Take the time to read and you’ll know why it’s magic in Mohon…
Volunteer experience and advice from a placement January to March 2013 at Mohon Elementary School.
The views here are from my perspective as an older male from England having had a career as a Civil Engineer, which included years living and working in tropical countries. As such, the general style of the school, and of the tropical living conditions in the village of Mohon, were not new to me.
I will start at the orientation. This was well handled by the VFV staff member, who showed me how to take the necessary jeepney ride and know where to tell it to stop. Sounds easy, but it’s so hard to see out of a crowded jeepney that picking the stopping point can be difficult. Nearly all the school staff were at the orientation meeting. They were very welcoming and polite, as was the case throughout my time there. However, the Principal was not there so my work schedule was not defined until I appeared for work the following day. I was to teach Grade VI Math and English in the mornings (8am to 12am), covering for their regular teacher who was away on a regional event. Volunteer teachers are expected to take the class by themselves from the outset.
Grade VI are mostly 11/12 year olds, but there were a few aged 14 and one lad aged 23. This lad proved very useful because, being older, he had the general “helping” capabilities of an adult. VFV had led me to think I would be teaching Grade IV or Grade V, so at first I was nervous that the “younger” material I had prepared before coming to the Philippines would be unsuitable. In practice I quickly adapted. There is a clear curriculum for each subject (available online – I had looked at it as part of my preparation) and an associated teacher’s book setting out detailed lesson plans for the year, also noting how many days each segment should take. I was given these books to use as the basis of my lessons. The pupils were due to take their national test, their pre-High School test, shortly after I would leave the placement, so it was important to get them up to the right level for this and not just entertain them for six weeks as if they were on summer school.
In practice I used the lesson plans only to give me the targets I should achieve with the pupils. I found so much of the content used local terms and examples unfamiliar to me, also that the structure was rather dull. I preferred a more “learning by doing” approach so made my own detailed lesson plans for each day. Nevertheless it would be quite OK just to follow the book and save yourself effort in preparation. Before coming to the Philippines I had assembled folders of ideas for lesson content, including related games in Math and English as well as numerous stories, poems and songs for the English (and just for fun). These were very useful. The pupils loved stories: simple fairy stories were enough as the children’s English can cope with that. Popular also were silly songs, puzzles and word games. Pupils had some textbooks. These did not seem to correlate with the teacher’s lesson format, nor did each child have the same textbook and some had none at all. So I ignored these other than to crib some ideas. In English I gave specific time to spoken English, so the children could take advantage of being with a native speaker. This is not in the curriculum however.
I set clear class rules at the outset and stuck to them so I never had discipline problems. Being children, inevitably they want to jump up and down a bit and make noise. But if they crossed the line set by the rules I found a “ssh” was enough to get them back in line. If you want to shout, say “Saba !”, which means “quiet !”. Learning all their names took a little while. I made a seating plan on the first day to help that but it was soon redundant as they change places a lot.
It is expected for pupils to have an assignment (homework) in each subject every day. Mostly I did this, though sometimes forgot. In general I gave them sheets of paper to do the assignment on; in this way I could collect them the next day and go through in my own time. I would write the assignment on the blackboard (chalk – no whiteboard here) and they would copy. They actually like copying things off the board; just say “copy” and off they go with a will. The school does have a PC and printer (donated by a volunteer) so you can make hand-outs if desired. You’ll have to buy your own printer ink; it’s available in the mall.
Pupils have to provide their own paper, pencils and so forth. They like to use small notebooks as the paper (cheaply available in town) but seem to use the same book for all subjects. Certainly the notebook content they had written was very jumbled. I hope they understand it all. I soon found that some had no paper, pen or anything. To overcome this I bought and distributed notebooks and pencils to all (being equitable). They love school stationery and would take advantage of “stocking up” whenever I gave out more paper. It’s cheap enough so I didn’t mind. I also got a stock of rulers and protractors to share for the Math. The school has no supplies like this so the teaching has to adapt.
There was one feature which at first I found strange. Classes are often left on their own, with no teacher, for several hours or even all day if staff are away for some reason. To my surprise the pupils just sit in their classroom and amuse themselves for all this time. There is not the mayhem that would certainly arise in an English school. They are very patient and disciplined.
The discipline is seen throughout the school day. Pupils arrive at about 7am (though some don’t turn up until 8:30), have an opening ceremony with flag raising and national pledge, then set about cleaning the school grounds and rooms. So when I arrived a bit before 8am there would be children sweeping leaves, scrubbing walls and so on. They also sweep out the classrooms at the end of morning school and again at the end of the afternoon. All the cleaning and gardening is done by them and they take great pride in how smart the school looks. It’s an example that could usefully be copied in England. The sense of ritual is again evident in the prayer, including thanks to teachers and classmates, which they say at the end of morning and afternoon school.
