“Volunteering is like a box of chocolates…

Forrest Gump

… you never know what you’re gonna get!” Forrest Gump’s philosophy of life applies equally well to volunteering. For an example, compare my stay at ChangXing Island Primary School in 2008 with that of volunteer Silje in 2010. As I mentioned in a previous post, Jessie had told me that Silje had expressed dissatisfaction with her assignment at the school. Having worked as the Xu Bo webmaster for almost two years, I wasn’t surprised to hear this kind of thing. Jessie and her team try hard to make both the school and the volunteer happy but it’s not always easy to do, given the wide diversity in both schools and volunteers. Schools participating in the program range from pre-schools to universities, are located in urban or rural settings, may be public or private, and have varying budgets. They also differ dramatically in how they use volunteers: some allow the volunteer to develop their own lessons and others ask them to follow the prescribed curriculum using their textbooks. Some ask volunteers to teach as few as 7 to 8 classes per week while others assign as many as 20 to 25 classes every week. Some are good about helping the volunteer develop and deliver lessons while others are not.

Of course, volunteers differ dramatically also. They come from many different countries, are sponsored by many different international volunteer organizations , and range in age from high-school to retirement. Some have teaching experience but most do not. Most significantly, they all have their own set of expectations and, since they are volunteering (and actually paying to volunteer,) they feel entitled to having those expectations fulfilled.

Volunteer Company Logo

Given this diversity it’s really not surprising there are occasional problems. However, considering the number of placements Xu Bo makes, the incidence is remarkably low.

During orientation, Jessie’s team makes clear to every new volunteer the professional obligations that come along with volunteering. Yet, occasionally, a volunteer will behave in a way that leads to a complaint from the school. Complaints we’ve received in the past include volunteer tardiness/absenteeism, dress code violations (e.g. bare midriff, facial jewelry, etc.) and violation of school dorm curfews or guest visitation rules. Jessie and her team immediately bring these issues to the attention of the volunteer and try to impress on them the need to conform to their school’s rules and regulations. In a few rare cases, volunteers have failed to heed these warnings and have actually been dismissed from the program. When this happens, there is a negotiation between Xu Bo and the volunteer’s parent organization to determine whether the volunteer should get a portion of their program fee back (a typical fee for a 4-week volunteer assignment in China is about $1,000.)

It’s much more common for a complaint to come from a volunteer than from a school. Complaints most often center on dissatisfaction with living accomodations and/or the absence of things to do in the area. Sometimes, a volunteer feels lonely and/or neglected. All of these complaints must be addressed individually, according to the local situation. Sometimes a call to the school can raise their awareness of something that can be done to improve the volunteer’s experience. Other times a volunteer can be moved to a different school/location which is more to their liking.

As I mentioned before, Silje’s case was that she was unhappy at the school. I didn’t know the details of her unhappiness and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to. I certainly didn’t want to be in the middle if there was any dispute between her and and my volunteer company. I knew she was young and this might be another instance of volunteer immaturity but I also knew that her complaints might be well-founded. Even though I had a wonderful time at the school in 2008, I had seen warning signs that a volunteer might get “lost” there. And, feedback from volunteers who have worked there after me made me wonder if the school’s interest in foreign volunteers might be waning. So, for the three days we spent at the school together, I just tried to lay back and get to know Silje, and the situation, better.

I quickly noticed that several of Silje’s classes were difficult. In one class, I watched her trying unsuccessfully to be heard over the din while the regular teacher sat in the rear of the room grading homework papers, periodically screaming at the class when the noise level became unbearable. I felt a little angry with the regular teacher who I thought should be doing more to make the kids listen to the volunteer. Like most volunteers, Silje is not an experienced teacher and in this situation, we really count on the regular teacher to help us, particularly if the class isn’t listening. But as I got more exposure to the first graders, through watching Silje and then teaching them myself, I came to realize that these kids are difficult to manage – even for the regular teachers!

First-graders: cute but difficult

Ranging in age between 6 and 7, these kids have short attention spans and are easily excitable. A significant part of their curriculum is just teaching them how to behave in school. Most of them are only-children which means they are probably used to having their own way at home.

