Education is seen as way out of poverty in Ethiopia, and even though it is free, the system needs a lot of work. Classrooms are overcrowded and many turn to the profession with little training, so there’s a great need to improve teaching standards. VSO volunteer Dhamayanthi Sangarabalan spent two years training teachers in the town of Abi Adi and, amidst her day-to-day work, found herself inspiring hundreds of teachers in a country where there are so few.
Why did you decide to volunteer?
I had lived in Africa as a child and had experienced life in a developing country. At that young age I was deeply affected by the poverty of the people, but I also appreciated the simpler way of life and sense of community that came with living there. I discovered as an adult you could volunteer with VSO, so I decided then that when I had a suitable skill to offer and the time was right, I would apply to be a volunteer.
Describe what you were doing in Ethiopia
I was working as an in-service teacher trainer and a special needs education adviser in the Abi Adi College of Teacher Education. This was a college for about 600 young men and women who were taking a three-year course to become primary school teachers. The town of Abi Adi is situated in the Tigray region, high in the beautiful Ethiopian Highlands – a very remote setting, but a place I grew very fond of.
What is the education system like in Ethiopia?
The education system is very prescriptive, the teacher knows everything and the students must memorise what they are told. When it comes to taking exams, pupils simply repeat what they've been told even if they do not understand the concept or know how to apply their thinking in a new context. Student teachers have often been through this experience themselves and find it hard not to copy the way that they were themselves taught.
Can a UK trained teacher add value in a country like Ethiopia?
UK teachers are highly skilled at seeing pupils as individuals, managing classroom behaviour in a positive manner and developing independence in learning, thinking skills, cooperative learning, formative assessment strategies and many other aspects that make the learning and teaching process engaging and relevant. Sharing very simple techniques that are instinctive as classroom teachers in the UK can make a big difference to student teachers and the classes they go on to teach.
Describe a typical day on placement
I wake up at my college house around 8am, enjoy a leisurely breakfast and wander to my office – a mere five minutes walk down a dirt track, past my colleagues’ houses with the children usually running up to greet me. Once in the office I may be planning some training, supporting instructors in the college and guiding student teachers. Work life runs at a much slower pace than in the UK, so there would be quite a number of visits to the staffroom for tea with a colleague. I often take the staff bus to the town centre to get some lunch and then carry on with work in the afternoon. In the evening, I make a dinner with my husband, drop in on a colleague to share some Ethiopian coffee, read, watch a DVD or catch up with emails.
What's your most memorable experience?
Far too many to recall! Spending time with Ethiopian friends, watching the sunrise over the mountains, watching camels sauntering into the market with huge blocks of salt, and learning to dance with my shoulders are amongst them. There were also countless shared moments with other VSO volunteers, who become very much like your family, sharing the experience with you and giving you support.
Best and worst moments?
It can often be frustrating working and living in a developing country. At work, there was hierarchy in the management system, where a top-down approach was used. You have to get to know people, build relationships and work together with local people to help improve their lives rather than rushing in with your own ideas that may not fit in their context. You learn to be patient, to develop resilience when things don't go to plan and become creative and innovative in getting things done. Often I find the best moments come from what were originally the worst times - when you've helped turn things around and you know how much effort and skill it took to get there.
How was it living long-term in Ethiopia?
When I first came to Abi Adi, I thought it was a very small town and wondered how I'd cope there for a year! But I grew to love living in a quiet and peaceful place with beautiful scenery, amazing wildlife and endless sunshine. I loved shopping at the market, where I could buy fresh organic fruit and vegetables and spend hours in various coffee shops, watching the world go by. Once a month or so I'd take the bus to the city of Mekele where I could meet other volunteers and treat myself to things like pizza and cake. It was nice to get the best of rural and city life in this way.
How was it working with children in Ethiopia?
The children in Ethiopia were delightful. In Abi Adi they soon all knew who I was and I could walk along the road with cries of 'Dharma!' coming from the homes along the route! Sometimes the attention could be overwhelming but for the most part I liked to stop, shake hands and chat with the children. The children in schools loved to see you but were often shy, especially the girls. As a female volunteer it was really good to be there for them as a role model. They don't see many women in professional working roles in villages and towns so you hope your presence can help set an example.
What would you say to other teachers considering volunteering?
VSO is a career choice, not a career break. I came back to my primary school in Scotland and took on a greater leadership and management role. Through VSO I enhanced my skills in planning and organisation, communication skills, working with people and motivating and encouraging others. I'm able to think on my feet much more, multi-task, problem solve creatively and remain calm under pressure. Being a VSO volunteer has enabled me to step back from the frantic pace of today's teaching profession and evaluate where I was in my job and what my own next steps are, as well as giving me the chance to remember the many good reasons why I became a teacher in the first place.