All pupils in the school are polite and will greet you with “Good morning Sir” or “Good morning Ma’am”. They are also neatly dressed; the girls in particular commonly wear the school uniform. I have to confess I quickly got to like being called “Sir David”, as is the custom for male teachers – even between the staff; the term “Ma’am” is used for female teachers, for example “Ma’am Teresita”.
All the staff also dress neatly. They were mostly fairly reserved with me, I think because many of them feel inadequate at conversational English, but all of them were friendly and gave me help when I asked for it. All said how much they appreciated me being there. I hope my pupils learned enough from me to warrant this appreciation. Staff lunches were a feature. They were arranged at every opportunity; for example if an inspector came to visit this would be enough to deserve a big lunch.
Pupils have a recess 9:45am to 10am. Most go to a kiosk outside the school and buy a snack. Lunch recess is 12am to 1pm. Pupils go home then. There is no recess in the afternoon.
After three weeks the Grade VI normal teacher returned so my duties were changed to Grade VI Math followed by Grade V English. By this time I was evolving some projects with Grade VI so I requested having time with them in the afternoon also to see these through. No problem. In fact, due to the teacher absence issue I’ve mentioned, I often stayed with Grade VI until the end of the day. This was not a chore as the pupils were very responsive and appreciative of everything, and not just the “silly” things but the work content as well.
There were times when I saw some of them apparently not paying attention to the lesson but engrossed in some drawing or other. Often it turned out the person was making me a “love letter” saying how much they appreciated the lessons. Really sweet. There were many moving moments like that. The Grade V pupils would rush up and insist on carrying my bags to wherever I was going next, even to where I got the jeepney after lessons. They make you very happy.
On my last day, and in my honour, they kindly laid on a formal Program in the conference hall, with an opening prayer then songs, dances and speeches by the pupils. It was a very moving occasion with all the school attending. The love the people here give you is overwhelming. I reminded myself every day to be diligent in really earning their kindness.
The term “conference hall” sounds grand. The reality is a shabby-looking but large building having a concrete stage at one end. It works fine, but isn’t grand. It’s good for activities which require space; holding activities outside is not normal as the children get too hot. The classrooms are fine, set around a grassy “plaza” which while I was there was usually under water due to the rain. There is a large vegetable and fruit garden (coconut, mango, guava), maintained by the pupils of course; also a herb garden. All produce is eaten locally.
As a comment, I saw that the school has caring and diligent teachers and manageable class sizes. So I sometimes wondered whether my presence as an amateur replacing a “real” teacher was actually helpful to them, other than superficially, even though it was fun for me (and fun too for the many volunteers who go to this school). Since school is not just for fun, I have to hope the benefit of exposure to wider experience more than counteracted my inexperience in teaching, particularly in teaching what the pupils need to know if they are to progress well in the Filipino education system. I was there all day, every day, for them which is a plus. It would also be interesting to get thoughts from former Mohon pupils a few years on to see what lasting benefit they feel they got from the program.
On to advice for prospective volunteers I give the following in addition to the practical points I’ve already mentioned.
A key point is to remember that you have come here to teach. You are not helping out at a summer school where the emphasis is on fun and games. Whilst fun and games can be a part of your teaching method it must not be the core of what you do. The aim is to educate the children; in this school they have curriculum needs they must cover.
Also remember that teaching is work. You have come to work; it is not to be treated as an adventure holiday. Your presence is to benefit the children, it is not for your benefit (though you will benefit greatly as a spin-off).
The staff dress neatly and you should too. I always dressed in shirt, trousers and shoes. All the staff remarked on how pleased they were with this “professional” attitude compared to some other volunteers who came in vest, shorts and flip-flops. Teaching is a profession. Be professional. The holiday clothes can be saved for after hours.
Explore the village. You can get the children to show you round; they will appreciate your interest in where they live. I was shown the picnic meadow, the haunted house, the mad monkey and other delights.
Be on time. Even though the staff go absent on courses or whatever, the pupils will appreciate you always being there on time for them. It shows them you care.
Be very adaptable and have back-up items with your lesson plan as the school day can be disrupted without you having been told about it beforehand (though the other teachers know, they just don’t warn you).
You’ll have a wonderful experience and get lovely feedback from the children. Certainly I did. I hope my input merited what they gave to me.