kids can be refreshingly honest and well-informed when it comes to what they need to know about the world. When asked, my students were able to give me concrete, realistic expectations that I didn’t even realize they held about what how they should benefit from having a native-speaking English teacher. My kids wanted to learn geography, how to write letters, how to understand internet slang. While what they wanted to know may not have been what I would have originally guessed or all that I thought that they needed to know, it gave me a great jumping off point to serving my students.

The third thing that all new volunteers teaching English abroad should know is that there is a strong historical precedent to teaching English that is riddled by undercurrents of privilege, poverty, and ultimately echoes of colonization that still persist today. However, while the “white savior complex” is real alive, it is not a reason for you to not travel abroad. What is important is that you are able to match your good intentions with a critical consciousness of the role of English in the world’s of your students and their communities. Is English a way for them to be able to obtain higher-paid jobs working with tourists? Is it a required language for them to apply to universities? Whatever the reason, be aware of it and engage in dialogue with your students for their reasons for wanting to speak English. While English is an excellent language to learn to speak in order to engage internationally, but it is one of dozens of languages that are important internationally. Acknowledging this is vitally important and makes the difference between an honest education and Anglocentrism.

Still, I don’t tell you all of these things to discourage you, but to give you a real look into troubles that you could encounter as you go abroad to teach. If you’re feeling a bit shaky about your decision to teach English abroad right now, please– keep reading.

Part 2: Why Teaching English is a Great Way to Change the World

Despite all of these challenges, I want you to trust me when I say that teaching English abroad is, in fact, an excellent way to change the world. As I mentioned earlier, English is the perfect avenue for many people to accelerate their careers into new levels that require conversational or fluent English. This is especially true in the hospitality industry or any other industries that come into contact with tourists or work with international business. Even though languages such as Mandarin or Spanish have more native speakers around the world than English, English is frequently used as an intermediary business language and is the official language of business in many countries. Also, many international universities also require applicants to speak fluent English and offer classes exclusively in English. Finally, since many websites are written exclusively in English, being able to understand basic written English is necessary for many people to achieve a basic level of internet literacy. So, when you are teaching someone English, you are not just teaching them a language, but giving them a chance at opportunities, both educational and otherwise.

In my experience, what many schools around the world lack is not great teachers, but resources. As a native English speaker, you are able to serve as an incredible resource for your students and your schools. Let’s face it– being a native English speaker comes with a lot of privilege and connections, especially in less developed countries with few foreigners or foreign businesses. What matters is that you are able to use your connections to the benefit of your students and school. While I was teaching at a rural Malaysian high school, I was able to expose my students to incredible conferences, competitions, and other educational events simply because of connections that I was able to make through the American Embassy and other expats. These competitions weren’t just opportunities for my students to show off how smart they are, but also a chance for my kids to have a real-life motivator of why they should work hard to speak English. Some of my Malaysian colleagues commented that the students seemed much more motivated and focused after attending an all-English event or field trip with me. That, for me, could make my experience teaching English in Malaysia worth it alone.

Part 3: How to Make Your Classroom Effective, Intensive, and Fun

Before I get started on all of the ins and outs of classroom management in a foreign country, you should probably realize that your English teaching experience might look nothing like a traditional classroom. There are plenty of programs that consist of English camps of various lengths, after-school tutoring, or intensive retreat like programs. Before I taught in Malaysia, I lived in Thailand teaching for an organization that orchestrated English camps through contracts with local school boards. What we did was spend a weekend or so at a local school, run an intensive, two-day camp in which we taught the children games, songs, and orchestrated large-scale activities like a scavenger hunt or American football tournament, and have the students put on a skit or play, all in English. While English camps might not be the most content-heavy educational initiative in the world, they are an excellent way to increase a student’s motivation to speak English and to be honest, help the kids have a little fun while learning.

If you are teaching in a classroom, however, you are in for a treat. Although the structure of your lessons may depend on whether or not you are teaching with a local co-teacher, educators teaching abroad are usually given plenty of free reign over the English language content that they decide to teach the students. As you teach, I would recommend taking the advice of the following ten tips for new English teachers abroad.

1. When it comes to deciding what you want to teach, stick to the experts.

Although it might be tempting, if you’re an easily-excited, overzealous educator like me, to immediately begin planning all of your lessons as soon as you know what country you’re stationed it, I’d recommend holding off at least until you can make contact with your school. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, there are excellent educators and curriculum planners all over the world. Since these professionals will have a good idea of what kinds of English content the students will need to know to pass qualifying exams or other similar assessments, lean on them when it comes to prioritizing what to teach.

2.If you know teaching best practices, use them. If you don’t know them, learn them.

Just as the world is full of excellent teachers, it is also full of excellent teaching best practices, resources, and pedagogy. With the help of the internet, it is easy to brush on on the latest in TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) as well as figure out some of the common best practices for teachers of any subjects. As a new teacher, it was most helpful for me to learn about exit tickets, in which you create a small mini-quiz to be given at the end of each lesson to assess whatever learning goal you made for the lesson. Small tips and tricks such as these can make a big difference to a new teacher and help your classroom run much more smoothly and effectively.

