Backpacking Teachers

I think backpacking English teachers get a bad rap. Truly they do. And especially from the more “senior” and “accomplished/established” members of our profession – ELT (English Language Teaching). Why so? I have only praise for this unseasoned, fertile, fecund and procreant soil of our profession. So I sing their praises and I’ll tell you why.

A few weeks ago, I attended a plenary given by David Nunan. Now, I have nothing but great respect for Dr. Nunan. His “The Learner-Centered Curriculum” had a very deep effect on my own teaching. His textbooks are some of the few that truly take up the cause of good teaching and task-based learning. Kudos to him – I even wrote a previous blog post all about him.

HOWEVER, at this plenary and also at a subsequent lecture – he brought up the topic of “the backpacking teacher”. He strongly suggested backpackers were the reason that ELT doesn’t have a stellar reputation. He decried their lack of formal training and called for “standards” to be put in place. Boldly, he stated that “we would never want our surgeon to be untrained, so why do we accept an untrained teacher?” Basically, he has come to believe in the Dick Cheney view of teaching – that the world will only be safe if everyone is a card-carrying member, stamped and approved by some agency. That regulation will be the salvation of our profession and allow the gates of Valhalla to open and angels to sing. I say – POPPYCOCK.

I’m all for well-developed certificate programs. I’m all for professional development and “serious” teachers. I’m all for teachers being trained. But please – don’t bring in the Gestapo and the stamps and the “vested” interests to rule over and batten down the hatches closing the doors to any who don’t have the “magic qualification” to get in. There are many reasons to celebrate the deregulation of both language and language teaching! Let me sing them….

I am a citizen of the world. There is nothing foreign to me.

Teaching is something a person does. It is not per say, a “knowledge set”. You can know your ABCs to your ZPDs and still be a lousy teacher. I have hired, fired teachers and run language schools. I’ve seen too many who “know” but can’t do. I’ll take those with ability over knowledge any day! Studies of teacher training programs have even shown that attending one can make you a “worse” teacher! I sing the praises of backpacking teachers!

Teaching is about character. I hear teachers talk endlessly about qualifications, criteria, programs, courses ad nauseam. But unfortunately, it won’t translate into the classroom unless you have “the right stuff”. Those personal qualities that allow you to relate to others and drive’s a person to “figure it out” and do a good job. And nobody is going to measure that – we are all an experiment of 1. We need people who enjoy people – not people who enjoy “being” a teacher. I sing the praises of backpacking teachers.

Learning English is about “the encounter”. Students all over the world benefit from meeting within a school setting, a foreign teacher. It builds bridges and builds peace and understanding. In a small way yes, but also a significant and human way. The diversity of the people they meet is important. Let’s keep sending out an army of English speakers across the globe – an unregulated army that is about “people meeting people” not students meeting a qualification. I sing the praises of backpacking teachers!

If language is anything, it is freedom. Language is our clay – we do not benefit students by creating any type of “filter”. ELT should not become some kind of “human trafficking” and means by which others who can transport, stamp and certify get rich. I’ll take the mistakes and errors that come with freedom any day. I sing the praises of the backpacking teacher!

Teaching is something that one becomes, not acquires. It is like language, organic. It is not about “pass Go and get $200”. It is about the relationship between student/teacher. Nothing else and nothing more. I reject any bureaucratic invasion that would cull and castrate the ELT profession. Less walls and tear down those that do exist. Let the students decide who is a good teacher – not Mr. Voller from IATTEFLACCTAA . We are strong because of the diversity and endless froth and mix of our talent pool. We need teachers from the minors and the C leagues. Why? Because they might just become someone like David Nunan! I sing my praises of the backpacking teacher!

Go and reign dominion over the English students of this earth, my backpacking teachers! Each should have his flock and let your staff be a piece of chalk. I sing your praises and give my blessing. There are none more deserving than those who venture out and befriend the needy English students around the globe.

*** The above does not mean that we shouldn’t have strict background screening of potential teachers.


  • Shawn Blomme

    I have a deep respect for teachers that move from country to country and explore the world while teaching. I currently live in Korea and have taught in 6 different cities. If I weren’t married, perhaps I would venture to other countries. After all, isn’t that a perk of our profession. I know teachers that lived in Korea and hated it. Some went home to find a “real job”. Others went to different countries. The ones I followed up on, in most cases, that were the happiest, were the ones that moved to a different country. Many that returned to their native country, ended up coming back to Korea, as they couldn’t find gainful employment back home.

    In short. Our profession gives us mobility, regardless of qualifications.

    • ELT Buzz

      Yepper. Good points. You reinforce the correct notion that “backpacking teacher” isn’t just an unskilled layabout … they can be conscientious teachers who just so happen travel and experience other cultures.

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