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Volunteers' Stories





Teaching English to Disadvantaged Children on a voluntary placement in Ja-Ela, Sri Lanka

Working as a volunteer in another country is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to experience life as it really is for citizens of the country. The opportunity has provided me with unique challenges and rewards and has allowed me to move beyond the sometimes-superficial encounters and observations of the 'tourist'.

Living in the 'Third World' brings the inescapable realisation that although life is physically demanding and a struggle for most people, they meet the difficulties with a great resourcefulness and make the most of available opportunities, as I have learnt to do. I have learnt such a lot about making something from nothing and being creative and able to work with no teaching aids. It is an experience I will never forget.

My first day teaching at St Joseph’s was very daunting as I was by myself and thrown in at the deep end. Bearing in mind I didn’t know a word of Sinhalese (the language spoken in Sri Lanka) I was shown to my classroom which was like a small cloakroom, with no lighting or electricity just a simple blackboard and some tables and chairs. I was teaching 6, 7 and 8 year olds. I was quite unprepared as I didn’t know at what level their English was, or their previous learning. I managed to look through their books and grasp how much they knew and then work from there. The children refer to me as simply "teacher" or "ma'am." Another word the children refer to me as is "aunty" which is a term of respect for elders.

The hardest thing was probably getting the children to listen and be quiet, as they were quite mischievous and excited about the concept that I was there. They were more interested in the stickers I had than in anything else. I learnt not to take external resources in that the teacher would not be able to continue after I left, children then come to expect certain things and I didn’t want to cause a problem in the school.

The children were all happy and proud although many of the children I was teaching couldn’t speak much English (apart from: “My name is...”) there was the need therefore to do everything with them, instead of explaining what I wanted. First I took them by the hand, showed them what to do, then we did it together and then they could do it themselves! Songs were the simplest things, together with clapping hands, shouting how great they were, some children even exaggerated or did extra things.

There were a different number of children in class each day, as St Joseph’s is a particularly poor school and sometimes the children just don’t turn up if they need to help their family around the home.

Working at St Joseph's taught me a lot about being flexible and prepared to change my whole lesson plans and just come up with something else.

The second and third week I taught at Ekala School, which is a bigger school- there are up to 40 children in each class. The school is renowned for being lively and one needs ‘crowd control’ techniques to work here! I started teaching the 14, 15 and 16 year olds, they were very loud to begin with. By this time, I had learnt a few Sinhalese words, and made the children realise that I could understand some of what they were saying when they weren’t speaking in English which enabled me to gain more control over the class. We began with talking and writing about their weekend, and then about sport, the benefits of sport. Many of the children are very clever and eager to learn English.

The boys sit one side of the classroom and the girls another which can be quite distracting as the children are quite inclined to talk amongst their peers. Most of the children really want to learn and it’s a shame that a few of the children are loud and demand attention from the others. The children thanked me at the end of the lesson and were grateful for me helping them. It is quite a surprise to see some of the children kneeling at their teacher’s feet and bowing to them out of respect, this is something you would not see in England!

At Ekala they had an 'English week' with lots of activities that children perform in English, including debates, recitations, music, singing, drama and dance and so on which improves their confidence, pronunciation and skills. It was of a high quality and I was very impressed. The teachers spoke very highly of the children and praised them all, which was good to see. There is a sense of pride amongst the children here, they are proud of their school and being part of the community, it is very welcoming and refreshing to see in such a tight community, with parents supporting their children.

Many of the children are from very poor families whose parents work in factories so they know little or no English. Therefore school is the only time they get to practice. Other children have private tutors and classes outside of school. In one class the children’s level of English can vary greatly, which makes it hard to teach and differentiate work. I enjoyed teaching at this school because I felt familiar with the children (not quite all1500 of them!) but I’m sure most of them knew who I was. It was good to teach in a school for two full weeks, consistency is very important to ensure that children are making full progress and I am getting the most out of my teaching being able to plan ahead.

In my final week I taught at Holy Rosary which is a school run by nuns and other teachers. This school was probably my favourite because it was a lot more structured and the children were well behaved which made it easier for me to teach. I felt as though every child was benefiting from my being there and they were all willing to learn. I taught a lot about punctuation, nouns, verbs and adjectives. The children had to construct sentences filling in missing words and rearranging sentences to make them make sense. The school was very interested in hearing about schools in England and I agreed to keep in touch with one of the teachers and there could be potential for a link with this school, or a way for children to communicate with one another and learn about life in other countries and cultures.

The children in Sri Lanka probably only have one school uniform, however, they always look smart and tidy. The girls in their white tunics with blue ribbons securing their plaited hair, and equally as tidy the boys in their blue shorts and white shirts with pocket-handkerchiefs attached to their shirts.

I admire the children of Sri Lanka for their eagerness and natural inquisitive nature, for when travelling up in the hill country I was surrounded by children walking miles and miles up hills to get to their nearest school, because there was no transport to take them. It is this impatient desire which inspires me and drives me to teach.

I could never have dreamt what a great experience it would have been to do this. I will never forget the children’s smiling faces, their pride and their energy and enthusiasm.

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