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From Volunteering in Thailand with Elephants to Teaching Abroad

Britany with her students in Thailand, in action!

Britany with her students in Thailand, in action!

Welcome to Britany Robinson, who has a wonderful story of shifting her volunteer efforts from elephants to children in Thailand. Take it away, Britany!

I am an aspiring travel writer who has just completed my first big trip. For the past two months, I explored Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. For one month of this journey, I had the opportunity to live in a small village in northern Thailand where I volunteered on an elephant camp.

I had wanted to do some sort of volunteering during my travels, and when a Google search presented me with the opportunity to work with elephants, it sounded like a unique and rewarding experience.

The reality of the program was less volunteer-based than I hoped for. I envisioned getting dirty, working hard, and going home exhausted from a day helping elephants… like the elephants would be really grateful for all my hard work and thank me with big elephant smiles!

Now of course, I have absolutely no experience working with any animal besides my dog and I’ve barely trained him to sit on command, so I really don’t know what kind of responsibilities I expected them to trust me with, but the reality of the position was that I did everything that the tourists in town did: I rode and bathed the elephants each morning and afternoon, always accompanied by the elephant’s owner. It was great fun and I know the program fees for volunteering do a lot to help the elephants and their owners, but I was looking for a more hands on experience.

Volunteering with elephants in Thailand.

Volunteering with elephants in Thailand.

So I decided to start teaching at the village’s primary school for my last two weeks. I had visited the school for a day and when the principal caught wind of a native English speaker, he didn’t hesitate to ask for my assistance.

I have absolutely no teaching experience, so when the principal introduced me to a classroom of eighteen kids, their ages ranging from eight to thirteen, and left me with a smile, a wave, and instructions to, “teach them some English!” I was slightly terrified. Suddenly eighteen kids stood up at once, pressed their palms together in a respectful bow, and in unison said, “Good afternoon, teacher.”

Oh geez, you guys have me confused. I’m just a volunteer, not a teacher! I thought.

But I smiled, bowed, and swiped a workbook from the closest student to scan while 36 eyes looked at me and waited. The work books looked completely untouched, and when I asked the owner of the book, “How are you, today?” She looked terrified and refused to answer in English.

OK kid, don’t worry. I’m as freaked out as you.

So, I decided to start with the basics.

For the next hour, we identified objects and colors in the room, and practiced their English pronunciations. Occasionally I tried to throw in a Thai word that I knew, but that always resulted in poorly contained laughter so I stuck to English for the most part. The kids seemed to enjoy our very repetitive exercises (or maybe they were just enjoying making fun of me in the language I don’t understand), but either way, they were attentive and polite.

The elephants loved Britany, but these kids will remember her.

The elephants loved Britany, but these kids will remember her.

The first couple of days were stressful and frustrating. The classes were accustomed to only occasionally having teachers watch over them, so they entered and exited the room whenever they pleased. Most of them didn’t have work books or even blank paper to work on, and they possessed absolutely no English conversation skills so my attempts at moving past vocabulary always resulted in simple say and repeat exercises that they most likely didn’t understand.

After two short weeks however, there was reward. We had graduated to playing Hang-Man and word scrambles, and I had developed the confidence in front of them to use an authoritative voice that I didn’t know I possessed. I finally got them to answer by raising their hands and not all shout at once, and I did so without being the mean white lady… at least I think, since they always smiled and greeted me when they saw me outside of the class.

Teaching was not something I ever had an interest in, but I now see how rewarding a profession it can be. I also truly wish I could apologize to all of the teachers to which I refused to participate in class for. It was a learning experience for both me and the students and I think we all walked away having gained something of value.

The elephants were great fun, and after teaching for two weeks, I appreciated the quiet serenity of sitting on top of the wordless creatures even more. But the elephants will not remember me, and I think the kids will. When one of the girls gave me a hug before I left and said she was going to come to America someday and visit me, I knew that the experience was worthwhile.

Love it, Britany! Thanks! Readers, feel free to post comments and questions for this teacher-traveler, and do check out her website, www.sotcblog.com.

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