Saturday, March 28, 2015

On Volunteering Abroad

If you don't care about my opinion- great! Don't take my word for it! You can read from aid workers and former volunteers who think volunteering abroad isn't so great here, and here and here. Also here, here, here and here.  (Oh wait and here, here and here.) (Oh and this right here and this here and a slightly different one here).

TL;DR - Untrained volunteers abroad can be a problem. Do your research.

If you want to volunteer abroad, it’s probably because you are someone with a kind heart, compassion for others, and a taste for adventure - that’s awesome. The world desperately needs people like you! In fact, without people like you, without your passion and love and kindness and courage to leave your comfort zone, the world would crumble away.

But even with all of the compassion and kindness in the world, volunteering abroad is tricky. Making sure that you are going with a trustworthy program and engaging in actions that are ethical, efficient and sustainable can be hard, especially when you are going to a place you’re not familiar with. In fact, many experts think that going abroad as an untrained volunteer is a really bad idea.

Maybe that sounds crazy - volunteering is always a good thing, right? - so let me give a few examples.

I went on a short term volunteer trip to Peru. We helped build a community center - but we soon realized that a lot of the work was beyond our skill level. The local Peruvians had to fix what we were doing, and they could have done the work much quicker and more skillfully than us! We also realized that the organization we went through wasn’t paying our host families enough. Instead of helping this community, we had become a burden. We could have used the money spent flying us down there to hire local workers, thus completing the center more quickly and creating jobs. We didn’t think of that. Selfishly, it was all about the adventure we wanted to have. I went from a “it’s all good” approach to volunteering (which you can probably tell if you poke around my blog enough) to realizing that not all was what it seemed.

An example on a larger scale is volunteering in orphanages.  A lot of people are moved by the plight of orphans and street children and they want to volunteer in an orphanage abroad - but they can actually make the problem worse! And it’s not just me saying this, UNICEF, the UN program for the protection of children, discourages volunteering in orphanages.

Many orphanages rely almost entirely on donations from visitors to survive. Thus directors may purposefully maintain poor living conditions for children to secure funds from tourists. Children who appear underserved may come across as a cry for help more than children who appear well fed and cared for. This of course places guilt on tourists if they do not help immediately. By visiting orphanages and making a donation you may be fuelling a system that exploits children.”

Check out their website for more research and resources on the topic.

It’s awesome that you  want to help people - but what if the program you want to volunteer with is causing harmful side effects and creating tensions that you had no idea existed?

I’m an anthropologist and an international development student. I study culture and how best to help people - it gets pretty academic and deep into theory and economics, but the long and short of it is that we ask questions and think critically.

Whenever we try to help people, we ask-  what is most efficient? What is effective? Who are the powerful and who are the powerless? Who is making the decisions? What actions will respect the people we seek to help?

I think those are important questions to ask even for a short term volunteer trip!

Now, a lot of development professionals, veterans in international work and former volunteers are really against volunteering abroad (or “voluntourism” as it’s often called - meaning a trip that pairs travel/fun/vacation with service/volunteering/aid work). You can read from aid workers and former volunteers who think volunteering abroad isn't so great here, and here and here. Also here, here, here and here.  (Oh wait and here, here and here.) (Oh and this right here and this here and a slightly different one here).

A lot of these experts think that untrained volunteers coming into help a community is always wrong, all the time. I recently interviewed an executive director of an international NGO who said she has discontinued all group volunteer trips and only allows single volunteers if they can stay more than a month - she believes that not only do the short trips harm the community relations, but are giving the volunteers a one dimensional, shallow view of the communities and mistakenly teaching them that life is about short term solutions.

And I don’t want to be a downer, but it’s important to listen to these guys. You wouldn’t start a new diet or exercise routine if you knew that a lot of fitness experts had doubts about it, would you? Nope. You’re too smart for that. You would at least take the time to hear what the fitness experts had to say.

(Note: all of these articles are all talking about your average untrained volunteer, not about people like doctors, nurses, or licensed teachers volunteering abroad)

Why are so many aid workers, development professionals 
and others so against volunteering abroad? 
To sum up, it can do more harm than good. 
It can mess with the local economy, use resources unwisely, cause tension and dependency, and even mess up local government checks and balances.

