Miss Anna Müller from Germany volunteered at Horizon Academy – Ukkulankulama operated by the Horizon Lanka Foundation in August 2019.
Volunteering at Horizon Academy
The Horizon Academy made it possible for me to get an insight into the Sri Lankan teaching culture.
As I just finished my Master’s Degree in Teaching in Germany, I decided to volunteer at a school in Sri Lanka for a couple of weeks before I actually start traveling. I was really looking forward to it but did not really know what to expect. Nanda, who organizes everything regarding the volunteers, always answered my questions via email. However, I could not really imagine what kind of classes there will be, what the students’ English knowledge would be like and whether I will be teaching completely alone or co-teaching with somebody else. But I was okay with just going with the flow.
When I finally got to Sri Lanka, I had to realize, though, that all students are on holiday and that I will not be able to teach at a public school where I’d meet the students over and over again every week to actually connect to them and work with them. I was a little disappointed at first.
Instead, I was taken to different private English classes by one of the teachers in all the villages around Mihintale. They take place after school, also during the holidays, but only once a week. This means that I only saw some of the classes once or twice which made it difficult for the kids to open up to me, but they were still happy to show me their homework, to ask me different questions about my background and to play little games with me.
For me, the teaching here is completely different than at home (which was to expect) and since I have been teaching for 1, 5 years in Germany as well, it wasn’t always easy to understand. The first couple of days were long and without knowing what the students already know, I was supposed to do something with them. Something of my choice, which seemed kind of random to me at first, but it didn’t take me long to open up and to see this as a chance to interact with the students and to get them to speak to me since they were all willing to learn, motivated and interested, but also very shy. So I used the opportunity to teach some vocabulary, play some English games, sometimes even teach a grammar lesson and to just generally speak to all of the kids who are very sweet. Most important is that they start speaking and interacting with foreigners. I had the impression that they learn a lot of grammar but do not really know how to use it in free speech so I tried to just get them to form sentences and speak, either to me or to one another.
So, I definitely don’t want to deter anybody. It was definitely a good experience and so interesting to see how English classes work here. For next time, though, I’d prefer to go to both public school and private classes to actually be able to work more intensively with the students.
This was possible at the 10-day English camp that I was able to partly conduct. I was lucky that it took place during my time there.
So if you’re planning on volunteering, ask all the questions you have before. But be open-minded and try to improvise, maybe keep some games or songs in mind for the kids. It’s not about teaching them every grammar rule but to actually get them to open up and communicate in the foreign language.
10-day English camp at the Academy
During my stay in Mihintale, I was able to teach some lessons during the 10-day English camp, the students signed up for during their holidays. It took place every morning from 8:30-1:15 for two weeks. I was only there for the second week, if I had known about it before, I would have loved to teach the whole 10 days, but unfortunately, I didn’t. I really enjoyed my time at the camp because I could see the same kids every day, really work with them in a way I would at home, introduce a sports game to them during lunch break and chat with them during breakfast. The kids were lovely, they all opened up to me, were so proud and happy to meet a foreigner and also so thankful which is a great feeling.
Every morning they came running towards me to welcome me and spoiled me with treats from home or from the shop (which I wasn’t always comfortable with but they wouldn’t let me refuse it.) I had a good time and I felt like the kids actually made a little progress.
The camp ended with a class trip to Kandy which I was able to join. It was a crazy experience. Lots of suddenly hyperactive kids, who bought vuvuzelas the moment we stopped for breakfast (which was really tiring at some point.) But like every other kid, they used the fact that they were away from home and their parents.
We visited a temple along the way and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya in Kandy which was nice. However, a long journey for just a day. We left Mihintale at 4:30 am and left Kandy around 6 pm for another 4-hour drive back.
The parents and kids made the best out of it, singing and dancing on the bus. It was great to see them like that.
Although it was a very long and exhausting day, it was a lot of fun and a great experience. Everybody treated me very well and wanted to take care of me, especially treating me with food and candy.
Life with my hosts and in the village
I really enjoyed staying in a host family because you actually get a chance to get to know the life and culture here. The family was really kind, always tried to help, made way too much food for me (but that seems to be a typical Sri Lankan thing in general).
Some aspects I really had to get used to was not to be able to wear shorts in the heat (which I wasn’t really prepared for) and to always cover especially when going outside, eating with my hands (which was actually fun) and the living standards here. However, since I’ve seen other Asian countries before, it was easy to adapt to it. I had my own room and everybody accepted when I needed some alone time. But I still had to (and wanted to) play at least 5 games of yatzy every day, a game I taught them because the only thing I had with me was some dice. I loved it though to see the kids happy and it was actually quite sad to leave after all.
I lived with 3 girls, their mother and their grandmother. Their father works for the army and is usually away working and only comes home for a few days every 4 weeks which means that I didn’t get to meet him. The girls were fun and very sweet, it was sometimes quite boring in the village because there was actually nothing to do. I took a day trip to Mihintale and Anuradhapura and used the rest of the time to prepare for classes, read or learn some Spanish. It was okay for two weeks but I don’t think I could imagine living here for longer than maybe a month. Maybe if there were public school at that time as well, it would have been even better because I could have spent more time at school.
Generally, I can say that people in Sri Lanka are very friendly, welcoming and always ready to help. They love to spoil you with food and to ask you where you’re from. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to get to know so many children and families and to really dive into the culture. I’m really looking forward to my travels now and to see more of the island.
It is definitely an experience I will never forget and I’m happy to have been able to teach the kids something new and get them to open up when speaking to foreigners.
Anna Müller, 25, Germany