Is there discrimination in TEFL?

While teaching English abroad you are unlikely to face any type of discrimination from fellow teachers as most are like-minded people who are easy-going and accepting of the world in all its diversity. However, it can be a different story when it comes to employers. In some parts of the world, including some of the most popular teaching destinations, traditional, conservative views and opinions are still commonplace and this can lead to some uncomfortable situations.

First language discrimination in TEFL

Many people still have the mistaken belief that all you need to teach English is to be a native English speaker and those that aren’t will never be as good at it. However, this view on teaching couldn’t be more wrong. To be an effective TEFL teacher you need to have a solid understanding of the workings of the language and learn the methods required to teach it in the classroom. Below are a few reasons why native speakers do not necessarily make better TEFL teachers than non-native speakers:

  • Native English speakers typically have less English grammar knowledge than non-natives as they are not normally taught it.
  • Being able to use a language naturally does not automatically qualify you to teach it.
  • Non-native English speakers usually have a better understanding of what it is like for their students as they have been there themselves, unlike many native speakers.

Another area that can cause issues is accents. Some employers stick to the old idea that non-native speakers have stronger accents than native English speakers and therefore they are harder for the students to understand. This argument certainly doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny as there are many areas of the world where native English speakers have very strong accents that can be hard for even other English speakers to understand. For some nationalities, such as South Africans, it is common to have to prove your English ability to potential employers, even if you are a native English speaker. Whether you are a native or non-native English speaker there is a real possibility that you might encounter first-language discrimination at some stage during your TEFL journey.

Race discrimination in TEFL

Unfortunately, racial discrimination is still a major issue in many parts of the world and this can have an effect on the TEFL community. It is all too common for employers, particularly in Asia, to ask for a photo to be attached to your job applications and many openly prefer to employ white teachers rather than those of color. China has one of the worst records in this regard, but it is by no means alone in this part of the world. However, thanks to better standards of education, a growing awareness of racial issues, and improved anti-discrimination laws, this type of intolerance is gradually being reduced in most countries. Whatever your racial background you should be able to find a job in any country, although some will inevitably be friendlier than others. It is also worth remembering that big cities are generally more tolerant on most issues than more rural areas.

Age discrimination in TEFL

There is sometimes the misconception in the TEFL world that teaching English abroad is only for younger people, but this could not be further from the truth. Many employers actively look for more mature teachers as they appreciate the life experience they bring to the classroom. Many also consider that older teachers are more likely to see out their contract and potentially stay on in the longer term. However, you should be aware that in some countries there is a legal requirement to be under a certain age (typically anywhere from 60 upwards) when applying for a work visa. If this applies to you and your preferred destination there is little you can do other than look at alternative options as there are plenty with no such restrictions. One other option for older teachers is to consider working online.

Sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in TEFL

Discrimination around gender identity and sexual orientation is no better or worse in the TEFL world than it is in any other profession as it is generally dependent on the country you are in, rather than the individual job. Teachers who are not or do not identify as heterosexual might find that some teaching destinations are more welcoming than others. Same-sex relationships or marriage is still illegal in some countries, although there are laws against discrimination in the workplace in most places. However, if you find that a country you are considering as a destination has laws that go against your beliefs, then you probably don’t want to spend the next year or two living and working there.

Appearance discrimination in TEFL

Although it is often overlooked, appearance can sometimes be an issue when it comes to landing an English language teaching job. Things that can be problematic for some employers include tattoos, piercings, long hair or dreadlocks, beards, etc. In countries where these issues arise it is best to do what you can to cover up where possible during the interview process to show you can be ‘presentable’ in the way they perceive it. Obviously, we would not suggest you pretend to be someone you are not, but if you really want to be in a particular location it is sometimes necessary to compromise. Issues on appearance are particularly common in conservative Asian countries where employers often have to cater to the demands of parents with more traditional values.