Volunteering: In search for something meaningful

I recently started volunteering as a teaching assistant at a primary school, and it has been delightful, fun and at the same time very enriching. There are many reasons why students at Lancaster University volunteer at schools, and, from my discussions with a few of them, I noticed that we all shared a very positive experience, from the administrative process before the start of the placement to the satisfying sense of accomplishment and the end of each volunteering session. It is a ten-week volunteering placement which is facilitated by Lancaster University’s Student Union (LUSU) and where pupils get to know that university can be an option for them when they grow up and to speak to a university student. I wrote in a previous blog post about the purpose of the school volunteering placement, and this post will be about my impressions of the process, my engagement and how it connects to the wider aspects of work and my social life.

Why volunteer at a school?

I choose to volunteer at a school because I started teaching a module, alongside my studies, and wanted to see what it’s like to teach different age groups. I was also motivated to engage with the community around me, get to know how people live outside of the university student environment, and at the same time give something back by doing good for others and the community. Other students who have completed similar volunteering placements said that they did it because they were staying for a limited period of time in Lancaster and wanted to make the most of their time, or simply because it is something that they aspire to become after graduating and this experience could improve their career prospects. The placement was for only half a day per week, which makes it easy to fit within my schedule.

Just before I started

I signed up on LUSU’s page at the beginning of the academic year. The website offers many things to do to engage with the community, whether it’s to follow a passion, a cause, or simply to leave a positive impact on people. There are a number of volunteering categories such as human and civil rights, health and social care, university events, etc. I chose volunteering with schools. The application was straightforward and shortly after I submitted it, I received an email about the times of the introductory sessions which gave us an idea about the programme and the steps of the process. It was also an opportunity to meet the LUSU staff who were coordinating the programme and who were very supportive throughout the whole process. The following stage was to get the DBS check done and complete safeguarding training. Then LUSU staff contacted a school close to my place of residence as this was my preference. I was also given the chance to choose from a list of available opportunities. Luckily, the school I wanted to volunteer at had a vacancy for a volunteer, and I could start at any time.

My first day back at primary school

I arrived at the school and was greeted by the teacher who was going to guide me through the placement. She showed me around the school and we waited for the children to come into class. The classroom was impressive, not in a majestic grand way, but in how different and relaxing it was from anywhere else I’ve been since I left primary school. The more I examined the crayons, big letters on the walls and the children’s drawings, the more I appreciated it. While those are things that I wouldn’t normally be interested it, being there, in that moment, brought me back to my own childhood.

The teacher introduced me to the class after everyone arrived and the lesson started. On that day, children were learning how to write neatly and clearly, and I was assigned to help two pupils. After this exercise, everyone gathered around the class’s teaching assistant who read a story to them. The final fifteen minutes of the before-noon session were dedicated for relaxation. A voice that was playing soothing music guided the children – and adults in the classroom – similarly to a relaxation yoga session.

Spending the morning at the school made me realise how adults’ experience of time can easily change one’s mindset to racing mode. Whether I’m a worker or a student, I’m always faced with deadlines which I try to meet while thinking of other aspects of my personal life which could be anything from what I will eat to when should I call my family. This makes me rush into a series of tasks and duties for weeks at a time without taking a break and actually think about nothing. Doing a relaxing and unrelated activity helps me stop thinking about work for a while and sometimes that’s when I get my best ideas.

Lancaster University day out

My positive volunteering experience lead me to engage in the “Be the change” project. This project is designed to show pupils what citizenship values such as teamwork and leadership mean through a series of fun activities. The aim is to enable children to learn that everyone can be a leader when they make a positive change to their society. Among the activities, there was a treasure hunt around campus and the Marshmallow Challenge which let the children work together, communicate, help one another and work towards a common goal. The Marshmallow Challenge is a management exercise where a group of any age or profession is tasked to build a tower with nothing but a bundle of spaghetti, tape and a marshmallow. Surprisingly, children perform better than CEOs in this exercise!

One of the great things about the teaching system at LUMS is how it prepares students for the actual business world. This comes with the wider sociological and psychological issues that any such student/worker is prone to, such as feelings of stress and alienation. From my previous work experience, I find that working can be very rewarding, but it can also take away some of the worker’s autonomy, purpose and identity, especially when they get immersed in their job only to meet sales targets or performance measures at the end of the day. As a PhD student at LUMS who happens to be doing a thesis on workplace dynamics, I have come to notice these aspects more and more and realise how they could sometimes be inevitable. While some people enjoy socialising by going out for a drink or a meal, or take pleasure in a sports activity after an intense workload, others choose to volunteer.  This has left a very positive impact on me and made a pleasing difference to my everyday life.