Widening the lens: English teaching volunteering

by Ruthie Walters

Overseas volunteering has received a lot of attention in academia, in the media and on social media. Yet, the focus tends to be on the volunteer, often from the Global North, whilst the communities visited are referred to as ‘the voluntoured’, ‘recipients’ or simply ‘host communities’. As a result, I was often left wondering about the so called ‘voluntoured,’ ‘recipients’ and ‘host communities.’ Taking the example of English teaching volunteering, a popular and growing sector, as an example, this post explores why these terms are questionable and how portrayals of volunteering which exclude the experiences and voices of the ‘host community’ are misleading and incomplete.

Typically, a quick internet search for ‘English teaching volunteering abroad’ generates images of smiling volunteers and a class of children settled in a classroom. It is more common to see photos of the backs of pupils’ heads and the volunteer’s face at the front of the classroom than it is to see a host teacher (the permanent, often local, teacher) appear in the shot. This focus displays the angle often taken in blogs, social media posts and academic articles. This made me want to hear from the teachers left out of the literal and metaphorical photo frame, to better understand their experiences and make them more visible. So, as part of my International Development thesis, I researched ‘national’ teachers based in Latin America and the Caribbean who had worked with English-speaking volunteers to hear about English volunteering programmes from their point of view. These teachers  were far from passive recipients of volunteer time and energy, as the term ‘voluntoured’ implies. They played a key role in the programme facilitation by organising lesson plans which included the volunteer, mediating exchanges between pupils and volunteers, overseeing lessons run by volunteers and taking care of volunteers outside of the classroom. 

So why don’t host teachers appear in discourses of ‘English teaching volunteering abroad’? Were the teachers I spoke to outliers? I doubt it. Behind many English teaching volunteering programmes I suspect there are often host teachers involved. Yet their role and importance blurs into the background in academic studies when the term ‘host communities’ is used and applied to everyone. The term glosses over and homogenises the range of people who make up a community. There is need for recognition of the nuanced, and far from passive, roles played by different members of communities with whom volunteers work. Breaking down what, and who, the term ‘host communities’ refers to could be a step to recognising that different people are involved with, and interact differently with, volunteers. The teachers I spoke to share classroom space with volunteers, they monitor how volunteers interact with their students and they intervene if there are language barriers. They facilitate projects, and even though there are sometimes hiccups, they see something positive in having foreign English speakers in the classroom.

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If you took the photos from the internet search at face value, you’d probably be under the impression that volunteers are left to freely run a class and be the only adult present. But, among the teachers I spoke to, the common set up was for volunteers to act as language assistants with the teacher keeping their main teacher role. Even in places where volunteers had more responsibility, host teachers closely supervised them and generally facilitated classroom interactions. A need to mediate and facilitate in the classroom is clear given that volunteers more often than not did not speak Spanish and had little to no teaching experience. Olivia (this and all names below are pseudonyms), for example, is a teacher in a primary school in the Dominican Republic. She told me that most volunteers don’t have teaching experience but the permanent teachers can—and do—make up for that. By supervising and working closely with volunteers, they can make a good team. It didn’t always go swimmingly and some volunteers lack enthusiasm and are there for the wrong reasons. To Olivia, this is why delegation and direction are so important. She said that ultimately the school benefited from volunteers because they were an extra pair of hands and chatted to the pupils in English. 

Many of the teachers I interviewed, most of whom didn’t speak English as a first language, were keen for the volunteers to help their students with speaking and listening skills—and they described how they benefited too.  Teachers told me that these are the skills Spanish speakers struggle most with, which is why English speaking volunteers are seen as beneficial. José, an English teacher in a language school in rural Colombia, phrased it as “We mostly use the native speakers for speaking and listening”. The word ‘use’ reflects the autonomy that teachers can have in this volunteering nexus and challenges the ‘voluntoured’ rhetoric. Just as academic literature has often explored, volunteers have their own set of motives and reasons for going abroad. But the rather unexplored story is that teachers too may have their own motives and reasons for inviting volunteers into the classroom and being willing to work with them. Olivia and José both work in schools that recruit volunteers directly, so they must have reasons for investing time and energy into working with volunteers. Motives range from having an extra pair of hands in the classroom to being able to expose their students to different accents.  While the metaphorical camera often points to for-profit volunteering organisations, there are countless routes into teaching volunteering which shouldn’t be overlooked (including not-for-profit organisations and programs directly run by schools).

As well as teachers guiding volunteers in the school, some were also important figures outside of the school gates. Sofia, a primary school teacher in Honduras, had worked with multiple volunteers from a UK charitable organisation. She coordinated volunteers in the school and lessons but also took them to the supermarket, hospital and helped them with public transport. She went as far as saying that she acted as the volunteers’ mum and that she “did everything, everything for them”. This was an unofficial role, not delegated by the school nor the UK-based organisation; she genuinely cared about the volunteers and enjoyed spending time with them. A friend of mine who once volunteered at that school said she doesn’t know what they would have done without Sofia. She was an integral part of the volunteers’ experiences and gave up her free time, outside of the workplace, to look out for them. 

The host teachers I spoke to are not ‘recipients’, should not be referred to as ‘the voluntoured’ and are distinct members of ‘the host community.’ They are planners, facilitators and supervisors who work to make volunteering programmes a success so that their students, themselves and the volunteer benefit. They are undeniably implicated in volunteering programmes somehow and deserve recognition for their work. This recognition could come in the form of including host teachers, and the community more widely, in the design of volunteering programmes and training sessions. The teachers I spoke to were key in helping volunteers interact with pupils, face language and cultural barriers and simply know what tasks they should do. Attention can’t just be paid to the volunteer and their experience, detached from the local community.  Credit is due to the people who enable volunteers to have an experience. And if attention is not paid where credit is due, the fairly common rhetoric of the heroic volunteer and needy host community will continue unchallenged. Discussions around volunteering need to shift, to focus not only on what volunteers are motivated by and how they feel about their trip, but also the motivations and feelings of those they work with.  A move is necessary towards recognising the people who support and facilitate volunteer programmes and the multitude of roles within this. The camera has been pointing too long at volunteers and the lens needs to widen. It’s only when those on the side-lines are recognised that we see the full picture. 


Ruthie Walters completed her BA in International Development with Spanish at the University of Sussex in 2020.

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