Please make sure to check out the linked articles for more examples and insights!

Think of it this way - what if some outside people came into your community, knowing little to nothing about it, didn’t speak your language, and just built a doggy daycare. Well, that’s nice, but your community really needed a school instead, but they just used up the resources for the doggies. Also, the daycare took away jobs from people who were dog sitting, so then they were unemployed. And what if there had been a recent spate of rabies and bringing dogs together might be a bad idea but the foreigners didn’t know? What if they weren’t actually trained to work with dogs at all? And what if you couldn’t explain it to the kind, smiling people who ran the doggy daycare because they didn’t speak your language? This is a silly example yes, but not too outlandish.

Once during my work in Latin America I suddenly had a Latin American colleague (who spoke Spanish, which I speak proficiently) open up to me and tell me that some of the local NGO’s were run poorly, and weren’t treating workers well, and weren’t meeting the most pressing needs of the community. She spoke non-stop for almost an hour, with great emotion, and then stopped and said, “I always wanted to tell volunteers that but most of them couldn’t understand me.” It was heartbreaking.

Wanting to help others in need around the world is a worthy and beautiful goal 
- we need that compassion and love!
But if we really care for others, we have to make sure we care for them well. 
We have to be ready to listen, to be humble, to learn. We need to be ready to change our expectations so as to respect their needs and desires.

So how can we do that? How can we volunteer responsibly? Here are a few steps:

  1. Do your homework
  • Research the program, the work you will be doing, and the area. Read from multiple NGO perspectives, talk to former volunteers, check out websites like Guide Star, and look at everything with a critical eye. Does the program have a good reputation? Is it accountable and does it practice transparency? Is this work really useful? Is it using resources wisely? Is it respecting the community?

2. Know the context
  • This kinda fits under number 1, but it’s so huge. In the place where you are heading, what is the bigger picture? What drives the economy? Where are the jobs? Is what you’re doing going to harm the local economy? Is there a bad history of tense relations with tourists and foreigners? Do your governments have tension? That may seem way bigger than necessary for just a week trip helping with kids camp, but believe me, those can come into play. Or else you’ll find out the hard way when people react strongly to where you’re from. “Ah, you’re from the USA? They staged a coup here you know.” Yep.  Also, know the culture - is it ok to wear shorts? Is it alright to take photographs? What are the rules around gift-giving? I’ve made so many cultural faux pas in my day! Don’t make the same mistakes!
3. Be honest and be humble

  • This is the hardest one. After doing all this research ask one final question - Is this trip going to do good? Are you, with whatever talents and training you have, in whatever limited time the trip gives you, able to help in a way that is respectful, sustainable, and effective? What are your motivations for this trip?

Here’s my honesty: Looking back at some of my trips, the answer to whether or not I was doing real, efficient, and effective good was no. On one longer term volunteer stint I actually broke my contract and left, because the answer was no. The local people did not need me, who was untrained and only there 6 months and didn’t speak the local language. They needed a fairer justice system and better health care and property rights. They needed doctors and nurses and lawyers and local leaders who were raised in the community and knew the ins and outs. But not me. I was taking up resources better used else where.

But looking at other volunteer experiences, the answer was yes! I could and did help in small and large ways such as helping manage a fair trade art shop and communicating with the English speaking tourists, preparing volunteer orientation guides, running social media and writing blog posts, fundraising and more. A lot of it wasn’t the Facebook worthy, glamorous photos with adorable children type of stuff. Instead, it was me typing on the computer. Or me helping overworked teachers create tests and grade papers. Me babysitting kids for their parents. But it was needed. It  was my respectful and humble contributions to larger projects that I knew were good things.

To you, prospective volunteer, I say that your wonderful compassion, that courage and desire to change the world, are all valuable, beautiful, and desperately needed!

Don’t tamp down that passion - just pair it with a smart head, critical questions, 
listening ears and a humble heart and your help will go far.

So go forth - ask the tough questions and act with compassion!

