News & Press: Articles

Racism in Teach Abroad?

Friday, October 18, 2019  
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By: Christopher LeGrant - Diversity Abroad


Demand for English Teachers Abroad  

As English becomes further entrenched as the global language of business, popular culture and technology, the market for English teachers around the world has skyrocketed over the past 20 years.  According to The British Council, by 2020 there will be 1.9 billion people who will be actively learning English.  In China alone, there are currently 300 million people learning English.  Indeed, a deeper look into the statistics reveals a truly staggering amount of demand for native English teachers in foreign countries.  According to the International TEFL Academy:


  • An estimated 250,000 native English speakers work as English teachers abroad in more than 40,000 schools and language institutes around the world.

  • In major European cities like Prague, Madrid and Rome, approximately 3,000 – 5,000 native speaking English teachers are working at any given time.

  • In both China and South Korea, approximately 1,000 new English teachers are hired each month.

  • Because nearly half of all English teachers abroad will leave their position and return to their home country each year, more than 100,000 positions for English teachers abroad open each year.

This incredible demand has all contributed to the creation of an industry that’s worth an estimated $63 billion per year.  The appeal is also understandable from the perspective of the teacher.  These positions are essentially recession proof and in addition to being a great resume and career builder, represent a transformative personal and cultural experience.  The work is also meaningful and for many people around the world, English is an important vehicle to improve their economic and social prospects.  However, all too often these life changing teaching opportunities are being withheld from many on the basis of race, nationality and/or disability.  

Is Teach Abroad Inherently Racist?  

The Open Doors report is an invaluable resource for those of us that work in international education.  It represents a window into the demographics of study abroad programs within higher education. In contrast, the teach abroad industry is mainly for-profit and most programs are not accredited making general oversight almost non-existent and demographic data very hard to come by. Therefore, the assessment below relies on this author’s seven years of personal experience within the teach abroad industry as well as conversations with several teach abroad providers.

As of 2016, the demographics of teach abroad programs are closely aligned with those of traditional study abroad programs.  According to one teach abroad provider interviewed for this article, 80 percent of their teachers identified as caucasian and female.  Another provider mentioned that 75 percent of their teachers came from the same group.  As in study abroad, part of the reason for this stems from a lack of outreach to people from underrepresented groups.  However, unlike study abroad, many qualified teachers are not placed in a position based solely on their race and/or nationality.  To understand why this is so, we must dive further into the how teach abroad programs are generally set up.

Normally, a teach abroad provider will partner with a local for-profit, nonprofit or governmental organization within the host country.  This organization will provide access to local schools, Universities, and host families and in many cases the schools and families have an understandably great deal of control over who they accept as their teacher/tutor.  Unfortunately, this too often leads to discrimination from the local institutions, regardless of the native English fluency of the teacher.  Of course, this type of discrimination is illegal in most countries and almost all teach abroad organizations accept applications from all candidates.  However, there are countless examples of people of color being rejected by local schools for not being a “true American” and for most people this insinuates being caucasian.  For example, in East Asian countries, this discrimination is often directed toward people of East Asian ethnicity, who grew up in English speaking countries.  In these circumstances, the teach abroad provider usually tells the teacher that they cannot be placed and will continue to look for other positions in vain or, in many cases, the teacher is placed in a sub-optimal institution that has been passed over by other candidates for one reason or another (such as an extremely remote location).  

This reality creates a great deal of tension within the teach abroad world, as the vast majority of organizations/providers want to place diverse and underrepresented people on their programs.  Unfortunately, the resistance to accepting people of color from local institutions and families suppresses the motivation to actively recruit teachers from diverse backgrounds as well as developing the resources needed to support them while abroad. These tendencies and the local bias/discrimination that drive them must be confronted if we are to succeed in making teach abroad programs more diverse and inclusive.

The Path Forward

If discrimination is so deeply ingrained within the teach abroad system, what are some ways that we can begin to change and challenge it?  The first step is for teach abroad providers to actively declare their commitment to improving access, diversity and inclusion for underrepresented populations on their programs.  The next step is for these same providers to begin looking for in-county partners that will accept people from underrepresented groups, such as young people of color.  Despite the discriminatory tendencies described above, there are many institutions who will place non-caucasians and it is important for teach abroad providers to identify these entities and make a commitment to work with them.  It is then crucial that these partnerships are highlighted to serve as successful models for the industry, both in the sending and receiving countries.  

Additionally, teach abroad providers must conduct outreach to underrepresented students, graduates and professionals.  This can be accomplished by creating available funding such as grants or scholarships and working with organizations like Diversity Abroad to help promote these opportunities to underrepresented populations.  Providers should make an effort to share successful stories from diverse and underrepresented teachers as well as attend career service and study abroad fairs at domestic minority serving institutions and HBCUs.  As this blog has noted, there is a difference between diversity and inclusion and it is important that teach abroad providers focus on both.  Where diversity is dedicating energy and resources to increasing access to teach abroad programs for historically underrepresented individuals, inclusion is ensuring that people who choose to participate receive equitable support while overseas and upon their return home.  It is important that teach abroad providers engage with organizations like Diversity Abroad to ensure that they are involved in conversations around diverse identities abroad and to make sure that their staff have the knowledge to engage and advise individuals from underrepresented groups before departing.  

The approach outlined above is certainly easier said than done but it represents concrete steps most teach abroad providers can begin to implement immediately.  That being said, it will take the concerted, conscious and sustained leadership of organizations committed to increasing the access, inclusion and diversity of their programs to succeed.