Volunteering - one man's charity's another man's business.
I've done nothing much today except sit around the coffee shop, checking e-mail and surfing the net.
I'm currently looking for a volunteer job in Thailand. It's not that difficult... if you have money. Google 'volunteer' and 'Thailand' and there are a whole host of organisations ready to take a couple of hundred quid, sometimes much more than that off you in return for allowing you to 'help' in a school or with a nature or sustainable development project upcountry.
Volunteering in Thailand's becoming big business back home. More and more people with office jobs, taking a long holiday or a year out to travel want to make sure that they do something 'worthwhile' on their journey too. 2 or 3 hundred pounds is peanuts to someone earning a western salary. And, for that money, someone will organise a month long teaching placement upcountry, with food and board. There's usually a few Thai langauge lessons, and trips to nearby monuments or national parks thrown in too. For a chance to see 'real' rural life here, something most backpackers claim to want, and for the opportuntity to feel like they're actually helping someone, giving something back to the country they're travelling in as they jaunt around the world, its a bargain.
But, I can't help wondering how much volunteers actually 'help' the people they're meant to. If they're in a school, after a month the children would have just about got used to their new teacher's strange foreign accent and unconventional (to them) teaching style. Then she or he disappears. Then they get another one. Someone new to have to try and understand. Then another... Then yet another.
When foreigners teach as volunteers they normally tend to play games and do fun speaking activities, usually ones that allow the students to introduce and talk about themselves. They normally teach the whole school, taking every class once or twice during their placement. So the children learn how to say their name, how old they are and where they're from, repeatedly, but very little else besides. The teachers fool around, joke and have fun with the kids. The foreign teacher gets seen as a novelty, a class clown. They're not taken seriously.
Volunteer teachers can help with lesson planning and curriculum development. They can also try and act as role models for the regular Thai teaching staff too. The idea behind this being that western teaching methods, focussing on the 'communciative' approach to language teaching (emphasising conversation and fluency rather than grammatically correct sentences or perfect pronunciation) give the children more of an opportunity to practise using English, than a typical Thai teacher's 'listen, repeat, then I'll explain it all again in Thai anyway...' approach. If a foreign volunteer can sucessfully demonstate that teaching solely in English and encouraging the kids to speak isn't too difficult or time consuming, in terms of preperation etc, and that the students are motivated by the speaking activities, are enthusiastic and work well in class, maybe the Thai teacher will develop the courage to try and teach this way too.
Volunteers can help increase the Thai staff's confidence speaking English, by giving them someone to practise with at lunchtimes, or in the evenings. They also have a role to play in encouraging the Thai staff to use more English, and less Thai in their classrooms.
Sounds great in theory but, in practise ??? When some Prathom English teachers upcountry can barely speak English, I wonder how they can communciate with their volunteer, and explain exactly what they would like help with.
Why am I so negative about this ? Because I've been one. A year ago, I spent a month in Korat province, working as a volunteer teacher in a school in Chokchai. The school was part of Taksin's Dream School project. The idea behind this being to set up a centre of excellence in every area of the country. Poor, but bright kids upcountry would have the opportunity to recieve an education on par with the better government schools in Bangkok.
Matayom (secondary school) students studied English for 3 periods each week. I taught most classes twice. Having no idea what Thai teenagers are normally interested in, I based my lessons around an animal theme. The lower Matayom students worked in groups to solve a puzzle. They labelled zoo animals then prepared a few sentences about their favourite animal, answering questions like... What is it ? What does it have ? What can it do ? Why do you like it ? The sort of thing the Prathom (primary school) kids I teach now would find very easy. The upper level ones simulated a pet shop. The shop keepers had to sell a pet. The customers had to collect information about each of the animals on sale and then decide which one they would like to buy.
I had fun meeting the students. Most seemed to have fun doing the activities. A couple played on their mobile phones and a few fell asleep at the back but I'm told that the Matayom students at my current school do this too. It's pretty normal for the weaker students in the class to show no interest in what they are supposed to be doing. As long as they're not being disruptive (calling other students over to look at pictures etc..) they're normally left alone.
