Volunteering Part I

I recently began volunteering at a local primary school near my house.

I’ve helped out there before in a volunteering capacity: when I was an auditor, I was part of a volunteering project that went into primary schools to teach children about financial literacy and how to be better with money.

Being the introverted and cunning person that I was, I elected to be posted to this local primary school which is situated 2 minutes from my place as part of this project. For client work at the time, I was based out on Auckland’s North Shore, which meant that I usually had to get up at around 6.30 on a normal day to get to the client’s site on time every morning for an 8.30 start.

Since volunteering at this school for the financial literacy programme would be first thing in the morning every Wednesday for 4 consecutive weeks, it meant that on those Wednesday mornings I could wake up at 7.30/8 instead (a good 60-90 minutes later than on normal days) to comfortably make the first class of the day at 9. Total win for me: I got to sleep in.

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time teaching financial literacy to students at this school because it reminded me a lot of the primary school that I attended as a child, so the experience was something that I logged away positively in the recesses of my mind as I continued my ticking and bashing.

Fast forward to mid-May of this year: I had just left my customer service/call-centre job, and the first day off work I drove over to this school to offer a pair of hands to help out with anything that they needed. The context for this being that I’m currently considering a career shift from commerce to teaching, so I was looking to get a first-hand taste of what teaching was like. I’d heard on the news many times before about the shortage of male teachers especially in New Zealand, so I wasn’t surprised when I was pretty much immediately accepted to help out.

So the next week I popped back to the school – I had filled out all the paperwork previously on the day I rocked up initially – and I began helping out as a teacher’s aide for one of the intermediate classes.

Aside from all the staff being the brightest, most bubbly people you could ever meet, the students are a treat in themselves.

All from various backgrounds and ethnicities, coming together every day to mix and mingle with one another and to learn the skills needed to function as a person. Of course they themselves don’t really think of school in this peculiar way – to them this is just some place they go to everyday cause their parents make them – but you’d actually be surprised: you can see in some students – even at such a young age – that they are truly grateful for being able to be at school, to learn, and to improve themselves.

Now you could cynically remark that this might be because they have come from a really rough family life, so school is more like a getaway for them. While this is a sad reality for some, to paint that perspective across the experience of all the children at the school would be, to my mind, an act of intellectual laziness & insensitivity. And it doesn’t give due credit to the remaining children either. They are a lot more switched on than most people like to credit them with, myself very much included when I first started there as part of the financial literacy programme.

To see this willingness to learn in young people is really something else, especially if you’re in a position to help them along on that journey. To watch them willingly improve and to see that spark light up within them when they get something right after struggling for so long, that’s truly a special moment to be able to be a part of. To me those moments would be the gems of teaching, and having witnessed it first-hand I am immediately all the more understanding of why teachers go willingly through all the work, administration, extra hours, and general stress that comes part and parcel with the job. It’s because those moments really make all that work worth it.

I’d like to elaborate on one particular case that I was lucky enough to be a part of while volunteering at this local primary school. To say that this experience was meaningful feels like a bit of an understatement; the best way to describe the resulting feelings after being part of this process would be that it’s like the universe gave me a spiritual, physical, and emotional shake; metaphysically signalling to the deepest part of my being that this was where I was meant to be, and that – in terms of my subjective universe – this metaphysical space that I’ve stepped into as a result of doing this, is exactly the spot where everything is as it should be: a perfect balance between chaos and order, and an almost God-given signal that this, whatever this is, is what I was brought into existence to do.

It’s like for years I’d been searching blindly for what my purpose in life was, and this particular experience briefly illuminated my being and lifted the darkness for a moment, showing me a glimpse of my direction.

My interpretation of this event is that it is a call to adventure: so my task is now to find whatever that thing is, to articulate it as accurately as possible, and to ensure that as much of my life is dedicated to doing that thing in the best, most helpful manner possible to bring about as much good to humanity as I possibly can before I leave this plane of existence and cease to be as my current mortal form.

So it all started when I was onboarded to help the class: it was agreed that I would come in for 5-8 hours per week to help the children with mathematics given my numerical academic background. At the time, the class were working on fractions.

After surveying the class for a couple of lessons, helping out where I was needed, the teacher & I agreed that it would be great if I’d take a few students who were struggling with the concepts into a separate area to help progress their understanding of fractions & mathematics in general. To this end, I was assigned – give or take depending on the day – 3 students to help out.

Among the 3, the willingness to engage with the material fluctuated depending on mood on the day for 2 of the students, which was to be expected, but the third: now he was a different matter entirely.

It seemed that this particular student was apprehensive. I was told by the teacher ahead of time that I would be helping out a student who was rather shy, and I knew at first glance that he was the one she was referring to. I instantly took it upon myself to help & encourage him, more or less because I recognized myself in him: I was a rather shy, quiet, & anxious child myself, so I felt compelled to encourage in places where I felt that I could have used that same encouragement if I was in his position.

