Volunteer Teaching – When Kenya does not need Voluntourism

Volunteer Teaching at Future Stars, Kibera, Kenya

Volunteer Teaching – My Story

I recently taught my first proper class since gaining my TEFL qualification. You know what? It was a good lesson. The children paid attention, they were interested and, best of all, they learned what they were supposed to learn.

I first taught in Kenya as a volunteer in 2013. I, like so many others, thought I was doing something good, helpful, that made a positive difference. I was full of enthusiasm and I believed that my passion and my native English ability were just what the children needed.

Back then, I did believe I was helping. I taught mathematics and English – both subjects I’m good at – and was pretty pleased with what I was doing. It’s very easy, when you see poverty and great need, to think that anything you contribute can only be good. It wasn’t until I became a bit more knowledgable about the issues that I realised how wrong I was.

What is needed?

Volunteer Teaching in Africa - classSchoolchildren in Kenya (and indeed anywhere) don’t just need to ‘learn English’ (or maths, or geography, or science etc). Schools don’t work like that. The children need to learn the curriculum. They need to learn the things they need to pass their exams, gain appropriate qualifications, and improve their prospects. After all, isn’t that the volunteer’s hope – that they can improve a child’s future?

The need to learn ‘correctly’, and not just learn, can actually make some volunteers detrimental for the children. I know they’re well intentioned, as I was, but I no longer believe that’s enough. It’s especially a concern when a volunteer works for a short period of time, maybe even as little as a few weeks.

Potential issues:

  1. If you’ve had no teaching preparation it can be really tough to control your class. I don’t just mean they might not pay attention. There are some important issues surrounding behaviour management and appropriate praise and positive criticism. Get it wrong and you can damage a child’s confidence, self esteem, and future willingness to learn.
  2. Lesson planning is a skill. If you have never done it before, on the job is not the time to start. Without a lesson plan it is difficult, especially for an inexperienced teacher, to construct a logical and effective lesson. Your class cannot learn effectively if you are jumping from point to point. If the children haven’t come across the topic before, you risk confusing them from the start resulting in lots of wasted hours for you, or a future teacher, to correct the confusion. That’s time that should be spent on the next topic.
  3. You might think you have a pretty good grasp of your subjects. But do you? Do you know your present perfect from your present continuous? Can you list some regular adverbs? And do you know how to follow a syllabus to ensure you’re teaching long division in the country’s approved manner? These are things that training can help with. You’re not expected to know every different syllabus on the planet but you do need to know how to read and adapt to them.
  4. Language. You’re likely to be teaching somewhere where English isn’t a first language. In Kenya, English is indeed an official language and commonly spoken, but not by young children who you may well be teaching. It’s very unlikely you will be fluent in their language (I know my Kiswahili is pretty bad and my knowledge of the 50+ tribal languages of Kenya almost non-existent) so TEFL training in particular is really valuable. Even if you’re not teaching English, a TEFL course will give guidance and ideas about how to effectively teach without a common language.
  5. Short-term teaching. If a volunteer is with a class for just a few weeks (I even know volunteers who have worked one week) it’s not the time to be introducing your ‘innovative’ teaching style. It will take time for the children to understand your method and what is expected. Then you leave and they have another teacher who does something completely different again. The class can be left reeling. By all means bring your passion and enthusiasm, but have some idea of what is actually effective rather than just fun and different.



I’m not trying to preach. I’m certainly not trying to claim I have all the answers or am anything approaching a perfect teacher. I made the mistakes. I taught passionately but not effectively. Now I have passion AND skills. I know I have a better chance of making a positive impact rather than having a detrimental effect.

I’ve had people challenge me on this topic – very defensive about volunteer passion. And yes, I know there are excellent new teachers and, on the other side, terrible teachers who have had all the training. I know teachers are desperately needed. I know volunteers have a lot to offer. However, you owe it to the children to do the best you can and that means preparation. Presumably you’re volunteering because you want to do something good, so do it. Make an effort and get some basic training. If your heart is in volunteering, is in doing a good thing, then why would you not want to be the best you can be?

I’ve also been criticised because of my own start in volunteer teaching. I’m told “you started out like that and you learnt and you ‘grew’ through the experience. So why get tough on others doing the same?” My response to that is in two parts. Firstly, as a volunteer, your personal growth is not actually the priority. You will grow through your experience by being effective too. And why should you benefit from personal development at the expense of some vulnerable children? That’s not the heart of a true volunteer. The second part of my response can be told as a little story:

“I was walking down the street behind a young man. We were both looking at the stunning scenery around us. The young man suddenly shouted out as he fell down an unseen manhole and broke his leg. That man ‘grew’. He learned from his experience and, in future, he kept one eye on the ground where he was walking. I saw the man fall but thought ‘I also want to grow so I’d better also fall down that manhole and break my leg’. Great. I’ve now learnt to watch my step. However, could I not have learnt that from the young man’s experience without having to break my own leg?”

