Since the internet is full of (often unsubstantiated) claims, hearsay and rumours on volunteering I would like to add some facts from my eight-weeks experience with Global Vision International (GVI) at Luang Prabang, Laos, from middle of April to middle of June 2014. During that time I taught English at Xayadeth college (http://www.xayadethcollege.com/) for 6 weeks and at Mekong English Center (MEC, http://www.mec-laos.org/) for two weeks, as well as some mathematics to interested Buddhist novices for 3 weeks, organized by GVI during the summer vacation. Just to explain my background: I got retired at age 65 from life as a research physicist in elementary particle physics (you know, protons, neutrons, pions, quarks etc.). After travelling through South America for half a year in 2011/12 I wanted to revisit Asia. So I decided to spend 4 months in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and in order to make it a bit more meaningful I thought I would do some English teaching. I signed up with GVI at Luang Prabang, Laos for 8 weeks - on recommendation from a friend who had done the same in 2011. Now, research physics is not exactly highschool English teaching but it also get's you into contact with education problems - on a different
level of course. And after retirement I had actually participated in the Swiss highschool system by helping weaker
students in math classes (on a similar level as the math course I did for Buddhist novices at Luang Prabang). So I do have some idea of teaching and of education standards in the 'west'.
Reading the following you should be aware that what I describe are my specific experiences, it is about my interaction with colleagues, students and fellow travellers and as such may not reflect the general picture, but only my personal 'snapshot' of life as a GVI volunteer at Luang Prabang.
Of course the day of a volunteer teacher is mostly governed by teaching/educational issues, even if I only had 4 h per day (2 classes, but the same level) and at most one hour for preparation.
Teaching is really a fascinating and fun experience, once one has accepted the fundamental facts that (a) the level of knowledge is quite low, compared to 'western' schools, that (b) students have not learned how to go about 'learning' and that (c) the quality of the different schools and local teachers ranges from bad to good. Also, the general level of knowledge and education in Lao society as a whole is lower, mostly because there had not been much of an education system before 1975, nor any other substitute institutions. Once you can accommodate with these boundary conditions teaching in Laos will be great fun.
The introduction about teaching that we received from GVI was good, there was sufficient teaching material and always somebody from GVI staff to discuss with. At Xayadeth I was teaching students who were on average about 23 years old, had passed the normal Lao secondary highschool (including several years of English) and were now working at hotels, restaurants, as accountants etc. or studying law or chemistry aside from 'our' two hours of English per day. There was one Buddhist monk among the 25 students. They were in the third and last year of the three-year English course at Xayadeth (9 h weekly), which is a private college and charges them about 200 USD per year - while the two GVI teachers per class work for free. This immediatedly raises the question of where the money goes to, since for all six classes (two classes per year) there were at least 6 volunteers but only two or three Lao teachers (who would earn something like 200 USD a month). Teaching was done by two GVI teachers per class, none of whom spoke any Lao and the GVI teachers change every 4 weeks on average. In my experience this teaching model is very inefficient and produces students who understand the rough meaning of what you say, but not the details and specifics. Obviously, it is easy to convey the general meaning of 'wonderful' - but how to differentiate between all existing synonyms without knowing the exact wording in Lao? Or how to explain the meaning of 'exciting' without reverting to a dictionary? At the end of the third term we volunteers personally devised, conducted and graded the final exam, the level of which was probably corresponding to the level of 15-year highschool students in the west. Even so, the outcome was very disappointing, the results ranging between 10% and 90% of the full score, with an average around 50%. Nevertheless, each and every student received his diploma (to be fair, this is not a specific Xayadeth problem, but happens in many schools in third-world countries, e.g. in South America). Since the latter is well-known, it also explains the lack of motivation and discipline of many students: only about half of all arrive and that normally 15 minutes late, go out for phone calls, there is no homework and everybody is promoted from one class to the next, irrespective of their performance. One of the main problems is that people don't have role models to see what it really means to study a language or math: that it's not enough to get exposed to new English words or quadratic equations, but one has to exercise and practise until you 'know them in your sleep' - which is hard work and needs investing 'sweat and tears'. But there is very few education role models in traditionally 'carefree' Laos. And - like we all recall from our own experience - even if we are highly motivated for learning something, there is always times when we tend to be a bit lazy. This is where some mild disciplinary structure can assist the student: attendance check at the beginning of class, no phones, homework and promotion criteria. Selected promotion into next class is one of the key factors: I had third year students ranging from those who could not compose one longer sentence to those who could actually express themselves rather well - the reason being that the weak students normally are also those who do not attend class. It is all too human that you do not like to work too hard if the diploma at the end is for free. You see, I really got quite intriqued by the general question of how one acquires knowledge and education in general, what are the necessary requirements to do so and I had many interesting discussions on that topic right at Luang Prabang.
You might expect that the director of this college - who lives on the premises - would publicly address his teachers, give you some background information about the school and the whole education system or even express some appreciation for your volunteering. But nothing like that, which I found rather disappointing.
Now, the great news is, that there is other schools - like MEC (a two-year private school with students of about 17 to 18 years of age who attend normal secondary school), which are modelled much closer to western examples: attendance checks at the beginning of class, no phones, homework and periodic assessments, which are used as the base for granting scholarships and for being promoted to next class. The results are very encouraging and teaching is definitely more fun and gratifying for you as a teacher. And I did it after six weeks at Xayadeth college and the frustrating experience of the exam! Also, the MEC teaching model is much more efficient: there is a 'normal' Lao English teacher who ensures the continuity over the whole year and volunteers who assist and support the Lao teacher. MEC have produced their own course-book (which uses Lao examples and not American or English), which is even computerized and actually used with a projector in every classroom. Fees are about the same as at Xayadeth college (one has to realize that nothing, not even primary school in Laos is free). There were about 5 girls and 5 Buddhist novices in the class of 20 students.
Students - at any school - are lovely, friendly and good fun (once you understand the above) and we were invited to their football matches and petanque drinking bouts. Same with the GVI colleagues with whom I had an excellent time.
My financial input to GVI amounted to 40 USD per day - if you stay less than 8 weeks it's even more. Out of this 10 USD are used for accomodation, 6 USD you get handed out as a 'food allowance' to buy your own food (which is definitely quite below subsistence level since the cheapest meal in a cheap restaurant is 1.9 USD, a beer 1.2 USD and a fruit shake 1 USD), about 10 USD go into scholarships, local charity contributions, contributions to transport costs for students etc. and the rest of about 14 USD never arrives in Laos. Accomodation was at 'Coldriver' guesthouse for all GVI volunteers in single rooms with attached bathroom and fan. It should be stated, that you could get a room with aircon and free coffee/tea/bananas for the same money somewhere else in Luang Prabang.
Is high on the GVI priority list and taken very serious, probably for a good reason, since the majority of volunteers is around 20 years old. There is no swimming in rivers, no motorbiking and no fraternizing with Lao citizens.
And Luang Prabang is a wonderful place to spend 8 weeks, where you meet all kinds of people - I would not like to miss that time. And wherever you explore in town, in the monasteries, in the public library, in coffee shops or in 'Big brother mouse' you will often be addressed by young people, mostly Buddhist novices eager to learn English. English teaching really is in high demand and appreciation, you just have to find/choose your way of doing it. There is quite a lot of volunteer organisations, on the web and outside and it pays off to look around before you get hooked by some exciting-looking poster advertising teaching for Buddhist monks and novices.