Volunteering is a very large industry in Nepal. Whilst staying in backpacker hostels, you will easily lose count of the numbers of fellow travellers who either have been or will be engaged in some kind of voluntary work. And of the various types of volunteering (or ‘voluntourism’) on offer, one of the most common by far is teaching. The country is full of NGO’s and schools looking for westerners to come and teach – English lessons, mostly, although subjects do vary depending on the project. Most do not require a teaching qualification. It seems that, as a result of Nepal’s recent tourism boom, volunteers are increasingly seen as a way of plugging the holes in the country’s own fragmented education system. Willing to work for free (or even pay for the privilege), they can bring experience and expertise that local Nepali teachers might lack themselves. Naturally, a large number of schools, charities and religious institutions are now rushing to take advantage.
For would-be volunteers, there are a wide variety of opportunities on offer. In every town and city, there are several state-funded schools and private schools – with some of the latter run and funded by NGOs or charities – to cater for the country’s rapidly expanding population. These can be contacted through western organisations (which might charge fees), local NGOs or even directly by email. Some schools will have provision for volunteers; others won’t. But there are also a large number of Buddhist monasteries, looking to westerners to widen their young students’ knowledge of the world beyond pure religious teaching. In Nepal, and across Asia more generally, monasteries often act more as educational institutions where families will send their sons to learn – rather than their Western stereotype as places of seclusion and mysticism (which is possibly a product of their very different purpose in Christianity). As a result, time spent teaching in a monastery might not be very different from a more isolated school, aside from the added level of cultural immersion.
My own personal experience comes from four weeks teaching in the Karma Dubgya Chokhorling Monastery at Matepani Gumba, Pokhara, and a further week living and teaching at schools in Besisahar. I can honestly say that they were some of the most incredible experiences of my life so far. Both were rewarding – in some ways similarly, but in others very differently. They were also extremely challenging. If you are a prospective volunteer, you must be prepared to have your patience, your creativity and your communication skills tested relentlessly.
Of course, to get to that stage takes some planning. As I said above, there are a wide array of organisations with whom you can get in touch. Western charities are often a go-to, as they offer a sense of security and experience which might not be there with a local NGO. It is also easily possible to just turn up in the country and find a place to teach, if you’re willing to be flexible. I used a company called LoveVolunteers (and paid) for my stay at the monastery – many travellers, however, use Workaway as an easy means of finding employment. For my time in Besisahar, I was in direct contact with both the two schools I was to visit. I absolutely recommend doing it this way around if possible – though the organisation might be more difficult, you save money on unnecessary third-party fees. In retrospect, I would have preferred to liaise with the monastery directly in this way as well. However, I would have been unlikely to find the placement I did without LoveVolunteers’ help.
Day-to-day teaching experiences seem to be generally similar across the country, although of course the details and opportunities will vary depending on where you are. Most institutions have a habit of throwing you in at the deep end, with very limited resources (think a whiteboard and pen) and practically no instruction of what to do. Do not expect to have access to the textbooks the students use outside of lessons. Adaptation is key. During my time at Matepani Gumba and the Bhupu Sainik School in Pokhara, I was given very limited information about schedules (or even mealtimes) unless I specifically asked. Both places seemed to use me as an additional, spare resource and didn’t appear to have a proper plan as to how they could utilise me effectively. So you make do. You go with the flow.
I taught students across the ages of eight to eighteen. The class sizes I was given ranged from around nine to over twenty-five. This allowed for some great, personal interaction with the kids (especially the monks, who I was also eating with). However, there was a wide variation in classroom discipline – whereas Bhupu was relatively easy to control, and the students were generally engaged, the younger monks tried to run a riot. Part of the problem here was the language barrier: at Bhupu, all lessons aside from one were taught in English, meaning that when I told them to stop, they knew what I was staying. At Matepani, English lessons were either sporadic or poorly taught. My own lessons were just an addition to the timetable and as a result the students didn’t really care. This meant that I and the other volunteer I was with spent most of our planning time working out how to keep twelve-year olds engaged and learning (note: if you can, always volunteer with someone else. I couldn’t have done what I did on my own). Jana Bikas school – the other school in Besisahar – has similar issues with their English teaching, as their intake comes from a wide variety of backgrounds and levels of education. This is one of the key differences between working at state and private schools (Bhupu is the latter).
Schools and monasteries used to accommodating volunteers will almost certainly have rooms to stay in and food provided – if not, there will be a local guesthouse used to house them. I stayed at two eerily similar rooms whilst living in Matepani and at Bhupu Sainik – basic accommodation with no wifi and little else to connect you to the outside world. But I also took up the chance to stay with a teacher (Purna) from Jana Bikas school. She was my original contact in Besisahar and was a brilliant host. If you have the opportunity to stay with one of the teachers and really immerse yourself in local life, take it.
Staying at the monastery, I also had the chance to learn from the older monks about Buddhism. Again, if this sounds appealing, then monastery teaching is for you. The experience you have at a monastery – living and eating with the monks, talking to them, seeing them at prayers – is incomparable. Larger monasteries (such as the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu) also run classes which volunteers can attend. Whilst I found some features of staying in Besisahar similar, it was the feeling of being allowed into another world which set Matepani apart.
So, if any prospective volunteers are reading this and haven’t been put off yet… do it! Be wary of who it is you are volunteering with – for example, paying large fees is not necessary in any way. Expect to be pushed. Be adaptive and ready to challenge what you see, but also ready to learn. Nepal is a breathtaking country; you have to root down in it to fully appreciate everything you’re seeing.