Are Volunteer Teachers A Threat?

An interesting topic came up on the boards at Dave’s ESL Café a while back: the role of volunteer teachers – do they pose a threat to teachers who work for pay? Apparently there are teachers who think they do.

These teachers argue that, like in any industry where people are willing to work for less, or for below the “market rate”, this lowers the bar for everyone. Teachers who work to earn a living are paid less because there are people (gap year students funded by mom and dad, teachers with this view might assert) who will do it for free, or who will even pay to do it.

It’s hard to dismiss this view completely, but I think this kind of volunteering is only a very small part of a large picture, and it’s not right to to criticize any and all volunteers based on this line of thought.

It should go without saying that there are different kinds of “volunteer work”. Nowadays the pay-to-volunteer scheme, which is often essentially an organized experience for the volunteer, is more and more common, so when people think of volunteering, they think of this. If the same profit-making employers who normally employ teachers also find a way to arrange these kinds of experiences, yes, this does creates a difficult situations for teacher who work.

There are however, tons of people and organizations that match teachers to classes and students who couldn’t possibly pay for English classes. Most people feel that learning English affects their lives in a multitude of positive ways, and I don’t agree that teachers who assist people who can’t afford classes deserve criticism.

Are qualified and experienced teachers “better”? Generally, yes, and as above, this is true in most fields. If untrained volunteers are doing the work, it may contribute to the impression that anyone who can speak English can teach it, and in the minds of many devalue further education and training in the field. Again though, this is part of a larger picture: simply stopping volunteers from teaching English will not change widespread beliefs – and plenty of paid teachers who are hired without training do benefit from this belief, so one could say this belief benefits teachers as well.

In the US, it would seem that there just is not funding to support paid teachers everywhere that English lessons are needed. Would it be a better world if there was? Sure, probably, but this is part of a larger issue connected to social values and it’s misleading to direct frustration about it at volunteers.