Wherever you are in the world, good education is the single most important way to encourage development, boost incomes, create greater gender equality and improve health. Volunteering abroad as a teacher, teaching assistant or coach, therefore, can leave a long lasting impact, and really increase future opportunities in deprived regions.
However, ill planned placements can have the opposite effect. Unqualified, inexperienced volunteers may not be able to plan effective lessons, or manage a classroom. They might not speak the local language, they may repeat the same lessons, and in the worst case scenario, when background checks are not carried out,
children’s safety can be compromised.
While volunteer conservation and animal welfare NGOs tend to be experts in their respective fields (or partner with local conservation organisations which are), many organisations which offer volunteer teaching and coaching holidays are not specialists in education. Good intentions are simply not enough, though. We expect teachers in our home country to be trained, experienced and vetted, and we should expect teachers overseas to be equally up to the job. A child in Malawi or Brazil is no less deserving of a decent, professional education than a child in the UK or Australia.

In 2015 we reviewed our guidelines for all of our volunteer teaching and coaching holidays, in order to ensure the wellbeing of children overseas, raise the standards of the voluntary teaching sessions and safeguard local teachers’ jobs. In addition to interviewing voluntourism experts, we spoke to education professionals and specialists from within the TEFL industry, so that we could understand as many of the issues as possible, and come up with guidelines which are both ethical, and practical to implement.
If you'd like to chat about teaching abroad or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Rosy & team.
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Volunteer teaching & coaching abroad


There is a difference between knowledge of a subject, and the ability to teach a class; speaking a language does not mean a volunteer is able to teach that language effectively. Likewise, playing a sport is not the same as being able to coach a team safely and responsibly, knowing how to deal with injuries and any other issues that may arise.
Volunteers taking over classes for short periods disrupt the curriculum and flow of learning, particularly if the local teacher is not present in the classroom. A series of short term volunteers may end up repeating topics, or conversely, not refreshing students’ knowledge on what they learned with previous volunteers.

A lack of adequate screening, such as DBS checks (the Disclosure and Barring Service which replaces the CRB, Criminal Records Bureau), puts children at risk.
Unqualified and inexperienced teaching volunteers can devalue the work of local teachers, the assumption being that an unqualified Westerner (who in some cases may be a teenager) is still better at doing the job than a trained, 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 rely on ‘outsiders’ for help.
An influx of volunteer teachers – particularly ones who are paying fees – can reduce the availability of 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.

Local culture should be taken into consideration during classes, but this rarely happens with short term volunteer teachers who may not speak the local language or have any knowledge of the country, its culture, religion or customs.

Involving local communities

One of the biggest issues with these placements is that the local community is often left out of the decision making process. In order to be successful, the community must have input into what assistance is needed and how this should be implemented. Ideally, the initial request for 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 long enough for students to benefit, or is this a short term assignment which will be of little use to students?
In order to ensure that the volunteers are genuinely benefitting the communities, tracking, reporting and monitoring needs to be factored in to assess the impact they are having. Just because something sounds beneficial, does not always mean it is!

Volunteer teaching & coaching abroad

Our guidelines

Our stance on volunteer teaching and coaching placements is simple: don’t participate in any voluntary activities overseas that you would not be allowed or qualified to do in your home country. As a result, we’ve come up with the following guidelines:
Volunteer teachers and coaches must have an appropriate qualification, such as a TEFL certificate, a PGCE, sports coaching qualification or another relevant certification in youth work.

Anyone without the relevant qualifications or experience can volunteer as an assistant, supporting the teacher/coach. This could involve helping students practise their conversational English, or helping students carry out written or practical work under supervision by the teacher.

Teaching placements in schools should last a minimum of four weeks – and ideally 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 sessions have been designed for students with this in mind.

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 (if the coach has the relevant coaching qualification).

A minimum of one day's training and orientation should be included as part of the placement, either before departure or once in the field. This should provide a background in the local culture, the institution where volunteers will be placed, the students' current abilities and what volunteers will be expected to cover over the duration of their placement.
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 always a two way process.
Background checks must be carried out for any volunteers who will be working with children, particularly those who will be working unsupervised. Any organisation which places volunteers to work with children should have a formal child protection code, and volunteers must agree to this code before their placement is confirmed.

Teaching & volunteering experts

what do they recommend?

We spoke to a number of experts in teaching, TEFL and volunteering with children.

Ruth Taylor leads the UK-wide Impact International programme. This educates and equips university students who wish to volunteer abroad with the necessary skills, and informs them about wider international development issues.

Andrew and Caroline Brown have many years’ experience running English language schools and teaching initiatives in the UK and abroad. They have worked with senior staff from CELTA and Trinity College to define the syllabus for the introductory TEFL certificate.

Ben Beaumont is the TESOL Qualifications Manager at Trinity College London, one of the leading providers of recognised TEFL certificates.

Dianne Ashman is a retired teacher, with extensive experience in education management, training and monitoring. She now volunteers full time with the responsible volunteering organisation, People and Places. Dianne travels around the world assessing the schools they work with, and makes recommendations to ensure that standards are continually raised.

How long should a placement last?