PS: If you want to learn more on the topic of aid and volunteering effectiveness, I would suggest picking up the book Beyond Good Intentions as a great starting point! Also, feel free to ask me any questions or get in touch!

PPS. This blog post stuck with every day, practical aspects of volunteering. There are a whole host of ethical/philosophical/academic arguments on development and volunteering that I did not touch on. See James Ferguson's work for some great handling of the subject.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


I haven't written in a very long time. I have let this blog go - intentionally. I'm in graduate school and my school work takes up most of my time. This blog was started when I was so young and naive and went to study in Peru - now it feels like a cute little hobby I once loved and still remember fondly. Like making friendship bracelets or coloring with crayons.

I live in London now and up until a few weeks ago, I really didn't like it.

No one should ever move from New Orleans to London. (Unless you hate New Orleans, then by all means, go.) New Orleans is loud and hot - with street music constantly, and parades all the time, and strangers ask about your day, and the food is spicy, the air is humid, the booze flowing. The culture is Caribbean and French and African and Spanish. You can eat alligator hot dogs on a balcony while a brass band plays below and an impromptu dance party breaks out on the street. You go to parades and shout and sing and dance until you're hoarse.

I went to a parade in London once. It was silent.

I am completely freaked out by how quiet Londoners can be in large groups. 30 Londoners shuffle down a tube station in the morning with not a peep. No one even breathes.  And I'm not the only one that finds it strange - Bill Bryson, the travel writer, commented on it, calling the London commuters "characters from Night of the Living Dead"  but also praising them for how polite they all are.

No strangers ask how you are in London. That would be rude. There is very little street music. I've never seen anyone dance in the street, the food is mostly bland (to me), the booze is to be drunk from 5 to 11 and then it all shuts down, good luck finding late night dancing that isn't hugely expensive or creepy and crowded.

I was miserable. It got worse when winter came. Gray, gray, gray for days. A spot of sun -and I was blinded. March, and there is sleet. The city streets feel claustrophobic to me. They aren't straight for miles like in New York City, the buildings aren't low enough to let you see a lot of sky like in New Orleans and DC. Gray and closed in.

It's gotten better. I'm learning to like London. Partly because Spring is coming, and partly because I'm actually getting to know her better. Graduate school keeps me locked up in the library most days and it has been frustrating to feel like I'm living in a place I barely know.

I don't think I will ever love London how I love other cities. I can't stand the "negative politeness" author and researcher Kate Fox speaks about in her book Watching the English, where chatting with people you don't know, even smiling, is considered very rude. I can't stand the silent parade watching and the lack of music and dance in the streets.

But there is such great history here. There is art and long canals and secret corners. I could like this city. We could be amicable. New Orleans is my love, but London and I, we could be colleagues and buddies and hopefully, close friends, the friendship that allows you to sit in silence together, comfortably.

I have five more months here. Let's be friendly, London.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

 Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. The host for this month is Heather Richards, here you can find other similar articles. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article to this blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at, and he’ll let you know how you can start participating!


Slow travel is the best travel to me. It's hard to come by, and I think any travel is better than none, but to me, a quick week in Istanbul or a few days in Athens is so unsatisfactory. I'm left with some good times, great photos, and a yearning to learn so much more. 

Slow travel gives you a chance to be acquainted. You get a favorite little shop, and routes that you walk. You get a routine. If you are volunteering or teaching, you have responsibilities and deadlines and a work schedule. This might sound like the opposite of travel - all of the terrible daily regular life stuff that you were running from. But in a new country these little slices of "regular" life feel fresh and different. You name all your favorite stray animals. You know which store sells the cheapest eggs or which restaurant won't make you sick. 

 I travel to know the culture just as much as to see the sights. To me, coming away with an experience with local culture is far more important than a selfie in front of Big Ben (though I've definitely done that and I am not ashamed at all).

 A week in a place teaches nothing cultural except perhaps how people react to lost tourists. (Unofficial Observations: Yerevan is really friendly, but they don't usually speak English. In the Dominican Republic they will help you and then make you pay them by using guilt or persistence.) 

