Being a long-term VSO volunteer: accounting for my time with VSO.

Moira Laidlaw, 4 December 2006, Beijing.


My volunteership has cost VSO 70,000 pounds sterling over five years (2001–2006), plus the stipend and accommodation for my six-month placement in Beijing as the programme office volunteer (August 2006-January 2007). This is a large investment for any NGO. My background in educational research and evaluation, as well as a sense of ethical responsibility, means I feel the need to account for that investment as well as saying something about the worthwhileness of my VSO work that cannot be measured in terms of money. I want to celebrate my years as a VSO volunteer.


I came to China in August 2001. I had a sense of privilege in being able to make such a choice. My educational background was certainly privileged in the sense that I gained my higher degrees through sponsorship. It was as if the more I wanted, the more I was given. There came a point for me when this good-fortune ceased to be inspirational and became a burden: I had to pay it back somehow. I was given a placement in rural China at VSO's cost. I had, therefore, to make it work. For me, volunteering isn't just about doing some worthwhile work for little pay, it's about living in the community and becoming part of something larger. It really is about sharing dreams and making them come true.


Since 1978 I have been a teacher and love it. Teaching is my life. I love that sense of influencing people to sense their own empowerment. I love being a part of the growth of the human spirit, which is what I take education to be for. The inequities for people living in different geographical locations in the world have always disturbed me. Isn't education a human right? I think it is. Or let's put it this way, if I can have all these benefits, then why can't everyone else? It's simple, really!


I came to China as a methodology and oral English teacher. Late Winter, and early in my volunteering days in Guyuan, I visited a secondary school in the Jingyuan mountains, a remote rural setting two hours from Guyuan. This school had an agreement with Guyuan Teachers College for annual in-service training and my dean asked me to help. What I saw there changed my life. Children walking two hours to school, in all weathers, poorly shod, grubby clothing, and accompanied by as little as a hunk of bread to last them for the whole day - to lessons full of ritual and form, but little spiritual or emotional nourishment it seemed to me. Children sat ramrod straight, shivering in rows, or huddled together with the cold at break-times, eyes bright and gleaming with hope despite the conditions; I was moved to tears. This just wasn't fair. I had found something to ground my volunteering ethic. The purposes of VSO in China made sense to me now. It was worth investing all this time and money and expertise across the world in order to do something about this! But it would require a consciously minimizing inequalities. How could I do that? How could I work in such a way to enable the educational processes to be a part of the solution to the problems VSO highlights as poverty, disadvantage and lack of empowerment? The 'problem' had a human face, and it had become a moral imperative. It was about Tian Mei and Zhang Guozhong, two children I met in Jingyuan. It became about Ma Ling and her younger sister Ma Juan, two beggar girls in Guyuan. If poverty and disadvantage are the problems, then I believed education to be the solution. In addition, I was to learn how vital it is for a volunteer to integrate with her colleagues, students and community. There is nothing a volunteer can do on their own. We have to work together. Indeed, working together is the point! 'Sharing skills changing lives' isn't just VSO's maxim, it's the process of volunteering.


It was after the trip to Jingyuan that I understood more about the purpose of my placement. The first term (before Jingyuan) was oppressive for me. I was homesick, culture-shocked, lonely, out of my depth, confused, angry that China wasn't England, with a stomach that wouldn't settle down to the climate or the food, and a sense of unease that wouldn't let me sleep either. I don't know how I survived that first term. I hated it. But I had that sense of obligation because of the sponsorship, because I'd burnt my boats in England to some degree, and because I'm stubborn and proud. I wasn't about to give up. I went home to England after the first term, and a good friend said to me I had a choice. Change China, or change myself! Not much of a dilemma, that one!


After Jingyuan, though, my placement began to make some sort of sense. It took me weeks after going there to get the images of the children out of my mind when I went to bed at night. Their eager, sweet, innocent little faces, pinched with cold, taut with hunger, looked with avid interest at the foreigner, crowding round me for hugs at the end of the lesson I observed. My students at the college would regale me with tales of their backgrounds. Out of the hundreds I've heard and privately wept over, I will never forget the story of one young lad, who, from childhood had lived in a remote country area, with only a dog as a companion for his youth, all the other children from the neighbourhood having managed to secure places in a school. He worked on the land during the day and read by candlelight at night, when the family could afford a candle. It was his isolation that seemed particularly poignant. That he had finally reached Guyuan Teachers College was the summit of achievement to him. He wept when he spoke about his pride at gaining a place there!


