How Volunteering as an ESL Teacher Serves Everyone

Maybe My Reasons for Volunteering Are YOUR Reasons for Volunteering

I started out teaching English in the United States, in New York and New Jersey. I had been toying with the idea of joining the Peace Corps and thought, based on the Peace Corp’s requirements, that teaching English would be an easy skill to acquire in preparation for service. So this was the impetus for my initial foray into English teaching.

You can read about different cultures in books, but it’s just not the same as really getting direct experience.

I started teaching English at the International Center. They were more like meetup groups today, with conversation. They weren’t actual lessons. They were just ways to help people practice their English. Still, there was always some learning involved.  

How It Can Start for You

It wasn’t until I started volunteering at the Englewood Public Library, in New Jersey, where I started actually teaching groups of people of all ages and cultures, doing the lesson planning, strategizing, and other similar activities frequently associated with teaching.

I had very diverse groups of students within these volunteer classes, in New Jersey, and it was all volunteer. Not even travel expenses were reimbursed. Still, this experience was invaluable for many reasons.

How Volunteering as an ESL Teacher Pays For Itself

Teaching at the library was one of the most important experiences for me because it gave me a sense of the challenges that arise when you’re teaching multiple levels, different learning styles, multiple cultures, and multiple ages, and all the chaos that can ensue.

Volunteering provided me with an education like no other, allowing me to test the waters, so to speak. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing but everyone was extremely supportive and appreciative of my natural skills.

It was very exciting at the time, not knowing what I was going to do and how things would turn out in the classes, sometimes filled to capacity. At the time, it felt like I was just throwing things against a wall and seeing what stuck.

By the time I arrived on the docks in Asia, I had a whole repertoire of worksheets and lesson plans and notebooks full of these different kinds of lesson ideas. I mean, it was all rough and all over the place, for sure, but it was my own kind of swipe file of activities and worksheets that I could just hand out at a moment’s notice for different levels of English. And it just made the experience more comfortable.

Granted the danger of having such experiences can make you set in your ways or sometimes it loses that vigor for you, that level of excitement that you once had when you initially started out in the teaching industry, it kind of loses that element of danger to it. Sometimes you have to alter the experience in a way so that you can recapture that motivation and fascination for helping people with English. So there were some dangers with that, but for the most part, I found that being able to volunteer as an ESL teacher allowed me to really determine that this was going to be something that I could do on my own as a career.

One of the key features of volunteer English teaching is that if you give your whole self to the cause and give to other people and this allows you to picture you in a paid position before you are ever fully committed to making this lifestyle work for you. Ultimately, It’s the real test of an English teacher to be able to give to the cause without expecting anything in return (one of the laws of success, by the way, according to Napoleon Hill).

For those of you who aren’t quite sure yet if teaching overseas is right for you and you’re not quite sure you’re ready yet to take the plunge and pay for a TEFL course or take your chances in countries without this experience, then I would highly recommend you first give volunteer work a chance. Worst case scenario, you’ll learn whether you can do this sort of profession or not.

How to Get Started

Right in Your Backyard

You can try to find people in your neighborhood that could benefit from an English lesson. And if you’re in big metropolitan cities then it shouldn’t be that difficult to find people who need to learn English to be able to function in the U.S. And the U.S., as you are aware, can be a very unforgiving place for people who don’t speak English. It is certainly not as accommodating as many countries in Asia.

But this is where your opportunity is because there’s really a lot of opportunity in the western world for you to volunteer and support people in their effort to build their lives in a country that is historically very difficult to live in. Just ask Dave Chappelle, he’ll tell you.

So it’s actually truly exciting to be able to help these people who have real definite needs that you can serve. And there’s nothing like that feeling of being able to give to somebody who has a definite profound need for learning English, especially in a country like the USA which is really fast paced, tough, and incredibly market-driven.

Your Local Civic Organization

Contact your local library. Seriously. Although these places are somewhat archaic and used mostly for free WIFI access, they nevertheless are a tried and true institution for helping people under the table, especially English learners (you didn’t hear it from me!). Just stay away from the guys who wear sweatpants, they are creepy and NOT looking for English.  As I already mentioned, this is where I got my first position.

Go International in your Hometown!

Google “international center” and you’ll find a whole host of results. There are many international centers around the world. These days we usually think of meetups but there are still actually places designed specifically for you to be in dialogue with people from around the world. And all for FREE!

You can also try your local recreation center and see what opportunities are there to help people who don’t speak English. There are many ways of getting involved and certainly no one’s going to argue with you if you do it for free in the U.S! That’s the beauty about the U.S.! You can still do things for free with no expectation of gain! Isn’t that just wonderful? It also means you can fail and no one will even bat an eye. That’s the best thing about America, no one cares!

Maybe you won’t agree with me that I think using a volunteer experience is the best way to see if teaching is right for you. I would much rather a person test the waters for free in a volunteer experience than to be hired for thousands of dollars to only test the waters. So take your pick. Happens all the time here in Asia and what ends up happening for those who are unprepared for the responsibilities is a “midnight run,” where they jilt and leave the employer high and dry.

So which is more irresponsible?

Charting Your Journey Around the World, One Lesson Plan at a Time

With volunteer experience, you can start building up your portfolio of lessons and lesson plans that help many different types of people. Having this makes you more versatile, dynamic, and flexible, resilient, allowing you to work almost anywhere in the world with the skills you gained as a volunteer, a skill no one can take away from you.

Conclusion

Resources

It is well documented that giving without any expectation of return can be great for your bottom line. The literature is so complete on this subject that it’s almost not even worth going into too much detail about it. But if you’re really looking for solutions, here’s a short reading list:

Sell Your English… because it’s NOT that Hard!

Let’s be real: you can’t ignore English. And chances are, you know someone already in your life who needs help with their English, perhaps even a student in one of those remedial schools. English is everywhere and in demand and quickly becoming the universal language for commerce and trade. Certainly, if you don’t have a basic command of the language, you’re going to be as left behind as a person who uses the word “colored” in conversation about “people of color.” A conservative in Hollywood.

Disregarding English completely is totally impossible in this day and age. And yet, people continue to insist that they can, and suffer the consequences for it. Have you ever tried doing business at a Department of Motor Vehicles? I rest my case.

It’s up to you to keep your eyes and ears open for these opportunities, to sense the pulse of the market, so to speak.

A Final Word

For the students you end up helping, who do end up speaking fluent, natural English,

they absolutely without a doubt begin to expand the possibilities for their lives and the options for themselves in terms of career, relationships they suddenly have access to, and just about any other way you cut it. Basically, they become the alphas of society. So you are like the king of alphas, that’s kind of cool.

The Gods of English begin to sing their siren songs and life just opens up and becomes more relaxing.  Unless they decide to throw Shakespeare into your life, nothing relaxing about that.

So my best advice overall is don’t just volunteer for yourself, volunteer because you genuinely want to help people expand the possibilities for their lives. You’ll be surprised how doing so makes the world a better place with the two of you working together, in it.

Just ask Bill Gates. He’ll tell you.  

This post was written by Todd Persaud. Todd holds a BFA from New School University and an MA in Applied Sociology from William Paterson University. He has taught in over 5 countries and currently resides in Da Nang, Vietnam where he is writing a book about his experiences. He may be reached on his website at www.ToddPersaud.com.