Melba Pyne, 56 from Colombia, is a volunteer on the Building Learning Foundations (BLF) project in Rwanda. With 30 years’ experience and a master’s degree in education, she first volunteered with VSO in 2007.
More than a decade on, Melba volunteered again with VSO in Rwanda on the BLF programme coaching and supporting headteachers – until the coronavirus pandemic cut her placement short. Determined to carry on making a difference, she continued to mentor remotely and has since seen a marked difference in headteachers’ attitudes. Here Melba recounts her experience volunteering with VSO.
BLF, funded by UK Aid, is working to improve learning outcomes for 2.6 million Rwandan children. Through the programme, VSO volunteers are reaching more than 25,000 maths and English teachers at lower primary level in all 2,500 government and government-aided schools in Rwanda, and providing English training to all 832 school-based mentors to better support classroom teachers. BLF has been preparing headteachers to plan for improvement, equipping them with skills and tools to do this.
"I knew I wanted to be a volunteer at some point in my life, but the timing was never right. Then, 13 years ago, I went to China to volunteer for the first time with VSO. I was delighted to find a role that was a good fit for my skill set and experience. Applying to VSO was an easy decision. What drew me to the charity were:
- the organisation's values and vision
- the possibility of contributing to something 100% worthwhile
- the opportunity of gaining new skills
In China, I spent a year working as a school management adviser in a small town. I supported 30 headteachers in rural schools with the introduction of a professional development programme, helping to improve teacher’s English-specific teaching.
After my placement in China, I became the Education Programme Manager for the British Council in Colombia thanks in part to the skills I obtained through volunteering such as resilience, creative thinking, and adaptability.
Then, in 2018, I became a volunteer for a second time. I joined the BLF programme in Rwanda. I was a headteacher in a primary school in Colombia at the time, with 30 years of experience. This included working in education systems in several countries in the primary, secondary, vocational, further and higher education sectors.
As a BLF school leadership adviser, my role was to support headteachers of primary schools in the Northern Province in developing leadership for learning skills. A priority was to introduce the BLF coaching model. I was the coach of 14 outstanding headteachers called “National Leaders of Learning” in seven of the 30 districts in the country; the benefits of these one-to-one conversations are palpable. One of the headteachers gaining recognition for solving a difficult situation at her school. In the decisions she made and the actions she took, you could clearly see the ideas she had developed during the coaching sessions.
“I consider volunteering the greatest professional development opportunity anyone can have”Education Volunteer
I also supported a further 105 headteachers called “Local Leaders of Learning”, as the nationwide implementation of Professional Learning Communities at district and sector levels unfolded. These monthly meetings are a space for headteachers to talk openly to each other about their worries and concerns, ideas and aspirations. Nowadays, headteachers are bringing positive change to their schools, and improving learning outcomes as a result.
Another part of my role was assisting the University of Rwanda, College of Education with delivery of certificate and diploma courses on Leadership for Learning to district education officers, principles of teacher training volleges and headteachers.
I started to see the difference my work was making when the government of Rwanda asked headteachers to develop school improvement plans. I saw headteachers from primary schools talking to each other about this important work and preparing their plans with confidence and diligence.
Another part of my job as a volunteer that I always enjoyed was visiting schools. As headteachers guided me through their schools, they talked about the challenges they face such as the overcrowded classrooms, lack of training opportunities for teachers and poor teaching materials.
They also shared with me, with a sense of pride and joy, their successes. I remember feeling great admiration when told about school feeding schemes, strategies to maintain girls in education and the construction of new classrooms by parents.
Due to the pandemic, sadly, I was repatriated. The news was devastating. Messages poured in from my colleagues across different schools and local authorities saying how much they’d learned and developed during our time together. My journey back to the UK took me through deserted cities in Rwanda, Burundi, Belgium and France. VSO’s repatriation plans were impeccable; so much care and attention show that VSO is a truly wonderful organisation with a genuine human side.
Back in rural Norfolk, UK in April 2020, I continued coaching headteachers remotely until October 2020. These coaching sessions took place with an even higher number of headteachers wanting to be coached. To busy weeks I had to add busy weekends. I still talk to one headteacher two months after my official placement ended. He finds the coaching sessions very useful.
Volunteering with VSO is very much about respect, developing relationships and learning together. Living in downtown Musanze and working in the community was a rich experience. Sharing knowledge with and gaining cultural understanding from other volunteers, supporting each other every step of the way, is what makes us strong, kind and humble. Today, the BLF team is made up of more than 300 national and international volunteers, all collaborating with determination and dedication.
My future plans include to volunteer again in 10 years’ time. I think volunteering is one of the best experiences you can have. It is a pause to help others make progress and fulfil their vision for their future. Time to exchange ideas and create new paths with other volunteers. Time to refresh your life and grow as a person and professionally."
Become a volunteer
The communities we work in need people like you – teaching and education professionals with experience of:
- school management and leadership
- education in emergencies
- primary and secondary education
- literacy and numeracy
- inclusive education
- disability education
You can find out more and apply below.
VSO volunteer roles
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