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Neurodiversity and teaching EFL abroad

For many, it is not just culture shock to overcome when teaching overseas. Writer and educator, Andrew Theophilou explains the challenges for neurodiverse teachers in new environments.

Mental health has become a hot topic in recent years, with a growing body of literature on the subject in relation to TEFL. Classroom practitioners are considered particularly vulnerable in the industry, due to the widely acknowledged demands of teaching. Those working abroad, however, can face additional challenges unrelated to TEFL, while at the same time feeling cut off from the support usually available to colleagues back home. When talking about ways to foster the wellbeing of EFL teachers, therefore, it is worth looking at the geographical as well as professional context, not to mention the backdrop of new and emerging approaches to mental health care worldwide.

So, what sort of challenges to mental health does teaching abroad present? Some people consider stress, anxiety, and burnout to be part and parcel of the TEFL role, regardless of location. For those teaching overseas at the start of their careers, homesickness or culture shock are widely regarded as character-building elements which form an integral part of the experience. Likewise, it would hardly be surprising if anyone living and working in a foreign country found themselves feeling socially excluded or isolated at times.

But the difficulties a teacher faces can mask deeper, long-term conditions. Simply attributing them to the regular demands of teaching abroad can lead to a deterioration in mental health if the root cause lies somewhere else. Allowing certain underlying conditions to remain undetected can extend suffering unnecessarily and delay a person’s decision to reach out for appropriate support, either within the workplace or beyond.

This is particularly the case with autism, ADHD and Complex PTSD, which are increasingly being diagnosed in adults later in life. Our understanding of such conditions and disabilities has changed dramatically over recent decades, forcing a re-evaluation of our approach to mental health care for those concerned. Indeed, the difficulties historically faced by this demographic have often resulted in misdiagnoses by mental health services, leading to a downward spiral of mental ill health, discrimination, and exclusion from employment and other opportunities.

It’s important to underline that having a diagnosis for a mental health disability does not necessarily preclude anyone from leading a successful career in the mainstream TEFL industry, but discrimination by employers and wider society often does. For this reason, it would be perfectly understandable if anyone with a diagnosis chose not to disclose such information to their employers, who in any case may not be in a position to provide the right support.

Reaching out directly to local mental health care providers, however, is not always easy, even in your home country, especially where services are over-stretched. Doing this abroad poses additional challenges and, depending on which country you are in, some potential risks.

It’s easy to imagine how language barriers and cultural differences can lead to challenges and misunderstandings, especially when it comes to talking therapies. But attitudes to mental health also vary drastically from one place to another and this is often reflected in law and national health care systems. In addition, the widespread lack of understanding or acceptance of neurodiversity means that those seeking support at times of difficulty are quick to be pathologised. The fact that different countries use different diagnostic criteria further raises the potential for those living abroad to be wrongly labelled and, consequently, wrongly treated.

In order to avoid such situations in the first place, it could be helpful for anyone teaching abroad to ensure they have a high level of mental health literacy and neurodiversity awareness at the outset. But how can anyone be sure they have the right tools, knowledge and self-awareness when sources of information these days are often questionable? And why would a teacher worry about their future personal resilience while things are going well and the outlook is good? What’s more, with a TEFL certificate under your belt, what could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, mental health literacy is not on the syllabus and neurodiversity awareness in the TEFL industry is arguably dire. It goes without saying that certain neurotypical ideals are reflected in course materials, teaching methods and language assessments everywhere in the world. The result can be unintentional discrimination against learners, but this can also have a serious negative impact on the mental health of teachers too. In order to really understand how this can come about, it’s necessary to take a closer look at what neurodiversity actually is.

The Harvard Medical School website explains it like this:

‘Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.’

What does this mean for an industry whose core aim is to teach people the ‘right’ way to communicate and interact with others in the English language? The emphasis on inclusivity until now has been primarily on issues concerning the diversity of learning styles, with little attention paid to what we teach and the skills we try to impart, namely the neurotypical norms of communication and social interaction. This can be alienating and discriminatory even for those who don’t have a learning disability but who would nonetheless be considered neurodivergent, which is the majority in the case of autism. In fact, two thirds of autistic people do not have a learning disability, according to the University of Cambridge.

The effect on teachers can be just as bad, even among the most outwardly ‘functional’ or ‘successful’ professionals. They may in fact be struggling to get by in the workplace, masking any personality traits which could be construed as neurodivergent, in order to fit in and avoid being stigmatised or coming across as ‘high-maintenance’ employees. For teachers with an undiagnosed condition such as autism or ADHD, the impact can be worse still, as they are unlikely to fully understand the root cause of any difficulties they face. In addition to the emotional exhaustion and burnout that often comes with masking, they face the prospect of having their self-esteem and sense of identity eroded over time, as they go about teaching ‘correct’ ways of communicating which may be fundamentally at odds with their own nature.

Whatever the underlying cause, and regardless of whether there is a direct link to the profession or not, the onset of mental ill health can manifest itself when least expected. Finding yourself in this predicament in a foreign country without an adequate support network or the mental health literacy necessary to articulate your circumstances and seek appropriate help can be a frightening prospect.

There may well be those who argue that the more vulnerable among us should simply steer clear of the profession or seek opportunities at home rather than abroad. If you’re not suited to the reality of teaching English or working abroad, do something else. But this is not only an ignorant and lazy argument but a discriminatory one too. The neurodiversity movement challenges society – and employers – to adapt in order to accommodate a wider spectrum of neurotypes, to dismantle disabling workplace structures, processes or cultures and replace them with more inclusive alternatives.

In the specific case of TEFL, the problem is far more complex. We also need to rethink both the language we teach and the way that we teach it in order to take into account neurodiversity. Just as the industry has been trying to reign in the proliferation of colonialist, racist, sexist and homophobic ideologies in the classroom, so too must we face up to the discriminatory nature of the neurotypical ideals often conveyed or encouraged through English language in use.

Image courtesy of Library
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Andrew Theophilou
Andrew Theophilou
Andrew Theophilou has taught EFL in the UK, Germany and Spain at universities, adult education centres, language schools and refugee organisations. In addition to his classroom experience, he has worked as a full time copywriter at Cambridge English and was author of the Langenscheidt English Calendar for two consecutive years.
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