Should you be a Volunteer Teacher?

There are two types of volunteers: those whose heart is for volunteering, and those whose heart is for seeing the world, getting some good Instagram pictures cuddling an orphan, and showing their friends what a ‘good’ person they are. Be the right sort of volunteer. Be the best you can be. If you truly want to help, don’t teach just because it’s always been something you fancied trying. Prepare, and be the most effective you are capable of being.
Of course, there are some things you can teach effectively more easily than others. If you’re not up for ‘proper’ training, then choose something you’re passionate about but that won’t do so much harm as an amateur. Generally subjects that are not ‘graded’ or ‘examined’ can be wonderful places to help out, and often neglected by local teachers struggling to get their students through their exams:  sport, music, art and creativity. Or after-school classes in a subject not on the curriculum.

The message I want to send is this: volunteer. Kenya, and every other country, needs volunteers. But Kenya needs the right volunteers. You have skills and talents and passions so use them. Find your place. You wouldn’t perform surgery in Kenya without medical training, so why treat teaching any differently?
Be a volunteer, not a voluntourist. You’re there to help. Your own fun and personal growth is a by-product, not your primary reason for volunteering. I can promise that, by doing it right, you will experience something amazing. Making a difference is the best buzz in the world.

Volunteer Teaching in Kenya, class banner

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  1. Hello, Sarah,

    As someone who had similar thoughts – ie, what and how could I effectively teach a child in Kenya – your advice is meaningful. Question: what does TEFL stand for and how does one find such a qualification class? Wishing you a safe and productive time with Mama Aggy. Larry Dickens

    Sent from my iPad


    1. TEFL is Teaching English as a Foreign Language. It’s also known as TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Finding a course is a bit of a minefield. It’s not a regulated qualification so any idiot can set up a course. Look for one with accreditation by a good body (be careful – some TEFL companies set up their own accrediting bodies just so they can call themselves ‘accredited’). Online courses are great if you can’t commit to face-to-face but look out for at least some practical elements like a weekend of face-to-face included. There’s nothing like practical teaching experience over just studying theory.
      Of course, TEFL isn’t only useful for teaching English. It gives you practical teaching skills that are transferable. In my opinion, it’s a good option for those wanting to teach more informally without doing a teaching degree.

  2. I loved the manhole allegory and agree with your stance. I would like to add that when I volunteered, knowledge of the mother tongue helped a lot. Some people believe that an ESL/EFL teacher must not rely on mother tongue in class. I believe that perhaps not as an ESL teacher but as EFL teacher it does help. At least in this regard: while teaching the English alphabet, using the letters from the alphabet of the mother tongue and telling the students which letters correspond to each other.

    Also to control the class, I would ask a student who understood a concept to explain it to a student who did not. But I ensured that the one to explain is older than the other one so as not to hurt the latter kid’s ego.

    1. Knowledge of the mother tongue can certainly be helpful. I try to stick to mostly English when teaching English as it forces the children to start ‘thinking’ in English rather than translating. However, it’s very helpful if you can directly translate a word that there’s no easy way to explain, describe, demonstrate. Also, I find it handy to know words for ‘sit down’ ‘stand up’ ‘be quiet’ ‘come here’ etc to control a class. Once you’ve lost their attention, it’s a lot easier to bring them back with words they are very familiar with.
      Thanks for your insight.

    2. Whoops, sorry about the grammatical errors in my initial comment. I thought I should rephrase:
      *At least in this regard: while teaching the English alphabet, I used the letters of the alphabet of their mother tongue. For instance, to help them remember the sounds made by the letter A, I told them the letters of their mother tongue’s alphabet that represented the same sounds.

      *Also to control the class, I asked a student who understood a concept to explain it to a student who did not. But I ensured that the one to explain was older…

  3. I thought about doing something similar but I stopped before I started. I didn’t feel I had what it took to do such a job. It’s very important to realise the effect you can have on children and how it can influence their future.
    Great article.

  4. Great article and I totally agree. The volunteers we place join in on or assist with ongoing activities, all led by locals. I think our role (as foreign volunteers) is more about cultural exchange rather than skills transfer when it’s a short term experience. International volunteering is an awesome way to learn a new culture and share your own! People working with foreign volunteers love the exposure and confidence it builds in kids and adults. Volunteer, but educate yourself and do it well!

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