I, along with another volunteer also taught a special after school English class, aimed at the more advanced students. I really enjoyed this. The students were lively, full of ideas and great to talk to. It was amazing to see how their confidence improved during the course. If there was one thing that made the placement worthwhile it was probably those 20 or so students. Some aspired to get places at Chula, Mahidol and Thammarsaat, some of the best universities in the country. Compared to kids in Bangkok, who parents can easily pay for private lessons or send their kids to weekend, entrance exam cram schools, these kids were definitely at a disadvantage. I really hope they suceeded.
I loved teaching upcountry. I was very nervous at first and spoke too fast, a fatal mistake, as the students lose interest the minute that they can't understand you. But, as the month went on I relaxed, slowed down and, I think, improved a lot.
I learnt a lot in my month there. In Bangkok I have the freedom to do as I please. In Chokchai, a foreign teacher, and a girl at that is equivalent to an alien, someone to be stared at and talked about. Because of this, I was expected to be some kind of role model, a perfect citizen. I had to be polite and well behaved at all times. No super short shorts, no late night karaoke bars or watching the football at 2am in the morning. Apparently 'good' teachers are supposed to have a proper nights sleep, don't snog the men that they like in public, and don't drink excessively.
Because the people in Chokchai saw me as this wierd, alien like figure. everyone in the town seemed to know where I'd been, what I'd eaten, and what, if anything, I'd been up to. One evening, after school, I brought a can of Leo beer from a local shop. The next day, several people in the town asked me if I liked beer, then told me, in Thai, that the foreigner was a drunkard. The next time I faniced a drink, I went to Korat.
Life slows down upcountry. People are more laid back and friendlier. I chilled out a lot. My room had no TV. After school there was nothing much to do except walk round the market or the pond, listen to the radio or read a book. There was one internet cafe in the town but, with teenage kids wanting to play the latest shoot-em-up, there was no way the owner was going to loose his street cred, and most of his customers by letting the foreign teacher come in too. The 1st week I felt quite lonely and isolated. The next, unbelieveably relaxed.
I got to know the Thai staff a bit. They took me to see the Khmer ruins near Buriram and at Pee Mai, invited me to play badminton with them, to go to the night market and to their houses, so that I could try and learn how to cook. I liked them a lot. They were all very friendly.
But, there was still a big gap between us. I already knew, from the office job I'd had before that this would never change. The Thai teachers spent their lunch hours talking in Thai. Both Ron (the other foreign volunteer) and I were often gossipped about. No one ever said anything but, maybe some of them resented the fact that they had to pay for our food (and the 2 of us ate a lot - their lunches were fantastic) out of their own meagre salaries. Maybe the fact that we could both afford to waste a month bumming in their province, at their school's expense, or, the fact that we only had to teach 15 or so hours a week, whilst they taught almost 20, and had to find time to help us too, were also bones for contention.
Despite these niggles, overall, it was a great experience. By the end of the month, I didn't want to leave or go back to Bangkok. I learnt so much. My Thai improved loads (as it was all I'd heard - though after a year at an 'english only' school in BKK it's since gone downhill again...) I'd become a fan of Seth Loso (as his song '14 again' seemed to be played almost everywhere) and Carabao (as it was impossible to take the local bus to Korat and not hear at least one of their songs.) I'd learnt how to cook green curry, and fried veg. I'd made some good friends, who I still MSN and try and stay in touch with. I'd also met some incredibly friendly and generous people, who went out of their way to explain things to me, and taught me so much. There are too many examples to mention. Here's a few... Tthe old ladies in the market who used to insist that I tried their food before I brought it, the potter in Dan Kweeyan who, when I accidently left my purse in his workshop didn't feel tempted to take a penny, the housekeeper in the block where we stayed who let me practise my Thai on her every evening, the monk who told me a couple of Thai ghost stories, and who explained all about Korat's Khao Pensah candle carving contest before showing me Chokchai's winning candle. The one he was in the process of pulling to pieces when I walked by.
