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3 Months Volunteer Teaching in Nepal as a Couple

An elephant bath at Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
An elephant bath at Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Today we have the fascinating story of how Jacob Madden and his wife saved money and went through a great program to volunteer teach in Nepal.

Jacob, tell us a bit about your background.

Jacob: My name is Jacob and I am 29 years old and was born in upstate New York. About midway through my childhood, my family moved down to Florida. That set the tone for me moving around every few years since graduating high school, landing in Georgia, Texas, California, and Washington for significant periods of time.

My training is computer programming with a specialization in intelligent robotics. Prior to my travels, I worked for a couple different companies in southern California doing programming for artificial intelligence and consumer robotics.

After teaching abroad, I could not get the teaching bug out of my system and decided to continue on educating through Mad Science after school programs, becoming an adjunct instructor of computer science at a local community college, and volunteering for a couple local FIRST Robotics teams.

Some members of the I/T club having fun.
Some members of Jacob’s I/T club having fun.

I’m now living near the beach in Siesta Key, Florida and working on a couple of programming projects under development, deciding what’s next as far as my educator ways go. I’m very much interested in sustainable living and permaculture principles, and that is becoming a larger portion of my life.

For the time being I will likely continue teaching through volunteering and giving on-line lessons similar to those offered by Khan Academy.

TT: What an amazing career path in education! Tell us more about your travels.

J: My wife and I were not super thrilled with the fast-paced trajectory of our lives in southern California and felt that taking a year off to travel around the world would help us gain perspective and prepare for starting a family and settling down more permanently.

She was an English Language Development teacher and I had always been interested in education, so we decided to sign up for a three-month volunteer teaching programming in Nepal as a part of our year abroad.

Bustling shopping district, Thamel, in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Bustling shopping district, Thamel, in Kathmandu, Nepal.

We thought we would end up in the suburbs or some rural area, but ended up smack in the middle of Kathmandu where my wife taught English to grades 3-7 and I taught Practical Computing, English, Physics, and Morality to grades 4-9.

I was also an adviser for their I/T club and science fair team. The school was run in English with Nepali being a subject as part of their day. We stayed at the hostel on the school grounds and ate dal bhat at the cafeteria with the students twice a day for our entire stay.

TT: WOW. How did you find this travel opportunity?

J: We found the teaching assignment through the Internet after browsing a million sites online and reading a few books about opportunities in various countries. Throughout our trip we were trying to make room for cultural immersion as much as possible in each location and therefore the Cultural Destination Nepal program stuck out to us as a way to learn some Nepali language, history and customs, stay with a local family, and do some jungle trekking in addition to our volunteer work.

It is a small program run by a very sweet gentleman and turned out to be an incredible experience. I emailed a few past volunteers before signing up and would definitely recommend doing so for other programs. You never really know what you are getting and at least having a real person to say it is not a scam is very helpful for your peace of mind upon arrival.

TT: Vital advice. How did you find the money to fund this travel?

Jacob and his fellow teachers on his last day of classes in Nepal.
Jacob and his fellow teachers on his last day of classes.

J: My wife and I saved for about two and a half years to fund our twelve months of travel. She was a high school teacher and I was a software engineer at the time. We cut back on going out and eating out a bit, got rid of non-essentials like cable television and just focused on putting a certain amount in the bank each month.

For a while we were uncertain if we could actually save enough, but it all came together in the end. I was even able to keep making my student loan payments while abroad.

TT: Love it. Tell us a few moments from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.

J: I thought it was incredibly funny that I was teaching Practical Computing in Nepal at a time of year, dry season, when the entire country shuts off the power for 16-18 hours a day due to a reliance on hydro power.

Determining when the power would actually be on was always a fruitless and circuitous venture, and I constantly ended up having the power shut down right in the middle of a demonstration on those lucky days when the power was actually on at the start of my class and I was able to borrow a computer room.

I ended up mostly presenting things like HTML and CSS on the whiteboard and had the students write down their assignments on notebook paper.

Soccer in the sun-scorched courtyard between classes.
Soccer in the sun-scorched courtyard between classes.

One incredibly frustrating aspect of my computing assignment was the lack of a computer lab. From the first day, I was told that the lab would be up and running in no time. After three months of these promises with no progress, I finally accepted that there was to be no computer lab and my curriculum and exercises and demonstrations would not see the light of day on this trip. It turns out that part of the Nepali culture is to tell you what you want to hear so as not to upset you. Oh Nepal!!

I’ll forever treasure the time spent interacting with the students at the on-campus hostel. The boys would always wake up at the crack of dawn with the roosters crowing and play basketball just downstairs from our room.

After I dunked my head in some freezing water to freshen up and put on my shirt and tie, I’d head downstairs with calls of, “Good morning, sir! How are you, sir! Hi, sir!” coming from every student I passed. I’d enter the cafeteria full of students to get some bread and jam for breakfast with hot tea.

