In Praise of Backpacking English 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….

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.

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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11 Responses

  1. The overall feeling that I get from your blog post is that developing rapport with students trumps knowledge about language acquisition any day. Sure you can be a knowledgeable about language acquisition but a popular teacher is one that would ensure students through the door. A fascinating blog-post and hope that you continue your reflections.

  2. ddeubel says:


    Thanks and that’s a good summation of my feelings. I think that we in ELT lean way too far towards linguistics and SLA and not enough towards education. This has had ramifications in how our teachers are trained in certificate programs and M.A.s. We’d be better off focusing more on the soft skills than knowledge about how language is acquired (which is still all hypothetical and apologizes to Chomsky, Krashen et al… )

  3. I just came across this article. You have made some great points! I think you are right when you say that language teaching is about “the encounter” between the native teacher and the learner. We are not only exchanging languages but we are also exchanging cultures.

    Since language is also about communication, some of the qualities that a backpacking teacher might have, such as energy, enthusiasm and the ability to engage students, might not always be found in a teacher who has a specific degree or qualification.

    I think that it depends on what is being taught and what kind of skills the student needs to gain (presentation, pronunciation, writing) but for general conversation classes that are taught abroad, the backpacking teacher can offer students a great experience! Thanks

  4. ddeubel says:


    Thanks for the comment. Just sitting down to write something related (haven’t blogged for a few months, was a nice break!). I agree and I think we really have to put teaching a language into a different category than more “knowledge” based subjects where subject/expert knowledge is more important (and studies show that knowing grammar rules and metalinguistics has no correlation on student achievement in learning a language – it only helps them to write a grammar test ). But I also think backpacking teachers bring things that trained teachers don’t. In fact, I’ll go further, our educational system (and I’m a part of that, I teach in a teacher certification program) detrains teachers and can be very negative for their development (but that is another topic!).

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