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Nonprofit Helps Meet Worldwide Need For Teachers


Nonprofit Group Helps Meet Worldwide Need for Teachers

Some middle schools in China are welcoming young Americans into their classrooms to guide students in the pronunciation of English. In Namibia, American volunteers are helping integrate computers into the classroom and teaching English, math, science and HIV/AIDS awareness.

These countries and a dozen others around the world are turning to the American nonprofit group WorldTeach to find teachers for struggling schools and schools that need native English speakers. In 2007, WorldTeach provided more than 350 college graduates and undergraduates as volunteer teachers in developing countries for yearlong and summer programs.

"We partner with ministries of education and try to fill whatever need they themselves define," Helen Claire Sievers, executive director of WorldTeach, told USINFO.

Since its inception in 1986, WorldTeach, which is affiliated with Harvard University's Center for International Development, has sent nearly 3,800 volunteers to developing countries throughout the world. Most volunteers are American, but a few come from England, Canada and elsewhere. They must be native English speakers and have at least a bachelor's degree, although undergraduates can apply for summer programs. Some countries pay part of the cost of the volunteers' transportation, living expenses and a small stipend, but many volunteers pay all their expenses by conducting fundraising drives in their home towns.

WorldTeach has programs in Bangladesh, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guyana, the Marshall Islands, Mongolia, Namibia, Pohnpei (Micronesia), Poland, South Africa and Venezuela. It also plans to expand to American Samoa, Kosrae (Micronesia) and Rwanda. "I think the word is getting out," said Sievers. "We're beginning to be seen as a resource for sending bright, caring young Americans abroad to help in educational systems."

China receives the largest number of volunteers, between 50 and 60 per year. One was Ellen Stanley, who taught oral English during the 2005-2006 school year in a middle school in Changsha, China, focusing on improving students' speaking skills. (English grammar and vocabulary are taught by native Chinese teachers.)

Stanley told the students about American holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving, and they, in turn, celebrated Teachers Day and other Chinese holidays with her. "It was an opportunity for a real cultural exchange," she told USINFO.

Stanley said she tried to give the students "a real Western perspective instead of just the one they see on TV."

All WorldTeach volunteers receive a monthlong orientation focused on teaching skills, language training and cultural sensitivity. "You're taught the cultural values of the country where you'll be living, to have respect for it and to know that there will be significant differences from what you are used to. Some are not comfortable with the cultural changes. I loved it," Stanley said. Like most other volunteers, she became proficient in the local language - in this case, Mandarin.

Cynthia Berning, who also served in Changsha, said she saw part of her job as "being an ambassador." She taught the students about debating and voting, often asking them to vote on questions such as which student wrote the funniest story, what attraction should she (Berning) see in China, and whether intellectual property rights protection is good or bad for China. "When I could find an excuse to have them vote, I would," she said.

"You're a representative of your country," said Ellen Boomer, who taught English to secondary school students in Thailand's Nakorn Pathom province. "They are coming to conclusions about what Americans are like. It sort of puts pressure on you to be mindful. For instance, if I got frustrated with the bureaucracy at school, I tried not to complain to my Thai hosts. They deal with it, and I have to do the same."

Boomer, who now teaches at a high school near Washington, said the Thai teachers "were very welcoming and friendly," and they and the students frequently invited her to their homes for dinner.

The students "were eager to learn English," she said. "They were respectful -- they stood up when you enter the room and when you leave. I kind of miss that."

WorldTeach encourages volunteers to spend time outside the classroom on community service projects. Sievers told of a volunteer who raised $7,000 through her contacts in the United States to buy 1,400 bed nets to prevent malaria in Namibia. Others have built playgrounds (through fundraising and hands-on construction work), basketball courts and libraries. A volunteer in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, raised nearly $10,000 for scholarships for people to attend local English language classes. Other volunteers have organized musical and dramatic productions, debate clubs, environmental cleanups and women's craft groups.

"We try to find meaningful things that we can do in countries," Sievers said. "You don't want to be a drain on the resources of the people where you are going. I'm very leery of burdening anybody with short-term volunteers, which is why we only have a few summer programs."

"All of us need to think hard about that and make sure we really are wanted -- that we're really providing a valuable service," she said.

ENDS

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