5 Tips for Teaching English Abroad as a Person of Color

by Suzanne Bhagan

Let’s face facts, guys and gals. Studying abroad as minority student has its own challenges, but as a person of color (POC), it’s sometimes hard to get honest information about what it’s really like to teach English abroad. Many articles out there offer pretty generic advice, and how many are actually written by non-white TEFL teachers? Even though many diverse people teach English abroad, their teaching experiences can differ widely; some are overwhelmingly positive and others are downright negative.

Asian man and woman sitting at a table

There are many English teaching jobs abroad for non-native speakers as well as native speakers who don’t “look” the part (whatever that means). With the reality of the vast spectrum in mind, here are some tips for teaching abroad as a person of color:

1. The prejudice is all too real.

Many employers in non-English speaking countries, particularly in Asia, have a misconception about how the ideal native English speaker should look and speak. Some believe that if you’re not blonde-haired, blue-eyed, or otherwise look white, you’re probably not a good English native speaker. It sucks, but the prejudice exists.

Many schools and language companies in the global ESL industry also think that authentic English teachers should only come from one of the big five nations, or inner circle countries where English is the dominant language, specifically the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Jenson, an English teacher from Trinidad and Tobago, says that the ESL industry is highly racialized, where a teacher’s worth is measured by their skin color, their “nativeness,” and how they speak. He adds that being white is seen as the standard and those who deviate from the norm may be considered inferior and incompetent. He feels that the worst part of being a POC teacher is that you sometimes are unfairly passed over, even if you have the same academic qualifications and experience as your white counterpart.

African American woman

Melissa, from Jamaica, also shares an experience where she was recommended for a teaching job in a school in Tokyo by a Japanese dispatch company, but was flatly rejected because she wasn’t American and didn’t belong to any of the big five countries.

From my personal experience teaching English in a small city in Japan, because I didn’t speak with an American or otherwise recognizable “English” accent, many Japanese colleagues would ask me whether English was my native language. I was also asked to teach my students about popular American culture and holidays, like Halloween, even though I wasn’t American and didn’t have a clue!

Tara also felt overlooked because of her skin color. When she first arrived at her junior high school, her colleagues did not throw her the customary welcome party. However, a year later, when a white teacher joined the staff, he was welcomed with open arms. Also, at her school’s contracting organization, whenever she tries to offer suggestions to improve teaching practices, she feels ignored. However, when her white colleague shares the same suggestion, he is immediately recognized and praised.

2. People will stare and ask you strange questions.

Sometimes, in ethnically homogenous countries, like South Korea and Japan, locals are not accustomed to interacting with persons of color, so when they meet someone who looks different for the first time, they can weird out.

A teacher instructing her class

Tara has had Japanese teachers, students, and strangers, touch her hair without her permission and ask “Is it real?” Some make nasty comments; others are fascinated. Ria was told by one colleague that her hair was beautiful but that “African hair was in fashion,” as though being black was just a trend. In a more rural part of Japan, one teacher said that his school’s soccer coach took one look at his skin color and asked whether he had Ebola, even though he had never been to Africa!

Even while shopping in your local supermarket, people may openly stare at the stuff in your basket! What should you do? Get really angry and tell them that they’re being downright rude? Or take a deep breath, smile, shake it off à la Taylor Swift, and walk away?

At school, if a particular teacher doesn’t seem to like you or tries to avoid you, why not surprise them with kindness? Find out their interests, take the initiative, and strike up a conversation about their favorite pop band or sports team. You could even try bribing them by leaving a few sweets on their desk on Monday morning; candy has a funny way of connecting people.

3. Share your differences.

While it’s sometimes hard to swallow the prejudice you may face as a person of color, why not see it as the perfect opportunity to change stereotypes? Instead of ranting and raving about it on Facebook or on your blog, why not do something about it?

As an English teacher, you have the golden opportunity to teach your students about cultural differences. Be patient, approachable, and don’t take their misconceptions to heart. If a student touches your hair without your permission, switch roles, and pretend to be the student and let the student be you. Eventually, they will get the idea that there are certain personal boundaries they should respect, no matter what a person looks like or where they come from in the world.

Indian elementary school children

Why not share music, movie clips, or TV shows that portray non-white culture in the classroom? When I taught English in Japan, I took every opportunity to teach my students about the different ethnic festivals, food, and music in my native country. In one instance, I even showed them some Japanese people singing soca, party music from Trinidad and Tobago. The lesson was not only entertaining, but showed my students and work colleagues that it’s cool to embrace cultures that are different.

As a teacher of color, don’t limit your teaching to the classroom. Instead of cooping yourself up in your room watching YouTube cat videos and moaning that no one understands you, reach out to your local community. Join the local international exchange group, sports club, or community center. Be proactive and accept every invitation to share your culture. Why not swap family recipes? Host a cooking class? Sometimes, chowing down together can be the best (and most delicious) way to overcome prejudice.

4. Embrace your status.

Because you look or talk differently, you may quickly become the local celebrity in your adopted hometown. Tara is so famous, even in her surrounding cities, that locals claim to know her personally, even though they have never spoken to her and have only seen her in a restaurant or on the street.

You’ll get tons of invites to local festivals, sports events, parades, you name it! If you’re a crooner, jump at the opportunity to belt out some tunes on the local stage. If the local TV station wants an interview, give them the best darn interview you can! Capitalize on your unique look by rocking a kimono for that local tourism ad campaign or chugging some local beer for that newspaper spread. It’s not every day you get to be a celebrity. Squeeze every last drop of it so you can wow your friends and family with awesome stories when you get back home.

Women wearing hijabs in a computer lab

5. Give it 110%.

One teacher suggests that to combat stereotypes, teachers of color should “over-perform” or do more than what’s expected of them. He excels in his work and often volunteers to do extra stuff like helping to coach the school’s soccer team. Although he says that sometimes his life abroad feels like a staged performance, he admits that he’s made people change their minds about him by over-performing and exceeding their expectations.

When he made some suggestions to start an English club at his school, initially he faced opposition from a colleague. Instead of throwing in the towel, he adjusted his plans and now, the school’s first English club is doing well. Eventually, the teacher’s attitude toward him changed. He says that although it’s not always easy to be polite, courtesy will get you better results than anger, any day.

Although it may seem as though the deck is stacked against people of color in the ESL industry, don’t let that get you down. Use your teaching job to challenge stereotypes and open up your students’, colleagues’ and community’s eyes to the diversity that exists out there. Don’t ever settle for the status quo, embrace the “Be the change you want to see in the world mentality and tackle not only educating them in the language, but in the beauty and value of diversity as well.