I think my love of slow travel is connected to the anthropologist in me. (Full disclosure: I'm in graduate school for anthropology right now!) Anthropologists have to spend two years in a different community and get at least one disease. They stay for around two years so they may see situations repeated - New Year's Celebrations, birthday parties, harvest rituals. They get a disease so they can have bragging rights. (Check!)  They study traditions and religion, local economies and kinship, gender relations and agriculture. The point is that the anthropologist, while always an outsider, should be so familiar to everyone as to be almost invisible. A part of the landscape. This familiarity allows them to understand and have access to the culture in a way which would not be possible for a tourist or distinguished guest.

The familiarity of schedule can do the same. It is only through routine and repetition that you as the traveler start to see patterns. I learned when my neighbors burned trash and when the preachers led revivals. I literally timed my evening walks by when the cows came home (have you tried to take a walk through a herd of cows? It's not pleasant). 

The benefit of slow travel is that you come away knowing something. You don't come away with just a fun story and a new profile picture, you don't come away with just a whirlwind idea of old churches and sweeping landscapes, you come away with knowledge, knowledge that changes you and your perceptions.

 Maybe the knowledge changes you because you've realized that how you do things isn't "normal" or "natural", it's cultural. Maybe the great scope of a history and people that you never knew about humbles you. Maybe knowing your neighbor's story shifts your priorities. Maybe you discover new passions from learning of art or music you never knew about. Maybe your heart breaks a little, and maybe it rejoices. 

My professor once told me a story about how World Bank officials, who make huge decisions about foreign aid, will be sent to stay in the place they may be allocating aid to. The length of that stay? Usually around three days. Three days.

In three days, you might be able to pick up several new facts and five new misconceptions about the people you are staying with. In three months, all of your preconceived notions and outsider biased misconceptions are shattered (hopefully) and through experience and relationship and study, you actually know a little about what that place and that community is about

Why I love anthropology is because it is firmly against outsider arrogance. Anthropologists don't claim to know a place until they have been there for years. And even after years, they would never presume to truly understand what living in that culture means. They are always aware of outsider bias.

We praise travel as a means to destroy prejudice, but "quick" travel can build it as well as destroy it. What does someone who spends a week in Port-au-Prince, Haiti actually know about the Haitian lived experience? What do they know from a week spent in museums Paris or Shanghai about the culture and values? Nothing probably, but now they think they know something.

 Assumed knowledge is more dangerous than self-aware ignorance.

(It's also just obnoxious. I know. I was almost that person.) 

I could give examples of times when assumed knowledge was dangerous -  from historical colonial rule or anthropology or recent international development, but then you would be depressed. 

I lived for six months in Peru, four months in Georgia and another four in the Dominican Republic. I do not presume to fully know the lived experience of being Peruvian or Georgian or Dominican. But through study, reading, immersion, and really just time, time spent in long, slow days sitting on stoops and around kitchen tables, I did come away with knowledge that changed me. The sense of healing from violence and connections with the land in Peru, the ancient depth of history and pride in Georgia, the constant hustle and social intensity in the Dominican Republic. I don't know much, but I know something. And I know far more than from my whirlwind trips through Istanbul, the Greek isles and Armenia.

Quick travel can be amazing. It can be fun and life changing. It can be a needed escape or relaxation or mind-shift. It can raise questions about what you are seeing and experiencing, but remember, you aren't always getting answers. You aren't always getting depth of knowledge. I'll always choose quick travel if the alternative is no travel, and often those are the choices. But slow travel memories are my favorites. Slow travel is what made me who I am. 

Maybe you don't care about cultural insights, or culture at all. Maybe you really do just want to see sights and nothing more. Well, I think you are entirely missing the point and also missing out on a lot of fun, embarrassing stories, friendships and changes to grow. But you probably think I'm an overly academic weirdo who probably made up their field (anthropology, what??), so I guess we're even. 

Maybe you would love to experience slow travel and gain cultural insights, but don't have the time. Often, life is too fast for slow travel - or even slow travel might not feel like enough time. How do we slow our travel down enough to garner meaningful cultural insights and come away with some local knowledge?