To her credit, Silje kept trying her best to make her teaching more effective. She came up with a wonderful vocabulary game that got the kids out of the classroom and had them happily running around the school grounds. The video below shows how successful the game was with one of Ms. Qin’s third-grade classes. You’ll notice many of the kids were still wearing their winter uniforms and got quite overheated by the end of the class, but you can see they had a great time… even though they had trouble remembering the difference between “tree” and “bush” 🙂

Video: Silje’s Vocabulary Game

Silje was wise enough to offer this game only to grades 2 through 4 – if she had tried it with a first grade class we might still be looking for some of the kids. You may have noticed some “popping” noises in the background. These are firecrackers and they can be heard just about any time of day. They are used for special occasions like weddings, anniversarys, store or restaurant openings, etc. After a while, you get used to them and don’t even notice. You may have also noticed how the teacher, Ms. Qin, helped Silje handle the kids. Ms. Qin is one of the teachers who maintain tight discipline in the classroom and you can count on her to help you (unless you show up in the wrong room as I did once in 2008, and she cannot find you :-).)

Lilly Wang, 2nd Grade Teacher

Another teacher who maintains strict discipline is Lilly Wang (right) and teaching her class is a volunteer’s dream. She is one of those teachers who seem to have an almost magical control over the kids. She never yells at them but when they get loud, or are not paying attention, a few appropriate words in a gentle but firm tone from her will quiet them immediately. When a student (usually a boy) seems to be out of control she can grasp a shoulder and firmly guide him back to his seat or to a corner for a quick discussion which usually has the desired effect. As a novice teacher this kind of control is amazing to behold. It’s what you hope to achieve, but you learn that it’s a rare skill, even among the professionals. And her control is not based on fear. I’ve seen enough classrooms to be able to tell when the kids are afraid of the teacher and this isn’t the case with Lilly. She just has a real knack for commanding their attention and respect. She also is highly aware that the kids may not automatically extend this respect to a volunteer and makes a point to have her kids start and end every class by showing respect and appreciation for the volunteer. As soon as the bell rings, she has the kids stand and recite together something like “Welcome Silje/John… it’s nice to see you!” And, at the end of the class, she has them stand and thank the volunteer.

In the video below, Silje is teaching Lilly’s class the vocabulary game. When you watch it, notice how actively Lilly is engaged in helping Silje. The way she helps control the kids while, at the same time, helping the novice teacher provides a wonderful demonstration of how a foreign volunteer can best be used in the Chinese classroom.

Video: Lilly Helping Silje

Each lesson I saw Silje teach was her last one with that class. She thanked the kids for listening and introduced me as the volunteer who would be their teacher next week. Although it had been a difficult four weeks at the school, by the end, I think she was genuinely enjoying herself. The video below shows the pop-star send-off the kids gave her: offering hand-shakes, hugs, and gifts, and swarming all over her for autographs.

Video: Silje Saying Goodbye

On Friday afternoon, I accompanied Silje to the bus station when she left the school in mid-afternoon. By this time, I had gotten to know her a little better and I knew that she was a nice, responsible, hard-working young lady with a good heart. During our final time together, she shared with me a little about why she had been unhappy earlier but I didn’t really learn the whole story until she sent me an email after arriving home in Norway in July.

When she arrived at the school in April, she was given a couple of days to sit in and watch the regular teachers’ lessons. Since they wanted her to deliver the the oral English lesson for all kids in grade one through four, I’m sure that what she saw differed dramatically from one class to the next and was probably a little confusing. Like all of us, she was anxious to develop meaningful lessons but uncertain about what the content of those lessons should be. Officially, Carol Liu, the head English teacher, was Silje’s advisor. But Carol was very busy with her combined administrative and teaching duties and appointed another young teacher (who was also very busy) to help with day-to-day issues and questions. When Silje tried to get some guidance on what her lessons should be, she didn’t get much help.

One of my Powerpoint Slides

I wasn’t too surprised to hear this because ChangXing Primary always asks volunteers to develop their own lessons. In 2008, only my advisor, Karen Yin, provided me any guidance in developing my lessons, by suggesting a topic that might complement what the kids were learning in their other (non-oral) English classes. And she could really only help me with the 4th-grade lessons: I was on my own for the second grade lessons. I remember not liking this situation very much, since I didn’t think I had the experience or knowledge needed to develop a good lesson completely on my own. I particularly didn’t like it when my lesson didn’t go very well, which happened often in the early weeks. So, this aspect of Silje’s frustration is tied to the school’s policy of asking the volunteer to develop lessons with little or no guidance. It becomes an even greater problem when the volunteer is asked to teach four different grade levels. It’s hard enough to develop a good lesson for any one level.

