Teaching Traveling: Ever wanted to volunteer teach overseas for several weeks? Read about Abigail Hunt’s experience in India for inspiration!
Abigail, tell us about your background.
Abigail: I decided to take a year out after school, before I went to University, to do some travelling and get some space after so many years of studying. I decided to volunteer overseas, to give something back to a community and learn more about other cultures and the way others live. Since my gap year I have travelled extensively and volunteered in many different communities around the world. The experiences I had as a teacher in India as well as my other travels inspired me to encourage more young people to volunteer overseas and I now work for a youth development charity that sends young people overseas to volunteer.
TT: Nice! Tell us more about your travels.
A: In 2006 I volunteered in India for 5 months, teaching English in a small rural school in North East India, near Darjeeling. I lived with an Indian family there, who owned the school and also hosted 9 boarding children in their home below the school building. My main role was to teach English to the students, aged between 3 and 16 years. The class size varied from around 20 in Kindergarten, to only 3 in Class 9! The school was for local underprivileged children in a small rural village and so the conditions I lived and worked in were very basic. The classrooms were tiny, with wooden desks squashed inside and just a blackboard (and sometimes chalk if you were lucky!). The corrugated iron roof meant teaching when it was raining become an exercise for the lungs, but the pupils and Principal were so enthusiastic for everything I introduced it was extremely rewarding work. I taught English through a variety of means, from singing and music, to drama, poetry and arts and crafts; anything to get the children speaking to each other in English, learning new phrases and developing their vocabulary. For example, I taught ‘clock time’ through making clocks from paper plates, and then taking the class outside to form their own ‘human clock’ – just another way to practise telling the time! It was a real chance to be as creative and imaginative as I liked and I felt so proud of my class when they performed their songs and plays in English at the school’s ‘Annual Function’ at the end of term.
TT: Wonderful! How did you find this travel opportunity?
A: I found this teaching opportunity through a charity called Lattitude Global Volunteering as my sister had previously volunteered with them and had had a fantastic time, so she recommended them. Also they are an organisation that have had 40 years’ experience sending young volunteers overseas so their placements are all well established and they have good relationships with the hosts and know what volunteers need. The other benefits of going with this particular organisation is that they are a charity so I knew the money I had to raise to do it would go straight back into the organisation and the running of my placement, to make sure that I was fully prepared, the placement was set up and secure and that I would receive good pre-placement and in-country support. Also because they only offer long term volunteering placements (3 – 12 months) I knew I would be getting aREAL volunteering experience, being able to really contribute in a positive way to a new community, and become part of a that community from the inside, rather than just passing through like a tourist.
TT: How did you find the money to fund this travel?
A: I raised all the money for my volunteering placement and for my flights, visa and insurance myself, through a lot of hard work in the year before I left. I had a variety of jobs; I worked in a bookshop, I taught gymnastics, I was a waitress, I taught the violin, I did cleaning and odd jobs and I did babysitting. I also did a sponsored bike ride where I spent a week without my car, and had to cycle to school, work and all my after school activities. It was a tough week (it rained a lot!) but I raised ?500 so it was worth it! I also received funding from my local town who had a ‘Youth Millennium Fund’ to support projects for young people, and because I was going to be volunteering overseas and therefore doing something worthwhile, they awarded me ?500 which was great! Although it was hard work raising all the money myself, I think the fact that I did raise it all myself made my placement feel even more worthwhile as I had really worked towards it, so it was part of the overall achievement.
TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful or funny.
A: As well as the main school there were also two branch schools where I was asked to teach at a couple of times a month. Both of these were at the bottom of the valleys either side of the school (the school was half way up the mountain to Darjeeling) and were extremely remote, with no electricity or running water. One day my host asked me and my placement partner to go with him to one of the villages, and so we trekked 2 hours down the steep mountain, stopping every so often to have chai with his various family and friends who lived in the tiny tin houses clinging to the mountain edge. It was really beautiful at the bottom of the valley, with amazing orange trees (they gave us so many), and at last we reached the ‘village’ – a small cluster of tin houses surrounded by small plots of farmland.
We were taken to each of the houses where we were greeted in Nepali and given large plates of rice and dahl to eat and then they took us to the village ‘square’ and put chairs out for us in the centre. And then all the villagers surrounded us and came up to pinch our cheeks and stroke our hair! No-one spoke a word of English but there was a lot of smiling, they were so happy to see us! Then, just as we thought we were going to go home our host turned to us and said ‘Now you stay here’ and left us with a family in the village! As it was getting dark, although it was only about 7pm, they showed us to a room with one single bed in, and indicated that they meant us to go to sleep. So we did, only to find this was the only room in the house and so all the female family members (mother, grandmother, auntie, cousins and an assortment of small children) joined us, squeezing themselves into spaces on the floor! It was extremely funny, but also very generous of them to give us the bed! And at 4:30am, when the sun came up, they all got up and began cleaning the house: the day had begun!
TT: How have your travels impacted you in your current career?
A: My experience in India made me realise many things. That even in the smallest way, we can give back to other communities, and share our skills. I didn’t particularly want to be a teacher, and I still don’t, but teaching in India enabled me to try it out, and to have an incredible amount of fun at the same time, as I had the freedom to teach in the way I wanted to, rather than having to follow a particular system or syllabus, which I don’t think I could do. I also realised how much I learnt myself from the people I lived and worked with. My host family, particularly, took me in as their own daughter, they looked after me so well, took me to meet their extended family, took me on holiday and to festivals with them. I saw how they lived and began to understand their way of life and learnt how to live very simply with very little resources at all.
Following my time in India I now work for a youth development charity, encouraging more young people to volunteer overseas like I did, to get life experience, challenge themselves and learn and develop in so many ways. I am totally inspired by my time in India, not only to do more travelling and more volunteering of my own, but to show how young people can make a difference, that cultural exchange between different communities from all over the world is so important as it strives towards a more globally aware society.
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a person?
A: I realised that I could achieve things I never thought I could, I became a more confident, compassionate and independent person. I remember thinking when I arrived in India that I had no idea how I would ever find my way home, yet after a few months, not only did I not want to leave but I knew exactly how to get the public transport and how to plan my route to travel independently and, of course, return home! Travelling has made me more inquisitive with a stronger desire to see more of the world and travel further. It’s made me want to understand more about international development, youth development and global citizenship, and has changed the way I think about many things.
I’m still in touch with my host family today, I can never forget them. I went back to visit them a couple of years after my placement and was able to see the changes and progression the school has been through from receiving more overseas volunteers each year after I was there. I hope that I can go back one day, and see all my friends again.
TT: What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel or travelers dreaming of teaching?
A: I would really recommend doing some volunteering overseas as a teacher, if you either want to be a teacher, want some more experience, are already a teacher or just want to give it a go! Volunteer with a charity or not-for-profit organisation such as Lattitude Global Volunteering that offer long term volunteering placements, as you know they will offer you a unique experience where you will really be contributing to the lives of the students you go to teach. Although it may seem daunting to take the plunge, do volunteer as a teacher for a significant length of time (3 months or more) as it is very unlikely you will be able to have a positive impact on the learning of young people if you only teach at a school for 2 weeks – how many teachers did you have that only stayed for 2 weeks? It will also more than probably take you at least a month to settle into your volunteer placement school, to get to know how things work and where you are needed so you can teach the best of your ability and make sure what you do is worthwhile.
But above all, my words of wisdom are: just do it! Life is too short to not take opportunities whilst you have them, so get out there and learn more about the world we live in, you won’t regret it!
TT: Thanks so much, Abigail! Readers, what comments or questions do you have?