So I began working with this group, helping out where I could, but with an individual focus of encouraging this particular student wherever he needed it.

I remember we were working with apples one time for class: we were demonstrating and dictating the fractions that were being created with each cut of an apple. So a whole apple gets cut once, that becomes two halves, then a half gets cut into two quarters and so on.

At the beginning of this exercise, this student wouldn’t dare go near the knife – he admitted out loud that he was scared of touching it. By a happy coincidence on the day, I was already positioned next to him, so naturally the teacher motioned that I could work with him through the exercises.

We first looked at knife-handling skills. Once I ran him through how to use it, and ensured him of safety due to my presence next to him, he picked up the knife nervously and approached the apple with it. I talked him through how to hold the knife, where to position the apple on the board, how to hold his hand as he was cutting through the apple so as to avoid cutting himself. Before he knew it, he was slicing apples like it was second nature – and I made sure to let him know at each stage of this development the amazing progress he was making; to make it explicitly obvious to him. Through this and other nudges of encouragement, I was able to get him to be comfortable holding & using a knife (even to the point of him volunteering that he practice at home, to which I of course said that he’d need to have a parent watching for safety purposes). With each stage that he developed through, I could see flickers of pride start to emerge in his eyes: it emanated from his being and manifested itself through his willingness to take on the next stage of the process with more confidence and less nerves. That in itself was special to witness.

If that wasn’t enough, next came the actual fractions. From starting the day not knowing what the definition of a fraction was and being apprehensive about handling the knife, he ended that 2 hour session flying through both the slicing and dictating of a whole –> half –> quarter –> 1/8 etc. of an apple (and backwards again) with pure confidence.

Witnessing that, and being a part of that journey for him, was something that really made me swell with joy. Because it’s not only that this student learned something – that’s the surface-level thing that was attained – what happened there was this student evidently had no prior belief in himself and his abilities (evidenced by his fear of his own skills handling a knife & defining what a fraction is properly), and through some gentle nudging, encouragement, and guidance, was able to flourish into someone that could do all that confidently. In other words, he gained a sense of belief in self. To be a part of the process that helps to instill this sense of confidence of self in another individual, that is really rewarding to be a part of.

What really sealed the deal for me – and this is something that I will always carry with me – is that, not only did he do all this confidently, when I challenged him to show his teacher what he could do, his initial response was one of natural fear & apprehension. But, towards the end of the class, he voluntarily reached out to me and said he would show the teacher what he was able to do when they got a moment the next day when I wasn’t around.

Not only did he now believe in himself, he also had the willingness to confront an unknown situation where he was placed under the guise of a figure of authority, and to show them what he was able to do. In essence, he was willing to place himself in a situation where he was being tested. I can’t overstate how big of a deal this is for an individual who evidently leans more towards being generally anxious (I know this from personal experience). But outside of this even, for anyone in any stage of life, that is a really difficult thing to do; and most of the time people do it only because they have to, not because they want to.

I don’t care what age you are or what stage of life you’re in, you’ll always have a figure of authority that sits above you within a given hierarchy (unless you’re extremely narcissistic or in the minute minority that have actually attained the highest possible status in that hierarchy), and when you are being watched to prove your skills in front of them that can be a terrifying thing. In adult life that’s akin in a way to performance reviews and I know plenty of people in their 20’s that do all they can to avoid them. This kid volunteered to put themselves in that same position relative to his situation.

Whether he carried the act out or not in my head is actually irrelevant, but in the act of volunteering to do so he demonstrated a virtue that is severely lacking in most people of the modern age: courage. He was able to switch on that thing which says: “I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m going to give this my best shot even though this frightens me”, and from observation there are adults that go through their entire lives not having this part of their psyche fully active, which is a recipe for a life of perceived victim-hood & bitterness directed towards others who actually do courageously step into the world to confront their fears.

It’s not about the thing that this kid got, that’s not what gave me a kick. I was able to be a part of this student’s journey to cultivate a courageous mindset, and I saw his belief in himself start to blossom as a result. Not only was I able to watch him develop in this way, I was in a position to enable him the resources to stand on his own two feet and get a sense of his own strength & inherent abilities. That’s truly rewarding, and it was this interaction which gave me a tremendous sense of meaning. It was like order & chaos was one within me at that moment, energizing me in a controlled direction to help encourage this student as much as possible.

I don’t know how to define what that sense of meaning is for me, I’ve tried since this interaction to zero-in on it so that I know what I’m striving for in life, and the best I’ve come up with is that it is my purpose to unlock other people’s potential and to instil in others a sense of strength in their own skills & abilities.

I know that that’s rather unclear and I’m still working on how to articulate it, but it’s something like that. It’s good enough for now.

-END OF PART I-

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