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A chance to give something back: Seán's story

Volunteer Sean with schoolchildren in Malawi ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

After a personal tragedy, Seán Fitzmaurice, 68, decided to use his retirement giving something back by sharing his skills as a VSO volunteer in Malawi. The former teacher explains how it's made life meaningful again.

My interest in education in developing countries began early. While teaching in Dublin in the 1970s, there was a call from the Zambian government for teachers to go work in the schools there.

Two weeks after our wedding day, my wife and I went to work as teachers for three years in a boarding school in rural Zambia. It was an interesting way to start our married life!

Ready to volunteer

VSO volunteer Sean Fitzmaurice ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

At 68, Seán was not ready to give up on life and found a new challenge and greater meaning as a volunteer

Much later, I was nearing retirement after working as a science teacher and eventually deputy principal of a school in Dublin, when there was a huge change in my life again.  My wife was diagnosed with a rare brain disease, Primary Progressive Aphasia at the age of 55. It’s like a sped-up version of Alzheimer’s. She lost all language within six months. I retired to care for her until she died two years ago

It was very difficult time. But life goes on. I walked past the VSO Ireland office one day and it felt like the right time for me to volunteer.

When I was considering going to Malawi, I had no fears. The traumas of the past six years had to be worse than anything I could come up against – I felt prepared for anything.

Innovative ideas to improve education

In my role as Education Specialist, I work supporting teachers on VSO’s Unlocking Talent project. We are building solar-powered learning centres to provide digital education using tablet computers.

You have to understand the education context here is very different. Class sizes are very big: sometimes 150 to a class. Most learners have no pens or books, resources are minimal.

The quality of education is low so you get lots of pupils repeating the school year, it’s not unusual to have teenagers and young children trying to learn in the same class. The high level of school absenteeism adds to the difficulties.

Unlocking talent through technology

On our project, 29 pupils use the learning centre at a time. Each child uses a tablet computer to work through numeracy software. They can work at their own pace and get instant feedback. Now we’re introducing literacy software using the local language, Chichewa.

Huge class sizes in Malawi ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

Huge class sizes in Malawi: It's not unusual to find 100-150 children to one teacher in a class

I help the teachers adapt to working with a smaller group. It takes a whole different set of skills to when they are working in huge classes. We talk about how to watch out for pupils who might be having particular difficulties, the power of positive reinforcement, and learner friendly skills.

Working with teachers

These are skills they can potentially use in their normal teaching practice. The teaching style is very didactic here. In the classroom teachers need to view themselves as creators of good learning experiences rather than deliverers of information.

We work collaboratively with the teachers in the learning centres. It is vital for volunteers to build good relationships with these teachers so as to understand the complexity of the everyday challenges they face. Mutual trust and respect are vital.

Seeing the impact

Volunteer Sean demonstrates tablet computer with teacher in Malawi ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

Volunteer Seán and teacher Sarah demonstrate VSO’s Unlocking Talent digital education technology to young Pemphero at Chatsala Primary School in Lilongwe.

The project is already showing a positive impact. The pupils love coming to the learning centres and there have been significant gains in numeracy skills. Pupil attendance has also increased.

Success for me is seeing the overall direction of the work I’m doing here helping to reduce poverty. The key for a developing country like Malawi is education. VSO is working closely with the Ministry of Education on a program which will result in the gradual transfer of responsibility for the learning centres to the ministry over a 3 year period and thus guaranteeing sustainability.

The biggest challenge in this role is the uncertainty you face. The unknown is always challenging but a positive attitude, adaptability, cultural sensitivity and good communication skills ease the pathway.

While this is a digital education project, the most important things you can bring as a volunteer are a positive attitude, adaptability and communication. These attributes are at least as essential as any technical knowledge.

Challenge yourself

I’m 68. I think it’s a great time for a new challenge. My work here while challenging provides great opportunities for giving and learning. It is through sharing that we really become human.

Being able to give something back has made life after my wife’s death more meaningful. I have good memories of our time together in Zambia – I know that if she was alive she’d probably be here as well.

About the project

Over 50,000 children in Malawi are benefiting from VSO's Unlocking Talent project, which provides tablet computers, powered by solar panels, to schoolchildren. The project is being implemented by local teachers, supported by VSO volunteers.  A randomised controlled trial carried out in 2013 by the University of Nottingham showed that the tablet apps significantly improved mathematical ability compared to normal classroom practice.

The Learning Centres – called ‘oneclasses’ - are either a renovated classroom or a new sustainably-built classroom in a participating primary school. Our partner on the project is social enterprise onebillion.

We are working with the Malawian Government with the aim that the project will be fully integrated and owned by the government over the next three years.

Find out more and volunteer

Could you volunteer? We regularly need experienced teachers and other education specialists to volunteer in our programmes around the world.

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