Being A Better Volunteer

Madeline Wilkerson

I’ve been at Dandelion for about a month and a half now, and I’ve seen a lot of volunteers come and go. Some of them I’ve really gotten along with, some of them not so much, but honestly that doesn’t matter. Seeing other volunteers at the school besides myself, working with the kids I’ve gotten to know pretty closely, has made me reflect on the role of volunteers at the school and my own role here at Dandelion.

I came here knowing that there wasn’t much I could do. I came here knowing that my primary purpose was to build relationships and try to help my students as best I could, but in the long run, I wasn’t going to be able to change years and years of structural inequalities. It’s important to acknowledge that you’re coming here for a purpose, I think, but also important to acknowledge that your coming to the place is problematic in many ways.

One example of the problematic nature of volunteers coming to Dandelion is the fact that they literally have to rearrange and change things for these volunteers. When we came to Dandelion, they took away a period of study time from the kids for us to teach them Oral English. This period of time could have been spent studying for the exams that were quickly approaching or doing the loads of homework they’re assigned every night. But no, the period was taken from them and given to us.

I don’t think that this means we should ban all volunteers from Dandelion altogether. I know that we have a monetary benefit to the school and we might’ve also helped some of the children improve their English, as well as taken some of the burden off of the primary teachers. But I think there are some things that volunteers should keep in mind when coming into a new place.

First of all, there will be practices and things you don’t agree with. I could say this almost certainly for any place. There may be practices you don’t think are efficient or rules you don’t think are ethical. I would encourage you, though, that in at least the first little bit of time, not to break these rules or speak out against them. I would encourage you instead to find out the reasoning behind these practices and, if you still find it to be that big of a problem, seek out an alternative solution.

Second of all, I would hope that you will keep your privilege in mind. As I’ve been reminded many times throughout the summer (and yes, I definitely needed to be reminded!), I have a ticket back to America at the end of the summer. That is something that the students and most of the full-time teachers do not have. Many of my students may never leave the country. Many may not even get to go to college. There are so many power dynamics at play here, and I have to keep these dynamics in mind when I interact with my students.

Third, I would also be careful about documentation. I’m going to be honest here, I take a lot of pictures of my kids! However, I make sure to ask them before I take them so the kids can choose how they will look in the image. Second of all, I never post them on social media sites. I’m sure if I asked my kids if I could post them on Facebook, they’d say yes, but there are also many power dynamics at play here – they may feel they don’t have the power to say no, or that I will be angry if they say no, or they may not even know what Facebook is. Regardless, most of us just stay away from documentation of our students via social media altogether. I don’t mean to say that documentation in every program is wrong, but definitely consider what is ethically sound to post on social media, the consent obtained, and how the subjects will be displayed.

Fourth, you should know your reasons for going. Many people embark on these volunteering trips as ‘journeys for self-discovery’. My problem with this, though, is that in situations like the one at Dandelion, your ‘self-discovery’ could possibly interfere with the real lives of innocent children. Your reason for going should be to help others, and maybe, just maybe, self-discovery will occur along the way. But all in all, the trip isn’t really about you. This is definitely something I’ve struggled with, but I try to keep it in mind.

Fifth, it’s important to know that you don’t have all of the answers. You might have taken an education class in college, sure, but that doesn’t mean you know more than the teachers that have education degrees and experiences! You’re not a professional. I’m most certainly not. That’s okay! It’s important to be humble and learn from your superiors.

I know it’s a lot to take in. I know it’s definitely a lot to keep in mind at one time. But at the same time, I think these are very important distinctions. I feel as though if all of these things are taken into consideration, there will be more ethically conscious and helpful volunteers.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Eric Mlyn says:

    Thanks very much for your very insightful and honest reflection on your role at Dendelion. Eric Mlyn


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