Before I chose to volunteer with Travel to Teach during my time in Thailand, I researched many other volunteer opportunities. And, although I was skeptical of the program, we still went through with my choice, mostly because monetarily, they couldn’t be beat. There were plenty of other organizations that had far more reviews and that were accredited. Well, now I know why.
We, two teachers from the US, originally signed on for a two week volunteer opportunity with Travel to Teach, but conflicting plans only allowed for us to stay for one week. Just like they say on their website, one week is not nearly enough time to get the full volunteer experience with the students that you make connections with, but it was surely enough time for us to figure out that Travel to Teach has A LOT more work to do before they can be considered a volunteer organization we would ever recommend.
Travel to Teach put us in contact with two wonderful places to volunteer, in Mae Hong Son, but they offered little to no support or resources throughout the process. Had we not been experienced teachers or advocated for ourselves, it would have been a counter-productive experience for the students and intimidating for us.
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, we were met at the airport by the head of media, Laura, who greeted us with a smile on her face. She had left her plans to pick us up at the airport because her boss called regarding a “conflicting meeting” 30 minutes before our arrival at 8:30 that evening. It should have been the first warning sign of what was to come. Jim, Laura’s boss, and the contact person for the volunteers in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son was spread completely thin and had a lot of brushing up to do in regards to her training. She travelled to Mae Hong Son on an earlier bus, met us at the station and only stayed for a day and a half. She changed her prolonged stay because “she was needed in Chiang Mai” – a 6 hour bus ride away. During her time with us, she hastily made arrangements for us to teach 4 days a week at a temple in the town and at a Kayan village that was a 30-minute drive away. She went over Thai customs, which was the most help she provided during her time and introduced us to Jess, a novice English speaker and kind man who drove us back and forth from the Kayan village. We were left in a guesthouse bare of resources (pens, paper, etc), with the exception of a desk in the corner of the living room stacked with books. Like I said, we were on our own from the start.
On our first day of teaching at the temple, that we had one hour to prepare and eat lunch before, the four of us (there were two other volunteers that would be staying for a prolonged period of time) broke up into smaller groups during the first hour and co-taught during the last two, since we only had 3 students. Alex, the English teacher at the temple, was exactly what we needed! He sat in on all of our lessons, was interactive and co-taught whenever he could. He is the reason the program works and thrives at the temple. Jim, on the other hand, was less than helpful, offering suggestions that were not needed and interrupting lessons that were otherwise working. She seemed to have little experience teaching and interacting with students, making them feel uncomfortable when opening up dictionaries or referencing their notes, something any teacher knows is okay during beginner lessons. Although it would have been nice to have Jim there to assist us as a translator and support, considering her debut, we were better off alone.
We would arrive at the Kayan village the next day, without Jim – who suddenly had to leave for Chiang Mai that morning. The four of us spent the entire day there – 9am to 3pm – with 50 children ranging from ages 4-18. Although we had the opportunity to visit the day prior (30 minutes), we were unaware of how the students would be broken up, who would be assisting us or how advanced their English was. Within 10 minutes we found out. There would be no assistance from the principal or teachers and we had no interpreter. This was nothing like the temple experience and we were left to structure our day. So, we broke up the students on our own and went along with the lessons we planned, attempting to differentiate instruction in accordance to their levels. The day ended with us feeling defeated, but happy with our attempts, considering the lack of support. We quickly realized that the only way this opportunity would thrive was if we became our own advocates, which is exactly what we did. We no longer relied on Travel to Teach for any feedback and solely communicated and planned with each other.
Although my review is quite candid, my goal is not to deter people from volunteering with Travel to Teach. I merely want all volunteers to know what they are signing up for. I do believe that there is a desire to help, but, before that can come to fruition, I also believe that more time and resources need to be spent on structure. The staff needs to be appropriately trained (or retrained) and there needs to be a point of contact for the hosts and volunteers. Once unqualified person cannot coordinate volunteer efforts for locations that are 6 hours apart.
Simply put, there is no structure and guidance in this program. If you are looking to make an impact and provide your services to those in need, you will have that opportunity, but be prepared to be on your own.