Some slowness tips:

1. Read. Get a novel or an in-depth non-fiction account about the place you are visiting. NOT a travel guide - those are well and good, but I'm talking about an in-depth cultural study. Get something by a local author if possible. Or maybe the book that every school kid is required to read while there, whatever the locals find essential reading. Read it before you go if you can, as it will open your eyes to phenomenon you otherwise might overlook.  I read Bread and Ashes while in Georgia, and In the Time of the Butterflies and Feast of the Goat  after my time in the Dominican Republic (I couldn't find them in country - but after is better than nothing!). 

2. Have a free day. If you are only passing through, but have a little extra time, build in a non-scheduled day. If you are there for a few months but are kept super busy, clear your calendar for a day. Don't sight see, don't go on a tour, don't call home. Just wander. Sit in the square. Take a walk. Talk to vendors. Read that book in a plaza. Run a few small errands. 

3. Study the language. This is touted all of the time, and it's true that you cannot understand a culture without understanding a language. Study before you go and while you are there. Even just a few phrases will help. Slow down by having a slow, stilted, grammatically erroneous conversation with a local. 

4. Ask a local AND do the tourist stuff. Sometimes, locals never get around to their own tourist sights (I've done that...), but they might know the very best little pub. Tourists sights are usually popular for a reason and bring insights of their own (here's looking at you Hagia Sophia - you blew my mind.) Try to do both. 

So take it slow. Sip your tea. Chat with your neighbor if that's culturally appropriate. Read books. Be open to change.

And maybe study a little anthropology while you're at it. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Chemi Megobari (My Friend)

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. The host for this month is Jamie Phillips. I'll be posting a new ESL-related article on my blog at the start of every month, and the carnival is always published on the 5th by that month's host. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.comand he will let you know how you can start participating!

Friendships on the road are interesting things. Everything is moving quickly, and the person who was a stranger one second survives a careening bus nearly slamming into your shared taxi the next and you are suddenly best friends! But these friendships can sometimes fade away just as quickly, when after a night of wine and deep conversation in the hostel your new friend leaves for Istanbul in the morning and you head to Yerevan.

Longer term stays abroad give you more time for building friendships. They also give you more time to build up immunity to blatant staring, mistranslations, and exciting animal parts for breakfast. 

My best friend when I lived in the country of Georgia is someone I'll call James. Her name isn't actually James (and she is actually a female) but the Georgians called her something like that, so we'll go with it. James and I roomed together during our teacher training, were assigned to villages not far apart, and used our little Nokia phones to talk every single day. You would think we didn't have enough news to talk every single day, but we did. Chickens fought, teachers tried to marry us off to their sons, confusion arose. She came over to my host family's house for my 23rd birthday, when we had only arrived a week before, barely spoke Georgian and had no idea how to act. We were awkward together. We went to Batumi, the city on the Black Sea coast and got hopelessly lost and still managed to have a lovely time. 

James is from a small town in the northern mid-west and she's traveled almost every where. She saved cats in Guatemala and studied hallucinogenic drugs in Peru and went to math class in Germany. At least, that's how I remember the stories. James didn't take crap from nobody, and that's the kind of person you want to travel with.

We exchanged ridiculous text messages to get us through hour long supras (the toasting feasts of abundant alcohol). She took it in stride when shirtless Russian men approached us, or when she had to travel solo to meet us far in the mountains. James was a mastermind behind the great Mattress Carrying Caper. James stayed calm at all kinds of border crossings. James rejected the hands of Georgian suitors. 

During my time in Georgia, I also fell head over heels for a foreign mountain man and spent the majority of my time traveling with him and James. He and I were one of those obnoxious couples, but James was always chill about it. James gave us our space without rolling her eyes and cut our hair in a hostel in Armenia. The three of us did Christmas together in Istanbul and then just James and I went on to Greece, while Mountain Man returned to wandering mountains. 

