Teaching Abroad: What I learnt

Teaching Abroad: What I learnt

There is a lot to be said for sticking your neck out and trying your hand at something completely new and different when you’re volunteering abroad. However, a lot can also be said for utilising skills where you have a proven track record because, ultimately, you’re there to do a role that is needed, and sometimes the place you volunteer at may well require you to have the relevant experience for the work you’re doing.

In the case of me teaching, I have experience of teaching whole classes of kids mostly at secondary (high school) level, but I also have some primary (elementary) experience as well. It is all, however, experience that is within the confines of the United Kingdom, with all that this entails in terms of its subject content, examples of best practice and pedagogy, and overall cultural influence.

When I applied to teach in Uganda it was made clear that no teaching experience was required; interestingly, since then, the company in question now ‘strongly encourages’ those who are applying to teach on one of their programmes to get a TEFL qualification. And I can understand why…


The teaching profession is one that gets unfairly knocked in some quarters: ever heard the expression ‘those who can’t, teach’? Some no doubt assume you clock off at 3pm every day, and it’s a simple case of standing in front of a classroom of kids and stuffing their heads full of knowledge. Oh yeah and you get all the long school holidays. Nice gig huh? Ah if only it were that simple…

First of all, kids can misbehave. If you’re boring the pants off a room full of adults, the worst that can happen is that they’ll probably just start playing with their phone. Kids can disrupt your lesson in a variety of ways, some of them unpleasant (ever been sworn or spat at by a kid? I have). So you need to engage them, and often that means planning a well-paced lesson that will meaningfully educate everyone from the brightest sparks to the biggest strugglers. Oh yeah and you need to assess the progress of each and every one of them as you go along too.

So teaching in your own country is something that can most definitely turn your brain to mush. Doing it in a strange land and way outside of your comfort zone? Now that’s a bigger challenge all together, and that’s how it was for me at St Andrew’s Primary School in Kampala, Uganda.

On a normal day, 60-odd children were crammed in to the mud-walled, dust-etched, barely-furnished classrooms I taught in. I taught three separate classes (P4, P5 and P6, who ranged in age from 8 to 11 years old) a mixture of Maths, English and Religious Education. The last of these was most interesting because I happen to be an atheist. In terms of resources, there was typically one text book per class, so we teachers were obliged to painstakingly copy out whole pages of textbooks word for word, on to the battered blackboards.

How do they teach in Uganda? More or less through learning-by-rote. You know, teacher writes something on the board, asks the kids to recite it back at them, keep repeating until hardwired in to the brain. Now this wasn’t for me: I’m more used to actively engaging with them, asking them questions, encouraging them to make mistakes on their way to the right answer. However, early attempts to impress this on my Ugandan charges were met with baffled silences and wide-eyed stares of the ‘what is this crazy Mzungu (non-African person) doing?’ variety.


Then, of course, there was the stick. Take a guess what it was used for. During my first blissfully ignorant few days, I thought it was simply used as a measurement tool for drawing graphs on the board. Then a boy from the class next door came in and asked me for ‘the stick’; a few seconds later I heard the unmistakable sound of wood smacking on flesh, the teacher shouting reprimands as he walloped his silent victim. I stood in gape-mouthed silence for a good few seconds; the kids in my class, unfazed by the commotion they were all too accustomed to, politely waited for me to continue.

It’s fair to say that it was a struggle for me at first. Was I getting anywhere with these kids? Was I doing more harm than good? After all, the teachers here know the Ugandan educational system, and by extension Ugandan society, better than I ever could. So isn’t it rather arrogant of me to think my ‘Western’ ways are superior? Ultimately, as with all teachers across the world, they are striving to do the very best for the children in their care; and if that means caning them for apparent misdemeanours, then so be it.

I could’ve sulked, I could’ve stubbornly persisted, or I could’ve caved in and just copied the other teachers. Instead, I compromised. Yes, I decided, let’s allow them to do some of the reading off the board stuff. And yes, let’s mark and assess the work exactly as the teachers told me to. But no, I’m not going to cane them. And no, I’m not going to stop asking them questions. So I kept at it and, if I was met with a silence, I wouldn’t try to fill it. Instead, I would praise them if they got it right, and try to encouragingly equip them with the tools to work out the right answer if they got it wrong.


And you know what? It started to work. OK, so they were fascinated by the crazy Mzungu and they liked my novelty value – plus I did teach them a few songs and they love to sing – but, by taking a softly-softly approach and mingling it with the teaching methods they were used to, they gradually warmed to my actual teaching too. Even better still, some of the other teachers at the school started to incorporate what I was doing in to their own lessons. This could not have been easy for them, but the fact they were willing to give it a go shows that they were every bit – if not more – open-minded about approaches to teaching as me.

I should add at this point that I learnt a lot from the kids too, who were simply remarkable. But that’s another post for another day. As far as what teaching itself taught me, I learnt to appreciate that the way I’d learned to teach is not always better all of the time in all of the world. But I did learn that – through resilience, patience and flexibility – it can work some of the time. And, after all, isn’t showing such qualities in the face of challenges, and learning about yourself and others in the process, what volunteering abroad is all about?



