Volunteer TEFL

Resources for volunteer English teacher placements abroad
Interview with A Former VSO volunteer in Sri Lanka
Travel to Teach
Peace Corps
Interview with A Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan
Peace Corps Diaries
Interview with Nick in China
Language Corps

Resources for volunteer English teachers in English-speaking countries
Literacy Works – Chicago – with links to many other non-profits in the area
The International Relieve Committee (IRC) – New York (and elsewhere)
Idealist.org – search for your own location

Preparing to go abroad as a volunteer English teacher

To pay or not to pay

There are a wide range of organization which arrange international volunteer programs or placements and charge money for this. No doubt some of them benefit from the fact that many people want to volunteer but don’t want to arrange things themselves, or don’t think they can. Some probably are for-profit companies, and others probably charge because keeping a staff to deal with untrained volunteers requires money. You may prefer not to pay, and there are organizations that charge more than most of us would say they should, but the mere fact that an organization charges money for a service does not mean it is a scam.

“Why should I pay to volunteer?”

One common view espoused goes something like “It’s terrible to ask volunteers for money.” I’d put forward “It’s terrible for those from affluent countries, with no training or experience in the volunteer work they will be doing in a third world country that’s caught their interest, to expect a free ride.”

If you are ready to meet your own accommodation expenses and volunteer without a lot of support, you may be able to pair up with a local organization with a specific need. This is especially feasible if you are already a trained and experienced teacher – you will likely not need the support that a new teacher would.

Some good online starting points for independent volunteering are:
Independent Volunteer
Volunteer South America.net

As an experience, I think this is superior in many ways to going the package route. Be aware thought that peopl working in local non-profits may be overworked already, and you may need to work on your own a lot.

There are of course organizations that take advantage of naïve volunteers (and naïve tourists and naïve flyers and naïve diners…) and count on people not questioning excessive charges. A month of accommodation in a village in India just does not cost $700 a month. In my view if they are charging you for support or a training program, it is within their right to do so as long as they are straightforward about that. As the person with the pocketbook, you then know what the cost is for and have the option of declining. If it’s not clear, ask. If you’re not sure what’s normal, do some research online to educate yourself.

Some go-between organizations give a portion of their fees to the local organization they work with. If this is important to you, ask about it and look for information in writing. Don’t automatically assume the whole fee is going to a local organization, and know that “non-profit” can officially be a much wider category than many are accustomed to thinking.

Some organizations provide it for free or at a standard rate; others may have an online training or require applicants to have experience. If your goal is to volunteer for a bit and then get a paid job elsewhere, check if a TEFL certifiate is necessary for the “elsewhere” and whether what your volunteer organization provides meets this. Sometimes experience will be an alternative to a TEFL certificate.

If you’re going to a more remote location, or one where basic resources are in short supply, read paperless lessons.

What to look out for
Don’t check your “buyer beware” sense at the door just because the topic goodwill comes up. Check out the customer service angle as you would before spending a large sum of money anywhere. I’m wary that checklists of ethics may be designed to fit particular organizations, and I also think it’s difficult to have all the information you need to “really know” – but I like what I have seen at Ethical Volunteer.

Some volunteers opt to do so more independently, and in this way increase the chance that their work is meeting a real need and not just adding to a program that runs because people pay to do it. It also often means working directly with locals involved in improving their own – and not somebody else’s – community. Seeing someone succeed despite a lack of massive funding can be very inspiring. It can also be eye-opening to see the hoops they have to jumpt through in order to secure what funding they do from donor organizations.

Some people advise trying to sort out in advance whether the local organization is doing responsible work or not. While this is no doubt important, I think it is silly to assume you can do this without a full understanding of the local context, or with a simple set of universal rules. That is something that international NGO’s, donor organizations, journalists, and diplomats do not always know either. If something feels wrong to you – so be it, follow your instincts, but be realistic about what you can and can’t know about the local situation, and be cautious about anyone who implies you can know easily.

One good starting point is Ethical Volunteering.

A note on my unique views

Having lived and worked in a country that has received massive foreign aid – which has had both negative and positive results – I have some very strong opinions on activities done in the name of helping. I think volunteering and the desire to help others is generally a good thing, and that it is part of being a world citizen that we want to help other human beings, and don’t define who we care to help by state boundaries.

These days there is sometimes an argument leveled at international volunteering that says it is a modern form of colonialism or imperialism, putting the well-off white westerner in the position of “hero” by helping the poor uncivilized people of country X. This is an extreme view, but I do not think it is without any base. I do, however, think there are plenty of volunteer opportunities where that is not the case. I also believe that there are much larger scale examples of that one-directional “exchange” happening with international aid projects that have nothing to do with volunteers, but rather with expat staff who receive hefty salaries. Also affected, of course, are the lives and futures of people in the countries those organizations work in. My opinion is that volunteering short- or long-term offers average people, those from different walks of life, at least some insight into those themes. People need to see it first hand to realize it, and if they stay home, the same dynamic can keep on happening on a larger scale.

I also believe that the “aim” or long-term point of volunteering doesn’t have to be concrete outcome measured in “tests passed by students” or “number of houses built”. It can also be “personal cross-border friendships made” or “volunteers oriented to the idea that problems persist for a reason and deserve serious study and not a cute or fun band-aid solution.” In my book, these last two outcomes may be a lot more valuable in the long term.