Five minutes with... Bebhinn Ní Mhuirí, Teaching Methodology Adviser, Rwanda
Nearly one 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.
Bebhinn Ní Mhuirí, originally from Co. Down, Ireland is a primary teacher in a Gaelscoil in Co. Fermanagh. She has spent a year working as a Teaching Methodology Advisor in Rwamagana District. Working in 10 schools, across three districts, with over 25 teachers, Béibhinn is sharing her teaching skills to improve the quality of education for Rwandan children.
What are you doing in Rwanda?
I’m a Teaching Methodology Advisor working in 10 different schools. I work closely with two or three teachers that have been put forward from each school for special training by the District Education Office to improve their teaching styles. My overall objective is to improve the quality of education for children by training and mentoring these ‘focus teachers’ to use child-centred and active learning methodologies. In time, these focus teachers will go on to train colleagues in their schools leading to a cascade effect – so the work is sustainable.
Why did you decide to volunteer?
I never really thought about volunteering when I was young. It was only when I qualified as a teacher and went travelling one summer that I realised how much we have at home. I wanted to go abroad and share my skills and so volunteering made sense to me.
What are the education challenges in Rwanda?
There are many overcrowded schools with a lack of qualified teachers. Schools operate on a two-shift system with one shift from 7.30am until 12:30pm and then another from 1.30pm until 5.30pm. Teachers are often tired, underpaid and lack the motivation to teach. In one of my schools, there are over 2,000 children and not enough qualified teachers to deal with them.
Why did you pick VSO?
I looked at different organisations, but decided to go with VSO because they prepare volunteers so well in advance with lots of training and support. The in-country training on arrival really ensured that I could hit the ground running.
The way VSO works really attracted me to volunteer with them. Volunteering with VSO makes sense to me; the way they work makes sense. At a very basic but fundamental level, the work of VSO volunteers is sustainable – which really appealed to me. When I work with teachers and train them in new ways of teaching, I know that the teachers I’ve worked with will continue to apply the training when I leave Rwanda at the end of my placement.
Why is long-term volunteering important?
Whenever you come to a new country, it can be hard to understand the culture. It can take you a number of weeks or months to settle in, to understand the challenges, to develop a plan and to build relationships. That is why a long term placement is so important. I really feel that over my placement, I will be able to do so much more than if I came for a summer.
Now that I’ve been here a few months, my colleagues and teachers trust me - making it easier for me to work with them because they understand what I’m doing and that I am committed to the job. I’ve decided to extend my placement for another six months because I know so much more can be achieved now that I have established these relationships with my colleagues and friends.
What have been the highlights?
Venustre, a primary school teacher I work with, recently spoke to a group of teachers about how my training has made him a better teacher. Hearing this made me feel very proud and spurs me on when challenges arise.
What do you like about volunteering with VSO?
I feel like I’m part of something bigger by volunteering with VSO. Although, I’m here working in my district and in my 15 schools, I also have other colleagues working in Teacher Training Colleges supporting teacher-trainers. There are also volunteers working as Education Leadership Advisors supporting head-teachers and education specialists working in the Education Ministry improving education policy and curriculum. Within VSO Rwanda, there are other volunteers supporting people with disabilities gain access to education, earn an income and fight for basic rights.
How has living in Rwanda changed you?
I’ve learnt that I’m really strong and there’s a lot of things I can live without. I never thought I would be the type of person who would enjoy volunteering but it’s really shown me that I can make a difference. What I have realised from being in Rwanda is that people learn in different ways and you need to be patient, flexible and open to new ideas and that’s what being a VSO volunteer is all about.
Professionally, this experience has been great. I’ve done so many things which wouldn’t have been possible for me to do back at home. I’ve been working with teachers and training teachers. I’ve also organised and facilitated workshops so I’m learning new things everyday and it’s great.
Rwanda was always in my mind since I was young and saw the Genocide on my TV screen. The people have gone through so much but they’ve got such strength. It’s made me much more hopeful for the country. The last 12 months have made me realise that this won’t be my last volunteering experience with VSO. There is so much to do and I want to be part of it.
What will you miss about Rwanda?
The people and the weather! I’ve made so many good friends here, volunteers and local colleagues. I’ve experienced a whole new way of living and working and I will cherish my time in Rwanda. I’ve had the chance to see some of the most beautiful parts of the world, enjoy some good weather and make a difference in a really sustainable way.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about volunteering?
Volunteering is a big investment, personally and professionally. Make sure you look at all of the options and pick an organisation that you trust with a year of your life. VSO ticks all the boxes for me; their work is sustainable and they look after their volunteers through training and support. Make sure you are volunteering for the right reasons because it’s not just your life that will be affected.