Other students told me of the health-problems of their families. Some were missing one or both parents, or had lost siblings. Many existed on a pittance at college, and had the prospect of going back to their country villages after graduation to a life of servitude and duty. The aim of their education was to enable them to serve their families and raise the next generation. These young people weren't getting a lot out of it in ways we might demand in the North. Yet they would turn up to my lessons with a smile, with a will to work, with a sense of purpose, never a complaint. Their enthusiasm for learning, their gratitude for the opportunities for an education, were touching and they humbled me. I tried to make my lessons as worthwhile and fun as possible.


Perhaps it all sounds so serious. It had its lighter moments I can assure you. Like the time I was walking down the street and two little girls rushed up to me, stood in front of me so I had to stop, looked up at me with their beautiful, cheeky little faces, and started singing 'Row, row, row your boat, gently down the street'''' I stood mesmerized. They sang it twice, serious little faces, eyes riveted onto mine, and then, when they'd finished, they looked at each other, looked at me again, waved and ran away!


Or like the time a man was cycling past on his bike, pulling a laden cart, and being unable to take his eyes away from this weird-looking foreigner, went crashing into a tree. I shouldn't have laughed, but it was funny. I helped him pick up the apples and we laughed together.


Then there was the time when a VSO colleague organized the whole of Grade Two students in a Christmas extravaganza, to present small plays and songs and entertainment for the whole department. At one point, there was an exchange of presents, and all the students, all 180 of them equipped with a small gift, were handed a student number from another class. They then went to find their designated partner to exchange gifts. The spirit of camaraderie in that room was something I'll never forget.


Luckily I was working with Tian Fengjun, dean of the Department of Languages and Literature at the college in Guyuan, a small city in the south of this Hui (Moslem) Autonomous region. We developed a wonderful synergy between us in our years of working together. He wanted improvement in educational provision for students and colleagues and actively pursued in-service training opportunities. He told me, though, that he wasn't really satisfied with the training in terms of subsequent benefits for teaching and learning. Everyone was working hard, but where were the practical benefits? I had a background in classroom research and was an advocate of action research to improve teaching and learning. I'd spent ten years using action research in England in secondary schools and Higher education. Action Research (AR) is a form of research, which looks at how individuals can improve something in their teaching in order to improve the quality of learning. I hadn't anticipated using this particular framework in China, but Dean Tian quickly grasped the opportunity.


We worked with a few colleagues to begin with, and then with more and more, as we encouraged them to look at their teaching and find practical solutions to problems. Our Action Research group took off in the middle of the second year, and by the end of that term we had about 25 colleagues involved in researching their teaching. In addition we introduced AR to a Hui Middle School in Haiyuan (about a hundred km from Guyuan), and gradually built up active involvement by 14 teachers from the English department looking into issues to do with improving their students' oral or written capacities in line with the values and processes of the New Curriculum.


At the end of 2003, coinciding with a visit by an internationally-renowned action researcher from Britain, Professor Jean McNiff, we opened China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching. Our research was to concentrate on the implementation of the New Curriculum in China. (See for pictures and information as well as and for details of all the work of the Centre from its beginnings in 2003 to the present. In 2004, Dr. Jack Whitehead, a world-famous academic in AR gave the keynote address to Guyuan's first International Conference sponsored by VSO and attended by partners and volunteers from three provinces. Teachers, students and volunteers like Helen King (from the Qingyang Institute in Gansu and later also a programme office volutneer) presented the results of their work in improving the quality of teaching and learning in English.


Dean Tian Fengjun and Moira Laidlaw discussing the new Centre.


So, the above constitutes the bare bones of what we did, but it doesn't begin to describe what it was like to be doing it, or the worthwhileness of it all. It was in the meetings, the formal and informal discussions, the classroom observations and subsequent evaluations, the sharing of our reading and ideas, through journals, books, personal diaries, individual case-studies about achievements and failures, that much of the value seemed to be emerging: through our closer human ties, we were all learning something. At the end of the day I am reminded of the New Zealand Maori people's maxim: What is the most important thing in life? It is people. It is people. It is people! Because we were there, day-in, day-out, for year after year, it was possible for us to live more closely together, and take on something each other's rhythms, perspectives and values.


