Facing Discrimination When Teaching English Abroad

Qualified English teachers please register with World of TEFL and we will contact you with relevant vacancies as they come in.
Just last month an advert for a TEFL teacher position in China was posted on the World of TEFL website. Nothing unusual at all about that, of course, but what was unusual was the request for Caucasian applicants only. Needless to say, the advert was rejected.

This example clearly demonstrates that discrimination is an issue when it comes to recruitment of TEFL teachers. If a recruiter prefers or only accepts applications from people with white skin then all those who do not have white skin are being discriminated against.

This is shocking but, thankfully, incredibly rare. We have published well over a thousand job adverts on World of TEFL and it has taken almost two years for us to encounter such blatant racial discrimination.

I do not think this particular recruiter – who shall remain anonymous – deliberately intended to offend or be unkind to anyone, even though that was the result. Instead, I think that he or she has a very narrow conception of what constitutes a ‘native English speaker teacher’. It certainly doesn’t appear to have arisen out of hatred.

A small percentage of recruiters and language centre owners, especially in Asian countries, do seem to think that a genuine ‘native English speaker teacher’ means ‘white-skinned teacher’. It seems to stem from a superficial mindset and basic cultural misconceptions. It is not just the recruiters and language centres that are to blame. As might be expected, parents of young learners, and the students themselves, can also make these erroneous assumptions.

In countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia there is a widespread obsession with paleness of skin. There are many hugely popular beauty products for women in these countries involving skin-whitening. How odd this all seems to an Englishman. In northern Europe the trend seems to be in the opposite direction – tanning salons and beauty products to make your skin darker!

There are many other forms of discrimination that can be encountered when applying for jobs teaching English abroad. Rules in some countries prohibit mature teachers from working legally and therefore if you are over 60 it will undoubtedly be a little more difficult for you to be successful in your job hunt. I recently finished a contract at an International School in Indonesia which forces teachers to ‘retire’ at the age of 55!

Rules and regulations can make things difficult in other ways too. Compared to citizens of the United Kingdom, American teachers have a slightly harder time finding work in Western Europe due to EU rules and regulations and permit restrictions. Schools and language centres in some countries will not accept applicants from Ireland or South Africa, despite teachers from both nations being genuine native English speaking teachers.

Sometimes, a preference for either American teachers or British English teachers is stated within an advert. This is usually because a particular accent is regarded as ‘more favourable’ than another. Hollywood English or BBC English seem to be what some of these schools are aiming for!

Regional accents can sometimes cause problems and I know this from personal experience. My own accent is ‘northern English’ and when I first started teaching at an English First in Jakarta I am pretty sure a couple of my Business English students found it hard to get used to my accent. They were accustomed to Hollywood English from all the films they had seen and probably thought that EF got me half-price!

Some job adverts specifically request candidates of one particular gender. This too is discrimination but is less widespread and can sometimes be justified, for example if the school is a single sex academy. The Middle East is the region in which most of these ‘male only or female only’ positions are available.

There are more trivial forms of discrimination at the interview stage. Is the candidate dressed formally? What kind of impression will he or she give to potential students and to the parents of young learners? Does he or she have any visible tattoos or piercings? Despite how undoubtedly fantastic they can look, full beards seem to be regarded as a sign of a lack of professionalism in some Asian countries!

There are plenty of other hurdles confronting language teachers. Unless a teacher has a PGCE (or similar), he or she is unlikely to find work at a genuine International School where pay and conditions are high. This itself represents a form of discrimination because the cost of becoming qualified is so high. Those from poor backgrounds are less likely to study for a PGCE than those who have parents willing to pay all the costs. Sadly, without the funds to pay for further education, it matters not that he or she could become a great life-long teacher. How unfair.

As more and more of the world’s population uses the internet to find out about the world and the diversity of the people within it, these rather rigid attitudes do seem to be changing slowly. There will probably always be preferences for certain accents, or arbitrary age limits put in place by various authorities. However, there are also always going to be some TEFL vacancies out there for you, regardless of your skin colour, gender, age, accent and country of origin.

The best response for the time being is to rise to the challenge and be a personal ambassador for who you are, whether black, white, northern, southern, eastern, western, old, young, tattooed, bearded, bald, male or female, rich or poor. There are many thousands of teachers of English overseas already doing just that. In doing so they are having the time of their lives and opening people’s minds.

Qualified English teachers please register with World of TEFL and we will contact you with relevant vacancies as they come in.

1 Comment

  1. Kevin Mills says:

    I read this article with huge interest. I have met the discrimination of age and qualification. Born in 1944, I retired from Engineering in UK @ 67, after gaining a TEFL at Oxford. Moving to Vietnam with my Viet wife, I started teaching at a high school, a language centre, and a five star hotel. Wanting to keep things in order, I asked at the Immigration department about a work permit. An official told me that I was obviously too old for insurance, and would never be a burden on the public purse, therefore I could teach, at my own risk, without a work permit.
    Two years on, whilst teaching at an American Academy, I was “invited” to attend the Immigration Office where I spent an unpleasant afternoon, answering questions about my teaching activities. I ended up having to sign a three page document stating that I was aware that I have broken the law in Vietnam by teaching without a permit, and will cease teaching immediately. Further, if I am found teaching again without said permit, I will be liable to pay a fine of fifteen million VND. After leaving the office I got a call reminding me that I had a lesson that evening at five o’clock. I related the day’s events and was told “Oh don’t worry about that, we have an arrangement with them!”
    I replied respectfully “and will you pay my fine?” and was told that would be my responsibility.
    I cannot apply for a work permit alone. My employer has to do it with attachments, including a contract of employment for me, my residence status, my health check and dental check, and a police report which I have already. any permit issued by a Provincial Authority is only valid for that Province.
    I teach English in Vietnam solely to help my wife’s country to develop, with my miniscule contribution. I have never applied for a job, only by invitation, word of mouth.

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