What I Wish I Knew Before Volunteering Overseas As An English Teacher

Volunteer trips are slowly but surely becoming more popular nowadays, with more people willing to do meaningful travel rather than just ticking countries off the bucket list. That was my thinking as soon as I had finished school! So before I started university, I volunteered at an orphanage in Cambodia for a month. While the experience was extremely rewarding and eye-opening, here’s a wish of things I wish I knew beforehand:

1)Signing up with a specialist volunteer company is fine the first time, but if you want to return to the same place, don’t sign up again. 

Before I arrived in Siem Reap, all my questions were answered by Real Gap. What chargers did I need, did I need to fundraise, could I bring a box of instruments to donate, etc. When I got there, I realised that Real Gap Experience had nothing to do with me anymore. I was put with a local company, with locals working there. This local company was simply just Real Gap’s partner company. This was when I realised that most of the money I had spent (and it was quite a lot of money) actually went towards Real Gap Experience- so-called ‘the Western company’ according to my Cambodian coordinator. He wasn’t trying to gain my sympathy, I should’ve guessed that he wasn’t going to receive the money he deserved. That’s why I believe that signing up with a specialist volunteer company is only useful as a first-timer as it gets you connections, but when I go back (which I plan to some time next year), I don’t want to associate with Real Gap again.

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Websites always advertise for cheap volunteering programs

2) Go for a longer period of time.

This was my biggest regret. Before I went, all my friends and family said: “Wow, a month is a long time!” but it really isn’t. It’s really easy for high school groups to organise a two-week trip in Cambodia and visit two or three orphanages to teach underprivileged kids for a day. What difference do you think that’ll make? Because then a week after another group of students will come and teach them the alphabet again… When I think back to how I was educated in primary school, I remember that each week we had a list of vocabulary to learn, and EVERY DAY in that week we’d have fun activities that consolidated our understanding of these words. Then at the end of the week we had a test on it. And after 10 weeks we’d have a test on everything we had learnt. Learning is about consolidating new information by using it in different ways, and then testing yourself. It’s also about how much you can recall the information after not revising it for a long amount of time. It’s a long process. Two weeks might make you feel like a saint, where you’d feel like you taught them something new everyday, but how much of that information retained a week later? A month later? You’ll never know! For me, I tried to test my kids regularly and on topics from previous weeks, but even then, a month seemed like it was the bare minimum for even ONE topic to encode in their long-term memory. My recommendation would be 3 months minimum, at least for volunteering projects that involves teaching.


Sunrise at the orphanage

3) Be prepared to do more than what you signed up for.

I originally signed up as an English teacher, with the intention of teaching them music if I could. However, I somehow managed to land myself in other roles such as- disciplining the children who were living at the orphanage who weren’t taking English classes, taking a child to the hospital after he fell off his bed (head first!), and writing documents and reports for the orphanage. In retrospect, I would’ve never had the opportunity to do these things back at home without the relevant qualifications, so I’m glad that I had so many learning experiences. However, at the time these responsibilities got very stressful at times, to the point that every now and then I felt as if I needed a holiday from my holiday. Remember this tip, so you’ll keep things in perspective!

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For some reason the manager wanted to take a selfie at the hospital, which is disconcerting…

4) You will probably be pestered to donate money, to the point that you WILL get frustrated.

The truth is. We as volunteers are the problem. We try to do good things to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate than us, and most of the time we do it by donating money. The problem with that though, is that the managers of these orphanages will realise that pretty quickly, and then will do everything they can to dig even one more dollar off you. While I knew how much money meant to a poverty-stricken country like Cambodia, it just didn’t feel right to give money. I didn’t know where the money was going, and plus, I was just a poor uni student. Just stay strong, and remember, donating THINGS like time, clothes and toys is much better than donating money.

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Bringing food to the orphanage instead

5) Try NOT to get attached to the kids.

This experience is probably your first one as a classroom teacher, and we all know that all teachers have favourites. You will most certainly have one too, and when a student knows they’re the teacher’s pet, they’d normally love the teacher too. But think about what happens when you leave? You’re going to return to your ‘normal’ life, but your favourite kid is going to suddenly feel neglected and unworthy.


I made the mistake of developing favourites, and while I miss them dearly, there is nothing I can do about it at this present moment 😦

6) If you really want to make a difference, keep the connections and keep coming back.

Like I said, learning is an extremely gradual and long process, and as much as it applies to the students, it also applies to you. While you’re here on the volunteer project, you’ll gradually learn about how the place is run, the language, the culture and a lot more than you’d think you would. The next time you’re back, you’ll just learn a little bit more. Plus, everyone at the project will be so happy to have you back. It’s like you’re part of an extended family! 🙂


Making eye masks


7) It’s such a worthwhile experience

It’s been almost three years since my experience in Cambodia, and I STILL haven’t been able to shut up about it (whether it’s good or bad). Because of this trip, I’ve made an oath that every trip I make would be a long-term trip, where I can stay at a place and really learn about the culture. Because of this trip, I have started working as a teacher. Because of this trip, I have learnt so much about myself, like how independent I can be. I swear to you, this would be the best trip of your life. What are you waiting for? Go out and start searching, somewhere, anywhere!



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