What’s it really like to volunteer in Ethiopia?

VSO is the world’s leading independent international development organisation that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries. In the first of a series of case studies in which we catch up with VSO volunteers, we learn about Patricia Gilhooley’s year in Western Ethiopia working as a continuous professional development (CPD) adviser.

Inspiring creativity in the classroom

More than half of the world’s out-of-school children live in just 15 countries, and nearly three million of them are in Ethiopia. Pupils are frequently passive recipients of knowledge, which can often be ineffective at engaging students to think critically and creatively. Tackling traditional ‘chalk and talk’ methods of teaching is a major challenge. VSO volunteer Patricia Gilhooley spent her year encouraging the use of active learning methods in several primary schools and a teacher training college.

VSO volunteers like Patricia work through the Ministry of Education and at a senior level in teacher training colleges across Ethiopia to help engage students to think critically and creatively.

Here she tells us about her experiences.

I think what prompted me to volunteer through VSO,
was partly influenced by watching TV news and seeing that, so often, news items are about people who are less fortunate than we are. Eventually you feel, “Is there something I could do that would make any kind of difference?” VSO has a very good reputation; I felt there would be training before I left and that the organisation would support me while I was overseas.

I came to Ethiopia for one year never having been to Africa at all…
I’m a very normal primary school teacher in the UK, so I’ve taught children from Reception through to Year Six. I would reassure anybody who’s thinking of volunteering that there are no ‘super skills’ needed.  I came here with no special additional qualifications, or special experiences.

You can hardly compare going to school in Ethiopia to the UK.
Children here struggle to take a pen to school and lots of children don’t have the set textbook that they need for a subject.  So there is a lack of resources on so many levels; everything from having water and electricity in the classroom to having a book that you can look at.

I was lost without a photocopier initially!
And that was one of the big learning points; to observe how many resources and materials I had come to rely on in the UK. I’ve realised people can have a good education without all of those resources. Some of them are handy, but you certainly don’t need them all.

My role is CPD Cluster Coordinator,
and it covers two main areas: the ‘CPD’ (Continual Professional Development) I do is with the equivalent of ‘lecturers in education’ in the UK at the town’s teacher training college, which only came into existence two years ago; the ‘Cluster Coordinator’ element refers to my work with the 13 primary schools in the area, which are linked to the college. So my role is very much to support and build relationships between the teacher training college and the town’s primary schools to help improve the quality of teaching in both.

In Ethiopia, students are used to being quite passive in the classroom and lectured to, which doesn’t encourage creative thinking. I think the active learning methods I am encouraging through my placement are actually making people think and question, which is very useful for future generations in fostering creativity. It will stimulate innovation and contribute to the networking and connecting of ideas, which will make the future quite a different place from the Ethiopia that we see today.

The first time I tried to encourage a teacher to put up a display,
I went back the next day to find the children had loved it. To be able to walk into the college library and see a wonderful display of resources that the students have made; and to be able to go to small primary schools and see so many resources being well used; those are wonderful moments.

Unconsciously, in the West we benefit from so much education.
We have learned so many things that we so take for granted, but people here are so pleased for you to come and share your skills.

The big impact is seeing the difference in how teachers teach in the school.
Not everybody has changed, but I feel there are enough teachers in each of the schools I’ve been to now, that there will be sustained change, because they believe in the changes they’ve seen, and I think they will be enthusiastic enough to spread that. I also think, at the college, the teacher educators have a different view of how to train future teachers. Their work will have a long-term impact on the students of the future. If they train teachers for this year, those teachers will probably teach for twenty or thirty years. I’ve only been in Finote Selam for nine months but I’ve tried to work with over 300 teachers now. I know that those 300 teachers are actually working with over 12,000 students, spreading these ideas wide. So I think they are the hope for the future.

I also feel I’ve been able to help forge a good relationship between 13 primary schools and the teacher training college, and the college has reciprocated that; they’re also now interested in what’s going on in the schools. It’s great to know that a new VSO volunteer who’s due to arrive at the beginning of the new term, will bring different skills and continue what has been started.

A big part of VSO is not to come and inflict things on people,
but to come and listen to what people want to have happen here. And therefore VSO volunteers work closely with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education. I’m much happier that we’re trying to support what people want to have happen in this country. It’s also been lovely to be part of a volunteer community, and to be able to contact a volunteer who is doing a similar role but in a very different place, and say, “What did you do when you got stuck on this? How did you get through it?” So I didn’t feel at all abandoned when I got here.

My school governors were very supportive of my wish to volunteer with VSO
and therefore agreed to keep my job open for me for one year. I think to leave your family you’ve got to make the decision about how your relationships will cope with different lengths of time. And I’ve been married for thirty years, so the idea of being away from my husband for one year felt like long enough.

I know I’ve had the chance to develop my skills.
I know I teach differently now than I did when I first arrived. I think it’s given me tremendous confidence, but also the opportunity to do new things like run workshops and work with the Dean of a College.

You can live on your VSO volunteer allowance,
but you do have to make choices about what’s important to you and how you want to spend your money; I haven’t had to drain my savings from home.

In some ways, there’s nothing extraordinary about volunteering.
I think people have an instinct to help one another and I think some people are answering that instinct when they choose to volunteer.

Follow this link to view current VSO placements within the education sector or to join VSO’s Talent Pool.

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