Volunteer teaching and coaching holidays - Discussion document

Two years ago at Responsible Travel, we reviewed our guidelines for many of our volunteer placements - specifically those working with vulnerable children and those in orphanages. Prior to the launch of our new Volunteering holidays guide, we are looking to update our policies to ensure that all the volunteering trips we promote on our site adhere to the same strict policies, with a particular focus on placements for teaching assistants, teachers and coaches (ie. sports, music).

We would appreciate feedback from any of our operators who offer volunteering holidays to help us shape our policies. Below we have outlined our concerns and recommendations for placements for volunteer teachers and coaches, following conversations with volunteering experts at Impact International and specialists from within the TEFL industry, including Trinity College, one of the most widely recognised providers of qualifications for teachers of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).

Our main concerns are the following:
  • An influx of volunteer teachers - particularly ones who are paying fees - runs the risk of reducing paid work for local teachers. In the worst case scenario, a local teacher may lose his or her job to make way for a volunteer.

  • We recognise that there is a difference between knowledge of a subject, and the ability to teach a class. This is particularly prominent with regards to language teaching; speaking a language does not mean a volunteer is able to teach it effectively. Likewise, playing a sport is not the same as being able to coach a team or a class safely and responsibly.

  • Volunteers taking over classes for short periods disrupt the curriculum and the flow of learning, particularly if the local teacher is not present in the classroom. The more short term teachers the students are exposed to, the more disruptive the learning experience.

  • Short term volunteers, one after the other, may end up repeating topics, or conversely, not refreshing students' knowledge on what they have learned with previous volunteers.

  • A lack of adequate screening, such as DBS (formerly known as CBR) checks, puts children at risk.

  • Unqualified and inexperienced volunteers taking over the role of a teacher in a developing country devalue the work of local teachers - the assumption being that an unqualified Westerner (who in some cases may still be a teenager) is still better at doing the job than a local teacher. This is damaging to both local teachers and students - who should be encouraged to look within their own communities for knowledge, support and mentoring, and not to consistently rely on "outsiders" for help.

  • The local culture should be taken into consideration during classes. This cannot happen with volunteer teachers who may not speak the local language or have any knowledge of the country or its culture. We don't believe that a short orientation session can cover this topic in sufficient depth.

  • An influx of volunteer teachers - particularly ones who are paying fees - runs the risk of reducing paid work for local teachers. In the worst case scenario, a local teacher may lose his or her job to make way for a volunteer.
Additionally, with regards to all volunteer placements and not just those involving teaching and coaching:
  • The community must have input into what assistance is needed and how this should be implemented. Ideally, the initial request from support should have come from local people themselves. Is it more teachers they need, or better training for local teachers? Is English language going to be taught for a sufficiently long enough period for student to learn any useful skills, or is this a short term assignment which will be of little use to students?

  • The community is often left out of volunteer projects. Volunteers should work alongside the community - sharing skills with local teachers, learning about the culture, so that the community feels they are part of the project and able to influence its development.

  • The project may have little or no beneficial impact upon the host communities - and in some situations, may actually have a negative effect. Tracking, reporting and monitoring needs to be factored in to every project - from the level of short-term volunteers with up to management level - to assess the impact.
Given these concerns, we are proposing the following criteria for our teaching and coaching placements. The overwhelming factor in this review is to encourage volunteers not to participate in any voluntary activities overseas that they would not be allowed/qualified to do in their home country. The recommendations below seek to reinforce that.
  1. Anyone wishing to teach or coach (unless as an assistant) should have an appropriate qualification - whether that's a TEFL certificate, a PGCE, sports coaching qualification or another relevant certification in youth work.

  2. Anyone wishing to be involved in teaching without the relevant qualifications or experience can volunteer as an assistant, supporting the teacher/coach during lessons, workshops or other sessions. This could involve helping students practise their English in conversations with a native speaker, or helping students carry out written or practical work under supervision by the teacher.

  3. Teaching placements in schools should last a minimum of four weeks - with an ideal duration of one term - to allow the volunteer teachers to develop a curriculum, build up a relationship with students and make a real impact on students' language (or other) abilities. Volunteers working in extracurricular activities such as after school support clubs, specialist language schools, or as coaches or teaching assistants may have placements as short as one week, if the curriculum has been designed specifically for a course of this length - although a longer duration is preferred to allow volunteers to develop relationships and see a project through.

  4. Volunteer teachers must be at least 18 years old, in line with international TESOL standards which require that teachers should be "at a level to access tertiary education". Assistants and sports coaches may be as young as 16 (provided the coach has the relevant coaching qualification).

  5. A minimum of one day's training and orientation should be included as part of the placement - either before departure or once in country. This should provide volunteers with a background in the local culture, the institution where they will be volunteering, the students' current language/sports abilities and what they will be expected to cover over the duration of their placement, to follow on from the previous teacher or coach.

  6. Even qualified teachers should spend at least part of their time working alongside local teachers. The volunteer will have the opportunity to learn about the local culture and build upon what has already been taught, while the local teacher can benefit from the support, the presence of a native English teacher and new ideas for lesson plans and classroom activities. Learning is a two-way process.

  7. DBS (formerly known as a CRB) checks - or equivalent - should be carried out for any prospective volunteers who will be working with children - particularly those that will be working unsupervised.

  8. Any organisation which places volunteers to work with children should have a formal child protection code. Volunteers must agree to this code before their placement is confirmed.
We believe that all that the above are criteria which would be adhered to by anyone working in a teaching, assisting or coaching capacity in the UK - as a volunteer or in a paid role. We believe that students overseas should be able to expect the same safety checks and quality of education as would be provided by a registered teacher in Europe or North America, for example.

In addition to these guidelines, we also recommend that the volunteer organisation (or partner organisation in the field) is able to provide evidence that the work is being carried out on the request of the local community, and that the work to be carried out by the volunteers has been determined in collaboration with the community. We would also suggest that the organisation is able to provide evidence to show how the volunteer project has had an impact in the time it has been operational, ie. an increased number of students passing exams or completing primary/secondary education, more students entering further education or finding work, fees from volunteers have funded salaries for additional local teachers/the provision of facilities, etc.
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