Chances are if you’ve been teaching English overseas, anywhere in the world you’ve met some ‘backpacker teachers’, and some ‘career teachers’. Both probably annoyed you in some way, with an off hand comment or inappropriate behaviour. Recently, I had the misfortune of meeting what I’d call the prototypical backpacker teacher.
I was sitting at a bar, having a drink with some friends on a Friday evening. I’d consider myself a ‘career teacher’ (since you asked, undergraduate degree in linguistics with a year of teaching English, Master’s degree, and Delta in progress). The guys I was with were equally as qualified and more experienced than me, too, and I have a lot of respect for them as legitimate teachers who’ve worked hard in the industry.
Anyway, we were sitting there, discussing grammar acquisition theories (just kidding), when a guy came and sat with us. He was clearly inebriated. He was wearing some outfit that I assumed came from the set of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and he was not particularly endearing. “Anyone got a cigarette I can borrow?” My friend gave him a cigarette, and then the guy, rather than leaving us to our conversation, said “Ok, I’ll come and contribute as my repayment to you.” What a treat. I didn’t want to write him off too early, he might have been nice. But talking to very drunk people when you’re not on the same level is always a struggle.
“Isn’t it great teaching english? Back in the states I made $10 an hour washing dishes, now I make $25 an hour teaching. And being a good teacher is just about being good with people. I’m so good with people and that’s why my students love me. Isn’t it awesome.” My first thought was, perhaps not quite as good with people as you think. We sat there for a minute and put up with this dude talking our ear off about how great his life was and how he never finished college but made more than his friends at home, before we started to get irritated. Irrationally irritated.
I was pissed off. After he stumbled off, I started to think about why his attitude annoyed me so much. And then I started to really think about what a ‘backpacker teacher’ means, and why it’s common for other teachers to hate on them so much. I don’t want to come off as preachy, I spent a lot of time teaching with no certificates at all, and it took a while for me to realise that I wanted to teach as my career and invest in my qualifications. There were times when I’d wholeheartedly consider myself a backpacker teacher, if a little more qualified than some thanks to my degree (which funnily enough, I never thought I’d use in real life). I’ve heard the phrase ‘backpacker’ used derisively so many times. But I think that term is misleading, so I’m narrowing it down a bit.
1. We don’t hate backpacker teachers, we hate unqualified teachers…
The thing that we hate isn’t that teachers live out of a backpack necessarily, and it isn’t that they’re teaching English as a means to fund travel. Honestly, there are places that are happy to offer short-term contracts for 6 months to a year, and there are people happy to accept a light teaching role to help them fund their adventures. This is a symbiotic relationship, the money gets reinvested in the local economy, and local people get to upgrade their English skills.
The problem arises when the person teaching doesn’t have a minimum standard of education to provide teaching. We need teachers to be intelligent and qualified (that’s why in Finland, they demand every teacher has a Master’s degree). When we meet people trying to fund their travel by peddaling themselves as an educator, despite not having any background or even a basic grounding provided by a teaching certificate, we get annoyed. Usually because they are sold as educators to the students, and the employers are also often complicit in this deceit. That’s why backpacking and accepting short term positions is fine, as long as you meet the minimum qualifications to do so.
2. We don’t hate backpacker teachers, we hate teachers who treat it as easy money…
If you’re a teacher keen on travel and backpacking, that’s great. If you’re a teacher who’s only teaching for the money and doesn’t care about their students, that’s when people start to hate. If worrying about your weekend “sesh” takes priority over learning your students names, you might fall into this catergory.
The problem I had with the guy at the bar isn’t necessarily that he was loving teaching abroad, that’s great. It’s that he was talking only in dollars and cents, saying it was easy money, and acting like it was some big scam. If you think teaching English overseas is easy money, you’re not putting in as much effort as you should. It’s not easy. In the same way that any job, provided you do it properly, is not going to be ‘easy’. Treat your profession with respect and go the extra mile, even if you don’t plan to teach forever.
3. We don’t hate backpacker teachers, we hate teachers who skip out on contracts…
Again, there’s nothing wrong with backpacking, being temporary, a flying position. This happens everywhere, even in top flight academia professors can get a six month placement.
What we don’t like is when there’s someone who comes to town, picks up a contract, assures their bosses that they’ll be there for the long haul, and then after their first or second paycheck they skip town. Presumably to attend some festival, go to a reiki retreat, or take up a 2-week meditation course conveniently located near Khao San Road. This happens regularly. “Don’t worry, I’ll be here for a long time” is a phrase often banded around by people who sign up to long contracts. Then they make up an excuse and say they have to leave, when really, they don’t want to honour their commitments.
4. We don’t hate backpacker teachers, we hate teachers who break the rules…
Part of the ‘backpacker teacher’ archetype is those who break the rules. The ones that we see demanding special treatment, not following the law, and expecting to get special status because they’re foreigners. A prime example is breaking visa regulations and expecting not to get deported because it’s not a big deal, or breaking traffic laws and enjoying immunity, or arguing back to the police when they get pulled over. This is the kind of thing we hate because it shows that you’re not respectful to your host country, you don’t believe their rules are as important as your home country, and it reeks of superiority. This is one of the reasons that we hate on the ‘backpacker teacher’ stereotype. Even though most travelling teachers don’t act this way, enough do that it contributes to the stereotype.
5. We don’t hate backpacker teachers, we hate a certain breed of backpacker teachers…
That’s the headline. We don’t hate ‘backpacker teachers’. If you like spending the summer exploring other countries, or taking a work break at the end of your contract to go travelling on a shoestring, great. If you want to live out of a backpack, that’s awesome. But don’t be one of the young, dumb, unqualified teachers who come over, try to make a quick buck, then go bragging about it to the people who treat it as a real profession. Don’t celebrate how you break the law, and don’t treat teaching English like it’s a way to get some easy cash.
This breed of backpacker teacher will also consider that them just being there, is a gift to the locals, wanting to improve their way of living and opportunities given to them. This could be down to the advertisements on volunteer schemes that say “You can change someones life” or down to the Eurocentric ideologies that our life is “better”.
I think it’s important to say, at one point, most of us were ‘backpacker teachers’, I myself would have fallen into some of these categories 3 years ago, hypocritical? Maybe, but the point we’re trying to make is not to brand every ‘backpacker teacher’ a “backpacker teacher”… if that makes sense. Some ESL teachers arrive with glistening qualifications and intentions to teach the next generation, others come for the quick buck, but still hold the glistening qualifications. Don’t judge a teacher by their backpack.