3. Ask for student and colleague feedback, and do it often.

In my experience, it can be difficult to know if you are doing a good job during your first few months of teaching abroad, especially in Asian countries where giving honest feedback can be seen as forcing someone to “lose face”. Anonymous feedback forms can be one way to bypass any awkwardness on either side. Although you might be nervous to hear what your colleagues are actually thinking as you fumble your way through your first few weeks teaching abroad, small tips given anonymously can give you information that you might not get any other way. For example, one of my colleagues anonymously told me that some teachers were critical of how little time I spent in the teachers lounge and that some of my colleagues thought that it was because I didn’t like them. This was, of course, not the case, and I the hint and spend more time with my colleagues forming bonds that I didn’t realize that I was missing out on. Asking students for feedback is also a very productive way to improve your teaching. In my experience, students are remarkably honest and insightful and almost always able to recognize good teaching. As a teacher who likely has different customs and classroom experiences than your students, getting their feedback will also let you know how to be more accessible to them.

4. Join and lead as many after-school activities as you can.

If you are in a classroom setting, it can be hard to get to know all of your students at once. Regardless of the wealth of the school that you teach, many countries struggle with overlarge class sizes that are not ideal for having close-knit relationships with your students. To bypass this, take as much time as you can to get to know your students outside of the classroom. Leading an interesting after-school activity is a great way to do this while still interacting in an educational environment. Be brave when trying to decide what kinds of clubs or activities you might lead– you don’t have to be especially good at an activity to have fun with your students. I’ve had the pleasure of joining karaoke clubs, coaching a girl’s track team, helping my students write letters to One Direction and all kinds of wacky, insane activities for the sake of the kids I love and don’t regret a minute of it, even if writing letters to one direction was just a little bit much.

5. Become a member of your new community.

Your success as a teacher is going to hinge on whether or not your students can feel comfortable with you. One way to overcome this is to be seen in your community doing normal, fun things that make you seem approachable. For me, it was being seen every Saturday night at the pasar malam or night market. I would see my students and their families and often join them for a cup of tea and some snacks. You want to give yourself as many opportunities to be a part of your community as possible, and interacting publicly with community events is a great place to start.

6. Reflect, Revamp, Teach, Repeat.

Being new in a classroom is almost always tough and you should prepare yourself to work through many, many setbacks and failures as you make your way to good teaching. It is good to have a growth mindset for the first few months. Look at each lesson as an experiment, be well-prepared, and try your hardest. Then, once the class or school day is over, take some time to reflect on what went well, what could have gone better, and what about the lesson was challenging. You might consider recording these reflections in a notebook or blog. Another great way to reflect on your classroom environment and your own efficacy as a teacher is to record yourself with your phone or a camera. Watching yourself teach will not only teach you some of your unconscious but still distracting speaking habits, but also will allow you to see what is going on in your classroom that you don’t always notice, whether or not you are speaking slowly or concisely enough to be understood, and how well you are pacing your lesson. Reflecting also gives you time to consider what it is that you really want your students to leave your class with.

7. Make it fun

Finally, it’s important that you make learning fun for your students. Because of the struggles associated with large class sizes and limited resources, there is often little time or money to plan and facilitate hands-on, moderately expensive activities like field trips or scavenger hunts. Since you might have access to funds through scholarships and grants, the ESL placement organization, or through fundraising that you do on your own (like through Volunteer Forever) you may have access to resources that will help engage your students and help create memories that will last far beyond your stay in your country. Be sure to talk to officials in your school to see what kinds of opportunities are available or what past ESL teachers have done. Because of funding from my program and generous donations from my friends and family, I was able to take my students on an American-esque camping trip, take a team of students to an international student entrepreneurship conference, have multiple scavenger hunts, and paint a mural all within a year at my placement school.

8. Make time for families.

While I was in Malaysia, one of the best things that I ever did was accept one of my student’s invitation to eat dinner with her family. At the time, I was just excited to try some home cooked local cuisine, but once I arrived, I realized that sharing family time with my students gave me a chance to experience the Malaysian culture as I never could on my own. Eating dinner with her family soon became a weekly event and when my other students found out, I very rarely had an evening to myself to veg out on American food, which was probably a good thing. I formed the best relationships of my time at my students’ dinner table and being around such warmth and let’s be honest, delicious food, helped me cope with the downsides of travel such as homesickness and culture shock. As an introvert, it was honestly draining to be out every single evening, but it was worth the effort in how much it improved not just my relationships with my students, but my effectiveness in my school.

9. Let your impact be known.

Even if English is not a primary language in a country, many countries have English-only newspapers or sections of newspapers that are eager to cover any sort English language activity. Whenever you have a big event, such as an English Camp or field trip, let the local press know. Since my program was government-funded, state-owned newspapers were especially eager to cover anything that I was doing to benefit Malaysian children. Having your activities in the spotlight doesn’t just thrill school officials who love to see their schools getting good press, but validates your students’ sense of what you are doing is fun and purposeful. You can even make an activity out of reading the newspaper article that the kids will be extremely excited– and proud– to show to their families and friends.

