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An open letter from an Irish education volunteer

Primary school teacher Claire Nic Gabhann from Monaghan spent 12 months volunteering on an education programme in Tanzania. While on placement, Claire worked with teachers to improve the style and method of their teaching. Here, she discusses what her placement entailed and how she benefited from it.

Claire advising local teachers on how to make their teaching methods more child-focused in Bukoba, Tanzania.

I decided to volunteer with VSO because I had been teaching for six years and I wanted a new challenge. VSO put me forward for a volunteer placement working as a quality teaching facilitator with the Improving Children's Learning and Participation project in Bukoba, Tanzania, which ended up being a great fit for me.

VSO's comprehensive support package

The support offered by VSO Ireland ensured I was easily able get everything in order before I left for Tanzania. They advised me about how to apply for the Public Service Pension Scheme for Voluntary Development Workers so I knew everything would be in order with my pension while I was gone. VSO also gave me all the information I needed about vaccinations and they helped with the paperwork that was necessary for my work visa. There is also pre-departure training provided by VSO and this really helps to prepare you for your placement. As well as online training, there is a weekend where you go for further preparation and that is great because you get to meet a lot of people from different professions and backgrounds who are also about to start their volunteer placement. The training weekend also gives you the opportunity to meet people who have previously volunteered with VSO and it's really useful to hear about their personal experiences and get some useful tips for your own placement.

My role in Bukoba

It involved working with 12 new mentor teachers and head teachers in 12 schools. I travelled out to the schools to analyse their teaching methods, and I helped the teachers to improve their teaching methodologies and how they interacted with the children. I also hosted workshops with my mentor teachers and guided them so that they could roll out new methods to the teachers in their schools. This capacity building approach meant that my project ended up reaching 400 teachers around the country, which was very satisfying from a professional perspective. It also meant that the work I did went much further than if I had been teaching in a classroom, and will last for a long time after my placement.

Pupils at the Karwoshe School in Bukoba, Tanzania.

Before my project began, the 'chalk and talk' method was widely used in Bukoba. It was the equivalent to what old Ireland would have been like, where the teacher stood at the top of the classroom and simply spoke a lot of information to the pupils. So it was very much a one-way process. Our project helped to change this, and increase children's participation by introducing methodologies that were more interactive and rewarding.

I loved working with the mentor teachers, and I loved hosting the workshops. It was really good fun working one-on-one with the mentors, doing the observation and visiting the schools. But what I really loved was seeing my mentor teachers train their own colleagues. As I watched them doing that, I knew that they understood what I'd been showing them to do. It was such a good feeling knowing that everything had clicked into place for them.

Following the training sessions, I saw teachers giving some wonderful lessons that I know wouldn't have happened before the project began. I remember a local science teacher bringing a lesson alive by taking students outside to pick some flowers that they then dissected in class. It was the perfect science lesson!

Teachers who had young children in their class started to use a lot of teaching aids and resources to keep them entertained - songs, phonics fans, cards, singing and dancing. All of these activities helped to improve the children's learning.

Lucy Niwagila Luckson and Iphegenia Milembe Frolian at the Kamondo Primary School in Bukoba, Tanzania.

Personal and professional benefits

Working with VSO also gave me opportunities that are difficult to come by in Ireland, because of the structure of the education sector in Ireland. There are more opportunities here to practice and develop your leadership and management skills. You get to design, implement and facilitate programmes. You also get to monitor and evaluate the success of your own programmes, and you spearhead all the work you are doing from start to finish. I have been working as part of a project team with other seasoned professionals from non-educational backgrounds and senior educational figures like district education officers. There is a wealth of opportunity for learning from others around you. Your leadership, communication and collaboration skills will all be tested and as a result you will grow professionally.

My placement also helped me to personally grow in ways that I never would have imagined. If you take someone out of their normal environment and put them in a new one, you can develop unbelievably. You change in ways you wouldn't have imagined, you do things you wouldn't have thought you would have done. You learn new languages and meet new people, and the new experiences change you for the better as a person. 

Are you interested in volunteering?

We're always on the lookout for health, education and business professional to support sustainable change on our programmes overseas. If you think you're up to the challenge, contact or check out our current vacancies.

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