Teaching Abroad: Lessons on Privilege, Neocolonialism, and Unintended Harm by Lena Papadopoulos

The first time I traveled on my own to a non-western country was in 2009 when I went to teach English in Tanzania. I was young (23 years old), and I had the naive notion that I was going there to do something brave and honorable; I wanted to help people. Sure, English was my first language, but I had just graduated with a degree in Sociology. What did I know about teaching? I especially knew nothing about teaching a language.

Teaching Abroad-Privilege Neocoloniasm-Tanzania

I spent a few months after graduation working and traveling, and then I set off to spend a few months “volunteering” (I paid for this, as young volunteers often do) as an English teacher in Tanzania. In the time that I was there, I developed a lot of questions about the ethical implications and impacts of my volunteer role, which gave me far more power and authority than it ever should have in such a situation.

There are a lot of people who teach abroad and are qualified to do so. There are people who teach ESL who are also TEFL certified. There are teachers in international schools who have teaching certification in their home country (btw, this is a great way to make bank if you’re a qualified teacher, especially in Asia). These individuals know about classroom pedagogy and effective methods and procedures for helping learners along. They know what to teach, when, and how. This isn’t the type of teaching abroad that I seek to address.

Teaching Abroad-Priviledge Neocolonialism

There are many other people —  those just out of college, or even those still in college or even high school, or those simply looking for some kind of change/adventure — who look for opportunities to teach abroad just to have some way to be abroad for free and/or get paid, but have no qualification to do so, like I was. Or even worse, they’re there to “help” people. They hope to impart the “wisdom of the West”; though let’s be real, it’s not really wisdom if you have zero experience or expertise in the area. Not to mention that this notion of “helping” those in “underdeveloped” countries implies that those in the West somehow know better; that there is some sort of way, in which, unlike us should aspire to be like us. In my opinion, this is simply a form of neocolonialism or a replacement for the system of colonialism in which the West creates and reinforces the dependency of non-Western societies.

I know that those who go to “help” others are well-intentioned. But most often, in these cases, good intentions don’t lead to good results. This form of neocolonialism, and the effect of the “white savior complex” (and you don’t have to be white to have it), often causes harm to local communities. There are investments being made to build water wells in Africa, wells that often times go unused and are abandoned because they disrupt local ways of life and valued cultural traditions. Do you ask people what they need before you decide what is best for them? Companies like Toms appear to do good by providing shoes to those in need, but they are robbing locals of their jobs in the process. There is an entire industry around orphanage tourism in Cambodia because young volunteers keep traveling there to help “needy” children. The majority of children in orphanages in Cambodia are not orphans; their parents send them there because this continued flow of volunteers has led to the creation of a profitable industry. The list of examples goes on and on.

Teaching Abroad-Privilege Neocolonialism

I ended up in Asia working for a non-profit where I designed and facilitated leadership development programs for the top international schools in the world. Through this work, I became connected to some amazing people working on the concept of ‘Learning Service’ (more to come on this later). I spent two years, living in Asia with this job, and then went onto spend the next three years working at Florida State University, where I ran programs and taught classes to provide culturally immersive experiences for students there.

After many years of learning about these issues of aid and service abroad, and witnessing them for myself around the world, I wanted to engage in real, honest conversations about these topics with young people who intended to do what I did when I was 23 and went to Tanzania. Through my role at Florida State University, I started working with a student-run NGO that sent students on service trips abroad each summer. These negative impacts were being repeated, especially through their education-focused projects. They told me about one place they worked in Uganda where volunteers came from France for two weeks to “teach” and did nothing but play games with the children.

Teaching Abroad-Neocoloniams Privilege

When one group like this comes after another, how are these kids receiving any education at all? And schools and organizations continue to seek out these volunteer because systems of dependency have been created. Why pay teachers when “teachers” will come for free? Some of the students I worked with were going to teach at a school in Cambodia. They would raise approximately $3,000+ via GoFundMe and other platforms in order to pay for their 2-month summer experience. That is the annual salary of a local teacher in Cambodia. An inexperienced, unqualified Westerner can make about $1,000/month teaching there. That might sound awesome to you, but in reality, that’s fucked up. So for each volunteer this organization sends abroad to teach for two months, they could instead raise that money and pay for a local, qualified teacher to work for a whole year. And what you could make getting paid to teach there for one year with zero qualifications could give a local, trained and qualified person a job for four years.

Teaching Abroad-China White Privilege

As I attempted to work with these students to address all the issues resulting from their privilege in these communities abroad, I turned to the ‘Learning Service’ model I had come across during my time working in Asia. This model looks to re-conceptualize the overwhelmingly popular trend of Service-Learning.

