Discrimination in ESL

Discrimination In ESL Hiring Practices

Discrimination in ESL hiring practices exists in many countries popular with teachers throughout the world. It’s an unfortunate reality that many teachers and aspiring ESL teachers are going to face. This post is going to be a bit more serious in nature than many of our others. For this reason, I am going to attempt to cover the topic of discrimination in the ESL industry with an honest and objective perspective. This post isn’t going to be a judgment against specific schools or countries. Instead, I’m going to go into some of the different types of discrimination a teacher may face so that teachers can get a better understanding of the topic.

What types of discrimination exist in ESL hiring?

Age Discrimination

This is perhaps the most common type of discrimination in ESL hiring that certain teachers may find themselves at the wrong end of. This boils down to different rules and regulations various countries have regarding working and retirement ages. In most western countries and some other countries throughout the world, people are used to being protected from having things like age, race, religion, etc. be deciding factors in whether or not they qualify for a job. However, there are many other countries throughout the world where this isn’t as true. An example of this is in Korea where the retirement age for employees is age 60. Teachers who wish to be hired at a company an who are older than this will normally find themselves being rejected. This isn’t necessarily done for any malicious reasons but because this is the age which employees are generally required to have retired by.

Racial Discrimination

Go to any Facebook group for ESL teachers and you are likely to find a story or two of teachers who have experienced racial discrimination. This has happened to teachers working both online as well as offline and in all countries throughout the world that are popular with ESL teachers. Racial discrimination occurs for many different reasons ranging from ignorance to maliciousness and is never something to be taken lightly. An example of racial discrimination is the belief held by hiring managers in some schools throughout Asia that non-white teachers will not be popular with students or their parents and therefore should be avoided. Teachers of all races have experienced discrimination and this isn’t just relegated to Asian countries. Though, it does seem to happen more frequently in certain Asian countries. Something that will be discussed more below.

Gender Discrimination

There are some countries where the preference is for female teachers over males and vice versa. This isn’t always true and I have come across numerous teachers of both genders teaching ESL in the many different countries that I’ve traveled to. It is, however, something that some teachers may come across. I have read stories and personally talked to people who have been denied from teaching positions only to later find out that the specific school they were applying for preferred men or women. I will say that this can be less common than other types of discrimination but is still something that occurs in schools and countries throughout the world.

Discrimination Based on Nationality

Trends in English speaking tend to change over time in a country. Because of this, the preference for teachers from specific nationalities such as the United Kingdom or the United States may exist. A great example of this is Thailand where British teachers were in fashion during the 90’s and early 2000’s but where teachers from the United States are now more preferred. The reasons for this can be extremely varied. Even in the online space, I have come across reports of teachers from the United Kingdom complaining that they were getting less work than their American peers because parents or schools held a certain preference.

Discrimination Based on Accent

This can sometimes go hand in hand with nationality. Schools oftentimes will require a teacher to have a neutral accent but may or may not have a solid understanding of what that means or what they are really looking for. Sometimes what a hiring manager is looking for may be as ambiguous as a teacher sounding like a popular actor that the manager equates with English speakers. Because of this it is entirely possible to be a well qualified teacher with a teaching certificate, 120-hour blended learning TEFL certificate, masters degree in English, and many years of experience and still be passed up for a job over a less qualified teacher who may have an accent more in line with what the hiring manager feels is appropriate for their students.

Where does discrimination most often occur?

Discrimination can occur in any school in any country throughout the world. It is very possible that two teachers may have completely different experiences at a specific school based on any of the above-mentioned factors. There does seem to be a theme of complaints coming from Asian countries regarding discrimination. While I don’t have any hard data on the numbers of complaints or the reasons of each complaint, I do speculate that this has to do with the numbers of teachers who are traveling to these countries to teach. Many Asian countries make the list of most popular places for ESL teachers for reasons ranging from pay to cost of living to benefits as well as many others. This is in combination with the incredible demand in countries such as China. Because of this, there are simply a larger number of teachers who are traveling to these countries to work and therefore more opportunities for discrimination to occur. Many of the complaints which I have read about have occurred in more rural locations where exposure to the western world and native English speakers may be extremely limited. This is no excuse for the discrimination to occur. Simply one way of understanding why it does occur.  

What can be done about discrimination in ESL?

It is unfortunate but in many cases, the answer to this questions is absolutely nothing. Protections for workers can be lacking in some countries around the world popular with teachers. This goes for workers who are citizens of that country as well as foreigners. In many places, there may not even be an avenue for reporting discrimination much less any repercussions for companies and schools (both public and private) that engage in these discriminatory hiring practices.

However, this doesn’t mean that things can’t be changed. For many of the above types of discrimination, the answer is simply a greater level of exposure. What you must keep in mind about many of the countries that teachers often work in is that some of these places didn’t open up to the outside world until a few decades ago. Exposure to native English speakers, as mentioned above, has been very limited and because of this the idea of what a teacher should and should not be is also very limited and oftentimes not rooted in anything concrete or worthwhile. The only thing that is going to change this is time and greater exposure to a wide variety of teachers.

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