We grabbed a bus into Athens and then found ourselves outside the bus stop, no Euros in our pocket and no place to exchange our money anywhere in sight. We were in the gray, asphalt wastelands of what I term the Athens Bus Desert, a place that chills the most Greek-loving soul. James remained calm and some kindly Greek people helped us. 

We took photos of each other at the Parthenon and made our way to Santorini, one of the Greek Islands. We took a hundred photos from the ferry and had a small giggling, squeal fest when we were actually on the shuttle up the cliffside. And we aren't the giggly types. We reveled in our inexpensive, gloriously clean hotel room and the views of the ocean. The next day we were stranded by the unreliable island bus system, and left to walk for hours along the road until we were picked up by a nice man who spoke to us about rabbit hunting.  We ate octopus by the sea. We saw waterspouts weaving through the ocean. I remember Santorini for its strange off-season abandoned feeling, the smell of the sea, and the beauty so striking it stung. 

It rained during one of our walks around the island, but James was prepared with an umbrella. 

James may get upset with Georgian manners and capricious children, but the only time I saw her truly angry was New Years Eve, which we celebrated in an Irish Pub in Athens with a bunch of Canadians. We followed the Canadians to a club and it was a terrible, crowded expensive place and James was angry. Rightly so, James.

We had to say goodbye the next day, I feeling sickly and exhausted,  heart aching from loss of the Mountain Man, boarded a long bus to Istanbul and then Tbilisi. James prepared to travel solo to Thessaloniki where she met a Peruvian man and they got married. That last part isn't true, but I would have been only slightly shocked. 

There are some people that come to define a time in your life. James was my person for my four months in the Caucuses. We drank wine in chilly nights in the mountains, stayed in countless hostels together, and forgave each other for lack of showering. James rapped Kanye's "Gold Digger" in the streets of Yerevan around midnight. It was oddly inspiring. 

Mountain Man came and went in my life, but it's James who I still send weird articles to about Georgia. And when I think of those months in the villages, I see myself walking down my town's main road, kicking up leaves and hoping a dog doesn't chase me, talking on my little Nokia phone to James. We were probably discussing our scores on the Snake game or planning our next trip. We were also likely complaining about strange food, cold bedrooms, and tummy troubles. 

I miss those days.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why ESL Teaching?

"Decision making process: how and why you decided to become an ESL teacher?" 

 Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. The host for this month is ‘Sarah Steinmetz‘, here you can find other similar articles. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article to this blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with me at, and I’ll let you know how you can start participating!'

Honestly, my primary reason to teach English abroad was because I wanted to travel. I wanted an adventure and an ESL job could get me there. This article talks about how wrong that is as a driving force. But it wasn't my only driving force - I was very interested in international education and study abroad and, at the time, my goal was to become a study abroad adviser. Teaching English abroad seemed a good way to get my foot in the door with international education, and I had a lot of experience being a teacher and camp counselor with kids. I could see myself in a little study abroad office in some prestigious college, the nicely dressed young professional, helping excited college students choose a destination as we discussed programs in Peru, China and France. I could live vicariously through them, I could help mold young minds by facilitating their adventures, I could maybe use my job as a means to visit those countries! 

But every single study abroad job wanted two years of experience or a Masters. Oh the dreaded combination - I see it as a formula guarding the door to every "entry level" position "2yrs experience or MS = job".  I applied for study abroad and teaching abroad jobs simultaneously, spreading the net wide. I finally found a study abroad related job that was actually entry level and made it to the final round of interviews - I lost out to the other person because I had less international experience. Well, teaching abroad it was then. 

My plan was always to graduate college, work/volunteer/travel abroad and then head back to grad school for international education/non-profit management/international development/anthropology (I wasn't quite sure yet - the years abroad were supposed to help with that). I initially wanted to teach in South America, but their semester started in July and I had a great summer internship I didn't want to leave. I also didn't have much money and wanted a program that paid for flights or visa fees or SOMETHING so I didn't arrive broke. Leaving broke was one thing, arriving broke was just too sad. So where was the program that started in August, paid for some expenses and smacked of adventure and the unknown? 