Service-Learning is being praised by schools and organizations as this beautiful and responsible way for students to have a meaningful experience while also having a meaningful impact. But that’s not what’s happening. Service-Learning also carries with it neocolonialist practices and outcomes. Through Learning Service, however, the idea is that learning is no longer a byproduct of a service experience; rather, learning is the main goal/objective. First, you learn about the place you seek to go to; it’s history, the cultural context, the issues there, the people. While there, your role is not to “give” or to “help” anyone; the goal is to learn from locals about what they do in their fields, why they do things this way, and to integrate this learning and knowledge into who you are and into your community at home. As a volunteer, you are not the expert; rather, you are embarking on a journey to learn from locals who are actually experts in their communities.

Teaching Abroad-China White Privilege

We have seen what has happened to communities that were colonized; we have seen the ongoing harm the West has caused. We cannot continue to propagate these systems of inequality, not even under the guise of altruism. When we know better, we also have a responsibility to do better.

First, we need to be honest about who is really benefiting from these experiences, and we need to own that reality. If you want to have an experience abroad, acknowledge the privilege which allows you to do so. If you’re going to teach in Ghana or Thailand, ask yourself, would a local person have the opportunity to do the same in your own country? No. If you got sick in Kenya, would you go to the hospital to be treated by a twenty-year-old, unqualified medical intern simply because they were from Canada. No. Why would you expect a local Kenyan to do the same? You may think it’s selfish to admit that you are going somewhere to have an amazing experience, to travel, to do something “sexy.” Maybe it is, but it is far more selfish and egocentric to travel to a place to “help” people. It’s better to be honest about what you want/are doing, find ways to do it responsibly, and then use the opportunity to focus on growing and bettering yourself rather than someone else.

Teach Abroad-Neocolonialism and Privilege3

As I move about the world, I cannot ignore or deny the privilege of the passport and language I carry with me; an American passport, English as a first language — and my white skin. I cannot deny the inherent privilege that comes with that. These things all allow me to move about the world freely and relatively easily. They are no more than a product of the time and place to which I was born. I am no more worthy of these experiences than someone from Kenya or Vietnam or Venezuela or Afghanistan, and yet I get to do things and go places that people from these countries (and many others) only dream of. I am not the one who is in a position to teach them; I am in a position to be taught by those who have known and experienced far more than I could ever fathom…economic hardship, war, genocide, etc. What do I know that they do not? What can I teach them that life and unfair circumstances have not?

I have traveled to nearly 50 countries now, but I have done this on my own, with my money (not fundraised), not via a volunteer organization or program that places unqualified teachers in schools abroad. I have never again traveled with the intent of helping or giving or offering something. My greatest takeaway from my experience in Tanzania was that I had nothing to offer. I began to seek places to travel to that would allow me the opportunity to be with people whose lives were most unlike my own, not because I have something to give them, but because I have everything to gain from them; not because I can better their lives, but because they can better mine; not because I can teach them, but because I have everything to learn from them.

Teach Abroad-Privilege and Neocolonialism

To learn more about the concept of Learning Service, and to gain access to incredibly useful resources, visit http://learningservice.info and sign up for the Resource Library

To learn about the harms of volunteering abroad and the White Savior Complex from the perspective of a local Ugandan (he kills it, y’all), visit this link.

To laugh at someone making fun of basic bitches volunteering abroad on Instagram, follow www.instagram.com/barbiesavior

To talk with me directly about this topic email me papadopouloslena@gmail.com

And to follow my journey as a digital nomad learning my way through the world, follow me on IG: @lenapapadopoulos

39 Comments

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  1. Yes yes yes, to all of this!

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  2. THIS. There are so many important points in this post!

    I’m a nurse and I’m married to a teacher. I do think there is a place for *qualified* professionals to serve abroad, but wow is that a slippery slope. We lived and volunteered in Tanzania for several months and watched our fellow volunteers do jobs they would never have been qualified to do in America. Your point about how Americans would never agree to be treated by a 20-year-old unqualified intern if they got sick in Kenya is SPOT ON. I was recently in Haiti helping train local midwives, and some (white, American) non-medical volunteers from a different organization just showed up in the delivery ward and started watching women in labor, under the guise of “helping”. If that happened in America, we’d call security. White people treating black Haitians’ life-threatening medical situations like an exhibit was one of the grossest things I’ve seen.

    I’m certainly not perfect either, and I try to think critically about these issues every time I go abroad as a nurse. It has taken longer than I’d like to recognize how much I gain from experiences like this, and to really examine if I’m giving back as much as I’m getting. I try to spend the first part of any volunteering stint just getting to know the local nurses, learning WHY they’re doing things that I might reflexively want to “fix” and learning what they actually want support with.

