What did I learn when volunteering in Poland?

The volunteering project in Poland is over and I am comfortably sitting in a train towards Joensuu, Finland to spend Christmas with my beloved family. It’s surreal how quickly time passed while being in Poland and I can hardly believe the year is approaching its end and I’m already back in Finland (only till January 3 though). My time in Poland was unforgettable – thanks to my adorable volunteering colleagues who made it so special – and I will always carry the memories with me! It is impossible to conclude the enormous amount of learning during the project but I am highlighting the most important ones in this post.

The foreign and some local volunteers on our last day at EBU

About the Polish school system

Working at the local schools provided me an excellent glimpse of the Polish school system. Coming from Finland, it was strange to be called pani (Mrs.) by the students instead of my name. However, the power distance between the students and teachers in Poland is larger than in Finland and hence students don’t call the teachers by their name. Another thing to highlight the more conservative culture is that sexual education at schools is right now being banned by law and teachers providing any sexual education could possibly be imprisoned. I am ever prouder of the Finnish education after hearing this.

Something else that I couldn’t really get my head around was the evident categorisation to good and bad students. When visiting schools it was really normal to hear from the teachers that “this class is not brilliant” or “these are smart kids as they are having more courses in mathematics”. Students are grouped up with other students that are seen to be on the same level resulting in a situation where some of the classes are namely better than others and teachers don’t really think they can do much to help the “worse” children to learn. Often it turned out that the teachers’ judgements didn’t have anything to do with what happened in real life and often the “not-so-brilliant” students were very respectful, speaking very good English and participating actively.

I acknowledge that teachers in Poland are not having really great work conditions and as a teacher you may earn less than as a waiter which does not really compensate the need to have a university degree. Also, same teachers have to teach both 6-year-olds and teenagers of the age 14, which requires a lot of skill and planning as teaching children is more different from teaching teenagers than it may sound. Still, I feel like there is something off balance. It seems that many of the teachers feel that the students are problematic and some of them are already lost causes without any possibilities to have a bright future. To me, it seemed more like the students are not really having opportunities to use or even find their potential as they have already been put into categories and if you are one of the kids in the “bad” class, you are not really worth anyone’s contribution. Furthermore, when the students were taking a moment to think about an answer or finding the right English word, the teachers often hurried giving the answer themselves hence stealing the learning experience from the students. Polish youngsters, hear me out, you are great! You are at least as brilliant as in any other country so don’t let the system beat you!

About other cultures

Living with 10 other people from 6 different countries allowed me to learn a lot about different countries and cultures, too. We were conducting Christmas workshops during the last two weeks which made me realize that Christmas is a perfect example of how people and different cultures work: the essence of it is the same everywhere (where it is celebrated) but then the small details make it slightly different in each culture. I learned that Christmas calendar TV shows is something very Nordic and it is not really a thing around the other parts of Europe. The Danes were actually the ones to come up with The Joulukalenteri (The Christmas Calendar) and Finland and Norway have just made their own versions of it in later 90s. In Greece, people wait till January 1st to open their Christmas presents and in France the Three Kings celebration on January 6th is very different from Spain. Something striking, even though not related to Christmas, is also that Pasta Bolognese doesn’t exist in Italy and cappuccino should not be drank after the lunch time.

About myself

In addition to being a bit more world savvy, I learned a great deal about myself. I love teaching and according to the feedback I received, I am also skilled in teaching. However, I now know I am not at my best when I need to work according to a schedule where there is zero flexibility but instead a need to follow the given time slots for lessons and breaks during the whole day. So, I guess I won’t become a primary school teacher any time soon but instead I’d rather use my training skills in another context. I am now also more aware of the fact that stepping outside of my comfort zone is not a problem with me when I can decide where I step. I can resign from work and go for a volunteering project abroad. However, if you tell me to sing a song for you, I’ll be boring and tell you I won’t as it’s too far out of my comfort zone. This is very curious as singing a song seems a lot more trivial than changing the whole life so I’ll be paying attention on this in the future as this is not how I want it to be.

This experience also made it clearer to me that it comes natural to me to take a leadership role when in a group. I am not a follower, I want to contribute to decision making. It is also easy for me to plan for the whole group and present my plans for the others. In addition, I seem to prefer doing things that require everyone’s contribution (e.g. cleaning) together instead of everybody doing their fair share on their own, which is actually a bit surprising. Something that I need to develop more is the fact that even if it is more natural to me to put other people before me and for example, take more working hours for myself not to be unfair towards someone else, I cannot be disappointed if others don’t do the same as we are all here to firstly take care of ourselves. Thus, I will need to learn to take better care of myself and let others do things that they see are the best for them without judging.

Thank you everybody for reading about my life in Poland! Now it’s time to charge the batteries and celebrate the achievements of this year. You’ll hear from me again in the beginning of the new year when I kickstart the decade by flying to Costa Rica to volunteer at a local kindergarten.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everybody!

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