The mutual benefits seemed to creep up on us all so that one day we realized, Dean Tian and I, colleagues like Li Peidong, Liu Xia, Ma Xiaoxia, Ma Hong, Gong Lixia, Ma Li Juan, that these processes were working: in other words, we were making a difference. Teachers wrote up their case-studies, with conclusions about how AR had helped them to think for themselves and gain greater satisfaction from their teaching. The students, they said, were learning more and enjoying their learning too. I witnessed student-centred lessons (see for details of lesson-observations) in which students determined the course of their learning and were able to evaluate the effectiveness of the processes they were engaged in. And all in English. So, the teachers began to feel empowered by researching and coming to their own conclusions and their students began to see the purpose and value of taking more responsibility for their own learning as a preparation for their future careers as teachers. These future teachers, many of them, would return to their hometowns ready to face a challenging future with a greater understanding of how their learning would influence their teaching (see for an account of a graduate student from the college and her understanding and actions in her teaching practice classroom). The values that VSO promotes, like empowerment, combating poverty and disadvantage and learning, were happening in this placement because of the synergy we created.


We also published a lot of our findings as case-studies and reports in national and international journals and books (see Bibliography). We did this in order to publicise and legitimate our work. We were aware that our rural location might be a barrier to networking and favourable publicity. The quality of the work stands the test of international examination (see earlier websites and bibliography). We wanted to celebrate our achievements as well.


However, despite all that, a written account cannot fully capture or measure the magnitude of human learning and valuable experience gained in a process of development. Sometimes the most important learning or experience is hidden, only revealing itself in values and actions and hopes, or in the enthusiasm with which we become involved in new things. My five years in Guyuan, and then six months as the VSO China programme office volunteer in Beijing, have, as VSO always promised, given me more than I can account for, or have been able to give back to anyone else.


And life isn't all work. It's the relationships we build with each other as we spend a lot of time together, that really last. They are beyond words, but perhaps the following picture can describe something of the pleasure of being part of the community. It was taken towards the end of my placement in Guyuan last June, and for me represents something of the warmth with which I have always been treated by my Chinese colleagues and friends. We come as strangers to this country, and are welcomed as allies and friends. We share the belief that life is meaningful and that we can work together to make it more so. We share the vision of a better, more just and equitable world and realize that it's being together that is the greatest benefit and offers the greatest hope for learning.


Sitting with my friend, Ma Zimei(马姊妹) (front row, second left) and her mother (centre) at the mother's 82nd birthday celebration with their whole extended family, plus two American colleagues/friends from Ningxia Teachers University.


I think my time with VSO has been more than worthwhile. I want to thank VSO for giving me an opportunity to do something really worthwhile with others, and at the same time expand my horizons. I remember Cathy, a facilitator at the pre-departure training in Harborne Hall, who, at the very end of our days of training, quoted Mahatma Gandhi to us: 'Be the changes you want to see in the world.' Those words have inspired me and shaped the course of my volunteership. In becoming more and more the kind of person who shows her values in her actions, I have been able to work more effectively with others as we pursue common goals, which benefit people. I will be returning to Guyuan after this term. We are hoping to begin a Ph.D. course of study for five colleagues there.


In other words, I am going home.


Moira Laidlaw, Beijing, December, 2006.



Li, P., (2005), 反思温特的反思维批判原则,外语教学(核心期刊, 2005 专刊).

Li, P., & Laidlaw, M., (2006), 'Educational Change in rural China,' in Action Researcher: an International Journal, vol. 7., no. 3.

McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J., (2005a), 'Action Research for Teachers', David Fulton Publications, London.

McNiff. J. and Whitehead, J. (2005b) All You Need to Know about Action Research. London, Sage.

Tian, F., (2003), 'Educational Action Research and Creativity in Foreign Languages Teaching', in Foreign Language Education, Journal of Xi'an International Studies University, Vol. 24, no. 104, pp 63-67.

Tian, F., & Laidlaw, M., (2006), 'Action Research and the New Curriculum: case studies and reports in the teaching of English', Shanxi Tourism Press.

Whitehead, J. and McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research Living Theory. London, Sage.