Responsible Voluntourism: More than Just Good Intentions

I was fresh out of college, and I wanted to travel and do something good for the world, so I came up with the idea that I should teach in developing countries. I had no teaching degree and little classroom experience, but that didn’t matter – there were numerous “voluntourism” programs that would accept me despite my lack of qualifications.

teaching pic 1Voluntourism is a form of travel where tourists participate in short-term volunteer projects such as building libraries, working in orphanages, or teaching – often without regard to their skills and experience in these fields.  As a voluntourist, I taught English in developing communities.  Sometimes I taught alongside local teachers, but other times I was given my own classes during regular school hours, which meant I was taking instructional time away from local professional teachers.

I remember showing up to classrooms to teach and watching as the local teacher stepped out.  I think I told myself then that this was permissible because it was a rare opportunity for the kids to learn English from a “native” speaker.  But I learned the truth behind this misconception the hard way: native-speaker status alone does not make a good language teacher – training and experience do.  There were times when our group of voluntourist teachers stood by helplessly as 30+ students ran around the room because we lacked classroom management skills.

_MG_5203There were local teachers with more classroom experience than us (and certainly more cultural insight about the students) who spoke at least some level of English.  Were we really more qualified to teach the class than them?  At the very least, we should have co-taught more with these local professionals.  I started to wonder what message we were sending – that inexperienced Westerners were capable of running their own classes in these schools?  Would the reverse ever take place, where inexperienced foreigners were given their own classes in U.S. schools?

The impact of placing inexperienced volunteers in lead-teacher positions may be deeper than just a poorly-managed classroom.  While our intentions were good, I fear we were perpetuating a class system that positions Westerners as more competent, capable individuals solely because we come from developed countries.  After meeting talented educators in the developing world, I know that this is just not true.

_MG_5189Undeniably, there is some good that occurs when inexperienced Westerners volunteer in developing countries, particularly in terms of the impact on the voluntourists themselves.  In an article by Sam Blackledge, he describes a volunteer whose experience in Uganda inspired a masters dissertation on gay rights in that country.  My own experiences inspired me to pursue a masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (which helped me realize how little I actually knew when I was volunteer teaching).  But if helping well-intentioned yet inexperienced people get a foot in the door of development work is the goal, it should be done responsibly by giving them assistantship roles, such as a teaching assistant alongside a local teacher, rather than positions of leadership.

TIEs with Teachers takes a different approach to volunteer teaching abroad by emphasizing two things: skilled volunteers and professional collaboration.  First, we actively seek volunteers who are experienced K-12 teachers.  Second, we never want a scenario to occur where a foreign teacher enters a classroom and the local teacher steps out.  Sustainable improvement in education must be a collaborative effort between both groups.  Our American volunteers will co-plan and co-teach lessons with the local teachers in the host country – not as a mentor/mentee relationship, but as equals who come together to exchange ideas.  This approach empowers all parties involved by valuing them for the expertise they bring to the classroom.  And by meeting as equals, neither group imposes their own ideals of how education should be.  Instead, we can co-construct a future for what education can become.

What are your thoughts on voluntourism?  TIEs would love to hear what you think in the comments below!

Get updates sent directly to your inbox.