Scott's experience volunteering in schools

Scott SimonI arrived in Nepal on June 1st, 2008 and was greeted at the airport by a man who became one of my best friends in Nepal. Vinod, fondly known as “daddy” to the smaller children of Papa’s House, helped me with my bags and led me to the taxi. As we drove towards Nepal Orphans Home I was busy trying to get a grasp on the madness that is the city of Kathmandu. Over the next few days I adjusted to life in Kathmandu, and toured some of historical places and famous temples of the Kathmandu Valley with Shova, one of the Volunteer Nepal staff.

After about a week I decided that I was ready to head out to my first placement. Michael (Papa) had told me about a small school located in a rural village in the district of Ramechapp. The school required a 3-hour walk from Manthali, the closest city, and had about 70% of students from Dalit or “untouchable” Caste. Papa’s House supports this school with all the students’ needs, teachers’ salaries, teaching supplies, and a hot lunch program for all. I was very intrigued by this description, and drawn to mountains, decided to go. Shova and I boarded a 5:00am bus for our 12-hour trip through incredible scenery; luscious river valleys split by incredible whitewater and their surrounding hills and mountains. Just as we arrived in the small town of Manthali it began to rain. It ALWAYS rains in the summer in Nepal; so don’t forget your umbrella as I did, considering this while walking to the guest house without one.

The next morning the Headmaster of the Shree Sham School and I met and we started off along the steep path to the school. Though it was extremely hot and I was soaked in sweat, I could not help but enjoy the hike to the village. We passed over two amazing river valleys and then began the steep ascent towards Dumrikharka. It was tough but rewarding once I arrived in the village and was welcomed by 100 kids with giant grins running around in tattered school dress. Apparently they knew I was coming and were excited to just catch a glimpse of me struggling up the hill towards their village. After stopping at my host family’s house for morning rice I returned to the school to begin the day and was surprised to see every single one of those kids inside the schoolyard to welcome me with a seemingly endless supply of flower malas, which are like leis.

Each day for the next three weeks I walked everywhere with my hands permanently in “namaste” position, stopping about every 30 seconds to be greeted -- it seems the kids weren’t the only ones in the village happy to have me. Each day I woke up around 6 and filled my mornings with small tasks before we ate our morning rice. Some days I’d read a book, other days I’d do my washing, or sometimes just relax and enjoy the mountain views. After eating I’d leave for school and arrive in time to watch the kids do their morning exercises and sing the national anthem. From 10 until 4 the children were at school, though this didn’t mean they were being taught the whole time. As there were 6 classes and only 4 teachers, not every classroom was able to have a teacher at all times, but I was surprised to notice that the students kept themselves busy and out of trouble when no teacher was around. I spent my day rotating around to the classes that didn’t have a teacher and trying to help them with their English skills.

English is a compulsory subject for all children in Nepal, but they have only a very basic grasp of the language, conversation being limited to a few unrelated words. Since many of the “English teachers” can’t actually speak English the students have a hard time picking up the language. As a native English speaker the children were finally able to hear the language spoken without a thick accent and were able to work on their own pronunciation skills. I also spent a lot of time teaching vocabulary from my Nepali/English phrasebook and helping the younger children with their handwriting. With the older children I attempted to teach basic grammar concepts from their textbooks but I’m not sure they understood.

However it was rewarding for me to see that progress had been made by the end of my time in Dumrikharka. One student who consistently wrote his letters backwards was doing this less, and the others clearly were able to understand me better and were speaking more clearly. Ideally a volunteer teacher would be able to spend much more time in the school in order to keep a constant presence and give the students a reason to speak English -- but by the end of my 3 weeks I was really ready to head back to Kathmandu. It was struggle for me to live and work in an area where hardly anyone spoke English -- I had a lot of time to fill by myself. Had another volunteer been with me I think I could have spent my entire summer in Dumrikharka teaching at Shree Sham Primary School.

When I returned to Kathmandu I was so excited to see the boys of Papa’s house and to mess around with them. They have the best hearts and the biggest smiles in the world. I think some of the boys wake up smiling. It was also really enjoyable for me to meet up with the other volunteers and ask about how their placements had been going. After a day or two of rest I was able to meet with Michael and work out my next placement. This time I would be teaching with a fellow volunteer at a private English boarding school about a 10-minute walk from the house. This new school would allow me to stay in the house and bond with the boys as well as enjoy being able to go out to local restaurants and entertainment each night with the other volunteers. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the rest of my summer. Each morning I would wake up, make some breakfast and a cup of tea in the volunteer kitchen and inevitably find myself late for school.

By the time I finally made it to school and rushed in to the room of class 8 my students would stand up and welcome me and wouldn’t sit until I gave them permission. Things got a little awkward on the first day when I didn’t realize I had to tell them to sit and one of the students had to ask, “May we sit, sir?” I was amazed the first day that I went to teach and the students asked so many questions about me and my country that I was unable to even begin a lecture. I was pleased to see that students were able to speak such good English. I would usually teach from their English book, but occasionally they would ask for special help in grammar or math; and I would always save at least 10 minutes of my period for conversation. I figured that the kids would learn more from me as an English teacher if they were able to talk with me than if I just lectured and made them write exercises.

As I spent the rest of my time in Nepal teaching at Shree Chandrabindu International Boarding School I began to realize that I never wanted to leave the country. My students at SCBIS didn’t want me to either -- and they told me everyday. Each day the students would write things like, “Scott Sir please don’t go to America Sir” on the board, or give me little gifts like postcards or origami saying the same thing. They would stop me on the street, or stop by my house just to say hi, or give me a flower. It was just as hard for me to say goodbye to the kids at the school, as it was to say goodbye to the kids at the orphanage. When it was finally time for the other volunteer (Utsha) and I to end our time at the school they had a huge going away program for us and showered us with flowers and small gifts just to say “thank you” and “don’t forget us.” I was so moved by these kids who had so little, giving me so much I nearly cried. Volunteering at this school had really made my trip into a perfect experience. I felt like I made progress at the school in the village but I really felt like I helped teach with a lasting impact the kids at Chandrabindu.

If you’ve been considering volunteering in Nepal I strongly recommend doing so -- it’s an amazing experience and really does impact the life of the kids, as well as your own. My time in Nepal was absolutely amazing and I am already looking for ways to plan another trip. If you have any questions about working with Papa’s House please write to Michael and let him know you are interested.

Scott Simon