Lessons learned: my journey as a volunteer – vol. 2

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Volunteering has always been a big part of my life. I have always felt that it’s a good way to pay it forward and to give back to my communities. Not to mention the incredible experiences and many lessons I’ve gained. As a volunteer in my 20s I gained an insight into early childhood education that has been a tremendous help in my career. Volunteering with Paper Airplanes has opened given me a chance to make a difference to the life of a wonderful person who I can’t help in any other way. Working as Secretary of my condominium’s Management Committee has been one of my most challenging volunteer experiences to date, but I’ve gained a lot too – skills (I can just about read a budget now!), knowledge (I now know more about pools I will ever need!), and most importantly, friendships.

Last year I reflected on volunteering with the IATEFL YLTSIG. While I still serve on the YLTSIG committee and love the global reach we create together, this year has brought me a new opportunity to make a difference locally. At the beginning of the school year, I was asked to set up the AIMS Primary EAL Network, a group for EAL teachers working in international primary schools across Malaysia. I jumped at the opportunity because I felt there was a great need for something like that. I have always craved the chance to network with fellow EAL teachers to be able to learn from each other’s experiences. Arguably, starting a new job and a new network at the same time might not have been the smartest decision, yet I’m happy I’ve done it.

10 months later, here are the lessons I’ve learned through this experience:

  1. Doing something for the first time is a humbling experience. This year, everything I’ve done with the network was a first. I remember anxiously getting ready for the first Zoom meeting of the academic year – still hosted on my personal free Zoom account because I was so new to my school, I didn’t know I could request access to the school’s account! I was nervous that nobody would turn up and I was so relieved to see people popping up in the waiting room. I think I had about 16 people in the meeting, all smiling and super nice. They will never know how grateful I was for them to have turned up!
  2. Do it for the ones that turn up! This is possibly the best piece of advice I’ve received from a friend and mentor regarding volunteer work – thank you Steph Fedorovich! I can often get caught up in trying to please everyone, which in turn makes me feel overwhelmed and stuck. At such a moment, Steph reminded me that I can’t please everyone, and neither is that the point in running a network like this as a volunteer. What’s important is to do what I can to help the people who are willing to work together. AIMS is an entirely volunteer-run network of schools and as such, everyone gets as much out of the opportunities it offers as they put into it. That conversation with Steph completely transformed my outlook and gave me confidence that doing my best is good enough.
  3. Support. Volunteering can be rewarding, but it also takes precious time away from other things. More than that, to be able to actually meet people’s needs, one person isn’t enough. Sharing the role with someone can help lighten the load and it also helps to bounce ideas off of one another. Recruiting Daniela Selhuber as my fellow coordinator has been the best thing ever.
  4. Feedback is welcome but not all of it is useful. This is actually something that I’m still learning: not to take feedback personally and to focus on the bits that are constructive. I always read feedback form responses with curiosity. What can we learn from it? Why do responders feel that way? What can we do to improve? How much control do we actually have over these things? In my experience, few people take the time to give feedback, which is a shame, because the ones that do might not be representative of what the majority thinks.
  5. Dream big. As I said, when I started out, I wasn’t sure anybody would turn up. But I had big dreams! I wanted to get people together face-to-face, which is no small feat as AIMS spreads across Malaysia. Some teachers might have to drive hours or fly to be able to attend a meeting face-to-face. But just last week my school, SJIIS, hosted the first ever face-to-face AIMS EAL Network Meeting and CPD, which was attended by over 60 people from schools across Malaysia both from the primary and the secondary sectors. The huge turnout is testament to the need international schools in Malaysia have for quality EAL CPD and networking opportunities. We will definitely organise more of these in the next academic year.

There are already so many plans for next academic year – collaboration opportunities, the scope to open a Secondary EAL Network, site visits, etc. Can’t wait to see where the network is headed.

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