Another thing that surprised and frustrated Silje was that, several times, she was told that she wasn’t needed for a particular class on a particular day because the regular teacher would be handling it. A couple of times the message came to her through Carol earlier in the day of the lesson but, more often, she was told by the classroom teacher when she showed up to teach. While last-minute schedule changes are not unusual in Chinese schools, this haphazard manner of using volunteers seems a little disrespectful. It never happened to me in 2008 but it happened 2 or 3 times during my 2010 stay.

Silje’s greatest disappointment was that she didn’t feel like the school made much effort to make her feel welcome. In 2008, when Monica (Holland volunteer) and I arrived at ChangXing Primary school we were immediately taken to the headmaster’s office, where we were warmly greeted by the headmaster and our teaching advisors, in my case Karen Yin. After briefly discussing the proposed teaching assignments/schedule, Karen took me to my office, where I was introduced to several other teachers. On the first evening, Monica and I were the guests of honor at a banquet at a local restaurant. Our teaching advisors, the headmaster, and several other administrative staff attended the banquet and there was much fanfare welcoming us to the school.

Silje’s experience was very different. She was never introduced to the headmaster and only met a few people in her office. They told her it wasn’t safe for her to walk around the island after dark and that there was really nothing to do, anyway. Since the island is at least an hour bus-ride away from Shanghai, Silje couldn’t get together with other area volunteers until the weekend, so she spent weeknights alone in her dorm room. The school never did anything to welcome her or to include her in any after-school activities. Like most of us who decide to volunteer, Silje wanted to learn more about the Chinese people and culture. Her Norwegian volunteer organization (Atlantis) had told her that the school would take good care of the volunteers and have some social activities for them. While Jessie and her team strongly encourage the schools to do this, it is not a requirement. Silje compared notes with fellow Shanghai area volunteers who were having more contact with their Chinese counterparts and felt a little cheated. The social isolation just made the frustration in the classroom harder to take. She just didn’t feel very welcomed by the school.

My Thoughts

My main purpose in writing in such detail about Silje’s unhappiness at ChangXing Primary is to point out how very different the volunteering experience can be from one occasion to the next, even at the same school. But, I also hope some of my friends at ChangXing Primary will read this and take away something useful. I have very high regard for so many people at the school but I think their volunteer program needs attention.

Not every school in China wants foreign volunteers. The headmaster at ChangXing Primary is one of the progressive, open-minded school administrators who have welcomed new ideas into his school. But I think he needs to make more of a personal commitment to the program. He should personally greet and thank every volunteer (he doesn’t speak English but this could be done through an interpreter) and he should ensure that no volunteer is spending every evening alone in their school dorm room. It’s not necessary to hold welcoming and goodbye banquets for every volunteer, but the school should make a point to do something to help each volunteer feel more connected to the school and/or local community.

Even at schools that do invite volunteers, not every teacher will be enthusiastic about it. I’m sure that it takes patience for a teacher to host a string of untrained novices in their classroom to try their hand at teaching. Most of us volunteers aren’t very good teachers (at least at first) and we really need their guidance and support. When I worked as a software developer I remember how much I hated learning that I would have a summer intern to help me. I knew that I would need to dedicate time to help them get up to speed and that they probably wouldn’t be there long enough to really help me with my workload. Teachers in China are under a lot of pressure to ensure their students pass standardized tests given at the end of the year and the class time given over to volunteers is probably not productive toward that goal. So, I can certainly understand why not every teacher is thrilled about hosting a volunteer in their classroom.

Mianyang 7th-graders happy to meet me

If you ask the students, they would probably all say they love having the volunteers. Undoubtedly, this is partly because we are less strict and we don’t tend to give any homework or tests. But another reason is that volunteers usually try to make their lessons fun, incorporating music and/or games whenever possible. This is a teaching style that is still new in China and forward-thinking educators are keen to integrate successful western-style methods into the Chinese curriculum. In my opinion, the lessons offered by volunteers have a minimal direct effect on English proficiency. The real value is indirect, in the form of encouraging the kids to become more interested in, and work harder at, English. Especially in more remote locations like ChangXing Island and Mianyang, the excitement the kids show when speaking English to the foreign volunteer is palpable. So many of them truly enjoy meeting someone from half way around the world and have a genuine interest in getting to know more about us and our cultures.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I believe in the value of this program: it is a true joy to be part of it. We are doing a lot more than helping people to learn English. We’re making personal connections between people across the globe, breaking down stereotypes and helping people understand and respect different ways of thinking and being. We need committed educators to help keep the program alive by making a personal commitment to its importance. When local teachers understand that their leaders are behind them, it will be easier for them to do the hard work necessary to make the program successful.

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