In my next instalment I will be taking you on a journey. A journey which will make you think about volunteering abroad and decide for yourself whether it is good or bad. This is relevant in a Project Alchemy setting as the whole basis of the charity is based on volunteering experiences.
So you might be thinking surely someone giving their time and energy to volunteer is a good thing? I was a staunch yes supporter but recent events have persuaded me that perhaps it isn’t as good as you’d may think. This has all come about from asking people about their experiences of volunteering in travel forums. From my experience I had expected a positive response with many saying how good it was.
I was surprised by the complete opposite reaction.
In my posts I’d been keen to promote volunteering (in particular English teaching) however long it was. The thinking behind this is logical. I grew up learning German and looking back it would have been nice if I had volunteers who could speak German with me so I would be able to better speak the language. A constant stream of young Germans who I could connect with would’ve meant I’d be fluent now.
In all fairness though German is only going to slightly boost my career prospects. Whereas English to a young Thai is going to boost their prospects massively, especially in an area which is frequented by tourists.
From my own experiences, especially in remote schools, I believe the children benefit from seeing foreign faces. They get to hear different English accents, see what other cultures are like and I’d hope sense that the world is bigger than their village or province.
English like any other foreign language takes years of consistent teaching to master. So unless they are a qualified teacher it doesn’t make sense for a tourist to pop by be the sole English teacher of a school. That said, I believe many would benefit from co teachers that are energetic and motivated to develop the children. Even in short bursts I believe that there are positives to be taken.
Volunteering itself is a way for some charities to accrue funds in order to fulfil their goals with quite a few offering placements all round the world. The way they market these ‘opportunities’ I believe puts more emphasis on the personal development of the volunteer rather than the people they are trying to help.
The nay sayers on the forums I’d posted on were keen to point out that volunteering without a work permit was illegal and that teaching English should be done by those that are professionally qualified only.
Their points are valid and their negative reaction did take the wind out of my sails somewhat. I’d always perceived volunteering as a good thing. It is something that in the UK, and I’m sure elsewhere, that is honourable and respected among peers. So I am at a loss to discover that it could be perceived so negatively.
As for the first point concerning working illegally, the traveller should always do things above the law in any country. If they choose to volunteer illegally then the responsibility is on them, however good their intentions. So for those wanting to volunteer stay safe and be aware of the law.
English teaching should be done by paid professionals they said. Personally, this of course makes sense but there are two reasons why being a paid professional doesn’t work well for the children. Firstly, there are occasions when Thai teachers are teaching English without having been taught by a native English speaker and with materials that are quite inaccurate. As much as standards vary with volunteers ability to teach English, teaching in the system isn’t infallible either.
Secondly, I know personally teachers who have had to handle classes of 50+ children. I’d be surprised if anyone that taught classes of that size could tell me that they were all attentive and taking in the lessons. From what I told they weren’t and some just had to be left by the wayside in order to educate the majority.
So then surely there is a case there for an occasional volunteer there to allow the professionally qualified teacher to engage the whole class and to promote good spoken English.
I suspect another drawback of volunteering has become its credibility. There is a belief in the UK now that it is some kind of middle class rite of passage to travel the world and volunteer in a far away place. Due to the jobs market being so competitive, there is a chance that gap year travellers aren’t volunteering for the right reasons. Volunteering is after all about helping people in some way rather than helping yourself careerwise.
Despite the shortcomings I still believe there is a place for volunteers in poorer countries, but it would need to be in a structured environment under an established charity or NGO. They can’t be the sole teacher of English but they definitely have their benefits in supporting teachers. I feel that if people are willing to give up their time, and can be used effectively and legally to support a cause, then I don’t see why voluntourism can’t thrive.
(Please be aware that this relates to the school environment and not say orphanages or community projects. It is also open to debate as it is a divisive subject so please do comment.)