    I love the idea of Learning Service. Nursing schools in my area are starting to incorporate medical “missions” into their programs, and I think if they would approach it from a learning service angle it would be SO much better. Learning from nurses I’ve worked with abroad has absolutely made me a better nurse.

    Anyway, a long comment to say I very much agree and thanks so much for your perspective!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for reading and for sharing your perspective/experience as well! The example you give about Haiti is awful- and you’re so right about how differently that would have been received in the US. We will always have a lot to learn, especially as the inheritors of a normalized and deeply ingrained system resulting from colonialism, but I’m so glad you are trying to be self-aware and responsible in your approach. The Learning Service model is definitely a valuable one to lean on!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Really well written and thought provoking. I have volunteered abroad as a nurse and I HOPE i did more good than harm but this statement is so TRUE: “I began to seek places to travel to that would allow me the opportunity to be with people whose lives were most unlike my own, not because I have something to give them, but because I have everything to gain from them; not because I can better their lives, but because they can better mine; not because I can teach them, but because I have everything to learn from them” The whole idea of neocolonialism is really one worth more discussion. Thanks for sharing such great topics!

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  4. You are SO exactly right in this article! It seems to me that you might, MAYBE be able to make a difference by teaching skills you’ve learned to people in poorer countries who haven’t had the good fortune and access to training that you have. So for example if a country has a shortage of nurses and doesn’t have the capacity to train enough nurses, a volunteer can make a positive difference. Not working as a nurse, but training nurses. That’s dependent on the place not being able to provide that manpower internally and the volunteer having the knowledge and skills and experience to do the job properly. So no fresh-out-of-college volunteers!

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    • I agree! I think there is a lot of value in trained individuals sharing skills with those in areas without access to similar training. I once worked for an organization in which we ran leadership development programs at wealthy international schools and then used some of the profit to fund us being able to train local people in leadership development facilitation so that they could run their own programs in their own local schools. There are some amazing people doing some amazing things in their communities as a result of that training. Just as hownottotravellikeabasicbitch has partnered with Do Good As You Go to provide services in a field in which she has education/training for areas that might not have access to that.

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  5. Beautifully written and so many good points made. Thank you for your honesty! This needs to be said/read more often.

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  6. When I was 17, the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I did a volunteer program in Greece. Some of it involved learning about the country and culture and (a very small amount of) the language at an actual school, and quite a bit of it involved traveling the country, but for one week we lived in a small village and built roads. Well, they were more like driveways, but still. We were American teenagers (most or all of whom had never done manual labor) mixing and laying cement in front of these villagers houses. What?! Reading this post makes me so embarrassed! What must these villagers thought of us? Oh man, we’re gonna have to redo all that – probably. Of course we weren’t providing medical care or influencing children by teaching, and honestly I never really thought I was helping them that much. Even at the time, at that age, I fully appreciated that I was gaining more from the experience than they were. They welcomed us into their homes and taught us about their culture and lives. So anyway, thanks for writing this and sharing your astute insights and making me rethink my own experiences and privilege. Well done.

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    • Thank you for reading and for sharing your experience! AND YES!! This is something I have seen a lot abroad- people go in, make some kind of change, and then the local people are left to re-do/fix what was done!! People who go in/out of a place so quickly really don’t have the context to understand the needs of a community, nor the impacts/after-effects of their presence.

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  7. One of the most powerful epiphanies that a privileged young person could have, is that in fact they have absolutely nothing to offer. It kickstarts a humility that begins years of effort that actually leads to having useful things to offer.

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  8. Thank you so much for this eloquent and convincing piece which adresses many issues I have witnessed too many times.

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  9. This is so eloquently written, and sums up everything about unqualified volunteers teaching abroad so well. I’ve tried explaining this to people before but have never managed to sum it up so well! Thank you, it’s so important.

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  10. This is so spot on. I’m an English teaching assistant in Spain and so many young, unqualified people (including myself) use this as a window to live in Europe. We earn more money than many Spanish people do and we only work 12/16 hours a week, and yet people still complain. Then most of us teach private classes because even though many have no idea what they’re doing, people will pay you to teach them just because you’re a native speaker.

    I’ve been learning to understand just how privileged I am purely because I’m a native English speaker, and I fully admit that Spaniards who studied philology and teaching and learned English from the ground up are far more qualified to teach it than I am. So I try to only give classes to high level students who want to focus on fluency and pronunciation skills, and even then, I recognize I have a lot to learn. Thanks for such a thoughtful, eloquent post.