  • James Cottreau

    January 23, 2016 at 12:26 pm Reply

    Not only does one learn, but one learns how to give rather than take……..Great achievement…truly !

    • Joe

      January 23, 2016 at 6:33 pm Reply

      Thank you! But it is also true that I still have much to learn 🙂

  • Tania

    January 23, 2016 at 12:56 pm Reply

    I am about to start my teaching stint and this article helped me a lot!

    • Joe

      January 23, 2016 at 6:28 pm Reply

      Glad it was useful 🙂 Look forward to hearing more about how you get on in your teaching stint!

  • Derek Cullen

    January 24, 2016 at 1:23 pm Reply

    I remember doing a lot of searching for articles like this when I was first looking into TEFL Joe, but I could never find any real life experiences that were put in such a practical means as this, so thanks – I’m sure many others will get a lot out of this post 🙂


    • Joe

      January 24, 2016 at 1:32 pm Reply

      Thanks very much Derek, it means a lot to get comments like this. I left the school wishing that I could have given more to them, so hopefully those who read this will want to do something similar. There are plenty of schools out there who need all the help they can get!

  • Nikki

    January 24, 2016 at 1:37 pm Reply

    I can relate to this on so many levels Joe. I had a very difficult start at my school and asked the very same questions myself. I think I had very naive views before I started and didn’t quite anticipate what an emotional and physical challenge it would be. But it was certainly a challenge that I am thankful for every day.

    • Joe

      January 24, 2016 at 1:48 pm Reply

      It absolutely is something that pushes you way out of your comfort zone, and it’s what makes it such a great experience. I think it’s perhaps something we can all stumble in to with some naivety, and – like yourself, I’m sure – I feel like the experience has equipped me to do better with similar volunteering posts in the future.

  • Kathryn Burrington

    January 24, 2016 at 3:22 pm Reply

    Wonderful to read this insist into volunteer teaching in a culture so different from your own. Teaching children anywhere is a very daunting prospect for me. Looking forward to reading more.

    • Joe

      January 24, 2016 at 4:15 pm Reply

      Well, it’s not for everyone of course! But it’s all about finding what volunteer work you can do – you’ll be out of your comfort zone even if you’re doing something you’ve got years of experience in. But so worth it afterwards!

  • Cathy

    January 24, 2016 at 10:47 pm Reply

    Thank you first of all for volunteering! Very interesting to hear about their teaching styles. I pinned this a couple of time:)

    • Joe

      January 24, 2016 at 11:25 pm Reply

      Thank you Cathy, I very much appreciate it 🙂

  • Dara Denney

    January 25, 2016 at 4:43 pm Reply

    Hi Joe! Great website. I had a very similar experience teaching in Ghana. Every time they would use the cane on my kids I would wince; I couldn’t control it. Sadly, it became normalized for me since I ended up staying for seven months. You can’t change everything, and like I learned: you can’t change most things.

    • Joe

      January 25, 2016 at 8:01 pm Reply

      Hi Dara, thanks for getting in touch. It’s a very uncomfortable experience isn’t it? But as you say, it is what it is, and whilst you can’t change most things, it’s all worth it for the little things you can change. Any good we can do – no matter how small – makes it all worthwhile 🙂

  • Sarah

    January 25, 2016 at 6:40 pm Reply

    Fantastic! Thanks for all of the work you did. You have a fantastic heart! What a rewarding experience!

    • Joe

      January 25, 2016 at 8:02 pm Reply

      That’s very kind of you to say so…thank you 🙂

  • Ashley

    January 26, 2016 at 9:37 pm Reply

    I have been thinking about teaching abroad for many years, and love to volunteer with children. I really enjoyed reading about your amazing experience!

    • Joe

      January 26, 2016 at 10:15 pm Reply

      Thank you, glad to hear you enjoyed the read…and if it’s inspired you to give it a go yourself, then all the better 🙂

  • Vee N Ric

    January 27, 2016 at 8:35 pm Reply

    Hi Joseph.
    Very interesting facts you have shared about teaching in Uganda.
    When did you go there? For how long will you be here?
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Joe

      January 27, 2016 at 11:45 pm Reply

      Hi there. I was there for a month in 2013. Hope to go back one day 🙂 Any more questions do let me know!

  • Cynthia @Journal of Nomads

    August 27, 2016 at 7:34 am Reply

    I really enjoyed reading about your experiences Joe! It was very similar in Senegal and back then I was so young and naive that I had a hard time dealing with it all! Still, I don’t regret it one single bit as it has taught me so so much!! Oh, and the kids indeed love songs 🙂 I’m happy you stayed strong and found a way to compromise and enjoy the experience!

    • Joe

      August 27, 2016 at 7:58 am Reply

      Thanks Cynthia 🙂 The first time is always the hardest, especially if you haven’t got much experience, and being thrown in at the deep end is challenging…but as you say you can learn so much from the experience too.

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