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How can you thank volunteers? (an example from travels in Spain)

volunteering at school

You may have read the blog post about how I spent an afternoon in the garden of the local school chasing ants. Well I also went back to school and taught division to a bunch of eight-year-olds. The most striking moment of this second experience happened when I told a boy that his calculation was incorrect. He replied, “What the f**k!”

This blog post however isn’t about swearing or division, it’s about the thank-you I and every other volunteer was given on Friday afternoon for the generosity of our time.

Naively, I imagined that the number of volunteers turning up at school to be thanked would be reasonably small. People after all have jobs and other things to do Monday to Friday. What’s more, I’ve been a volunteer in an English primary school (it was part of a ‘Right to Read Scheme’ and took three months to process the paperwork before I could even begin reading George’s Marvellous Medicine). There were supposedly two of us but the other guy never turned up. Therefore, even knowing that this Spanish primary school was well supported by the community I didn’t imagine there’s be that many people at this ceremony.

I was going because I’d been told I was going by one of the kids, and I have to take them back to school for afternoon lessons anyway.

I followed L through the school entrance, here, forming a corridor of bodies that we were guided through were the school pupils clapping, reaching out for high-fives and generally being excitable. The oldest children were closest to the door and as we snaked through the building and out onto the playground the kids got smaller and smaller. Those younger than six were already seated on the playground, holding hands in big class circles.

This village does things differently to anywhere else I’d been. If I were to guess, I’d say there were over a hundred volunteers, maybe even more, maybe over one hundred and fifty.

L led me up onto the stage which all us adults crowded together or in front of as photos were taken. A Catalan song boomed out of the speakers making one of the grandmas jump. The children who had made up the chain to the stage streamed onto the playground and arranged themselves in class groups. An adult, presumably a teacher, made a speech – in Catalan – and then different children came forward to read their thanks – also in Catalan – passing between them the microphone and pausing at regular intervals for applause.

L pointed me to my ant catching class and we both made our way over to them. Stepping over children on the way. It was probably 26 degrees Celsius and brilliant sunshine. Whilst most of the volunteers did the same as us and left the stage to go to those kids that they had worked with, the volunteer coordinators (15 or so people) were presented with flowers on the stage.

The children had drawn pictures of each of the volunteers and as we arrive, leapt up, let go of each other’s hands and excitedly presented us with pictures of ourselves as a thank-you gift. L talked to some of her friends and I was surprised at how many of the parents and grandparents knew me and said hello.

The chaos went on a while, but eventually a vague sense of order finally resumed and everyone except me sang You’ve got a friend, in Catalan of course.

The village school and missing my chance to find Prince Charming

Community Education in Spain

“Did it turn into a prince?” my sister, the Midget, asks.

“I didn’t kiss it.”

“Someone might have tried.”

If someone had tried, I would have used both of the two English words that 5-year-old children in Spain seem to understand: no and stop.

I’m all for children having fun with nature, but I don’t want to be held responsible for a child eating a live frog.

Which begs the question, what was I doing with a bunch of five-year-olds and a frog?

It started the other day, when it was explained to me that many parents volunteer at the village school. Once a week, in each class, four volunteering parents go into school and give up an hour of their day to run activities with the kids. Other times parents give talks on their professions, or people who speak different languages go in and allow the children to ask them questions.

I found myself volunteered into a class of five-year-olds, equipped with a load of magnifying glasses and pots for collecting things in, and sent out into the school gardens.

Children in Catalonia speak Catalan. At school, they learn Spanish and English, but whilst these kids could probably sing ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ at me, anything more complex was not going to happen. Their English is only a little better than my Spanish. I could have said, “In English, ant,” a thousand times to some children, and still they would just point. Other children managed to tell me that the ant was black and had six legs, probably the effect of extra English lessons and English speaking au pairs.

I lead the activity by the only method I could think of. I scrambled around in the dirt with excessive enthusiasm, picking flowers, tearing off leaves and catching ants, spiders and a single, beguiled frog.

In England, I couldn’t have done it. We have rules back home. Us English are seen as very frightened people on the subject of child protection. A lesson I learnt the first time I was in Spain.

However, here there is a different feeling about who owns the school, the families of the village have taken responsibility for making the place theirs. There are three classes of five-year-olds, because the parents demanded it. There are parents (and extras like me) who partake in maintenance work, planning, teaching and catching frogs.

Education is not just a system, but a community effort.

I’m kind of impressed.