Volunteer teachers’ top tip: “Be posted to Kulhudhufushi!”

International Volunteer Program (IVP) teachers Aideen Robbins and Kash Izydorczyk have one piece of advice for those who follow in their footsteps: “Make sure you are posted to Kulhudhufushi!”

The two teachers are almost halfway through their year in the Maldives and were in Male’ comparing notes with the other 11 volunteers under this year’s programme.

Aideen, orginally from Ireland, signed up as a volunteer in the Maldives after four years teaching in London.

“I’m 28 and felt like I just needed a change,” she says. “I saw the ad in the Times Educational supplement, and had no idea what to expect. At the interview they clarified that we were not going to the Maldives of resorts and beaches.”

Kash, who is from Poland, but grew up in Singapore, was fresh from studying International Education in Brighton, UK, and said she had been looking to do some volunteer development work somewhere in Asia.

“I have experience teaching English as a second language and wanted to keep hopping around the world for a while. I was considering Cambodia, Nepal and Thailand, but the Maldives interview came up first and it seemed the perfect place to go. I also thought it would be very interesting to live in a Muslim country – I’ve studied religion in the past and was interested in learning more,” she says.

The volunteer teachers met each other at the airport in Male’ at the beginning of the year, and were whisked off for a week of induction, including an island visit and a stay with a local family.

Kash and Aideen, who were teamed up together, began their time in the Maldives observing family life in Diffushi.

“We were shown our room on the first day we arrived, and the family would knock whenever it was meal time,” Aideen recalls. “There was not a lot of English spoken, but the kids really warmed up to us after a few days.”

They were then placed at their school of 360 students in grades 1-8 on Kulhudhufushi, an island of around 6000 people in the country’s north.

“I’m from a rural background in Ireland where I’m used to everyone knowing everybody else,” Aideen says, explaining that after a week, the islanders really warmed to the pair and began to invite them to picnics and night fishing expeditions.

“We’ve become close to some of the other teachers, they’ve been very happy with us asking questions,” Kash says.

Their fellow teachers and supervisors were very willing to help them navigate the teaching of sensitive subjects, they say, such as evolution, “although as I’m a maths teacher I’ve dodged that entirely,” says Aideen.

Kash, who teaches English and a social science component, said she was to advised to be careful, “and make sure the school knew what we were teaching. The supervisor was very open,” she said.

The teachers say they have been particularly impressed at the extent of the school’s resources.

“We are lucky to be at a school that has TV screens in every classroom – the resources are great and people seem to be very happy that we make full use of the IT,” Kash says.

Their supervisors have happily accepted a different style of teaching, the two teachers say, and were impressed at the reception for new ideas that was apparent during a Principal’s conference they attended.

Socially, Aideen and Kash have thrown themselves into the Kulhudhufushi’s sports scene. Aideen plays five-a-side football on weekends with the men, while Kash is coaching basketball.

“We play basketball every day,” she says. “We’ve also signed a basketball development contract with Male’s T-Rex team. There’s talk of bringing our team to Male’ now for a tournament.”

Meeting up with other volunteers this week, Aideen and Kash say they feel fortunate to have been posted to a larger, more populated island.

“They’ve had very different experiences to us,” says Aideen. “[Volunteers] on smaller islands in particular seem to have faced more challenges.”

Behavioural management issues seemed to be a challenge in some schools, Kash notes, such as “14-15 year old students who do not want to be there.”

“I think it has been easier for us because the school only goes up to grade eight and the students are not under the influence of older children,” she suggests.

A key adjustment the pair made soon after their arrival was “to adopt the same laid-back attitude as everyone else.”

“We laughed off things like broken water tanks, toilets, oven,” says Aideen. “You need to accept that things will take a little time to fix – don’t expect things to happen overnight.”

The pair were prepared to forego air-conditioning, but were delighted when it appeared in their bedrooms: “They have really been spoiling us,” Aideen says. “We also moved in straight away – one of the other teachers said she had been in temporary accommodation for months.”

The ‘last-minute’ cultural concept was an early challenge for those used to the relative punctuality and forward planning of the Western world.

“The clipboard would come around for signing at 3:00pm for a meeting at 8:30pm that night, which was completely alien to me,” Aideen says. “One night we were at school until midnight making banners for the next day – we didn’t mind at all, but you can’t imagine that happening in the UK.”

Such is the programme’s success that demand for volunteer teachers has boomed, notes head of the Maldives Volunteer Corps (MVC), Mariyam Seena: “we had over 80 requests from islands last year,” she says.

Budgetary and resource constraints limited that number to a maximum of 30, but in the end 13 volunteers were recruited. Seena attributed this to negative international publicity in the wake of the ‘Swiss Wedding’ incident at Vilu Reef Resort and Spa, “which occurred just before we started recruiting.”

“It was bad timing,” she noted.

Recruiting new teachers may not be difficult on Kulhudhufushi – Kash and Aideen say they have grown fond of their students and are contemplating seeing them through to their GSCEs in 2013.

