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Volunteer Review: Emma M., English in Sri Lanka

A young boy playing with finger paints in Sri Lanka

This was an experience I shall never forget and could not have carried out without the wonderful support from my family, friends and the Sri Lankan team at Projects Abroad. Having worked for several years as a Primary School teacher, I took a career break to use my skills, knowledge and training to help children and staff at a college in Sri Lanka.

My Teaching Project

The college has 3 000 pupils and is in a disadvantaged area where most parents struggle to find regular work. For those fortunate enough to secure employment they work extremely long hours and earn a very low wage. I was particularly interested in working in a secondary school, which is why I selected this project.

Emma M. - English Teacher in Sri Lanka

Just like in the UK, children in Sri Lanka attend school Monday to Friday and their day begins as early as 7:30am. The older children sweep their classrooms or rake clean the areas in front of the classroom to reduce the chance of mosquitos laying eggs and therefore reducing the chance of dengue fever. Rubbish is collected and burned in the playground as there is no communal waste facility. Each school day begins with a short prayer outside, meditation outside in front of a statue of Buddha followed by the school song during which children stand to attention whilst they raise three flags. The children congregate in the large field in front of the school buildings and in their year groups, perform a physical exercise routine led by the older children. Music from a loudspeaker sounds across the school premises and beyond.

Volunteering at a local school

Local food in Sri Lanka

My school day began at 8am each morning and on the very first day an enormous creature appeared on the windowsill. The children calmly informed me it was an iguana, and these became regular visitors to the jungle classroom. There were many challenges throughout my workday, which ended at 1pm. These challenges included the heat, humidity, insects and stinging smell of burning rubbish. Many of the classrooms could cater for 45 children and once seated with their huge rucksacks on the back of their seats, there was little or no room to walk up and down helping individuals or small groups. Given the constant heat and humidity, children arrive at school and liberate their feet of their shoes and socks; they work and play barefoot in the playground. There was adequate lighting in some of the classrooms but with frequent power cuts it was not reliable and the generous roofing providing shelter from the monsoon rain, meant I often taught in the gloom.

The food in Sri Lanka

At 9:30am, the children stop for their ‘interval’ during which time they have breakfast and then play in the playground. Breakfast is typically rice and curry. In each rucksack, the children carry a small parcel, a banana leaf ‘plate’ holding red or white rice and either fish or chicken curry. The children eat in their classroom at their desks using their right hand, as is customary in Sri Lanka. Many children either carry a cotton handkerchief in their pocket or pinned to their shirt, to clean or dry hands or forehead as necessary. On many occasions, I joined colleagues in the staff canteen for my breakfast. From a tiny kitchen on fiery gas stoves and in the sweltering heat, the women produced hot, spicy treats including chana dhal masala vadai, hoppers, roti and sweet coconut pancakes. The spicy meal was always accompanied by sweet milky tea and I grew to love the concept of ‘surprise eating’. Few local cafes in Sri Lanka have a menu, instead the customer is served whatever the kitchen has made or is making that day. The routine is to enter, sit and wait to be presented with whatever has been cooked that day or whatever is available at the market.

The children reaching for crayons during a game at their school

Teachers and students in Sri Lanka

Teachers are highly respected in Sri Lanka and after training and a probationary period they can stay in their jobs for as long as they wish. Currently, the profession is unregulated. There were a few computers in the school and the main staff room was furnished with heavy desks, plastic chairs and large ledgers. Staff record data by hand and although I asked, there did not appear to be any written school policies. Whilst there are many male members of staff at Tissa College, the majority are women and by law, female teachers must wear a saree to work. There are strict rules for children as well; from Grade 1 to 13 girls must wear their hair in two plats tied with red ribbons, white socks and white shoes. Boys wear blue shorts and a white shirt until they move to Senior School then they are permitted to wear long white trousers. As a visiting teacher from the UK the children addressed me as ‘Teacher Emma’ and would stand when I entered the classroom. In Grade 2 and 3 the, “Good Morning To You!” sung to the tune of Happy Birthday marked the start of each lesson and at the end of the lesson the children would touch my feet as a sign of respect reciting a blessing for a long healthy life.

In Grade 8, children are separated in the classroom, girls on the left and boys on the right. Quite often, the girls sit holding hands for moral support during lessons or walk around school, hand-in-hand as a sign of friendship during playtime. The playtime activities included climbing trees, hide-and-seek in and around the derelict school buildings, impromptu cricket matches using a leaf from a coconut tree and if no ball was available, a wood apple or cloth tied with string.

Community days

Community days organized by the Projects Abroad staff punctuated my eight-week project and it was a welcome opportunity to meet other volunteers and compare experiences and frustrations.

Final thoughts

I found the experience extremely interesting. There was a great deal of support from the Project Abroad team, and I felt extremely welcome and well informed. I’m very pleased to have represented Projects Abroad where training, skills and knowledge are valued.

Emma M.

This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.

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