Claire Woods - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Fiji
Volunteering was something I always knew I wanted to do, but I guess year 12 was when I really started to think seriously about making plans. I had a friend, Kate, who was wanting to do the same thing as me so we started looking into it.
We were literally just typing volunteering into Google when we found Projects Abroad. What struck us most was just the immensity of what was offered. The website offered projects for just about anything you were interested in, and the flexibility of being able to go whenever suited us was great because Kate and I both wanted to start university straight away, so we wanted to do a project during our summer holidays.
Volunteering in Fiji
It was kind of just impulse that led us to choose Fiji, there was just something about it that really attracted us. We also, admittedly, liked the idea of going somewhere sunny with nice beaches so that we could have a bit of a vacation as well. Plus the kids in the photos looked really cute.
I think another thing too was that it was close, having never been overseas it was comforting knowing we weren’t too far from Australia.
At first the cost of volunteering seemed a bit steep, I mean it’s the age old question, why should you have to pay to volunteer? But having been and knowing everything that Projects Abroad takes care of in terms of security, organizing your placement and accommodation and looking after you while you’re there, I honestly believe it was worth every cent.
The Projects Abroad staff
And seriously, the Projects Abroad staff are the best and most helpful people, I reckon I was pretty much emailing one of the staff every week with questions before I went, and she always wrote back quickly with a comforting response and it just made me all the more excited.
My friend and I did some fundraising before we went as well, because not only did we need a little help paying for our flights, but we also wanted to be able to make a donation to the school once we got there. Because after all, we were going there to make a difference, and there seemed no better way than that. It was amazing how generous our friends and family were to our cause, and we ended up raising around $2000 thanks to a fundraising fashion show we held and some extremely generous donations.
So after much of planning and excitement, Kate and I headed to Nadi, one of the main towns in Fiji where we would stay for one month with a host family and work as teachers at a school called “Nadi District.” I can honestly say this was the most incredible experience, and best month of my life. Working in the school really blew my mind, it was so hard to believe that we, two 18 year old Aussies fresh out of high school could be allowed to do something as important as teach English to disadvantaged kids.
Teaching in Fiji
But teach we did, by ourselves, to classes of about 40 kids, and not just English, but math, science, pretty much whatever was on their timetable for that day. The school was very basic, though probably even one of the better ones in the town, and there was a clear shortage of teachers. They had just gotten a new principal and he was trying to learn the ropes, as well as take a class of his own.
So Kate took over his class and I took over the head teacher’s class so he could help with the transition as well. I really never expected to be given as much responsibility as I did, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
My confidence grew every day, at first it was terrifying standing in front of these 40 kids who I was worried wouldn’t understand me and wouldn’t like me being their teacher, turned to feeling like there was nowhere else I’d rather be than up there, trying to engage the naughty boys at the back of the class, making the work content more interesting and less mundane by breaking it up with games and prizes.
In addition to this, I fell in love with my kids. I don’t know what I expected they would be like, but it struck me how similar they were to Australian kids. The boys, as I said, rebelled, sat in the back and drew pictures and talked, only giving me good attention when I made work into a race or offered them stickers.
The girls would come up and ask me to take their photo at lunchtimes, asked me questions about Australia, and always finished their work speedily, craving my approval and the best stickers.
The only difference between these kids and the ones I’d find back home was that these kids were poor. The majority of them were from the villages in the town. School is free in Fiji, and all that each kid had to pay was a small amount for school supplies, yet there were kids who couldn’t even afford this and had to be supported by local businesses in the town.
Another thing that struck me was the lack of facilities for the kids. Walking around the school grounds made you wonder how they entertained themselves. There was no basketball hoops, no balls, barely even any grass on the oval, and what was, was in uneven patches and usually unplayable because of the mud. There were stray dogs wandering around, one fan between 4 classrooms, and honestly, not much else.
But the kids knew no better, and you knew they counted themselves privileged to even get the chance to go to school. We felt so good about the money we donated on the last day, because we really knew that it would be put to good use and they were so extremely appreciative.
Typical day in Fiji
A typical day for us over there consisted of waking up at around 7am, walking to school in the stifling heat, through the town of Nadi. Honestly, Nadi is not exactly a vacation destination. It was what I imagine the streets of India to be like, just people everywhere and shop vendors so desperate for your business that they’ll drag you into their shops and walk you through every single product they offer and how much they’ll give it to you for.
When you spent any money, and believe me, we did a lot of shopping, you really felt as though your money was giving these people a livelihood with how appreciative they were. Our days at school were so much fun with the kids, we really grew quite close to many of them and there was a mutual adoration there. Weeknights we spent with our host family, who were so incredibly kind and generous.
The mum, Varea would cook us delicious Fijian dishes every night, ask us how our day was and what our plans for the weekend were, then leave us to do our own thing. Fijians, as a rule, are lovely people and as intimidating as it might have been in this strange town nothing like what we were used to, you never felt that unsafe with the friendly Fijian because they just smiled way too much.
Traveling in Fiji at the weekends
Our weekends were fantastic because while we got to have this amazing and worthwhile experience at school 5 days a week, our weekends we spent traveling. We visited islands, stayed in a typical Fijian luxurious resort, saw fire dancers, swam in the most amazing beach I’ve ever seen, and met some incredible people.
People who travel to Fiji often don’t realize that there’s more to it than just the fancy resorts. But we were seeing both sides, staying in the heart of the poverty and let me tell you, there was certainly a massive difference between the tourist spots and the local spots.
I honestly think a volunteer program like this is the best thing that anyone can do. I think it really makes you appreciate everything you have and it’s so much more rewarding than just a vacation. I learnt so much about myself, and it’s even shifted my potential career path because I now think I want to be a teacher and am doing a diploma of education at the end of my journalism course. I would encourage anyone, of any age or experience to do what I did. You’ll have a wonderful time no matter what destination you choose and make memories that will last a lifetime.