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  11. As you know Lena a very similar journey for me, and I was a qualified teacher when ‘voluntouring’ in Kyrgyzstan in 2001. Luckily I quickly knew I was the student and the students were my teachers.
    Just yesterday I stood in a packed community Hall in rural Liberia and thanked them for the incredible insights and education they were giving me in post-conflict reconciliation.
    There is a beautiful world on connection, sharing and learning out there just make sure that is the intention and you and your life-teachers know that!
    Super article Lena…

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    • Thanks so much for reading and sharing the post, d’Arcy! I would also love to talk further about the response in the Sustainability and Service Learning group. I know there are examples of good as Andy said (and I know Andy is very conscious about how he works with these initiatives, and I believe how he works with students/communities IS one of the examples of good), but I also think a lot of this more conscious work being done by IB international schools is the exception- and even then, still problematic in ways. Would love your perspective!

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  12. Great post! Thank you so much for sharing this different perspective, Lena.
    Thank you for making me look back and think about my time teaching abroad. We taught English in Korea and looking back I feel very fortunate to have learned more from the kids and coteachers there than they probably learned from us.

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  13. I really like your perspective on this whole article. You are correct about it would have never been allowed in the states so why do we expect it when we go other places. I do teach abroad and I would say that my time in Thailand was probably a waste of time and money for those students and the school because I was just starting and honestly didn’t know what I was doing and was given zero guidance because nothing was expected of me. I now teach in a British School Kuwait and have a much better grasp on what teaching is and what is expected of me. I have been committed to the children I have had the privilege of teaching and I hope that they rub off on me the same way I hope to rub off on them. Thanks for writing the piece

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    • Thank you for reading, Victoria! Yes, it’s just a bizarre double standard…and to me is such a clear reflection of neocolonialism- how unqualified people from certain parts of the world would be allowed to do certain things in certain places, but the reverse would never be allowed.

      It’s awesome that you can now recognize and admit that about your time in Thailand and try to be and do better moving forward!

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  14. That was super insightful! Super sad about the Cambodia example… It’s painful because we want to help but how to do it without setting off other problems can be delicate and complex. Thanks for bringing light into this.

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    • Yes! So true. It is so incredibly delicate and complex because there are such convoluted and problematic systems in place that can be overwhelming to navigate and overcome. I think it just takes an entirely new approach, but I have often wondered about what new issues (that we can’t foresee) a new approach would create — as you said! It’s definitely not easy and something I am always in mental crisis about, haha. Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. That was super insightful! Super sad about the Cambodia example… It’s painful because we want to help but how to do it without setting off other problems can be delicate and complex. Thanks for bringing light into this.

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  16. Thanks Lena as always for your perspective. Even as well as I know you, I learned a lot here! I look back similarly on my time in Ecuador and wonder how we can really change the model for future generations? I am passionate about helping others and incorporating service into cultural travel experiences where possible, but I know it’s a tricky and fine line to walk. I hope to do some more research on this in the future! Maybe we could collaborate… 🙂

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    • Thanks, Nat! And uuugghhh, yes, how to move forward in a new and different way (that doesn’t create new and different systems of harm) is a huge challenge. I recommended those books to you, but I left out a hugely important figure- Arturo Escobar! Google him and read some of his stuff on the making of the Third World. Very valuable. And yes, you know I would love to collaborate 😉

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  17. Thought provoking and well written. Thank you for your in depth and well articulate insight about the issue of unqualified /paternalistic volunteering! Gonna share it and follow you. Love your writing ❤

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  18. I loved every sigle word of this article, and I feel so lucky I read it when I’m just 23 years old and I can avoid behaving and travelling lika a “basic bitch”. Thank you for spreading the word and information about this issue, you go girl!!

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  19. This is was an engaging read. You are absolutely right Being able to teach abroad is a priviledge but can be done wrong in so many ways. The white saviour complex is still rampant and I’ve always wondered how unqualified freshly graduated teens could go out there and make a change in education. I love how you dissected this and showed the problem from different angles. This needs more attention.

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  20. I enjoyed your post Lena. I kept thinking about your trip in 2009 to Tanzania as a “naive” twenty-something that ultimately contributed to your epiphany that has directed your travels for many years now. If you did not have that first experience, would you have been able to gain the insight needed to instruct others on how to travel without contributing to “neocolonialism?”

    I don’t know if I agree with the concept that “wanting to help”–even if one is not a trained professional–is always such a bad thing. I have been in experieces where the “naive traveler” and “local inhabitant” greatly benefited from each other’s presence. Sometimes just experiencing basic human interactions with inhabitants of other countries and cultures can be an important tool for ridding the world of xenophobia. The longest journies begin with a single step. Xenophobia is not limited to those with white skin.

    Thanks for giving me much to think about. As a male of 59 years of age, I doubt that I will ever apologize for my white skin. I do admit, however, that my “privledge” does give me a responsibilty to help others in whatever way I can that is truly beneficial to those people. I agree that it’s important to ask them what they need first before just giving what we think they need.

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