“Who wants to spend the summer in one of South America’s poorest villages, sleeping in uncomfortable bunks in barrack-type huts, and spending burning-hot days helping to build a new school and children’s centre? Oh, and you have to leave your mobile phone at home!”
It’s the sort of offer I would expect our senior pupils to politely decline. Yet many were interested and more than a few have succeeded in jetting off, with new friends from other schools, for a summer of voluntary work projects in Ecuador, Peru and other destinations in the developing world.
One of my own pupils, just 16 years old, is now diligently working away in Guatemala and loving every minute of it. “It’s an eye-opening experience – and the best possible preparation for Higher geography,” she says.
Overseas trips are one of the richest experiences our education system has to offer, with opportunities to work and learn in unfamiliar, but fascinating, locations. Pupils tell me that their travels have provided experiences and friendships that they will remember for the rest of their lives.
And if our adventurous volunteers achieve nothing else with their lives, at least they can say that they helped create something tangible that will go on to benefit some of the most disadvantaged pupils in the world.
Other pupils, contrary to public perception, are also devoting sizeable parts of their holidays to worthwhile causes. From street jumble sales to sponsored hill walks, it is easy to contend that young people today are more caring and less selfish than any previous generation.
Pupils inspire teachers
More teachers than is probably realised are also spending all or part of their summer undertaking worthwhile work in faraway locations. My own group of teacher friends includes three who devote their entire holidays to teaching English, computing and other subjects in schools in Africa and East Asia.
Other teachers are participating in voluntary work within their own communities, including serving and sorting in charity shops, providing support at Citizens Advice offices and offering counselling on behalf of charities Childline and the Samaritans.
Pupils generally recognise, respect and support teachers who take part in such benevolent enterprises, but it also works the other way. One teacher recently told me that she started participating in summer charity work after senior pupils told her about their summer trip to Malawi and the positive contributions they were able to make to a school-development project. It was a clear case of pupils inspiring teachers to do more for those who have much less.
Some argue that the summer break from lessons is too long, and should be shortened. The participation of so many pupils and teachers in worthwhile charity projects is a powerful argument for maintaining the status quo.
John Greenlees is a secondary teacher in Scotland