VOLUNTEER REPORT - Harry Fletcher-Wood

I volunteered at Shanti Bhavan from September 2007 until May 2008.  During that time, my main activity was teaching English (language and literature) to the seventh and eighth grades, social studies to the fifth grade, and supervising sports in the morning and evening.  I also read stories to the smaller children, taught some self-science/life skills classes, offered individual help, and ran team-building activities during the summer camp.

The teaching experience at the school was fantastic.  Owing to a shortage of staff, I was wholly responsible for the classes which I taught.  Within the syllabus, I was free to innovate in both the material we were studying, and the methods used to teach it.  The students responded superbly; with the eighth grade, and, to a lesser extent the seventh, we were able to create something akin to a ‘democratic learning community’, in which the students set tasks, conducted much of their learning at their own pace, and relied on each other for assistance and teaching, while I supervised and assisted.  The students are keen to learn, and, when enthused, can work wonders.  I learnt an enormous amount from teaching them, and enjoyed almost every lesson I taught.

The other activities and work I did in the school were interesting and enjoyable.  Supervising sports is a good opportunity to spend time with the students in a more relaxed setting, and can be great fun.  Reading stories to adorable and attentive small children is a wonderful way to finish the day.  Mrs Law encouraged me to set up a student council in April, in order to better represent the views of the students to the principal, and vice versa, which I hope will prove a success.  There is plenty of scope for volunteers to help in various different areas of school life.

I built strong relationships with many of the students, who are friendly and extremely interesting.  Since the students are almost always busy with some allocated task or other, I strongly recommend making the most of opportunities to spend time with them in relaxed settings- sports time, weekends, and assisting them with their ‘community service’ (cleaning and dishwashing) tasks, are some of the best available.

I have little to add to what has previously been written about the facilities and comfort at the school- Shanti J looked after me extremely well, for which I am very grateful.  Despite eating huge portions of the food (which was excellent), I lost a lot of weight while I was at the school.  I strongly recommend that long-term volunteers take protein supplements of some sort (which I did not).  If you have work commitments or other affairs which require extensive access to the internet, I suggest getting them done before or after you are at the school- I followed a job application process while at the school, and found completing it a slightly stressful experience.

I cannot recommend strongly enough taking the time to volunteer at Shanti Bhavan, it can be an extremely powerful and life-changing experience, and is a chance to do something truly and immediately beneficial with your talents and time. I would particularly encourage volunteers with teacher-training to apply, as they can be very useful to the school; I would also encourage men to volunteer, as the majority of volunteers, at least while I have been at the school, have been female, and the older boys in particular would benefit from more contact with male role models.  I also feel the school would make a fascinating site for an inter-cultural/sociological/ethnographic study, perhaps as a dissertation for a Masters or PhD student; had I had the time and the training, I would have done it myself.

A few suggestions for future volunteers:

-      Stay as long as possible- every day increases what you understand, and what you can offer.

-      Be flexible- the school could ask you to do anything; whatever you do will help in some way.

-      Don’t be shy to raise doubts and queries; teachers are usually supportive and helpful, and are used to volunteers and their questions.

-      Keep your eyes open for specific ways in which you can help the school, or individual children, which may become apparent while you are there; if something comes to you, suggest it to Mrs Law.

-      Many of the children have strong emotional needs, and can become attached to volunteers very quickly- while this is endearing, don’t be afraid to gently take a step back, regain perspective, and, if necessary, let them know if their attention is becoming too exhausting.

Finally, understand that the school is walking a long, thin, and swaying tightrope, negotiating the upbringing of children from very conservative Indian homes in a school with many Western elements and influences.  There is no reason to be shy of stating your opinion, or of discussing any topic openly and frankly.  However, exercise caution, particularly in judging the school and its policies- some of which may seem unusual and even undesirable to Westerners, but most of which are grounded in necessities and cultural considerations which may not be immediately apparent to outsiders. Volunteers should be aware of the impact they can have on the way the children perceive the school, their teachers, and themselves.

The one thing I feel the school can do to help volunteers more is to continually reinforce to teachers and aunties that volunteers should be corrected and guided where necessary.  In their turn, volunteers should accept guidance willingly.  A policy seemed to have been established that any problems be promptly and openly raised with volunteers.  However, in my experience, issues are almost never mentioned to volunteers, and the children are often caught in the middle.  I strongly believe that a better dialogue between aunties, teachers, and volunteers would minimise friction between them.

I would like to record my gratitude to Mrs Law and the many teachers and aunties who went out of their way to befriend, advise and guide me, and to the children who made my stay such an amazing one.

If any potential donors are reading this, I strongly urge you to support the school, it is a wonderful project, and your money could not be spent on a better cause or organisation.

I would be happy to be contacted by anyone with questions about the school: harry.fletcherwood@gmail.com

Harry Fletcher-Wood

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