This is a guest post from educator, volunteer coordinator and volunteer Jane Carpenter, on how she found the Learning Service book useful when reflecting on her own experience.
Learning Service is a brilliant, thought-provoking and practical book which gently guides the reader through the theory, history and practice of volunteering overseas. Whatever your previous knowledge or experience of volunteering you will likely unlearn and shift in some aspect of your thinking about the best approach to service to others through reading this book.
The structure gives deep consideration given to the thorough research and preparation needed before undertaking a volunteer placement, as well as every step of the way that follows. The focus on a humble approach is embedded in the style and tone of the book and, despite the vast wealth of knowledge and experience being shared within, the tone is always informed but reflective rather than preachy.
Through many years working as a volunteer coordinator, in a development and environment education centre, and being exposed to many volunteers with experience of volunteering overseas, I thought I was familiar with much of what is considered best practice in this field. But this book gently made me dig deeper and reconsider my own experience last year of a brief stint in a Mayan community secondary school in Guatemala. I organised the placement via a work exchange website but a lack of any real communication between the school management and myself had meant that my plan to offer skills as a teacher trainer (an exchange of professional development methodologies with the school teachers) was not clearly understood: In fact the email had not even been read! Instead I was drafted in to be a classroom English teacher.
Despite being a qualified and very experienced English as an additional language teacher, I felt uncomfortable with the way the placement was arranged. Little attention was paid to sustainability, with students being taught by a series of different teachers from all over the world usually changing every few weeks, many of them with no teaching qualification or experience. The students had never been taught English in English before and this methodology met with some resistance. I did adapt and use some Spanish but the discovery that a few indigenous students were not fluent and that my own Spanish was better than theirs, came as a surprise. The fact that this had not been communicated to me was not ideal. I’d like to think that some progress was made but motivation and discipline in some students was really lacking which made the teaching experience a challenging and not very enjoyable one.
This book enabled me to think more deeply about the needs of my learners and to get clarity over questions like; “Do these young people really need to be learning English?”, “Would it not benefit some of them to focus on improving their literacy skills in Spanish?”, “How many of these learners will actually use English in their lifetime?” “How will the knowledge of English benefit their wider community?”, “Wouldn’t a committed native and qualified Guatemalan English teacher be much better placed to teach these students over a longer period?”
But the tone of the book, and in particular the section on cultural sensitivity, with its focus on humility and openness to constantly learning also made me reflect more deeply on some of my behaviour and attitudes. Was I as flexible and imaginative as I might have been? Was as I sensitive as I could have been regarding cultural mores around drinking alcohol? Did I represent my students and their lifestyles as sensitively as I could in my sharing on social media at the end of my placement or did I allow my frustration with the nature of my role there creep through? I now see how it could have been more respectful.
I’ll be recommending this guide to everyone I know, young and old, who is considering volunteering abroad. We all have something to teach, but more importantly, we all have something to learn and this guide is a huge contribution to making the world a better place through the right listening and learning approach; humility, an open mind and an openhearted attitude. This kind of lifelong learning approach can benefit us all, not just in volunteering but in life and relationships in general.
Jane Carpenter is based in Cambridge, England where she works both as an educator in global citizenship and a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language during school holidays. Part of the Extinction Rebellion movement and a former Green Party candidate for local council she is deeply committed to the environment and social justice. She recently spent nine months working and travelling in South America and three months in Guatemala. She loves nature, travelling, swimming and dancing among many other things! The main photo shows a landscape view of Guatemala.