Monday, April 16, 2012

Volunteer Bel Ross reflects on her 4 weeks in Laos

When I resigned from my job of 12 years to take a 6 month break I decided to fulfil a secret dream I had of taking part in a volunteering program. I did my research first on volunteering companies and chose GVI based on the reviews and awards and then had to decide country and type of program. 

Bel teaching at Xayadeth College with Year 1
Teaching appealed to me and I found in Laos you could teach school and university students as well as novice monks. I had never considered visiting Laos but once I started reading about the culture I decided it would be a great experience.  I’ve travelled a lot but I have never spent more than a week in one location so decided four weeks would be perfect.

Two weeks before I left home I was sent a very comprehensive information pack and realised that in some classes volunteers were paired up to run a class and others it was assisting a Lao teacher. I was very nervous and spent a lot of time pre reading TEFL sites to get some understanding of lesson planning but I should not have worried. The first few day introduction sessions covered everything I needed to know or where to find the answers to what I didn’t. The only thing I wish I’d spent more time on is reminding myself of English grammar; it’s been 20 years since I left school. Common nouns, relative pronouns, prepositions - just to name a few.

Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos yet has a wonderful small town feel. You can walk around the main town centre in 30 minutes, that’s at Lao pace and very quickly you learn the word for hello, Sabaidee, as everyone greets you as you walk past.  

The program starts with a few hours intro both on the Saturday and Sunday before an early morning demonstration lesson on the Monday, and then by the Monday afternoon it’s straight into lessons. In my first week I had a mixture of classes and then by the second week I had my regular lessons and was absolutely loving it. I would start each morning with a Year 1 lesson for 18+ year old mainly university and working students. Then in the afternoon I would have one or two classes assisting a Lao teacher again with Year 1 students from ages of 10 years old and above. Then my day would end with a night lesson at Wat PasaViet teaching the Intermediate novice monks. There are many laughs in the classroom as students struggled with some of our strange English sounds like ch and sh. I found during my classes that the more I made the effort to learn Lao words the more receptive they were to my teaching.

On my first weekend the current volunteers organised a welcome dinner for us newbies which was a great opportunity to quickly meet everyone. The volunteers were a diverse group of people from all age groups, nationalities and reasons for choosing to be part of the program. I was looking forward to having some time to myself coming from a very full and loud house but quickly changed my mind and enjoyed dinner every night with other volunteers. They were a fantastic group of people and definitely made my trip even more enjoyable.

I had many highlights during my time in Luang Prabang, the biggest highlight was the wonderful sense of personal achievement in helping these students improve their English skills. There were many occasions in the project for me to learn about the individual students, their family, values and culture and it gave me such a great appreciation for what some have had to sacrifice to get an education.

Some other highlights during my time were two trips to a Hmong village to meet local kids that were having English lessons with a teacher from the main college we taught at; a day kayaking; a harrowing trip to the beautiful Kuangsi Waterfalls; being invited to a party for a newborn baby; a local dinner prepared by our guesthouse owners and another by the family from Xayadeth College; elephant riding; and one of my most special moments, giving alms to the novice monks from Wat PasaViet.

The four weeks I spent in Luang Prabang were very rewarding; I truly felt I was part of a program that is making a positive impact to many Lao students and novice monks. I feel very privileged that I was a small part of something that will continue for many years to come.