“We’ve asked if at least it might be possible to maybe come back,” Kash says.

The IVP is intended to reduce the shortage of trained personnel in numerous sectors of the Maldives, including education and health. The 13 volunteer teachers were recruited by the Maldives High Commission in the UK, the Maldives Volunteer Corps (MVC) and UK-based NGO Friends of Maldives.


A little about Alison, IVP volunteer

Alison Warnock is a 24 year old from Edinburgh, Scotland. She describes herself as “a very over-enthusiastic Scottish girl” and says she absolutely loves the Maldives.

She is starting her second year teaching at Jalaluddin School in Kulhudhuffushi Island in Haa Dhaalu Atoll, in the upper-north province, as part of the International Volunteer’s Program (IVP).

She was working at a cancer charity in Scotland when her friend Sarah, who was also a volunteer in 2009, heard about the IVP. She asked Sarah if she could come along for the interview and got the job. Alison “saw what an incredible opportunity it was and took it.”

Her friends and family were all very excited about her coming, and some of them were slightly jealous. She says “there’s a misconception that every single island will look like the resort islands, with houses on stilts in the water and long, white sandy beaches.”

Even though she knew there would be some home comforts that she would miss, she packed her bags and flew half-way around the world.

Coming to Kulhudhuffushi

Alison arrived in the Maldives in May 2009 and taught until November of the same year. She then went home for five weeks and returned to the Maldives in January 2010.

Coming from a city like Edinburgh to a small island like Kulhuduffushi would be a great challenge for many people, but Alison says she “thrives in small communities”. She attended St. Andrew’s University, a soon-to-be 600 year old university in Scotland, which has “about 3,000 people less than the island.”

“I’m quite used to the small community feel where everybody knows your name. I like knowing where everything is and who everybody is. I love being in small communities, especially when everybody is so welcoming and friendly and everything is so beautiful.”

She says the entire community has been very supportive of her.

“If my washing machine isn’t working or I don’t know how to cook something, they all help me.” She says she never feels alone.

She is picking up some Dhivehi, but says she can understand a lot more than she can speak.

“My accent doesn’t help,” she says with a giggle, “it makes words sound completely wrong, and sometimes it just means a completely different thing.”

Her neighbour finds Alison “hilarious” and they have bilingual conversations in the mornings.

Jalaluddin School

Alison is currently teaching three biology classes at Jalaluddin School: two grade 9 classes and one grade 10 class. One of her grade 9 classes is one she also taught last year, and she says they work like a “well-oiled machine” now: “I’m getting used to them and they’re getting used to me.”

The school’s head of department gave her an “idea of what needs to be taught and over what time-frame” at the beginning of the term. The departments then have weekly meetings where they discuss what the students have been learning.

“You can’t choose what to teach, but you have freedom to do it in whatever way you want,” she says, adding that her students enjoy films and slideshows. She’s teaching them about the heart this week.

The program has provided her with everything she needs and she says “even the things I didn’t think I would need I can get easily on the island.”

The school went on a science trip once, and Alison says it was nice to be around her students in a non-classroom environment which allowed her to get to know them better.

“Everybody is really friendly, and we have been on some really nice staff trips. They have been some of the best days here for me, going on picnics to uninhabited islands.”

Home Sickness?

Alison has travelled to Canada and Thailand, among other places, but she has never been away from home for so long. “I’m really enjoying it, it’s an amazing country, it’s wonderful.”

The school organised a house for her, with bright purple and aqua walls, which is less than a five minute bicycle ride from the school.

“The house is so uplifting: I never feel depressed,” she says.

Although every now and then she gets a craving for something (unhealthy) to eat from back home, “some ice cream or chocolate or popcorn,” she says she loves Maldivian food. “It’s so healthy and tasty; just looking at my skin I can see how good the food is for me.”

Alison also tutors a girl after class and says the girl’s mother has just about adopted her. “She’s always checking up on me and she gives me dinner.”

Alison says she’s very lucky that the school has really good internet access.

“The internet just makes the world so much smaller. I can keep in touch with everyone,” she says. She speaks to her parents every Friday so she doesn’t “feel so far away.”

She loves the lifestyle, the colours, the food, the weather, the view, and her job. And she says if she ever gets stressed, she just has to walk 500 feet and she’s at a spectacular beach: “What’s not to like?”

Alison will continue to teach until November this year, when she will decide whether or not to renew her contract for a third year. “I don’t know if I will renew it again,” she says. “It’s something about the Maldives, I don’t have to look too far ahead.”

There are currently fourteen other education volunteers in different islands throughout the Maldives working through the IVP.

The International Volunteer’s Program (IVP) began operating in 2009 in a partnership between Friends of Maldives (FOM), the Ministry of Health and Family, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is coordinated principally by the Maldivian High Commission in London.

Its intent is to recruit qualified teachers and health professionals from overseas. The education volunteers teach in local schools in small island communities.