I have been volunteering over the past two semesters as an English teacher for migrant children with Stepping Stones, a non-profit organization based in Shanghai with a mission to provide educational opportunities to disadvantaged children. I first became connected with Stepping Stones through the Dean Service Scholar: Language and Power (DSS) course at NYU Shanghai. Collaborating with the Center for Community Engaged Learning, this course is designed around service-learning, and volunteering with Stepping Stones is the “service” component. 

In my volunteer position, I have class for about 1-1.5 hours once a week on Saturday at a community center located in Pudong. For the Fall semester I worked with students in Grades 4-7 and in the Spring I switched to working with students in Grades 1-3. The class size for both of these semesters was an average of 10-12 students. For each class, I worked alongside a co-teacher that is another student at NYU Shanghai. 

The curriculum for each class is provided by Stepping Stones so the main responsibility for volunteers is learning how to facilitate the activities. There is a two-hour mandatory training that each volunteer completes prior to teaching which covers some strategies for giving instructions and facilitating activities. During the Fall semester, the founder as well as another manager of Stepping Stones visited a few of our classes to provide further support and feedback for facilitating the classroom. 

When I first started volunteering, I would leave each session reflecting on the activities that went really well and the ones that didn’t run as smoothly. I definitely made a lot of mistakes, especially when it came to giving clear instructions. I quickly learned that it is difficult to maintain the focus of the students when instructions are confusing. Over the course of the semester, however, these mistakes taught me strategies to be more effective in communicating; small adjustments like giving out the full instruction before handing out papers and using myself as an example first proved to be helpful ways to better instruct the students.

I generally try to use as little Chinese as possible. The 1-3 grade students tend to need a little more support than the older students. It is not uncommon for a student to be a little confused and not know how to answer a question. Besides relying on us as teachers to try to repeat or rephrase the question, students sometimes rely on other students for support. I was struck by how, even from the very first class, students would be quick to jump in and offer a translation or answer if a classmate was having trouble answering a question. 

Each week, the energy that the students brought simultaneously challenged and energized me as a teacher. It was really rewarding to see them get excited when they knew the answer to a certain question or were really invested in competitive activities. Although it is more difficult to track progress when only meeting once a week, I loved seeing some of the students start to come out of their shells a little bit over the many weeks we spent together. When we played Charades, students would be shy at first to act in front of their classmates. By the end, some students would volunteer and come up with some creative (and quite funny) actions to convey the target vocabulary. 

Overall, the students are very sweet. At the start of the second class, students first greeted my co-teacher and then tried desperately to remember my name which is definitely a little bit harder. Although they could only remember the first “Ta” syllable at the beginning of my name during that class, by the third week they had my name remembered and have been using it to greet me at the beginning of class every week since. When my co-teacher was unable to come for one week, the students were quick to question if he was coming and expressed concern about whether or not he was sick. At the end of class in another week, one of the students ran up to me to hand me a piece of gum as we were talking together and then proceeded to say goodbye and run away. 

While my main reason for volunteering is to support the students and a cause that I believe in, I am really grateful for the opportunity that it has provided me to step outside of my normal community and get to know these students. Each of the students has captured my heart by the end of the short and sweet 12 weeks spent together. Ultimately they enrich my life just as much as I hope I do theirs.