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Friday, March 16, 2012

Volunteering in Cambodia was a real education

How the experience of teaching English in Cambodia gave our blogger the strength to pursue her dreams

Catrin Griffiths with her Cambodian pupils
Geography Catrin Griffiths was deeply inspired by the pupils and teachers she met in Cambodia. Photograph: BUNAC

My certificate finally arrived telling me that I had achieved fully qualified teacher status. Getting here has been one the most satisfying and gratifying experiences I have ever had. But it nearly didn't happen!

Three and half years ago my university housemate and I went to an appointment at the careers office. I had always been pretty sure I wanted to teach but I had a big question, whether it should be secondary or primary and I didn't know how to apply for the training.

After an hour of being baffled by pamphlets, information and "useful" links we returned to the house and hid in our rooms with a cup of tea.

After a short lived panic I decided to look at the pamphlets. One was about volunteer experiences abroad, including teaching projects in Cambodian schools and communities, with a company called BUNAC. My housemate joined me 10 minutes later and we both started to research different companies who offered these "experiences". Eventually we were torn between heading to Kenya or Cambodia and chose the latter because of the "volunteers' house" where we would live together with other volunteers.

By 4.00pm the same day we had e-mailed BUNAC and paid a deposit for the trip. It was one of the easiest decisions I have ever made. My student loan had just gone into my account so I had the deposit money. I was sure I could fund-raise and earn enough during the summer for the balance. The only factor I hadn't considered was telling my parents. Dad was fine. Mum went into over-protective loving mother mode initially, but then calmed down and two months later booked herself and Dad on a trip around South East Asia. Problem solved.

We left the UK on 4 September 2008 and spent two weeks travelling through Vietnam before flying into Siem Reap, Cambodia's third city, the location of the Angkor Temples and our home for the next few months.

On my first day I was taken to Krousar Thmey (new family) Protection Centre in a tuk-tuk (a cart which is pulled by a motor bike) where I met Madame, the head teacher. She showed me around the centre where we spoke a mixture of French (her) and English (me) and introduced me to the children, who were aged between four and 20. I was then taken to the other Krousar Thmey locations by Mr Dee who ran one of the orphanages we saw.

During the day I found out that one of my pupils had been taken away from his family because his father was an alcoholic who had cut off two of his toes and four of his fingers with a knife. I discovered that there were four siblings who had nearly died of starvation because all the family income was spent on alcohol. I also learnt that until Krousar Thmey opened its door in 1991, blind and deaf children in Cambodia weren't educated at all.

After a few days I had settled into my new routine. I had a two hour class at the protection centre in the morning then cycled the 20 minutes for a one hour session teaching adults at the deaf and blind school. I then returned to the protection centre for another two hour session before heading back to the deaf and blind school to teach English Braille.

I became more aware of the problems of the children and realised that they were so eager to learn that I could possibly make a small difference to their lives.

When I returned home I was accepted to do a PGCE course and was very excited. However, this was a short lived feeling. The tutor was a bully who tried to fail me three times throughout the year. I was in tears every day and one weekend I decided the stress wasn't worth it and I'd give up.

Fortunately, at the placement school, I had amazing mentors who told me that I should at least try to finish the course as I only had two months left. My family and friends reminded me of the difficulties faced by the pupils I had left in Cambodia and that I should fight for what I wanted as they had done. I dragged my way through to the final day and passed!

Now I have a job at Cove School where I am settled and happy. My NQT year flew by. The school had a system in place to support me and I found friendship among my colleagues. Since becoming a full time form tutor I have realized that I can use what I learned in Cambodia to teach pupils about how lucky they are. My knowledge of life in different conditions has helped them to be more grateful for what they have and appreciate that they get their education for free. I also use my photos from the trip to teach about how tourism impacts a developing country. Today I am in my second year at Cove, confident and happy with what I do.

• Catrin Griffiths is a geography teacher at Cove School. In 2008 she spent time teaching abused children and blind students in Cambodia with BUNAC.

Find out more about volunteering with BUNAC
BUNAC offers volunteer programmes with an English teaching focus from four weeks to sux months in Cambodia, Chile, China, Ghana, India, Nepal, Peru and South Africa. Relevant teaching experience enables volunteers to take on classroom responsibility from day one. There's a programme for everyone, whether you're considering going into the teaching profession, in the process of teacher training, or an established teacher keen to broaden your horizons and apply your skills where help is most needed. Programmes in China and Chile include TEFL training.

BUNAC's latest addition to the portfolio, Volunteer Chile, is sponsored by the Chilean government as part of its initiative to make EFL more accessible to all school-age Chileans.

Find out more about volunteering here. Or find out more about volunteering in Cambodia. You can find out about all English teaching opportunity with BUNAC worldwide here.

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