Volunteering and TEFL – a match made in heaven?

Are you thinking about TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language)? I’m still debating whether or not to take up a TEFL qualification as part of my on-going volunteer work on my travels. I’m nearly set on doing so but need to find the 140 hours of time! This guest post is from a good friend of mine who works for a TEFL organisation and who is making me come round to the idea that maybe, just maybe, I would be a good teacher… and an all-round better volunteer candidate. Watch this space!

Katie Baxter is an Online Marketing Executive  at i-to-i TEFL which is a course provider training anyone to become English teachers to teach overseas. She’s a firm believer in volunteering and teaching overseas and gives her top tips in this blog on the best way to gain the correct skills in order to make the most of your time volunteering:

The subject of volunteering overseas can divide a room. You’re either for it or against it. If you’re for volunteering then you’ll have strong opinions on how it can help and if you’re against it, you’ll argue about how detrimental it can be to children, communities and the country in question.

My opinion? It’s an invaluable experience, if done correctly. You’re looking (virtually) at someone who has volunteered in Kenya, Uganda and Honduras. I’ve helped build houses, planted trees, taught English, coached sports teams and prepared dishes upon dishes of food.  I’m an advocate of it although it has to be structured and well organised. That’s something that doesn’t always happen overseas, meaning that volunteers aren’t always utilised as well as they could be.

What Difference Can You Make?

The main thing to consider is that you might not actually make a visible difference in the time you have, so your vision of heading somewhere on a short-term project might not unveil huge changes, but it’s important to remember you’re part of a bigger, amazing picture.

Too many people make the decision to volunteer but don’t think about what they can actually OFFER other than an extra pair of (inexperienced) hands. You can’t just walk in to an orphanage for a day and expect to be thanked for coming along or just get stuck in to ‘doing some good’. These are children, this is an established community, and you need to bond with them, build up their trust. They constantly see people coming and going, and by going about it this way, you become another one of those people.

Do Your Research!

Do yourself and those vulnerable people you could be potentially working with a favour – do your research. Volunteering isn’t about ticking a box. You need to have skills that you can apply to the project you’re visiting.

I say this because I have learnt this myself.

I volunteered in Uganda back in 2007 and I taught English in a school in a rural, remote village. I didn’t think too much about the trip ahead and travelled to Uganda having done very little research. It was my responsibility to teach sixty students English for one month. The school holidays were taking place, so the parents allowed the children to abandon their valuable agriculture work in the fields in order to attend summer school.

If I had known before I left England that the parents relied so heavily on their children during the summer holidays to help them in the fields I would have definitely made more of an effort to brush up on my teaching skills so that I could be the best possible English teacher during the precious time those children had to learn.

Don’t get me wrong, I did my best and poured hours of experience in to those lessons. It was hard work but incredibly rewarding and humbling but… I could have done a much better job. Volunteering should be about giving everything you have, even if that means gaining extra skills before taking a role on board.

Thinking About TEFL

When I got home, one of the first things I did was a Classroom TEFL Course and I had one of those moments where I wanted to kick myself. Why had I not done this BEFORE running off to Uganda? I’d learnt so much that I could have channelled into my teaching and where I could have been much more use to the school, and most importantly, to the children.

I later got myself a full TEFL qualification and, rather randomly, ended up working at i-to-i who I took my TEFL course and so I entered the world of full time employment, but in a field I feel passionately about.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to volunteer in Kenya and Honduras – both were short term volunteer projects that I used my annual leave for. I can honestly say that I was so much more help to the projects because of the skills I learnt on the TEFL course, plus I’d say that my confidence has grown since that first trip too, so that’ll be a positive factor too.

Next Steps

No one will doubt that it’ absolutely amazing that you’d like to donate some of your time to volunteering abroad, but do your research; pack your bag with useful things and pack your brain with all kinds of resources that the projects will appreciate and remember for years to come. Leave your mark and make sure it’s a positive one.

How do you do a TEFL course?

  • Choose a course – an online course, classroom based course or a combination of both
  • Work through the course at your own pace, get feedback from real tutors as you go
  • Get a shiny TEFL certificate – it’s a qualification that lasts a lifetime
  • Find a job overseas – you can go anywhere you want in the world
  • Book a flight to an exciting new destination
  • Get TEFLing – safe in the knowledge you’ve had fantastic TEFL training!


  1. says

    I think TEFL is a great idea. I had a similar volunteering experience in Tanzania. I’d signed up to help in an orphanage because I thought I’d be able to pick up the skills faster than teaching – something I’d never done before. But when I arrived the orphanage didn’t need any volunteers and I ended up as a teaching assistant. While I did my best, I wish I’d known beforehand so I could find out how to have the best possible impact on those kids.

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