Published 25th June 2021

discrimination in tefl

People who teach English as a Foreign Language abroad are generally like-minded people. We are outgoing, easy-going and accepting. We go with the flow, adapt to the changes and embrace the opportunities we are given for making the most out of every day. This might make it seem like the world of TEFL is a beautiful world to live in – and it is, in many respects – but there are, unfortunately, some not-so-great elements within our community. These usually come in the form of employers and their traditional attitudes and opinions. Let’s look at a few circumstances which might lead to instances of discrimination in TEFL.

First language

There is a widespread idea that if you are a native speaker of English then you can teach it. As any TEFL teacher worth their salt will tell you, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It takes time, dedication and lots and lots of studying to learn how to teach English as a Foreign Language. Not to mention the fact that the majority of English first language speakers need to upgrade their own English language knowledge before stepping into the classroom.

Sadly, a consequence of this belief is the idea that English native speakers are naturally better teachers of English as a Foreign Language. In other words, if you are an English language learner yourself, you can’t be as good a teacher as a first language speaker. There are a number of reasons this is a flawed argument, but let’s look at a few:

  • Many people don’t have an intricate knowledge of the grammar of their first language. We are not taught it.
  • Being able to use a language is not the same as being able to explain the reasons behind why we use the language we use.
  • English native speakers have no idea what it’s like to learn English. TEFL teachers who are English language learners themselves have a better understanding of what their students are going through on their journey to learn English.

Another argument is that non-native speakers have stronger accents than native English speakers, which makes them harder to understand. While the main aim of our lessons is to help our students understand and be understood in English, an accent is not a problem unless it hinders intelligibility. Of course, as any sensible person would understand, this issue is not confined to non-native speakers. There are numerous English accents that are incredibly hard to understand, even if you do speak English!

Read more: The NEST Vs NNEST Debate

This is not only a problem with a teacher’s first language but also where they come from. Many South Africans, for example, still need to prove their English ability even if English is their first language. So even if you are a native speaker or are fully bilingual, if you don’t come from a well-known English-speaking country you might still face some outdated ideas or extra hurdles when looking for a job.

Race

Racism is alive and well all over the world, though we are all doing our best to tackle institutional racism and our own inherent biases. Historically, TEFL employers have been known to have been openly discriminatory. Asian countries especially have been known to ask for photographs to be attached to CVs and to prefer white teachers to teachers of colour. China, especially, has a bad reputation when it comes to race. Some people believe that this discrimination is more based on ignorance than anything else, in that the stereotypical English speaker is a (blonde) white person.

Thankfully, instances of discrimination are reported by teachers less often these days, possibly as a result of growing awareness of the issue, better education, and more minorities making the move abroad to teach English. Also, discrimination based on race is illegal in most, if not all, countries these days. Rest assured, no matter what your race you can find a TEFL job anywhere in the world (provided you meet their employment criteria) but you might find some countries friendlier than others. You will probably also find bigger cities more tolerant and aware than more traditional, rural areas.

discrimination in tefl

Sexual orientation or identity

It’s a similar situation when it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation, though this is not restricted to the TEFL world. If you are not or do not identify as heterosexual then you may find certain destinations not as welcoming as others. Some countries have laws prohibiting same-sex relationships or marriage. However, in most places, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation so this shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to finding a job or in the workplace. To be honest, if your gender or sexual identity is a problem when looking for a TEFL job, then maybe you don’t want to live in that country anyway.

Read more: Top TEFL Destinations for LGBTQ+ Teachers

Appearance

When we think of discrimination we might not consider our appearance, but it must be noted. Besides the fact that your race might play a part in how you are perceived and received by a TEFL employer, your appearance can play a part too. Do you have tattoos? Multiple ear piercings? A nose ring? Dreadlocks? A Beard? If you do, and you are considering teaching English in a more conservative country, you might want to think about how you can cover yourself during your job interview and while in the classroom. We’re not saying you should lie or deceive your employer but you need to show them that you can look more “presentable”, so they will feel comfortable with you teaching in their classrooms. This is especially common in Asian countries and is often the result of misconceptions about teachers held by parents.

Age

They say age is but a number but when it comes to finding a job, that number can be pretty important. There are certainly employers which appreciate more mature teachers, and for good reason: mature teachers have more life experience, may have more teaching experience, and aren’t as much of a flight risk as younger teachers. However, certain countries require you to be under a specific age (usually 60 to 70) in order to qualify for a work visa. Because this is a legal requirement, there is nothing you can do about it if you don’t satisfy the age requirement, but there are plenty of other destinations you can consider instead. Or you can teach online!

Read more: Mature Teachers: Teaching English Abroad over 40

Diversity

Issues with discrimination in TEFL are further apparent in our teaching materials. English Language Training (ELT) materials are developed and published for use all over the world. Both big and small publishing houses create coursebooks that can be used with Young Learners and adults, for all aspects of learning English as a Foreign Language. What is still very noticeable in our coursebooks is the lack of diversity in the content. Images, as well as content, do little to reflect the cosmopolitan nature of our world when it comes to race, gender, age, religion and ability. More needs to be done to make sure our coursebooks reflect the multitude of people and beliefs that surround us every day, as well as move past traditional stereotypes.

Read more: How to Celebrate Diversity in the EFL Classroom

There is still a ton of work to be done with it comes to discrimination and diversity in TEFL. If you are nervous about applying for a job in any particular country for any reason, please drop us a message and we’ll get back to you. There is no reason anyone should feel excluded from teaching English as a Foreign Language abroad.

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