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.
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 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. After all those hours teaching, I definitely spent some time at the best yoga retreats in Thailand to de-stress!
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.
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English from Boston who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched TeachingTraveling.com in 2010 to share expert global education resources, and over 1.6 million readers have visited over the past decade. Lillie also runs AroundTheWorld L.com Travel and Life Blog, and DrawingsOf.com for educational art. Do stay in touch via subscribing to her monthly newsletter, and following @WorldLillie on social media!
Sunday 21st of July 2013
Hi Britany! What a great story, thank you for sharing. I am also an aspiring travel writer and just started my blog. I plan to travel around Southeast Asia this fall. I recently read about these elephant rescue camps and how valuable they are for the animals who would otherwise live a life of torture and defeat. I plan to volunteer at one in Chiang Mai, so I loved reading about your time there, it seems you loved it! I was also wondering if it was really that easy to land a teaching job? It seems speaking fluent English is enough to qualify!
I will keep following your travels and hope to read more amazing stories! -Alex
Jo (The Blond)
Thursday 18th of July 2013
Great post! Britany looks like a wonderful person. It's good to read some more on teaching as I'm planning to do the same soon and am really nervous about my teaching skills :)
Lillie of TeachingTraveling.com
Thursday 18th of July 2013
As with so much else, the key is practice and a will to do better. You will be great!
Monday 27th of August 2012
This is a very very long overdue response to the comments above but I just randomly looked back at this article today and saw them for the first time! Since volunteering at that camp, I have done some research - mostly due to my inkling that my "volunteer" experience with the elephants wasn't really helping them at all and partly due to the information I've read on Dtravelsround - and I now understand the implicit dark side to programs like this one. Although I can't offer anything but praise for the mahouts I worked with who demonstrated nothing but love for their elephants, I now know that the elephant tourism industry has ugly roots that involve torturing these poor creatures. I recently wrote about what I've learned since my experience with the elephants which you can read at http://sotcblog.com/2012/07/27/my-time-with-the-elephants-and-the-reality-of-elephant-tourism/
This epiphany makes me even more grateful for my decision to switch my volunteer focus to teaching. Thank you to the three above who pointed out the reality of the elephant tourism structure that I was participating in and I hope readers visit http://Dtravelsround.com and/or check out my article above for more information on that issue!
Tuesday 22nd of November 2011
This sounds like an incredible experience, Britany! However, I have to say, your volunteer experience with elephants causes me some concern. I, too, did a volunteer experience in Thailand, however we did get dirty. And we did get tired. And, we did not ride elephants. While you were there, did the program teach you about the abuse the elephants undergo to learn how to accept riders? Or tell you about the harm that is caused to them by people who ride them? I am doing an entire series right now about the elephant tourism industry in Thailand ... take a look when you have moment at my site. I certainly don't want to take anything away from your time with the elephants -- they are amazing creatures capable of such beauty and emotion. I just want you and others to be aware that there are volunteer opportunities in Thailand that are more friendly to the elephants, and that riding them is never a good thing for them. Keep enjoying your experiences!! I'm headed to Thailand again soon -- likely to teach and do more volunteering!! Best of luck to you!
Tuesday 22nd of November 2011
There are better elephant programs where you do more work and less riding.
Wednesday 23rd of November 2011
Agree with Megan. Really need to raise awareness about the horrible torture these animals go through to learn cute tricks like riding and painting. There are sanctuaries where elephants are rescued and allowed to live out their natural lives. Animals such as horses can be trained in a variety of ways, but elephants in Thailand are almost always tortured as young calves. Look up the term "phajaan", known as "the crush", to learn more.