In my intensive research (really, I spent hours every day) I stumbled upon a program in the country of Georgia. I had never heard much about this country. It was obscure. It was tiny. It was apparently full of moonshine and dancing with swords and really beautiful alphabet. (You can read about my pre-travel impressions here.) They paid for your flight, you didn't need a visa, and you got a small but livable salary. I started learning Georgian phrases and mentally packing my bags. I read every blog on Georgia and ESL teaching I could find. I flew through the interviews riding my enthusiasm, got an offer, accepted the offer, and started actually packing all within a few weeks. My parents were supportive, only adding the caveat to "please don't marry some Eastern European man who we can't communicate with at all".  I assured them I would only marry someone who at least spoke basic English. 

My plan at the time went something like - Go to Georgia for a semester. Teach English. Go to South America. Teach English and improve Spanish. Either get a better job teaching or with a non-profit and apply to graduate schools for the yet-to-be-determined awesome program which I will definitely be accepted to because I will have all of this international experience.

Strangely and unexpectedly enough, my plan worked. I went to Georgia and it blew my mind. I adventured, I was humbled, I had a whirlwind romance, I traveled and yes, I drank a lot of moonshine and danced. I also taught English to the best of my ability, swapping strategies with my fellow ESL teachers and researching games and activities. I loved (most) of my students and (most) of my co-teachers and it was a grand experience. I then headed off to the Dominican Republic which started with teaching English preschool and then turned into teaching Spanish elementary school and adult English and working as a non-profit assistant. Flexibility is key. I then found a job in New Orleans with a larger non-profit that I love, decided on international development AND anthropology as my Masters, and was accepted into my top-choice program.

 It still blows my mind that I'm following the plan that my senior college self made over mojitos with my roommates. 

So for me, teaching abroad was a great way to enter (what was then) my career of choice, and a path to travel and adventure. I didn't end up going into education, but I don't regret my time spent as a teacher. I would recommend anyone who is seriously interested in teaching or education and desires an adventure to look into ESL teaching abroad. As long as you enter it with the right attitude, humbly, open-minded, and ready to work hard, it can change your life. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Mistake Making

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. The host for this month is Vanessa Long, here you can find other similar articles. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article to this blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with me at, and I’ll let you know how you can start participating!

I made so many daily little mistakes in the different countries I have taught in - cultural faux pas, language mishaps, that time I accidentally dropped all my underwear in my neighbors yard... 

In the classroom, I'm sure I made just as many mistakes. I made the mistake in the country of Georgia of doing an English "tournament". Well, I'm not sure if it was a mistake or not - the kids loved games, but those that were good at English were so absolutely devastated if they did not win. I thought the tournament would be fun for everyone and give the students who weren't the best at English a chance to win small prizes along with the better students.  Instead, I had a bunch of crying children - the good students who usually aced the tests- who hadn't been quick enough on the games and were now sobbing over it. I felt terrible. Maybe they didn't have the concept of "just for fun" competition over there? Lesson learned was to ask more if they had ever had a precedent of that sort of thing, and make sure to explain how it was for fun only, and not a reflection of how smart my students were. 

In the Dominican Republic, I was thrown into a Creole speaking pre-school classroom where I not only taught English, but Spanish, writing, and math. I had no idea what I was doing (I had signed up to be an English teacher in an immersion school, but that had fallen through). I came expecting it to be like Georgia, where I had support from other teachers and was told what were the classroom rules to follow, etc. Instead, my very first day there I was told to stand up and teach with no preamble at all. My mistake was not stopping right then and there and asking "what are the rules? What form of discipline do you use? Can I watch others teach for a day?" I should have been bolder and asked more questions at the beginning, instead of letting myself be rushed along. I struggled with classroom management every day and felt that I couldn't ask questions because now it may reflect badly on my organization. When I finally did ask questions everyone was happy to help - but I should have been asking from the beginning. 

So just ask a lot of questions. About everything, all the time. Take the risk of being that annoying foreigner, because in the end, that's what will set you up for success. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Realism, Idealism and Teaching Abroad

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Blog Carnival , a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. The host for this month is ‘Reach To Teach’, here you can find other similar articles. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article to this blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at, and he’ll let you know how you can start participating!