But what did the students get ? Sure, the ones smart enough to be invited to the special English class benefitted a lot. But the others ? Not that much really. 2 lessons with a foreigner they could barely understand. What about the teachers ? The only thing I can see that they got out of it was a lot of hassle. They had to find a place for the two of us to stay, buy our food, speak English to us all day, everyday, plus help us plan our lessons on top of their own, already heavy workload. The had to spend some of their evenings entertaining us, taking us to the Korean style BBQ restraunt down the road or to the weekly night market, held in a field a kilometer or so away.
I sometimes wonder whether it was a fair exchange. Is any help, no matter how small, or how much extra work it generates, better than none at all? I'd like to believe that that's the case. But sometimes, I'm not sure. In a month, there's very little that someone can do to help. But give someone two or three months and, if they fit into the group that they're working with (and as far as working with Thai people goes, this point is crucial), if they can say and do the right things and stay clear of the petty squabbling, gossip and bickering that goes on, then they will definitely stand a good chance of making things happen.. If not? well they'll probably sit alone and be stared at, laughed at and ignored until the day that they leave.
Maybe the shools get more benefit from the donations that the organisations supplying the volunteer teachers make to them, than from the teachers themselves. Maybe volunteer teaching is just another form of eco-tourism. The programs seem more about educating and helping farangs, giving them the impression, the experience and the feeling of 'helping' and doing something good that they really want, than actually helping the schools. Most volunteers stay a month or two. Few stay for a term. Even fewer for a whole school year. If the teachers are attached to a volunteering organisation, the longer they stay, the more expensive it becomes. Most volunteers want to travel around. They get a quick gilmpse or feel for a place and then move on. They're always looking for and wanting to see something new, something different. They have planes to catch, itineries to stick to. They've not planned to hang around in the long term.
When I'm questioning who really benefits from farang volunteers, how come I'm looking for volunteer job again? Good question. I'm a farang. I guess I want the same things the other farangs do too. To travel, see more of rural Thailand, yet feel like I am helping someone (and not just staying in a place for a few days to see the temple, go to the waterfall and tick it off on some list as done) at the same time. The only difference is, that I don't see why I should have to pay a lot of money to do it. Without wanting to sound too arrogant, having taught English in a Thai private school in Bangkok for a year now, I'd like to believe that I'm in a much better position to try and 'give something back' as we farangs like to say, than I was at this time last year.
My Thai has improved. I know a lot more about how to teach English, how to plan lessons, organise my classroom and what activies work well with my kids. I understand more about how the Thai administration works, how petty jealousies often override logic, how the Thai staff believe that there is a big gap between 'us' and 'them' and how they will always think badly of us foriegners, however much effort we make to be civil with them and however hard we work. I can distance myself from it and I don't let it get to me.
I'm looking for a job that starts next January and lasts until the end of term. Having just spent a year in Bangkok, I'd like to be somewhere upcountry, preferably near the mountains in the north (Naan, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son ???) or the coast in the south (Surat, Krabi, Trang, Satun ???) If I find a good job, and by 'good' I mean challenging and interesting; something that I like... If I feel that I could fit in with, and make a good contribution to the team, there's every chance that I'd stay there for the next year too.
So far, I've seen lots. But, they're all with 'volunteer organisations.' As I read through them, and see the cost (some up to 700 pounds for a month long placement) I'm starting to think that 'organisation' is the wrong word. It should be volunteer 'business.' As that's what these places seem to be. For 'charities' they seem to have very high admin, marketing and general office costs. I still can't manage to work out how it would cost 700 pounds (around 47,000 baht) to put a western volunteer teacher in a poor rural school upcountry for one month. Someone, somewhere is making a big profit from the volunteer industry, and I doubt that it's the schools.
So far the programs I've looked at - i-to-i, dragonfly, travel to teach, thai experiences abroad all come at a cost. Quite a large one at that. One that, at the moment I'm not willing to pay.
|Create Date : 20 ตุลาคม 2550
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