Hooi Hoon arrived at a school in Huaiyuan county of Anhui province on Sunday in Autumn. Several students were running around the playground chasing each other.
This scene made Hooi Hoon feel sad: the children stay at school all semester and can’t go home on weekends.
Lim Hooi Hoon, 51, is a university teacher from Kuala Lumpur. Like many of the foreign volunteers at Stepping Stones, she has been to China, but never to the countryside. She is used to travelling to big cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou. It was the first time she had seen the countryside in the less developed parts of China, and the children left behind by their parents and the fast changing outside world.
In the whole month of November, Hooi Hoon lived in the school, and followed a dailyschedule with the school’s teachers and students. In this boarding school, 85% of the students are “left-behind children”. They wake up at 6 a.m., have breakfast at 7.30 a.m., and have classes from 8.20 a.m. until 8.20 p.m., breaking only for lunch and dinner. After the last class, everyone washes quickly before bedtime at 9 p.m.
Hooi Hoon taught three or four English classes a day, with a ten-minute break between lessons, when she had an opportunity to talk to the children. The children’s English proficiency and pronunciation was poor. She would try to correct them and give them an opportunity to learn new words through chatting.
Hooi Hoon worries that the future may not be bright for these children because of the limited education opportunities in the countryside. The students may fall behind when they enter middle school.
At the same time, she noticed that even in such a remote village, some children were very smart and intelligent, with high ambitions for their future. There are also children who can turn anything they have into a toy and have fun on the playground. She marveled at the creativity of these children.
She also found a special “community spirit” in her village school. The children love the school and their teachers. They are all very willing to help the principal and teachers with minor tasks.
As a rural English volunteer, Hooi Hoon admits, it’s hard to say how much a month of volunteer teaching can help these rural children — the challenges they face in the future are not just academic, but also in their living environment. But the presence of foreign volunteers exposes children to new worlds and gives them a chance to make some connections with volunteers that will have a lasting impact. “They can remember that they had this volunteer from some foreign country who came to their village school. So I am sure it will leave a lasting impression on the children.”
That seems to be the view shared by many volunteers. Andy, a volunteer from PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hong Kong, had a similar experience. A tax consultant, Andy was born in Hong Kong and grew up in New York. During a company activity organized by Stepping Stones in May this year, he and the company’s volunteer team went to an elementary school in Hunan province for a week-long volunteer event. After the event, he immediately decided to return there to teach on his own.
He said the students there were the main reason he decided to go back.
Andy reveals that he originally wanted to be a teacher, but didn’t choose this career out of practical considerations. The volunteer teaching experience was very rewarding for him: “There was pleasure for me being there and then inspire them to be more interested in learning English, which was what I wanted to do – basically to send the message to students that learning English is fun. And that they should all have that opportunity to try.”
He says the Stepping Stones rural English teaching program brings outside resources to local students. Andy states, ” The students can get different exposure. The exposure to get to speak to other people … will be a beneficial to them, because they do not have that kind of practice.”
Of course, for volunteers, going to the countryside to teach is not only an opportunity to generate and spread love, but also a good chance for them to learn about China. Similar to Hooi Hoon, Linda, who is an accountant from Canada, had never been to a Chinese village before. After she came up with the idea of volunteering to teach in her native country, her father googled “volunteer teacher in China” and found Stepping Stones. As a result, she decided to come to Shanghai and participate in the Stepping Stones rural English volunteer teaching training.
In October, Linda was assigned to a boarding school in Guangde county of Anhui province. She went just in time for the school sports meeting and watched the whole event with great interest. She was impressed by the competitive spirit of students and teachers in various sports competitions.
She organized an English corner with students from grade one to grade eight, some even from outside the school. Near Halloween, she organized a Halloween event at the English corner. She taught them words for Halloween, taught them to sing and draw, and taught them how to make witches’ hats out of cardboard.
“I think people enjoyed it.” Linda said.
Obviously, the volunteer teaching was a really interesting experience, and she couldn’t stop smiling when she talked about it.
She said the Stepping Stones’ rural English teaching program provided an excellent opportunity for foreign volunteers to learn about China, ” Because China still for a lot of people is a land unknown.”
“(The kids’) exposure to the outside world is not a lot. So I think it is really great to have that kind of program so they would interact with people from outside their country, outside of their normal circle,” she said. “And it also gives them a really great opportunity to learn English.”
Stepping Stones has been sending groups of volunteers to rural China since 2007, and started the Rural Individual Volunteering (RIV) project a few years later to cater to individual volunteers who would like to spend longer in rural areas than the groups can. Most of China’s rural schools are in isolated rural communities, where children have little access to the outside world and English teaching resources are very limited. The project utilizes Stepping Stones’ advantage in English educational resources to bring outstanding English teaching volunteers to China’s rural elementary and middle school students, to encourage rural students to learn English, and at the same time also open a window onto the world for them, bringing them knowledge about different cultures and languages, opportunities to interact with people from different regions and countries, to make them more confident and provide motivation and encouragement for their future development.
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