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Edited from an original article by Frank Seidel, with the author’s permission.

Frank Seidel has been involved in international volunteering since the early 90s and is the founder of the online portals for responsible volunteering, wegweiser-freiwilligenarbeit.com and guidisto-volontariat.fr.

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I am a defender of young people volunteering abroad, even if they don’t have any professional training or work experience. I think that it is a terrific opportunity for global learning that will benefit society in the long run.  I have seen many secondary school and university students do great work in their volunteering projects. I also know that host projects in Africa, Asia or Latin America do want these volunteers.

There are a significant number of critics who argue that only people with hard skills should volunteer abroad. Their reasoning is along the lines of: “Imagine a secondary school graduate from Cambodia without teaching experience coming into a school in Germany (France, UK, US or wherever) and teaching English to your kids. Of course, we wouldn’t allow it here, so it shouldn’t be possible there.”

Well, I recently came across an announcement that is a great illustration why this argument is seriously flawed. I will show that even inexperienced volunteers can contribute to teaching English in developing countries and that local leaders need to determine what level of volunteer skill is appropriate to meet their need and their budget.

Want to help somebody? Shut up and listen

The above announcement calls on people who already work as English teachers in Cambodia to participate in language classes to improve their English. (More on the reason why below.)

How is this possible, you ask? Aren’t all the local Cambodian English teachers well trained educators, like the foreign language teachers in my home country?  Well, surprise! The educational system in Cambodia (or in Ghana or in Peru) is not the same as in Germany / France / the UK etc., and subsequently the problems and the solutions are not the same.

It seems common sense that a reasonable policy in Europe or other wealthy countries might not be feasible in Cambodia. Likewise, something that provides positive results in Cambodia, might be inappropriate in the global North. Sadly, development projects by Western development experts have failed again and again exactly because they tried to implement the recipes for success of the global North unchanged. A very entertaining introduction to this issue are the first minutes of the TED talk “Want to help somebody? Shut up and listen!”.

Of English teachers that don’t speak English

The Angkor Tree Project, runs the teacher training above to support a small education project in one of the poorest suburbs of Siem Reap in Cambodia. It demonstrates why English classes for English teachers make sense in Cambodia:

  • Teacher scarcity, poor professional performance of teachers, poor teaching skills.
  • Less than a quarter of primary school teachers hold an upper secondary degree. About one third even does not hold a lower secondary school degree.
  • Teaching methods are rather old-fashioned. Methods like classroom drill, endless repeating of the same sentence …
  • Extremely high teacher-student ratio at around 50:1 in primary schools.
  • Teacher absenteeism: Approximately 15.6 % of teachers were absent on the day of a surprise visit and the availability of teacher substitutes is rare.

And most importantly in our context: “English teachers mostly lack a minimum proficiency in English.”

The argument that children should only be taught by qualified local English teachers doesn’t hold, because the reality is that there are not enough of them. Low teacher pay does nothing to attract more either. And let’s remember that even in Europe teachers find themselves leading a class without significant prior experience. In Berlin for example, more than 60% of the newly employed teachers in 2018 didn’t have regular teacher training. Many only had a two weeks crash course before being assigned their classes.

It’s a worldwide problem.

The situation in Cambodia is far from being exceptional in the developing world. When I visited teaching volunteering projects in Peru and Thailand many local English teachers were unable to hold a basic conversation in English. In Ghana (an English-speaking country), local French teachers I met were unable to speak French with me.

The language teaching I observed was often based on memorising sentences and repeating them with the whole class. Not surprisingly, the language skills of the pupils were not better than their teachers’.

Local foreign language teachers with appropriate skills are lured with better salaries into private schools, affordable only for the countries’ rich middle and upper class. State schools therefore have to find other solutions to improve the quality of their education, hampered by limited budgets. Local school directors might consider that language classes supported by an 18-year old Westerner with good English skills  and some teaching ability, can improve the situation.