After a morning of classes we’d all return to the cafeteria for some dal bhat to get us through the rest of the school day. The students would finish the lunch period running around with slacks, a shirt and tie playing several simultaneous games of soccer with a small plastic ball in the cement courtyard, oblivious to the hot weather. After classes we’d return to the cafeteria for a light snack together before heading back outside for a bit more basketball.

At night, often without any lights due to the power being out, we’d head back to the cafeteria one final time for another round of dal bhat. This was when the students would get brave and ask a million questions about us and our homeland or giggle at the way we said Nepali words when asking for more khana (food).

Jacob shopping for teacher clothes (salwar kurta) with his wife with their amma from their home stay.
Jacob shopping for teacher clothes (salwar kurta) with his wife, accompanied by their amma from their home stay.

During our stay, the Men’s World Cup Soccer tournament was being played and this delighted everyone at the school to no end. The staff at the school had rigged up a long set of cables from who knows where to make it so that we’d be able to watch the games even if there was a power outage by borrowing some energy from a nearby generator.

About twenty boys and a few teachers would squeeze together on the floor of a classroom to root on whichever team was playing. I decided to introduce everyone to the idea of a bracket where you pick the winners of all the games of the single elimination portion of the tournament, to add a little fun to our game watching. We all filled out our brackets and selected our choice for the winning team.

Nepal has never had a team make the World Cup and therefore the choice of favorites varies wildly. However, they were all incredibly knowledgeable on all the teams and players. I believe Spain and England were the two most popular teams. Myself and a couple other students mistakenly chose the United States to go all the way. I’ll always remember my time getting to know each and every one of them.

TT: What wonderful experiences! How have your travels impacted you as a teacher and in your current career?

Farewell send-off and applying of the tika.
Farewell send-off and applying of the tika. (Such a sweet photo!)

J: I had always dreamed of being a teacher, but even after hours of my wife recounting her classroom happenings, I really did not know what was in store. Teaching is hard work. The lessons I was able to learn while teaching in Nepal made me a fundamentally better educator.

It was a fast-track to learning so many of the intangibles that you cannot get from a text book or even a lecture. Classroom management, being engaging, ensuring that you are understood… all of these things are accentuated in an English as a second language classroom in another country.

I didn’t have a clue about creating lesson plans and student evaluations or enforcing discipline and had to learn on the fly. It was full-on “sink or swim” style. Now that I know in the pit of my stomach the areas where I need improvement, I can better take advantage of the teacher training programs back home.

There is also something to be said for how teaching in another country allows one to be incredibly critical of why things are the way they are. By comparing and contrasting the experience to how things are done back home, you ultimately become more aware of the more important aspects of education and the areas of possible improvement.

TT: So well-said. How have your travels impacted you as a person?

Jacob's Class IV students, very excited to be on camera.
Jacob’s Class IV students, very excited to be on camera.

J: I definitely have been fundamentally impacted by my travels and the experiences that I had throughout. One drastic side-effect to our trip was that my wife decided that she no longer loved me and wanted to split up.

This has been a challenge to cope with, to say the least, but an extended trip has a way of teasing out the subtleties of your life. Along with a bunch of spiritual lessons, the trip ultimately helped me to become a kinder, more compassionate, more patient and understanding person.

As far as profession goes, I no longer wish to work regular hours in an office job like I did for years before the travels and have experimented with different aspects of being a teacher.

My perspective on other people and cultures has also been forever adjusted. I arrogantly thought of myself as a Westerner as the ultimate source of help for people in “third-world” countries. I now realize that while I was materially wealthier, the more valuable wealth of spirituality, community and happiness was more widespread in some other countries, and I was actually the receiver of help and wisdom rather than the giver.

Lastly, by being given the opportunity to teach full-time six days a week for three months, I was able to believe in myself as a real teacher as well as more fully appreciate the incredible hard-work and devotion that teachers across the world put in each day.

TT: Truly powerful impacts. What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?

J: My best advice would be to do it. Do not wait for the right time in your life. If this is something that feels important to you, pull the trigger now. The go-go-go life in the West will be waiting for you when you come back, if you still want it. However, we never know how many days we get on this planet, so we must not wait until tomorrow.

Venturing off to a strange land and connecting with the youth is a life-changing experience. I highly value my time abroad and the connections that I made, and I’ll likely wander off again for another go at some point. I hope you will too! 

TT: Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful story, Jacob! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for Jacob?


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Shankar bro

Friday 2nd of May 2014

truly inspiring and beautiful article!

wandering educators

Thursday 21st of July 2011

what a great article - and an incredible journey!


Sunday 17th of July 2011

Such an inspiration.... on and off the page. Great article! Please keep traveling, learning, teaching and inspiring!!


Wednesday 13th of July 2011

That was a truly inspiring and beautiful article! It almost made me cry. I can feel the spirituality of Jacob within the confines of this article but more importantly I have come to know his real teaching abilities and lovely persona by being fortunate to have him "tutor" me through the initial stages of my website. I am sure you will continue your journey Jacob and we will all be better people if we get to read more about your experiences.

Julie Larson

Tuesday 12th of July 2011

Excellent article, Jake! I never get tired of reading what you write. Looking forward to a book one day! :)

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