My first experience teaching English abroad was in the Andes of Ecuador in a small rural town. I had just completed my BA and I wanted to explore a part of the world that was new to me, considered to be “off the beaten path.” I arranged my trip with a volunteer abroad company that charged me a lot of money to complete a 6 month TEFL internship. I assumed I would pick up the skill of teaching English quite easily without any prior experience or TEFL certification! Boy, was I wrong!
Upon arrival I discovered how challenging the job would be as my role was to teach English to children and youth-at-risk who lived in impoverished conditions in nearby towns. In addition, many of the children had behavioral problems and learning disabilities. The school had donated books, games and arts and crafts supplies but donations were shipped irregularly and were so few that we were forced to rotate what we had on a more than regular basis.
We worked long hours and were given no preliminary training session upon arriving. The lack of support I received during my volunteering experience was really what got to me. Over time, the Director of Studies game me some insight into the children’s personal needs and I was told I was not to speak any Spanish to children even though speaking some at the outset may have helped with the new students who had no previous knowledge of the English language. It also would’ve been so helpful to have had an explanation of what to expect upon entering a classroom and what the children’s learning needs were or what different learning styles to look for and how to accommodate them when designing a lesson plan. We had little time to plan, perhaps a few hours in the evening when we were exhausted. This wouldn’t have been so challenging had I had some resources or training manual to work from.
I started out as an assistant teacher to observe others and their style of teaching, however the teachers I was observing didn’t have any TEFL certification either! I had some previous experience as a camp counselor but other than that I had no sense of how to manage a classroom or how to design creative, fun and engaging lesson plans for children. Overtime, I gained some independence as a teacher and began a one-to-one reading program. Essentially, I was reading a couple of pages per day to the students and having them repeat what they heard and read back to me. However, I had no previous knowledge of phonology which would’ve greatly supported me in designing a more enriching program for the students and would’ve given me the knowledge I needed to support my students further.
If I had entered this experience with a TEFL certification, I would have had a much stronger sense of how to design a lesson plan, what challenges to expect both personally and professionally and how to manage a classroom when students act out. I would’ve been much less overwhelmed and furthermore, I would’ve had a much more enriching and enjoyable learning experience had I had a TEFL training toolbox to pull from.
I think that many of these companies that charge young university graduates to volunteer abroad are doing a huge disservice to impoverished communities. I was young and eager to help the world, and they took advantage of this. Volunteering abroad is highly recommended, but if I could do it all over again, I would find my way, pay for rent out of my own pocket, and get some TEFL training. Most of these volunteer abroad programs or TEFL internships are run by companies that earn millions of dollars a year. They do not provide teachers with the resources or training that is necessary for them to help impoverished communities. They get young university graduates excited about traveling and helping people, but they keep the money that’s supposed to go rent, training, and resources.