I haven’t met anybody who sees this as an ideal solution, and I am sure the school directors would be thrilled to have well qualified, local teaching staff to fill the void. But in most cases, they do not have the choice.  It would also be unfair to blame the school directors, the volunteers or the volunteer organisations for the insufficiencies of a country’s educational system.

Not all volunteering projects are created equal

Let me stress that I say inexperienced volunteers CAN do valuable work. Not that inexperienced volunteers ALWAYS do valuable work.

A successful volunteering program needs amongst other things

  • a learning mindset by the volunteer as opposed to a white-saviour mindset
  • proper supervision of the volunteers and guidance by local staff,
  • tasks that match the volunteer’s capacities,
  • involvement of the host project in deciding the minimum qualification and the volunteer’s tasks.

Unfortunately, many volunteer programs do not match these criteria. However, examples on the volunteer portals I have founded (wegweiser-freiwilligenarbeit.comguidisto-volontariat.fr) prove that teaching projects can make successful use of volunteers who have a good level of English and of course, enthusiasm.

Teaching projects where volunteers without teaching experience can contribute include

  • extra-curricular conversational language courses
  • assisting local teachers and enable them to give more attention to the individual child (remember the 50:1 ratio in an average Cambodian class?)
  • assisting qualified local staff in teacher training programs

The above issues lead me to conclude that local school directors should be able to make their own choices and the tasks that volunteers perform abroad, must be considered differently than comparable tasks in their home country.

Different host projects will require different numbers of volunteers

The Angkor Tree Project has made the choice to work only with professionally skilled volunteers. So in our portals’ internal rating system, they score additional points because their teacher training aims to eradicate the root problem of too few local teachers that speak English. I can only applaud this best-of-class approach.

At the same time, less ambitious schools and volunteering projects must not be dismissed as inappropriate. It’s important we listen to the local school director to understand their needs, including accepting volunteers with little teaching experience. A volunteer organisation’s expertise can then help to safeguard all those involved and ensure the volunteers are appropriately supported.

Another frequently overlooked aspect of the volunteer discussion is the number of volunteers desired by a project versus the number of volunteers that can be provided by a volunteer sending organisation. We have spoken to volunteer organisations of all shapes and sizes, big and small, organisations that are open to inexperienced volunteers and those that  only choose volunteers with professional skills.

What we’ve seen time after time is that volunteer sending organisations that specialise in skilled volunteering have many fewer volunteer numbers. So few that a volunteer organisation which accepts inexperienced volunteers, might place more volunteers in a week, than the skilled volunteering organisation provides in a year.

A difficult choice

Of course, host projects would like to have  volunteer positions filled with skilled volunteers. Realistically, they are faced with a trade-off: either a steady flow of volunteers with mixed profiles (including inexperienced volunteers) or a much lower number of ideally skilled volunteers.  Some schools will choose the “many volunteers” option, while others will choose the “few skilled volunteers” option. Both options have their pros and cons, and are legitimate choices.

In this regard, schools in the developing world are not different than educational authorities in Europe. Faced with a lack of teachers, the local school administration in the German region of Berlin decided in 2018 to fill the vacant positions with candidates who didn’t have regular teacher training. While other German regions such as Bremen or Saxony didn’t want to lower the qualification bar… and had to leave hundreds of vacancies open, the local authorities decided that: “Every filled position is better than an unfilled position.”

Conclusion

Doing what was successful in our home country to solve the problems in the developing world has frequently turned out to be a recipe for failure. The educational system in Cambodia for example is very different from central European educational systems. Subsequently, the solutions to improve the system might be very different.

Likewise, it is futile to measure volunteering programs in Africa, Asia or Latin America with a stick that is calibrated for Europe. In many cases it simply ignores the local situation and raises the bar so high that it becomes impossible to find enough volunteers to meet the needs of local host projects.

So, provided with appropriate supervision and guidance by local staff, in a responsible volunteering program, even inexperienced volunteers can make valuable contributions.

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