I did a lot of research on teaching English abroad during my senior year in college. I read tons of personal blogs from young people teaching around the world. I read advice columns on where to apply, how to apply, what to bring, how to prepare. I researched online TEFL courses, I connected with friends of friends who had taught abroad. I lived and breathed the search for an English teaching position in a foreign country where I could do my work well, learn a new language and experience a different culture.

A lot of myths were addressed and discarded in all of this reading material, but one myth that was somewhat pervasive, and not often addressed, was the often underlying idea of a “savior complex”. 

Let me explain – most people I know who go to teach English abroad go because they want to travel and they like to teach. And that’s about it. Not some deep, subconscious desire for greatness or heroic deeds. A lot of people do it to make money, like any job, and they look at jobs in China or South Korea. But when it comes to the jobs labeled “volunteer” or the jobs in developing countries, underlying much of the promotional material and idealistic applicants is this idea of swooping in as a hero, of somehow “saving” the poor students from whatever educational morass they have fallen into. The savior complex is found at some point in just about every volunteer opportunity, both local and abroad.

I came across this article recently that argues that volunteering to teach English abroad is problematic. I disagree with it for many reasons, mostly because I was an English teacher and most of my fellow teachers were qualified, serious about teaching, seeking to improve, and devoted enough to talk advanced grammar points over beers. (Also, even if the English teacher is under-qualified, isn't it better than having no English teacher?) (Also, why not mix work and play/teaching and travel? Don’t we all choose jobs and schools based on other factors, such as location or if they have awesome hang gliding/ice skating/whatever-your-hobby-is opportunities?) (Ok, maybe I need a whole post to refute this article.)

Let me say it again, I THINK GOING TO TEACH ENGLISH ABROAD IS A GREAT THING AND AWESOME OPPORTUNITY! But I think the existence of the article speaks to the fact that the myth of being an English teaching “savior” still exists. Unqualified, starry-eyed hopefuls are still going out there not because they want to be good teachers, and not (I think) just because they want to travel, but because they have an idea of “changing the world” (read: save the poor little children).  We hope to encourage kids to break out of their tiny village and go on to bigger and better (read: our idea of better) things. We want to turn the school around, get the parents more involved and make the other teachers as idealistic and pumped as we are. Those are good things. But we don’t need to save someone. We don’t need to come in to change people, we need to come in open and humble enough to allow ourselves to be changed, and brave and bold enough to try new things, teach new things and sometimes be the “new thing” that broadens perspective.

Changing the world is not a myth, I’m still a believer enough to say that. But the idea that the students we teach need a foreign English-speaking hero to save them from something is, indeed, mythological. They DO need good teachers doing good work, who encourage and believe in them and get them excited about learning, and I think foreign teachers can fill that role! We might not be able to, or even need to, “save” anyone, but we can open their eyes to different ways of being, to different countries and customs. We can change one child's world by sparking their interest in a new language and giving them confidence to learn! 

I was proud of the work I did in the country of Georgia. I didn't save anyone, I didn't change the entire culture of the school (cheating was still pervasive) or instill a deeper regard for education among the population of the town. But I did teach some students that English could be fun, even the grammar parts. I did take some of the weight off the local English teachers by making tests, doing grading and stepping in as substitute. In the Dominican Republic, I helped my adult students, mostly Haitian vendors, get more business opportunities by adding English phrases to their repertoire. And those are all good things. That was what I was supposed to do. I was paid (in the case of Georgia) to help the local teachers and introduce games and activities. I volunteered (in the case of the DR) to widen opportunities for Haitian immigrants.

The myth of coming in as “savior” can be harmful, because it 1. Puts way too much pressure on us as teachers 2. It focuses so much on what WE should do or want to change and closes us off from what the locals have to teach us or what they want and 3. If we are coming in as savior, it’s going to be really hard to just be. To just live. To make friends.

So get rid of that myth. Take that load off. Do your research, learn everything you can, pay attention in your training sessions. Be the very best teacher you can possibly be. Travel. Learn. Grow. And yes, in your own personal, small way, change the world.