Ruth Taylor: “We recommend to our students that they don’t go on any placements of less than four weeks because it may mean that the organisation is more committed to the potential profit from the volunteer than they are to the impact of the trip. Obviously that is generalising, there are plenty of two week projects that are good, but they are hard to find and they are usually for very qualified people – not necessarily young people. If you’re doing a whole programme – and you go when it starts, and you leave when it ends – and it happens to be two weeks, then that’s fine.”
Andrew Brown: “The duration depends on various things – including the person, and what they’re able to do. A good, qualified teacher could walk into a classroom and have an impact in 10 minutes; someone who doesn’t have a CELTA is going to take a lot longer. So we have to be careful about saying there’s a minimum amount of time; one rule for everything would be a problem. But you still can’t have a revolving door of teachers. If, in the space of nine months, they’re got 26 teachers coming through, that’s not great. But it depends on what you’re trying to offer. If it’s a summer course or a holiday programme, them a two or three week placement can have a good impact. But if they’re going into a secondary school then it needs to be something that lasts for a term. It’s a hard thing to have one number that fits everything. It’s much better to have illustrated situations – so in this particular situation, this is the minimum we would suggest. In another situation, this is the minimum we would suggest.”

The importance of background checks

Andrew Brown: “Obviously DBS checks are important. There is a cost associated with them of course but if there are dodgy people out there they could certainly exploit the situation. It’s something we would require – especially for someone who is working on their own with children, and who is isolated from all the usual social pressures and social expectations that might restrain them from behaving in a certain way. It’s entirely inappropriate for us to make it possible for somebody to find a loophole in the system.”
Ruth Taylor: “Would we ever welcome a planeload of 18-year-old, unqualified, Ethiopian students over here to the UK and usher them to our young people’s refuges in London? We would never allow that to happen; there should be background checks as we need to make sure they don’t have a criminal record, and that they’re trained to X standard. It’s about engaging in that conversation about why we think that’s appropriate only if the child’s not in the UK.”

Getting the right qualifications

Ben Beaumont: “It is great that so many people want to help by volunteering to teach English in schools around the world. However, in order to ensure that students are given the quality of education they deserve, it’s incredibly important that anyone engaged in a teaching role has at least an initial certificate in teaching to ensure they are equipped with the skills and knowledge to effectively support students in their local context. Where volunteers do not have a qualification or substantive teaching experience, it would be very helpful if they were supervised by a local teacher.
“Many would think twice about taking medical advice from someone without a medical qualification or medical experience or trusting one’s car to a mechanic who has never repaired a car before, so I would ask why we would entrust the education of children, no matter their background, to those without a qualification or relevant experience.

“There are various ways to gain a relevant, accredited teaching qualification, with initial ones taking just four weeks to complete. Without such training in lesson preparation and student support, volunteers might end up doing more harm than good, which is a shame when, with training, they could very easily be helpful and effective in supporting students’ level of attainment.”

Understanding local culture

Ruth Taylor: “International volunteering shouldn’t be seen as a Western person flying over to a country, displaying their superior knowledge and designing a project that is going to benefit a particular community. The local community obviously understands its culture and context far, far better than an international volunteer is ever going to be able to do, so it’s more about partnership and stressing that if you get to that country and the local community says, “actually something’s changed, we don’t need what you’ve been recruited for any more,” then the volunteer is going to need to adapt. They don’t say – “sorry, this is what we’re giving you and this is what we think you need.” A reciprocal partnership feeds off the responses, needs and desires of the local community, and not the international volunteer.”

Think before you buy resources

Dianne Ashman: “Lots of people assume that local people have got nothing and take all sorts of stuff from Britain with them. In the schools in South Africa they’ve been making a big effort to set up libraries. They showed me a library at one place, and I queried the fact that none of the books were relevant for children coming from townships in South Africa. A lady there said that she was about 15 before she realised that it might be possible for her to have a television in her house and a car, because all the books she looked at showed white people, usually white men, with those things. And she didn’t realise that was appropriate for her.
“When I went to the Gambia, my first volunteering trip ever, I took lots and lots of stuff from the Early Learning Centre and places like that. The Gambian lady out there very politely told me – “this is great, but we’d much rather you helped us make materials from things that are available locally.” She didn’t want the teachers here to say, “I could be a good teacher if only I had all that stuff from England.” She wanted them to see they can be good teachers with things they have available here. I’ve certainly seen all sorts of rubbish donated to Africa. It makes me so angry when you see these piles of old textbooks that we’ve thrown away and think they’ll want them. Why would they? Why would they want our rubbish? And old computers piled up in places where they haven’t got electricity, it’s just embarrassing!”

Long term goals

Ruth Taylor: “Development and responsible tourism are not one-off things. Instead of sending over volunteer teachers on a continual conveyor belt, who are going to come for a couple of weeks at a time then leave, wouldn’t it be better for you to recruit a long term volunteer who can go out for six months, who’s a trained teacher and who can train teachers within that community? You can create employment, you can create far more cultural ownership of the project, and local people will be managing their own project and deciding what they’re doing with it. Within this sector, aid and development workers are trying to put themselves out of business. We should be trying to solve all the problems so that the charity doesn’t have to exist at all.”
Written by Vicki Brown
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Photo credits: [Page banner: DFID - UK Department for International Development] [Top box: MrTopper007] [Teaching sport: Frontierofficial] [Western teachers: Frontierofficial] [Involving local communities: Trocaire] [Our guidelines: University of Exeter] [Support and lesson planning: University of Exeter] [How long should a placement last - Ruth: Mark Behrens] [Importance of background checks: Frontierofficial] [Getting the right qualifications: Frontierofficial] [Understanding local culture: Mark Behrens] [Think before you buy: David Berkowitz] [Long term goals: Mark Behrens]