10. The internet is full of ideas– use them!

When I first arrived in Malaysia, I would spend hours planning out my lessons and trying to think of creative ways to engage my students using English. While my efforts were well-meaning, I could have used my time much more wisely had I just used the internet, and the minds of the thousands of ESL teachers who have put ideas there, and saved a lot of time and headaches. Many resources, such as Dave’s ESL Cafe are just full of games and activities that are tried and true by experienced ESL teachers. Use the internet and hopefully a printer to your benefit and use other teachers’ ideas to make your lessons even more awesome.

These tips aren’t a conclusive list of how to make your time spent teaching English abroad incredible and productive, but they will take you a long way. As long as you are willing to be enthusiastic, hard-working, and attentive to the needs of your children and communities, you are likely to make a mark that lasts.

Part 4: How to find a teach abroad / education volunteer program that sets you (and your kids) up for success

Not all English teaching programs are equal. Because finding and employing native English speakers is such a lucrative business, there are many programs that are in it strictly for the profit and may not have the best interests of the teachers or students at hand. However, there are still plenty of great programs out there that will help you do good work. When looking for a program, look for ones that either require Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) or ESL certification or else provide sufficient training to their volunteers before you ever enter the classroom. Although you might not be interested in having a permanent certification (or paying for one), organizations that hold both students and teachers accountable are likely to be much more effective in the long run. Another safe bet to take when choosing a program is to find a volunteer organization that places you in government-run schools as Pod Volunteer (2014 finalist for best volunteering organization at the British Youth Travel Awards) does for their Teach English programs in southern Thailand.

If an organization does not require certification but does provide training, make sure that you ask questions so that you can assess the rigor of the training program. Unqualified teachers do not usually make as many gains in the classrooms as teachers who have been properly trained and oriented. Make sure that the English teaching program’s training course will give you tools and resources to be able help you succeed. One attribute that I look for in ESL programs is the use of instructional coaches or mentors who help new English teachers teach effectively by joining the new teacher in a constant cycle of observation, coaching, and reflection.

As with any volunteer abroad program, the best way to get an idea of what the experience is like is by hearing from other volunteers. You can do this on sites like ours or else contact the organization and ask if they have volunteers who might be willing to talk to you directly before you make a decision. Volunteers will most likely be honest about the quality of the overall program and what supports were or were not provided. They can also assist you as you decide how to prepare for the work that you will soon undertake.

Once you’ve found a program that does everything in their power to support you and your students, you’ll need to start considering the overall cost of your experience. Although many ESL programs are able to pay their volunteers small stipends in the local currency, you might be responsible for paying for your own flight, housing, and any travel that you might be interested in doing on your own time. You may also want to have funds available to pay for classroom supplies and supplementary items like sports equipment (American footballs are a huge hit) and items like projectors or speakers since many schools have very little technology access. Finally, if you stay at only one school, you might want to give some kind of gift to your school so that your tangible impact lasts after you’re gone. Since my students loved the American sports that I taught them like football, baseball, and hula hooping, I chose to use funds that I raised through crowdfunding to pay for new sports equipment for my school’s athletics center. To be able to fund these items, you’ll probably want to either look into writing grants or crowdfunding to raise money so that you have funding to be able to make your plans reality.

Just to give you a place to start, here is a list of organizations with English teaching programs that our volunteers recommend most highly:

For me, my volunteer abroad experience was what decided my entire life path. Despite the immense difficulty of teaching English in another country, I knew after my first month of teaching that this is what I would be doing in the long haul and have never regretted it. While my year spent abroad was one of the most difficult, draining years of my life, it was also one of the most rewarding. Like all new teachers, I was given a multitude of chances to try new things and to, sometimes, fail brilliantly. Whenever you’re in a new environment doing a totally new thing, failure is bound to happen. What matters is that you are able to take the failure constructively, reflect, and get up the next morning ready to try it all again.

Almost two years out from my experience in Malaysia, I already know that it will remain one of the most vibrant times of my life. I am still reminded of the incredible results of all of my hard work, to the daily grind of being up for the daily 6:40am school assembly to the whirlwind of being able to pull of massively complicated scavenger hunts. At the time, it sometimes was difficult to see that what I was doing mattered. Now, however, I have the wonderful benefit of being able to see my former students apply to college and travel around the world, presumably using some of the English skills that we worked on together.

So, to sum it up, teaching English abroad allows students to have access to resources that would be possibly out of reach in their native language. Present yourself as a resource for them to use and be open to trying many, many new things. It will be worth it.

P.S. If you’re still looking for a volunteer opportunity, check out our list of best volunteer abroad programs and recommended volunteer projects in Africa, Central America, and Thailand. You can also read about 7 Great Medical and Veterinary Volunteer Abroad Projects, 10 Dental Volunteer Abroad Program and Medical Mission Tips for Pre Dental Students, and nursing volunteer abroad projects for students and nurse professionals. Or, if medical volunteer projects aren’t for you, be sure to read about our sports and coaching volunteer abroad, wildlife conservation and veterinary abroad, teach abroad, and intern abroad programs. Lastly, if you’re under 18, you may be interested in a teen volunteer abroad program from one of our many great partners.

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