Nearly 1 million people and an entire generation of teachers died as a result of the Genocide in 1994 leaving huge gaps in the education system which still exist today. Since 1999, VSO has been placing skilled and experienced education volunteers from across the globe to work with the Rwandan government and education partners to improve the quality of education. Michelle Dully is a primary school teacher from Co. Meath in Ireland and spent a year working as a Teaching Methodology Advisor in Muhanga District. Working in 15 schools, across three districts, with over 30 teachers, Michelle is sharing her teaching skills to improve the quality of education for Rwandan children.
Why did you decide to volunteer?
Volunteering is something that I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I was a child. It’s something that is considered important in my family. After teaching for a number of years, I felt that now was the right time for me to do it because I had the opportunity to take a career break.
Why did you pick VSO?
A few years ago I visited a friend who was on a VSO placement in Rwanda. While staying with her for six weeks, I saw the life of a VSO volunteer; I saw the work that they do and felt that type of volunteer role would suit me and my skills.
What are the challenges in education in Rwanda?
Rwanda lost an entire generation of teachers as a result of the Genocide in 1994. Many local people stepped in to ensure that the school system kept functioning but these teachers have received very little training. They haven’t experienced teaching using learner centred methods. Quite often it is just teachers using the traditional ‘Chalk and Talk’ at the blackboard.
What are you doing in Rwanda?
Volunteers could go into classrooms and teach children but this wouldn’t be sustainable. Instead, I work alongside and train Rwandan teachers in modern teaching methodology. Simple things make a difference like emphasising the importance of using a child’s name or adapting the classroom to make children with disabilities feel welcome and included.. We focus on putting the child at the centre of the classroom.
Training and mentoring local teachers involves two aspects: first I deliver training workshops to a large number of teachers from across the district and then I follow up with visits to the classroom, so we learn together about best practice. I also provide the teachers with advice when they need it, which seems to work well.
Why is long-term volunteering important?
A longer term placement is important because you get to work with the same people over a long period of time; you build positive working relationships and trust; you can see progress being made and the local teachers start to see you as a trusted friend. However, significant change takes time come to fruition.
What have been the highlights?
The highlights are things that I would have considered to be small things in Ireland before I came to Rwanda. Now it’s as simple as observing one teacher, who didn’t have a lot of confidence at the beginning, deliver a workshop to colleagues on her own. For me, as a professional, having worked with her and prepared her for this and then seeing her facilitate the workshop made it all worthwhile.
What would success look like to you?
The ultimate success would be every Rwandan child receiving a quality education. This will take a long time though. Specifically for me, I’m trying to improve the skills of the teachers I work with.
I would hope that if I came back to visit my district in 10 years time that I would be returning as a visitor and not as a volunteer. This would mean that the teachers and the head teacher have implemented all of the changes and kept the structures in place in order for the school to function effectively.
What have you learned to live without?
Something I’ve learnt to live without in Rwanda is easy access to a hot shower. Now, it’s a luxury. I don’t see it as a necessity but when I do have access to one I really enjoy it!
How has living in Rwanda changed you?
Living and working in Rwanda has taught me to be more patient, more relaxed about time-keeping and to just let some things go. I have definitely become more easy going. In Rwanda, people concentrate more on the quality of relationships. Now I see the importance of taking the time to greet people and develop personal relationships rather than sticking to a scheduled meeting.
Professionally, I’ve developed many more skills as a result of volunteering with VSO. Before my placement, I always felt very confident working with children but never would have considered being able to train or work with adults. This is something that I now feel very confident doing. I enjoy it and I think that when I go home I’d be happy to do this, be it in the staffroom or elsewhere.
What I miss about Rwanda
I will miss spending time with Rwandan children. Many regularly visited my home wanting me to read or play with them.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about volunteering?
If an Irish teacher was thinking about volunteering with VSO I would advise them to make sure that the time is right for them. It is important to come with an open mind and a sense of humour.
Also look at what you can give as well as gain from volunteering. I’ve learned so much and I think I think I’ve made a contribution to the bigger picture that is VSO.