This is a worse-case scenario but does highlight some of the pitfalls of volunteering as a teacher in a country very different to our own. It raises some important questions: Where is the teacher? It’s possible that she has been told not to come to work while volunteers are there to take her class – and no work for a month means no pay for a month. Why are the volunteers teaching the alphabet when the children have already been taught this? Clearly these volunteers have been given no prior information about what the children already know or about their English syllabus. Why are the volunteers expecting individual children to answer questions when this is inappropriate in their society? This would be common practice for the volunteers at home – no-one has prepared them for cultural differences between the two countries. Why are they using a story book that is clearly written for children from another country? Presumably because the school has few books and the volunteers have brought this book with them – arguably any books are better than no books and if used sensitively a book such as this could be used to open the children’s eyes to the lives of children in other parts of the world, but that is not how it is being used here. Does this school have a child protection policy? It doesn’t look like it as volunteers have been left unsupervised with the children, and not all sending organisations insist that volunteers are police checked. Are these volunteers qualified teachers? Almost certainly not – an experienced teacher would surely have asked questions about prior learning and syllabus expectations before agreeing to take on a class.
So is it appropriate for anybody, qualified or not, to volunteer as a teacher? Like many of my colleagues who work in education, I have never understood the mind-set which says that, just because everyone went to school themselves, everyone can be a teacher. After all, most people have attended a doctor’s surgery at some time in their lives but nobody thinks this qualifies them to practise medicine! Gaining qualified teacher status in the UK takes a long time and is not easily achieved – teacher training courses cover many different aspects of how to teach but most importantly focus on the very complex issue of how children learn. So in my opinion an unqualified ‘teacher’ should never be put in sole charge of a class, whatever country they are in. Here in the UK that would not happen, and we would be horrified if we thought unqualified teachers were teaching our children unsupervised. So, as always, the bottom line should be that if we can’t teach here we shouldn’t expect to be allowed to teach on a volunteering placement abroad.
However that certainly doesn’t mean that there are no worthwhile volunteer placements to be had for people who want to teach. On the contrary, I believe that people who volunteer on education placements can do immensely valuable work. The key lies in making sure local people remain in charge of their own classes, liaising with them to identify their needs and then creating a placement outline which matches the volunteers’ skills and experience to those needs.
So here are some examples that I have seen work well in projects supported by ‘people and places’:
Teachers have identified that the reason they want a volunteer is so that the children can hear English spoken by a native English speaker. The local teacher takes the English class, but asks the volunteer to read passages in English from the book. The volunteer is asked to read the story one sentence at a time and get the children to repeat so they practise their pronunciation. The teacher repeats the words along with the children so he also learns the correct pronunciation and can use this himself in future lessons. (Cambodia)
A school has asked for specialist Science teachers – this is because their Science teachers have no experience at all in conducting practical Science lessons but the new Science syllabus suggests that they should be doing this with their classes. Easier said than done when the school has no Science lab and little Science equipment, but with a little imagination some resourceful volunteers manage to concoct Science equipment from locally available materials – the teachers are fascinated and will easily be able to replicate this themselves in future. (South Africa)
The head teacher of a school has read that children learn best through play but has no idea how to go about doing this, in a country where all teaching involves rote learning. He has asked for volunteers who could demonstrate more active, child-centred ways of learning. At first he is shocked to discover that this means classes are no longer silent but he is thrilled with the higher level of engagement and enjoyment of the pupils in his school. Not all teachers feel able to try out all the methods demonstrated to them, but they have been shown an alternative way of teaching they did not know about before, and this gives them a choice in how they conduct their own lessons in future. (India)
Teachers are struggling with very large classes where children of all abilities are taught together. They are aware that some of their students are falling behind but have neither time nor space to give them individual help. They ask that volunteers take small groups of slower learners out of class to help them catch up – they know that the volunteers have undergone child protection checks so this doesn’t contravene the school’s child protection policy. The teacher provides the books and subject matter and identifies the children who need help, the volunteer uses their teaching skills to motivate and help support these children. (South Africa)
Art is not a subject on the regular school curriculum, but the school identifies that a potential volunteer has these skills. They ask the volunteer to run some after school clubs to do craft work with the children. Staff from the school attend the after school club with the children, partly to supervise but also so they too can learn these skills. They are astonished to find how much freedom they have to use their imagination and try to become less restrictive in other areas of their teaching too. (Cambodia)
Local people identify the need for a structured curriculum to be designed for the pre-school age children they support, to give them a better chance when they start school. They ask if a volunteer can be found who has experience of curriculum design in schools. The curriculum is successfully designed by the volunteer and volunteer contributions are used to employ a local teacher to provide training to enable it to be successfully delivered. (Swaziland)
Primary school teachers have identified that they need more resources such as flashcards to help them deliver their curriculum in an interesting way. However many of them have two jobs as well as a family to support and a farm to manage and have no time to spend preparing resources. They ask volunteers to help with this – they provide a list of topics and types of resources they need and volunteers are able to create them and act as teaching assistants when the teachers use them in class. (Nepal)
Secondary schools frequently do not want volunteers as they are concentrating on preparing their students for exams and volunteers have been found to be disruptive to students’ learning. However the boarding houses where the students live do accept volunteers who are able to provide support in out-of-school hours, in a social setting and in a safe environment supervised by a house-mother from their own culture, and the educational achievement of girls from the boarding houses is well above the average for their school. (Morocco)
I could go on . . . . There are so many ways of volunteering successfully in an education context, whatever the volunteers’ level of experience, if it is managed carefully. Consulting local people about their needs keeps them in charge of the process. Linking a volunteer’s specific skills and experience to the task they are given to do creates a meaningful placement which is directed specifically at local requirements. Insisting that volunteers undergo police checks as part of the application process helps to keep children safe. Ensuring that local teachers are always in charge of their lesson, even if they ask volunteers to teach some parts of it, means lessons remain focused on the needs of the local curriculum and are at an appropriate level for the children in their class. With the local teacher present children are more likely to understand that the volunteer is there to help their learning and not as a distraction, and the volunteer’s help can be directed towards particular children if the teacher so wishes. By working alongside local staff the volunteers’ work becomes sustainable – local teachers can copy it in future if they want to. Above all, teaching volunteers who respect local teachers’ knowledge and experience – of their school, of their students and of cultural expectations in their country – can achieve really meaningful results.
This article is written by Dianne Ashman, programme and placement coordinator at ‘people and places’. In her former life Dianne was a teacher in the UK for 32 years. In 2011 she joined ‘people and places’ as education advisor, supporting and assessing responsible volunteer placements in schools and other learning environments. Her role at ‘people and places’ has now widened to include other responsibilities but education remains her main interest and concern.